24 November 2014

Shadow Country, Mother Nature, and poetry

Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen is a grand book: in scope, in narrative, in size at almost 900 pages. It's a grand read all along but, every once in a while, there's a passage that is particularly wonderful. To wit ... (on pages 660-661 of the Modern Library paperback edition)

One afternoon over lemonade and cookies, discussing our [Everglades] wilderness with the children, she quoted some opinions of the poets. A Miss Dickinson of New England had concluded that the true nature of Nature was malevolent, whereas the self-infatuated Mr. Whitman of New York found undomesticated Nature merely detestable. What could such people know of Nature, Mandy inquired, pointing at that huge motionless gray-green beast across the river: nature was not malevolent, far less detestable, but simply oblivious, indifferent, and God's indifference as manifested in such creatures was infinitely more terrifying than literary notions of malevolence could ever be. To regard such an engine of predation without awe, or dare to dismiss it as detestable -- wasn't that to suggest that the Creator might detest His own Creation?

"How about the mosquitoes?" complained Eddie, ever anxious to return indoors.

Lucius led us to the nest of red-winged blackbirds, parting the tall reeds so we could see. Losing its mate after the eggs had hatched to a snake or hawk, or owl, the male bird, flashing his flaming shoulders, had simply resumed his endless song about himself (like Mr. Walter Whitman, said Mandy, smiling), by dint of which he won a second female, and now this pair was busily engaged in constructing its new nest on top of the old one -- on top, that is, of the live young, which were squeaking and struggling to push their hungry bills up through the twigs. The horrified children longed to rescue the trapped victims, although this meant that the second clutch would be destroyed. Lucius forbade this and his mother nodded. "Even victims are not innocent," she whispered to no one in particular. "They are simply present. They are simply in the way."

Instinctively I had to agree, though Lucius and I could never explain to each other just what she meant. Her words made me feel odd. One moment a man bathing in the river celebrates his sparkling life and the next he is seized by the unseen and dragged beneath the surface, which moves on downriver as placid as before. God's will, Mandy would say. Man's fate, I agreed. Are they the same? But since long ago I had lost all faith, Mandy knew it was useless to discuss this.

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