Monday, May 2, 2011


The Love Embrace of the Universe, the Earth (Mexico), Diego, Myself and Señor Xólotl

When you came back to me –

I painted a green day-hand and a brown night-hand
holding up Mexico, her canyons and deserts,
    her candelabra cacti.

And we were there, embraced by our land.
You were my naked baby
who is reborn every minute with your third eye open. 

Even our dog Señor Xólotl was curled
on the wrist of evening,
ready to bear our souls to the underworld if he had to.

Together, we stared out beyond the picture, saw
in the dark window a small woman in a wheelchair
cast out in a workshop far beyond the moon,

desperately mixing the colours of love
    until they vibrated –
watermelon greens, chilli reds, pumpkin orange.

She hurriedly drew the shattered arms
of the universe –
                             holding us all up

as if we were a mountain dripping roots and stones.

From What the Water Gave Me: Poems after Frida Kahlo (Seren, 2010)

© 2011 Pascale Petit


The modern idea of nature is chiefly benevolent. We speak of the nurturing “Mother Nature.” We don’t hear much about “Nature red in tooth and claw.” But let us take a look at that interesting passage in Tennyson’s In Memoriam:

The wish, that of the living whole
No life may fail beyond the grave,
Derives it not from what we have
The likest God within the soul?

Are God and Nature then at strife,
That Nature lends such evil dreams?
So careful of the type she seems,
So careless of the single life;

That I, considering everywhere
Her secret meaning in her deeds,
And finding that of fifty seeds
She often brings but one to bear,

I falter where I firmly trod,
And falling with my weight of cares
Upon the great world’s altar-stairs
That slope thro’ darkness up to God,

I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope,
And gather dust and chaff, and call
To what I feel is Lord of all,
And faintly trust the larger hope.

‘So careful of the type?’ but no.
From scarped cliff and quarried stone
She cries, ‘A thousand types are gone:
I care for nothing, all shall go.

‘Thou makest thine appeal to me:
I bring to life, I bring to death:
The spirit does but mean the breath:
I know no more.’ And he, shall he,

Man, her last work, who seem’d so fair,
Such splendid purpose in his eyes,
Who roll’d the psalm to wintry skies,
Who built him fanes of fruitless prayer,

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law–
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed–

Who loved, who suffer’d countless ills,
Who battled for the True, the Just,
Be blown about the desert dust,
Or seal’d within the iron hills?

No more? A monster then, a dream,
A discord. Dragons of the prime,
That tare each other in their slime,
Were mellow music match’d with him.

O life as futile, then, as frail!
O for thy voice to soothe and bless!
What hope of answer, or redress?
Behind the veil, behind the veil.

~ here Nature’s indifference to human needs is duly lamented.  “I care for nothing; all shall go” is her reply to man’s desperate plea for immortality – and if not immortality, then at least of some show of caring.

Man’s helplessness was presented earlier in Canto 54:

So runs my dream, but what am I?
An infant crying in the night,
An infant crying for the light
And with no language but a cry.

~ together with the “lame hands of faith,” Tennyson, though in the end defending religion, seems mainly to have eloquently stated the case for nature’s alleged “cruelty.” Cruelty, however, implies that nature is deliberate evil; in fact, nature is merely amoral, as innocent as that “infant crying in the night.”

It’s interesting that Czeslaw Milosz, known for poems praising the beauty of nature, was not in fact all that far from from Tennyson’s position. He writes,

Amost every day, Public Television airs nature programs, mainly for young people. About spiders, fish, lizards, coyotes, animals of the desert or of alpine meadow, and so on. The technical excellence of the photography doesn’t prevent me from considering these programs obscene. Because what they show offends our human, moral understanding – not only offends it, but subverts it, for the thesis of these programs is: You see, that’s how it is in Nature; therefore, it is natural; and we, too, are a part of Nature, we belong to the evolutionary chain, we have to accept the world as it is.

If I turn off the television, horrified, disgusted by the images of mutual indifferent devouring, and also by the mind of the man who filmed it, is it because I am capable of picturing what this looks like when translated into the life of human society?

. . . The makers of those films have a scientific outlook and show the truth, nothing but the truth; furthermore, they appreciate the splendid photogeneity of nature.

. . . Is hunting and devouring each other the very essence of Nature? It is, that is why I dislike Nature.

~ A Year of the Hunter, pp 48-50 (1994; emphasis mine)

But, as usual, Milosz shows that he has two souls. The prose quoted above was written by his more elevated, Catholic soul. But his cat-loving pagan soul wrote this charming defense of nature:

To Mrs. Professor in Defense Of My Cat's Honor And Not Only

My valiant helper, a small-sized tiger 
Sleeps sweetly on my desk, by the computer, 
Unaware that you insult his tribe. 

Cats play with a mouse or with a half-dead mole. 
You are wrong, though: it's not out of cruelty. 
They simply like a thing that moves. 

For, after all, we know that only consciousness 
Can for a moment move into the Other, 
Empathize with the pain and panic of a mouse. 

And such as cats are, all of Nature is. 
Indifferent, alas, to the good and the evil. 
Quite a problem for us, I am afraid. 

Natural history has its museums, 
But why should our children learn about monsters, 
An earth of snakes and reptiles for millions of years? 

Nature devouring, nature devoured, 
Butchery day and night smoking with blood. 
And who created it? Was it the good Lord? 

Yes, undoubtedly, they are innocent, 
Spiders, mantises, sharks, pythons. 
We are the only ones who say: cruelty. 

Our consciousness and our conscience 
Alone in the pale anthill of galaxies 
Put their hope in a humane God. 

Who cannot but feel and think, 
Who is kindred to us by his warmth and movement, 
For we are, as he told us, similar to Him. 

Yet if it is so, the He takes pity 
On every mauled mouse, every wounded bird. 
Then the universe for him is like a Crucifixion. 

Such is the outcome of your attack on the cat: 
A theological, Augustinian grimace, 
Which makes difficult our walking on this earth.

~ Czeslaw Milosz, Facing the River (1995)


Here Milosz acknowledges the innocence of nature. Only humans mistakenly say: cruelty, and imagine the kind of deity who cares for every mouse and bird. Yet if this is so, “then the universe for him is like a Crucifixion,” Milosz brilliantly observes. This position – that nature is “cruel” – only makes our life more difficult. Much as he would like to believe in a totally caring god, Milosz will not condemn his beloved cat. The cat is as innocent as Frida Kahlo's dog, Señor Xólotl "curled . . . on the wrist of evening." 

But wait! The human psyche and human values cannot be so easily dismissed. We are the ones capable of pity for all suffering – and of remembering the beings, human and animal and vegetal, who are no more. Lois P. Jones sent me this beautiful French poem by Rilke:


Who says that all must vanish?
Who knows, perhaps the flight
of the bird you wound remains,
and perhaps flowers survive
caresses in us, in their ground.

It isn’t the gesture that lasts,
but it dresses you again in gold
armor – from breast to knees –
and the battle was so pure
an Angel wears it after you.

~ Rainer Maria Rilke, tr. A. Poulin 


Michael (at Mile 410 of the Pacific Crest Trail)
I enjoyed wrestling with the thoughts in your most recent post.

A great injustice, an unfortunate thoughtlessness, is the inappropriate use – the gross use – of and in humans and nature – there is no and, humans are nature. We are as much nature as any other creature (and gasp! we haven't even begun talking about the so-called inanimate...). The AND in Human and nature has lead to a world of fear and division and disregard and power-over.

One such consequence is the world as an animal Auschwitz – 58 billion land animals senselessly killed each year for food, worldwide. The creatures taken from the sea are many, many more. I saw a butcher buying goats in NW China. He lead them to his cart, grabbed them by the skin on the back, and hurled each over the 6' side of the cart and let each drop on its back, on the floor. For him, the goat was apart from him. He believed in the AND. Nature is to be controlled. Disregarded. Killed. Not worthy of respect, nor is there reason to be concerned for its suffering.

Last week I was a hiking a few miles south of The Devil's Punchbowl on the PCT and rounded a corner and nearly bumped into two young men. From their clothing I guessed they were on their first day-hike, venturing into the wilds with only Hollywood as a guide. The meeting was sudden, neither of us had heard the other coming. One of them said, "Damn, I thought you were a bear." A bear. Right. But he was serious and to support his concern, he held a handgun, a version of the famed 1911 pistol, hammer back. I wanted to laugh and at the same time slap him silly for being so naive and stupid and for endangering my life and those of others hikers. He believed in the AND.

In a general way it might be said there are two kinds of Pacific Crest Trail hikers: First, those who believe nature is a force to reckon with, to be wary of, and they plan for her volatile ways – these folks carry gear for every contingency – one, two, or even three first aid kits, a satellite phone or tracking device, GPS, maps for several miles in every possible direction, food for an extra day or two, a back-up water filter, too much clothing, snow shoes (in spring and summer?), a shovel, etc. They believe in the AND. The second kind believes nature is benevolent and they pack lightly. These are the ultra-light backpackers. They may carry an extra pair of socks. That's it. Enough food for the miles, no back-up gear. These hikers are nature.

It's the view. Of nature. That allows for these different approaches.

Not far from where I live in San Diego someone has scratched into the concrete sidewalk: WE ARE ONE WITH EVERYTHING! Yes, we are. And the walk we must learn to walk is the one without the AND.

I hear the reasoning of the deep ecologists in your discussion--deep ecologists acknowledge the interconnected of systems, but have little concern for the individual. So the earth didn't pause its ponderous revolution when I was born, nor will it pause when I die. But what would happen if humans ceased to exist? If the oceans died? Or the polar ice caps melt?


The ice caps are already melting, of course. Humans who run the world (presidents, generals, CEO's) seem like a bunch of young male teenagers. The gang mentality. The adolescent belief that we are “separate, different, and superior.” Why are we superior? Because we have morality, while nature, we were taught, is “red in tooth and claw.”

And anyway, by the time the polar caps are totally melted, that will posterity’s problem, and who really cares for posterity? It’s been observed that some people never use the future tense. 

Even having children and grandchildren does not necessarily make them care. I remember having chatted with a real-estate developer. He said he was working on “developing” the hills around San Luis Obispo. “Not those hills!” I moaned. “That’s such a beautiful area.” “I know,” he replied. I used to hike there when I was in college.” “And where will your children hike?” I asked. At first he pretended not to hear. Then he said, “People need housing,” and became busy working on his laptop.
After all, most agree that profit is more important than nature.

You are correct in your argument that people don’t seem to realize that they ARE nature. Hence either the romanticized, deified version of Nature, or the degraded rape-her-while-you-can nature. But Milosz has gotten himself into a different conundrum. He is disgusted by the food chain: all this devouring. He wants a divine order where maybe we can just feed on light. This reminds me of Linda Pastan’s wonderful poem:

The Imperfect Paradise 

If God had stopped work after the fifth day
With Eden full of vegetables and fruits,
If oak and lilac held exclusive sway
Over a kingdom made of stems and roots,
If landscape were the genius of creation
And neither man nor serpent played a role
And God must look to wind for lamentation
And not to picture postcards of the soul,
Would he have rested on his bank of cloud,
With nothing in the universe to lose,
Or would he hunger for a human crowd?
Which would a wise and just creator choose:
The green hosannas of a budding leaf
Or the strict contract between love and grief?

            ~ Linda Pastan

Nevertheless, Milosz is sane enough not to call nature “cruel.” After having witnessed a huge amount of human cruelty, he knows very well that it’s not his cat that is cruel. And he realizes that not even the God of Love (as opposed to Blakean “Nobodaddy”) could open up to all suffering, because then the universe would be a constant crucifixion. And even God wants to be happy! So, in midst of sorrow, we must choose to live in joy. Only a basically joyful person, I suspect, can be emotionally strong enough to try to actively minimize suffering and environmental destruction. 

But what I particularly fear is people who don’t seem to have any sense of the sacred or, what may be equivalent, a sense of beauty. 


Where DO you find those pictures?! The clarity of the images for your
posts are really striking. I really liked the Chinese fisherman with
his cormorants, saw one of those birds just this weekend on the coast
of Georgia. The Chinese fisherman image on your post brought to mind,
oddly enough, the thought of the Quakers and thier being known as
Children of the Light; Lowell's 'Quaker Graveyard on Nantucket' comes
to mind as well. Which that leads to Melville(Lowell as you probably
know makes many allusions to 'Moby Dick') Melville was haunted by
Calvinism most of his life, he like Milosz never fully escaped his
upbringing though at the end of his life he seemed to have acquired
some peace.


For images, I scour the Internet. The best images are often not attributed, to my astonishment. But maybe it’s better that way, in line with Internet generosity.

That's a wonderful comparison of Melville's Calvinism to Milosz's old-time
Catholicism. Either way, it's not a lovable deity. I think Milosz had at
least some moments of peace – several late poems indicate that. He felt that at least in his old age he’d be accepted “as is” – but certainly without any apologies for the huge amount of suffering he had to witness or experience, for the silence when he prayed that the suffering of others be relieved. I think Milosz arrived at moments of blissful acceptance and moments of agonized acceptance.


  1. Nature cruel? When the tsunami crawled out of the Indian Ocean in 2004, there were people who saw it as an act of God aimed at the sinners at that part of the world. Hurricane Katrina? It was the same thing. The Japanese Tsunami? Sure.

    People will also say that it's not cruelty, that God and his handmaiden nature have some great plan in mind that will ultimately be revealed as good, and it has to be good because God can't do bad.

    But looking at the bones and flesh of Tsunamis and hurricanes and volcanoes and such, I have to wonder, if it's not cruelty than why does it hurt so many so much.

  2. Thank you for this wonderful blog, Oriana. I thought you might enjoy my response to the Rilke poem you post here.

    What Returns

    after Rike’s “What Survives”

    I say nothing vanishes

    or is entirely beyond reach

    even the flight of a phoenix

    or the sound of petals

    in a garden where all petals

    have gone. You carry

    the glint of gold

    even after I

    have lost trace of it.

    I remember fire after you.

    —Susan Rogers

  3. Susan, thanks for the poem. "I remember fire after you" is perfect.

  4. Basically, we need to get used to the notion of randomness. If a rock falls on someone, it's not because he was a sinner in need of punishment; most likely he was just an average guy who merely happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. But randomness is difficult for the human mind; somehow we imagine that everything happens according to reason and purpose. Some things do, but a lot of things don't. If we accept randomness, a lot of nonsense would fall away, and we might be more compassionate without being judgmental. But a mostly random universe is scary to a lot of people. You mean I can be a good person, and a rock can still fall on me, or a drunk driver hit me, or an insane person start shooting? Yes, and I think the only consolation is that others will act to help you or your surviving family. "The only hands Christ has are your hands, to do good with" -- Teresa of Avila.

  5. Susan, welcome to the blog! I love your poem.

    Stealing a bit from the Polish national anthem, I came up with this tiny poem -- not as beautiful as yours, though it stems from a beautiful memory I describe in another poem --

    Nothing is lost
    as long as we are alive.
    Look, my hands cradle a long-ago
    Warsaw pigeon I once held to my heart.

    Oh, dear, this isn't so great: let me give you the original poem:


    A pigeon flew in through a window
    on the fourth floor and got trapped
    in the sheen of the long corridors
    in the large building where we lived.

    My father caught him and handed
    him to me. I held the bird tight
    to my chest, then leaned
    over the sill and handed him to the sky.

    He dropped, a dead stone –
    then wobbled,
    the wings found again
    the art of the air –

    and the pigeon wheeled
    above the wide yard. Flew away
    like the years. But I still feel it
    beat, that heart against my heart.

  6. The universe as crucifiction rings true in a world where bad things do happen to good people. What of karma? And then there is simply being on this planet at this time despite karmic forces if one believes they exist. What type of life is endemic to this planet? It is a wild and precious life as Mary Oliver tells us and it is decidedly unpredictable and often unfair. I believe there is much that we can control. For example, if we don't want to die of heart failure, we shouldn't eat french fries every night for the rest of our lives. There's no guarantee that Mr. Healthy next door won't stop in his tracks but we can control a portion of the fates as much as we can tempt them. We are on a planet that has known massive geologic changes over time, climates shifts and all manner of inner and outer fission. So I believe we are subject to the laws of the physical universe as long as we are in it and of it. When we leave...that may be quite another matter. But what of the cruelty of Man? I believe that man is basically good. And what causes his decline is well...a brand new conversation.

    Thank you for this very thought provoking thread. I've read Susan's beautiful response and it is one of my favorites of hers. The ending is so very fine.

    The last line of your poem is as good as any memory should be. The beating heart against heart resonantes so deeply. It is primal and resounding.


  7. Oriana--Very enriching and enlightening work, keep it up!
    R. T.

  8. Thank you, RT, and thank you, Lois. I love the remark "It is a wild and precious life as Mary Oliver tells us and it is decidedly unpredictable and often unfair." We have to wrap around the concept of "unfair" -- as Job's "comforters" could not. Sometimes the unfairness comes from social arrangements, but most of it is sheer biology -- we age, we decline, and screaming against this universal tragedy won't do us any good. "Life is a long, gorgeous song on the way to the abyss" -- a Ukrainian poet, Yuriy something (it would take me too long to look up), said. And if not abyss, then the unknown, but why so many people assume paradise awaits them is beyond me (other than wishful thinking).

    So we turn to the consolations of beauty wherever we find it: in nature and in art. At least we have beauty; at least we have one another. "The only hands God has are our hands, to do good with." I've said it before, and hope to keep saying it as long as I live.

  9. A year later:

    That we die is awful enough. But that people die in a dreadful way -- brain diseases, cancer -- no one deserves those torments. It would make sense to put lots of resources into medical research rather than into warfare -- but there is nothing less common than common sense, as someone observed.

    And yes, it is astonishing that given our knowledge of mortality we humans still wage wars and otherwise create endless grief for others. I hope Steven Pinker is right -- at least in the West we are not as cruel as we used to be (I don't understand how Europe survived the Middle Ages, the so-called "Ages of Faith."

  10. Ah, I haven't even closed the parentheses! Still unused to using a Mac after so many years of Windows . . .

    This reminds me: the progress in computers, iPods, technology in general has been phenomenal. But research into aging, which should be humanity's priority, gets minimal funding. I suspect it's because people under 50 still don't believe that they'll grow old and die. No denial is as powerful as the denial of aging and death.