“The poetry of earth is never dead.”
(John Keats, 1817)
A long time ago, the English poet William Wordsworth wrote, in “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey,” a most able synopsis of the ideal relationship between mankind and the balance of earthly life:
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue. And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man
A motion and a spirit that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods,
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye, and ear, — both what they half create,
And what perceive; well pleased to recognize
In nature and the language of the sense
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my hearth, and soul
Of all my moral being.
One has to wonder, sometimes, what has happened in this, our ‘modern’ era, to Wordsworth’s “joy Of elevated thoughts”? A glance around at each day’s news headlines — at politics both at home and globally, at scientific data and the discussions based thereupon — offers little reassurance that “The anchor . . . of all . . . moral being” still has any root at all “In nature” much less in “the language of the sense.” Today about all that seems to count, at least for our species, is acquisition of money and power.
I’m not at all certain as to just how many different and distinct species inhabit this little backwater planet we call earth, but I’m guessing ‘tens of millions’ would at least reach ballpark status. And in a sensibly run situation, each and all species would most likely remain viable for a good long time, susceptible far more to global changes brought about by astronomical events than to any sort of localized ‘eat or be eaten’ thesis. In fact, one of the more significant mass extinctions happened some 65 million years ago when a sizable asteroid smashed into the earth, tossed all sorts of dust, smoke, and other debris into the atmosphere, modified the climate, and slammed the door on the dinosaurs, among numerous other life forms, in result. Extinction by natural phenomena is nothing new.
Then came humans. Homo sapiens, as we’ve named ourselves. Not sure just when it was that we popped up. Six thousand years ago, if you believe the believers; maybe a million years ago, give or take a hundred thousand or two, if you believe science. Not that it really matters all that much, given that it’s looking pretty certain that we as a species are well past the halfway mark of our existence, given how diligently we work with all our clever tools to modify the global climate sufficiently to force another mass extinction. Lucky for us there’s all that fossilized carbon left beneath the surface by all the life forms that disappeared in the last mass extinction; it appears, in fact, to be more than enough to ‘fuel’ (sotospeak) the next one.
Oh well, what the hey, I’m too old to worry about it all that much; my fate will likely already be a historical footnote by the time the mass die-off commences. Still, there are the young folks, and, well you know, the millions of other species, many of which will be at risk simply because of the idiocy implicit in our one species.
What went wrong?
I checked with poet Walt Whitman; he offered this little bit of wisdom back in 1855 as part of the preface to his masterwork, Leaves of Grass. He speaks my mind, and he somehow managed to do it some 87 years before I even showed up!
I think I could turn and live with animals,
they are so placid and self-contained
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied,
not one is demented with the mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another,
nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,
Not one is respectable or industrious over the whole earth
Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown, or to any man or number of men – go freely with powerful uneducated persons, and with the young, and with the mothers or families – re-examine all you have been told in school or church or in any book, and dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem, and have the richest fluency, not only in its words, but in the silent lines of its lips and face, and between the lashes of your eyes, and in every motion and joint of your body.
Sounds like some of the best advice anyone could ever offer to not only you and me, but also to the entire of our species (even including such sapiens marginals as, say, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, et al. et al. . . . the list is endless). And seriously, just how is it that life-on-earth’s most “intelligent” species is the species engaged in a process previously left solely to galactic processes? What went wrong?
I tried to answer that question a decade or so ago. I used a total of 140 syllables in my so called Paradox of Humakind: Superior Inferiority effort and while I’m not at all sure I overturned every stone in the process, what the heck, right?
Brash vanity ordains that Mankind be
Superior to all other life on Earth,
And curious source of this Mythology
Derives from Bible’s unintended mirth.
Thus bold is he who advocates the case
Of Genesis errant, where metaphor,
As whimsical devise, cannot replace
Realities which each confirm the Core
Of Life: that every living form appeals
To Duty greater than itself alone.
A single moment’s intellect reveals
One Truth, as if inscribed in tempered stone:
Each bird and beast, each flowered weed, each tree
Expounds on Man’s Inferiority!
So today, thanks to human consumption of fossil fuels and with climate change well underway courtesy of atmospheric CO2 levels approaching historic levels — with the Arctic ice cap rapidly melting and thereby allowing the release of the even more climate-altering (permafrost-embedded) methane, and with efforts on the part of science and thinking people to do whatever is necessary to halt and reverse the process dismissed as some sort of collaborative tom-foolery by industrial and political power centers — we have managed to contrive a potential mass extinction episode with the potential equivalence of the asteroid collision some 65 million years ago. Bring on the Keystone XL Pipeline! More War! Invade Syria! Nuke Iran! Yeah! Benghazi Benghazi!!
So. Where is the sapiens these days, the intellect, the intelligence? What of “The anchor . . . of all . . . moral being”? Wordsworth drew that concept as he apparently pondered the messages he gained from his juxtaposition between the natural world and the world of Tintern Abbey in Wales, an ancient church founded in 1131 by Cistercian Monks who adhered to the Benedictine philosophy that insisted upon a moderate path between individual and institutionalized theses. Tintern Abbey stands in ruins today, as it has for several centuries. One cannot help but wonder if the words “in ruins” are not also applicable these days to most ‘Western’ religious practice, given that today’s major and most murderous conflicts are, after all, between the three major “God” -based belief systems of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. And so the question persists: wherein and in whose hands lies the fate of the human species, indeed of the planet itself?
Brings to mind yet one more piece of compelling poetry, this one written by Philip Appleman sometime in the latter half of the twentieth century. It’s titled Last-Minute Message for a Time Capsule, and its message carries an all too familiar ring of truth.
I have to tell you this, whoever you are
that on one summer morning here, the ocean
pounded in on tumbledown breakers,
a south wind, bustling along the shore,
whipped the froth into little rainbows,
and a reckless gull swept down the beach
as if to fly were everything it needed.
I thought of your hovering saucers,
looking for clues, and I wanted to write this down,
so it wouldn’t be lost forever -
that once upon a time we had
meadows here, and astonishing things,
swans and frogs and luna moths
and blue skies that could stagger your heart.
We could have had them still,
and welcomed you to earth, but
we also had the righteous ones
who worshipped the True Faith, and Holy War.
When you go home to your shining galaxy,
say that what you learned
from this dead and barren place is
to beware the righteous ones.
Are we genuinely the ‘masters’ of our own fate? Of the fate of the planet’s biosphere? Based on current information, we may well prove to NOT be that much better an option than another collision with a giant asteroid! Here’s a better idea: “re-examine all you have been told in school or church or in any book, and dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem . . .” Thanks Walt. If we can get THAT done it will be further evidence that Keats might have been correct after all when he wrote, “The poetry of earth is never dead.”