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Old, Unhappy, Far-off Things

Bill Meredith

"Will no one tell me what she sings?
Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow
For old, unhappy, far-off things,
And battles long ago."
…William Wordsworth, "The Solitary Reaper

(Dec, 2014) December 17, 1975, was a significant point in my education, for it was on that date that Public TV showed the first episode of "Rumpole of the Bailey." Horace Rumpole was a barrister (British word for trial lawyer) who spent most of his career defending petty criminals, and every episode would have a scene where he was walking to work in the rain, wearing an old black hat and carrying an ancient briefcase and a broken umbrella. He would be puffing a cheap cigar, and in the background you would hear his rumbling, Shakespearean voice mixing lines from poems with the problems of his domineering wife or the ironies of his profession. There’s nothing that good on TV any more, so I watch the re-runs whenever I find them.

A couple of weeks ago, as Rumpole shuffled across my television screen he muttered a phrase about "old, unhappy, far-off things." The phrase fit my mood of the moment, and it stuck in my mind, so later I looked it up. It was from a poem written about 200 years ago by Wordsworth. He had been walking along a country road and saw a girl cutting wheat with a sickle, as they used to do on small farms in England. She was alone, and he could hear her singing, but he was not close enough to distinguish the words; and as he walked on he tried to imagine what she sang about… hence, the verse quoted above. It resonates with me; as I grow older I seem to be spending more time thinking of old, far-off things. Sometimes my memories fit the line as Wordsworth wrote it, but more often my mind inserts "familiar" or "forgotten" in place of "unhappy." And sometimes the verse is triggered by memories of an event that was unhappy at the time, but has mellowed over the years.

When I was in college, all biology majors were required to take a course in Historical Geology. That was in 1953… long ago enough to qualify as an old time… and it was an unhappy time at first, because I did not see why I needed to take it. But it came to be a very important part of my education. It dealt with the history of life on earth, and when "Doc" Roberts walked in to teach it the first day, I thought he looked like he was old enough to have lived through most of it. But he sat down and began to talk in a conversational tone, and I was mesmerized. He was a great story-teller, and he made it come alive. He would get up occasionally to scrawl the names of geologic periods on the blackboard… big, mouth-filling words like Pre-Cambrian and Ordovician, that I had never heard of… and then he would tell us what the climate was like back then, hundreds of million years ago… more time than I had ever imagined could exist… and when each major group of plants and animals appeared in the fossil record. He told us that from time to time conditions on earth had changed and thousands of plants and animals became extinct. At that time, no one knew why.

Since that time, scientists have learned a lot. New fossils have been discovered, filling in gaps in the family trees of many forms of life. We now know that in the past 500 million years, there have been at least five times when major extinctions took place; in some of them, more than 75% of all the animals and plants on earth died out. We have learned the causes of the two most recent extinctions. At one time, all of the world’s land masses were jammed together into one enormous supercontinent called Pangaea, which began to break apart about 230 million years ago. North and South America broke off from Europe and Africa and began drifting apart. This was accompanied by earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and vast changes of climate, and thousands of species became extinct. After that, dinosaurs appeared in the fossil record, and multiplied to become dominant. Then, about 65 million years ago a comet or asteroid struck the earth near what is now the Yucatan region, just south of the Caribbean Sea, and caused such changes in the atmosphere that as many as 90% of all animals were killed. The dinosaurs disappeared, and mammals gradually took their place as the dominant animals. Those indeed were old, unhappy, far-off times.

I am presently reading a book called The Sixth Extinction, which was published earlier this year. The title is based on geologic history, and it reviews all that material "Doc" Roberts taught me, as well as what has been discovered in the 61 years since then. The author, Elizabeth Kolbert, proposes that irreversible changes which were beginning even before I was first learned about the earth have started us on the path toward the end of our present geologic age. She reviews evidence from many places, from tropical rain forests to coral reefs, that show many species of plants and animals are declining rapidly in numbers because of warming and drying of the climate, acidification of the air and water, and habitat destruction by the exploding human population. Some have already become extinct in the wild and exist only in zoos and botanical gardens. At the rate things are changing, thousands of species will no longer exist by the end of this century.

2014 has gone by quickly; if you’re counting, only 8% of it is left. My daily records show that here in Emmitsburg the temperatures were lower than average for the first 11 months, and toward the end of November they got even colder. The local temperature fell into the teens for the first time since March, and the evening news reported that six feet of snow fell in New York. It is hard to convince the public who live in local areas like Emmitsburg or Buffalo that global warming is a real problem; but meteorological records show that on a world-wide basis, 2014 is on record as the warmest year since accurate measurements began. For those who will be here in another 40 years, it is a bleak future to contemplate.

Sometimes now it feels as if age is gradually erasing those beautiful details of science that I enjoyed learning so much, and replacing them with poetry. Folks like Wordsworth continue to remind me of those old connections; but W. B. Yeats keeps slipping in to replace him:

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,

And nodding by the fire, take down this book,

And slowly read, and dream…

More and more, that’s what I do. Perhaps in the next few weeks my friends Claire and Shane will come to visit, and bring their new baby brother to sit on my lap in front of the fire while they decorate my Christmas tree. The New Year will come… let’s enjoy it. And think. There are still those who believe there may still be time to prevent, or at least delay, that sixth extinction. We should at least make the effort.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith