It’s been another hectic week, in the world and in our community, from midterm elections and ballot measures to natural disasters to climate change summits to continued war in Ukraine and so much more.
The world remains both more wonderful and more terrible than most of us can possibly imagine. And amid all the headlines this week, I’ve been thinking about “Binsey Poplars," a poem that is nearly 150 years old.
In 1879, Gerard Manley Hopkins celebrated a row of trees and grieved that they had been cut down. His grief expanded from those trees to the hubris of humanity, elegantly and painfully describing how quickly we alter the living world of which we are a part – often to its (and our own) devastation:
My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, are all felled;
Of a fresh and following folded rank
Not spared, not one
That dandled a sandalled
Shadow that swam or sank
On meadow and river and wind-wandering weed-winding bank.
O if we but knew what we do
When we delve or hew—
Hack and rack the growing green!
Since country is so tender
To touch, her being so slender,
That, like this sleek and seeing ball
But a prick will make no eye at all,
Where we, even where we mean
To mend her we end her,
When we hew or delve:
After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.
Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve
Strokes of havoc unselve
The sweet especial scene,
Rural scene, a rural scene,
Sweet especial rural scene.
Within these short verses is the haunting thought that no one could have cut down those trees if they knew and loved them like Hopkins did. Or, if the trees had to be removed, no one could have done it without a great deal of care and without the sorrow of losing a friend. And you certainly couldn’t fell the trees without a keen sense of humility. Their growth is counted slowly, in years and decades, while their death is over in seconds and minutes, needing only ten or twelve “strokes of havoc.” Once done, it is done for a long time; there is no quick remedy if you make a mistake. And once done, that beautiful chance to know and love them is gone. “After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.” So care must be taken, and will be taken, if you know what it is you are doing and know the love that binds all of us living things together. If you have ever watched a tree, dancing in the wind, you might know the feeling.
Most haunting to me was that insight that “even where we mean / To mend her we end her, / When we hew or delve”. This isn’t a comment on human nature; there is nothing inherent in humanity that makes us automatically destructive to the earth to which we belong. But it is possible for humans to create cultures and systems that operate with such hubris that “even where we mean / To mend [the earth] we end her”. This is, tragically, where we find ourselves.
Even as we reflect together today, global leaders are gathered for the UN Climate Change Conference (COP27) in Egypt. It’s the 27th of these gatherings, which Oxfam calls “crucial opportunities to show commitment and progress towards climate justice”. There is important work to be done, but also the reality that the dominating systems are currently driven by economic considerations that value short-term profit over everything.
We cannot consume our way toward a sustainable, regenerative, equitable future. We’ve known this for years. As Oxfam put it last week, “Every year since the historic Paris Agreement we have hoped for concrete global action on climate. And each year, while world leaders claim to be taking action (or, during the Trump years, proudly reject climate action), we are forced to confront the fact that we are still far away from meeting emissions reduction and finance goals laid out in 2015. And that even the goals set out are far below what is needed to protect humanity from dangerous climate change. / This year, in the face of the realization that countries’ current combined climate plans will increase global emissions by over 10 percent by 2030, real leadership that is more than platitudes can feel far away.”
The words return to us: “even where we mean / To mend her we end her”.
Hopkins understood this because of similar dynamics wreaked devastation in his own time. The nineteenth century was on fire with a relentless pursuit of capital and industry, with seemingly little care for the impacts on the wellbeing of people or the earth. Hopkins’ world and concerns were different than our concerns today, but they rhyme. In both eras, the problems threatened catastrophe, with grief and helplessness in their wakes. Hopkins put this into words in “God’s Grandeur,” where the earth, and with it, our spirits, were trampled under the heavy boots of extraction and exploitation:
“Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.”
It can be bewildering to look honestly at such a world and ask: How can we effectively resist the exploitation of each other and the earth? What could possibly slow this destruction, let alone heal it? What could possibly slow the exuberant embrace of violence – direct, structural, and cultural - as a solution, let alone transform it?
The crush of society (and our own broken hearts) would easily have us coalesce into the lifeless monotony of selfishness and apathy, asking us to look the other way, to let things be, to mind our own business on the way to an eventual and meaningless death. These questions are some of the reasons why I find voices like Hopkins’ remain meaningful and empowering.
I was introduced to Hopkins’ poetry as a freshman in college, and they quickly found a place in my heart. I had the habit of climbing trees, especially the Osage Oranges lining our neighborhood or the young sycamores lining a creek: sometimes to make a splash (when the water was deep enough), usually to feel the gentle sway (as the branches opened their long fingers to catch the wind), and, when the night was friendly, to be that much closer to the stars and moon. If I had a chance in the daylight, I’d carry a book with me, reading while hidden away in the leaves. Most of the places where these friendly trees grew were bulldozed long ago, making room developments abundant in concrete. Grieving for felled trees was already a familiar feeling.
I say I was quickly at home with Hopkins’ poetry, but there was a bit of a rough start. The first time I read his poems, I felt off balance. Poetry had previously been overwhelmingly presented to me in rhymed couplets, and often with platitudinous meanings. So I stumbled over Hopkins’ sprung rhythm and unfamiliar images, but I kept coming back until I felt as familiar with the forms as I did with the meanings. Because reading one of his poems was like making a friend, the kind of friend that I could stay up with late into night, exploring all the wonder and beauty and terror of the world. Hopkins’ world and language were deeply religious, to be sure, but so was I, and he gave me words and images that helped me feel hope that there might be a place for someone like me in this wild and variegated world.
For example, Hopkins wrote a poem called “Pied Beauty.” (Before you get too disappointed, pied is an adjective that means the object has two or more colors. This can apply to pies, however, so please feel at liberty to imagine the fierce, purple-blue of baked blueberries against a flaky, golden crust.) “Pied Beauty” is an ode to the feast of colors and designs that surround us on every side, if we pause to notice:
“Glory be to God for dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
“All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
All the things we rush by, that become so commonplace that we fail to notice them, become an opportunity to experience joy. The key was in my willingness to be present with them. This attention to detail, opening the door to gratitude and joy, was a theme in my young adult life, and I had a bookshelf and a backpack to prove it.
Hopkins reminded me that resistance and change can be joyful. In fact, the joy cannot be contained. The divine beauty is to be found precisely in “All things counter, original, spare, strange: / Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)”. Being counter in the economy of joy is not negative or hostile; it is a celebration. ‘Counter’ in this case means the opposite of that mindless crush – trading death for life, apathy for courage, selfishness for joy. It is a delight that reveals the staggering beauty, intricacy, and diversity of life. Nature is not mono- anything. Hopkins’ praise is a litany of sky and earth; cow and trout; chestnuts and bird’s wings. Being counter is a reflection not of hostility, but of reconciliation – of recognizing the beauty and worth of people, animals, plants, and minerals, and of seeing in this recognition our own hope for peace.
Hopkins could see both of these contrasting worlds and hold them together. If we return to “God’s Grandeur,” we find that those lines that describe the trampling of the earth are sandwiched between a celebration of the irrepressible greatness and beauty of the world on the one hand and the divine hope that “nature is never spent” on the other:
“The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
“And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”
You don’t need to be religious, let alone Christian, to feel and appreciate the shift in the language. There is a movement from wonder (with grandeur flashing “like shining from shook foil”), to loss (trodden and seared, bleared, and smeared), and then to renewal (“the dearest freshness deep down things”). That is a movement for us today, to acknowledge honestly the seriousness of the ecological damage humans have inflicted, while learning from regenerative capacities of the earth to transform our cultures and support our common healing.
The scarcity and alienation, born of exploitation, is not inevitable. And as the product of our own cultural assumptions and actions, its transformation is within our influence. As Wendell Berry wrote, “We have lived by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. And this has been based on the even flimsier assumption that we could know with any certainty what was good even for us. We have fulfilled the danger of this by making our personal pride and greed the standard of our behavior toward the world - to the incalculable disadvantage of the world and every living thing in it. And now, perhaps very close to too late, our great error has become clear. It is not only our own creativity - our own capacity for life - that is stifled by our arrogant assumption; the creation itself is stifled.
“We have been wrong. We must change our lives, so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption that what is good for the world will be good for us. And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and to learn what is good for it. We must learn to cooperate in its processes, and to yield to its limits. But even more important, we must learn to acknowledge that the creation is full of mystery; we will never entirely understand it. We must abandon arrogance and stand in awe. We must recover the sense of the majesty of creation, and the ability to be worshipful in its presence. For I do not doubt that it is only on the condition of humility and reverence before the world that our species will be able to remain in it.”
“Recover” is a well-chosen word here, reminding us that other times and cultures have preserved this sense of gratitude, care, and contentment in relation to one another and the earth. More recently, Robin Wall Kimmerer wrote that:
“The shortage is due not to how much material wealth there actually is, but to the way in which it is exchanged or circulated. The market system artificially creates scarcity by blocking the flow between the source and the consumer. Grain may rot in the warehouse while hungry people starve because they cannot pay for it. The result is famine for some and diseases of excess for others. The very earth that sustains us is being destroyed to fuel injustice. … And yet, while creating an alternative to destructive economic structures is imperative, it is not enough. It is not just changes in policies that we need, but also changes to the heart. Scarcity and plenty are as much qualities of the mind and spirit as they are of the economy. Gratitude plants the seed for abundance. ... It celebrates cultures of regenerative reciprocity, where wealth is understood to be having enough to share and riches are counted in mutually beneficial relationships. … Gratitude for all the earth has given us lends us courage to turn and face the Windigo that stalks us, to refuse to participate in an economy that destroys the beloved earth to line the pockets of the greedy, to demand an economy that is aligned with life, not stacked against it.” (Braiding Sweetgrass)
I don’t read Gerard Manley Hopkins as often as I did twenty years ago. But, for lovers of trees and books, I still have my old paperback copy of his poems, a Wordsworth Poetry Library edition which has accompanied me on many hikes and up many trees. His voice is part of me and continues to be a reminder of the type of relationship we can and need to have with this incredible earth. Returning to those well-loved poplars, we can reflect on how different and healthy our approach to development, industry, agriculture, entertainment, and our daily lives could be, if we cared for the earth like Hopkins cared for those trees. We couldn’t brazenly destroy the planet, provoke a mass extinction event, or accelerate climate change. We couldn’t do all this at the expense of the most vulnerable humans and ecosystems on earth. We would do everything with a great deal of care and, when development did require some level of destruction, we would proceed with the sorrow of losing a friend and with a keen sense of humility.
Destruction is quick work, while life and ecological health is counted slowly, in decades and even centuries. There is little room for error, for “strokes of havoc.” Our scientists have told us this for decades, urging us to take seriously our belonging to the planet, to care for ourselves by caring for her. But there has been a gap; the dominant cultures brush all of this aside to continue to “Hack and rack the growing green” to accumulate wealth and power.
So we must continually turn to voices and cultures that show this other way, that remind us that care must be taken, and will be taken, if we know what it is we are doing and know the intricate web that binds all living things together. (If you have ever watched a tree, dancing in the wind, you might know the feeling.) And joyful insights like these - birthed by the wisdom of our elders, the wonder of our children, the keen ears of our poets and eyes of our painters, the songs of our singers, the hands of our gardeners – will gather to a greatness, shine out like shook foil, and make a healthier, happier planet and people possible again.