Readers of Robinson Jeffers are accustomed to finding words of wisdom in his letters and poetry that address issues of timely concern—even issues as far from Jeffers himself as the outbreak of Covid-19. The word “pestilence,” for instance, appears in Passenger Pigeons, a poem about mass extinction and humanity’s false belief in its own invulnerability. The word “plague” shows up in There is this infinite energy, a poem that urges us to see beauty in everything. And the word “virus” is featured in The unformed volcanic earth, a poem that describes the first major stage of life as a virus floating on the surface of a primal ocean. These, and any number of other poems (we all have our favorites), are worth rereading as we ponder the Hydra-like crisis we’re facing.
Before the pandemic arrived, an RJA ad hoc committee was working out the details of a partnership with the Tor House Foundation, whereby RJA scholars would provide most of the program material for the 2020 THF Fall Festival. If the partnership proved successful, the RJA membership would then consider the possibility of dropping its annual February conference and joining THF each October instead. Due to the ongoing need for social distancing, however, this year’s Fall Festival has been canceled. Since it is uncertain when it will be safe for people to socialize as usual, all plans are currently on hold. We will keep you informed of developments as they occur.
Fortunately, other RJA initiatives are untouched by the pandemic. The next issue of Jeffers Studies, for instance, is already in a preliminary phase of production. Also, a thorough revision of our website is nearing completion. Tim Hunt, with the assistance of Mick McAllister, has steered the project through a number of challenges, including a move to a more dependable host and the creation of a whole new set of operating protocols. In order to improve the look of the website, new graphics will be added soon.
Meanwhile, before life returns to “normal”—which means more human activity—we can all enjoy, so long as we stay healthy, the quiet city streets, cleaner air, and slower pace of life. Such immediate and apparent changes point to a reservoir of strength in nature. As Jeffers says in Metamorphoses, “the beauty of earth is a resilient wonderful thing, / It dies and lives, it is capable of many resurrections.” For an example, Jeffers describes a canyon where redwoods once stood in “hushed and holy” grandeur. Having been clear-cut for lumber, the canyon looks utterly cursed; only “Grim stumps remain, and naked raw earth torn by tractors.” But come back in two or three years, Jeffers says, “and see the vines hiding the stumps, the flowering bushes and vines; and here is the holy grass again.”
The same sort of recovery seems to be occurring now—after just a few weeks of quarantine, not years. In California, where I live, signs of it are everywhere. For the first time ever, my wife and I saw a Western Bluebird in our front yard. We’ve heard of sightings in the farmlands and orchards near the Sacramento River, but not in town. When it flew from an oak tree, the flash of brilliant blue was almost blinding. A friend of ours who lost his home in the nearby Camp Fire eighteen months ago (the fire that destroyed the entire town of Paradise, killed 85 people, and blackened an area the size of Chicago), returned to rebuild his life there. With far fewer people now living even quieter lives, nature is naturing. A black bear and her cub rambled through “his” property a couple of weeks ago; a few days later, he saw a mountain lion lounging in a nearby tree. In Yosemite and other wild places where the tourist population has suddenly disappeared, the old order is returning, with animals roaming the park freely. Come back in a million years, Jeffers says in Metamorphoses, “My God the place is beautiful! green sun-trap between the mountains, / The flashing stream sings in the light.”
A long view is one thing, but dealing with an immediate crisis is another. Fortunately, Jeffers has something to say about that, too. In The Poet in a Democracy, his 1941 address delivered at the Library of Congress on the eve of World War II, Jeffers reflects on the inevitable breakdown of civilization. “When at length it wears out and crumbles under us,” he says, “we can ‘plot the agony of resurrection’ and make a new age. Our business is to live. To live through . . . anything. And to keep alive, through everything, our ideal values, of freedom and courage, and mercy and tolerance.”
Department of English
Department of Comparative Religion and Humanities
California State University, Chico