The Worlds Within Us

August 25, 2008 at 4:00 pm Leave a comment

Mila Zincova

Coral Reefs, Papua New Guinea Photo: Mila Zincova

There is a poem by Helen Humphreys that I’ve had posted on my fridge since 2001. Halfway through reading The World Without Us, I took it off my fridge and have had it sitting near my laptop. I’ve read it again several times, and it now has taken on another layer of meaning. That means it’s a good poem, I guess. And it also points to the fact that the issues touched upon in this poem and in Weisman’s book have simmered in my unconscious mind for … well, a long time–much longer than the time the poem has been on my fridge, that’s for sure.

The ideas are so big, it’s difficult to process them. So difficult to process, that I spent a sleepless night last night with images roiling in my brain: nuclear waste leaking into the planet’s bedrock for millions of years and the fact that “nurdles” may exist for the same amount of time. (Nurdles is such a cute word for such a deadly thing: the cylindrical plastic pellets that now infest our oceans, killing creatures at the very base of the food chain–and you know what that means). This is what will remain of us:  the products of our ingenuity are the very things that have destroyed our planet.

The Swimsuit Calendar Frog

Red-Eyed Tree Frog: The Swimsuit Calendar Frog

The inevitable conclusion from Weisman’s book is that humanity’s most distinctive and redeeming capacity–the power we have to think, to create, to imagine–is the one leading most irrevocably to our extinction. If that capacity also includes the ability to problem-solve and act in our own best interests as an entire species, it might also lead to our salvation. That, however, I feel less hopeful about, at least this morning.

As I said in a prior post, the only way I can wrap my mind around the enormity of the issues presented is through art and literature. Ironically, with the exception of bronze statuary, these products of our complex meta-cognition–our art, music and writing–are the most ephemeral, the ones most likely to fade away quickly, the ones with half-lives that often don’t survive one lifetime, never mind lasting into a world without us. Books and paintings will be among the first to decay, and even though newsprint is actually one of the last things to decompose in oxygen-depleted landfills, decompose it will and with it will go much of human knowledge and artistic production.

River in Costa Rican Rainforest

River in Costa Rican Rainforest

The poem on my fridge, clipped from the Globe and Mail back when they used to publish poetry fairly regularly, is yellowing now with age. It is impossible to find online: it is not included in any poetry anthologies or databases. Humphreys is better known for her short novel, The Lost Garden, which is infused with her poet’s sensibility. As much as I enjoy her writing, Humphreys is no Tennyson, no TS Eliot, no Shakespeare. Her work will not very likely be chosen to blast out into space, etched on a copper plate in some interstellar time capsule. But it has provided strange comfort to me over the years, and I will enjoy it for as long as it lasts.


By Helen Humphreys, Anthem (Brick Books, 1999)

What we make doesn’t recover from us.

Twisted scaffold, trellis of rust. This

is how we will be gone. The steel hull

grinning with rivets. Shiny notes of chrome

swinging from the stave of the wrecker’s wall.

Those we loved and nothing for that. The moon

a chalk circle over dark harbour.

Old rail tracks slippery under my feet.

Broken ladder on the tanker. My breath

ascending the rungs of air. I have

been here, lived in this place, loved you.

There’s a snarl of wire on white sand.

Plastic bottles nested in tall grasses

by the channel mouth. We are survived by these

shapes, by the shape of our lives without us.


Entry filed under: Environmental Issues, Poetry. Tags: , , , , , , , .

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