It still seems unclear whether or not we have reached a real turning point in beating back the plague. Some signs are good, but as viral variants spread and vaccinations lag, there is a persistently pessimistic tone in much of the press. At best, the tentative liberations we are now enjoying reinforce the realization of the constraints, limitations, and contractions that have shriveled our lives. That what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger is an aspirational thought, but no more convincing than most in its genre—that of whistling in the dark. It is truer to say that what doesn’t kill you can still do you a pretty severe damage. The whole world has suffered, and continues to suffer, a wound that will leave its continuing scars.
Ordinarily one can safely turn to the world of nature for philosophical comfort. The old belief was that the balm for the sores created by human cupidity and its corrupted institutions is to be found in the simplicity of the natural world. One of the most famous set pieces in Shakespeare, the Duke’s “Forest of Arden” speech early in As You Like It, gives classical expression to the idea of the superiority of the honest roughness of rustic nature to the smooth but noxious sophistications of high society. Sweet are the uses of adversity, which, like the toad, ugly and venomous, wears yet a precious jewel in his head. And the Duke goes on with a famous statement of the benign didacticism of Mother Nature. “And this our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.”
A once famous twelfth-century poem, now known only to experts whose obscurity matches that of the objects of our attention, is called The Complaint of Nature. Its author was a theologian named Alan, from Lille, in northern France. The poem is built about a startling conceit. Nature is imagined and personified as a radiant woman clad in a sumptuous panchromatic dress, the brilliant colors of which display the full beauty of the natural world in all their variety and sparkle. It is, in fact, the whole of the material creation represented in textile form. But Dame Nature has a great sadness, allegorized by a single glaring flaw in this garment—a tear or fissure in that part of it representing human beings. The complaint or lament of Lady Nature’s soliloquy is that human beings alone, out of all the natural creation, behave in perverse and unnatural fashions. I hesitate to debate matters of divinity with Alain de Lille or any other medieval doctor of theology. Still it seems to me that he may have missed something. He didn’t face coronavirus, but he would have been quite familiar with several other nasty plagues and hideous illnesses. But he still did anticipate the circumstance of a natural world damaged and wounded by human dereliction. This is the world we read about in stories about raging forest fires, eroding seashores, and poisonous smogs.
If you read my last post you will know that like the Duke I am one inclined to find tongues in trees and sermons in stones, and the walk I took yesterday was a little disturbing in this regard. I wrote about the cicada phenomenon a couple of months ago. It is over, but its evidences are still quite visible, and some of them are unpleasant. The stinking corpses and the creepy little exoskeletons are mainly gone now, but there are other archaeological remains. Any patch of bare earth on the footpaths through the woods is likely to be perforated by a dozen or more dark holes, about the thickness of a cigarette. These are the mouths of the little tunnels from which the midget monsters emerged after their seventeen-year hibernation. The buzzing bugs emerge to lay their eggs along the tender twigs of trees, and they seem to favor some of the most beautiful ones in our parts, including old oaks and beeches. By some process I do not understand, they make a series of little cuts, surgical incisions really, along the length of the twig ends. These look almost mechanically precise, as though made with a sewing machine. They so weaken the little stem ends that they often crack, especially if jostled by strong winds. Sometimes they actually break off and fall to the ground, but mainly they simply hang there, dead and brown. I remember reading somewhere in one of the tougher mystery writers—Chandler, perhaps?—that people who are serious about slitting their wrists always start at the wrist and drag the blade down along the length of the forearm. The cicadas are very serious about laying their eggs. The continuity of the species pretty much defines the whole duty of a cicada. I don’t know that they can actually kill a mature tree, but they can certainly uglify it. The dispiriting visual effect is depressing, and with trees free-standing in fields or house yards it is augmented by the nasty litter of dead and desiccated fronds about the tree base.
The tongues in these trees do not tell so happy a story. The portents are not good. However poignant, the autumnal shedding of leaves has its commodiousness as well as its inevitability. But these ugly dead twig ends attest to violence and pathology, not a seasonal rhythm as old as time. What we see here is abrupt, premature, disturbing. I am writing this on a hot, sultry July day, but somehow I am forced to face adumbrations of summer’s end. It’s not a very good feeling, though I know my reaction actually has less to do with the weather than with family movements. We have seen a good deal of all three of our children this summer, but that long-awaited and too rapidly passing pleasure will soon enough come to an abrupt end. Richard and Katie Dixon and daughter Ruby are seizing the rare opportunity of a respite in their professional lives to give themselves a kind of cultural sabbatical and educational enrichment program by moving to southern Spain for a few months! They have already lined up what looks like a gorgeous house in Granada. We shall soon add to our roster of polylingual grandchildren one who lisps in Castilian. They leave in a couple of weeks. Luke, Melanie, and their two delightful kids have been in the South visiting the maternal family home, and we shall have them briefly with us again on their long trek back to Canada. But that family, too, will be gone before we know it. Montreal is not all that far as the crow flies, but the crow doesn’t have to deal with the pandemic regulations that for the moment make Canada seem as far away from us as Canton. Our Manhattanites are still in place, but there is a shake-up there as well, with one granddaughter off to college within a month and another already immersed in the excitements of a rising high-school senior. There is still a fast lane out there somewhere, but it’s not for us. We are the old folks at home. That has a nice sound, but the reality of it is a little disquieting.