Genesis: an epic poem – poem about ecology

Genesis: an epic poem – poem about ecology – The Human Challenge of Ecological Restoration

Judith de Luce

At first glance, inventionist ecology seems an unlikely subject for an epic poem written in the late twentieth century. After all, Frederick Turner has often used prose to write about landscape and the environment. Along with others, he has examined the process and prospects of terraforming Mars to make the hostile environment of the red planet habitable for humans. The story of terraforming Mars is certainly movie material, but why should an accomplished essayist rely upon the traditions of epic poetry to write 10,000 lines of iambic pentameter which explore the science and the implications of terraforming? How well does poetry serve the topic? I am not prepared to argue that Turner has somehow written a modern sequel to the Theogony, but the striking continuity between Greek and Latin literary tradition and Genesis: An Epic Poem may help us to better understand Turner’s vision. At the very least, we will end up with some interesting questions.

Genesis is, by any standards, a remarkable poem. It is “about” many things: human aspiration, deceit, choice, courage, loyalty, chance, and the power of poetry. If the poem’s complexity sometimes gets the better of the reader, if the barrage of erudite adjectives cries out for the editor’s scalpel, nonetheless the scope of the plot is matched by the vigor of the poetry. According to Genesis, over a century from now, the United Nations sends “Chance” Van Riebeck and a team of scientists to survey Mars as part of the Ares Project. Instead of following those orders, the scientists rely in part upon the principles of James Lovelock’s Gala hypothesis to begin the process of terraforming the planet. This requires warming Mars, rendering its lethal atmosphere innocuous, and populating its barren surface with living organisms. On Earth, Van Riebeck’s estranged wife Gaea leads the reigning Ecotheists, who not only insist on a clear dichotomy between nature and humankind but claim that the human being is as evil as its manipulation of nature. Alarmed by what Chance is doing, the Ecotheists arrest and try the renegades. The Martian colonists who survive the ensuing war finally manage to obtain a record of all the genetic material of Earth and continue the process of “gardening” Mars, inspired in part by Beatrice, a daughter of Chance and Gaea. Finally, a prophet called Hermione Mars, the great Sibyl, sings the new world of Mars into being.

Not only do the theoretical and practical aspects of Chance’s efforts have much in common with recent discussions in the popular press, but underlying his actions is a perspective which Turner has called inventionist ecology-a position that does not reject the preservation of natural ecosystems so much as it seeks to restore natural landscapes. According to inventionist ecology, which may also be termed restoration ecology, there may well come a time when it is appropriate and necessary to create entirely new ecosystems. That is precisely what Chance is trying to do.

But the question remains: since Turner has written extensively about gardening, restoration ecology, even terraforming in prose, why turn to poetry here? It is nothing new to rely upon storytelling to prove a point, of course. Greek and Latin writers traditionally drew upon mythological exempla for proofs. Plato was not exactly an uncritical champion of the traditions of the literary arts, yet he supplemented the arguments of the Republic, for example, with a variety of “myths” of his own making-the myth of the metals, the myth of Er, and so on.

The earliest literature in Greek was composed orally in verse due in part to the fact that poetry is always easier to remember than prose (I know that there are thirty days in November because I remember the ditty “Thirty days has September…”). Homer did not compose in prose. As late as the second century BCE, the Latin poet Ennius wrote his history in dactylic hexameter, the meter of epic. Moreover, there is precedent for presenting science in verse. Lucretius, after all, writing in the first century BCE, used the epic meter for De Rerum Natura, six books of atomic theory and Epicurean philosophy.

But ours is an age of sound bites and information bullets. We are often uncomfortable with poetry and seem to be embarrassed in the face of the passion and complexity of epic unless it is very ancient and can claim to be one of the “great books.” We prefer graphs and statistics and prose which can be read at a comfortable distance without undue emotional investment. Perhaps Turner chose verse because of its peculiar immediacy and irresistible drama. It is one thing to read an explication of the facts and figures and techniques of terraforming; it is quite another to participate vicariously in the process itself. As Aristotle assures us, poetry by its very nature encompasses a vision which transcends a particular instance and in that sense is more “philosophical” than history. Computer modeling may enable us to terraform Mars, but poetry can confront us with the implications of such an act.

Much of the power of the poem, and most of the fun of reading it, can be attributed to Turner’s skilled manipulation of tradition. In this respect, he is in excellent company with his predecessors. Much of the complexity and depth of Vergil’s Aeneid, for example, derives from the author’s allusions to Homer. In the final book, Aeneas is locked in mortal combat with Turnus, the Italian leader who stands in Aeneas’ way of fulfilling his destiny to found Rome. In good epic fashion, Vergil employs similes to describe the fight. We recognize the similes as those which Homer used to describe the final battle between Achilles and Hector and the deadly race around the walls of the besieged city, which ends with the Trojan’s death. The pleasure of recognition aside, as readers we cannot help thinking back to that earlier epic, of the reasons the war at Troy was fought, of Achilles’ struggle to understand why he should be there at all, at his grief over the death of his closest friend at the hands of Hector. And we must think about Hector who fights for his city and his family, knowing all the time that Troy will fall. So when Aeneas faces Turnus, and Vergil resorts to the same similes, we cannot help comparing the two epics. We must reflect on Aeneas’ motives, his grief at the deaths of so many friends but especially of the boy Pallas, his struggles to accept his destiny, and the enormous cost of that destiny to himself and those around him.

Reading Genesis, we experience the same thrill of recognition when we see Vergil’s Cumaean Sibyl in Turner’s prophet Hermione; when we catch glimpses of Dante’s Beatrice in Turner’s; when Hesiod’s Gala (Earth) reappears as Gaea Van Riebeck; even when we discover that the Finnish epic Kalevala has loaned its name to a spaceship. The allusiveness of Genesis underscores the continuity in epic tradition from the most ancient to this most modern epic at the same time that it points up the stark changes which Turner has wrought on the tradition. His constant touching base with the past emphasizes Turner’s departure from it and prepares us to ask questions about the future. Certainly one could read Genesis with no background in the tradition which informs it, but I am not convinced that the poem would be as compelling.

Once he chose to write about terraforming in verse, Turner could hardly choose any other genre. I said that terraforming was material for a movie, but it is even more natural material for an epic. We do not compose epics about the mundane details of life. Rather, epics tend to deal with beginnings and endings: the destruction of a civilization, the struggle to establish a new nation, the search for salvation, the primal creation itself. Alexander the Great lamented that there was no Homer around to compose an epic about his exploits. Only epic has the reputation and scale appropriate to so great an undertaking as terraforming Mars.

Genesis does not simply belong in the general tradition of epic, however; it continues in the tradition of cosmogonic literature in particular-from the Akkadian and Hittite to the Greek and the biblical. It is here that we find the most provocative difference between the mythic cosmogonies of the past and Turner’s vision. In Genesis, humans have assumed the role of creator. In fact, not only have we assumed the role but we have invented our own means to create, an advantage which preceding generations did not have. This changes dramatically the relationship which humans may have with the cosmos. In both creation stories in Genesis, in Hesiod, in Ovid, in the Hopi story of Spider Woman and Tawa, humankind is part of and sometimes the culmination of creation. But in Turner’s Genesis, it is humankind which creates-and that makes all the difference in the world. In other cosmogonic tales, humans had to learn what relationship with the rest of creation they had been granted by the creator. In Genesis, humans themselves have to determine what relationship they will have with the created world. Humans determine their responsibility toward their own creation. That is, once we have assumed the role of cosmic creator, how do we play our part? If we muff our lines, if we turn in a poor performance (as some would argue we have done on our current planet), then where will we go? What are the implications of rendering the environment of one’s home planet so intolerable that moving to another planet is preferable? Are we facing the nonmythic equivalent to the flood?

To take this a step further, in the biblical Genesis, God flooded the world in anger over the unrighteous behavior of humans. Noah loaded down the ark with representatives of every living thing at the instruction of this god, who established a covenant with him, promising that he would not flood the world again.

Following the Greek tradition, Ovid tells how a man and a woman-Deucalion and Pyrrha-were responsible for repopulating the devastated Earth after the flood, which Jupiter had sent to punish humans for their impiety. They repopulate the earth by throwing behind them the “bones” of their mother, the stones which they find lying on the ground when the waters recede. These two survive the flood only because they are the two most upright humans on earth.

In Genesis, there are no angry gods and it is not clear whether any individuals are particularly righteous. Rather, the world which Chance leaves behind is one in which humans have been poor stewards. Yet why does Chance move to Mars rather than transform Earth? Does he find irresistible the opportunity to perform a feat both heroic and hubristic, or does he see the opportunity as a precious second chance? In Genesis, in the aftermath of a cataclysmic battle between those who want to terraform Mars and those who regard it as blasphemous to do so, a brother and sister locate the Lima Codex, a record of all Earth’s genetic material, without which it would be impossible to make Mars hospitable. These Noahs load the Lima Codex onto the spaceship Kalevala, the ark for the terraformed Mars.

But what kind of world will they restore on Mars as they replicate Earth’s evolutionary past? The natural landscape on Mars is somehow to be utopian, a possible model for a social and political landscape. Chance and then Beatrice derive inspiration for their work from the Greek Arcadia of the ancient poets, but I see a problem with this vision. I recall my first visit to Arcadia, when I sat with archaeologist friends in the numbing heat, listening to the insects and the bells of unseen goats. In the stillness of that afternoon, we could well believe that the great god Pan still walked the hills. Unlike most of Greece, this particular spot in the Peloponnese is so isolated that it affords no glimpse of the sea. Arcadia is associated with the wild goat god, with anything but civilization, urban living, or technology. k does not represent a solution to the conflicting demands of modern living, or any compromise between nature and culture or preservation and restoration. The absence of the sea reminds us how far Arcadia is removed from the social and political realities of Greece-ancient or modern.

The reality of Arcadia presents a problem which is not addressed in the epic and which challenges us to consider whether we can afford a model of such profound isolation as we invent other landscapes. Chance et al. invent a landscape on an uninhabited planet. What takes place on Mars presents none of the challenges of restoration ecology in, let us say, the southeastern United States, where any efforts may well entail the dislocation of residents, the removal of agricultural land from production, interference with the livelihoods of communities, and alteration of an ecosystem now in place to restore an ecosystem no longer present. Chance never has to ask who pays for this invention to take place or who pays because of it.

Once again, it is as Turner recalls earlier epics that we encounter the most provocative implications of his poem. Once he had made it to the shores of Italy, Vergil’s reluctant hero went to the underworld to see his father, Anchises. Not only did Aeneas’ trip to Hades take him through his own past, but Anchises showed him the future of Rome. Aeneas emerged from the underworld arguably better equipped emotionally to continue on his mission to found Rome. But Aeneas could not descend alone; he had as guide a formidable prophet, the great Cumaean Sibyl. The token for the trip-the passport, if you will-was the golden bough. Centuries later, Vergil himself would escort another traveler, Dante, through the Inferno until Beatrice took up the role of guide and teacher through the Purgatorio and the Paradiso.

In Genesis, another Beatrice wields a golden bough, as she guides the Martian colonists to “garden” this planet. The Trojan hero needed the golden bough to gain entry to the underworld in defiance of the laws of that place. In Genesis, the cosmic gardener uses the bough to lead the way into the mysteries of terraforming Mars.

Beatrice’s “gardening” skills play a major role in the trans, formation of Mars, but it is actually the Sibyl, descendant of Vergil’s seer, whose prophetic singing brings Mars to life. Adam must be animated by the breath of God. The Spider Woman’s song animates the figures which she and Tawa have fashioned. Hermione reminds us that some things do not lend themselves readily to prose or to scientific discourse. Technology is not enough; computer modeling is not enough. Mars is not truly habitable until the Sibyl sings her song. And just as Vergil’s Sibyl helped guide Aeneas to the underworld where his father could show him the future, so this Sibyl guides us as readers to consider the future possibilities on Mars. But even as we follow the Sibyl(s), we should recall that her prophecies were notoriously ambiguous. Surely we must be very wise, and very cautious, if we are to understand fully the song of the Sibyl. But that is why the tale needs to be told in verse. Aristotle was right: poetry gives us a vision of what might happen and thereby requires us to consider whether it will be worth the cost. Aeneas traveled from one end of the known world nearly to the other to find a new home-a feat which required enormous effort, as Vergil tells us. Genesis has us leaving our home planet and traveling to yet another, and the cost of establishing that new home is every bit as staggering as the cost of founding Rome.

Turner begins his epic with the obligatory invocation and prayer for inspiration, but once that is over he parts company with tradition and exhorts his readers to “Listen!” Poetry sewed a didactic purpose in classical antiquity, and Genesis is no less didactic. Perhaps the greatest lesson to be learned from Genesis can be heard in the words of Beatrice, when she argues that “the only path of freedom is the choice,/ From A and B, of C… ” Freedom is the greatest kind of creativity, then: the creation of another alternative.

As we contemplate the natural landscape and our place in it, we can take instruction from Beatrice. The choice is not between the dichotomy of conservation and restoration, of preservation and invention, of nature and humankind. Just as the song of the Sibyl effects a compromise between Earth-bound technology and the promise of a new and different life on Mars, so the exercise of freedom on our own planet may move us beyond simple dichotomies to creative alternatives.

Judith de Luce is professor of classics at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and coeditor of Beyond Preservation: Restoring and Inventing Landscapes (University of Minnesota Press, 1993).

COPYRIGHT 1993 American Humanist Association

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group