One of my favorite lines in Laudato Si (the sprawling new papal encyclical about the theology of environmental stewardship, which you should read even if you, like me, are not Catholic) says, “The entire material universe speaks of God’s love, his boundless affection for us. Soil, water, mountains: everything is, as it were, a caress of God.”
Even for the ardent atheist who would never call it “a caress of God,” the sublime and transcendent qualities of nature are hard to ignore. Something about the natural world has a universal appeal for mankind. We’re captivated by the plants, animals, and landscapes around us, in spite (or perhaps because) of their wild and undomesticated qualities. Sometimes we’re drawn in most by the dangerous, chaotic and uncontrollable parts of nature. It’s why we love looking at tigers and gorillas in cages and constantly push the limits of what we can do on mountains, lakes, rivers and oceans without getting killed.
The tension between wild and domesticated nature, between chaos and order, goes back as far as Eden. As one character in A Little Chaos points out, God created us to be gardeners, but after the fall most of us have forgotten how to do that well. Now our “gardening” of nature looks more like exploitation, and as a result the glory of Eden grows ever more dim.
Set in Paris, 1682, A Little Chaos tells a fictionalized story of King Louis XIV’s own attempt to exploit nature for his kingly glory and amusement. Enjoyably portrayed by Alan Rickman (who also directed the movie), Louis is building the Palace of Versailles and its expansive gardens, which he regularly speaks of in religious terms (“heaven shall be ...1