Interviewsand Articles


An Unknown World: Notes on the Meaning of the Earth

by Jacob Needleman, Sep 6, 2020



an excerpt - chapters one through four

For my companions...

CHAPTER ONE - The Low Stone Wall

A month ago, on the night of my seventy-fifth birthday, I dreamed of Elias Barkhordian. I was once again sitting on the low stone wall surrounding our neighbor’s lawn, where Elias and I would always go to talk about the universe. As it had been then, over sixty years ago, so it was in the dream: late afternoon in October, the sun low in the sky; in the distance the shouts of the neighborhood children at their street games. And, as it also was then, I had been walking away from the noise, pretending to be walking aimlessly, but knowing I would be meeting Elias. And as for Elias, who soon appeared from across Seventh Street where the rich people lived, he was also pretending to be just walking, and when we met we pretended to be a little surprised—that was our ritual, played out for several years until Elias died just before his fourteenth birthday.
     As we walked toward each other in the dream, I could not see him clearly; I especially could not make out his face. It was only when we sat down on the stone wall that I really was able to see him. He was as I remembered him: his big, heavy body, his large moon face; shining black hair and shining pitch-black eyes under a serene, wide forehead.
     I started to talk to him, not really surprised to see him alive. I was saying something about God and the stars and the planets, about life and death and the mind—our usual topics. He said nothing, but when I uttered the word “death” he started aging before my eyes. I kept on talking—in the dream my words made no sound—as I watched him grow older, his forehead crowding with crisscrossing lines, his eyes glowing more and more brightly. I started to feel deep grief; I thought my heart would burst and in my sleep I could sense my chest heaving.
     “Elias!” I shouted noiselessly in the dream, “Elias! What should we do? What should we do?”
     He was now as old as he would have been had he still been alive. He said nothing.
     Suddenly, he looked at me with a mixture of sorrow and disappointment.
     I woke up. My face was wet with tears.

     I could not let go of that dream. During the whole of that day I tried to recollect times the two of us had spent sitting on the stone wall―even when it was covered with ice, or while snow was falling. When it was raining heavily, however, we would go to the big house he lived in, where his beautiful Armenian mother would serve us delicious cakes and strangely fragrant tea.
     During the day after the dream I went through my library and looked for any books that I still had from that period of my early life, in order to freshen my memories of my childhood friend. It was then that I knew I had to try to write about the Earth, something that for a long time I had resisted.
     Surely there is no more urgent problem facing our world than our relation to the Earth. But over the years each time I turned this subject over in my mind I could not find the one great idea that would justify any attempt that I could make to add to the vast literature that now exists and continues to grow about the future of the Earth. No other question, no other crisis, has called to so many different voices, so many realms of thought and feeling, so many minds, with so many agendas and purposes, so many interconnections in economics, education, politics, philosophy, sociology, art, religion, medicine, engineering, agriculture—not to mention, of course, in the sciences of paleontology, meteorology, biology, geology, geochemistry and many others. And also: Within and above this great question stand the needs of the oppressed or downtrodden peoples of developing nations, the crisis of world poverty, the crisis of energy, the agendas of corporations, the planetary depredations of vast criminal forces, the call to far-reaching social activism, the ominous facts of pollution and world population, the accelerating crisis of water . . .
     . . .and on and on. Each of these elements offers or cries out for its own answer, its own solution, its own understanding. Behind each stand great bodies of research, expertise, argument, history, wars past, present and future.
     And in any case, in all of this there was certainly no need for one more book of the kind that I could offer.
     All that changed the day following my dream.  

CHAPTER TWO - What Is a World?
     I spent hours in my attic opening dusty cartons of old books. I was especially hoping to find a particular book that had made a great impression on me when I was young: The Mysterious Universe , by the astronomer and mathematician Sir James Jeans. I felt it would help me remember my friend Elias and some of our conversations. But I came across nothing that dated that far back—over sixty years—in my life.
     Then all at once my heart leaped.
     Could it be?
     It was an oversized book, its gray faded cover damaged by mold, its spine hanging by a few threads. The moment I touched it I knew what it was: The Stars for Sam . It was like looking for silver and finding gold.
     I remained sitting cross-legged on the floor. For a long moment I simply held the book. So much of me was in the pages of that book that I was almost afraid to open it. My childhood love of astronomy was in it. And my childhood love of astronomy had been the seed of my wish for truth and my sense of wonder in front of the vastness of the universe and the wholeness and the livingness of reality. The author of the book had written it for older children and had succeeded, at least for me, in evoking a sense of the sacred. Such books, having this kind of action on the mind of a young person, are rare and are desperately needed.
     The first title page bore the inscription “To Jerry From Mother, 4/23/43.” I was then eight years old.
     I began turning the pages, pausing in front of the quaintly illustrated first letters of each chapter, looking at scientific diagrams and photographs long superseded by the immensity of scientific progress over the years since it was first published in 1931. But I stopped cold when I came to an illustration of the comparative sizes of the sun and the planets of the solar system.
     Such straightforward diagrams and illustrations, without artistic embellishment, have always been common in popular books about astronomy, and they invariably evoke in most of us a distinct movement inward, a sense of quiet astonishment, when we pay attention to them.
     There, on the photographic plate opposite page 13, the disc of the sun, white against a black background, occupied nearly half of the large page. Beneath the grapefruit-size sun, the planets of our solar system were arrayed in two rows ranging in size from mere specks on the page to the relatively larger, but still toy-like outer planets—including great Jupiter—the size of marbles in a children’s game.
     This illustration affected me so strongly not only because it called up the feelings of my childhood about such things. It had also happened that an hour or so before that, while rummaging through the old cartons of books and papers, I had chanced to come across a manuscript that I had forgotten about. It was the translation of a seminal study of the Earth by the renowned Russian geochemist, Vladimir Vernadsky , published in 1926. Entitled The Biosphere, it showed for the first time that the biosphere of the Earth was an integral dynamic system controlled by life itself. As such, it was the first modern scientific study demonstrating that life was not simply a kind of accidental appendage violating the integrity of a mechanical system, but a defining, actively creative and purposive force shaping the entire physical structure of our planetary world. In the 1970’s I had been an occasional member of the team that worked on the English translation, and I had kept for myself a carbon copy of the manuscript. An abridgment and, later, a revised, annotated version of the translation were published bearing the name of the leader of the translation team, the physicist Dr. David B. Langmuir.
     It so happened that not more than an hour before discovering The Stars for Sam I had been reading some passages in the Vernadsky text where the author is discussing the three great regions that constitute the solid part of the Earth underneath the biosphere. With an old, familiar feeling of wonder I had followed him as he cited the distances down: the “crust” extending forty miles beneath the surface. I paused to imagine that underneath me there was forty miles of solid earth. Then beneath that a second region extending to a depth of some 1500 miles about which relatively little is known, especially, writes the author, since “the pressure due to the weight above it is so enormous that it defies our imagination and upsets our ordinary ideas of solids, liquids and gases.” All right, but fifteen hundred miles? That took me aback—I could more or less picture that distance on the surface of the Earth. But fifteen hundred miles down ? And about which we knew so little? I started feeling, sensing in my imagination the scale of the size of our planet, like an immense being upon which we human beings crawl like small insects. And when Vernadsky then spoke about the core of the Earth, reaching down to the unknown and unknowable center of our planet some 4000 miles beneath the surface, I could honestly say that I actually felt, with my own sensation and instinctive feeling, the huge massive world upon which I lived along with the whole human species. In short, I was stopped inside my mind, as though my own mind now gave evidence of its own mysterious center on the mere surface of which I had been living my little life.
     In that moment I also felt that I myself was a world. An unknown world.
     It was with that feeling still echoing throughout the cells of my body that I came upon the diagram showing that the Earth itself, in comparison with the sun, was nothing more than a tiny white speck. From out of the center of my childhood the living memory of my sense of wonder flowed into my thoughts and emotions—an experience that always happened sooner or later every time Elias and I met by the stone wall. And indeed I now saw that it was this sense of wonder—a paradoxical blending of the recognition of our personal nothingness and of the infinite greatness of our sense of the cosmos—that was the real unspoken aim of our conversations. When we touched that, or rather when that touched us, as it always did sooner or later, both Elias and I would always stop and share the silence for a very long time.
     As I kept looking at the diagram a new question came to me: What does that mean: a world? What is a world? Wasn’t I now in front of an ancient, timeless idea, an idea, a question I thought I more or less understood, but which now was bursting with unknown life? A world? A world is a unity !
     This word, unity, suddenly took off its outer garment and showed itself to be hugely unknown, and at the same the goal and aim of all our inner life and purposes. Wasn’t unity the aim of our personal search for meaning? Isn’t the troubled human condition defined by mankind’s fragmentation and disunity? And in the world’s spiritual traditions, isn’t every great symbol, each in own way, a symbol of unity and the laws of unity? The word unity was now forme no longer an empty and somewhat uninteresting abstract noun. It pulsed with life. It pulsed with mystery. The Earth—the Earth upon which we lived was a great world! And we were part of that unknown world! And we ourselves were also a world!
     Yes. . . yes. But: I was not yet a unity - on the contrary. And—was the Earth itself the world that it was meant to be if I, we human beings, were ourselves ridden with disunity and fragmentation? I am not yet a world, therefore the Earth cannot yet be the world it was created to be!
     And then, what of the solar system itself and all the other “children of the sun?”
     Thoughts like that, inchoate, passionate, teeming with life, poured through my brain. I needed to think now about all that, I needed to write about the Earth in the light of that great essential question of the meaning of oneness in the universe and in ourselves. I felt a great hope that all the aspects of the question of the Earth, the environment, the human crisis of our relationship to nature and everything that was associated with it would be seen in a new light from the depths of the great idea of unity in its hard, primal, primordial meaning. All the questions, I felt, all the issues were themselves scattered pieces of an unknown unity waiting to come together under some new, reconciling idea.
     I closed the book, unable to keep up with my thoughts. Ah, I felt, if only I could speak to Elias about this!
     In fact, that very night I would be seeing him again. 

CHAPTER THREE - A Mysterious Directive
     Elias appeared in my dream that night exactly as he had been the night before—his large face lined with age and gravity, his black, deep-set eyes burning with steady light. In fact, everything was exactly as it had been: the orange autumn sun low and large in the sky, the shouts of children in the distance, and the low stone wall upon which we were sitting. In every respect the dream seemed to pick up exactly where it had left off―with my soundless outcry echoing in my mind, “Elias! What should we do?”
     This fact―that the dream was a continuation of the night before―seemed perfectly natural to me.
     Elias tilted his head to the right as he often used to do after he had challenged me with some question or other. But in this case it was I who had put the question to him. In the dream-silence we both sat there, each waiting for the other to say something. My thoughts of the day about the Earth seemed slowly to enter the dream—off to the side, not inside my head. As though they, my thoughts, did not belong to me.
     I started to repeat my question, What shall we do? , but in the dream, as it sometimes happens in waking life, entirely unexpected words came out of my mouth and, unlike in the previous night’s dream, my words made a sound—it’s possible that I even said them aloud in my
     “Are you still dead?” I said.
     He just sat there, looking at me with that same mixture of sorrow and disappointment, his head tilted to the side.
     “Aren’t you allowed to speak?” I said.
     He pointed to my right side on the ground where somehow my thoughts about the Earth were waiting. It was a dream perception, a dream certainty. They, my thoughts, were some kind of beings—I did not imagine any shape or form to them; I did not in the dream question that such a thing could be—one’s own thoughts not inside the mind, but outside, perhaps like—who knows what?
     “Put them into your body ,” he said. His voice was not the high-pitched voice I remembered. It was an older voice, deeper.
     And then he stood up. The sun was beginning to set, getting bigger as it did so, and turning an ever-deepening orange-red. The air was getting colder. And, as it sometimes happens in a cloudless sky, it was suddenly dark night. The sun had disappeared beneath the horizon.
     He started to walk away. I immediately stood up and followed him, forgetting all about my “thoughts.” I stayed beside him feeling warmth coming from him as the night air became colder and darker. We walked down Franklin Street where the younger children had been playing until, at nightfall, called home by their mothers. Although in the dream I was not a younger child, I heard my mother’s voice calling me in the distance. It is rare to hear one’s own name spoken aloud in a dream, and when it does happen it usually signals awakening. But walking next to Elias, I “chose” not to wake up.
     We walked through neighborhoods I had known and lived in as a child even before I had known Elias. We walked a long, long time and finally came to a broad avenue and as we turned into this wide, empty street, there at the far end of it the sun was now rising, huge and warm and brilliantly whitish yellow. My whole body felt warm and grateful. The voice that had been calling my name sounded again, but it was not from my mother; it was from somewhere else, from someone else.
     At that point, Elias took leave.
     His face was still full of grief.
     I tried to wake up, but I couldn’t. Feeling alone, I walked by myself back through all my childhood neighborhoods. In the dream it took me a long time and when I returned to the low stone wall the sun was already setting; and again night fell quickly and suddenly. My “thoughts” were still there by the wall.
     In my dream I went into my house, the house of my childhood. I went up to my room, undressed, and went to bed. 

CHAPTER FOUR - The Earth Is a Living Being
     On awakening, my mind—and I could say my “soul”—was simultaneously inhabited with the blended images, feelings and thoughts from both my daytime and my nighttime: the immensity of the planet Earth and the nearly microscopic white speck that represented the Earth under the great disc of the sun. The huge sun in the dream warming and illuminating me and finally disappearing abruptly, leaving me alone in cold darkness—just as the presence of my dear Elias warmed me and then abandoned me to return alone to the low stone wall with only cryptic dream-words to remember him by.
     I have to say that for several hours that day it was almost as though I didn’t know if I were awake or still asleep and dreaming in bed. My impulse to think and write about the Earth was chaotically mixed with uncontrollable feelings that must have arisen out of my dream of Elias and the impression of his inexplicable grief. I kept saying to myself that I must hold tightly to the feeling of love for the Earth. That was the phrase that kept coming back to me. Never before in my life had I ever thought those words.
     Part of me—my more rational part perhaps—started warning me against sentimentality. But when I began to leaf through my books about the Earth and the solar system, some of them purely scientific and technical, the feeling of love for the Earth and—this was totally unexpected―love for the Sun kept welling up in me.
     My “rational” mind was tugging at me very strongly. I (or it) said to me something like “How interesting! The voice you heard of your mother calling you has been symbolically transformed and symbolized by the Earth, ‘mother Earth.’ And the second voice you heard when you saw the sun rising means that for you the sun symbolizes your father, ‘father Sun.’ Don’t you remember how touched you once were when you encountered in your studies those ritual dances where the voices would chant the ‘hymn to the Father Sun.’ Don’t you remember?”
     I knew my “rational mind” was wrong. My feeling for the Earth, and now for the Sun, was not psychological. It was metaphysical, “energetical.” Such feelings are quite prior to, earlier than, feelings for one’s mother or father. They are written into the being of man. One could say they exist in us even before we are born. My rational mind, the mind of my externally conditioned personality, never heard of such a thing. If we are fortunate, our actual mother and father act upon us in ways that reflect the nature and the meaning of the Earth and the Sun. Or, if not our actual mother and father, some other blood relative. These connections to the universe—we could speak of it, very cautiously, as God―are in our essence, our blood, not
merely in the conditioned personality that is forged from external cultural influences or parental actions.
     As the day wore on and the effects of the dream seemed to retreat behind the screen of everyday concerns, difficulties and obligations, I began to understand why the book written by the Russian geochemist Vernadsky had made such a powerful impact upon me. It was not only how he put together the scientific facts and theories about the Earth and the biosphere. It was also, and perhaps even more fundamentally, how he spoke about the Sun.
     Let me try to explain this. As most of us know, life on Earth depends on the energy of the sun. It is common to hear it said simply that the heat of the sun’s rays, and somehow also, the light of the sun, engender and maintain all of life, or nearly all. Knowing this, and reading it a thousand times in both popular and technical books, I always semi-consciously wondered why it left me so unsatisfied―as though a huge chasm of ignorance was being concealed. How could mere heat or light cause life to appear out of dead matter? More and more sophisticated explanations involving the effect of solar heat and light on the formation and interaction of complex molecules, proteins and amino acids only left me even more unsatisfied.
     But Vernadsky’s writings, while remaining purely scientific and unsentimental, and while faithfully hewing closely to fact and verifiable observation, communicated something else. At the very beginning of the book, the Russian geochemist writes:

     The face of the Earth viewed from celestial space presents a unique appearance, specific and different from all other heavenly bodies. The surface that separates the planet from the cosmic medium is the biosphere, visible principally because of light from the sun, although it also receives from every part of celestial space an infinite number of other radiations, only a small fraction of which are visible to us. We have hardly begun to realize their variety, to understand how defective and incomplete are our conceptions of the world of rays which envelop us, to realize their fundamental importance in surrounding processes, an importance which is scarcely perceptible to our minds so accustomed to other pictures of the universe.
     Not only the biosphere, but all possible space that can be embraced by thought is penetrated by rays from this immaterial domain. These rays are being incessantly propagated around us, within us, everywhere; clashing, following one another, meeting one another.
     The perpetual alternation of these space-filling rays already distinguishes these cosmic regions, destitute of matter, from the geometric idea of space as mere emptiness.

     Reading these first sentences of the book, I once again recalled the feeling they evoked in me when years before I was sitting in with the team of people working on the translation from the Russian and the French. What were these “infinite number of other radiations” pouring onto the Earth from “every part of celestial space”? Was all of that part of what is more profoundly meant by “the Sun”? Why did these words of Vernadsky now as before send a chill down my spine?
     Was life on Earth to be seen as a response from the Earth to its sun-centered universal world? Life a response ? An expression ? And, in any case, why did nearly every sentence of Vernadsky’s book evoke such thoughts and feelings in me? I had read many texts dealing with astronomy and nature. What was the sensibility of this Russian scientist that enabled him to offer straightforward information in a way that opened the heart even as it informed the mind? It was one thing to be touched like this when directly observing terrestrial nature, the life of plants and animals; and it was one thing to be struck with awe and wonder at the scale of the universe and the starry worlds. But this text was also touching something entirely different in me—and not only in me, but also in each one of the men and women working on the translation.
     The thought was, and nowadays has surely become, inescapable: The Earth is a living being. Every living being lives and breathes in an environment; every living being lives and breathes and serves in an environment of all-encompassing life. Every living being has a function in the whole tapestry of organic life.
     The Earth is a living being. Think of it! I said to myself. Dream of it! Every living being serves . . . from the merest living cell to the great whales and the whole class of insects and . . . man. But also Earth, Earth itself. I could not and cannot help but feel the question entering again and again within my being: what is the function, the “good” (as Plato would say), the purpose of the Earth itself —and its “word,” its “expression,” to which we give the name, life?
                     (end of chapter 4 of 24 chapters) 

Visit Jacob Needleman's website.   


About the Author

Jacob Needleman is Professor of Philosophy at San Francisco State University and former Director of the Center for the study of New Religions at The Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. He was educated in philosophy at Harvard, Yale and the University of Freiburg, Germany. He is the author of The New Religions, a pioneering study of the new American spirituality, The Wisdom of Love, Money and the Meaning of Life, A Sense of the Cosmos, Lost Christianity, The Heart of Philosophy, The Way of the Physician, Time and the Soul, Sorcerers, a novel, The American Soul, Why Can't We Be Good? and The Essential Marcus Aurelius. He was also General Editor of the Penguin Metaphysical Library.  


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