Back when earth was “the great neighborhood of Creation,” Adam and Eve had it easy, thinking and acting locally, answers to every need close at hand. Then they had children who grew up to be Copernicus, Adam Smith, Tom Friedman ….
Now our speck of a world is flat, hot and crowded. Poverty and cruelty threaten every celebrated spike of prosperity. Global “solutions” extinguish entire species – local economies, human cultures and ways of life, included.
What to do? Well, cup a hand to your ear and listen for the un-amplified voices of children who grew up to be poets and artists, celebrants of life’s small parts, of things specific and local, of miracles underfoot … Of the heartbeat, as Wendell Berry says, that is the rush of the future into the past, which is where we live.
“The hours fresh and tidal are the hours I want to hold,” Mary Oliver wrote in The Return.
When I went back to the sea
it wasn’t waiting.
Neither had it gone away.
All its musics were safe and sound; the circling gulls
were still a commonplace, the fluted shells
rolled on the shore
more beautiful than money –
oh yes, more beautiful than money!
Consider A Measuring Worm, by Richard Wilbur, at once simple and elusive, like the disappearing vapor of a dream but real. You cannot help but go back to it:
This yellow striped green
Caterpillar, climbing up
The steep window screen,
Constantly (for lack
Of a full set of legs) keeps
Humping up his back.
It’s as if he sent
By a sort of semaphore
Dark omegas meant
To warn of Last Things.
Although he doesn’t know it,
He will soon have wings,
And I, too, don’t know
Toward what undreamt condition
Inch by inch I go.
Easy words, simple lines, and yet with the reading something unnamed but known arrives, some pure truth. It catches our breath. Compels an ecstatic moment of wonder. We understand what Seamus Heaney means when he speaks of “awakened language” … Of poetry as “a glimpsed alternative, a revelation of potential that is denied or constantly threatened by circumstances.”
And I might add, essential to humanity in a harsh world. True, art often appears as pearls before swine and is received as mere sentiment. I heard on a CBS Sunday Morning report that Oscar Hammerstein was derided for his lyric, “We have to be taught to hate and fear.” Hammerstein achieved acclaim, of course, but that experience is a clue to why few poets break into popular culture (nod of gratitude and admiration for Billy Collins), even though the world is starved for the alternative they present.
Interestingly, the Garden of Eden anchors (poetically) the bestselling book of all time. God gets the planting done in the first few hundred words. But inexplicably, many readers, including me, absorbed the Garden story without making a connection to earth itself, Our Earth. When we do recognize the obvious – earth as the garden story locale – it’s a eureka moment. We’re like the caveman who noticed the sun moving his shadow and ran to tell others he just discovered how to tell time.
Viewed as Earth, the Garden of Eden becomes if not a fact, a truth familiar to human experience, akin to the pure potential we see in every child and newborn creature, every fresh shoot in soil or crevice. And in that rediscovery is the call back to stewardship and loving care. It’s worth noting in this context that the earth knows what local stuff we’re made of, and reserves a place for each of us. Get back? Count on it.
A poet’s voice, of course, is not always quietly evocative. Sometimes it is thunderously so. One would be hard-pressed to say that poets who endured the consequences of conscientious objection during WWII were naïve sentimentalists. Robert Lowell and William Stafford come to mind.
Poets and other artists are often the only Elijahs out there confronting kings and Jezebels. One is Wendell Berry of Kentucky, the farmer-poet. He is armor-piercing in his declaration that corporate agriculture has “estranged us from the native wealth, health, knowledge and pleasure” of the land and made us “outcasts from the great neighborhood of Creation.”
Berry’s book of essays, The Art of the Commonplace, is matchless in fieldwork, science, philosophy and theology, and in poignant realism. Only a politician or a CEO could gather the money, resources and hired-hands to mount an argument against Berry’s premise that by driving people off the land and farming with corporate mindsets, we have sinned against future generations and sinned against God, i.e. failed to exercise stewardship over The Gift of Good Land we share with all living things.
Feed the world, yes, Berry says, but do it locally, and why not? Is local knowledge of soil and climate irrelevant? The earth is quite capable of sustaining its human communities with local resources. Why doesn’t that happen anymore? Are local economies truly no longer possible? Or have our profit-driven imaginations simply lost their philosophical and theological bearings?
“Global thinking,” Berry says, “can only do to the globe what a space satellite does to it: reduce it, make a bauble of it.”
His note of hope is couched as prophecy: “To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of Creation. When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, destructively, it is a desecration. In such desecration we condemn ourselves to spiritual and moral loneliness, and others to want.”
In his poems, too, Berry gets to the point, from specific, local frames of reference, as in this excerpt from The Sabbath Poems, 1979-1997:
Even while I dreamed I prayed that what I saw was only fear
and no foretelling,
for I saw the last known landscape destroyed for the sake
of the objective, the soil bulldozed, the rock blasted.
Those who had wanted to go home would never get there
And so it goes, poets striving to keep us vigilant, thankful, kind and strong … And close to home:
William Stafford awakening us to the irony of a nuclear-armed submarine named Corpus Christi … Jane Kenyon, dying of leukemia and leaving us the heart-rending hope of Otherwise … Robert Hedin’s Old Liberators at the mall, “dozing off in the little orchards of shade under the distant skylights” …Sharon Olds musing about prepositions, death, sex, her body, but always in “a place in the universe, meaningless but a place, an exact location” … On and on. You have your own examples, more than you think, I imagine.
I have the highest regard for Tom Friedman, an opinion writer who (to borrow again from Berry) gets “out of his car and off his horse” to experience and report first-hand on the world he seeks to explain … And also for serious researchers like Richard Florida, who dug deep to document why the world is not flat but spiky with inequity. Fascinating stuff.
But for a brush with the eternal? I turn to the tidal pool and the measuring worm … the thin, thumbed pages of my father’s letters … A pale moon in blue sky … Our house. My wife stirring in the kitchen, fresh flowers on the sill.