This piece is part of the Excursions series.
My first breaking into philosophy: One summer afternoon when I was a boy, I followed the course of a butterfly through our backyard. I was fascinated by its colors and its jittery here-and-there flight. It seemed a kind of laughing. From this tableau arose a thought. I thought of my dreams the night before and their seeming reality, and so I thought–might not this moment be a dream, too? This thought was like a brick wall. I didn’t know how to get to the other side, so I walked away.
But it never fully left me. It is still a part of my life, and I imagine many, maybe most, or even all of us have had a thought like this. And Lord knows the philosophy section at the local library is filled with musings of this ilk. What is real? What is illusion? How do we reach what Kant calls das Ding an Sich, the thing itself? What is subjective? What is objective?
In my early twenties, I was very much under the spell of Emerson and Blake and Swedenborg and Northrop Frye. Each in his own way saw Nature as a symbol that pointed to God and humanity. And so, nature-as-symbol became the path I traveled. It was an alluring pursuit, but I had not gotten far when Melville walked in:
Say what some poets will, Nature is not so much her own ever-sweet interpreter, as the mere supplier of that cunning alphabet, whereby selecting and combining as he pleases, each man reads his own peculiar lessons according to his own peculiar mind and mood.
Emerson gave us three stages in Nature:
1. Words are signs of natural facts.
2. Particular natural facts are symbols of particular spiritual facts.
3. Nature is the symbol of spirit.
Melville, doubtlessly thinking of this, thought such pursuit mere egoism: you think you’re getting to the heart of things, but really you can make of this thing you call “nature” anything. Of course, he’s not wrong, but there is as much egoism in Melville as Emerson, so I think they’re both wrong in the same way, as both assume that all this was put here for you to interpret you to yourself. But it ain’t all about you: I do not wish now to speak so unfeelingly of butterflies. Butterflies do not belong to me.
Many years later I discovered the great Japanese Zen Master Dogen, who wrote on the nature of water in “Mountains and Waters Sutra”:
Hungry ghosts see water as raging fire or pus and blood. Dragons and fish see water as a palace or a pavilion. Some beings see water as the seven treasures or a wish-granting jewel. Some beings see water as a forest or a wall. Some see it as the dharma nature of pure liberation, the true human body, or the form of the body and the essence of mind. Human beings see water as water.
What is water? What is a butterfly? Each resides in its own phenomenal being, yet what they are always depends on the other in the relationship; knowledge is always relational, as there is no identity apart from relationships. Dragons and I do not see alike, and the relationships we have with others are different.
My brick wall, that butterfly, and my dreams are manifestations of this magnificent and boundless whole. Each aspect can be known partially and conditionally. But what it is is miracle. All things are family and friends and neighbors. They are your flesh. Yes, you may know them in a certain slant of light. And knowing is magnificent in its own way, but what you need to know, little boy chasing a butterfly, is that it’s all about how you treat things. Be kind and respectful, and love.
About the Author
Clint Stevens lives and writes outside of Centralia, IL.