On February 20, 1883, the New York Times ran a quirky, little page 3 story about a Mrs. Mary McMullen, residing at 2nd Avenue and 34th Street, who complained to the Board of Health about “an intolerable stench” in her neighborhood.
Having grown up on a farm, I know a thing or two about intolerable stenches. More recently, I lived in a town with an industrial complex that was known to emit a few intolerable stenches of its own.
But Mrs. McMullen’s story takes place in 1883 in New York City. In the 30 years previous, the population had more than tripled—from 590,000 in 1850 to 1,919,000 in 1880. Horse-drawn streetcars were just being replaced by steam-powered cable cars because of “concerns about health and sanitation.” And most importantly, the public sewer system wasn’t complete until 1902.
Given all these possible contributing factors to the stench, where did Mrs. McMullen attribute blame? She said it “arose from two wild fowls, which had been suspended since Christmas from a tree in the yard of an adjoining house occupied by a butcher,” the article said.
As a result, Policeman Van Zandt, of the sanitary guard, was dispatched. Upon his investigation, he returned to the precinct and filed this report: “I have examined the within named premises, and found two guinea fowls, stuffed with sawdust, hanging on a Christmas tree as signs.”
Having never seen a guinea fowl stuffed with sawdust myself, I wasn’t initially clear what made this article so newsworthy. Then, I reread the headline: “Power of the Imagination.” The only way the butcher’s decorative–but preserved–game birds could cause such a stench was in the overactive imagination of one Mrs. McMullen.
The Power Of The Imagination
What would life be if we didn’t have our imaginations to guide us when we’re wandering or comfort us when we’re suffering? When we talk about “using our imagination,” we often think of our childhood selves, bored or lonely and conjuring playmates from stuffed animals and creating adventures from sticks and bedsheets. When I was little, my brother and I imagined a whole neighborhood out of the briar bramble in the woods behind our house.
But imaginations aren’t just for kids, and they aren’t just for escaping the unbearable. They’re also the way we make sense of life and come to understand its purpose. Using our imaginations helps us achieve our dreams and empathize with others. Maybe most importantly, our imaginations help us know God and have a relationship with him.
In the book of Job, after 37 chapters where Job and his friends try to understand what God is like and why he allowed such terrible things to happen to Job, God himself speaks “out of the whirlwind.” But instead of a theological treatise, God asks Job to use his imagination, imagination rooted in the wonder and majesty of creation. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” God says.
In other words, when God wants Job to imagine what God himself is like, he points to nature.
- “Who enclosed the sea with doors when it went out from the womb, bursting forth?” – Job 38:8 (NASB)
- “Have you entered the storehouses of the snow, and have you seen the storehouses of the hail, which I have reserved for a time of distress, for a day of war and battle?” – Job 38:22-23 (NASB)
- “Can you tie up the chains of the Pleiades, or untie the cords of Orion?” – Job 38:31 (NASB)
- “Who prepares feed for the raven when its young cry to God, and wander about without food?” – Job 38:41 (NASB)
On and on God goes, explaining wind and rain, mountain goats and wild oxen. But not just the parts of nature we can observe and understand. God also talks about the mighty beast, Behemoth, “the first of the ways of God,” and the sea creature, Leviathan, “king over all the sons of pride.” “I made [them] as well as you,” God says.
God’s Revelation of Himself
But what is God telling us about himself through Creation that we couldn’t understand through commandments or teachings? God is presenting Job with “a world of primal energy, independent of human beings, and a world which includes many things we might experience as terrifying: antelopes that are run down and eaten by lions but that do not see themselves as victims; a horse that exults because of the fierceness of battle; rain that falls where it does no good and water that takes on any number of forms, including forms like ice and hail that can wreak havoc on the human world. And that’s just the beginning, since the ‘good’ creation also includes Behemoth and Leviathan, forces of such chaos only God can hold them at bay,” writes Robert Cording, in his essay “Mystery” (Image Journal, Issue 75).
And how does Job respond? With humility. “I have declared that which I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I do not know,” he says. “I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear; but now my eye sees You.”
Of course this whole time all that Job’s been doing is listening, literally hearing from God. But by pointing to nature, by conjuring these “images so intense, Job, as he says, doesn’t hear but sees,” God has invited Job to a different way of seeing; a deeper way. He wants Job to use his mind’s eye, his imagination, to understand that God is bigger and more powerful—and more merciful—than Job could ever know or understand by words alone.
If nature enlarges our imagination and helps us truly see God, what happens when we lose our connection to nature?
In his recent essay, “This Is No Way to Be Human” (The Atlantic, January 2022, online), Alan Lightman explores the consequences of the nearly natureless world many of us now occupy. He documents the increased stress of living without access to nature, the psychological damage to our young people caused by excessive screen time, and the increased mental illnesses and depression of children deprived of nature. He also talks about a recent study that “found that increases in screen time that exceeded one hour a day were accompanied by less and less psychological well-being, including less curiosity, lower self-control, more distractibility, more difficulty making friends, less emotional stability, and less ability to finish tasks.”
But the greater loss, according to Lightman, is that being removed from nature strips us of transcendence, it leaves us unmoored and disconnected, and it renders us unable to imagine our place in the intricate, created order of the world.
“I think we have lost something else in our removal from nature, something more subtle and harder to measure: a groundedness, a feeling of connection to things larger than ourselves, a calm against the frenzied pace of our wired world, a source of creativity, and the wholeness I felt in my eye-to-eye communion with the ospreys,” Lightman says.
When we spend time in nature, we “feel that unnameable thing,” he explains. “Somehow, we are reconnecting with our ancestral selves and the long chain of lives stretching back to primeval oceans and unblemished land.” It’s the same thing Job felt sitting within the whirlwind. It was imagination, but it was also a reconnection with the natural world he lived in.
But when we spend more time in front of screens than looking at trees and birds, clouds and oceans, we lose our own access to these unnameable things. We lose our ability to see. And “the tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. Some see Nature all ridicule and deformity… and some scarce see Nature at all,” writes the English poet William Blake. “But to the eyes of the man of imagination, Nature is imagination itself” (from a letter Blake wrote to Reverend John Trusler in the summer of 1799, included in The Portable William Blake quoted in The Marginalian on July 14, 2016).
God Living in His Word
Of course we don’t know God only through nature or our imagination. We come to know God through his Word, too. In Psalm 119, the psalmist goes to great length to extol the many benefits of knowing Scripture.
How I love Your Law!
It is my meditation all the day.
Your commandments make me wiser than my enemies,
For they are ever mine.
I have more insight than all my teachers,
For Your testimonies are my meditation.
I understand more than those who are old,
Because I have complied with Your precepts.
I have restrained my feet from every evil way,
So that I may keep Your word.
I have not turned aside from Your judgments,
For You Yourself have taught me.
How sweet are Your words to my taste!
Yes, sweeter than honey to my mouth!
From Your precepts I get understanding;
Therefore I hate every false way.
(Psalm 119:97-104, NASB)
Earlier in the psalter, though, David walks a careful line between knowing God through his word and knowing God through his creation. “The heavens tell of the glory of God, and their expanse declares the work of His hands,” David writes in Psalm 19:1 (NASB). Just as “The Law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul” (Psalm 19:7, NASB). It’s both.
But nature and Scripture are not just two sides of the same coin. If God’s answer to Job has anything at all to say to us, it’s that God’s written Word becomes a richer revelation to us when we also spend time walking through glowing meadows, letting the rain run down our faces, and feeling the brief coolness when the clouds pass in front of the sun. Only when we’re no longer content with the “hearing of the ear” can we allow our eyes—and especially our mind’s eye—to truly see God.
“Our imagination is stretched to the utmost by the task of comprehending the strangeness of the world as it is,” Cording writes (“The Otherworldliness of Elizabeth Bishop” in Finding the World’s Fullness: On Poetry, Metaphor, and Mystery, 2019, Slant). Nature connects us to that strangeness, where, like Mrs. Mary McMullen, we point to stuffed guinea fowl when we smell the stench of sewage. Where, like Job, we wonder what it’s like to bind the chains of Pleiades (Job 38:31) or tame the mighty Leviathan (Job 41:1). Where we look into the whirlwind and hope to see God.
That’s the true power of imagination.
Photo by Charity Singleton Cr