You know the sound if you’ve heard it once. In spring, in my small-town housing development, the tree-trimmers come around to tidy up the neighborhood, to make sure it keeps that suburban feel, and the tree-chipper gets tuned to its high pitch, then grinds instantaneously down to a lower key as tree branches turn poof to mulch. It is by definition Leo Marx’s “machine in the garden”: that technological dynamo which disrupts the pastoral of our lives and forces us to a deeper complexity. But does it? Wood chipper, chain saw, lawn mower — these are what the suburban landscapes of our lives are built on. Where’s the rub?
In his book Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton wrote a chapter evocatively titled “The Ethics of Elfland,” in which he relates how his philosophy of the real world is best mirrored in the world of classical fairy tales (think Brothers Grimm, Andrew Lang, George MacDonald, or the like). For example, the nature of the world in a fairy tale is magic; for Chesterton, likewise, the real world itself is magic. As he stated, “stories of magic alone can express my sense that life is not only a pleasure but a kind of eccentric privilege.” The world of the fairy tale and our own world are equally inexplicable in terms of why they are there or are the way they are. Both are equally startling and unnecessary, equally wonderful. Reality is a pure gift. The sun and planets and stars all “hang about” in the sky. Does “gravity” make that fact any more inherently explicable since gravity itself just adds one more thing equally inexplicable in its being and nature as the rest? Is the explanation of gravity any less peculiar, or indeed logically any different — on an ontological level — from saying that a magic spell holds them there?