On Finding Grandeur in Nature
A Personal Essay
In the Tradition of Religious Naturalism

by Thomas Shotwell

adapted in 2004 from an essay by this title published in 1992
by Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science

Through the rural community of Charles City in northern Iowa, where I lived from 1966 through 1970, a small river wound its way among parks, shops, and bars. The hulk of an old hydroelectric generator stood as a lonely sentinel, casting its shadow over the eight-foot-high dam built long ago to tap the river's energy. The lazy blue-green river trickled an inch or two deep over the fifty-yard-wide dam, except when the floods came. And natives saw their little river with its quaint electric generator as symbolic of the mix of semi-modernity and quiet agrarian culture they pursued. They had an ongoing love affair with the river and had, from the beginning, constructed buildings dangerously close to the flood line.

The Melody Lounge had taken over one of these precariously perched old buildings, and the owners installed a large plate glass window in such a manner as to provide a scenic view of the river, the dam, and the hydroelectric plant. Thoughtful (and a few not-so-thoughtful) people could be found just about every evening sipping beer, watching go-go dancers, and musing about the soft summers and harsh winters so characteristic of the upper Midwestern states. Once or twice each month I made it my duty to dwell upon the poetry at the Melody Lounge.

The long summer days offered plenty of after-work daylight for sports, and four of us who worked in drug metabolism research had grown to enjoy our vigorous, if somewhat amateurish, games of doubles tennis in the evenings. After long hours of laboratory tedium, we released a lot of our tensions through an almost frenetic series of tennis matches. Sometimes clownish, sometimes with startling precision, we attacked the balls and each other with gusto and good humor. One summer evening after several particularly vigorous games, dripping with sweat and our limbs weak from exertion, we agreed to have a beer or two at the Melody.

An unusually heavy rain had fallen steadily for two days, and the straw gold of a setting sun sifted through straggler clouds to illuminate the river. The quiet stream had been transformed by the rains into a tumultuous little Niagara, where murky water leaped angrily over the dam and exploded its surprising store of energy on stones placed by men whose lives had ended years before. I mused about the transitory nature of this life and, just for fun, silently enumerated the kinds of atoms and molecules I knew made up a flooded river.

The hydrogen and oxygen of water were supplemented by myriads of other substances swept from soils and rocks upstream, and as I sat in the quiet lounge, I recapitulated what I knew about the origin of the elements in the hearts of glowing stars and exploding suns of the Milky Way. Atoms don't just exist; they are the products of eons of evolution in the galaxy, products of chaos and pressure and time and space and whatever it is we humans call natural law.

Very intentionally, I sat quietly sipping my beer and ruminating over what I knew about the sources of order, the nature of duration, of genetic explanation, of subatomic particles, of strong and weak forces, gravity, atoms, planets, and meandering streams. It was fun to stack it all up in my mind, building a structure from the presumed Big Bang, the origin or things, to the emergence of suns, quasars, black holes, elements, planets, and flowing streams. I let it build from the bottom up, edited it, worried over the numerous assumptions in it, filled in the gaps where I had jumped over something, edited it all over again, looked, with the mind's eye, back at it all and examined it again and again. As I probed the chemistry and physics of this magnificent little capillary of Earth, I sat frozen in rapture over its great complexity and its stunning evolutionary history as if I had never seen a river before.


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