“Sunk Like Atlantis in the Sea”

January 27, 2009

Andrew links to a study showing the rate of tree deaths in America is accelerating. It makes me think of this passage from Wendell Berry’s essay, “A Native Hill”:

“It occurs to me that it is no longer possible to imagine how this country looked in the beginning, before the white people drove their plows into it. It is not possible to know what was the shape of the land here in this hollow when it was first cleared. Too much of it is gone, loosened by the plows and washed away by the rain. I am walking the route of the departure of the virgin soil of the hill. I am not looking at the same land the firstcomers saw. The original surface of the hill is as extinct as the passenger pigeon. The pristine America that the first white man saw is a lost continent, sunk like Atlantis in the sea. The thought of what was here once and is gone forever will not leave me as long as I live. It is as though I walk knee-deep in its absence.”

My paternal family, my grandmother says, can be traced in America in part to before/around the time of America’s founding. What they saw – what so enamored them of where my family is of today – is gone. Part of that loss is natural with time; part of it is the failure of prior generations and this generation: there is a part of the Creation that we have failed to bequeath to our children despite not being able to claim much good from its absence.

I recognize, of course, that man in civilization and nature do not coexist well or easily. But when we have so decimated the sight that drew us here, and are doing it now for concrete and steel and pavement – let me put it this way: the Creation is God’s handiwork, and physical civilization is man’s. The beauty of the latter will never be comparable to that of the former.

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