Many things fascinate me, but the idea of evolution fascinates me to the point of awe. One of the things I enjoy is reading scientific material, including anthropological works: I consider that Loren Eiseley’s book The Firmament of Time is one of the great works of literature of the twentieth century, and another great writer of anthropology was Margaret Mead. Sometimes in my reading I come up against a passage that arrests my eyes and causes my mind to begin to spin a fable. Such a passage was this portion of a sentence by Mead: "...world of the first rose, and the first lark's song."
What must it have been like for the first truly human being at dawn one day to awaken from its sleep, to look out on the savannah, and to realize that she, or possibly he, was conscious of herself and of her plight and glory? To know, beyond all doubt, that she knew?
Listen to Lewis Turco read his poem Dawn Song:
I am the first to know dawn for the dawn —
it breaks across my mind as across the eyes
of the beast I was, of the beasts from whom I come,
and the swift sun slows, and I know it for the sun
in the world of the first rose, and the first lark's song.
I am the first to see the sharp sun dawn,
breaking across my terror and my surprise;
to know that I am the beast who knows his name:
Beast of the Sun, beast of the spinning sun
of the world of the first rose, and the first lark's song.
I am the first to see stone for a stone,
to heft it in my hand, to feel its weight
and know what it may do to the brittle bone
of the beasts of the sun, in the morning of the sun,
in the world of the first rose, and the first lark's song.
I see, and my sight is hard, hard as the stone
held in my hand, and this stone will be my fate.
The beast is my brother — beast is his only name.
He is the child of dust. I am stone's son,
born of the first rose and the first lark's song.
If scientists can be clear-thinkers, like Margaret Mead and Loren Eiseley, who also knew how to write, how to communicate their thoughts to readers and strike awe into their minds, they can also, unfortunately, be romantics who, if one thinks about what they say, convey to readers ideas that fall apart under scrutiny.
As a reader of science fiction when I was young — what is called “speculative fiction” these days, I guess, and of fantasy — “magical realism” now, I soon understood the difference between the two, between, let’s say, the science fiction of Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov and the beautiful, impossible worlds of Ray Bradbury. I enjoyed the one for its projections of a possible reality, and the other for its imaginary evocations of primal hopes, joys, fears, and sorrows. Therefore, when I run across a scientist who confuses the two, as the anthropologist Robert Ardrey did in the passage I quote next, I feel constrained to comment on that confusion. How close have we come to populating the stars? So as I had done before in poems, I once again put words into the mouth of a an ancient skull:
THE MAN HUNTER
"But we were born of risen apes, not fallen angels, and the apes were armed killers besides. And so what shall we wonder at?...The miracle of man is not how far he has sunk but how magnificently he has risen. We are known among the stars by our poems, not our corpses." — Robert Ardrey
(And the skull replies,)
When I saw, spinning webs of sense and dust,
the heart-shaped spider of the womb's demands,
I raised myself upright upon the crust
of earth and issued it my first commands:
"Give me what I may take before the glass
of time is empty as a brain's white bowl
where slugs drink, where the mosses gorge and green."
I walked out of the forest, across the grass —
it withered underneath my callous sole,
for I could not forget what I had seen.
I saw the scarab in the turning earth
spinning murders from its golden shell;
I saw the rooting beast probing death,
but death must root if it would hope to dwell.
Therefore, I walked the trench of lambs and ewes
with winter's humour snowing in my bones,
and in my web of veins the scratching, dumb
dry tongue of the beast feeding on my dews.
Then, when at last I lay down in these stones,
I knew that more of us would one day come.
And you have come to find yourself in me
here where I lie, a skull transformed to stone.
My sightless eyes look out at you and see
that under the eons we are still alone —
but we are billions now who were a few
to forsake the forest and face time with a rock,
a naked rock held in a naked hand.
We face the ages still, and we bestrew
this cairn of stars with the remnants of our stock:
a jawbone here and there wearing to sand.
Perhaps one day, many centuries from today, mankind will indeed get off the planet, a bit farther off it than Luna or Mars, and take with him and her the myths born of Earth. When I was young I thought that might begin to happen in my own lifetime:
I. First Father
I see him standing on the empty plain
As dawn begins to break across his eyes.
He is alone, this first of all my fathers,
But he can sense his scions and his daughters
Following down the looming centuries,
For time has started weaving through his brain,
And he can think. He understands at last
What must become, and what’s become his past.
And here I stand upon this farthest link
Staring down the line of molecules
Twisted in a spiral arc. I gaze
The other way to where the whirling haze
Rises over dark and depthless pools
And wonder what the final man must think.
2. Fathers of the Tribe
His sons and grandsons travel with the tribe
As it drifts out of the immense savannah
Following the herds, but searching for
Something else as well. They must explore,
Apparently. For Eden? For Nirvana?
Their leaders are unable to describe
What they are seeking past these eastern sands,
Moving always northward to colder lands.
What have we found beyond those roaming droves
That led us into canyons made of glass?
Where do we go from here? How shall we feed
The starving myriads whose simplest need
No longer can be met on Earth? En masse
We need again a miracle of loaves.
3. The Final Father
And as they stop, wherever they may move,
Each scion takes his mate who bears his seed,
The generations of First Father’s loins.
Time spends these children like so many coins
Minted from the soil. The Earth has need
Of purses full of these. The parents rove
Into the mystery to make it known,
To turn the strangest climes into their own.
Now we are everywhere. The human race
Has filled the niches that the world provided.
What’s left is Easter Island duplicated
On a massive scale. We are checkmated
By ourselves; we are the tribe divided
Staring hopelessly to outer space.
Mankind is apparently doing to this beautiful blue and green globe, the Earth, what earlier men did to Easter Island: They made it uninhabitable, by destroying the trees from which they had been able to manufacture canoes that would take them off the island to fish and travel; they overpopulated the soil that eventually could not sustain their numbers. Before we do that here, on the rest of our home planet, we need to understand our plight, we need to take charge of our future before there is no future remaining.
Unity College in Maine, “America’s Green College,” is one of the forward-looking institutions that is trying to save us all. Last evening my wife Jean and I returned from a day spent at Unity College where, in the morning, we attended the inauguration of Stephen Mulkey as the school’s tenth president, and the afternoon at the commencement exercises where I received an honorary doctorate of arts and humanities. Our daughter Melora Norman, director of the school’s Dorothy W. Quimby Library, and the Powow River poet Michele Leavitt, spouse of President Mulkey, introduced me and I read my poem “Flower Moon,” the New England Indians’ May moon, from my series titled “Twelve Moons” in American Still Lifes.* I presented the book to Stephen and Michele:
Listen to Lewis Turco read his poem Flower Moon:
The sun blossoms in the sky,
and the woodsflowers blossom.
Herbs bloom in the gardens.
All day light falls
until shadows fall
with the failing west.
Then a yellow flare
fires the clouds over the lake,
sets the waves afire.
Upon the shore the boats lie
among the voices of children
skipping stones over the water;
the moon skims
into the east
washing silver into the wood,
shadow into the stone —
and, beyond, the pike flash
under the lip of shadow.
Another honorary degree, described by President Mulkey as “The first and only Doctorate of Sustainability Science ever bestowed anywhere in the world,” was given to the commencement speaker Cynthia Barnett, environmental journalist and author of Blue Revolution, Unmaking America’s Water Crisis (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2011), a copy of which was presented as their senior gift to each of Unity College’s 2012 graduates. Ms. Barnett’s talk was riveting; I agreed with every word, and I hope everyone who cares about the planet we live on will read it and act upon it.
Notes: "Dawn Song" and "The Man Hunter" may be found in The Collected Lyrics of Lewis Turco / Wesli Court 1953-2004, Scottsdale, AZ: www.StarCloudPress.com, 2004, 460 pp., ISBN 1-932842-00-4, jacketed cloth, $49.95; ISBN 1-932842-01-2, trade paperback.
and all of the series titled "Twelve Moons," including "Flower Moon," may be found in Fearful Pleasures: The Complete Poems of Lewis Turco 1959-2007, Scottsdale, AZ: www.StarCloudPress.com, 2007. ISBN 978-1-932842-19-7, cloth; ISBN 978-1-932842-20-3, paper.