I remember a very ordinary day when everyone else was still
asleep or already at the hospital making morning rounds. “It doesn’t
matter,” I thought, as I filled my cup with coffee, the steam condensing on the kitchen window. “I’m already late.” I scraped off a patch
of ice crystals. Through the clear area, I could see the underlying
apparatus of the trees lining the road. The early morning sun slanted
down, throwing into gleaming brightness the bare twigs and a little
patch of dead leaves. There was a feeling of mystery contained in
that scene, a powerful feeling that something was veiled behind it,
something that was not accounted for in the scientific journals.
I put on my white lab jacket, and over the protests of my body,
set off on my way to the university. As I strolled toward the hospital, I had some curious impulse to detour around the campus pond.
Perhaps I was postponing seeing only harsh-etched things, now during the singular magic of morning. The sight of the stainless-steel
machines, perhaps, or the stark lights in the operating room, the
emergency oxygen cylinders, the blips on the oscilloscope screen.
It was this that had brought me to pause at the edge of the pond, in
undisturbed quiet and solitude, when at the hospital the bustle of
activity and excited voices was in full swing. Thoreau would have
approved. He had always considered morning as a cheerful invitation to make his life of simplicity. “Poetry and art,” he wrote, “and
the fairest and most memorable of the actions of men, date from
such an hour.”
It was a comforting experience on a cold winter day, to stand
there overlooking the pond, and watch the photons dancing on its
surface like so many notes from Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. For an
instant, my body was beyond being affected by the elements, and my
mind merged with the whole of nature as much as it has ever been
in my life. It was really a very small episode, as are most meaningful things. But in that unassuming calm I had seen beyond the pads
and the cattails. I had felt Nature, naked and unclothed, as she was
for Loren Eiseley and Thoreau. I rounded the pond and headed to
the hospital. Morning rounds were nearly finished. A dying woman
sat on the bed before me. Outside, a songbird had its trill, sitting on
a limb over the pond.
Later on, I thought of the deeper secret denied me at earliest
dawn, when I had peeped through that little ice-crystal hole into the
morning. “We are too content with our sense organs,” Loren Eiseley
once said. It is not sufficient to watch at the end of a nerve the dancing of photons. “It is no longer enough to see as a man sees—even
to the ends of the universe.” Our radio telescopes and supercolliders merely extend the perceptions of our mind. We see the finished
work only. We do not see how things stand in community with each
other as parts of a real whole, save for a space of perhaps five seconds
on some glorious December morning when all the senses are one.
Of course, the physicists will not understand, just as they cannot
see behind the equations of quantum reality. These are the variables
that, standing on the edge of the pond in such a day in December, merge the mind with the whole of nature, that lurk concealed
behind every leaf and twig.
We scientists have looked at the world for so long that we no
longer challenge its reality. As Thoreau pointed out, we are like the
Hindus, who conceived of the world as resting on the back of an
elephant, the elephant on the back of a tortoise, and the tortoise on a
serpent, and had nothing to put under the serpent. We all stand on
the shoulders of one another—and all together on nothing.
For myself, five seconds on a winter’s morning is the most
convincing evidence I should ever need. As Thoreau had said of
I am its stony shore,
And the breeze that passes o’er;
In the hollow of my hand
Are its water and its sand . .