Does not the earth perhaps extrude
From solar flares the very food
Or light by which I see,
Inventing that which first made me,
Our seemingly self-reliant luge
Drawn from orbit's centrifuge,
The galaxy granting no more than it
Loses to our pulling planet,
Grudging only just the layer
We exact by being there,
Lending all the gravity of earth
To the force that gave us birth,
And thus erasing any debt
To the land which we ourselves abet,
To the world which we permit
To let us let it sit.
August 10th, 2002
Redone November 16th, 2002
My friend Peter Van Etten says this explanation has absolutely nothing to do with the poem, and he may be right.
Soft breezes, trembling leaves, cooling and warming after a torrid, end-of-the-world summer set the world in relief one fall afternoon, high on a hill overlooking our Colorado valley.
The new anxiety level in the world seemed to pull even at the crisp landscape, turning the land away from formerly credible fantasies of collaboration to the colder equation of a jeweled universe entirely out of our control.
So I suppose I was looking for a new kind of pathetic fallacy: if we couldn’t influence the universe, maybe at least our planet could, and we could find some solace in our inadvertent association with a vaster, worthier environment, drawing the mute earth into complicity with our own noisy need to be essential.
Such casuistries are no doubt more pathetic than the initial fallacy, but I find that my own need for pathos, that is, for an emotional connection to the workings of the galaxy, has to dig deeper to survive. I find it somehow calming to think about a scientific necessity between ourselves and the universe. To be a small cog in an eternal machine seems cozier than more gruesome and closer realities. Because something exists doesn’t mean it is true. And because it doesn’t exist doesn’t mean it is false. Ad astra per aspera.
I saw two birds by the side of the road, tilting their heads to consider the wonder, or the inscrutableness, of a bush. I usually feel like those birds, beside myself over the world. The birds tilt their heads looking at a bush, and I tilt my head looking at the birds. I am behind them in the philosophic order. They are natural; I am a bit of an artifice, sustained entirely by air-
conditioning. They would be here without civilization; I wouldn’t be.
I am in awe of the inexorable. Birds need no justification; they are part of the world. Their heavenly father feeds them. I, on the other hand, am a bit overextended, a bit peripheral, a bit overthought, second-guessed, in need of an oil change. I don’t exist because I think. The fact that I think makes it difficult for me to exist. Less heavenly factories feed me. I am dependent on grease and rust, the litany of industry, not the mellifluous exhalations of unrevolutionary skies. This is a direct consequence of trying to outthink heaven, of trying to couple hell.
I was thinking of a recent book* proposing that six unwavering physical constants, which can be represented by numbers, keep the universe functional; any small change in any of those constants would destroy the equilibrium on which we depend. I thought, unconsciously (in conscious retrospect), that the presence of the earth must be the seventh number.
The presence of our planet keeps the solar system in balance, influencing the gravity that holds us in orbit. That same tug of gravity entices fire out of the sun in prominences, or solar flares, pulling the building blocks of matter out of the core and throwing it into the air where it becomes visible, understandable. So a solar flare could be said to be a visible representation of gravity waves.
These waves are caused in part by the tug of the planets on the sun; they attract the sun. Without our gravitational pull, which stokes the sun, there might not be enough heat to sustain life. So our presence creates the conditions necessary to perpetuate that presence. We create the conditions which create us.
If we are spun from the sun, we also spin it, keep it in balance; our admiration is, in a way, mutual.
As we spin ourselves out of the raw material of the sun, we also spin poems out of the weather sun creates. So our presence nourishes the sun, and creates the conditions that draw poems from us. We draw poems, then, out of the sun, but the sun also draws poems out that are inherent in us, so it works in both directions. Like certain girls at college who only appear on beautiful days, certain poems only deign to be inspired in beautiful weather. The fair-weather poems.
Everything is dependent on everything; our world creates the weather that makes our poems possible. Poems freeze the world the way it is for a moment. So we keep the universe, through verse, united, suspended in animation, animated in suspension, sun hanging colorized over a lake.
To paraphrase the poem: the earth attracts from sun (solar flares) the light by which we see, the very food by which we live, and, by attracting sun, invents it, as sun invents us.
We are in a centrifugal orbit around the sun, and thus are not passengers on a freestanding planet, but on one dependent on the sun.
On the other hand, what we take from the sun (light and existence) is only the gravity and stability we give to it. We exchange the force of gravity (gravitas is weight, or meaning) for light, the force which gave us birth. Thus we owe nothing to the sun, because we help it survive.
It is an equal exchange: a life for a life. We give the sun our help, so we allow it to allow us to remain suspended, seemingly effortlessly, in orbit, although it takes equal tugs on both sides to create the illusion of stasis, to create the balance point, the fulcrum, of the seesaw.
*Just Six Numbers, Martin Rees, Basic Books, New York, 2000; see also The Constants of Nature, John D. Barrow, Pantheon, New York, 2002.
August 10th, 2002, 2:09 PM
Rewritten November 16th, 2002, 7:01 AM–11:29 AM