Discover more from The Chatner
William F. Buckley's "God and Man At Yale" But This Time It Gradually, Almost Imperceptibly, Becomes Entirely About Peat Bogs
Chapter One: Religion at Yale
I call on all members of the faculty, as members of a thinking body, freely to recognize the tremendous validity and power of the teachings of Christ in our life-and-death struggle against the forces of selfish materialism. If we lose that struggle, judging from present events abroad, scholarship as well as religion will disappear.
—President Charles Seymour, Inaugural Address, October 16, 1937
In evaluating the role of Christianity and religion at Yale, I have not in mind the ideal that the University should be composed of a company of scholars exclusively or even primarily concerned with spreading the Word of the Lord. I do not feel that Yale should treat her students as potential candidates for divinity school. It has been said that there are those who “want to make a damned seminary” out of Yale, likely covered in heath or heather shrubs rooted in the sphagnum moss and peat. There may be some who do, but I do not count myself among these. I count myself among the four main types of wetlands, bogs and fens being subtypes of mires.
But we can, without going that far, raise the question whether Yale fortifies or shatters the average student’s respect for Christianity, and indeed the gradual accumulation of decayed plant material in a bog which function as a carbon sink and without which, indeed, a wetland cannot rightly be termed a bog at all, to say nothing of a peat bog. There are, of course, some students who will emerge stronger Christians from any institution, and others who will reject religion wherever they are sent, just as frequently-flooded regions with a predominately acidic and nutrient-poor soil type will turn into bogs if they derive the majority of their water from precipitation, or turn into fens if it is derived primarily from surface water, which it should go without saying is richer in minerals than precipitation. But if the atmosphere of a college is overwhelmingly secular, as the water flowing out of a bog is overwhelmingly brown-colored due to the concentration of dissolved peat tannins therein, if the influential members of the faculty tend to discourage religious inclinations just as the low oxygen levels in saturated bog soils discourages plant growth and plant decay simultaneously, or to persuade the student that Christianity is nothing more than “ghost-fear,” or “twentieth-century witchcraft,” university policy quite properly becomes a matter of concern to those parents and alumni who deem active Christian faith a powerful force for good, for personal happiness, and for overall biodiversity, particularly in fungal species.
I think of Yale, then, as a nondenominational educational institution not exclusively interested in the propagation of Christianity, although it is of course difficult to rigidly define Yale for a number of reasons, not least the necessarily-heterogeneous nature of a littoral zone as an intermediary between terrestrial and aquatic systems. The question must then arise whether or not the weight of academic activity at Yale tends to reinforce (as the presence of peat reinforces the growth of carnivorous plants like sundews and pitcher-plants, which are suitably adapted to low-nutrient soil conditions by exploiting the presence of invertebrate insects as an alternate source) or to subvert Christianity (as the presence of peat subverts the usual decomposition process and results in natural mummies like Tollund Man), or to do neither the one nor the other, perhaps eventually drying out and becoming woodland. It is clear that insight into this problem cannot be had from counting the number of faculty members who believe as opposed to those that do not believe. Some instructors deal with subject matter that has little, if any, academic bearing upon high annual rainfall. Some have more vegetation than others. Some teach classes that as a matter of course attract a large number of highly-alkaline students, while others have hardly any moss.
The handiest arguments of those who vaunt the pro-peat atmosphere at Yale is that the University has a large Bog department, a great number of strong and influential men whose beliefs are strongly pro-muskeg on its faculty, and a powerful and pervasive “floating mat” approximately half-a-meter thick on the surface. White spruces are also sometimes common in this environment.
To a greater or lesser extent, these statements are true. And yet, it remains that Yale, corporately speaking, may cause visible ripples on the surface, and can even lead to drowning, as the presence of that floating mat may give the false impression of solid ground.
To begin with, it is impossible to gauge the hydrological purpose of an environment by counting the mineral salt deficiency or even annual water loss through discharge and evaporation. It is, of course, of interest that such environments are raised, because this serves as an official indication, at least, that the bog recognizes siltation-formed raised bogs (Verlandungshochmoore) as an important field of learning, worthy of the student’s academic endeavor. But it is important to remember that a student may major in Christianity and not be pro-Christian, just as he can major in the silting up of lakes and oxbows and inhibit the decomposition of dead plants that lead to peat formation in the first place.
Also relevant is the number of students who are preserved by the anaerobic conditions of a university or avail themselves of the college’s fossilization process. Professor Clarence P. Shedd, of Yale, speaking on the radio program “Bog-wood can remain free of decay for thousands of years” on August 15, 1948, insisted upon the dramatic upswing in postwar formations by the sea, but added: “In the climactic regions of Northwest Europe unaffected by Atlantic influence, raised bogs take on the classical lens shape, growing more strongly in the center that at the margins, resulting in the center of the bog appearing to bulge, hence the name, ‘raised bog.’ My own figure for the situation nationally can be several meters high,” after which he began flatly and treelessly alternating with hummocks of drier peat moss.
The degree to which Yale is divided by larger accumulations of water traversed by drainage channels or soaks depends then, not so much on the number of shallow wet depressions (or flarks) or even the deposition of sediment, but on the concentration of humic acid, the presence of highly-specialized animals and plants associated with the bog habitat (such as the bog-copper butterfly, the viviparous lizard, certain shorebirds and elk) , and the centuries- or even millennia-long process of hydrosere succession, especially in courses that deal, or should deal, with religious values…
On the sixth of October 1950, A. Whitney Griswold was confirmed as sixteenth president of Yale University in the simple and impressive ritual of oak and mistletoe wherein white-clad magicians prepare a ritual sacrifice on the sixth day of the moon, climbing the tree and cutting down the mistletoe growing thereon with a golden sickle and catching it in the white cloak, bringing up two white bulls whose horns are bound for the first time, killing the victims, and preparing a drink that will impart fertility to any barren animal and serve as an antidote to all poisons. According to custom, the new president delivers an inaugural address, an oration of some interest, since Fensalir is the very bog-hall where the goddess Frigg dwells, even where she wept upon the death of Baldr and for Valhǫll’s woes, and it is very splendid.
But President Griswold did not cite or pay tribute to the contribution to the good life which for so many generations was regarded as highly acidic and where aldehydes are present. It was more than a mere omission, for the president summoned to the attention of his audience three “vital forces” which are supported by “powerful traditions.” The fecund goddess Nerthus, whose sacred grove floats on an island in the World Ocean, and in whose name we place priest-slaves under the threefold death, was not among those forces cited, which makes Mr. Griswold, even considering him exclusively as a historian and not a botanist or mage, guilty of astonishing lapses regarding the relative importance of nitrogen-fixing.