Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Late Great Planet Earth--of Eschatology and Holocene Extinctions

Today is the birthday of Nostradamus, which dovetails nicely with my research interests--brief and fleeting, as they may be. Actually, my research interests aren't brief and fleeting. It's more like they're circular cycles, something I come back to again and again. For almost as long as I remember, I've been an eschatology girl, fascinated by the end of all things. I remember reading Nostradamus in college, after hearing about him for years. I remember thinking, "Huh. People see actual events in these vague writings?"

Similarly I read the book of Revelation in early adolescence. It was the 1970's, those days of The Late, Great Planet Earth, a book which declared that Biblical prophecy foretold the end times, end times which were currently underway. When I was bored in church, I read those prophetic books, Revelation and Daniel most memorably, and I didn't see the same events as Hal Lindsey did.

That damn book is still in print. Why are we so enthralled by these kind of books and so blind to eschatological events that are actually happening, right now, in real time?

Somehow, yesterday, I found myself researching the 6 great extinctions, the 6th of which is currently underway. What began this meandering? I can't remember, but soon I was dashing down this Internet corridor and that one, learning about various species that have vanished, various types of habitat loss, thinking about vegetation die offs. Google the term "Holocene Extinction" and prepare to be distressed. Each year, approximately 50,000 species go extinct. And that's just animal species, from what I understand.

I answered e-mails and wondered how many species had gone extinct in the amount of time it took me to reply to those e-mails. I found myself thinking about habitat loss, including human habitat loss. Usually I can go about my day without thinking about sea level rise and frog die offs. Then there are the other days, when I'm on a quest for a fact that I remember hearing on NPR's Science Friday or some other show. And so, this morning I had a memory of microbes being responsible for x amount of the great die offs in the past--but how many? And then I wandered through the archives, listening to this show and that show. And before I know it, I've lost hours.

But I feel some sort of poem brewing. I've been jotting down phrases. I particularly like this sentence from scientist Lynn Margulis: "We are mammalian weeds" (quoted in an Oct. 8, 2010 Bozeman Daily Chronicle article). I also jotted down the idea of torturing nature. I've been noticing the prominence of torture in our mass media. I can't watch Criminal Minds anymore. I can't take all those storylines that involve captivity and torture. I'm appalled by how many movies are 2 hour long torture fests. Why do we find that storyline so compelling these days? What will future researchers deduce about us as they watch our cultural artifacts?

Of course, we're torturing the planet too. And the planet is no wimpy female who will just accept whatever punishment the diabolical male wants to dish out. The laws of Chemistry and Physics are harsh. In our hubris, we think we can control these processes, but we can't.

The laws of Biology can be harsh too. Last night I paid over $4 for a bag of potatoes, the most I've ever paid for potatoes. I think of those humble root vegetables that have kept so many populations alive. I think of those Irish women who moved their families to the side of the sea when the potato crops failed. Where did I get that nugget of information? I no longer remember, but I know that I came across it long ago, because it made its way into the poem that I'll post below. I wrote it in 1998, and this blog posting is its first publication.

Not an upbeat post, is it? You're wondering what happened to the cheery Christmas pictures of last week. Well, I come out of a liturgical tradition, where we celebrate Advent, that period before Christmas with its whispers of end times and trauma. But for those of you who need a cheerier poem with Christmas/Easter themes, scroll down (and let me stress that the last poem isn't biographical--my father did have cancer, but in a different time frame, and so far, he's fine, and he didn't lose his hair).


The bits of potato refused
to spout and grow, the stubborn
soil spitting nothing through the crust
of earth. So Irish women moved
their households to the side of the shore.
All the better to scavenge a bit of seaweed
to suckle, to send starvation
away for a few more days.

I sigh at the grocery store, reject
one piece of fish after another.
“Don’t you have anything fresher?”
I request an even bigger fish, even though I feed
just my husband and myself.
Might as well have some leftovers
for a nice bouillabaisse.

Women in Cameroon kept the bodies
of their families together by sucking
on the bones of scavenged seconds.
First the animal slaughtered the prey and ripped
the flesh to bits.
The women waited for the predator to eat its fill
and then prepared their own buffet.
They cooked the brittleness out of the bones,
drew out the marrow,
served this strange stew, and hoped
for a better growing season.

In my country of all-you-can-eat extravaganzas,
I refuse to eat meat that clings
to the bone. I indulge
in boneless, skinless chicken,
cook spareribs until the morsels of meat
flake off onto my fork,
and sigh over how much my eating options
bore me.

Plunging Through Darkness

The liturgical year creeps to a close.
The secular world prepares for Christmas
before even buying Halloween candy.
Each November Sunday we hear
the prophecy of the end, the signs of imminent

The last leaves fall when tests find my father’s
cancer resurrected. Those dark
masses lurk behind our holiday conversation.
We argue about the best stuffing,
but what we really want is reassurance
that this Thanksgiving will not be our last,
no holes in future family photos.

We light the Advent candles as the planet
plunges into darkness. We learn the names of procedures
and strange chemicals. We draw Secret Santa
names and devise a caretaking schedule.
We read Isaiah, a strange comfort, that anguished
voice, crying for connection. We hear the Advent
tales again, angels who appear with unsettling
news, submission to strange wills not our own.

In January, the earth inches towards light,
two extra minutes of sun each day.
My father’s appetite returns, and color floods
his flesh. Hair appears in new sprouts
the same week as the daffodils.

(written in 2004; appearing for the first time here)


Kathleen said...

Thank you so much for this!--the wild research ride and for sharing some of the results of it and your poems. And thanks for relieving us in advance about your dad! The poem did it, too, with the flooding color.

Lynn Margulis is one of my favorite biologists!! (So is E. O. Wilson--is he one of the species extinction biologists you were researching?!) I am impressed with Margulis for many reasons, including her view of cell behavior as altruistic and collaborative, not just competitive and selfish. I love the book she wrote with her son, Dorion Sagan, called Mystery Dance: On the Evolution of Human Sexuality. I have also read some of her short fiction! AND I checked out her big book on one-celled organisms from the library. Mostly, I looked at the pictures.

Kristin said...

How intriguing! i had never heard of Margulis before my Internet wandering. You make me want to read more--thanks for that.