29 March 2018

Robinson Jeffers: On The Nature of Nature

The deer were bounding like blown leaves
Under the smoke in front the roaring wave of the brush-fire;
I thought of the smaller lives that were caught.
Beauty is not always lovely; the fire was beautiful, the terror
Of the deer was beautiful; and when I returned
Down the back slopes after the fire had gone by, an eagle
Was perched on the jag of a burnt pine,
Insolent and gorged, cloaked in the folded storms of his shoulders
He had come from far off for the good hunting
With fire for his beater to drive the game; the sky was merciless
Blue, and the hills merciless black,
The sombre-feathered great bird sleepily merciless between them.
I thought, painfully, but the whole mind,
The destruction that brings an eagle from heaven is better than mercy.
     - "Fire on the Hills" by Robinson Jeffers, from The Selected Poems of Robinson Jeffers, Palo Alton, Stanford University Press: 2001.      

A hillside, a landslide.  How easily one becomes the other when the elements act in concert.  Wind and fire, then rain, caused the recent mudslides near Santa Barbara.  Devastation of a kind that has happened before, as "Fire on the Hills" by Robinson Jeffers reminds us.  Beauty, the poet warns, is another face of nature's cruelty.

Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962) was an American poet whose favorite subject was the natural world of the central California coast.  Educated in France, Germany, and Switzerland before he landed at UCLA, Jeffers settled in Carmel-by-the-Sea in the 1920s. He coined the term "inhumanism" to describe the self-centeredness that blinds humans to the beauty of the natural world; for this he prescribed  learning to "uncenter" ourselves.  Uncentering seems akin to panpsychism, the belief that the human mind is part of everything in the universe, an idea that goes back to the ancient Greek only to reappear episodically throughout history. His opposition to U.S. participation in World War II damaged his poetic reputation but concern for the environment has brought renewed interest in his poems.

Alexis B. Many (1878-1937) was a transplanted Hoosier from Indianapolis who lived most of his adult life in Washington, D.C. and spent many summers painting in California.  Enamored by the bright light and dramatic colors of the landscape, Many even became a member of the California Art Club.  The family name is French; both of his parents were born in Paris.

1. Alexis B. Many - Laguna Bluffs, 1921, Sullivan Goss Gallery, Santa Barbara.      

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