It can’t go on, one thinks, whether visiting a swath of India, a bit of China, or central Africa, or simply a childhood neighborhood where new hometown development is scything the trees, snagging traffic, stilling the songbirds. Capsules of national parkland remain, between the agribusiness or paving sprawl, the studded lakefronts, throttled flyways. A few ducks can elate us, if we don’t remember the flocks of half a century ago. Thomas Jefferson had thought that settling the West would take a hundred generations; this velocity would have astounded Emerson and Whitman too.
Although a warming climate might seem advantageous for many species in a latitude such as New England’s, if their habitat has been diced up for second homes it isn’t going to matter: only the deleterious aspects of the change will take hold. Global warming is the focus of conservation publicity now—and people do care about hurricane insurance, aquifer depletion, metastasizing wildfires—but I regard our virtualizing of reality as a more pervasive threat. By shortening our attention span and switching it to television and cyberspace, we don’t register the blunting of perspectives out-of-doors, the disappearance of wood thrushes and wood turtles, and our ticktock addiction to data banks, our tic for instant onscreen gratification.
The heroes of the preservation movement, like John Muir and Rachel Carson, won succinct battles in saving Yosemite Valley or getting DDT banned as a pesticide. Carson’s “silent spring” apparently had been averted; bird populations could recover. But of course the spring, if you are actually listening, becomes more silent every year. The hamburger or biofuel industries, along with logging, are devastating the winter refuges of many species, on top of what we in the north do to their nest sites during the hectic summer, or a virus such as West Nile, imported unaccountably from another continent. And because John Muir loved Alaska’s glaciers as much as California’s Sierras, Yosemite’s salvation (achieved partly because he enjoyed hobnobbing with rich, powerful allies like Teddy Roosevelt and Edward Harriman) might seem nearly negligible to him, next to what he would perceive as the incomprehensibly vast tragedy of the planet’s shrinking ice. If we brought both of these iconic figures back, I think their hearts would break.
Thoreau, who disliked the rich and powerful and thus left a different legacy, might be heartsick to learn his words mainly helped to inspire Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. toward nonviolent social activism (however in concert with his own sympathies) rather than weighing in as a potent revolutionary factor in the struggle to wall off the cascade of extinctions. Maybe a hundred species a day are vanishing, Newsweek recently estimated, from deforestation alone. “Nature, the earth herself, is the only panacea,” Thoreau wrote in 1859; and from Wordsworth and Turgenev on, nature writing has been inclined to flavor observation with rhapsodies that celebrate the glories of Creation. Serfdom was criticized, and the Grand Canyon should remain in public hands, but corals weren’t dying all over the world and polar bears drowning. Meadowlark, lemur, and codfish populations weren’t crashing, ocean and wind currents in danger of altering, desertification broadening in China and Mali.
During the 1950s, when I was in college, an outdoors person could glance with amusement at the fashionably despairing God Is Dead Zeitgeist among intellectuals waiting for Kafka, Camus, or Godot, because He certainly wasn’t if you were in the Rockies or out among the flying fish dodging dolphins in the Gulf Stream. Even 20 years after that, my first sight of the African veldt was not half-consumed by fretting over the disappearance of rhinos and cheetahs. But now it is a commonplace that nature is so endangered, hardly a rhapsody can appear in print without the qualification added that the site or bird or beast is under siege. The Tongass, Amur, Orinoco forests—if God resides in them, is He already half-dead?
Those of us who believe, along with Emerson, that heaven is here on earth wonder whether its skin has developed a cancer; or, as the visionary poet Robinson Jeffers suggested in “The Broken Balance” 80 years ago: “The beautiful places killed like rabbits to make a city, / The spreading fungus, the slime-threads and spores.” Earlier, in “Shine, Perishing Republic” (1921), he had elaborated: “While this America settles in the mould of its vulgarity, heavily thickening to empire, / And protest, only a bubble in the molten mass, pops and sighs out, and the mass hardens,…be in nothing so moderate as in love of man, a clever servant, insufferable master. / There is the trap that catches noblest spirits, that caught—they say—God, when he walked on earth.” Elsewhere, and later: “We have watched mankind…No longer envying the birds, That ancient prayer for wings granted….” (Indeed!) Or, again: “Our own time…Has acids for honey, and for fine dreams / The immense vulgarities of misapplied science and decaying Christianity….”
Jeffers (1887–1962) was ritually installed in 2007 in The Poets’ Corner of The Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, at an annual ceremony that belatedly established him in an American pantheon. But, absent a societal revolution, what did he suggest we do individually? “We must unhumanize our views a little, and become confident / As the rock and ocean that we were made from,” he said in “Carmel Point,” titled for his beloved aerie above the Pacific shore: for which, however, in “The Broken Balance” he had predicted an “obscene future.” “We must uncenter our minds from ourselves,” from self-deification, by “falling in love outward,” he said. And, “Does it matter whether you hate your…self? At least / Love your eyes that can see, your mind that can / Hear the music, the thunder of the wings. Love the wild swan.” After the fungus’s “slime-threads and spores,” he had continued in that poem: “I remember the farther / Future, and the last man dying / Without succession under the confident eyes of the stars.” We had been only a “bald ape’s by-shot,” and, elsewhere, “a sick microbe,” and “a botched experiment that has run wild and ought to be stopped.”
Such Biercean sentiments are becoming a mainstream if contrarian view, and Jeffers, a self-styled Cassandra, is ominously closer to being vindicated. As Robert Frost suggested when mocking Carl Sandburg’s Whitmanesque exuberance in the 1936 poems of The People, Yes: “The People, Yes and No!” Frost never rose to preservationist heights in celebrating nature but, that same Depression year, he published a stanza Jeffers could have been proud of: “They cannot scare me with their empty spaces / Between stars—on stars where no human race is. / I have it in me so much nearer home / To scare myself with my own desert places.” Like Thoreau, who disliked railroads as agents of destruction and therefore sometimes walked from Concord to Boston, but never foresaw how paltry a role railroads would finally play in the natural world’s obliteration, Frost could stand hand in hand with Whitman or Emerson, dumbfounded at what democracy has wrought.
Of course Jeffers knew rhapsody as well. “To feel and speak the astonishing beauty of things…is the sole business of poetry,” he once wrote; and his life in itself was happier than Frost’s or many another more politic poet’s. As modern medicine continues running on its hamster wheel of prolonging our geriatric life span, I expect this century will become worse than the last. Not for world wars, but so top-heavy with humanity in the vise of reduced resources—the water torture of wholesale extinctions every decade and cumulative associated privation—that a global bafflement and sadness will undermine religion even as virtualization subverts the likelihood of grappling with the grim realities. To love the planet with or without its human cargo, as Jeffers recommended, would be a fallback point: mine anyhow, and that of another departed writer, Edward Abbey, whose thoughts flew ahead of his time. Thirty years ago, between seesawing raptures, he too was speaking of “our perishing republic.”
Lately, faith in moss, in turtles, is my bedrock: the swerve of birds, the swirl of fish, the twitch of a smile or a finch’s wing beat. If the Big Bang bestowed this energy we share, we’ll often smile as though in proof at the grace displayed by birds or fish—our pleasure not in eating, just observing, them. The plethora of surging seawater, but shortages of fresh, the foreshortening of wild places into cubicles of parkland, while refugees clamber out of overpopulated continents into megalopolises in search of breathing space, will defy logic and burrow like a chigger into civilization. People will become seasick from the pitch and yaw of environmental collapse, and I suppose the emotional survivors will be those who love the world so much that they can contemplate still loving it if it were all ocean.