Julia and I have been in Davis, California seeing our son this past week (he is a graduate student in English at the university there) and took the occasion to visit Big Basin Redwoods State Park. As I walked through the silence of the forest and gazed up in awe at the mammoth trees, I found myself quoting Gerard Manley Hopkins: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”
The line is from the sonnet “God’s Grandeur.” When I went back to read it again, I was struck by Hopkins’ environmental vision and how he sees nature as an expression of God’s glory. Here’s the poem:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
Sometimes God sparkles, like light bouncing off of shaken metal foil. Sometimes God majestically oozes out, a deep, essential richness. Yet what are we doing with His (or Her) creation? We are searing and smudging it with trade (and that’s putting it mildly when it comes to the Gulf spill). Thanks to asphalt and mountaintop removal and a host of other desecrations, the soil is bare. Not that we would know since we walk upon it shod. The “black West” is wreaking havoc on the environment.
Yet Hopkins has hope. For all that we do to the world, “nature is never spent.” Deep down it has God’s freshness and can spring to life again, like the dawn. I am lifted up by Hopkins’ concluding image of the Holy Ghost brooding maternally over “this fragile earth, our island home” (to quote the Anglican liturgy). I love his startled and joyous cry of discovery: “ah! Bright wings.”
Focusing on the protected redwoods rather than the darkening Gulf allowed me to believe for a moment that nature in fact is never spent and can be renewed.