Ecological Turbulence and the Hadean Arcadia
Frederick Turner, Ph.D.
When prairie restoration ecologists, by careful research, reseeding, weeding, and fare, have rekindled a living prairie, they often begin to yearn for buffalo. Why would they want their carefully-planted prairie to be tromped all over by large animals? The answer is that the rarer species, the special surprise of the prairie orchid, the turk’s-head lily, need disturbance to find a place to grow; their ecological niche isturbulence and disruption. But the same could be said for many prairies as a whole, which rely on occasional fares to prevent an oak forest from growing up in their place. The Amazon Basin is so rich in species because of the rapid climatic variations of the recent glacial-interglacial cycles, that periodically isolated and stressed its ecological communities and made them diverge; It is the wild swings of salt and fresh, wet and dry, storm and calm that make seacoasts so rich a field of genetic experiment.
Humankind is perhaps the most opportunistic of all such “disturbance” species. We exist at ecological margins, whether indigenous or artificial; like beavers and termites, but more so, we must disturb the Earth to exist at all. The recent rise of environmental restoration, and the exciting new art of landscape design based on its findings, shows us humans turning back to contemplate our own evolution and intervening in the present world so as to recover its past. The deeply mediated nature of this process should not alarm us; for nature always was mediated, experienced, sophisticated, disturbed, as the history of species and biome evolution shows. We have accelerated the process, to be sure, and must take care that it does not go astray, but here we are in the middle of it; there is no escape.
I want to talk a little about a landscape design exhibit now touring the country that I had some part in bringing about. One of the glass display cases housing the Vintondale Mine remediation exhibit had broken in transit when Terry Harkness first introduced me to the Eco-Revelatory Design show. The heavy plate glass had been etched with text and images–by some acid process, I imagined–but the breakage made the words hard to read. The case contained a dark orange substance, of the consistency of damp coarse salt. I took a pinch of it and tasted it. It was as sour as vinegar or lemon juice, and acrid, and at the same time foul like sweat, and somehow parched, as if antipathetic to moisture and the human tongue.
This was Yellow Boy, the toxic crust that forms on the streambeds and alluvial fiats beneath the abandoned coalmines of Pennsylvania: it is a precipitate of the highly acid waters from the old mineshafts and “bony piles” (slurry tailings). Yellow Boy is mainly ferric oxide, but I thought I tasted sulfuric acid or carbonic acid as well; the clusters of oxygen atoms on each molecule were reaching out to burn whatever they could combine with. One was reminded that oxygen is a caustic and highly reactive element, the bane of the Earth’s first anaerobic lifeforms, the explosive fuel used at our own risk by all of us eukaryotes.
That taste of Yellow Boy was the taste of the Industrial Revolution, when our idea of value in the universe was the one given to us by the new and powerful science of thermodynamics. Value was work, a diminishing stockpile of free energy, over the control of which the social classes were locked in mortal straggle, and our idea of production was to dig things up and burn them. We could not beat the increase of entropy, of thermodynamic disorder; the best we could do was to outrun it by squandering the abundant stores of natural order faster than nature itself could. One of the natural resources we burned was the sweat and youth of the laborer, of the hundreds of men and boys–oven stokers, pickmen, door boys, lift operators and carmen, who toiled at the No. 6 mine.
When we built our great industrial cities with the forces those men had put at our disposal we found that the rain itself had become our enemy: it pooled on our streets and our acres of roofing and our huge parking lots, soaked up the toxins of our commerce, transportation, and waste, and rushed in flash floods through our homes and businesses. So we “chartered” our streets, as William Blake put it, and built culverts and storm drains and subterranean pipes and caves to hide and rid ourselves of what had once nourished our crops. We wanted only the ordered, linear laminar flow of the liquid, not its unruly and unpredictable turbulence. And we wanted the undesirable and shameful consequences of our actions to be sent underground, hushed up–even, in the case of the East German government, to the extent that the law declaring certain environmental “sacrifices” a state secret was itself a state secret.
In Senftenberg, as a remarkable German exhibit shows, the great open-cast lignite mines that fuelled the Third Reich and the GDR had created the ultimate combination of secrecy and threat. Local plumes of toxic industrial wastes, often from unmarked and concealed sites, were waiting for the water-table, artificially lowered by mine pumping, to recharge itself and rise to where they could be carded away. The town of Senftenberg and its accompanying villages such as Buchwalde, lay directly in the path of the toxins, which would begin to rise in flooding throughout the area in about 2020. The German past, it seems, never ceases to haunt its present. As the exhibit text puts it, chillingly, the only “solution” that seemed to offer itself was the complete depopulation of Senftenberg, and the “Auswanderung” or deportation of the 1,000,000 inhabitants of the area as a whole. We “are what we do,” as the exhibit text puts it, “if only through what we eat, drink, and breathe.”
But this Eco-Revelatory Design show is an act of healing, of remediation, not of recrimination. That healing takes place in several ways: the two powerful mine-remediation exhibits, Ame[ican and German, demonstrate two different approaches.
The American exhibit of Julie Bargman and Stacy Levy forgives, celebrates, and in the tragic mode, makes beauty out of horror and pity. A string of pond basins along the valley cut the acid with alkaline limestone (itself composed of the carbonaceous corpses of ancient marine life), raising the pH from a deadly 2.9 to around 6.0, then cleanse and lenify the water further through the gentle filtering action of acid-loving wetland plants. The process is dramatized by the change in color of this “litmus garden” from brilliant orange, through shades of yellow and green, to blue. With remarkable artistic boldness the landscape planners have made the very colors of the environmental poisons into a design element, recognizing the unearthly beauty that many of us have found in the baby-blue or scarlet or iridescent bronze of mine ponds, a beauty we are ashamed to acknowledge. The healing process is further illustrated by the foliage of the native trees, shrubs, and forbs that will be encouraged to recolonize the area, their very names a rich embroidery of color–Blue Flag, Black Chokeberry, Soft Rush, White Ash, Summersweet, Wild Cherry, Sassafras.
I was finally able to make out the words acid-etched on the glass case. They were a poem by Malcolm Cowley about this very place, from his collection, Blue Juniata:
Mine No. 6
They scoured the hill with steel and living brooms
of fire, that none else living might persist;
here crouch their cabins, here the tipple looms
uncompromising, black against the mist.
All day their wagons lumber past, the wide
squat wheels hub deep, the horses strained and still;
a headlong rain pours down all day to hide
the blackened stumps, the ulcerated hill.
Beauty, perfection, I have loved you fiercely
even in this windy slum, where fear
drips from the eaves with April rain, and scarcely
a leaf sprouts, and a wilderness in pain
brings forth its monstrous children even here
. . . your long white cruel fingers in my brain.
The poem itself is a sonnet, an ancient classical form, composed at a time when it was quite unfashionable to write in any other form than modernist free verse. Free verse, like modernity itself, was functionalist, stripped of ornament, direct, heroically discarding the “outworn conventions,” the sentimental old jingles of rhyme and meter. So in choosing the sonnet form, the ancient vehicle of the love song, Cowley is himself attempting a perhaps premature remediation of the language. His poem is a blue flag or wild cherry, straggling to grow in the tipple of the modernizing economy, and no doubt this is why the designers chose it.
The exhibit, no less than Cowley’s poem, acknowledges the terrible beauty of that “wilderness in pain.” Those miners helped to make the steel that built this country, that, forged into tanks and aircraft carders, defeated the forces of state totalitarianism all over the world. We have begun to outgrow the first witch-hunt period of environmentalism, when we simply condemned our industrial past. The theme of Julie Bargman and Stacy Levy is forgiveness and celebration.
Not so the German exhibit of Kristina Hill. Beneath the routine atrocities of industrialization, excusable by their apparent heroic purpose, lie level below level of subterranean toxins–the secrecy of the totalitarian state, its unconcern for its citizens, its denials of the still more terrible industrial dehumanizations that attended its birth. Such things can not be forgiven .in this century at least; they certainly cannot ever be celebrated, even in the tragic mode.
But they must be, can be, managed. How? Kristina Hill turns, as do her American counterparts, to poetry for her metaphor: in this case, to the greatest German poem of all, Goethe’s Faust. The damned hero, who sold his soul to the Devil and brought about the death of his beloved Gretchen, finds his way to salvation by a huge act of public service: the creation of the great ring-dikes that hold back the waters of the North Sea and save the city threatened by floods. The very knowledge and technical craft by which he rebelled against God and Nature is now turned to the purposes of the community.
Kristina Hill inverts the metaphor–the “dikes” are not positive dams but negative depressions of the water table, created by the same techniques of groundwater pumping by which the state had enabled the strip-mining to take place and had concealed its results. Unlike Faust, the designer is not trying to hold back a natural force so much as to prevent a natural force, the rise of the water table, from carrying human poisons–admittedly natural themselves in their own deadly way–into the human community. In inverting the metaphor, the designer as she buries the means of remediation also digs up and brings above ground the knowledge and responsibility of the human community. The design provides pollution sensors on public display that must be monitored by the population under threat, suggesting that the passive protection afforded by a literal dike is not enough. The active vigilance and cooperation of the community–that both helped by its silence and collusion to create the threat and is currently menaced by it–is also required. Hill’s remediative technology is political and pedagogical, like Germany’s constant and necessary current effort to suppress the forces of xenophobia, antisemitism, and racism among its unemployed youth.
No line can yet be drawn under this history. Unlike the American restoration, whose settling pools form a complete narrative sequence from tragic beginning through comic remedy to the meditative and gentle retrospection of its wetland ending, the German works cannot yet be concluded in peace. They must remain in a state of tension. Hill’s ending is like the endings of another German poet, Bertold Brecht, who did not want the audiences of his plays to go out of the theater purged and satisfied, but full of an aroused and unsatisfied sense of injustice, made aware of political and social evil, eager to put things right and bring malefactors to justice. Though Brecht himself, as an active supporter of the east German regime, was part of the problem and not the solution, his expressionist method can be useful when turned against the legacy of his former employer. Brecht used what he called the “alienation effect” (Verfremdungseffekt) to prevent his audience from comfortably identifying with his actors, and in the same spirit Hill’s interventions in the post-holocaust landscape do not allow the local populace to imagine that this place, even when restored, is an ordinary bit of countryside. The commemorations of extinct villages displaced by the mines, markers of the sites of former machinery, and above all the monitoring technology, will be a reminder of a past that is still draining through the ground and cannot be forgotten. “Eco-Revelation” is here an act of political memory and admission of guilt.
Hill adds two little suggestions of hope, however: the yellow and red fields of mustard and red clover, together with the black of the carbonaceous earth, will remind the viewer of the flag of the Federal Republic and its ideals of decentralized democracy. And there is a red door, with the year 2010 written on it, at the edge of the project, promising a possible time when forgiveness might be possible–but does so only at the cost of invoking the image of another inscribed gateway, over which was written “Arbeit Macht Frei”–work makes you free.
What is a distant hope for Eastern Europe is, however, an immediate promise for America, as the Eco-Revelatory show demonstrates. East Germany must for now endure, accept, and manage its past; America may be almost ready to draw a line under its own, remember it in both shame and pride, honor it, and go on to new things. The designers in this show take many paths to this goal, but there is a surprising confluence of themes.
Perhaps the most immediately striking of these themes is the unabashed celebration of the past. From both the west and the east coasts come loving historical monuments that are designed to carry the past into the future as a source of inspiration: Harkness’ California foothills park, and the Governors Island project of Anuradha Mathut and Dilip da Cunha.
A second major theme of the show as a whole is ritual performance. The Governors Island project explicitly includes performance spaces, as do the Oakland park of Louise Mozingo and Edward Blake’s plan for the Hattiesburg Convention center. This latter is especially interesting for its evocation of the great garden of Stourhead in England, where the visitor must, in a circuit of the lake, allegorically reenact the journeys of Virgil’s Aeneas in his ordeal of founding the city of Rome. The Hattiesburg Center diverges somewhat from the general move of these exhibits toward an open and unplanned synergy; everything here seems planned to the last detail. But there ought to be places where human art has fully reinvented nature, just as there ought to be places where humans have given the initiative over to other species. Human beings, after all, are an animal species; one indeed like the beavers or the termites, who build and thus profoundly change the landscape. But the Hattiesburg center returns us to prehuman nature as well; for the little epic journey the visitor must take is not the story of a human hero but the story of the history of a watershed, a river, a valley. Thus old and new genres of human performance–the garden as aristocratic moral pageant and the garden as futuristic terraforming epic–are combined in this very interesting American arcadia.
The theme of community involvement–the third theme that is salient in this show–needs some recognition of its own as an important element in the future of American landscape design. Landscape must become a ritual space for the human community to reestablish its ancient performative connection with the land. The crucial point is that human beings are not alien beings that somehow supervened upon this planet to its inevitable detriment, but members of an animal species, mammalian primates who are as much at home here as any other species. Nature on this planet is not nature unless it includes this clever pantropic weed of an animal. We can no longer think of our ecological knowledge as, so to speak, standing outside of nature, an objective observer of it. We are both gardeners and part of the garden. Thus there are no one-way cause-effect relationships between humans and the rest of nature: the connection is always there, and the connection is always two-way, a tangle of feedbacks and mutual influences. The classical logic of linear cause will not work; nor will its postmodern equivalent, Michel Foucault’s reductive political question “who does what to whom?”
The fourth theme is what one might call the embrace and acceptance of turbulence. This theme shows up especially in the many exhibits that deal with floodwater, runoff, silting, and the nonlinear and unpredictable elements of weather in general. Modernist landscape and architectural plans always seem to lie stunned beneath an endless halcyon blue sky. There are no puddles in the streets, no high winds and fogs and damp feet and wet dogs shaking themselves over the carpet. What is especially refreshing about this show is that so many of the exhibits get into the mud of nonlinear reality. We see it in the mine reclamations, the Governors Island project, Achva Stein’s arcadian bladerunner Los Angeles, the heroic redesign of the University of Virginia campus by Kathy Poole and Shaw Yu, the Wenk Associates plan for Denver and its airport, the grand Anacostia River Watershed project of Joseph Eades, and the very fine Pueblo, Colorado river project of Richard Hansen–indeed, in virtually all the exhibits. The Pueblo park design has an especially appealing plan to bring back the cottonwood trees and the ecosystems they support. Cottonwood trees need flash floods to germinate; so the designers have arranged the parking lots so as to create artificial flash floods whenever it rains, directing the waters to where cottonwood seedlings can grow. This idea, of using runoff from streets, parking lots, runways and roofs, and treating what was a menace as a resource and a place of renewal, has the deepest implications. One of them is the notion that human waste itself is not the end of the world.
But for me the most attractive version of this idea is the quietest one, the Joan Nassauer plan for St. Paul, Minnesota. Nassauer has faced the problem of how to allow the new/old organic vision of things to take root in Lake Wobegon, so to speak, or a perhaps even more traditonal middle class suburb of the Twin Cities. Nassauer does not force anything down anyone’s throat. She is willing to work with the tastes of people who like lawn ornaments, swingsets, outdoor barbecues and neatly mown grass. The first year of the project was given simply to anthropological interviews and neighborhood meetings. The human “oeconomy” is part of the ecosystem too, Nassauer recognizes, and her gentle plan for Birmingham Street, with its sophisticated low-tech system of French drains, wet meadow bands, micro-prairie restoration, “wetland to be viewed from a lawn,” marks an important transition in the role of the artist, from the Romantic/Modernist hectoring genius to the wise servant of the people. One can just imagine how pleased the residents were with the dash of colored bloom, the neat little stone walls, the attention of big city planners who actually listened to what they had to say. Perhaps it will take a century for those local tastes to refine themselves to the point that an average Mediterranean city has already reached. But there is no other way of getting there than the slow way; and that way will have some very endearing eccentricities of its own that we will want to keep.
One of the key ideas in this project is the notion of disturbance. The radical of the word is turb, the same turb that we find in turbulence.
Indeed, new research seems to indicate that the richest areas of biodiversity on earth are the places where human civilization, the most disturbing regime of all, has been longest established. This wildly counter-intuitive finding should lead us to reconsider the conventional wisdom that informs our intuition. Certainly, the rate of extinction of species has shot up demonstrably during the era of human dominance. But in the roof gutters and cornices and backyards and middens and kitchen gardens and warehouses and railroad marshalling-yards and canals and drains of human cities there are thousands of opportunities for clever new adaptations: the British moths that tamed black for camouflage during the sooty industrial revolution, the bacterial surges that swept the urban populations, the exotic imports that proliferated there, the multiplication of cultivated flowers and weeds and “vermin.” Though biodiversity counted in terms of the number of species has surely declined, gross genetic diversity within the successful species whose habitats have been extended by human beings may actually have increased, leading to a greater likelihood of new speciation. An entirely novel species of mouse has just been discovered in a town in Northern Italy. Steve Packard, the prairie restorationist, has been creating prairies on waste lots in the heart of Chicago. Perhaps we are already becoming the shepherds and husbanders of nature, rather than the despoilers of it that we have often been.
The Eco-Revelatory Design show, then, signals a major transition in our basic cultural model of the human relationship with the rest of nature. To try to sum it up in a clumsy sentence, it is a transition from a heroic, linear, industrial, power-based, entropic-thermodynamic, goal-oriented model, to a tragicomic, nonlinear, horticultural, influence-based, synergetic, evolutionary-emergentist, process-oriented model. The heroic model postulates a human snuggle with nature culminating in human victory, while the tragicomic model postulates an ongoing engagement within nature, between the relatively swift and self-reflective part of nature that is human, and the rest. The linear model imagines one-way causes and effects; the nonlinear model imagines turbulent interactions in which the initiating event has been lost or is at least irrelevant. The industrial model requires a burning; the horticultural model requires a growing. The power-based model’s bottom line is coercion; the influence-based model’s is persuasion and mutual interest. The entropic-thermodynamic model involves an inevitable and irretrievable expense of free energy in the universe and an increase of disorder when any work is performed; the synergetic-evolutionary model seeks economies whereby every stakeholder gains and new forms of order can emerge out of far-from- equilibrium regimes. The goal-oriented model imagines a perfect fixed or harmonious state as its end product, and tends paradoxically to like immortal open-ended narratives; the process-oriented model knows that nothing in this universe is ever perfect and immortal, that death comes to everything, that the function of an ending is to open up new possibilities, and it prefers beginning-middle-end narrative structures.
Another way of describing the transition is in terms of the crucial distinctions each paradigm tends to make. For the old industrial regime–which includes its dialectical antithesis, puritan environmentalism–the essential distinction was dualistic, between the natural and the human, the genuine and the artificial, the organic and the technological. For the new paradigm, the distinctions are no longer absolute ones of kind, but relative ones of degree, within scales running from linear to nonlinear, power to beauty, simplicity to complexity, statistical to unique, isolation to feedback, nature as thermodynamic decay to nature as evolutionary emergence.
The transition itself had three historical phases as regards its attitude toward progress: the modernist, the postmodernist, and what I would call the natural classicist. In the modernist phase, progress was linear advance toward a goal. Politically it tended to be state-driven. In the postmodernist phase, progress was denied or opposed as an evil or an illusion. Politically the state came to be used as a defense against progress, and what drove events were ideological communities united around such things as gender or race. In the natural classicist phase, progress was reconceived and redefined on the model of the market–bottom-up, nonlinear, based on human classical tastes, using a sophisticated tweaking of existing natural processes to achieve its intentions, and submitting itself cheerfully to the consequences as part of the ride.
What kind of literature might emerge from such a radical revisioning of nature and our part in it? I have been trying to answer this quetion in my own work as a poet. Here is one example; the second of my “Texas Eclogues” series, about an artificial lake near Dallas.
I walk by Lavon Lake in the indian summer,
By the satiny-silver bones and skulls of the trees,
Where I find half-buried in crumbly sable gumbo
The great greenblack shell of a dead snapping turtle,
A tiny convolvulus, violet-throated, enweaved
In its gaping orifice; a foam-rubber cushion choked
With the lake-silt, bearing a miniature garden of clubferns,
An ant’s-nest, a gauzewinged azure surefooted dragonfly!
The caked and powdery beach is curiously pure:
Even the halfburied Budweiser gleams in the sungold,
And bronzy-black grasshoppers evolve to scavenge this newness,
And archaean footprints of North American marsupials
Cross with the dog’s, the crane’s thin cuneiform
Stalked by what must be the paws of a feral calx
The seeds of willows have made their way here, have grown
Into little sallowy arbors of halfshadow green
Where the shore is spongy, prairie aquifers spring
To the surface, lagoons with tussocks of buffalo-grass,
Groves of exotic bamboo, impede the footsteps.
And the lake, lit by the glowing skeletons, green
In the unnatural light of my sunglasses, turns to light blue
And mirrors, fantastic, the miniature hills of the shore,
Gold-brown in the early fall, with woodlands,
Radio-beacons, real-estate development.
How young the world is. I am its oldest inhabitant;
I was there at its white condensation, I am here, I shiver,
I hear overhead the whimpering whoop of the geese,
Two-year-old ghosts of this, the new dispensation,
In their plunge southward over the edge of the planet.
They do not know where they are going; I drink them,
Swallow their great raggedy flightline into
The inner sky of my spirit, the divine southland
That dreams in the web of the human software, the fold
That the shepherd has made by the side of the still waters.
And the sky is so blue! The outlines but not the substance
Of brilliant clouds sometimes appear in its firmament,
Deflecting the sunrays to cast a shadow of azure
Over the breezed, hazy perfection of heaven.
This place of bones is a province of ancient Pangaea;
I am the large land mammal of the Pleistocene,
My food is the turbulence caused by the jut of consciousness
Into the flow of world-information, the swirl of spirit
Boiling about the point where nature, wansfigured,
Breaks and shivers into the glow of the supernatural.
This poem describes one version of what I call the Hadean Arcadia. “Hadean” for Hades, the land of the dead and the ever-living; “Arcadia” for the mythical place where humans and nature are at one.
Certain places on the Earth are hellmouths, gateways between the land of the living and the land of the dead. On this side of those gates the landscape is especially strange and beautiful: often it is a valley on the slopes of a volcano, like Virgil’s Avernus in the shadow of Vesuvius, or the vale of Enna beneath Mount Etna that Milton compared to Paradise. Volcanic soil, fresh from the bowels of the planet, is famed for its fertility, and it can support rich harvests of corn and vine. Pluto god of volcanoes is god of money. But this place is also a place of danger, and at the hellmouth itself the grass will not grow and the ground is sulphurous, hollow, and bubbling with noxious gases. There must be a sacred precinct to demarcate the two worlds from each other, lest the living and the dead intermingle too freely. The Indians considered Yellowstone taboo for the same reasons, and would not settle there; and we do likewise.
It is the country that True Thomas discovers, after he has been abducted by the Queen of Faerie in the old Scots ballad of Thomas the Rhymer. He is carried on the back of her horse through the sunless country and across rivers of human blood to where the path divides in three–one to Heaven, one to Hell, and one to “fair Elfland.” There they choose the third path that lies between the familiar ways of evil and good, the bonnie path that winds about the ferny brae, up the airy mountain, down the rushy glen. At last they reach the dark garden where seven hundred years can pass in seven, and he receives from the queen the very awkward gift of truth-telling. (How, he asks, can I prosper in the market or avoid the wrath of a king if I have this gift–and how can I speak to a fair lady if I must always say what is in my mind?) This is the country of the dead, but also of the ever-living: the Western Mountain of the Chinese, the Babylonian Dilmun, the Happy Hunting Grounds of the Plains Indians. It is also the land of certain dreams, unbearably delicious, but lit always by a strange anxiety, an edge of fear at the unknown, an urgency of unknown cause. It is a place both of the past and the future; it is the dream you have of a house you once lived in, and in the dream you are so happy and at home there, and just before you awaken to find it is lost and gone forever, there is a special moment of yearning, an opening to something even deeper, that is brushed swiftly away by the return of consciousness.
My Hadean eclogues come out of that place. An eclogue is a sort of picnic in words, a déjeuner sur lerbe, and they are little picnics beside the cavern-mouth of Hades, the underworld. They are eclectic eclogues—their classicism, the classicism of the twenty-first century, is not an exclusively European one or even a Western one, but a classicism that their poet thought he found in his conversations with shamans, living and dead, from every corner of the world. The formal meters in which these poems are composed are the medium of that conversation; they are the way I listen to voices other than my own.
Where is the hadean arcadia of the twenty-first century? Ancient poets always found it in the countryside, in a pastoral place where the cultivated mingled with the uncultivated, or in sacred groves that were uninhabited but managed unobtrusively by eccentric sibyls or priests. In the nineteenth century they found it in the wild landscapes, or what they thought were wild–in the desert, the Alps, the Lake District, the exotic lands of Abyssinia or Xanadu. Thus their attitude to it was elegiac, as they foresaw the encroachments of the city, the dark satanic mills. In the twentieth century they found it in the city, where the evening is laid out on the sky like a patient etherized upon a table. In the twenty-first century we will find it in the suburbs, in a suburban Rus that is not so far away from the arcadia of the bucolic poets, of Virgil and Horace, Tu Fu and Li Po, Kaiidasa and Hafez, Radnoti and Pasternak. But it is a post-technological landscape, one in which the technology is perfecting itself into invisibility, and where form has ceased to follow function but rather elaborates itself into new, delicate, intelligible structures that create new functions–functions that we suddenly recognize from the cultural past. There are times when the present breaks the shackles of the past to create the future–the modern age, now past, was one of those. But there are also times, like the Renaissance and our own coming twenty-first century, when it is the past that creates the future, by breaking the shackles of the present. The environmental restorationists are recreating extinct ecosystems–prairies, oak openings, dry tropical forests–on land once apparently claimed forever for the city or the farm.
In North Texas, where I live, there is strange zone of savannas, residential real estate and huge artificial lakes, very tangled and unkempt in places (and then suddenly tamed or as suddenly let go wild again), where a whole new ecology is evolving—plant and bird species from Louisiana, the eastern forests, the Gulf Coast, the Yucatan. The floating islands of the old Aztec Tenochtitlan before the Spanish came, in the suburban district of Xochimilco (“the land of the flower gardens”) must have been such a place. There are territories below sea level, like the polders of Holland or the shores of Galilee, deep beneath imaginary oceans, where the light is just so, the light of the planet Mars when we have tamed that desert into a dimly-lit arcadia. Seashores and springtimes sometimes show it, when the sunlight is at a low angle and the evening lengthens out after the clocks have been set forward.
This theme-park place, this Disneyland of the dead or everliving, where Orpheus, Aeneas and Dante have their adventures, has its detractors. It is in doubtful taste, indeed it is kitsch, for its irony is aimed not at itself but at the censoriousness of its critics. It gently mocks the one-way linear equations of morality and power that are so dear to the political culture. It is the domain of nonlinearity, of dissipative systems that flourish on the flow of decay, of perverse consensual fetishisms, of emergent structures and fractal depth; it is drawn by strange attractors rather than pushed by causes and laws. It recognizes power and beauty as opposites, and chooses the power of beauty.
The hadean arcady is also a place of religious experience. But in the twenty-first century it will be one in which the difference between existentialist-atheist descriptions of paradise, and Judeo-Christian ones (or Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, Mayan, Taoist, or Aborigine ones for that matter), will have begun to go away. Suppose there could be a poetry, even a scientific description of reality, that left undamaged the principles, the honor, the history and myth, the ritual, the intellectual criteria of believers and unbelievers of all kinds alike–as long as they were people of depth and thought and imagination? This is the language that poets must seek now, not for the sake of political harmony but because no other imaginative challenge is half as interesting, no other project requires so complete a subjection of the poet’s ego to the wayward and terrifying spirit of human language.
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