Monday, May 31, 2010

HUMANS AND NATURE: LESSONS FROM THE BOGS

Tim Robinson, author and resident of Roundstone, Connemara Ireland, has wandered and studied the bogs of that region for many years. I have read and re-read the following passage many times, pausing to think about climate change, unbridled development and, most recently, oil spills.

As to our own effects on the ground we stand on, our powers of creative destruction and destructive creativity are enmeshed inextricably. Intellect calls on the remotest fields of knowledge - even the mysteries of cosmic rays and quantum physics - to let us look into the depths of the bog. What was darkness and burial is opened into views of an ur-landscape, a clean scoured world of rock, quickly enveloped in flowers and forests; then a shadow is glimpsed between the trees; one can feel the ground quake at the fall of a grain of wheat pollen. A new species has arrived, carrying a dreadful weapon, the intellect. An arms race has begun, the axe evolves from stone to bronze to iron to steel. Great woods with all their sighs and cries go down into silence; the animals succumb: yesterday the bear, wolf, boar, deer, eagle and today the grouse, the golden plover. The soil is coerced into fruitfulness for a while and abandoned when it falls exhausted. Cultures and religions succeed one another; the coming of intellect (borrowing that word to stand for symbolic communication, communal memory, cumulative innovation) tumbles us into a rate of development beyond the adaptive capacities of biological evolution. Intellect is a new factor, arising out of nature but wrecking its equilibria. Ice Ages were so slow-moving that animals and plants could retreat before them and survive, but intellect is a raging fire. And now intellect, discovering its own effects, acquires a guilty self-consciousness. At the last moment we try to conserve some shreds of nature, which are in fact the waste products of our economy. Our wastelands are so beautiful and so tender we wonder if we should enter them at all. Should we stand here discussing the origins of the bog, knowing that a footprint in sphagnum moss lasts a year or more, that the tuft of lichen we crush unseeingly has taken decades to grow? Sometimes when a snipe leaps from under my feet and goes panicking up the sky, I am appalled at my own presence in a place so old and slow and long -suffering as Roundstone Bog.

Tim Robinson. 2006. Connemara: Listening to the Wind. Penguin Books

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