Puddles and Black Bears - A meditation on earthquakes, wars and rumours of wars


Last week we saw yet another serious earthquake occur in New Zealand but, on this occasion, this natural disaster coincided with the outbreak of a number of popular revolutions against some very long-standing and nasty North-African regimes. Naturally, our hearts and, where possible, our direct support goes out to the victims of the earthquake and to those who are fighting for basic freedoms which we in the UK have come to take almost for granted. (There's a real danger lurking in our taking any freedoms for granted but I'll let that go today).

Anyway, at such times - even when we are far away from the events themselves - we are tempted to ask, as Lucretius did in the first-century BC, 'Is catastrophe meaningless? Or is it anger on someone's part, or disapproval?'. He continues:

The proud regalia of office is mocked, the fasces and battle axes,
are trampled down in the dust in a show of divine contempt.
So too with dreadful earthquakes, when cities are shaken
and walls crumble and fall, the sons of men will feel
helpless, altogether powerless, and they hate
themselves for their weakness and therefore suppose that the gods as
must feel contempt and that this is what men deserve,
for if we don't have power, it probably lies elsewhere
in the wonderful hands of the gods,immortal and wiser than we are.
(DRN, trans. Slavitt, Book 5:1084-1094)

As many of you will know, Lucretius raises these thoughts not, as Milton's memorable phrase in 'Paradise Lost' has it, in order 'to justify the ways of God to men' (Book 1:25), but, instead, to show, not only that such thoughts and fears are utterly groundless, but also that this kind of thinking has inflicted upon later generations many 'bitter groans', 'tears' and 'terrible wounds' (DRN, Slavitt, Book 5:1045-1047). Lucretius felt that it would be much better 'to live with a tranquil mind' and he felt we achieved this by 'surveying whatever one sees with a steady, clear-eyed acceptance' in which we payed careful attention to the 'outward appearance and inner workings of nature' (DRN 1.148) - in Latin: 'naturae species ratioque'.

For those who missed last week's address in which I explored something of this you need only know that by 'ratio' Lucretius meant nature's 'law or inner workings' and we can use this word to refer to how the world shows up to us (shines) when we consistently apply to it active human reasoning (which I associated with the natural and formal sciences). By 'species' Lucretius meant the 'face' or 'outward appearance' of nature and we can use this word to refer to how nature shows up for us (or shines) as human-beings who are always-already in the world not only as creatures with a dispassionate and rational faculty *but also* an emotional and poetic creatures (this I associated with the work of artists and particularly poets).

Now, in relation to the facing of a disastrous event, I know of no more perfect and accessible contemporary expression of 'naturae species ratioque' gained by 'surveying whatever one sees with a steady, clear-eyed acceptance' than Mary Oliver's poem 'Black Bear in the Orchard'. But, there is something about the easy accessibility of her poetry that can cause us to miss the truly great and liberating, though somewhat shocking gift she (and Lucretius) is offering. Namely a direct encounter with, not God, but the Sublime.  Consequently, we need first to consider something that might at first sight appear utterly disconnected from what we are talking about. It is a regular puddle of rainwater. In Book four of the DRN Lucretius at one point asks us to think of the following situation:

A puddle of water no deeper than a single finger-breadth, which lies between the stones on a paved street, offers us a view beneath the earth to a depth as vast as the high gaping mouth (hiatus) of heaven stretches above the earth, so that you seem to look down on the clouds and the heaven, and you discern bodies hidden in the sky beneath the earth, marvellously (mirande). (DRN Book 4:414-419).

Note that word marvellously (mirande) as we'll come back to that in a moment. But, firstly, the key thing to notice here is that even as you can see infinite depths in the puddle you also instantly *know* (really know) that it is an illusion. You need only bend down and wiggle your finger in the puddle immediately to dispel the image both visually, by the ripples you make, and physically, as your finger touches the hard pavement just a couple of centimetres beneath the surface.

John I. Porter points out that Lucretius offers us this image to remind us that the greatest optical illusion of all is "that presented by the world as it is perceived on a day-to-day basis" and that throughout time we have read off the world's surface all kinds of appearances - not least of all that the gods are involved in our world. One of the major purposes of Lucretius' poem is to show clearly how empirical enquiry and rational thought can correct our view of the world.

Now, this might make you think that Lucretius is trying to devalue all the surface appearances of the world and, instead, to privilege only what we can see with the eye of reason. But this is not true at all for as Porter points out a great deal hangs on that word 'marvellously' (mirande) because by using it we see that Lucretius feels the reflection of the sky in the puddle is wonderful as both 'an appearance of nature and as an index to the wondrous truths of physics' (John I. Porter, Lucretius and the Sublime in The Cambridge Companion to Lucretius, ed Stuart Gillespie and Philip Hardie, Cambridge University Press 2007, p. 173). Lucretius is simply insisting that the appearances of nature (and how we can talk about them as poets who are emotionally and imaginatively engaged in the world) can be admired and enjoyed per se so long as they are not used in a way which conflicts with what we know to be true about the world thanks to the natural and formal sciences.

As an appearance, looking *down* into the void through the puddle in the pavement, we can experience a sense of awe and wonder at the vertiginous sight we behold. But that is not the only vertiginous sight we can behold for, seen with the eyes of reason which knows something of the inner laws of nature, the puddle also helps reveal to us that our world is a complex natural play of physical laws and matter which needs no involvement of the gods and this, too, brings with it another vertiginous feeling of awe and wonder. Both, together speak of what is known as 'the Sublime', namely, that sense of 'greatness with which nothing else can be compared and which is beyond all possibility of calculation, measurement or imitation.'

Both Lucretius and Oliver consistently attempt to bring us before the Sublime and, with that thought in mind, we can now turn to Oliver's poem, 'Black Bear in the Orchard'.

It was a long winter.
   But the bees were mostly awake
in their perfect house,
   the workers whirling their wings
to make heat.
   Then the bear woke,

too hungry not to remember
   where the orchard was,
and the hives.
   He was not a picklock.
He was a sledge that leaned
   into their front wall and came out

the other side.
   What could the bees do?
Their stings were as nothing.
   They had planned everything
   except for this: catastrophe.

They slumped under the bear’s breath.
   They vanished into the curl of tongue.
Some had just enough time
   to think of how it might have been—
the cold easing,
   the smell of leaves and flowers

floating in,
   then the scouts going out,
then their coming back, and their dancing—
   nothing different
but what happens in our own village.
   What pity for the tiny souls

who are so hopeful, and work so diligently
   until time brings, as it does, the slap and the claw.
Someday, of course, the bear himself
   will become a bee, a honey bee, in the general mixing.
Nature, under her long green hair,
   has such unbendable rules,

and a bee is not a powerful thing, even
   when there are many,
as people, in a town or a village.
   And what, moreover, is catastrophe?
Is it a sharp sword of God,
   or just some other wild body, loving its life?

Not caring a whit, black bear
   blinks his horrible, beautiful eyes,
slicks his teeth with his fat and happy tongue,
   and saunters on.

A key thing to note at the outset is Oliver's ability to commingle 'species' and 'ratio' - the outward appearances and inner workings of nature.

So firstly 'species' - reading from the surface appearances of nature Oliver, as a poet, imagines the bees and the bear each, in their own ways, to be somewhat like us - and that is clearly an illusion for we are neither bees nor bears. On the one hand she imagines the bees thinking about their carefully constructed 'perfect' house with its sense of community, their work and industry, their ability to plan and hope, their anticipation of the coming of Spring with its smell of leaves and flowers and then, of course, their shock at the catastrophe of the bear's slap and claw. On the other hand Oliver imagines the bear's hunger on awakening, which drives its act of, not only needful destruction (after all if the bear doesn't eat he's finished) but also necessary destruction because to be a bear is not to have the precision tools of a picklock but only those big, powerful claws and they can only get at the honey - needed honey - by completely destroying the 'perfect house' of the bees.

Having given us these 'outward appearances' of nature - which we can read as wonderful illusions (remember the puddle here and following) - Oliver turns us towards nature's 'inner workings' (DRN 1.148). She does this simply by reminding us us that 'Someday, of course, the bear himself will become a bee, a honey bee, in the general mixing./Nature, under her long green hair, has such unbendable rules.'

With this thought in place Oliver can now begin to draw to a close and she does this by first asking the question that has been hovering round throughout this short poem: 'Is it the sharp word of God,/or just some other wild body, loving its life?' The weight of the poem (and Oliver's other work) suggests that Oliver thinks it is the latter which is true - as do, I suspect, most of us here. But Oliver's genius is to give us an answer, not in the form of an intellectual proposition, but in the form of a direct, vertiginous experience of the Sublime:

'Not caring a whit, black bear
   blinks his horrible, beautiful eyes,
slicks his teeth with his fat and happy tongue,
   and saunters on.

The moment Oliver makes us look into the bear's 'horrible, beautiful eyes' - like black puddles in the fabric of the universe - we come face to face not with the old interventionist and creator God or gods of old but, instead, with the Sublime - that greatness with which nothing else can be compared and which is beyond all possibility of calculation, measurement or imitation.

When we are prepared to survey them with a steady, clear-eyed acceptance the current events occuring in our world eloquently reveal both horrible and beautiful aspects - the horrible in the violence and senseless loss of life; the beautiful in the love, care and courage of all who are seeking to save those who have been trapped and injured or who are fighting for basic human freedoms.

Belonging ourselves to this horrible beautiful world like the bear we, too, *must* find a way to saunter on. But, unlike the bear, we can become more like a 'picklock' and we can choose to be more careful about the way we inhabit the world that doesn't totally destroy the lives of others. And, unlike the bees, we have a way to encounter and refelct upon our experience of the Sublime - the horrible beauty of the world - and receive its gifts of wonder and awe. Gifts which, although they remind us in often frightening ways that we are not all powerful and in control, can also help encourage us to transform ourselves in wise, compassionate and mindful ways.