Life in the word.

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. …. 14 And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth. (John 1, KJV)

 I believe the bond [between humans and nature] is at the very heart of what it means to be human; that the natural world where we evolved is no mere neutral background, but at the deepest psychological level it remains our home, with all the intense emotional attachment which that implies – passionate feelings of belonging, of yearning, and of love. – Michael McCarthy, The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy

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Alabama, Christmas 2016.

Back in Alabama, in my beloved winter landscape of brown and gray and green, Christmas Day was warm this year – 75 degrees by midafternoon.  Out for a walk, a pointer birddog swept in circles around me, splashed through the shallow creek, then leaned against my leg and panted.  Ranks of pecan trees stood crowned with mistletoe against a china-blue sky: the old folks call this a bluebird day.  In my favorite story of a Southern winter, “A Worn Path” (1941), Eudora Welty describes “a bright frozen day” on the Mississippi Delta at this time of year, with longleaf pine needles shining, “up high where the wind rocked,” and, in a deserted wagon track, “the quail walking like pullets, all dainty and unseen.”  Out with horses and dogs the day before, we’d found no quail, only grass birds, songbirds, and in the woods a sudden clamor of crows harrying a hawk, its cry keen and heart-stabbing in the babble.  Years ago, riding up over this hill, we startled up a big steel-gray bobcat from the grass.  It’s mostly deer that flourish now.  So do armadilloes, bold and dumb and blind, digging their horse-endangering holes all over pastures and up under the foundations of the house. Putting on my boots, I could have sworn I heard a hummingbird’s familiar summertime drone.  Surely there must still be stray migrants.  Surely that noise could still be placed within the bounds of normal. Or maybe I was mistaken. I hope I was.

“A Worn Path,” written before the world turned so warm, evokes a quality to the landscape that the British nature writer Michael McCarthy, in his wonderful book The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy, names plenitude.  At the heart of McCarthy’s book is a phenomenon he calls “the moth snowstorm,” or “the blizzard of insects in the headlights of cars” on summer nights of his childhood, so profuse drivers had to stop a few times to wipe the windshield clean.  “That has been my fate as a baby boomer,” he writes, “not just to belong to the most privileged generation which ever walked the earth, but, as we can at last see now, to have my life parallel the destruction of the wondrous abundance of nature that still persisted in my childhood, the abundance which sang like nothing else of the force and energy of life and could be witnessed in so many ways, but most strikingly of all in the astonishing summer night display in the headlight beams, which is no more.”

These days, there’s something barren and erratic about the places we love that even love can’t hide from us.  A year ago that creek that barely reached a birddog’s dewclaws was a raging torrent that came up twenty-five-foot banks into the fields.  This year the winter’s been marked by forty-five days without rain.  Absent were the crawfish towers I saw in every ditch as a child – marvelous mud-daub castles sloping up to a perfectly round entrance-hole, in which, if you were lucky, you could spot the beady eyes and claw-tips of a crawfish taking the air like a little old man on his porch.  The doodlebugs in their conical burrows, the swarms of creatures in vernal ponds and watering-trough-seepage puddles, even the terrifying but (I see now) largely innocent snakes – this was only one category of abundance that blooms all around me in my memories of childhood here, rich as the distinctive smell of the air and the ground, rain and leafmould and grass and sun.  I don’t feel that abundance around me as I once did, anywhere.  Most of us don’t, even assuming – as I’m blessed beyond measure to be able to say – that the places we love still exist at all.  That particular loss opens into a chamber of grief that’s been named solastalgia – the feeling for a vanished, beloved place that remains in you, twisting itself deeper – and it’s making elegy a dominant mode in modern environmental writing.

All this was in my mind as I sat on Christmas morning in my childhood church, where our good preacher spoke on the passage from John above: Christ as the word which was also life.  The word is life.  That phrase struck and rung me like a bell.  I’m a writer and a teacher; like the little drummer boy, like the widow with her mite, the word is what I bring to offer, the word is what I do. Like any writer I worry that words do no good. Like any teacher I wonder how much my students will carry away and what they’ll do with it, what will survive of me and the words I try to pass on, how I can be of use. But in church, reverberating with these lines from John, I realized that in word is creation and salvation, because in word – which brings self, spirit, fellow creature, and world alive in our hearts – is love.  And love is the thing that survives of us, the thing that saves.

There are good cognitive reasons why word contains life.  As George Orwell says in “Politics and the English Language,” good writing keeps us morally responsible to the things we’re writing about because it starts with bringing pictures of those things to life in our heads, and then describing those pictures.  (This writing is speaking to us in our common human language – the language of the senses – which brings writing to life across any expanse of space and time.) Reading runs that process in reverse, “potentiating,” as Peter Mendelsund says, the memories we carry within ourselves of the things and places and people that have been present to our senses and built a body of knowledge we bear in our literal bodies.  Emotion suffuses those mental images like water in a sponge, so that, when we touch them, they well up with feeling and we re-experience them in moments of startling immediacy (called “Proustian” after the writer who described them best.)  It all starts with sensory experiences in a beloved place which bind us to that place even as they weave our souls and our bodies and our imaginations together in a mysterious, ragged, luminous unit of life. Like literature, faith also ignites imagination, inciting occasions of confrontation and realization with the word and the world and the self; therefore it’s no accident to me that John, that most cryptic and rapt gospeller, says Christ is the word. And that word-as-Christ-as-word is not just noun but verb – it’s some state, too, beyond syntax that is a pure embodiment and unity of being, of thing, of thought, of action. Seamus Heaney’s poem “Oysters” describes it well:

“And was angry that my trust could not repose
In the clear light, like poetry or freedom
Leaning in from sea. I ate the day
Deliberately, that its tang
Might quicken me all into verb, pure verb.”

“Quicken” is a marvelous word born in just this nexus of language and memory and bodily life.  Its history is rich: a child quickening in the womb; quicksilver, the beads of mercury that roll inside a school laboratory dish with a life of their own; and the familiar words of the Apostle’s Creed, which I learned by reciting in this church: From whence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.  Yet it also bears a sense, at least to me, of “coming to life to do something,” being moved into motion and purpose for some reason that creates and sustains life in its richest and most positive sense.

To be quickened into verb, in Heaney’s words, is exactly what art and writing can do to and for us in our current climate emergency.  That is what we need them for. The facts are in. There is no doubt. We can’t go on as we are. All of life around us is calling us, pleading with us, to change our ways.  When we run out of resources (sooner than we think), our  dream of limitless, penaltyless “growth” – sprawling suburbs, robber-baron-enriching economies, moral horizons no longer than the next cycle of shareholder rewards – will be exposed as the fiction it is and has always been. There is no such thing as post-truth, no matter how cynically we label it here at the dawn of 2017, no matter how we kid ourselves that cynically labelling something minimizes its destructiveness – because isn’t that the point of a cynical label, anyway, write it off, relegate it, pay it less attention, feel less grief?  Yet isn’t grief also a wake-up call? The world is warming and climate is spiraling out of control and oceans are souring and rising and humans have caused it. The facts are in. There is no doubt.

At Christmas the question is asked in a million ways: what do you have to give? What did you buy for them, what are you bringing them, or, in the words of Christina Rossetti’s hymn, what can I give him, poor as I am? What are you doing or making (or, in our usual Christmas-logic, purchasing) to create a change in a relationship that wasn’t there before?  For me this is a heightening of the question I live with always: given this knowledge of climate emergency and its threat to the places you love, what can you do? What are you doing? What do you have to give? And how are you wasting precious time?  In Matthew 23, Christ rebukes the Pharisees for squabbling over trifles and ignoring “the weightier matters of the law.” What are those weighty things on which we are called to attend, from which the forms of bullshit offered through our screens are criminally trival distractions?  My Midwestern students smile about how, when I talk with them (regarding Michelangelo, Milton, and others) about Genesis, God has a Southern accent. Jesus does too.  Listen, y’all, what on earth makes y’all think you’ve got that kind of time? Wake up. Do unto the least of these.  There’s a world beyond yourself. Do right by it.

 Faith and the word are with me and in me together as I think about work and writing and the places I love in the year ahead.  Working and writing for the life of this planet takes a certain sturdy practicality, an earthbound eye still willing to be taken up into wonder.  It takes a humility and grace that’s the essence of this faith, that I first glimpsed in this sanctuary and then out in the winter fields on many a post-church afternoon, pausing to spy a bird’s nest roosting in the high grass or the gleam of longleaf pine needles in the sun.  Well, I’ll be. Look at that. Isn’t that a beautiful thing.  And we Christians must hearken to and share the humility and wonder at the heart of what we profess.  The word became flesh and dwelt among us. Chose here. Belongs here. So does the love he inspires in us, at our best, because this is the world in need of it.

The poet William Carlos Williams wrote that “it is difficult to get the news from poetry, but men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” More than any other medium – particularly more than television, which flattens and warps what it doesn’t totally ignore – the written and spoken word bears life by bearing that life into and out of our bodies on the raft of our senses and the memories they build and store.  It heightens our lives by deepening them, creating a pool of life like water within us.  No accident that as the suffix –fer means bearer, aquifer means bearer of water.  The word is aquifer, life-bearer.  It asks for a deeper attention and participation than things with screens, which builds an inner capacity we and our world need.  Because for lack of imagination, compassion, a reaching-out-of-oneself, the world dies, and so do the creatures sharing it with us.  Yet I have to believe that as long as we have words we are not without recourse and ways to keep going.  And as our good preacher said, this is the time to keep going, to move forward in faith even when the world seems very dark, very troubled, and very confusing. As it does to me more than any time before.

Returning to the farm late after dark on Christmas night, our headlights caught bright animal eyes, trotting close to the ground.  Coyote?  Nope.  That small canine shape with the elegant, dark-tipped tail was a gray fox. The spirit of my wild beloved place in its childhood plenitude flashed before me once again.  I touched it, and I could breathe.  Hallelujah, I could only pray.  Hallelujah.

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2 Responses to Life in the word.

  1. During my college student days, almost 50 years ago, A history professor stated in a lecture that every civilization, whether primitive or advanced, has exploited the resources of its land to the maximum extent of its technology. Sadly, I doubt we will halt that innate human drive to consume, and we now have the technological capability to exploit every resource to its depletion or extinction. We were fortunate to live in the North Country before intensive industrial agriculture poisoned all its land and water with chemicals, covered the ground with manure slurry, and contaminated the air with methane and ammonia vapors from livestock confinement facilities. Our rush to consume the resources of the Earth will soon make it uninhabitable for mankind. The self-destructive rush to extermination, a flash of only 20,000 years in the six-billion-year life of the Earth, will be complete, a whole new universe of species will evolve, and even the scars on the landscape will be erased in a million years. Like the dinosaurs of the Jurassic Period, man will have had his day on Earth, will not endure, and will be gone.

    • Do you know Jared Diamond’s book COLLAPSE? Mind-opening examination of just this phenomenon, culturally – I was particularly struck by the descriptions of the deforestation of Easter Island and the fate of the Greenland Norse.

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