Confessions on Earth Day, Part I

04/27/2015 01:58 pm ET | Updated Jun 23, 2015

Whither Earth Day? Even as we speak about this little miracle of soil on which we spin and hurtle through space, its fate becomes more perilous. What was created over millions of years, what grows, so improbably, amazing life, is at risk. Earth Day is a good time to consider the lilies--not even how they are jeopardized but why.

I admit that having celebrated earth and calling us ourselves out over our role in its abuse is not a new conundrum. Our earliest ancestors used sticks to scratch cuneiform laments onto clay, bird feathers to mark leaves and stones with messages of respect and wonder and gratitude --and remorse over failing our responsibility for earth. Our first known story, Gilgamesh in 2700 B.C., is about environmental catastrophe caused by greed and misused power; guardian of the great cedar forests, Humbaba, is killed by Gilgamesh and Enkidu, and the "awesome" forest is "uprooted all the way to the Euphrates." Our early authors see this as a mortal crime, punished by the gods. Enkidu, having been sent by the gods to calm down the rapacious Gilgamesh, must die. Gilgamesh, scourge of people and earth alike, forfeits immortality. Meanwhile the ecological history concurs: most of this forest is gone forever.

Our earliest mythologies celebrate earth in metaphors of revered mother; in sacred texts, we see earth extolled. Europe's St. Francis in the late 1100s advocates for "mother" and "sister" earth-- "be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth, who feeds us and rules us, and produces various fruits with coloured flowers and herbs" ("Prayer of the Canticle of the Creatures")--and indigenous peoples call earth "mother" and holy. Since then, from the 1200s to now, from Rumi, Hafiz, Dante, Milton, Wordsworth, earth is a holy wondrous place--Shakespeare finds "tongues in trees, books in running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in every thing" (As You Like It)--even as in their accounts, forests are slashed and burned, wildlife traumatized, people causing natural chaos. A thousand poems, one more inspiring and moving than the next, extoll our earth, with implicit and explicit arguments for why and how to save it from its ongoing destruction--you probably have several memorized you are thinking of right now. Wordsworth cries over what has been lost:
Turn wheresoe'er I may,

By night or day,

The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

The sunshine is a glorious birth;

But yet I know, where'er I go,

That there hath pass'd away a glory from the earth.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, who sings of earth's glories, writes also of tragedy of earth's destruction, as in his beloved "Binsey Poplars:"

My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, are all felled;
Of a fresh and following folded rank
Not spared, not one . . .
O if we but knew what we do
When we delve or hew --
Hack and rack the growing green!

And that was in the 1870s, before we cut 95% of the remaining earth's forests.

So we have known forever that earth is sacred, to be cherished, and in need of our protection. Poets have been earth's ally and advocate as long as human language. We are so smart; why, then, is earth still endangered, poisoned, its creatures and elements imprisoned, choked, paved, tortured, destroyed, whether stream or tree or bird or or air or soil itself?

Our dictionary definitions of nature give us a clue: public understandings of wilderness, for example, list synonyms "waste," "desolate," "savage," "frenzied,"-- dangerous, to be tamed, controlled, or developed at best, transformed into something useful--or thrown out. On the one hand, as Emily cries in Thornton Wilder's Our Town, "O Earth! Oh, earth, you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it--every,every minute?

Stage Manager: No. (pause) The saints and poets, maybe they do some."

Poets rally round, not hand wringers, but a feisty and impassioned bunch--recall our recent Poet Laureate of the Library of Congress, W.S. Merwin, in his mid-eighties, on his down on his hands and knees--walking or crawling the talk, restoring original rainforest in Hawaii. That said, earth is ever at risk.

Why? So I have considered the lilies, and I have concluded that if we want to get some insight into what the problem is, I offer myself as an example of the challenge of those who love and want to protect earth.

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-cheerleader, 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.

Now that I leave you hanging in suspense, as to what will become of me in the forest, to be continued in Part Two of our post, consider the lilies with me on Earth Day, and I will share what I learned from looking within at the "beast in the mirror," my own conflicted attitudes towards nature--and what I learn from my week-long retreat with In Claritas in Assisi, Italy, birthplace of St. Francis, whom I have gone to consult for answers as to why earth suffers even as we profess from the bottom of our hearts to love it so.