The Shepherd’s Trousers

© Ruth Bancewicz

I have heard the naturalist John Muir quoted in the past, but have only recently discovered what a fabulous writer he was.  I am reading a selection of Muir’s writings published by Birlinn. He’s an interesting guy, hugely talented in many areas: helping his father to carve a farm out of the Wisconsin wilderness, creating huge clocks out of wood, teaching himself enough of the high-school curriculum to qualify for university, and studying botany and geology (he never completed his degree) before setting off into the wildest parts of North America. It seems that he abandoned traditional Christian faith largely because, sadly, his exposure was to the rather dour Scottish Presbyterian brand of Christianity, and a religious father who opposed science and failed to encourage his quite exceptional talents. Instead he turned to worship of God through nature.

Muir’s delight in the beauty of nature is infectious, and inspired me to observe and enjoy my surroundings more acutely during my (almost) daily walks on a recent trip to the US. The enthusiasm in his book ‘My first Summer in the Sierra’ actually becomes rather wearing – everything just seems too perfect – but I think that simply reflects his excitement at encountering true wilderness for the first time.

This extended quote about a shepherd exemplifies Muir’s detailed observation and appreciation of nature, but also displays his great sense of humour and interest in (and tolerance of) people. It takes a born naturalist to go to such pains in describing a revolting old pair of trousers – and to even find beauty in them!

Following the sheep he carries a heavy six-shooter swung from his belt on one side and his luncheon on the other. The ancient cloth in which the meat, fresh from the frying pan, is tied serves as a filter through which the clear fat and gravy juices drip down on his right hip and leg in clustering stalactites. This oleaginous formation is soon broken up, however, and diffused and rubbed evenly into his scanty apparel, by sitting down, rolling over, crossing his legs while resting on logs, etc., making shirt and trousers water-tight and shiny. His trousers, in particular, have become so adhesive with the mixed fat and resin that pine-needles, thin flakes and fibres of bark, hair, mica scales and minute grains of quartz, hornblende, etc., feathers, seed wings, moth and butterfly wings, legs and antennae of innumerable insects, or even whole insects such as the small beetles, moths and mosquitoes, with flower petals, pollen dust and indeed bits of all plants, animals and minerals of the region adhere to them and are safely embedded, so that though far from being a naturalist he collects fragmentary specimens of everything and becomes richer than he knows. His specimens are kept passably fresh, too, by the purity of the air and the resiny bituminous beds into which they are pressed. Man is a microcosm, as least our shepherd is, or rather his trousers. These precious overalls are never taken off, and nobody knows how old they are, though one may guess by their thickness and concentric structure. Instead of wearing thin they wear thick, and in their stratification have no small geological significance.

Put that in your Christmas sermon!

A unique rapper

Anyone heard of  Baba Brinkman? He calls himself a ‘rap troubador’ (I expect this title was inspired by his studies in Medieval and Renaissance English Literature). His first project was ‘The Rap Canterbury tales’, and then he tackled ‘The Rap Guide to Evolution‘. There can’t be many rappers out there dealing with scientific subjects so he’s worth a look, and I hope others will follow suit in a similarly creative fashion.

From what I’ve seen on You Tube Baba Brinkman is funny, original, controversial, and thought provoking. Of course I don’t agree with everything he says, but his work has got to be a fun teaching tool for high school teachers! (Although they will no doubt need to avoid the ones with explicit lyrics.)

His latest album ‘The Rap Guide to Human Nature‘ was released last year. I didn’t like it as much the videos I’ve seen of the guide to evolution – it seems to be targeted towards the more inebriated audiences of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, where it  toured last summer… But you should definitely check out his work on evolution which could be a fun starter for a discussion group, though it comes from quite an anti-faith stance. It was developed at the invitation of Mark Pallen, a microbiologist at the University of Birmingham and was funded by the British Council. It includes a good amount of scientific detail, and has been thoroughly vetted for scientific and historical accuracy, so it’s pretty unique. But his interpretation of the science is very reductionist, so it’s a good way to get people thinking about what they really believe about the interface between science and faith.

There’s a great video of Baba Brinkman rapping to a very illustrious audience in front of King’s College, Cambridge, last summer entitled ‘Performance, feedback, revision’.

Beware the Believers…?

I saw this video, ‘Beware the Believers’, long before I started this blog but it came to my notice again recently when I discovered that the voice artist behind the Eminem style rapper was actually Chip Kendall, who will be running our UK schools events next year. It was created by Michael Edmonson as a viral ad for a film that was a bit controversial. Though I wouldn’t recommend the film, this video is hilarious, at least one of the people portrayed in it likes it, and it has provoked a long discussion on YouTube about whose side it’s actually supporting. Anything that makes people think and laugh at the same time has got to be good.

If you can’t understand the lyrics don’t worry, you’re not the only one. Somebody has helpfully transcribed them here.