Sunday, May 12, 2013

An eye for an eye

As a child in South Grafton, I was expected to admire a gushy poem penned by a young American Catholic fellow named Joyce Kilmer, killed in 1918 by a sniper's bullet on the Western Front in France.

I would imagine that countless English-speaking people of my generation can recite most of this poem by heart:
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is pressed
Against the earth's sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
The US musician Oscar Rasbach [1888-1975] wrote music for Kilmer's celebrated poem, and our local radio station 2GF in Grafton used to play constantly the version sung by the Austrian-Jewish tenor Richard Tauber [1891-1948]... whose Teutonic accent irritated me almost as much as the syrupy sentiments of the song.

The only aspect of Kilmer's poem with which I agreed was that it had been written by a sentimental fool. I was accustomed to wandering around on my father's bush property, which provided me with ample visions of trees. Not one of them, however, gave me the impression that it might be pressing its hungry mouth against the "sweet flowing breast" of the dry ground. If I observed lots of "leafy arms", they did in fact seem to be lifted most often in a plea for rain, but I never imagined for an instant that God might be playing a role in this meteorological affair. True enough, certain trees wore nests in their "hair", and the birds who had built them were generally either raucous crows, screeching parrots or savage magpies. There may have been robins in the bush, but I don't remember them. And the idea that snow might ever lay upon the "bosom" of one of our eucalyptus trees was frankly unthinkable. (I was 21 years old when I came in contact with snow for the first time in my life, in France.)

The final line of Kilmer's poem annoyed me most of all, with its silly idea that God might "make" trees. We all knew that Australian gum trees proliferated everywhere with no need for any kind of divine intervention. Indeed, the only domain in which my father would have surely appreciated a helping hand from God was ring-barking, designed to clear land so that our cattle would have sufficient grass to eat.

I realize retrospectively today that one of the advantages of growing up in rural Australia was that I soon developed a healthy respect for the power of Nature, which was often brutal, with no apparent concern for the welfare of us humans. The harsh Australian environment is not the sort of place in which a clear-thinking dweller would invent the quaint notion of a benevolent Creator. I've always considered that the Christian divinity is basically a humanistic Mediterranean concept: the intellectual reflection of a setting distinguished by harmony, where Nature is regulated by pleasant seasons. No authentic Australian (such as our Aborigines, above all) would have ever been inclined to invent the gentleman who delivered the Sermon on the Mount.

Once, as a boy, I asked my father why he never went to church (as had become my habit). I have never forgotten his marvelous reply: "Billy, you probably won't understand what I have to say. My cathedral is my bush paddock." In fact, not only did I end up understanding my father's metaphor, but I finally got around to adopting a similar attitude. At the age of 14, I came upon a little book on pantheism, in my grandparents' library, and I was so impressed by this primitive philosophy (which sees the natural world—in a similar spirit to that of our Aborigines—as a vast assembly of autonomous divinities) that I dared to reveal my enthusiasm explicitly to Dean Warr of Christ Church Cathedral... who was not exactly impressed by my revelation. Fortunately, my emerging fascination for mathematics and physics soon dissuaded me from delving more deeply into the archaic metaphysics of pantheism. Meanwhile, my encounter with the mildly sacrilegious book Life of Jesus by Ernest Renan took the wind out of my slack and flapping Christian sails forever.

These days, the terms "creationism" and "intelligent design" designate the variety of religious faith that exploits the splendors of the natural world as proof that a Supreme Designer must have been at work in the beginning. There again, it's difficult for an Australian to be a creationist, because almost everything in the Antipodes seems to have been designed differently (if at all) from what you find in the Mediterranean world. If God thought that jumping was a good mode of locomotion for our kangaroos, why didn't he design jumping creatures for the Northern Hemisphere? If he thought that waddling in an upright position would enable Antarctic penguins to move around easily on ice, why didn't he use the same principle for Arctic creatures? Either the Supreme Designer worked in an experimental fashion, and often got things wrong, or else there was a team of several senior designers who didn't necessarily adopt the same principles.

Adepts of creationism and intelligent design apparently find it difficult to believe that an organ as complex as the human eye could have emerged from Darwinian evolution. They raise doubts concerning the feasibility and evolutionary benefits of the intermediary stage that is often designated as "half an eye". In his Climbing Mount Improbable, Richard Dawkins devoted an entire 54-page chapter to the fascinating subject of the evolution of various kinds of eyes, which have emerged independently from scratch at least 40 times in the history of the animal world. In The Greatest Show on Earth, Dawkins returned to the question of eyes, and insisted upon the fact that our human eye provides a case study in "unintelligent design". In a recent issue of the UK's Daily Mail, there's an extraordinary collection of fine photos [access] of eyes of all kinds.

Let me conclude this rambling post by a lovely photo of a pair of astonishing eyes: those of a baby Madagascan lemur born recently in a French zoo.

Blogs are written by fools like me,
But only an adult lemur couple can make a baby lemur.
My words don't have the same poetic impact as those of Joyce Kilmer. What's more, they're not entirely true from a clinical viewpoint, since they neglect the theme of what we used to call "test-tube babies".

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