By Kate Murr
“We open to the ground of being,
The matrix of fecund emptiness.”
-From Sunday’s “Words of Gathering,” Bruce Sanguin
In college, I studied Earth Systems Science. I was extremely interested in the relationships between the Earth’s complex systems: its lithosphere (the unrelenting geophysical engine and its response to forces and stresses), its hydrosphere (including oceans and water systems), and its atmosphere. All of these together regulate weather, temperature, and conditions for life on this planet—and life, as it happens, plays a critical role, too. There’s even a hypothesis, named for the Greek goddess and Earth mother, Gaia, that claims Earth is a self-regulating system in which the biota (all life!) play an integral role. Usually and ultimately, Earth’s systems stabilize planetary conditions through various negative feedback loops, so, for example, when things get too hot, a system will respond by causing cooling. But sometimes these feedback loops reach a tipping point, and their characteristics change to form positive feedback loops, which amplify the effects of disturbances. (Another example of a positive feedback loop, poetically, is the onset of contractions during childbirth, which causes oxytocin release, which causes increased frequency and magnitude of contractions, etc.) Here’s the thing that stuck with me most when I learned about these tipping points in Earth Systems Science: no one wants to experience a runaway albedo event.
In order understand albedo events in the context of blog post about God’s fecundity (Tom Klein, if you’re not giggling like a little girl now, I’ll be shocked!), we must first talk about the development of the oceanic system; about the impossibility and profound connectivity of our five restless oceans; but, most importantly, about the impossibility of a single drop of water, ever—it’s potential to travel thousands of cycles through millions of years to collect as a drop of water. We have to discuss the impossibility that any water ever showed up on a molten, asteroid-blitzed, spacelump sphere that accreted from the cooling and heating cycles of a liquid core of magma into a hostile, young planet where belches from pressurized internal heat and/or continued massive impacts of the sort that may have chipped off the moon and released magma oceans generated vapor clouds resulting in million-year rains that evaporated, fell again, collected in shallow acidic oceans, eventually spawning stromatolites—photosynthetic bacteria colonies—that turned water, carbon dioxide, and sunlight into organic, carbon-rich matter and oxygen, which eventually rose to form an oxygenic atmosphere, displacing Earth’s initial methane greenhouse incubator, which caused cooling, perhaps freezing, perhaps a total freezing of the entire planet. Whew! What a lot of planetary history can be contained in an impossible drop of water!
The point(s) in history that Earth likely became a gigantic snowball demonstrate runaway albedo: as ice and snow covered the surface of the earth, the amount of solar energy that could be absorbed decreased and lead to more cooling. When we talk about global warming, we talk about the loss of ice cover (and albedo), and increased solar energy absorption, which leads to more warming. When the earth was frozen, scientists suppose, the forces that reversed the positive feedback loop came from within. The hot core of the Earth released carbon dioxide, which gradually built up in the atmosphere, trapped sunlight, led to melting of ice, warming, evaporating, revealing of land, led to further warming, led to photosynthetic action, led to life perpetuating life, led to fecundity and periodic swaths of dynamic planetary balance of the sort we enjoy today.
Occasionally, we enjoy periods of dynamic balance in our personal experiences, too. Except when we don’t. Sometimes we find ourselves caught in positive feedback loops, which can be ultimately productive, I’ll argue, but which can also feel isolating or unhealthy or destructively destabilizing or numbing, like being frozen stiff. What to do then?
Here is what I heard Matthew say in church Sunday: “The earth is filled with God’s goodness…The essence of the created order lies within us…. The goodness of the creative world lies within us.” If we buy it, if we buy that our physical fact—that all physical manifestation—is composed of the same spiritual fact of God’s goodness, then that seems like something. And if we can learn from the complex systems of other physical matter—like Earth, our dynamo home in (fecund) space—then maybe that non canonical, (possibly) gnostic Gospel of Thomas says something useful as well: Bring forth. (“Bring forth,” says the text that makes this Baptist-raised writer slightly sweaty to include in a church blog post.) “If you bring forth what is within you, what you have will save you.” Has anyone else noticed this statement everywhere for the past year or so? The aphorism continues with a statement I don’t regularly see, “If you do not have that within you, (then) that which you do not have within you [will] kill you.” I can’t actually hazard a guess of what that means. But given a Post-Freudian, Postmodern lens, I can sure think about both of these statements for a long time.
I don’t study Earth Systems Science anymore. I study poetry at MSU. I teach a class called Creative Nonfiction in which I routinely tell students that I don’t believe what they write (nonfiction, should, one teaches, aim for veracity). And the reason why I don’t believe them is that they tell stories in terms of universal generalities. I told a student last week, for example, that I didn’t buy his description when he wrote that he had discovered all the answers—further, his “ultimate identity”—as a result of his first experience with psychedelic mushrooms. Maybe he did, or maybe it seemed to him like he did, but what I read wasn’t his authentic voice saying so. As a twenty-year-old, he was using a “lecture voice” and sweeping platitudes to tell a tall tale. This spurred a perpetual conversation that we have in academia about the vitality of the personal story to make accessible “truths” that seem untenable.
What I am saying is that I am grossly unqualified to talk about the impossibility of a drop of water or about balance or God’s fecundity or creativity. (I wanted to write this post about a Louise Glück poem and about how my children reflect the goodness of creation when they say things like, “Can we turn this day into breakfast time?” or “My nose is famous: I’m paying more attention to my nose than the rest of me,” or “Let’s have an art sale—I know everything about money,” but somehow that isn’t what I wrote.) Besides, maybe it’s from the books, or from walking around in the world, or from something within me, but somehow I can just wrap my mind around the idea of the shifting physical earth and constant sea and surprising clouds all working together to make life impossibly full. I can wrap my mind around this, and so I do, and I find it encouraging that there is, at the center of it, a fiery core that’s an engine and a connected, relentless force for creation, destruction, self-regulation, and life.
*From Genesis 1 translation and paraphrase by J. Philip Newell in Celtic Treasure: Daily Scriptures and Prayer.