The sun was setting as we drove through the Badlands of South Dakota. Long Midas fingers of light probed into that wilderness of spectacular erosion, turning otherwise dismal tip-tops into golden pinnacles on towers of deep rose grounded in purple.
An official roadside information sign hove in sight by the highway, so we stopped to read. It told about the formation of the Badlands. We learned that some millions of years ago, mountains higher than the Rockies had stood off there to the west. Throughout eons these mountains had eroded away. In bits and pieces they were carried eastward by streams in the annual runoff. Great sheets of sediment remained when the flood waters abated. As the heavy mountains wore down, the lightened crust of the earth began rising. The western region of the sedimentary plains rose higher than the land farther east. Storm streams began to cut sharply down into the old layered deposits, thus carving out these Badlands.
We piled back into the car and drove on a winding road through that eerie, darkening panorama of mesas, hoodoos and a million weird profiles that might have escaped from some devil’s nightmare. The scope of the whole process operating there was utterly beyond our imagination. After miles and miles of haunted landscape, we welcomed the flashing neon signs of Rapid City. When we camped in the darkness that night we were glad that an inhabited place stood between us and one of the earth’s most unearthly scenes.
Next day, via the Needles Highway, we explored the Black Hills—the remains of those ancient, mighty western mountains. The road wound among tall slivers of sandy old rock, standing there like the gaunt survivors of some prehistoric palisade, still defying the assaults of the elements. Each year they become thinner. Long vertical holes sometimes appear in them and these become “eyes” in the “Needles.” The sky seen through one of those elongated openings seemed gloriously blue. One day all of these will collapse, mingling their fragments and dust with remnants of their fallen comrades.
Farther on down the highway we came to a shoulder of mica schist that shone in the sunlight as if water flowed over it. You don’t expect such gleaming light from a stone.
As we rounded a turn, up through a cleft in the rock to our left I was startled to glimpse what appeared to be a great stone face peering out from the mountainside. We stopped and backed up. That’s what it was, all right—a great stone face. Remarkable!
We had never heard of Mount Rushmore—though for Americans it is almost a national shrine. There the sculptured features of, not just one, but four venerated presidents of the United States gaze out from a place of lofty grandeur. We soon came to a visitors’ center where we had a full view of them. Awesome. Inspiring. We parked and joined a group listening to a man telling the story of how the memorial came to be.
I glanced at our children as they listened. They were studying those famous faces intently. I wondered if any of the four mothers whose little ones grew up to be those illustrious leaders ever dreamed that someday her child’s dear face might be carved on a colossal scale high up on a mountain.
Suddenly Robin pointed and stage-whispered, “See, up there! There’s a man under Lincoln’s nose!” He was right—an ant-like figure on a hanging scaffold was working on the famous president’s upper lip. “I sure hope Lincoln doesn’t sneeze!” Out of respect for the spectators and the situation, we suppressed our laughter—well, almost.
Dawn was intrigued by the accumulation of rock fragments that had fallen down from the carving. Finally she asked, “Daddy, how did they know all those heads were in there when that was all mountain?”
I cleared my throat and rolled aside a pine cone with my foot. “Well, honey,” I began, “your head was in there too with #the presidents’ heads, and so was mine. They could have carved anybody’s head up there. But the people who thought up this project had presidents’ heads in mind, and they got permission to remove the rock from around those particular heads. Yours and mine are still in there somewhere, but it isn’t likely that anyone will ever try to uncover them now that these others have been developed first.” She seemed satisfied, and we had to be moving on.
What I said to her came back to me as we moved through the Bighorn Mountains. A road construction outfit was widening a cut through a ridge of rock to abolish what had long been a traffic bottleneck. They had been blasting, and now they were removing the loosened rock in great trucks. The wheel of one of those gigantic rock carriers was about twice the height of our car. The mammoth vehicle would scarcely flinch when a huge loader dumped in another multiton bucketful. As soon as the truck was full, it would roar off to drop its load in some empty hollow.
Viewed from high above, this Herculean operation would have seemed like an extraterrestrial invasion of immense insect-like creatures bearing away big bites of the earth as they chewed out a new home for themselves in these mountains. Down beside them, through the unholy noise and the flying dust, we simply followed the cars ahead until we came out onto normal pavement again.
How easy it all looked! Such power! Such teamwork! The skill of those operators! The size of the equipment! Those boys could tear down the great pyramid of Cheops in a few weeks!
Down with the up
Undoubtedly the human race has a genius for destruction. %We’re really great at demolishing things. From our earliest years we leave behind us a trail of broken toys, worn-out clothing, shaken-up furniture, scrap yards and the town dump. Where is the unguarded building that hasn’t been vandalized? Not even the mountains, the everlasting hills, are safe from human erosion. If we keep on using up all our good agricultural land to build cities, we may someday run short of farmland. Then if our work force suffers from underemployment, someone will likely begin to tear down the mountains, filling up uninhabited V-shaped valleys to make new agricultural land. Economical?
The very car we were driving had come from the heart of some ore body. Iron-bearing rock had been dug out, smelted down and made into steel. But back where it had come from, there was now a great gaping hole in the earth. We human beings are indeed like ants. They too burrow into the earth and make nest holes by removing material.
Twice in one day I had seen people purposefully at work demolishing a portion of mountain: the roadbuilders and the man who was carving Mount Rushmore. Any portion of rock which didn’t fit in with a certain plan was dislodged either by drill and dynamite, or by hammer and chisel. Excess material was carried away by machines or by gravity. Someone gave the order “Away with it,” and the rock in question was gone. Its place would know it no more forever. To fulfill the human plan, ro’ck-presence had to be reduced to rock-absence. No pimples, please, on a president’s chin.
Working with materials inevitably tears something down in order to build something up. The two modes, destruction and construction, always proceed together. There is no technique for doing only one thing. While some significant form is shaping up under the hand of a sculptor, a heap of discarded chips of stone is also piling up. While a carpenter’s shop turns out all sorts of wooden articles, it also produces sawdust, shavings and cuttings. A machine shop always has its scrap iron. Pies come from the kitchen, and so do eggshells and peelings.
Mass-moving and logic
I found myself pondering the similarity between technological methods and the primitive processes that underlie logical thinking. Both technology and logic use the “Divide and Elimination” technique. These two kinds of negation—the same two which are necessary for attaining clear ideas—are necessary for removing masses. In removing rock from its original location, the dividing is done by drills, dynamite, chisels, abrasive lines or diamond saws. The eliminating may be done by bare hands, shovels, wheelbarrows, scoops, bulldozers, backhoes, conveyor belts, trucks or gravity flow. Taking rock out of a certain place leaves a hole where it once was. In making a cut for a road through a shoulder of rock, the hole is what is desired. If the rock is taken from a quarry to be used, say, in building some wall or pavement, the hole left behind in the quarry is usually forgotten.
Erosion, sculpturing, road construction and logic thus have principles in common. They all separate what once was together. They destroy and remove, but in so doing they may build some new thing.
The father of logic was Socrates. It may not be mere coincidence that Socrates was a stonecutter and the son of a stonecutter. This may help to explain Socrates’ deep interest in obtaining exact, sharp-edged definitions of ideas. To fit properly into a fine piece of architecture, stones must be cut with precision according to the angles and dimensions laid down in detailed drawings by the architect. Unless the architect and masons pay close attention to details, the joins between the stones will be weak and wobbly, not fulfilling their stable load-bearing function. Through every stage—idea, drawing and stonecutting—definiteness of form, inclination and location are achieved by dividing and eliminating what is not desirable.
Positive thinking likewise can become positive only after some sharply negative thinking. Every time we do or think something positive, constructive or creative, we have done or thought something negative and destructive. Social reformers must therefore be prepared to face the problems they create by doing good. Can anyone do a totally good thing? Is there a perfect deed which should not be accompanied by an apology or a prayer for forgiveness?
During our trip west we saw dozens of cars abandoned along the road. Sometimes we came upon big fields stacked high with dead cars. Towns usually had an inconspicuous sideroad with a tiny sign pointing to the dump, sometimes euphoniously called “waste+ disposal site.” Up that road, out of sight, there’s a gully full of obsolete washing machines, useless stoves, spronged mattresses, mutilated easy-chairs, empty cans and broken glass. With what joy these articles originally came into someone’s life. And with what joy they were carted away! Once they were bright and new in some attractive merchandising display. Now they are rusted, rotted and wasting away: the tailings from shaping life’s mountain, the leftover side of our living.
As we drove west we left behind us a trail of exhaust fumes and overheated air—the remains of burned-up gasoline which could never again become motor fuel. Our brakes and tires were slowly wearing down. If I were to turn off the ignition switch, the car would coast to a stop. All machines are like that. It takes energy to keep them going and more energy still if they are to do useful work. Most of the energy poured into machinery is consumed by friction and turned into wasted, useless heat.
Two-thirds of the way through Wyoming we found ourselves driving up a narrow canyon. Swift water from the Rocky Mountains up in the region of Yellowstone Park had carved out that canyon. Cody Dam had been built to confine that water, turning it into a reservoir lake.
In the spring, meltwater from snow high on the mountains trickles down into any little depression it can find. When this small basin is full, it overflows and the water descends into the next cavity, where it bubbles and eddies awhile. This one too fills up. The water spills over its threshold, and once more takes off on a downward plunge. You can never permanently dam up a mountain stream. It will -always fill up the space behind the dam, spill over it and, descending through a series of terraced waterfalls and pools, make its way to the sea.
This downward cascading of water is easy to see and to trace. There is another cascade, however, that is seen with the mind, not the eyes: the vast cascade of energy from the sun. Energy radiates from it in all directions, and some falls upon the planet Earth. This solar heat lifts water from lakes, seas and oceans into the air to make clouds. The rising warmed air also creates winds that move the clouds inland, where rain falls from them, watering thirsty plants on the ground. Energy from the sun also enables the plants to lift water to their uppermost tips and, combining it with carbon dioxide, to make starches, sugars and fiber. Coal and oil, our fossil fuels, came from ancient deposits of such organic materials. Some animals secure energy from the plants they eat. Other animals in turn eat the herbivores. Bacteria finish off all the organic leftovers.
Each stage in this process of cascading solar energy is like one of those holding basins which temporarily stores up the water of a mountain stream until it moves on. Clouds, lakes, plants, animals, fossil fuels are way stations for the downgrade journey of the sun’s energy—temporary pauses on the way down, “tabernacles,”1 as it were, for the sun.
Human beings eat plants and animals/ to obtain their life’s energy. We burn fossil fuels and turn falling water into electricity to provide heat, light and mechanical power. We and our factories are also temporary basins in the rundown of energy. Eventually we humans also die and disintegrate. Our machines and their products become obsolete, worn out, and work no more. All of the earth-caught energy that started from the sun eventually radiates back out into space and is irretrievably lost. Much as water from the mountains finally reaches the ocean, cascading solar energy is destined to be dispersed at last into the deadly cold of outer space. When all the balls have run their way down through the cosmic pinball machine, there will be only endless stillness—unless some new creative word should be spoken or a reorganizing cosmic force should lend a hand.
Energy seems always to be sliding downhill. Some say that this is a fallen world. At first sight this appears to be more a falling world. Energy cascades down and out from the sun. Rock chips drop down from cliff-side carvings. The level in our gas tank steadily lowers as we travel. I shout and the sound fades quickly away. All living things die. The swift slows to a stop, and the warm grows cold.
Humans, as sculptors, builders and workers, are not mere destroyers. Nor are they the only destroyers. Some sinister cosmic chisel keeps chipping away at everything, including every human achievement. If moth and rust are not the corrupting agents, some other lurking, thieving menace sneaks in and steals.2 A most persistent, pervasive destroyer appears to be at work everywhere. It lays low the “everlasting” hills and claws at the very names on our tombstones, even as it vampired out of existence the lives they commemorate. A universal undertow runs through the world, sweeping a ripcurrent of wreckage toward the abyss.
In science, this universal, cosmic negation has been called “entropy.” By the chill in its breath all engines are stilled and every organization is subverted. Its destination was known to the Jews as the abyss, the bottomless pit. The destroying angel, Abaddon, was the keeper of this deepest sinkhole in the universe.3 Some might identify entropy with Satan, but in the book of the Revelation, the abyss is beyond the power even of Satan.4 Saints have called this ever-present downward drag by the name of Sin. All of us call it Death or dying.5 I call it “the power of nothingness.”
Whence came this destroyer, this universal solvent that no bottle can contain? Whose child is this? Perhaps nobody’s child, a necessary by-product of creation. God could not create any definite being unless against a background of nonbeing. Logically, remember, positive definiteness always requires the negative at its side. God is still creating his world in the midst of a death-dealing domain of nothingness. God’s ancient enemy, an ever-present voracious parasite, the beast from the abyss,6 still feeds on God’s handiwork, and also on all human achievements.
Could this mysterious crumbling away of all things be the effect of a powerful but unseen hammer a3nd chisel held in the hands of God? Perhaps God is not yet entirely satisfied with any or all of the things he has so far made in the history of the world? Is the Sculptor-Creator still trying for his ultimate masterpiece, exploring all possible mountains in search of all possible heads?
God’s world is still in the making. As the road repair signs say, “Sorry for the inconvenience.” Perhaps human technical operations are among the processes God uses to change what is into what can be. From his materials he finally produced an ideal King. Is he now trying to organize his materials into a Kingdom befitting that King?
Before mountains can be reshaped, they first had to be formed. The original creation of matter and its subsequent organization into living things contains hope for the reversal of entropic effects and ultimate victory over the destroyer. Each year, out of plains laid down by detritus from eroded mountains, new living things arise. The dust of dead mountains stands up once more, this time as plant-forms of all shapes, sizes and beauties. The animals which eat them are feeding on mountains. Human beings feed their children from the fruits of the land, the grain and the cattle.
By this ingenious total process the Lord God contrives men and women out of mountains. It was only right that at Mount Rushmore, human faces should appear on the stone of a very high cliff. I spoke the truth when I told my little girl that many heads were up there in that rock awaiting the work of the sculptor. A gleam of light can come from a shoulder of stone.
1. Psalm 19:4.
2. Matthew 6:19.
3. Revelation 9:11.
4. Revelation 20:3.
5. 1 Corinthians 15:53-56.
6. Revelation 11:7.