on Here On Earth, A Natural History of the Planet, by Tim Flannery (Atlantic Monthly Press)

At the Pratt Institute in 1973, Louis Kahn delivered a remarkable lecture at the School of Architecture. His subject was the nature of creativity and the role of the architect. “Inspiration is the feeling of beginning at the threshold where Silence and Light meet,” he said. “Silence, the unmeasurable, desire to be, desire to express, the source of new need, meets Light, the measurable, giver of all presence, by will, by law, the measure of things already made, at a threshold which is inspiration, the sanctuary of art, the Treasury of Shadow.”

Kahn.jpgHe envisioned Desire as a catalyst, a “luminous source [that] can be visualized as becoming a wild dance of flame that settles and spends itself into material. Material, I believe, is spent Light.”

(Those elements of inspiration – silence, light, desire -- must be what Louis Zukofsky was getting at in these lines which both create and embody the materials: “Can a mote of sunlight defeat its purpose / When thought shows it to be deep or dark? // See sun, and think shadow.”

Kahn’s tropes may have sounded like artist-speak to his more prosaic students, but the Australian environmentalist Tim Flannery shows us that the architect’s feel for his materials is based, at least intuitively, in scientific knowledge. “The elements that form us, the carbon, phosphorus, calcium and iron to name but a few, were created in the hearts of stars,” Flannery writes. “And not just in one generation of stars, for it takes the energy of three stellar generations combined to form some of the heavier elements, such as carbon, that life finds indispensible. Stars age very slowly, and to complete three generations takes almost all of time – from the Big Bang to the formation of Earth. We are, as the astrophysicist Carl Sagan said, mere stardust, but what a wondrous thing that is.”

(The same story is told in one of Marvin Bell’s “dead man” poems: “For he is made of particles that came from near and far, from the creek bed and the seven wonders of the ancient world.”)

FlanneryCover.jpegFlannery’s eighteenth book, Here On Earth, is the one title I would recommend to writers with a preference for the materials of nature. Flannery is a conservationist, activist, paleontologist and zoologist – but he is first and foremost a writer. His prose has the rising pulse of story, the nimble choreography of essay, and the settled assertions of a long campaigner. Here On Earth is intended for and spoken to everyone. The narrative is a sweeping but compact account of the creation of life on Earth, the rise of our species, and the disruptions to what James Lovelock named Gaia, “Earth … as a self-regulating system made up from the totality of organisms, the surface rocks, the ocean and the atmosphere tightly coupled as an evolving system.”

FlanneryLeafcutterAnts.jpgHis argument is largely a response to Richard Dawkins’ concept of “the selfish gene” and the perceived unchanging need for competition and resulting conflict. Without dispensing with Darwin’s theory of natural selection, Flannery asserts that if life optimizes its own conditions to thrive, and if super-organisms such as leaf-cutter ants can suppress conflicts of interests between individuals, then humans could also behave as a super-organism to steward Earth’s assets.

Flannery notes that biblical teachings say “we are naught but earth: ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” but that Western religions take offense at the idea that human life literally rose up out of the Earth’s crust. Here, Flannery speaks about the process of creating life from rock:

“We tend to think about the transformation of rocks in Earth’s crust as the result of volcanoes, earthquakes and such like. It’s easy to overlook the silent work of lichens, bacteria and plants, which create grains of soil from intransigent basalt and other rocks by reaching deep into the strata, leaching and breaking down the rock with the acids they exude. Their work, while microscopic in scale, is ceaseless, and thrice greater in effect than that of all the world’s volcanoes combined.”

Flannery.jpegSeaborne lichens and bacteria also used metals dissolved in the ocean – mercury, lead, cadmium, zinc – to speed up the processing of CO2. When those organisms died and fell to the ocean floor, they took the toxic metals with them to be buried in sediments. Today, we bring those metals back to the surface “which helps explain why some of us develop disorders such as intellectual disabilities and schizophrenia, and even perhaps why murder rates are high in some communities.”

The book’s second section tracks humans’ progress from hunter-gathering societies to 21st century civilization, a process “so swift that a million years from now little or no evidence of it will remain in geological record.” His tale of the migration of the first humans into North America centers on how we disrupt our environment; even primitive humans managed to erase animal species from the planet. He then moves on to cover our current state – the oceans, marine life, forests, population growth, the spread of toxic chemicals. He covers a lot of ground, but his succinct and fluid prose organizes the information in such a way that most of us will realize we haven’t quite grasped what’s happening in the world no matter how aware or committed we think we are.

At times Flannery can’t help but cry out about “fundamental planetary disorder” – and Chair of the Copenhagen Climate Council in 2009, he was bitterly frustrated by global politics. “It’s hard now to imagine the UN delivering any global deal on any matter of major significance,” he says, having watched state leaders refusing to cede power. Nevertheless, he sees promise, especially in the growth of the number of democratic nations and in the erosion of power blocs. Here On Earth is ultimately about our conflicted human nature. He writes, “We muddle our way forwards, a species more united than ever, yet still with little structure for coordinating nations. In this new world, can the social glue that binds us keep the peace?”

FlanneryTree.jpgIn The Future of an Illusion, Freud said, “The principal task of civilization, its actual raison d’être, is to defend us against nature.” How can humankind care for nature if the individual person isn’t at ease with his or her own nature? For some poets, the solution has arisen in the discovery of trans-personal language leached of personhood – an extreme gesture that exclaims how invasive and dangerous the “selfish gene” has become. But it seems to me that all poets, even the most benign and devotional so-called nature poets, not only describe nature but also contend with it. There is a need to place language between us and it – a dual conduit and escape hatch.

Perhaps on one of his more dyspeptic days, Edgar Degas said, “Boredom overcomes me when I am contemplating nature.” For all his advocacy and care, Tim Flannery also understands and accommodates our conflicted nature. He simply doesn’t want us to “discount the future,” to ruin our chances through selfishness. To conclude, here’s a short poem by Eugenio Montale, translated by G. Singh:


On the wet sand ideograms appear
like a hen’s claws. I look back but see
neither bird sanctuaries nor shelters.
A tried or perhaps a lame duck
may have passed. I wouldn’t be able to decipher
that language even if I were Chinese.
One gust of wind will be enough to cancel it.
It isn’t true that Nature is mute.
It speaks at random and the only hope is
it doesn’t bother too much about us.

[Published April 5, 2011. 316 pages, $25.00 hardcover]

On Deciphering The Language

That's a fine review of Tim Flannery's new book...and what a fine concluding poem of Montale's that is. Many thanks. But lest the selfish gene decend once more like zinc below the oceans and be once again brought up to the surface, and then mined to sicken us, the better stewardship that Flannery professes (makes me feel proud to be Australian) should deal us all a few more heartening cards to play with. Very tiresome are those many other proud professors of screwed determinism, who deny that human consciousness can be evolving, or that this same process was ever suggested -- or even aided -- by a greater awareness of our-part-in-nature itself.