A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature: over 400,000 monthly users
Big freeze last night; dark skies covered us and then the temperature fell into the 20s. I know some field mice gave up on the outside world and took to their secret tunnels under the house to come in and share our heat. They have cubbies and tiny nests built into the crawl spaces, and they know where to find newspapers to shred for their bedding. We have two mother mice that took over our mailbox outside, with some scrawny little newborns tucked into the confetti, and a pile of acorns and apple seeds hoarded in one corner for the long winter. When the mail comes, they seem to know what is junk mail and shred it up before I can get to it. The bills are left intact, along with the Orvis catalog, and some financial bulletins I don’t read. They could have them if they wanted, but apparently late capitalist promises and time-sensitive offers don’t interest them much.
Turds the size of rice beads adorn our counter top from time to time. We always leave behind just enough crumbs to make the stove an enticing place to forage. One escape route is behind the stove, which leads to a tunnel that descends the back wall into the cellar. These mice have been our boarders long before we arrived, and have no reason to think we are more clever or sly or ingenious than anyone else who lived here in the past fifty or a hundred years. Unless the population gets out of control, which happens around late December, when the living room floor becomes a kind of shopping mall on Christmas Eve, we pretty much coexist without open warfare.
It hardly ever dawns on me that we are living on the edge of a vast civilization created by other animals, including insects and invertebrates, and legions of subatomic creatures vibrating in watery ecosystems. We just don’t encounter this empire very often, unless a wolf spider of some prodigious size happens to cling to a wall I have to pass daily. Then I am aware that we are not alone; the long black legs of this creature can be intimidating but I’m told the venom of such a predator is not very strong and can even seem like a mosquito bite if you provoke it. Or the ants that army along on the kitchen floor busily carting off some manna discovered in a cellophane bag broken into by a rogue chipmunk. I hear knocks in the wall, thuds in the hollows between studs, rattling sounds, and at night, late at night, a loose plank may be stepped on by something heavier and no doubt hairier that is making his nest after a long night.
We are a Noah’s ark full of mating couples that live comfortably in the dark of our attic and basement. The occasional toad finds its way in through a drain hole, and stares off into space like a dull student. The birds have built nests in our porch timbers and raised a few generations of their own before finding a more convenient cranny to homestead in. This is not to slight the populations of hornets who have found our window casings affordable housing for the summer. The queens of these nests are immortal, I suppose; since they keep producing abundant heirs year after year; the bees gather but they are far less sure of our accommodations and will experiment and then press on. I may have mentioned stink bugs and lady bugs in previous blogs, and I don’t want to leave them out of my inventory of housemates, since they too take a prominent place in my bedroom and occasionally whir over me after I turn the light out. I’m not fond of stinkbugs; they are the turtles of the flying world, and can park on a wall and go into a deep trance for a day, sometimes two. I don’t know what inspires them to move so much as a hind leg, which is a thing of mechanical beauty and precision, but it would be fascinating to read this eccentric wanderer’s mind.
So here we are, backed up onto a slender strip of forest on one side, and a long, ascending hill of matted grass and weeds on the other. And between them is this tiny isthmus we call a house, reserved supposedly for human beings. But we are outnumbered by countless other creatures, dwarfed by the complex imperial government of birds, by the subterranean empires of worms and grubs albino larva, moles, gophers, beetles with vast pincer jaws, by nomadic tribes of aphids and cutworms, by thread-like parasites that feast on my annabels in mid-summer, and of course, by the king of blood bandits, the Aedes aegypti mosquito that spawns in our lowland catchments and marshland.
To walk in the woods is to sometimes feel as I did as a boy living in Beirut, and following my mother through the narrow passageways of the city souk, among all those mounds of fruit and vegetables, stalls with newly slaughtered lambs, their shanks still dripping blood, their heads peeled back to stare eyeless and forlorn from tenterhooks. It was a world in which merchants cried out in shrill Arabic their prices, and would load a scale as you passed in case you might be tempted by buy some cucumbers, or the makings of tabouleh.
Our maid was often ahead of us nodding her head no to most entreaties, but she was undaunted by the plenty on offer, and would choose with a delicate long finger some tasty leaves of fresh coriander, or indicate her preference for a bundle of fresh asparagus hidden under some yellowing produce. She was our authority on all such decisions, and we never questioned her. But it did occur to me that we were such fragile, alienated creatures moving through a universe of slaughtered rabbits, chickens, goats, pigeons, pigs, just to feed a medium-sized city like Beirut. The tax on nature was steep to keep us sated on our luxuries and excesses, but oh, how we loved to come home and smell supper cooking, and to relish the tangy, minty odor of newly chopped parsley, garlic, the eye-crinkling effect of lemon juice filling the little tiled room where Juliet, the maid, performed her miracles.
It never seems to occur to commentators on the tube that however massive our numbers have grown since the 19th century, topping some seven billion plus souls, that we are still but a bare minority of living things. And that we expect to be paid tributes by all those others we have tamed or enslaved, and who ungrudgingly offer up their lives of captivity to the axe and the butcher knife. But we are only denizens on the shore of an endless ocean of fertility and mutation, and we harbor these idle thoughts that we are in control of it all. Poor modern man, I pity his ignorance and fear his arrogance. And on we go, muddling our way to the future with our pockets bulging with technological gadgets and our feet moving as if we knew where we were headed.
Perhaps St. Francis was the only one who understood the human situation and its looming tragedy way back in the 12th century. He renounced his intellectual powers and befriended the animals around him. He was atoning for his own sins, as the son of a rich man who made no effort to restrain his urges and desires. But like so many transformations that went before, he saw his errors and would spend the rest of his life in poverty, living on the humble edge of society, eager to understand the mind of nature as he came to know it — through the birds, who are depicted landing on his shoulders in medieval paintings. He perceived his human debt to the creation. He didn’t want to be famous or revered; he didn’t want a following to come with him. But he also knew the beggars and prostitutes, the homeless were all coming behind him as he walked through those impoverished Italian villages in his ragged clothes and worn-out sandals. He heard their footsteps behind him, as lonely as he was, desperate to know the will of something greater than man’s.
When I visited his shrine in Assisi, I was appalled at the vast marble tomb where he is interred. The way up to this gaudy basilica is lined with trinket shops selling varnished crosses and crude plaster effigies of the saint. It was another tourist trap like Lourdes, like all such sites where miracles were said to have occurred. The steep cobbled street wound around until you reached the entrance of his tomb and entered to find yourself among other tourists, all of them eager to gaze down into the well where the marble encased him. We were like those hordes that followed Francis when he was alive, just as lost as they were. But I could not feel any sanctity in these exaggerated symbols of his holiness. On the hill above us was a museum of medieval torture implements, and beyond, was the tomb of Saint Claire, his disciple. Her tomb is mercifully less showy, spared the rhetorical bombast of her mentor. But in inflating Francis to a kind of demigod, man was showing an indestructible pride, the very vice that will likely bring about our extinction if we do not know how to make atonement and humble ourselves.
Copyright 2021 Paul Christensen
Paul Christensen is a poet and writer who divides his time between Vermont and the south of France.