The Breath of Life
BREATH OF LIFE
BOSTON AND NEW YORK
HOUGHTON MIFFLIN COMPANY
The Riverside Press Cambridge
BY JOHN BURROUGHS
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Published May 1915
As life nears its end with me, I find myself meditatingmore and more upon the mystery of itsnature and origin, yet without the least hope that Ican find out the ways of the Eternal in this or in anyother world. In these studies I fancy I am about asfar from mastering the mystery as the ant which Isaw this morning industriously exploring a smallsection of the garden walk is from getting a clearidea of the geography of the North American Continent.But the ant was occupied and was apparentlyhappy, and she must have learned somethingabout a small fraction of that part of the earth'ssurface.
I have passed many pleasant summer days in myhay-barn study, or under the apple trees, exploringthese questions, and though I have not solved them,I am satisfied with the clearer view I have givenmyself of the mystery that envelops them. I haveset down in these pages all the thoughts that havecome to me on this subject. I have not aimed somuch at consistency as at clearness and definitenessof statement, letting my mind drift as upon a shorelesssea. Indeed, what are such questions, and allother ultimate questions, but shoreless seas whereon[Pg vi]the chief reward of the navigator is the joy of theadventure?
Sir Thomas Browne said, over two hundred yearsago, that in philosophy truth seemed double-faced,by which I fancy he meant that there was alwaysmore than one point of view of all great problems,often contradictory points of view, from which truthis revealed. In the following pages I am aware thattwo ideas, or principles, struggle in my mind for mastery.One is the idea of the super-mechanical and thesuper-chemical character of living things; the otheris the idea of the supremacy and universality of whatwe call natural law. The first probably springs frommy inborn idealism and literary habit of mind; thesecond from my love of nature and my scientificbent. It is hard for me to reduce the life impulse toa level with common material forces that shape andcontrol the world of inert matter, and it is equallyhard for me to reconcile my reason to the introductionof a new principle, or to see anything in naturalprocesses that savors of the ab-extra. It is the workingof these two different ideas in my mind thatseems to give rise to the obvious contradictions thatcrop out here and there throughout this volume.An explanation of life phenomena that savors of thelaboratory and chemism repels me, and an explanationthat savors of the theological point of view isequally distasteful to me. I crave and seek a naturalexplanation of all phenomena upon this earth,[Pg vii]but the word "natural" to me implies more thanmere chemistry and physics. The birth of a baby,and the blooming of a flower, are natural events,but the laboratory methods forever fail to give usthe key to the secret of either.
I am forced to conclude that my passion for natureand for all open-air life, though tinged and stimulatedby science, is not a passion for pure science,but for literature and philosophy. My imaginationand ingrained humanism are appealed to by thefacts and methods of natural history. I find somethingakin to poetry and religion (using the latterword in its non-mythological sense, as indicating thesum of mystery and reverence we feel in the presenceof the great facts of life and death) in the showsof day and night, and in my excursions to fields andwoods. The love of nature is a different thing fromthe love of science, though the two may go together.The Wordsworthian sense in nature, of "somethingfar more deeply interfused" than the principles ofexact science, is probably the source of nearly if notquite all that this volume holds. To the rigid manof science this is frank mysticism; but without asense of the unknown and unknowable, life is flatand barren. Without the emotion of the beautiful,the sublime, the mysterious, there is no art, no religion,no literature. How to get from the clod underfootto the brain and consciousness of man withoutinvoking something outside of, and superior to,[Pg viii]natural laws, is the question. For my own part Icontent myself with the thought of some unknownand doubtless unknowable tendency or power in theelements themselves—a kind of universal mindpervading living matter and the reason of its living,through which the whole drama of evolution isbrought about.
This is getting very near to the old teleologicalconception, as it is also near to that of Henri Bergsonand Sir Oliver Lodge. Our minds easily slide intothe groove of supernaturalism and spiritualism becausethey have long moved therein. We have thewords and they mould our thoughts. But science isfast teaching us that the universe is complete initself; that whatever takes place in matter is byvirtue of the force of matter; that it does not deferto or borrow from some other universe; that there isdeep beneath deep in it; that gross matter has itsinterior in the molecule, and the molecule has itsinterior in the atom, and the atom has its interior inthe electron, and that the electron is matter in itsfourth or non-material state—the point where ittouches the super-material. The transformation ofphysical energy into vital, and of vital into mental,doubtless takes place in this invisible inner world ofatoms and electrons. The electric constitution ofmatter is a deduction of physics. It seems in somedegree to bridge over the chasm between what wecall the material and the spiritual. If we are not[Pg ix]within hailing distance of life and mind, we seemassuredly on the road thither. The mystery of thetransformation of the ethereal, imponderable forcesinto the vital and the mental seems quite beyondthe power of the mind to solve. The explanationof it in the bald terms of chemistry and physicscan never satisfy a mind with a trace of idealismin it.
The greater number of the chapters of this volumeare variations upon a single theme,—what Tyndallcalled "the mystery and the miracle of vitality,"—andI can only hope that the variations are of sufficientinterest to justify the inevitable repetitionswhich occur. I am no more inclined than Tyndallwas to believe in miracles unless we name everythinga miracle, while at the same time I am deeplyimpressed with the inadequacy of all known materialforces to account for the phenomena of livingthings.
That word of evil repute, materialism, is nolonger the black sheep in the flock that it was beforethe advent of modern transcendental physics.The spiritualized materialism of men like Huxleyand Tyndall need not trouble us. It springs fromthe new conception of matter. It stands on thethreshold of idealism or mysticism with the doorajar. After Tyndall had cast out the term "vitalforce," and reduced all visible phenomena of life tomechanical attraction and repulsion, after he had exhausted[Pg x]physics, and reached its very rim, a mightymystery still hovered beyond him. He recognizedthat he had made no step toward its solution, andwas forced to confess with the philosophers of allages that
- I. The Breath of Life 1
- II. The Living Wave 24
- III. A Wonderful World 46
- IV. The Baffling Problem 71
- V. Scientific Vitalism 104
- VI. A Bird of Passage 115
- VII. Life and Mind 131
- VIII. Life and Science 159
- IX. The Journeying Atoms 188
- X. The Vital Order 212
- XI. The Arrival of the Fit 244
- XII. The Naturalist's View of Life 254
- Index 291
THE BREATH OF LIFE
When for the third or fourth time during thespring or summer I take my hoe and goout and cut off the heads of the lusty burdocks thatsend out their broad leaves along the edge of mygarden or lawn, I often ask myself, "What is thisthing that is so hard to scotch here in the grass?"I decapitate it time after time and yet it forthwithgets itself another head. We call it burdock, butwhat is burdock, and why does it not change intoyellow dock, or into a cabbage? What is it that is soconstant and so irrepressible, and before the summeris ended will be lying in wait here with its tenthousand little hooks to attach itself to every skirtor bushy tail or furry or woolly coat that comesalong, in order to get free transportation to otherlawns and gardens, to green fields and pastures new?
It is some living thing; but what is a living thing,and how does it differ from a mechanical and non-livingthing? If I smash or overturn the sundialwith my hoe, or break the hoe itself, these thingsstay smashed and broken, but the burdock mendsitself, renews itself, and, if I am not on my guard,[Pg 2]will surreptitiously mature some of the burs before the season ispassed.
Evidently a living thing is radically different from a mechanical thing;yet modern physical science tells me that the burdock is only anotherkind of machine, and manifests nothing but the activity of themechanical and chemical principles that we see in operation all about usin dead matter; and that a little different mechanical arrangement ofits ultimate atoms would turn it into a yellow dock or into a cabbage,into an oak or into a pine, into an ox or into a man.
I see that it is a machine in this respect, that it is set going by aforce exterior to itself—the warmth of the sun acting upon it, and uponthe moisture in the soil; but it is unmechanical in that it repairsitself and grows and reproduces itself, and after it has ceased runningcan never be made to run again. After I have reduced all its activitiesto mechanical and chemical principles, my mind seems to see somethingthat chemistry and mechanics do not explain—something that availsitself of these forces, but is not of them. This may be only myanthropomorphic way of looking at things, but are not all our ways oflooking at things anthropomorphic? How can they be