In this series of three posts, I'm going to make into a kind of weird serial an informal talk I gave at Marymount University on Friday, September 25, 2015. The task was to talk about my new thinking about ecological poetics for a general audience of parents, students, and faculty. I'm grateful to Eric Norton for the chance to think through some of the largest questions of my next project in a personal way, and to Tonya Howe, Sarah H. Ficke, and others for the exciting conversations during and after my somewhat unorthodox -- because biographical -- presentation. These posts are modified, and expanded, from the oral presentation I gave.
I start this series of posts in a personal way, speaking about memory and about commitments, because as I've tried to say in other places, I think commitments are ultimately where criticism begins. One unstated suggestion of this post is that we might do well to acknowledge as much.
The image below shows my grandmother's house in Fresno, California. I didn't live there and it was never my house. But my brother and sister and I spent much time there growing up and so I associate it with our childhoods. After I left Fresno for college, and after I'd lived in New York, Durham, St. Paul, and now Washington DC, these associations have become stronger. I like this image because it's how I recall the place: a regular house, not fancy, showing the seams of its age but in some inextinguishable way alive: the blast of red from the camellia in the front, the daffodils, the Meyer lemon tree peeking from the right-hand wall, the whole place charged with an electric green.
The barn at the right is about 15 miles from my grandmother's place --we called her Noni-- in what used to be outside of town: Sanger, California. It belonged to my Uncle Ernie, the main structure on his small-plot farm; we'd go out there sometimes and climb on haybales, shoot things with BB guns, pick oranges. Once he taught me how to hold down sheep with my knee so you could shear them. It's hard; they squirm. This farm was an important place for my sister and brother and me: more significant in retrospect, perhaps, than it may even have been at the time.
You can see my Great Uncle Ernie in the image below, from 1979, when I was three years old. That's me touching the calf. I have a copy of this photo framed in my office and I stare at it sometimes, because I've always thought of it as a picture of what it looks like to touch new knowledge. In my most lachrymose and retrospective modes, the photo captures, for me, something like openness to new experience, to nonhuman life and the dignity of it, and even perhaps (if you can excuse some sentimentalism now) to the idea of care itself. Here’s it’s care from my Uncle toward me, of course --see how his left hand wraps around my entire arm, protecting me with one hand, leading me with the other. But also the care of both of us toward the haunches of this unknown being, whose body doesn't even fit into the frame. It's hard not to see the strength of my Uncle's arms, the paleness of mine, and the calf, only half in the picture, escaping or indifferent to us. That animal --again, in my most melodramatic reading--represents something like otherness itself: a beyond to experience that I am here being shepherded –the word's no accident– to bring within the realm of my understanding.
Only later would I come to realize that my idealized memories about the farm in Sanger conformed to an entirely formulaic way of thinking about modern experience. In The Country and the City, Raymond Williams canonically glosses it this way:
Here’s one of those objects. It's Aaron’s Rod, by D.H. Lawrence, which follows in a thinly altered autobiographical way a coal miner and labor organizer who longs to play the flute. In the 60's this book was about social conformity and the ambition toward art, but it's hard not to see today that it is also a novel about the extraction of fossil fuels, and the intimate relationship of this rapacious money-getting to the demolition of human life itself.
They were mysterious to me, these books, and represented something bigger: a life elsewhere, beyond; something permanent. I wanted to know what was inside them. When I did look inside them I found things like this, at right: my father’s annotations, his notes, in a crazy scrawl I can still barely read. These were cryptic notations of mental process, an archive of the smartest person I believed I had ever met in the process of thought.
In his copy of Aaron's Rod my dad underlined this passage:
“Reckon it as you like, it’s money on both sides. It’s money we live for, and money is what our lives is worth – nothing else. Money we live for, and money we are when we’re dead: that or nothing. An’ it’s money as is between the masters and us. There’s a few educated ones got hold of one end of the rope, and all the lot of us hanging on to th’ other end, an’ we s’ll go on pulling our guts out, time in, time out –“ (16)
I am quite sure that this is ironic underlining: Aaron’s philosophy -- he’s a union organizer in a coal mine-- is a way of bleakly facing down a world organized against his own flourishing. Lessons like this stuck with me, and pushed me to want to generate my own sense of how philosophy and literature might be put toward the struggle Aaron describes here, the old antagonism, as Lawrence has it here, between masters and us. The question became how the “educated ones” Lawrence's hero sees as his enemies might aim for something better than dangling other people on a string, pulling their guts out -- how an education could open you up to a worldview that was more like the flute and less like the coal mine: a way of thinking where something more than money is, as Aaron puts it, “what we live for.”
Spurred by this other sort of encounter with the new, I left for college to major in English. I landed at Vassar, but since the biographical portion of this essay is now coming to a close, I will only say that it was beautiful, strange, and full of people I didn’t understand. East coast people. It was in Poughkeepsie, the industrial center of the Hudson Valley, which I've come to learn was a center of nineteenth century industrial pollution, a generalized contamination slower and more dissipated but no less catastrophic, in its way, than Three Mile Island. In the booming heyday of the nineteenth century, this industrial town --located on an important railway line and shipping route, not far from New York City-- had air that was black with soot from breweries and paper mills, factories fired by the very kind of coal Lawrence's hero (or his ancestors) was busy extracting in England. Money was made, lots of it: Matthew Vassar's coal-fired brewery built the college I flew off to after my senior year of high school.
I want to shift toward the real topic of these posts, and into the second post of this series, by sharing the strange fact that Vassar’s most famous tree -- planted probably before its founding in 1867-- is a London Plane.
You can see it below in a promotional-type image of this beautiful campus. Hybridized in London around 1645, roughly the same time London switched from being a woodburning city to a coal burning one, thus becoming the first fossil-fuel society in history, the London Plane was particularly adapted to the atmospheric conditions of the early Anthropocene. A hybrid of two kinds of tree, it would become a favorite of urban planners in England and the industrial areas of the U.S. because it was “particularly resistant to pollution," capable of withstanding London's "great stinking fogs," yellow-brown and toxic, that decimated trees and killed no fewer than 4,000 people in a single 5-day period as late as 1952 (Brimblecombe 124). It worked in America, too, and U.S. city planners became fans of the tree for its capacity to withstand the most hellish doses of industrial pollutants: the smoke that, as Rebecca Harding Davis wrote of another industrial city in 1861, four years before Vassar's founding,
rolls sullenly in slow folds from the great chimneys of the iron-foundries, and settles down in black, slimy pools on the muddy streets. Smoke on the wharves, smoke on the dingy boats, on the yellow river,—clinging in a coating of greasy soot to the house-front, the two faded poplars, the faces of the passers-by.
London Planes could live through it. This means that my own college was built with environmental catastrophe in mind. Unknown to me, in other words, my entire education unfolded under the sign of environmental disaster. I learned to think in the shadow of ecocide.
In the next post, "Storm Clouds of the Long Nineteenth Century," I shift -- at last -- away from my own biography to sketch a brief history of ecological catastrophe and show how poems by Matthew Arnold and Jorie Graham generated effects to engage with it.
Nathan K. Hensley
Here's where I'll paste fragments of readings, ideas, and questions.