Perspective from the Creatures of the Soil

A Fugue.

I’m reading the newly arrived Life in the Soil. Actually, I’m devouring it. And it’s not even that particularly well or passionately written.

I started wondering about this as I marveled over acellular slime molds and trichomycetes and realized that I often take refuge in books about soil and geology when I am down about the state of the world. In the first days of my “awakening” to climate change, peak oil and what have you, I fed on McPhee’s Annals of the Former World, like Henry, swallowing all 712 pages whole in the matter of a week.


Glaciers, archaebacteria: they are the kind of Earth without us. The kind of Earth that, given enough geological time, will be there after we are gone. Maybe what I am looking for in these books is perspective. I mourn so deeply what we might lose, and it seems such a shame. But these books tell me that, in another scheme of things, it doesn’t matter so much. From the perspective of the glacier, of the lichen, we don’t matter that much…

Does it work? I lose myself in the text, in the imagining of these things so utterly un-human. That’s something at least. When I read about art, about philosophy, it’s all so thoroughly human. Even a medieval religious icon or a 17th century piece of music are tainted with my sense of loss, of futility. So, losing myself in this Earth-without-us helps take my mind off things.

But then there is always the moment when I come out of the text to be reminded that it was written by a human. The science was done by humans. That knowledge and imagination, once we’re gone, will be gone as well – all that work, all that passion – for nothing! True, the real thing will still be there, the lichen, the glacier, geological time. But here I am, just holding a book, and sighing too much.

Aren’t you glad this wasn’t another “tutorial” (remember “Calcium in the Soil,” in 8 parts)?

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  1. Kaat: my first comment here! I love this post. It gets at something I struggle with (and I’m sure many struggle with) in the face of climate change. But I feel compelled to respond to this:

    “…all that work, all that passion – for nothing! True, the real thing will still be there, the lichen, the glacier, geological time.”

    No, not for nothing. That work, that passion, everything that is human, is every bit as real as the lichen and the glacier and everything that is nonhuman. Human joy and human suffering are real. Love and hate are real. What I feel when I hold my child is real. It all exists, right here, right now, in this moment…. even as I type these words.

    I believe what we need to let go of (and I think you’re hinting at this yourself) is the idea of permanence: the idea that in order for our endeavors – our lives, our humanity – to “matter,” to have meaning and value, they must last. But trust me, nothing lasts. And yet everything we do – everything – matters, has value, has meaning, right now, right where we are, in this moment.

    “Above all, we cannot afford not to live in the present… Unless our philosophy hears the cock crow in every barn-yard within our horizon, it is belated… There is something suggested by it that is a newer testament – the gospel according to this moment.” -Henry David Thoreau

  2. Hey Wen, good to see you here, and I hear ya!

    I was discussing just this with a dear and mutual friend of ours and that helped me pin down what I am trying to do in a post like this:
    by imagining the worst, I hope to get at what it is that I value so in my own life and in “humanity”. Asking “what is at stake” is asking “why is it meaningful”.
    So this is a positive exercise!

  3. Actually, I liked your calcium series! I hadn’t heard of this book, will have to look for it. I do know from living in rural and wooded areas, that it does not take long for the earth to reclaim what humans do. We can clear, we can build, we can plant, but it doesn’t take long for the land to look like no human was ever there. I suspect that humanity’s purpose isn’t strictly physical or material though. I suspect there is a largely unacknowledged and unseen spiritual element to our being here.

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