So runs the most famous quotation from the comic strip “Pogo” that appeared in newspapers of my youth. Like its somewhat later contemporary “Doonesbury,” it was written on two levels, a surface level of light-hearted humor and a deeper level of often trenchant political critique. If anything, I confess that, as a young adult, I had more trouble penetrating what was going on with Walt Kelly’s animals in the swamp (Pogo and friends) than with Garry Trudeau’s send-up of campus culture at Yale in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, featuring Michael Doonesbury et alii.
Still, it is Pogo’s famous quotation that has been trolling around in my brain for the better part of a week now. Ever since we’ve been “sheltering in place,” I have been concerned about the degree to which coronavirus and COVID-19 have shoved nearly all other issues off our literal and psychological front pages. My greatest worry has been that, just as the world seemed on the verge of seriously confronting some approaching “tipping points” associated with climate change—that is, with realistic projections of dates after which our ecosystem will have been irreparably harmed by human action—that just then we all got distracted. Greta—you know, the Swedish kid—what was her last name again—what was she so exercised about?
Then, in the course of the last week or so, I’ve been reading articles in various newspapers and magazines about a remarkable phenomenon. No, climate change has not suddenly reversed itself. But some other negative epiphenomena resulting from human excess have done so. With the sudden, massive decrease in vehicle usage and industrial activity, urban skies are blue again. Streams are clear that have not been so for many a year. What irony!
I don’t mean to wax anthropomorphic about “Mother Earth” catching its breath while we’ve been staying indoors. Nor is it fair (or nice) to those who have put their lives on the line to resist the coronavirus (or who have suffered in its wake) to suggest that somehow the virus has proved a sort of symbiotic blessing with the non-human world by putting humanity out of action for a while. But it does not seem to me a stretch to recognize a moment’s pause in what Saint Paul described as “the whole creation . . . groaning” under the burden of human selfishness (Romans 8:22).
Of course, we humans tend to be slow learners, and it remains to be seen what lessons, if any, we shall collectively take from this experience. Recently, I ran across a sonnet expressive of what I hope we may avoid—or at least postpone beyond our pre-March trajectory. It was written by a friend of the nineteenth-century British romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, namely, Horace Smith, in a friendly poetic contest for which Shelley wrote his famous “Ozymandias.” But it is Smith’s poem (also titled “Ozymandias”) that has left me pondering our coming choices and their consequences:
In Egypt’s sandy silence, all alone,
Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws
The only shadow that the Desert knows:—
“I am great OZYMANDIAS,” saith the stone,
“The King of Kings; this mighty City shows
The wonders of my hand.”— The City’s gone,—
Naught but the Leg remaining to disclose
The site of this forgotten Babylon.
We wonder,—and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro’ the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.