The woods are lovely, dark and deep, But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep. —Robert Frost, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
In the fall of my freshman year at Ohio State University, I took Biology 101 for my science requirement. Our professor was a woman in her 70’s, who looked like my maternal grandmother. Miss Hurley’s grey hair was pulled straight back in a tight little bun at the back of her head, no bangs. Short and slightly stooped, she wore no make-up or jewelry; she dressed plainly and wore dark stockings with black oxford shoes. What made her different from my soft-spoken and sedate maternal grandma was her self-confidence, her endless energy and passion for plants. Miss Hurley moved about the classroom briskly, waving her arms as she spoke of grasses and shrubs, trees and bushes as if they were conscious beings. She never mentioned God or a Divine Creator; rather, she implied “growing things” have more intelligence than humans beings.
What I also remember from Miss Hurley’s class that made a lasting impression on me is when I’d peer through my microscope (we each had one at our desk) at tiny leaf specimens from various varieties of trees. I could see similar patterns in all of them. While different in shape, color and texture, what was most astounding was the sameness in cell structure and structural configuration in all the specimens, regardless of genus or species. They were alike in some ways, different in others.
Two years later, in 1963, I cut back on my academic hours at Ohio State and began working part-time at the Columbus Citizen-Journal. I had no specific career plans although I always assumed I would earn a college degree before getting married and having a family. Because I loved to write, especially real stories about real people, I switched from the School of Arts and Sciences to the School of Journalism.
My job description at the Citizen-Journal was ‘editorial clerk’, which meant we basically ran errands for the editorial staff and reporters. Every so often, the city editor, Bill Moore handed us clerks newly published books to read so we could write a brief review for Friday’s newspaper. One of the books I read and reviewed was, “View From a Distant Star: Man’s Future in the Universe” by Harlow Shapley, published in 1963. Its opening paragraphs stunned me.
“Mankind is made of starstuff, ruled by universal laws. The thread of cosmic evolution runs through his history, as through all phases of the universe—the microcosmos of atomic structures, molecular forms, and microscopic organisms, and the macrocosmos of higher organisms, of plants, stars, and galaxies. Evolution is still proceeding in galaxies and man—to what end, we can only vaguely surmise. Is man here to stay? Can he survive the rigors of his harsh environment? He has himself made it harsh by adding to the natural hazards greater ones of his own making. Population pressures and the fruits of his science and technology now threaten his future. His lifetime on our small planet will depend on how well he understands the requirements for survival and how willing he is to struggle for the peaceful creation of a viable world society.”
Reading these words over and over again, written by a man obviously much smarter and more educated than I, made me realize that I, too, belonged, just like everybody else, even though at times I felt “adrift” because of all the societal changes going on. If it’s true I’m made of starstuff as this book says, I reasoned, then we all belong, regardless of race, religion, politics, education, gender, culture, nationality or class. What’s more, I and everyone else in the Universe are still evolving into a higher consciousness. The feeling I had growing up that I didn’t belong wasn’t something I felt comfortable admitting to anyone else. Reading that I, too, am made of starstuff made me feel connected to a larger community and reality beyond my own little life and my own limited circle of family and friends in a new and exciting way that was immensely comforting.
Three years later, when I was a senior at OSU, I signed up for Astronomy 401, a science requirement to earn my B.A. in Broadcast Journalism. The class was taught by Professor Sletebach, a man older than me but much younger than Miss Hurley. He had the same passion for stars, planets and galaxies that Miss Hurley had for plants, trees and bushes. As I gazed through the telescope into the night sky, I felt the same awe and wonderment I experienced looking into my microscope in Biology 101. I saw patterns of design and of movement out in the heavens, all held together by immutable laws such as gravity and centrifugal force reaching throughout the Universe, a concept so immense, yet so personal and comforting.
Fast forward to 1996, when I attended the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS) Annual Conference, this time in Palm Desert, CA. The conference was held at La Quinta Resort, located in a desert oasis surrounded by mountains. Early one morning, as I came to the main conference center for breakfast, I walked outdoors with my coffee and toast, to sit on the patio with a full view of the Santa Rosa mountains. Only one other early riser, a man probably 15 years older than I, was seated at one of the tables. When he asked if I wanted to join him, I said yes. I was stunned when he introduced himself. He was none other than Edgar Mitchell, founder of the Institute of Noetic Sciences and retired United States Navy officer and aviator, test pilot, aeronautical engineer, ufologist (the study of UFOs), NASA astronaut. As the Lunar Module Pilot of Apollo 14, he spent nine hours working on the lunar surface in the Fra Mauro Highlands region, making him the sixth person to walk on the Moon.
What I do remember about our pleasant conversation that morning while enjoying a cup of coffee and watching the sun rise up over the mountains was his passion for reconnecting science and spirituality after they were split apart by the Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries that emphasized reason and individualism over tradition. My one-on-one conversation with an educated and experienced expert—a man who had walked on the moon and came back to Earth to tell about it—was life-changing for me. What he and I talked about validated my college experiences and confirmed what I had always suspected—that faith and science are complementary. Before that day, I had never shared my stories about Miss Hurley and Professor Sletebach with anyone else, but I did with Dr. Mitchell that day, still very fresh in my memory.
Today, it is now an accepted fact, at least among the most evolved scientists and religious scholars, that science is “proving” what people of all the faith traditions, including indigenous peoples, have known since the beginning of time. We are not self-made. Rather, we are created by a Higher Power that created the Universe. We ARE made of starstuff. We are all more alike than different. We all do belong. We are all interconnected.
What’s more, scientists are proving that plants, trees and shrubs—all growing things— also have intelligence and are interconnected with each other, as with all of us. All of God’s creation is far more amazing, far more miraculous than even we in the 21st century can imagine. I love reflecting on these memories from my life that have made such a lasting impression on me. Writing them down fuels my passion today for doing what I can to make a positive difference at home, with our families, in our neighborhood, at church and as a community volunteer, especially as I grow older. Doing so keeps me energized and gives me a deeper awareness of who I really am (a spiritual being having a human experience rather than the other way around as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin taught), why I am here, where I’ve come from, and where I am going.
As Harlow Shapley so clearly states in his introduction to “View From a Distant Star,” mankind’s future “will depend on how well s/he understands the requirements for survival and how willing s/he is to struggle for the peaceful creation of a viable world society.” I added the s/ he to Shapley’s original “he” because if we are successful in bringing lasting peace to Mother Earth, we must do this with both male and female energies and intelligences.
Even us elders have an active role to play in this struggle for the peaceful creation of a viable world society. After all, we have children and grandchildren we love more than life itself. We want to pass the world onto them in better shape than we found it, not in worse shape. Thus, we must continue to live our best life as conscious stewards of Mother Earth until we take our last breath. As Robert Frost said so well in his poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” “I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.” Amen.
Special thanks to Pam Daugavietis for providing this wonderful story.