I learned what Mountain Dew was before I learned what actual dew was. I remember I was a child on my way to some outdoor birthday party, early in the morning, with my friend and his dad. I was probably five or six years old. Even though the party was perhaps just fifteen minutes away, it felt like it was on the other side of the country because I was so young—an immeasurable, scarcely comprehensible distance. The birthday party was to be some kind of nature hike, and the fact that it would take place in the woods made it feel even more like we were traveling to the ends of the earth. Anyway, we stopped at a 7-11. We were allowed to choose a drink from the wall-to-wall refrigerators. At the age of five, opening one of these massive fridges and seeing dozens of brightly-colored sodas felt like breaking the lock on a treasure chest discovered by pirates at the bottom of the ocean and seeing gleaming gold and sparkling jewels inside. My friend reached immediately for the glimmering lime-green Mountain Dew bottle. “What’s that?” I asked. “It’s Mountain Dew,” he answered.
Even at that young, that all-too-young, age, the marketing strategy of Mountain Dew worked its magic on me, utterly seduced me. It seemed the perfect drink to take with me on our journey. Something about the two words “Mountain” and “Dew” evoked a suitability for trekking through the unknown wilderness. And the pale green color of the drink somehow corresponded to the hazy, damp, and yet crisp atmosphere which only can be felt in the morning. Indeed, I unconsciously recognized that if the early morning hours could be defined by a color, it would be the same green-grey as the Mountain Dew liquid, albeit less fluorescent.
If someone had asked me at that moment what “dew” is, however, I would have been confounded to give an answer. Still, I think somehow I sensed intuitively what “dew” was. I wouldn’t have been able to give a dictionary definition of it—the moisture which has descended on the grass overnight. But I would have been able to recognize within this word that evanescent, evasive temperament peculiar to a strictly defined block of time in the morning hours when, indeed, the grass is mysteriously damp. In short, I might not have known what “dew” was per se, but I knew what dewy was. And the above long-winded, convoluted attempt to describe what, atmospherically, the early morning hours feel like, could really have been achieved with just one word—dewy. They feel dewy. We need only say, the weather was dewy, and everyone immediately knows what that feels like, even those young children who would have an immediate answer when asked what Mountain Dew is but would scratch their heads when asked what simple “dew” is.
On one hand, this story feels endearing, charming even. But on the other hand, it is rather disturbing. Because the truth is that Mountain Dew has very little in common with mountain dew, that is, with the dew of the mountains. The former is artificially constructed, first in a lab, and then in a factory. The latter is quite literally a product of nature. The former is hazardous to health, the latter is salubrious. The former makes you fat and lazy, the latter keeps you fit and invigorated. The former was invented in Tennessee in 1940, the latter was invented at the beginning of time.
In 1935, Walter Benjamin published his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” In this essay, Benjamin argued that our perception of artwork had changed due to the ability to mass produce images. Before technology enabled mass production, art could only be viewed in its original form. To see Leonardo da Vinci’s painting The Last Supper, one needed to quite literally travel to Milan, step inside the Santa Maria delle Grazie, and find the mural on the wall. In Benjamin’s 1935, however, one could simply walk to the street corner and purchase a book, or even a poster, and have The Last Supper available for viewing right in one’s home. According to Benjamin, this proliferation of copies of original artworks caused the aura behind the artwork to wither. The mystery, sacredness, and purity of the original was corrupted by the millions of clones it had given birth to. For Benjamin, both the copies and the original sacrificed the aura which had once enshrined authentic originals.
Today, and likely in Benjamin’s time as well, it seems as though a similar dynamic is going on between us and nature. We aren’t exactly giving up on nature. Somewhere deep inside of us we still long to be out in the morning frolicking amidst the dew of the mountain. Instead, though, we are finding crass replacements for this lust. And advertisers have, of course, long since picked up on this. Browse through the products of the modern supermarket; romanticized imagery of nature, of the farm, and of the countryside simply abound. A carton of eggs will display a sun rising over a quaint red barn where joyous cows moo on and sprightly chickens spread their wings. Buy the eggs and get your fill of farm life for that morning. There is no need to actually hear the crowing of the cock; this little picturesque cartoon has already done that for you. Never mind that the actual “farm” where these chickens have lain their eggs has really occurred in a merciless, industrialized, sunless factory. When one has the urge to sit amidst the eternally unfolding verdancy of nature, one need not brave one’s way into the woodlands. Instead, a paper box of Yogi green tea may already satisfy this urge. The entire box will be the color of forest green, and the wisp of steam emerging from the cup, itself surrounded by a cohort of herbs and willows and leaves, will lure you into this ersatz world.
The philosopher Martin Heidegger also adopted a corrupted “version” of nature for himself. Heidegger, who published his landmark philosophical work Being and Time in 1927, was aghast at the mass production and industrialization occurring all over the world and all over Germany. He became an avid supporter of the Nazi party, describing the Führer in messianic language; he saw in the Nazis folk values—a party which would restore Germany’s connection to farm and soil. Yet, Heidegger’s embrace of nature was cheap and artificial. First, it goes without saying that the ideology of the Nazis was so crude, hateful, and simply based on lies, that anyone who attempts to connect to nature through the prism of the Swastika was deluded at best, satanic at worst. Second, the Nazis were masters of propaganda, and this deceit extended to their depiction of what German folklife looked like as well—the German images of the farmer, the worker, and the countryside were just as seductive and ultimately fraudulent as are today’s cartoons on bacon packages. Heidegger fell for it. And third, the way in which Heidegger sought to incorporate nature into his own life was about as ridiculous as drinking mountain dew to feel like one is in the mountains. Heidegger, for example, came to his lectures at the University of Freiburg wearing the outfit of a stereotypical German peasant.
To be sure, as the Torah has shown, there is no going back to the Garden of Eden. It is far better to have a few houseplants in your office than nothing at all. But we should not see those potted plants and believe we have somehow made it to the rainforest. (And you definitely shouldn’t chew rainforest mint gum and think you’re in the rainforest.) Indeed, much of nature cannot be imitated, cannot be faked, and must therefore be authentically experienced to receive its benefits. Nowhere is this more true than with dew. One verse from the haftarah to the parsha of Balak may demonstrate this phenomenon. In the Book of Micah, chapter five, the prophet of the late eight and early seventh century B.C.E., describes Israel in the language of dew. Through the metaphor of dew, Micah describes that small cohort of Jews who continued to follow the laws of the Torah even when they were surrounded by pagan practices. He says: “And the piece of Jacob shall be found amidst the torrents of peoples, like the dew from Ha-Shem, like the droplets of rain which fall upon the grass, which is not looked for, which is not awaited.”
Dew is authentic—it cannot be imitated, cannot be replaced, and always speaks the Truth. Moreover, according to Micah, dew is also reliable, under-appreciated, and most of all, surreptitious. It is reliable in that, as we all know, it is always there and will always be there, even if it gets forgotten and swept up amidst the more noisy characters of Mother Earth’s green world. But the dew is also under-appreciated. No one ever gazes out the window and says, “it looks like it’s going to dew.” The weatherman does not report on dew levels. Dew, then, is one of the most distinctive features of the natural world and yet, ironically, one of the least noticed. Finally, it is surreptitious, mysterious even. Each morning it comes unannounced and takes its leave just as unassumingly. Heidegger could romp around his lecture hall in peasants’ garb or hike around the Black Forest and claim that he was getting back in touch with nature, specifically with German nature. But was Heidegger aware of the dew? Did he hear the dew softly whispering to him in the morning or was this rustling drowned out by the noises of nature’s more brazen side—the birds, the sun, the mountains, the Wagner aria. It seems he might have missed it, just as so many of Micah’s contemporaries failed to hear his dewy prophecy.
Indeed, even linguistically, the word “dew” has shown its stealth. It sounds nearly identical in English, German, and Hebrew—Dew, Tau, and Tal, respectively. I would surmise that this similarity is not a coincidence. Dew is such an infrequently used word that its purity has been protected from the tumult which language undergoes over time. No one is saying dew, so no one is changing dew. In a fascinating irony, it is the very pervasiveness and steadiness of dew which has also rendered it so secretive and furtive. It is a secret exactly because it is not a secret at all. And to access nature when she is gossamer and yet also everyday, one cannot simply lay claim to her, as did Mountain Dew, and egg cartoners, and the Nazis, and Heidegger. Instead, one needs to attune oneself to her—to wake up with her and go to bed with her. To experience dew, there can be no substitute. One needs to wake up and go outside while the dew is still simmering on the grass.
Nature cannot be faked or procured because we ourselves are part of nature. Each one of us has our own circadian clock. The word “circadian” comes from Latin, in which circa means “about” or “around” and “dian” means “day.” The circadian clocks within us intuitively know what time of day it is, even if we are in a dark room at high noon or if we are working under fluorescent lights when the clock strikes midnight. One of the best things we can do for our health is to bow down before our own circadian timekeepers. That means: consuming the majority of calories early in the day, when the body is eager to digest food it needs for energy; getting ample sunlight during the day, which our skin absorbs with the same urgency as leaves soak up sunrays; and also, ensuring that the bedroom is as dark as possible at bedtime.
Finally, it means that it is not enough for us just to get up with the sun; one must also get up to … the dew.
Discover more by listening to my weekly podcast, The Schrift, on German literature, meditation, Torah, and cultural critique, available on Apple Podcasts and Spotify and on my website, steventobyweinberg.com