Thursday, May 11, 2006

His blood is sea water and his tears are salt

The American nature writer Donald Culross Peattie, who I quoted yesterday, lived in rural Illinois during the depths of the Great Depression and the devastation of the Dust Bowl. The Great War was fresh in his memory, with its shattered landscapes and poisoned air. Not an easy time to be an optimist.

The lofty moralizing of earlier nature writers like John Burroughs and John Muir no longer resonated with a generation who had seen (in Peattie's words) "the trees blasted by the great guns and the bird's feeding on men's eyes." Like Loren Eiseley and Lewis Thomas after him, Peattie looked skeptically at nature, not expecting sermons in leaf and stone, but rather a chastening existential silence.

Yet he wrested from nature the will to go on, to affirm a point to life, to get up in the morning and earn his keep. W. H. Auden said of Eiseley that he was "a man unusually well trained in the habit of prayer, by which I mean the habit of listening." Peattie, too, knew how to listen. Listening -- as these writers listened -- required courage and the will to change, to surrender the simple pieties of the past and embark upon an immense journey into the lonely spaces between the galaxies and the atoms.

From his closely observed acre of land in Illinois, Peattie listened and watched as the years passed, and turned his "habit of prayer" into words of great meaning and beauty. The meaning had something to do with beauty; something to do with the gorgeous, prodigious throb and thrust of life; something to do with being part of a continuity that is greater than himself.

"I say that it touches a man that his blood is sea water and his tears are salt, that the seed of his loins is scarcely different from the same cells in a seaweed, and that the stuff of his bones are coral made," he wrote. He was immersed up to his neck -- nay, to the top of his head -- in the "essential and precious something that just divides the lowliest microorganism from the dust," the inexplicable essence of life. He reveled in it, and turned his experience into poetry. He did not look for an incorruptible heaven beyond the stars. Nature itself is the miracle, he wrote, with all its imperfections.