It was Elizabeth Bishop who pointed me to Darwin. Elizabeth, who lived near Rio de Janiero for almost 15 years, read Darwin all her life. Bishop had a perilous childhood, but it resulted in poems in which the power lay in what was not said. Precise observation, often of animals or natural phenomena, and a modesty of expression are her hallmarks. Her spare, elegant poetry hits heavy where it lands. No ideas but in things.
Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle  is the adventure story of a young man in his twenties, who trained himself to be an excellent field biologist along the coasts of South America and then retired to his home near London to spend the rest of his life writing about what he had found. In The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, David Quammen says it isn’t the idea that we all have a common evolutionary background that horrifies people. It is that natural selection accomplishes it. No divine spark, no hand of providence watching over its precious creation. And certainly no special demi-god status for man. Evolution is relentless, out of chaos and uncertainty, toward survival. No ideas but in things.
Christopher Alexander, a British architect who spent most of his life working in Berkeley, California, states that our current problems are a result of our certainty that matter is value-free. We treat matter as a mechanism and act as if nothing we do matters. But if we were to accept the living character of space and matter, everything matters. “It paves the way to an ultimately personal view of the world. Matter is personal. We then treat all creation – of buildings, gardens, roads – as the protection of the personal which resides in matter, and which, through our actions, may see the light of day.” [The Nature of Order, Book Four, The Luminous Ground, 2004] No ideas but in things.
Robert Pirsig upends the concept of value further. Value is not a property of matter, he says. Matter is really a subspecies of value. “The metaphysics of quality says that if moral judgments are essentially assertions of value and if value is the fundamental ground-stuff of the world, then moral judgments are the fundamental ground-stuff of the world.” [Lila: An Inquiry into Morals, 1991] Pirsig shows us how, grounded in the world, life migrates toward freedom. No ideas but in things.
We look ever toward the point at which matter and spirit meet, where, often briefly to our heavy, everyday perception, matter is illumined by the light within. It can happen anywhere, any time. There is as much chaos and uncertainty in spiritual evolution as there is in physical evolution. Physical evolution looks toward success in being alive, but the evolution of the spirit looks toward value. Spirituality is flat-out value. No ideas but in things.
And finally from Pasternak – my mentor since earliest days: “So that there shall be no dead branches in the soul, so that its growth shall not be retarded, so that man shall be incapable of mingling his narrow mind with the creation of his immortal essence, there exists a number of things to turn his vulgar curiosity away from life, which does not wish to work in his presence and in every way avoids him. … Hence all respectable religions, all generalizations, all prejudices and the most amusing and brilliant of them all – psychology.” [From The Childhood of Luvers, 1918, translated by Robert Payne]
No ideas but in things.