Vol. XXVIII No. 10 — October 1950

“A Survey of Nature”

In the rituals of most Fellowcraft Degrees is the phrase “A survey of nature and the observation of her beautiful proportions first determined man to imitate the divine plan and study symmetry and order.” In the rituals of most Master Mason Degrees is found, under "Beehive,” the phrase "When we take a survey of nature, we view man,” etc.

It would seem, then, that “a survey of nature” is essential if we are to understand fully the meaning of our ritual.

A by-no-means-complete count discloses hundreds of references to matters which pertain wholly to nature, and a secondary class, it which references to nature are poetical or metaphorical. These phrases can roughly be divided as referring to the solar system, the earth, its minerals, its animals and birds, it weather, its waters and that indeterminate puzzle of both the physicists and the philosophers, time.

No two rituals in the United States are exactly the same; therefore some will have references that others have not and vice versa. But most of the following compilations come from the exoteric work as printed in Monitors, and these parts of the ritual show much closer approximation, between jurisdiction and jurisdiction, than does the esoteric work. Therefore, most of these phrases should be in most rituals.

A quick "survey of Nature” by the word of the ritual discloses astronomical references which include:

Starry-decked heavens; north of the ecliptic; great books of nature; glorious works of creation; geometry curiously traces nature; planets move in their different orbits; numberless worlds are around us which roll through the vast expanse; sun or the light or the moon or the stars; heavens shall be no more; highest seraph in heaven; sun, moon, and stars obey; comets.

That man is of the earth, earthy, is attested by phrases of which the following are a few:

high hills; low vales; inhabitants of the same planet; chalk, charcoal and clay; brazen pillars; clay ground; dimensions of the world; minerals; brass; metals; metallic; mother earth; mountains of Zion; North; South; East; West.

Among many the ritual recognizes:

voice of a bird; almond tree; grasshopper a burden; cometh forth as a flower; hope of a tree that it will sprout again; lowest reptile of the dust; wild beasts of the field; vultures of the air; lamb; lion; drone in the hive; hecatomb (a hundred cattle); tender leaves of hope; blossoms and bear his honors; evergreen; ever-living acacia.

Living beings need water; indeed, water is a greater part of the surface of the earth. Among many phrases descriptive to water in one form or another we find:

face of the deep; face of the waters; extent of seas; waters fail from the sea; flood decayeth and drieth up; passage of the Red Sea; by sea on floats to Joppa; tempestuous sea of troubles; a seafaring man; an embargo on shipping; the Anchor and Ark; sea and field lodges and, (anciently) sea lodges; fords of the Jordan; waterfall; waterford.

Light and darkness have their place in our “survey of nature.” “Light” indeed, is one of the great teachings of the fraternity, whether used as a synonym for knowledge or truth or spiritual experience. Light and shadows are in the ritual in the phrases:

Let there be light; valley of the shadow; fleeth also as a shadow; darkness upon the face of the deep; shine as the stars; Great Lights; Lesser Lights.

All men, animals and birds are affected by the weather; some more, some less, but all in some degree. Hence we find that the ritual takes cognizance and speaks of:

vicissitudes and inclemencies of seasons; rigor of seasons; shelter from the inclemency of the weather; return of seasons; scenes which each season displays; inclemencies of the weather; comes a frost; planted trees on end; dew of Hermon; dew that descended upon the mountains; clouds return after the rain; rained not in the day time.

While the rainbow is not specifically mentioned, it is often portrayed in the Tracing Board picture of the Anchor and the Ark, as an additional symbol of Hope and the “bow of promise” is in the "Dew Drop Lecture” (See Short Talk Bulletin for July 1949). Finally come the references to time, the great mystery; we learn of:

dividing our time; level of time; in six days God created; lapse of time; days are determined; number of his months; accomplish his day; youth, manhood and age; space of an hour; next day; fix the duration of time and seasons, years and cycles; evil days come not nor the years draw nigh; sun governs the day; moon rules the night; sun at meridian; sun sets in west; 24-inch gauge; scythe of time; time in the monument.

Whether references to heaven be classified as pertaining to the solar system, or the universe, or to astronomy, the study of nature outside and beyond the earth brings much of information to the Masonic student. Samuel Taylor Coleridge surely wrote Masonically when he sang:

Earth, thou mother of numberless children,
The nurse and the mother;
Sister, thou, of the stars, and beloved of the Sun, the rejoicer;
Guardian and friend of the moon, O, Earth
Whom the comets forget not
Yes, in the measureless distance, wheel round
And again they behold thee.

The rituals “numberless worlds” is purely poetical. The stars are not “worlds” but suns; and these visible to the unaided eye are less than five thousand in number. We can, as yet, only guess that of the uncounted millions of stars seen by telescopes, some must have worlds, just as our sun has nine major planets, of which the earth is one.

The reference to the ecliptic has been a puzzle to many whose schooling did not include astronomy. The ecliptic is the earth’s path around the sun. The "plane of the ecliptic” cuts the earth 23½ degrees north of the equator in midsummer, and the same distance south of it in midwinter. To visualize this, think of a horizontal wagon wheel, on one edge of which is an orange with a knitting needle (for an axis) inclined 23½ degrees to the “plane of the wheel.” The wagon wheel is the plane of the ecliptic; the orange is the earth; the wagon wheel tire is the ecliptic; the hub is the sun. On one side of the wagon wheel the needle is inclined towards the sun; on the other side (representing six months’ travel) the needle is inclined away from the sun.

The reference to comets conceals a date; the ritual speaks of the stupendous revolutions of comets. Had one letter been omitted, making the word evolutions, the date would be lost. In 1577 Tycho Brahe believed the orbit of comets to be circular (about the sun) but his friend and pupil, the great Kepler, for many years believed comets moved in straight lines. It was not until nearly a hundred years after Tycho Brahe, that Johannes Hevelius suggested that comets moved in parabolic orbits.

Whatever the date, the fact that Masonic ritual has “revolutions” and not “evolutions” of comets proves that the reference must have come into Freemasonry subsequent to the late sixteenth century. It is also to be noted that not until 1704 was the successful prediction made of the return of a comet — and to return, a comet must “revolve” (not “evolve”) about the sun.

The history of metalcraft in the world should have a little attention from the Mason, if only that he may understand how ancient was the craft even when Tubal Cain — “first known worker in brass and other metals” first received mention in the Old Testament.

Our ritual refers to charcoal, source of intense heat, to brass and iron, and “metallic substance” but has little or nothing upon gold, silver or bronze, although it seems probably that the brass of Tubal Cain was the bronze we know.

The Psalmist sang of the cattle upon a thousand hills, and Freemasonry makes much of the lamb, the lion, the beasts of the field, the vultures of the air, and, among plants, of trees and the evergreen or acacia. Most of the expressions dealing with life and with the vegetable kingdom are of the poetic, rather than the factual variety; “voice of the bird,” “cometh forth as a flower” are cases in point, as are the “lion of the Tribe of Judah,” the "grasshopper becomes a burden” and the “drone in the hive of industry.”

The life and death of man has so often been compared to the growth and wilting of plants that our use of the poetical expression “he cometh forth as a flower and is cut down,” “there is hope of a tree that it will sprout again,” “tender leaves of hope” is not surprising. Omar, Persian Poet, is famous for many quotable expressions, among which is:

One thing is certain and the rest is lies
The flower that once has blown, forever dies.

But does it? Freemasonry teaches quite another doctrine in its Hiramic Legend and, obliquely, by its adoption of the acacia, which is one of the few woods which will “sprout again” after it is cut down, which was precisely why it became a symbol of immortality long before Freemasonry had a ritual.

These pages have already been devoted to Freemasonry and the Sea (April 1946) and most of the ritual references to water are to the sea. But it seems worthwhile to note Hilda Conklin’s beautiful

The world turns softly
Not to spill its lakes and rivers;
The water is held in its arms
And the sky is held in the water;
What is water, that pours silver, and can hold the sky?

And then refer (with no attempt to settle it) to the question of waterfall and waterford. Each school of thought has its own good reasons why each is correct; the proponents even settle to their own satisfactions whether the forty and two thousand men who fell at the battle between the Ephraimites and the Gileadites were forty, plus two thousand, or forty-two thousand.

What seems more important than these friendly controversies is that Freemasonry has chosen a symbol of water — and both ford and fall refer to water — to couple with the symbol of plenty, which seems to emphasize the vastness of the “extent of seas” and the “tempestuous sea of troubles.”

The symbol is even more extensive, and is one reason for every one of us to make “a survey of nature.” For one peculiar fact about water is among the most — if not actually the most — spectacular testimonies to the reality of a Creative Intelligence.

Practically every other liquid, when congealed from lack of heat, occupies less space than it does when liquid.

Water, when frozen, occupies more space than it does when liquid.

If it were not so, life could not exist. If ice were heavier than water it would sink to the bottom of streams; gradually streams would have frozen solid. There would be no salt in the ocean (carried into it by streams). The ocean would have frozen solid.

The doubter who rules out a Divine Will has a difficult task to explain this!

Of light and of the Lights in Freemasonry it is not necessary to write. But one expression in the ritual, germane here, seems worth comment — “shine as the stars.” It is really the stars, rather than the moon, which “rule the night” — the moon is only half the time visible at night; the stars always (if there are no clouds). Stars have always sung of hope and of that immortality which is one of Masonry’s greatest teachings. And here should be chronicled that almost breathtaking inscription which is upon a plate above the crypt in the observatory at Allegheny, Pennsylvania, in which lie the mortal remains of John Brashear and his wife — the Brashear, who, as astronomer and telescope maker, so well served mankind. The inscription reads: “We have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night” which seems to make Freemasonry’s shining stars the brighter in their teaching.

The weather — that which everyone talks of and no one does anything about (Mark Twain did not say it — it was Charles Dudley Warner in the Harford Courant, 1890) plays its part in the ritual and usually from a discouraged attitude. Vissitudes, inclemencies, rigor, frost, clouds that return after the rain, were the cause of man’s first planting trees on end to make shelter — and thus arose architecture (at least according to the ritual). That there was a lengthy period when no rain fell to interfere with human activities, and the dew of Hermon, are about the only pleasant references unless the “variety of scenes which each season displays” are considered to be happy ones.

Who shall write understandingly of time, the great mystery? Shall we turn to John Quincy Adams, enemy of Freemasonry, who wrote:

Alas, How swift the moments fly
How flash the years along;
Scarce here, yet gone already by,
The burden of a song.

See childhood, youth and manhood pass,
And Age, with furrowed brow
Time was — time shall be -
But where — in Time — is now?

Longfellow puzzled:

The shadow on the dial, the striking of the clock, the running of the sand, day and night, summer and winter, months, years, centuries — these are the measures of time, not time itself.

What is “time itself?”

No man knoweth. From the commonplace, earthy, human, business standpoint, time is the division of a day into twenty-four hours, the year into 365 days. We are born, go to school, grow up, make love, marry, have children, join a lodge, and die by a clock. But what the clock measures no man may define.

It is something which cannot have had a beginning, and therefore can have no end. Without beginning or ending can anything exist? Does time exist, or is it merely a human concept? Time passes for animals and birds and beasts but they know it not; only we know it. Time is not the same on any two places on any meridian of latitude. It is not the same for any two heavenly bodies. It is, as far as we know, unchanging, unchangeable and, together with the other great mystery, space, is apparently unknowable by mortals — save that it exerts an influence on our every act! It passes quickly or slowly according to our feelings, yet unchangingly by the earths revolutions and the clock. It ceases to move for us while we are unconscious; indeed, some philosophers have contended that it is time which stands still and we who move through it. But they do not then answer the question why we cannot go backwards in it!

It seems at least worth a little of our allotted span of time — if, as the ritual and the Great Light both say, the days of man are determined — to muse upon and study this “level of time” which is to be divided with a two foot ruler is provided with a scythe for our demise, and is also the measure by which God created the earth!

Truly, there can be no end to a Masons “Survey of Nature.”

The Masonic Service Association of North America