I recently read this quote, attributed to Thoreau.*
I hear that it is but an imperfect copy that I possess and have read, that my ancestors have torn out many of the first leaves and grandest passages, and mutilated it in many places. I should not like to think that some demigod had come before me and picked some of the best of the stars. I wish to know an entire heaven and an entire earth.
The date given was 1856. Was Thoreau lamenting that his natural world had been diminished before he even got a chance to know it? If so, while I admire Thoreau’s ecological spirit, I think he was missing something. To be sure, Darwin had not yet published his Origin of Species, introducing evolution and challenging the dominant belief that life on Earth was static. It would be nearly another century before Edwin Hubble would establish that the Universe was not static, either. It is expanding.
So, perhaps Thoreau should be forgiven for assuming that, by human action alone, the natural world had been diminished before he got his chance. Thoreau never knew dinosaurs. But, humans had nothing to do with their demise. Similarly, humans had nothing to do with the great super nova of 1045, when one of Heaven’s best stars was destroyed and lost to sight. More to the point though, it’s beautiful remnant, the nebula we call “The Crab”, is a place where new stars form.
I think what Thoreau was missing was that the Earth and the Universe, in which it resides, is constantly being remade. It is not static. It is less that pages have been ripped from the book, than that the book continues to be written.
Our Sun is a third generation star. It had parents and grandparents that no longer shine in any heaven. Without their explosive deaths, the Sun would not shine in our heaven. The very crust of the Earth is pocked with volcanoes and rent by tectonic forces that are constantly remaking the planet. Sometimes, we feel infinitely small and helpless in the face of it. To know an entire heaven and an entire Earth, in the way Thoreau desired, was never possible.
For me, this makes this line from Revelation 21 more understandable: “And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away. . . .” We are here for such a brief time, before we too are destroyed and reborn. As Christians we live our brief span on the Earth in the faith of the Resurrection, the faith that the Creator continues to create, the faith that nothing is diminished or lost or abandoned, the faith that all is remade and reborn. I have faith that it is so, and I find nothing in science that denies it.
*I have not been able to locate the quote in Thoreau’s Journal. He may not have written it. Whomever the author, the thought remains.