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Final Thoughts: surprised by the earth

December 4, 2018

Endings are beginnings. It is an ecological insight–one that poets, like others, have been meditating for some time; certainly something Silko understood in ending her story where she began, with “sunrise.” So where are we at the end of our exploration of American environmental writing? To go back to our beginning: what does it mean to be green (or: organic, ecocritical, environmental, natural) in our reading and writing?

Your best answer will come in your final project.

On your way to that, we can consider this poem by Denise Levertov, “The Almost-Island.”

Or this recent news item about the growing interest in “green burial,” thinking outside the coffin.

Or this:  a poem that–it seems to me–echoes back and forward through thoughts we have been encountering. In any case, it takes me back to my first post in this class–thinking about literature from the field-guide view, which led me to thoughts of a world that will someday live without us. It is W.S. Merwin, former U.S. Poet Laureate, and like Wendell Berry, considered one of America’s important voices in literary environmentalism.

For the Anniversary of My Death


Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveler
Like the beam of a lightless star
Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what
Or, finally, there is that great passage from Walden’s “Spring,” the ending of the book that tells us we are, each year, each day by nature, always at the beginning:
Our village life would stagnate if it were not for the unexplored forests and meadows which surround it. We need the tonic of wildness — to wade sometimes in marshes where the bittern and the meadow-hen lurk, and hear the booming of the snipe; to smell the whispering sedge where only some wilder and more solitary fowl builds her nest, and the mink crawls with its belly close to the ground. At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and titanic features, the sea-coast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder-cloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks and produces freshets. We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander. We are cheered when we observe the vulture feeding on the carrion which disgusts and disheartens us, and deriving health and strength from the repast. There was a dead horse in the hollow by the path to my house, which compelled me sometimes to go out of my way, especially in the night when the air was heavy, but the assurance it gave me of the strong appetite and inviolable health of Nature was my compensation for this. I love to see that Nature is so rife with life that myriads can be afforded to be sacrificed and suffered to prey on one another; that tender organizations can be so serenely squashed out of existence like pulp — tadpoles which herons gobble up, and tortoises and toads run over in the road; and that sometimes it has rained flesh and blood! With the liability to accident, we must see how little account is to be made of it. The impression made on a wise man is that of universal innocence. Poison is not poisonous after all, nor are any wounds fatal. Compassion is a very untenable ground. It must be expeditious. Its pleadings will not bear to be stereotyped.
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