The Power of Paying Attention

Author: Michael Blanding

For nearly 50 years, Chet Raymo walked the same one-mile path between his home in suburban Boston and his office at Stonehill College, where he taught as a professor of physics and astronomy. The path crosses through a prototypically New England landscape of woods and meadows, across a rushing brook and past historic homes built by immigrants who labored in the local shovel works.


Raymo ’58, ’64Ph.D. catalogued nearly every inch of that walk for The Path: A One-Mile Walk Through the Universe, a book he wrote in 2003 that brims with observations large and small — about the lives of the immigrants who built those houses, the granite rocks left behind by glacial drift, the migration patterns of monarch butterflies. Reading it is like walking with a witty companion equipped with a microscope mounted on a telescope, who at any moment might zoom in on the geology of pebbles, or zoom out to contemplate the courses of stars.


“I was trying to show that if you take one mile anywhere, you could unfold the whole history of the universe,” he says now. “In the course of that book, I go from the center of the sun to the distant galaxies to the evolution of life,” he says. “It’s all anywhere.”


Raymo1Photos by Brian Nevins

Raymo is uncharacteristically recumbent today, sprawled out on the couch in the living room of his home in North Easton, Massachusetts. He’s wearing a T-shirt and jeans, with a blanket covering his legs, one of which he recently injured in a fall. The accident forced him and his wife to cancel their annual trip to Ireland, where they’ve been going every year for the past four decades. “We’d be going if it wasn’t for this guy,” he says, nodding down toward his leg. “It’s walking country.”


Even so, his eyes are bright behind his glasses, as he wanders over the years of his career as what he calls a “religious naturalist.” Raymo has spent his life walking the world, taking in every detail from the tiny to the enormous — his legs as important a tool as his eyes in his work. “Nature to me is a book to be read,” he says, paraphrasing Galileo, one of his intellectual heroes.


Raymo has added to nature’s pages with thousands of his own — more than a dozen books of nature writing, astronomy, fiction and memoir — and a weekly science column in The Boston Globe for 20 years. Throughout his work, Raymo’s writing is suffused with wonder about the vastness of the world and an appreciation of the particulars. “Prayer for me is paying attention,” he says. “Paying attention and looking at the world deeply and describing what you see.”


Attentiveness is a quality he takes into our interview this summer morning. As a journalist you get used to the strange transactional nature of the profession, in which you ask the most intimate questions about another person’s life while divulging almost nothing of your own. In fact, once most subjects get over their shyness, they open themselves up to the gift of having an interested stranger allow them to talk about themselves.


Raymo, on the other hand, can’t contain his curiosity, constantly asking me questions about myself — my kids, my beliefs, the book I wrote about maps. At times, it’s a struggle to bring the interview to the subject at hand: him.


I get the sense this is how Raymo approaches every person, every object, that crosses his path, with an intense curiosity to get to the bottom of its place in the universe. “One thing I used to suggest to my students is that everything has a story to tell,” he says. In fact, he used to give his classes an exercise, walking out of the room for 10 minutes while they came up with a topic — any topic — for him to use as the subject of an essay that he would later publish in his column. “Everything has a story to tell,” he repeats. “Every plant, every animal, every star, everything.”


Raymo’s own story begins in Chattanooga, Tennessee, growing up in the Bible Belt of the 1940s, “where every other telephone pole along the two-lane blacktops bore a sign that said, ‘Jesus is Coming Soon,’ or ‘Prepare to Meet Thy Maker,’” as Raymo writes in his most recent, partly autobiographical book, When God is Gone, Everything is Holy: The Making of a Religious Naturalist, published in 2008. “It was a very traditional upbringing in a very traditional place,” he tells me. Being Catholic set Raymo’s family apart from their evangelical neighbors, at least in matters of degree, but Raymo still grew up with one eye on the afterlife, living “in fear I might die with a mortal sin on my soul.”


As a counterbalance to the fire and brimstone, his parents imparted to him just as fervent a devotion to books and ideas. Raymo’s father was a mechanical engineer who filled his son with an early interest in science that was nurtured by the Dominican nuns in his Catholic high school. “But it was in university that I really discovered science and fell in love with it,” he says. He began his studies at Notre Dame in 1954, just as its new president, Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, CSC, was modernizing the curriculum, “and so the science I learned at Notre Dame was the same science that was taught at the University of California at Los Angeles,” where he later earned his master’s degree in physics.


Despite the decidedly secular bent of the science he was learning, Raymo couldn’t help but approach it with an almost religious fervor. “None of the miracles I had been offered in my religious training were as impressively revealing of God’s power as the facts I was learning in science,” Raymo writes in another of his books, 1998’s Skeptics and True Believers: The Exhilarating Connection Between Science and Religion. Take the red knot, he continues, a tiny sandpiper that flies 9,000 miles from the tip of Tierra del Fuego in South America to the far northern islands of Canada each spring to breed and lay its eggs.


In July, adult red knots fly back to Argentina, abandoning their offspring, who follow along in late August. “The young red knots,” Raymo writes, “by the thousands and without adult guides or prior experience, find their way along the ancient migration route,” stopping along the way at specific feeding grounds, and arriving precisely back with their parents a few months later.  “How do they do it?” he writes. “How do the young birds make their way along a route they have never traveled to a destination they have never seen? How do they unerringly navigate the long stretch of their journey over the featureless sea?”


While scientists have come up with various hypotheses on how the birds accomplish this feat — the Earth’s magnetic field, angles of polarized light, instructions embedded into the bird’s DNA — no one knows exactly how they do it. “Medieval theologians are said to have debated how many angels can dance on the head of a pin; in the flight of the red knot we are engaged with a mystery more immediately present but no less marvelous.”


Even as he was delighting in the miracles of science, however, Raymo hadn’t completely given up on the mysteries of religion. Before he graduated from Notre Dame in 1958, his internal pendulum swung back to the faith of his upbringing. “As doubt began to build up almost unconsciously as I was getting deeper and deeper into science,” he tells me, “it brought out this last deep delving into the past to see what was really there.”


He began to read Catholic writers like François Mauriac, Graham Greene and Thomas Merton, and pursued a private asceticism, performing the Stations of the Cross on his knees during the dark hours of the night. “You’d be embarrassed about some of the things I did,” he tells me, “like putting pebbles in my shoes.” He flirted briefly with becoming a Trappist monk or a missionary in Bangladesh or El Salvador. “It was kind of an intellectual dark night,” he says now, “before coming out the other side.”


After a few years, he gave up his religious devotion, partially through the influence of his wife, Maureen, whom he met at Notre Dame and married after graduation. “She’s always been a good skeptic,” he says. Even so, much of his later writings would struggle with trying to negotiate an uneasy truce between science and religion. “Most of my books are exploring the interplay between the traditional, spiritual way of looking at the world and the scientific,” he says, “and trying to find a way of living that would respect my past and the traditions I came out of, and at the same time be completely consistent with the modern, scientific way of knowing.”


By the time he attended graduate school at UCLA in pursuit of his doctorate, he was firmly in the latter camp. Over the door of what was then the physics building at UCLA was a quotation from Michael Faraday, one of the fathers of electromagnetism: “Nothing is too wonderful to be true.” Every day, Raymo would pass beneath that sentiment on his way to studying quantum mechanics. During lunch, he would sit in the botanical gardens with a fellow doctoral student who would wax on the wonders of science. “Sitting among these exotic plants, I got a sense from him of, why do I need to go to church? Here it was, all right here,” Raymo says. “Suddenly all these threads coalesced and came together.”


After earning his doctoral degree, Raymo followed those threads to Massachusetts to take a teaching position at Stonehill, a relatively new college founded in 1948 by the Congregation of Holy Cross, which had founded Notre Dame a century before. It wasn’t the only offer he had, but Raymo was inspired to journey to the land of Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson and other New England transcendentalists who had pioneered an earlier form of religious naturalism.


The Catholic mission of the college also appealed to him, allowing him to be steeped in a familiar religious tradition, even if it was one that he’d ultimately rejected. “Some of my closest friends have been Catholic priests,” he says. “I couldn’t accept their theology, but I always respected where they were coming from, so we got along fine.”


As a researcher, Raymo will be the first to admit he lacked focus. “To be a first-rate physicist, you have to be really narrow and deep, and I was broad and shallow,” he says. “I was interested in too many things to focus on one thing deeply and become really successful.” But he found his calling as a teacher, imbuing his classes with the same reverence for the natural world that had so appealed to him as a student.


And he found another calling relatively late in life, when he learned at age 40 that the editor of the Globe’s science section was looking for new writers. Raymo wrote a few essays for him, which quickly turned into a weekly column that he continued for the next two decades. The rest of the section explicated the latest finds in science; Raymo’s job was to make a bridge between science and the rest of the world. “They were all really trying to make a connection to something else — art, history, music, humor, anything,” he says of his columns. But “once I started writing,” he says, “I couldn’t stop.”


Raymo's agnosticism comes without resignation or disappointment — rather, the fact that there seems to be no end to the mysteries of life seems to be a source of joy and excitement for him.


The column led naturally to books. His first, 365 Starry Nights: An Introduction to Astronomy for Every Night of the Year, published in 1982, was ostensibly a celestial guidebook to the Northern Hemisphere, helping familiarize stargazers with the major constellations throughout the seasons. But then he couldn’t help but work in snatches of myth and history, alongside examples of the universe’s miracles — like the fact that the diameter of the Great Orion Nebula is “more than 20,000 times that of the solar system, and there is enough hydrogen, helium, and other materials in the cloud to form at least 10,000 stars similar to our sun.”


“I’ve always loved the night,” Raymo says. “I don’t think you can look up at the dark night sky and not feel somewhat of a tingle in your spine.” Other books followed, starting with more guides to astronomy and geology, and gradually becoming more philosophical in tone. His writing is dense with allusions to other writers, including scientists like Galileo and mystics like Meister Eckhart and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, along with the New England transcendentalists and the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. But at the same time, his style is straightforward and conversational, like a walk in the woods with a friend.


He followed up his scientific books with several works of historical fiction, including The Dork of Cork, a ribald tale of a dwarf, born in Ireland around the time of World War II, who becomes an amateur astronomer, pining away at the stars along with the neighbor’s daughter. The book was made into a 1995 film starring Matt Dillon and Gabriel Byrne called Frankie Starlight; a poster of it hangs in Raymo’s living room.


Ireland has long been a second home for Raymo and his family. Early in his career at Stonehill, he had the choice to take a semester sabbatical at full salary or a yearlong sabbatical at half-salary, and he chose the latter. That meant he had to find a place where he could live cheaply enough with his four children for a year. Raymo and his wife opened an atlas and picked out the Dingle Peninsula, a rocky outcropping on the west coast of Ireland that offers mountains, beaches and plenty of walks along the cliffs.


He became enamored with the area’s combination of natural beauty and rich human history, walking the peninsula from the tip of Dunmore Head, mainland Ireland’s westernmost point, to the top of mist-shrouded Mount Brandon, one of the country’s loveliest hiking trails. “I can look out my front window and see a medieval castle over there, an Iron Age ring fort over there,” he says. “Up the hill is a megalithic tomb.”


That landscape forms the backdrop of much of his writing, including 1987’s Honey from Stone: A Naturalist’s Search for God, which uses the peninsula as a setting for a prolonged meditation on the spirit contained within the land, wind and stars, and Climbing Brandon: Science and Faith on Ireland’s Holy Mountain, written in 2004, which explores the clash between medieval Christianity and Celtic nature-worship and the eventual fusion that Irish Christians made between them.


Raymo has made his own fusion of science and nature over the years, finally settling on a name for his worldview: “religious naturalism.” Though it’s been a long time since he considered himself a Catholic, he has retained the idea of sacrament, “that things like bread and wine and wax candles were material signs of some spiritual reality,” as Raymo says now from his perch on his North Easton couch. “But only when they were blessed. That is when God somehow intervened in the world and said, Now this” — he picks up the television remote for effect — “is holy. So I brought that with me, I think in the sense that things in the material world were evidence of something wonderful. But everything — not just holy water, but every drop of water — could be magical.”


That sacramental view of the world doesn’t require some kind of specific, divine force to intervene, Raymo continues. In fact, in all of his spiritual writing, the one word that rarely appears in his books or columns is “God” — or as he refers to it rather censoriously in Honey from Stone, “the G-word.”

“You want to call it God, call it God,” he wrote. “Use the G-word if you want. What makes no sense to me is imagining God as person. The sense that there’s something that permeates every jot and tittle of creation, [which] science investigates as well as the mystic — that seems to be almost manifestly true. If you want to give the G-word, go ahead, but a person paying attention to Chet Raymo’s prayer — ‘Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep’ — makes no sense whatsoever.”


In When God is Gone, he expands on that idea, chiding early naturalists for whom every natural phenomenon had the explanation, “God did it,” and instead holding up scientists like Darwin, who offered no explanation behind the science of evolution beyond what he could see with his own eyes. “As for the agency behind the story, he was content to say, ‘I don’t know,’” Raymo writes. “Those three little words — ‘I don’t know’ — may be science’s most important contribution to human civilization. Yes, we have learned an astonishing amount about how the world works, but of equal significance is our growing awareness of how much we don’t know.”


Raymo’s agnosticism comes without resignation or disappointment — rather, the fact that there seems to be no end to the mysteries of life seems to be a source of joy and excitement for him. “My vision is not beatific,” he says, “it’s day by day. I have no interest in the final answer.”


In Honey from Stone, he proposes the image of knowledge as an island in a sea of mystery. As science grows, the island grows, but rather than robbing the world of mystery, it only pushes out further against the infinite sea. “When the island grows, the shoreline where you encounter mystery also grows,” says Raymo. “So the mystery is never depleted.”


Now 81, Raymo seems content with that mystery — or maybe even glad that it exists, affording us ever more opportunities to come into contact with the wonders of the natural world. “I think the search is more interesting than the answer,” he muses. “Or maybe the answer is all around us. It’s already there. Maybe all we have to do is open our eyes and pay attention to it.” He pauses before adding: “I don’t know.”


Michael Blanding is a Boston-based investigative journalist and freelance writer whose work has appeared in WIRED, Slate and The Nation. His latest book, The Map Thief, was a New York Times bestseller in 2014.