April, 2007 Archive

Ecolit Class

Thursday, April 5th, 2007

Peterson Ranch, above the pole house, looking east. Breathing hard after a brisk walk. French horns and snare drum of the freight train laboring up the grade in the background, twittering of sparrows and finches in a dense grove of sycamore, bay and oak down below, the scream of a young redtail circling overhead, two rooks shouting and sparring in a tree top. Twenty five people spread out out on the hillside silently listening and recording.

A wisp of breeze stirs the stagnant air, cools the sweat on the back of my neck. Flat light, not the Vergillian golden radiance and lengthening shadows of former years. But the overcast makes the new growth flouresce with a dozen versions of green.

The usual April torrent of the creek is down to an October trickle. Not thirty but eight inches of rain this year. Yet around us on the serpentine bloom lupine and tidy tips, blue dicks and blue-eyed grass, monkey flower and johnny jump-ups.The dell explodes with a rude ecstatic trill. Wings wildly flapping, a small bird darts our way, then glides and swoops into the willows up the hill.

It’s a shame to disrupt this performance and its rapt audience, but I’ve assigned homework and prepared a discussion, and ink and paper has been consumed to print the readings. On the first day of class we read Ovid’s description of the Golden Age, when innocent humanity was sustained by honey and acorns, and also the biblical account of Nature’s creation as a harmonious artwork designed to provide for all the needs of his naked children by a generous parent-God. Today the ancient texts are Vergil’s Georgics”a praise of the farmer’s life acknowledging the immense difficulty of mere survival”and God’s speech from the whirlwind in the Book of Job, where He mocks the good man’s futile search for intelligibility and proclaims the cruel and awesome wildness of His universe.

Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars,
and spreads its wings toward the south?
Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up
and makes its nest on high?
It lives on the rock and makes its home
in the fastness of the rocky crag.
From there it spies the prey;
its eyes see it from far away.
Its young ones suck up blood;
and where the slain are, there it is.

I read the fierce verses and they echo the screams, the croaks and the trills we’ve just heard. They answer Thoreau’s question, the motto of this course:

Where is the literature which gives expression to Nature? He would be a poet who could impress the winds and streams into his service, to speak for him ¦whose words were so true, and fresh, and natural that they would appear to expand like the buds at the approach of spring, though they lay half smothered between two musty leaves in a library¦ .