Much To Learn

I attach here a brief post I wrote some time ago that helps fill the void created by my taking time to collect these posts and ready them for publication in book form.

I admit I am one of these odd people who thinks we can learn a great deal not only from history but also from great literature. There are many, of course, who would deny that there is any such thing as “great” literature — just literature that some like and others do not. But I agree with Robert Persig, who wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, in which he said that “quality” is one of those things no one can define, but everyone recognizes it when they see it. Greatness is like that.
For example, all sports fans recognize the great athlete. They are rare and stand out above the others. We may not know what it is that sets them apart, but they jump out at us. We might quibble about who was the greatest tennis player, football player, or basketball player. But we know who the great ones were. Great literature is like that. It stands out and commands our attention — if we are well read enough to know what to look for: exceptional writing and insight into the human condition.
I recently came upon a passage in E.M. Forster’s The Longest Journey that helps me make my case. Forster is a poet in the true sense of that term: he creates with words. His creations happen to take the form of novels. This novel is one of those that tells a story, but which also makes us stop and think. In that novel we find the following passage:

“the city [Salisbury] has strayed out of her own plain, climbed up her slopes, and tumbled over them in ugly cataracts of brick. The cataracts are still short, and doubtless they meet or create some commercial need. But instead of looking towards the cathedral, as all the city should, they look outwards at a pagan entrenchment, as the city should not. They neglect the poise of the earth, and the sentiments she has decreed. They are the modern spirit.”

The stunner, of course, is in the final sentence. Forster is pointing to the human tendency — which has grown stronger since he wrote his novels — to put itself in opposition to the earth, to ignore its “sentiments,” and demand that it satisfy human cravings.
Farmers sit in their eight-wheel tractors polluting the air and ripping into the soil in the Fall of the year to expose the dark topsoil to the eroding Winter winds; miners tear apart the earth and leave it exposed as they look for spoils beneath its surface; deforestation leaves the earth bare and parched and unable to provide future growth; we use millions of gallons of water to take precious oil from deep beneath the earth and burn it up in our gas-guzzling automobiles and trucks; we topple trees and cover the exposed earth with concrete parking lots and malls so we can shop for goods we don’t really need; and so it goes. In so many ways we do, indeed, “neglect the poise of the earth.” If we ever knew what stewardship meant, we have forgotten it in our haste to beat the world into submission to our will, to meet our endless demands, and continue to provide nourishment for growing human populations.
Forster’s passing remark strikes chords and makes us pause and reflect. That is a mark of great poetry.

Taking Care of It

In reading and re-reading some of Steinbeck’s novels and stories, I came across a short novel I had never read before, entitled To A God Unknown. It is a strange novel, unlike any of his other works that I am familiar with. It fails as great literature in my view because his characters are thinly disguised symbols and the author seems to be intent on setting out his message rather than writing an imaginative work of literature. This is not to say that the work lacks imagination. On the contrary, it is highly imaginative. But also a bit strange.

The reader really doesn’t get to know the characters at all, and the central character seems a thinly disguised transcription of a Christ-like figure who sacrifices himself for the land — of which  he has become a part, almost literally. In any event, he is interesting and the novel has some important things to say to all of us here in the twenty-first century, because it is about the earth and about our responsibility to care for it.

The central character’s name is Joseph, and he leaves Vermont just before his father dies to homestead in California. As he takes possession of his piece of land he exclaims: “It’s mine and I must take care of it.” He feels a deep and pervasive responsibility to the land which he shares with his two brothers. Initially the land produces bountiful crops and he and his brothers prosper. But, almost inevitably, the skies cease to produce rain and the land dries up. His older brother takes what is left of their herd of cattle 100 miles to greener pastures while Joseph insists on staying behind. He abandons the ranch for a small oasis of green trees and a small spring which he regards as the heart of the land. But this, too, begins to dry up and because he is convinced that he has failed to care for the land, he sacrifices himself to the rains that he hopes will come. As the novels ends, the rains finally do come.

But the message within this tightly wound novel seems clear, despite the fact that it was written in the 1930’s when folks seem to have had a greater sense of their responsibilities to the earth which is their mother and to whom they will all return at some point. Today, we ignore this fact and many (most?) would regard it as a bit of romantic nonsense. We are too busy exploiting the earth for our own short-term interests, destroying the land and polluting the air and water as we check our bank accounts and ignore the signs around us that, like Joseph’s, is drying up, turning to powder. We need not sacrifice ourselves as Joseph does, cutting our wrists while lying spread-eagle on a huge rock covered with dying moss in the middle of the last remaining green spot for hundreds of miles around. But we could certainly inconvenience ourselves to the extent that we make small sacrifices in creature-comforts to conserve the land and protect the earth upon which we depend for our very lives. Joseph knew that well; we have forgotten it — if we even knew it.

This point was driven home to me recently after reading the World Wildlife magazine in which a feature story spells out the food shortages that will inevitably face the world we take for granted. In that article it was pointed out that, given the expanding world populations and the diminishing food supply, our only hope is to “double the amount of food available” on the earth and its oceans. The article goes on to say,

“By improving efficiency and productivity while reducing waste and shifting consumption patterns, we can produce enough food for all on roughly the same amount of land we use now.”

This, of course, ignores the fact of global warming and the very real possibility that our world, or large portions of it, will no longer be able to produce any food at all. It’s not simply a question of greater efficiency. It’s also a question of reducing the numbers of humans on earth and seeing to it that those who remain take responsibility for it — as Joseph did.