CommonPlaces Breaking60 TravelingNotes UU Exploration Belief and Practice


This is a sermon originally entitled "George Babbitt in the Wilderness." It was presented to the UUFC on 10/21/90 and to the TPUUF on 10/24/93. Both dates were deliberately chosen to be six months opposed from Earth Day, which, among other things, commemorates John Muir's birthday. It was originally written in some bitterness, partly in response to the extreme views that I perceived in the environmental movement, particularly those espoused by the Deep Ecology adherents. On reflection, however, I still find that I support these ideas. Between the first and second presentations, there were few changes except for the addition of the extensive quotation from Thomas Paine's "The Age of Reason."


The program each time opened with this chalice lighting: "We light this chalice in reverence for the first gift of fire: fire which courses through us, which nourishes our senses, which serves us faithfully and well in times both calm and troubled," and a meditation based upon a short story by Ursula K. LeGuin (see The Word for the World is Forest), Carl Sandburg's poem "Wilderness" and, as hymns, "Morning has Broken" and Woody Guthrie's "This Land is My Land"(but with the more political verses of the latter omitted). The closing words were taken from Robert Heinlein's short story "The Green Hills of Earth":


"We pray for one last landing

On the globe that gave us birth.

Let us rest our eyes on the fleecy skies

and the cool green hills of earth."


This sermon began in April of this year (1990), on Earth Day in fact, with anger. The anger built into rage and then was replaced by sorrow.


Within this century we have survived many destructive "-isms": Communism, National Socialism (Nazi-ism), Fascism, Democratic Socialism. My grandparents left the Ukraine to escape from the Bolsheviks, my father and mother left England to avoid the Nazis.


The scourge of the next century may be the greatest of all such "-isms": Environmentalism. Quite unlike the others, yet in many ways similar, it advances clothed in sanctity, arrayed in piety, pleading for rationality and reasonableness. This elitist, nihilist, anti-democratic, anti-humane movement, which views human beings as separate from Nature and which places the imagined needs of Earth and all non-human species before those of human society, reaches its heights or depths in the Deep Ecology Movement. Where may I go to escape it?


And the nonsense which utters forth from its supplicants:


Stop the polluters! (But that's all of us! To live is to pollute.)


Conserve natural resources! (But there is plenty all around us, not for free but to be had for a price.)


Protect the environment! (But which one? For the environment has always been changing and will always change.)


Save the Earth! (The Earth is doing just fine; Gaia has a little skin problem called Life, but perhaps that will pass.)


Nature is dead! (How can that be so, since we are all parts of Nature and we are very much alive?)


So much for the anger and the rage. Sorrow set in when I realized how simple and self-evident are the central flaws of the Environmental movement. Why cannot everybody see the threats inherent in this new religion, this new fanaticism? For it is a religion and a particularly pernicious one.


As UUs we hold strongly for the freedom of belief, for the use of reason in religious matters (by ourselves if not by others) and for respect, not merely tolerance, for the religious views of others.


Therefore, let me restrain myself.


Let me practice reason and show respect.


Thus, I choose to speak to you on a much more restricted topic: Wilderness.


What is wilderness? Did you know that until the late 18th. century it was only half a word? Until Rousseau and the French Romantics came along; until Marie Antoinette and her courtiers played at being milk maids and stable boys; until English nobility constructed "rustic rambles" on their estates, all spoke of "Howling wilderness," "Savage wilderness," "Untamed wilderness," "Impenetrable wilderness." While some of our forbears regarded wilderness as opportunity, most found it useless. And the habits of mind persist in our language. Consider John Muir, whose great voice speaks still for the preservation of wilderness. His name, in his native Scottish, means both moor, an open space, and also a wasteland.


Wilderness is the absence of civilization: the absence of civis, of citizens. It is the land beyond the frontier, defined in the 1890 US Census as "land with less than two persons (presumably not native Americans) per square mile;" defined in the 1964 Wilderness Act as "A place of primeval character, untrammeled by man." (And presumably also untrammeled by women and children.)


In the beginning the whole world was wilderness.

Let me tell you a story of beginning; a creation myth:1


"In the beginning, there were only earth, fire, air and water. Fire coursed through the earth and the urge for life arose.


Then there came to be green things, large and small, on the land, swimmers in the lakes and seas, flyers circling and sweeping above. The seasons turned.


Father God and Mother Goddess looked out and saw that it was good but, perhaps, incomplete. Mother Goddess and Father God, each, retired to their own workshop and there, each, in their turn and to their own intentions, made a new creature.


And they placed these creatures on the solid earth and called one Jack and the other Jill. And they saw that it was good.


And Jack and Jill played together down the long days. They lived simply, eating only fruits of the plants and drinking only pure, cool water. When the weather was cool, they wrapped themselves in leaves and vines.


They resolved to keep the land and the water and the air pure, to respect the crawlers and the swimmers, the green things and the flyers; all living things, in their place. The resolved to bring forth only 1.7 children and to pass on to them their respect for the world. And it was good.


One evening it came to pass that he had a sore throat and she had a headache. They retired early, making their beds apart for the night on a soft, mossy bank by a calm, limpid lake. And it was good.


During the night a mastodon, coming for water, crushed Jack. A saber tooted tiger, hunting a meal for her kits, devoured Jill.


And the word for the world, the name it gave itself then, was forest. And it was good."


Fortunately for us this story is a myth; our forbears survived and multiplied.


If wilderness is beyond the frontier, where now is the frontier?


In 1620, it was at the wharves of Plymouth, of Southampton, of Le Harve.


In 1776, it was at the ridge of the Appalachians.


In 1820, it reached the banks of the Mississippi.


And it moved on, so that, by 1890, the Superintendent of the US Census could announce that it had vanished sometime in the previous ten years.


What was the use of wilderness?


Wilderness was the great magnet that drew our ancestors to this new world, first from the west over a land bridge, then from the east over the Atlantic. It was the storehouse of treasurers from which we built our country. Herman Melville2 commented that the mansions of New Bedford were dragged up from the deeps of the oceans by harpooners; our great national enterprise was wrestled from the wilderness by brave men and women.


Wilderness was were the repressed could find freedom, where the enterprising could prosper, where the bonds of civilization stretched to near the vanishing point. And in that freedom, we created a new civilization.


Wilderness had to be consumed so that it and we might prosper.


And our heroes are of the wilderness still: the mountain men: Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, the Pony Express Rider, the cowboy; yes, even down to today, to John Wayne and Ronald Reagan, these solitary figures are the only American idols with real staying power.


In the wilderness, only the strong and the lucky survive. Wilderness is where a broken ankle, a wolverine bite, a quick early snow all mean disaster and possible death.


What is the use of wilderness today?


John Muir3 tells us that,


"Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life."


This was written in 1901; how more true today?


Our own Horace Kephart, the great outdoors man of Bryson City (NC) writing in 1904, says4:


"To many a city man there comes a time when the great town wearies him. He hates the sights and smells and clangor. Every duty is a task and every caller a bore. The(n) come visions of green fields and far-rolling hills, of tall forests and cool, swift flowing streams. ...To be free, unbeholden, irresponsible for the nonce."


Let me tell you about a contemporary of Muir and of Kephart: George Babbitt. He was born in 1875 and in 1922, when Sinclair Lewis wrote about him in his novel Babbitt, he was 47 and in the midst of a mid-life crisis.


George Babbitt lives forever in the metropolis of Zenith, a small industrial city "somewhere between Chicago and New York;" an up and coming town; a boosters' town; "Zenith has Zip." He has a wife, Myra, two children, and is vice-president of his father-in-law's real estate agency. Mired in small city life, always not quite at the center of things, he finds that, in Kephart's words, "Every duty is a task and every caller a bore." He dreams of getting away to the wilderness with Paul Reisling, his friend from State College days, a failed musician with an overbearing wife, Zilla.


Before I tell you about this trip, let me remark again on the meanings of names: Babbitt is a base metal, a serviceable but sacrificial alloy used in bearings. Without babbitt, the machinery fails, but babbitt is worn away so that the mighty shafts can turn and the big wheels continue effortlessly to revolve. George's friend, Paul, is an intellectual, but as is fitting for the heartland of America, he is named by Lewis for an Alsatian wine, Riesling. A wine it is true, neither French nor German, but from an in between province. A wine it is true, not the worst that the Alsace has to offer but not the best, either. So, we recognize that George and Paul are each in their own ways, prototypes, common men.


Here is George proposing the great getaway:


"...It seems to be settled now, isn't it -- through of course Zilla keeps rooting for a nice expensive vacation in New York and Atlantic City, with the bright lights and the bootlegged cocktails and a bunch of lounge lizards to dance with -- but the Babbitts and the Reislings are sure-enough going to Lake Sunasquam, aren't we? We couldn't you and I make up some excuse -- say business in New York -- and get up to Maine four or five days before they do, and just loaf by ourselves and smoke and cuss and be natural?"


The days pass slowly but finally the time comes and, after an arduous trip by train and by boat, George and Paul have arrived. Here we rejoin the story:


"They stood on the wharf before the hotel. He winked at Paul and drew from his back pocket a plug of chewing-tobacco, a vulgarism forbidden in the Babbitt house. He took a chew, beaming and wagging his head as he tugged at it. "Um! Um! Maybe I haven't been hungry for a wad of eating tobacco! Have some?""


"They looked at each other in a grin of understanding. Paul took the plug, gnawed at it. They stood quiet, their jaws working. They solemnly spat, one after another, into the placid water. They stretched voluptuously, with lifted arms and arched backs. From beyond the mountains came the shuffling sound of a far-off train. A trout leaped, and fell back in a silver circle. They sighed together."


But as John Muir hoped, they did find their fountain of life. Lewis tells us further that:


"...Each evening they planned to get up early and fish before breakfast. Each morning they lay abed till the breakfast-bell, pleasantly conscious that there were no efficient wives to rouse them..."


"All morning they fished unenergetically, or tramped the dim and aqueous-lighted trails among rank ferns and moss sprinkled with crimson bells. They slept all afternoon, and till midnight played poker with the guides..."


Why did George and Paul go to the wilderness? Not to worship, not to sanctify but to seek release, to stretch voluptuously, to chew tobacco and, yes, to spit in the lake.


So where now is wilderness, where should we seek our release?


It is where it has always been, just beyond the frontier.


I believe that today the frontier still exists; it lies a mere seven miles away, over our heads at the edge of space. To focus on preserving one green globe, however precious, is to put all of our species' eggs in one basket. Our view and our drive should be outward. We were not raised up to huddle in the dim light sorting cans, bottles and paper but rather to press ever onward, past the frontier, into the wilderness of space and of new worlds.

(addition, 1993)

While this year marks a century since our own western frontier closed, it also the bicentennial of the completion by Thomas Paine, our Fellowship's namesake, of his great essay on natural theology, "The Age of Reason." Paine held that Creation, having come into being without Man's knowledge or action, is the ultimate proof of the divine principle, of the existence of an unknowable but actual First Cause.

Here then, is Paine writing in 1793,5 before the modern age of technology, about the ultimate frontier:

"...(W)hen our eye or our imagination darts into space, that is, when it looks upward into what we call the open air, we cannot conceive any walls or boundaries it can have; and if for the sake of resting our ideas we suppose a boundary, the question immediately renews itself and asks, What is beyond that boundary? and in same manner, What is beyond the next boundary and so on until the fatigued imagination returns and says, There is no end."


"If we take a survey of our own world, or rather of this which the Creator has given us the use as our portion in the immense system of creation, we find every part of it -- the earth, the waters, and the air that surrounds it -- filled and, as it were, crowded with life, down from the largest animals that we know of to the smallest insects the naked eye can behold, and from thence to others still smaller and totally invisible without the assistance of the microscope. Every tree, every plant, every leaf, serves not only as a habitation but as a world to some numerous race, till animal existence becomes so exceedingly refined that the effluvia of a blade of grass would be food for thousands."


"Since, then, no part of our world is left unoccupied, why is it to be supposed that the immensity of space is a naked void lying in eternal waste? There is room for millions of worlds as large or larger than ours, and each of them millions of miles apart from each other."


Yes, and equally so, why is it to be supposed that there are no new frontiers, no boundaries to cross, when the great wilderness of space lies just over our heads?

(end of addition)


Cosmologists tell us that there may be as many as 600 million planets capable of supporting human life. What a mistake it would be to place our trust for the future of our children and their children's children in one frail one. Thus, we must become a space faring people as before we became a sea faring one. But whether we do or not, wilderness remains and will always remain, there, just beyond the frontier


What is the use of wilderness, that we must always seek it out? Beyond material concerns, it is a place of release, of restoration, of regeneration. But more than that, it is a quality. Just as goodness is the quality of being good, wilderness is the quality of being wilder, released from strictures, uninhibited.


I believe that we all have within ourselves the power to forgive, to reconstruct, to recreate ourselves. Wilderness is not merely that pace beyond the frontier but a quality with, that quality of self-forgiveness, of believing that a new leaf can be turned, a new start made, old cares and worries left behind.


Wilderness, Carl Sandburg reminds us, is within us still. We should seek it there. We have the power to be good to ourselves, to put aside small concerns, to recognize our inner resources and to restore our wholeness.


This is as it should be, for in Sandburg's words6 , "I am the keeper of the zoo; I say yes and no; I sing and kill and work; I am a pal of the world; I came from the wilderness."


Blessed Be





Birds gotta fly,

Fish gotta swim.

And people gotta talk.


1 I wrote this in 1990 particularly for this sermon; however, it suits me to show as a quotation. It is clearly influenced, also, by Ursula LeGuin.

2 See Moby Dick

3 John of The Mountains (1938)

4 Camping and Woodcraft (1917)

5 "The Age of Reason" (1793)

6 See "Wilderness" (1922)