Category Archives: Dire Thoughts

The Dark Mountain

I first stumbled upon Robinson Jeffers in his own place, the precipitous headlands of the Sur coast, the tidelands of Point Lobos, and the long arc of sand at Carmel. He was already dead and I was at risk, an unwilling soldier training to fight an unwitting war.

It wasn’t a casual meeting or by chance. We were both drawn to the Sur coast by our individual trajectories like tides drawn by the moon. We were both compelled to stand on that shore and suffer the bone-deep grief for things already lost and things yet to lose. Jeffers understood the loss more than me. I was too young and self-absorbed to span the depth of it or carry its weight.

I would burn my hand in a slow fire
To change the future... I should do so foolishly. the beauty of modern
Man is not in the persons but in the
Disastrous rhythm, the heavy and mobile masses, the dance of the
Dream-led masses down the dark mountain.
Robinson Jeffers, 1940
Robinson Jeffers, 1940

He published the poem in 1934 but already felt the future’s foreshadow, endless wars, politicians retrenched behind walls of privilege, the forced migrations of the hungry and homeless, and border wars ignited like brush fires. He may not have anticipated the changing climate but he understood the mechanics of civilization and where it likely led.

“These grand and fatal movements toward death,” the opening line of Rearmament, is even more reflective of our times than his own. The grand movement we’ve begun is the Sixth Extinction where species are forced into the darkness like lemmings off a cliff.

I don’t know that we could have done otherwise. Humanity’s trajectory was set when we descended from the trees and survived by becoming the most vicious beast on the African savannah. We’ve changed the world too rapidly to accommodate ourselves.

We may survive the Sixth Extinction, diminished by violence, hunger, and disease, less arrogant, more cautious of our choices…or not. Why presume we’re immune? Life has always been a tentative balance between fitness and failure.

Jeffers was never a poet for determined optimists. His vision of humanity was dire and uncompromising and seems now likely, also true.

Men suffer want and become
Curiously ignoble; as prosperity
Made them curiously vile.
Life from the Lifeless

He is, however, a good companion for the descent down the dark mountain. I’ve carried The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers for years, my copy expropriated from the Marysville Public Library. The pages are yellowed and dogeared, the cover frayed, the verses underlined and highlighted. And when the grief for lost beauty threatens to overwhelm me, I find some comfort in The Answer.

...the greatest beauty is 
Organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things, the divine beauty
of the universe. Love that, not man
Apart from that, or else you will share man's pitiful confusions,
or drown in despair when his days darken.
The Answer

Growing old or aging?

I’m closer now to 70 than 60 and the end of my life is looming like a winter moon over an empty field. I’m not frightened of my death but thankful I still have some time to make sense of my life.

I’ve rushed headlong through my life, rarely taking time to look at the patterns that recur, again and again, like the turning of a screw or the ascent of a spiral. I suppose reflection is the purpose of old age, if there is a purpose, and there must be. Everything born will die. In Robinson Jeffers brutal phrase, “lopped at the ends by death and conception,” which makes death no less important than birth. They are events entangled like particles, defying the distance between.

“The unexamined life is not worth living,” Socrates supposedly said. What then of the unexamined death?

Most people don’t grow into their old age, they fall into it while obstinately looking the other way. They live as if they’ll never die; death always takes them by surprise.

I think old age is a gift not given to everyone. For those of us fortunate to live long enough, it can be a quiet place before nightfall where we can look across the span of years at the pieces of our lives, turn them this way and that and puzzle out the patterns. It’s a time to remember what was forgotten in the rush to grow up, a time to reconcile the harm done to us and the harm we’ve done others. And somewhere find forgiveness.

The Japanese have an aesthetic, wabi-sabi, that values the beauty of imperfection, the old, broken, and worn down. It’s an aesthetic shadowed by a sense of melancholy for the flawed beauty of life. But melancholy isn’t pathological. It’s an appreciation of the beautiful transience of the wind through the pines. Old age can be wabi-sabi or it can be ignored, denied, resisted, and terrifying.

In Leonard Cohen’s lyric, “there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” Death is the crack that allows the light into life.

Growing old requires paying attention. It requires acknowledging our mortality, our finiteness, our frailty. And it requires living with a pensive sadness for what is no longer, what never should have been, what never was. And in the lengthening shadows, to recognize there never was a need for forgiveness, only understanding.

Slouching Toward Bethlehem

Everywhere I turn there seems evidence of passionate dysfunction and rapacious greed. Drug manufacturers profiting from death and addiction, politicians selling their vote for privilege and re-election, oil companies trading humanity’s future for quarterly earnings, and desperate people drowning in despair as our days darken. It seems the dire warnings of Revelations have come true, the perfect apocalypse—wars and rumors of war, fire and flood, drought and famine and the leadership of fools. The earth trembles beneath the weight of humanity and we can’t seem to help ourselves or each other.

There is too much noise, too much urgency, much of it artificial, much of it marketing. I’ve begun to distance myself from it. I’m no longer following Trump’s twitter feed. I’m no longer starting my day with coffee and CNN. I’ve unsubscribed from the newsletters of all those good folk urging immediate action for one worthy cause after another, one dire emergency after another.

Maybe I’m guilty of isolating myself. Maybe I should be more committed to fighting in the streets but the fight seems never ending and never successful. The new boss is always the same as the old boss. Maybe those old Roman stoics were right.

Then what is the answer?—Not to be deluded by dreams.
To know the great civilizations have broken down into violence, and their tyrants come, many times before.
When open violence appears, to avoid it with honor or choose the least ugly faction; these evils are essential.
To keep one’s own integrity, be merciful and uncorrupted and not wish for evil; and not be duped
By dreams of universal justice or happiness. These dreams will not be fulfilled.
To know this, and know that however ugly the parts appear the whole remains beautiful. A severed hand
Is an ugly thing, and man dissevered from the earth and stars and his history…for contemplation or in fact…
Often appears atrociously ugly. Integrity is wholeness, the greatest beauty is
Organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things, the divine beauty of the universe. Love that, not man
Apart from that, or else you will share man’s pitiful confusions, or drown in despair when his days darken.

The Answer, Robinson Jeffers

Dire Thoughts

We may be witnessing the collapse of the United States like the collapse of a massive star into a black hole. Nothing lives forever and the headlong acceleration of a nation’s lifespan might be as much effected by technology as industry and society. How could we expect otherwise? We invent our tools with no regard except efficiency;  afterwards, our tools invent us.

We have reshaped the world in our own image not by intent but by happenstance. Because we could. We are spectacular opportunists focused on our feet without restraint or responsibility for the future. We have created a world so densely populated and interconnected one part can’t stand without the whole but then we act as if separate and alone.

We will not go gently into that good night, or alone. The extinction event we’ve triggered will ensure that. It’s not the first time or the last that death has descended on the planet like a starless night. Life will continue in some form or other. Maybe not our form.

We are not wholly responsible for our failure. It wasn’t a moral choice we could make unencumbered by our evolutionary history. We have succeeded beyond comparison because of our brilliant flaws. Those flaws may eventually prove fatal but is our failing also our fault? Could we have done otherwise?

Perhaps we’re just one possibility in a continuum where every possibility must eventually be explored and every road travelled to the end. We play our part in a script written by our genes. In the fullness of time, every drama is a tragedy and every life “lopped at the ends by death and conception.”

Perhaps the inevitability absolves us of personal guilt or fear of punishment by some petulant god with the moral compass of a six-year-old child but still we carry the awful burden of watching so much beauty vanish from the earth, knowing we were the agent of indifferent chance. Still we keenly feel the loss of possibilities, the loss of beauty, that our collapse portends. In the past and maybe again in the future an asteroid or a massive volcano might shroud the sun and plunge the earth into ruin but this night was our doing. This was our hand turned against ourselves and every other thing living on this planet.

Another form of intelligence will emerge with time and chance. Perhaps the crows. They’re an old species. They’ve watched humanity’s bloody rise and fall. They’ve fed in the fields where we raged. Perhaps they’ve learned restraint. Perhaps living in the air provides a broader perspective than living in the dirt.

Perhaps. But then the play begins again. The fault is in our stars.