• A Conversation About Trees

    Michael Robbins

    Summer 2021

    For these I set no limits in time or space:

    I give them empire without end.

    Thus Jupiter reassures Venus that her beloved Aeneas will conquer Italy with his Trojan brothers, giving birth to “rulers who will hold / Earth and sea under their dominion.” But of course all empires fall. Virgil at the end of the first book of the Georgics (in L. P. Wilkinson’s version) is a better augur than Jove. He sees “a world in ruins”:

    So many wars, so many shapes of crime

    Confront us; no due honor attends the plow.

    Raymond Williams, in The Country and the City, charged the Renaissance adaptation of classical pastoral literature with an idealization from which the “living tensions” of the latter “are excised, until there is nothing countervailing.” For Virgil in the Eclogues and Georgics, “the pleasures of rural development” are always under “threat of loss and eviction.” The “natural delight in the fertility of earth” is kept “in tension with other kinds of experience: summer with winter; pleasure with loss; harvest with labour.” The fields do not till themselves, the crops fall to locusts, the placid swain’s land is confiscated. The romanticizing tone is sounded but “is not yet abstracted from the whole of a working country life.”

    But with the renewal of the pastoral tradition beginning in the English Renaissance, the tension is lost, or at least diminished, as the shepherd’s lot becomes the poet’s dream. In the seventeenth century, Charles Cotton collapses in rapture: “Good God! how sweet are all things here! / How beautiful the Fields appear!” Abraham Cowley implores the woods: “when, when shall I be made / The happy Tenant of your shade?” This sort of thing, Alexander Pope later complained, “consists in exposing the best side only of a shepherd’s life, and in concealing its miseries.”

    Somewhere along the way nature poetry forgot, or chose to overlook, what nature remembered.[1] Complexities and tensions shift across the centuries, and a dozen countervailing tendencies suggest themselves, but I mean to speak broadly here, because I am interested in what Williams would later term a “structure of feeling”: “a particular quality of social experience and relationship . . . which gives the sense of a generation or a period,” a “quite general” change that is felt “over a wide range.”

    I set out here to construct an argument about “nature poetry,” in order eventually to suggest that the composition of poems about nature constitutes, in the present moment, a political act. I have a tidy thesis all set to be defended with the usual critical feints and thrusts. But reading over what I’ve written as I sit down to resume this essay, I realize that I don’t believe my thesis.

    When I was young, Thoreau’s journals made intuitive sense to me:

    Consider the turtle. Perchance you have worried yourself, despaired of the world, meditated the end of life, and all things seemed rushing to destruction; but nature has steadily and serenely advanced with a turtle’s pace.

    Now that passage sounds like science fiction. Nature at the end of the world is not a turtle but a grizzly bear. We’re adding carbon to the atmosphere at a rate at least ten times faster than it took to produce the end-Permian extinction, 250 million years ago, when 96 percent of life on earth was wiped out. Polar ice caps are melting six times faster than in the 1990s. American wildfires burn twice as much land as they did fifty years ago. The litany could go on, and sometimes does, for hundreds of pages—coral bleaching, ocean acidification, species loss, habitat loss, deforestation, coastal flooding, all mutually reinforcing through systemic feedback loops—and the figures would be out of date before this is published.

    Consider in this light Bertolt Brecht’s famous lines, composed in the late thirties and directed in part against what is known in German as Naturlyrik:

    What kind of times are these, when

    A conversation about trees is almost a crime

    Because it implies silence about so many horrors?

    The implication here, that “nature poetry is anachronistic,” as Adorno had it, emptied of its “truth content,” was common in Germany during and after the war. To write nature poetry is a reactionary evasion of the political: Trees? Seriously, with all that’s going on, you want to talk about trees?

    At this point the responsible academic thing to do would be to “read” Brecht’s poem, with an eye to complicating our received notions about it. Then I might want to challenge the opposition between “nature poetry” and the “political.” Indeed, this is what I sat down at the computer to do—to practice literary criticism. But the thought fills me with weariness.

    The thing is that talking about “poetry” makes me want to fucking scream. And “literary criticism” feels about as relevant as a fart in the wind. I was invited to write a “craft essay.” I’m getting paid pretty well for it. But what if the craft in question is worthless, and about to go extinct anyway, along with most other things? I’ve dedicated my life since high school to the study of poetry, and here we are, at the end of the world, and I can recite a thousand different poems that speak to our present condition of hopelessness, despair, and doom. In doing so, they console us, remind us we’re not alone, that others have faced the ends of other worlds—that’s the company line, anyway. I’ve parroted it myself.

    I don’t believe it any more, if I ever did. (I am never quite sure how much I believe most of the things I believe.) Yesterday I read that over three billion birds have died in North America since 1970. Today I learn that giraffe populations have declined 40 percent over the last thirty years. What am I supposed to do with that? What is poetry supposed to do with that? What does poetry have to do with that? Perhaps poetry was a mouth, in Auden’s phrase, once, but mouths close.

    Michael Robbins is the author of Walkman, Alien vs. Predator, and other books.

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