Confessions on Earth Day, Part II

05/01/2015 05:22 pm ET | Updated Jun 23, 2015

You know I care, how I wave the purple prose flag for champions of earth like John Muir (Earth Day coincides with his birthday), and eco-writers. But if we want to perceive our earth in a way that's going to keep it alive, we can look no farther than your author at hand.

Thirty years ago I wrote a poem I did not really understand at the time. I was based in Washington, D.C., in cultural diplomacy at the U.S. Information Agency, on leave as literature professor from the University of Oregon. I was lecturing worldwide on American nature writing, and the tradition of ecstatic and moral genius in expressing attitudes to earth.

So I was an eco-cheer-leader, literally, leading with the most enthusiastic of nature writers, John Muir, for whom "trees are us," nature is kin, and earth is Mother. His buoyant earnest joy in Yosemite as an example of wilderness led directly to its status as our first national park: he made the case, drew the boundaries, lobbied Congress, took it to the people, and lo and behold, to use his words, we have a glorious part of earth preserved forever. And here I was, going to spend a vacation in this legacy of "using your words." Poet's power! I share with you this poem now, as an insight of just where our problem with earth may lie:

Night Hunger, Wild Hunger


The last thing my father says to me as I fold myself into a sleeping bag an eggwhite meringue into plaid batter and he zips the stars leaving me to a canvas darkness far far darker than the night is what to do in case of a bear.

This is not at all what I was worried about. I have worries. So do you. We know none of us leads a sensible life. Now: bears.


Yes, he says, the bears, they forge for food at night. They cause, and he pauses, quite a lot of trouble. Yes, I remember now, seeing the trees with poems nailed to them, a forest of signs, but the yellow metal messages I thought I had time to read later are telegrams to be read at once, Federal Law: Lock Up Your Food. Violators will have food confiscated and be subject to a fine. The rangers have a meeting and advise: If a bear should approach, scare it away. Make an angry noise. Be belligerent. Holler. Yell. Grunt. Bears understand this kind of language. They leave.

Suddenly life is simple. You are scared of bears.

From my journal.

I didn't sleep well. Daddy said to make sure no food was in the tent for the bears--and if one came in, to yell, angrily--and I lay awake for hours, trying to think of what in the tent was edible to a hungry bear, and then the expression, hungry as a bear came to me, and I sat straight up, thinking of a wild bear's hunger, for marshmallows and cookies---of his red eyes, of his claws, tearing at the tent, I thought of what would seem tasty to a bear--the cough medicine, the aspirin, the deodorant--Blue Grass!--the lotion on my lips--making a mental inventory of everything tasty about me--you never think of yourself as tasty--suddenly I realized I could be . . . delicious--I was seized with a powerful sense of the bear's need--I held a pot in my left hand, and clutched a flat fork in my right, with which I was going to clang the pot when he appeared at the tent's zipper, snorting, wild-eyed with need of marshmallow. I held this pan and fork all night, listening for someone walking without shoes.

The next morning, I am groggy and obsessed. Spilled milk on the campsite's wooden table makes me tremble, my son spilling tuna out of his sandwich (don't you realize bears LOVE fish, I scream). He looks at me. I scan the camp with a bear's gleam, what's here for me?

My mother tells me, Darling (in her New York accent), You're not going to have an encounter with a bear, (an encountah-with-a-bea-ay-uh), I assure you. You will be lucky to see a bear. I examine the table next to the tent where we prepare our food. Triscuits: I practice Lamaze breathing to keep myself from passing out. Getting ready for bed, I ask Nicolino for a pot to bang. He brings me a cast-iron frying pan, drops it on my right elbow, the one I injured in Budapest in the taxicab last month, and I cry. He looks at me. My parents are bewildered, we don't believe this!


It is night again, the time I have dreaded, when I must go to the tent. I inspect it again, to make sure, to make sure, nothing edible is there. I go through the suitcases, pulling out each T-shirt, sock, pair of pants, knowing it is crazy. In a pocket of Nicolino's pants, I find a Gummy Bear. We have been sleeping with Gummy Bears, a sweet-toothed bear's likeness. Panting, I take out all the clothes, again, one by one, turning out all the pockets. What else is lurking which will lure this bear to my tent?


I see this bear, his hunger, which makes him paw into windshields, cross meadows lit with white moonlight, with those red eyes, shake RV's down for something sweet, mangle for sweetness. . . This desire, which makes him maul, tear people from sleeping bags, so cross, so desperate, this sullen panting childish furry beast. This is no children's story. This is a nightmare.


The next day, my son steps on horse manure my Sicilian mother says is good luck, because she wants to see a bear. I am compromised. Want not to see a bear yet want my son to have his wish, to have what he desires, I believe in desire. Is that why I believe in this bear?


This morning my father spots a rush of brown outside the trailer. My mother is ecstatic. She wants to see a bear, too. She and my little boy rush outside together to see this bear, knocking into each other, they run through the pine needles. It is a raccoon. A big raccoon. But they are disappointed. I try to understand this. Clearly the bear they want to see is just something wonderful, like a firefly, some furry emblem of wilderness, a presence that will make the trees and stars authentic. The bear I don't want to see the bear who searches for me even now as I lie here in darkness clutching my pan listening for shuffling and grunts is hunger, is desire, is terrible. It wants to tear people from sleeping bags, it wants to know, what does it mean to sleep, what are we, what does it all mean, as if ripping zippers, crashing windows, crumpling metal doors, overturning ice chests, marauding, would uncover secrets like worms beneath the stones, knowledge it needs now, now. . . It wants to know. It wants to know everything.


I lie awake, waiting. It knows just where to find me. It's not just that you have the marshmallows and oreos it craves, perhaps you do and have locked them in an aluminum chest. It's your dreams. It can tell. It can smell the sweetness of your memory, yes, images as crusty and short as croissants, warm with orange marmalade, and slippery with butter and raspberry jam, but more, your desire, it is drawn by the speckly Merced in you, glacially alive with trout swerving, its browns and golds and greens shimmering like ripples over pebbles in your mind. Your desires glitter, catch the bear's quick eye, and the bear cuffs through to memory trout holding their own, ripples in your heart.


And the bear's violent nuisance we sleep, its vandalizing as it roams, wanting, wanting what is inside--locks, doors, zippers, snaps, these things we think keep things out, keep things closed: bears don't know the difference between side and top, locked door and walls, skin and clothes, it's all the package meant to be unwrapped.

How foolish to think, as I have thought these past nights, of the bear, pausing at the tent flap, imagining the bear unzipping with padded fingers, long claws, delicately grasping the zipper prong, only enough to swivel its monstrous head with its red eyes, to peer into the tent to see what's tasty tonite, to find me, huddled in the corner, waiting with my pot, ready to clang, to shout, to rush out

--when this bear, this bear, could open the tent without using the zipper, could walk in without any flap. Just a rip and suddenly brightness a set of brightness of stars and eyes and perhaps moon, a growl, and an immediate smell in my tent cave, fur against stars. To think of its surprise, its fear, as it leaves me, clutching my pan.


Yes--yes--I want to see it--stooped and fat and fast coming round to see me
poking its head in, its huge head at the zipper, its hand pulling wide the tent flaps--
I will clank the pans I clutch, I will drive it away in terror, in both of our terror--
wondering--me--what I have, what is marshmallow in my blood, brain, desire, memory, all, all I see, all I feel, when this bear comes--

It's out there now, it knows just where to find me.


I believe in this bear.

This bear might kill me if I don't have what it needs, but I know my mother was right,
I would be lucky to see this bear. Ah, bear, I wait, ready to be quiet, if you come.


From my journal, November 5, Hilton Hotel, New York City, at the American Studies Conference, five o'clock in the morning, squatting on the red-carpeted staircase in the lobby:

I, I am the bear.

I don't know quite what this means, now, here. Months have passed. It is night still and people are sleeping. I don't understand so many things, I cannot sleep-- this night hunger, wild hunger, my room useless, intolerable, room service has nothing to bring me, nothing I need. Worries and darkness and pockets turned inside out-- this ice chest shakes, tears open--is it hope? Think of such hope!

Well, Dr. B, what is that about? For all these years, I have kept this poem, not knowing really what to make of it. What did I mean, "I, I am the bear?"

In my recent retreat in preparation for Earth Day, at Assisi, Italy, birthplace of St. Francis, I explored with the fellows of In Claritas the challenge for world peace in how we see The Other. I explored how The Other may be inside us, revealed as we look out at the magic mirror of the world, in the way of the ancient Mayan saying: "You are my other me."

Do we fear a beast, something wild, within, and strive to eradicate it, in fear for our lives? In our cultures, to be conceived as wilderness, for example, "desolate," "savage," "fury," "frenzied," "uncivilized," and "barbarous," is to receive a death sentence. In such way, we make Mother Earth into Other Earth: monster, monstrous. Our fears reign.

Yet neuroscience reminds us that fear is part of our ancient brain; our newest brain, the neocortex, develops admiration, respect, love, and empathy. We cannot both fear and consider the lily at the same time; we cannot fear and behold simultaneously, for the neocortex trumps the ancient brain messages of fear and pain.

What we love, then, can save us, both from fear and from its consequence, feeling we have to destroy what we need most to live. If I can recognize that the bear is not only not to be feared, but intrinsic to my very identity, I am closer to that state described by Einstein, whom we consider genius, in his e=mc2: states of being and action that do not seem possibly related are in fact the same thing. "Other" is dismantled in this formulation of existence: we, as the Mayans knew, are one, you and I, and the "you" includes you, and you, and the tree, and beast--and therein lies the possibility of empathy and compassion out of which peace and earth's survival may be generated: think of such hope! I confess to you my fear of snakes, and heights, and spiders, and a terror in the woods lest the spirits we learn of in Hawthorne and Puritan writers and films overtake us. That is both another story and this story.

If I want to know how to celebrate Earth Day, I have to take my fear and my sense of The Other, and, as the hymn goes, "let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me."

In Assisi, walking the footsteps of St. Francis, I think of his prayer:
Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.

O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.

Whether the old story of Beauty and the Beast, or the riddle of the Sphinx, we have long told ourselves to embrace the Other, to let go of the idea of something wild that imperils us. If we can see our earth as something inextricable to our very being--and vice versa--it will be not only a way to celebrate Earth Day, but a way to save the day itself. If we can say, "I, I am the bear," that, as Buddy Holly said, that will be the day that we begin to let earth live, and not die.