Friday, July 30, 2010

`The Slow Passion'

Trash collection is Thursday morning when I wheel our three bins, parked in the shade of the shed, to the street. It’s a dull pleasing ritual and gives me the chance to see who’s living this week beneath the plastic bins. Customary tenants include earthworms, pill bugs, snails, millipedes, centipedes and slugs. In “Of Beauty,” Francis Bacon rightly says: “There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion” (The Essays or Counsels Civil and Moral, 1625). We’re in the middle of a dry spell, mud turns to dust, and our strange moisture-loving fauna is scarce. A single earthworm retreated when I moved the yard-waste bin.

In an interview with Peter Makin in 1984, the year before his death, Basil Bunting said: “Suckling poets should be fed on Darwin till they are filled with the elegance of things seen or heard or touched.” I’ve just read Darwin’s final book, published the year before his death in 1882, The Formation of Vegetable Mould, Through the Action of Worms, With Observations on Their Habits. Darwin makes convincingly grand claims for Oligochaeta:

“The plough is one of the most ancient and most valuable of man’s inventions; but long before he existed the land was in fact regularly ploughed, and still continues to be thus ploughed by earth-worms. It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organised creatures.”

I already knew this but Darwin fills me with admiration for worms. When we see them foundering on the sidewalk after rain – a common sight in the Pacific Northwest -- they’ve moved aboveground to avoid drowning. I've resolved to rescue those marooned on concrete before sunlight dries them like beef jerky.

One worm, no snails – a disappointment. I still see the latter's glistening trails of snot in the morning but they've retreated in the absence of rain, hiding deeper in their moist realm. As compensation here’s Thom Gunn’s “Considering the Snail” (My Sad Captains, 1961):

“The snail pushes through a green
night, for the grass is heavy
with water and meets over
the bright path he makes, where rain
has darkened the earth’s dark. He
moves in a wood of desire,

“pale antlers barely stirring
as he hunts. I cannot tell
what power is at work, drenched there
with purpose, knowing nothing.
What is a snail’s fury? All
I think is that if later

“I parted the blades above
the tunnel and saw the thin
trail of broken white across
litter, I would never have
imagined the slow passion
to that deliberate progress.”

Gunn is appropriately respectful of a tough little beauty, but never mentions the shell, the obvious focus for most observers. Instead, memorably, he gives us “pale antlers” and “What is a snail’s fury?” Who ever thought a snail capable of fury and passion? Brian Vickers, editor of the Oxford World’s Classics edition of Bacon’s Major Works I'm reading includes a note to the passage cited above:

“Cicero, De inventione, II. i. 3: nature never makes `anything perfect and finished in every part…She bestows some advantage on one…but always joins it with some defect.’”

1 comment:

William A. Sigler said...

Pretty impressive tying together Cicero, Bacon and Darwin in the service of snails and earthworms. The lovely Gunn poem, along with your own lustily precise account, are nice antidotes to the type of nature writing you decried yesterday.