Seed of Fire
Photographs by Jack Leigh (1948-2004)
A few years ago, I gave a talk to a civic club down on the Georgia coast.
It was a courteous and respectful crowd, but tough. These were business people. I assume that for at least some of them, my presentation on environmental regulation was a waste of a perfectly good lunch hour.
I talked about Ogeechee Riverkeeper, an advocacy organization that I co-founded in 2000, and some of the pollution problems we have or soon will have in our river basin: methylmercury, nutrient loading, environmental estrogens, saltwater intrusion into underground aquifers, loss of wetlands, excess sediment, low flow that concentrates pollutants during the summer months, restrictions on public access to the river, and so forth.
I can’t say that I actually saw the proverbial glazing of the eyes, but at some point, I certainly felt the air leaking out of the room. And so I told a story.
It was a story from Homer’s Odyssey, in which Odysseus is saved from drowning in the sea by a river god. After he struggles out of the river onto the bank, he finds a tree nearby under which he can pass the night. Homer tells us that it’s a sort of double tree: two trees growing from the same roots, one a wild olive, the other a cultivated variety of olive. He sleeps there, under the leaves, like an ember that a farmer buries in the ashes at night, from which to kindle a fire in the morning.
As I told this story from the Odyssey, I could see heads lift. There were even smiles on some faces. And I had the sense that we were all gathering around that image of the farmer on his lonely farmstead, keeping the fire alive.
Advocacy is a summoning to something. That’s what the Latin words ad and vocare mean. But successful advocacy is impossible without the willingness and ability to imagine. Imagine a river that rescues a drowning man. Imagine a tree that protects him from the cold. Imagine the Ogeechee River (see “The Machine in the Garden” for another post of mine that relates to the Ogeechee River) as more than a “natural resource,” but as a stream of an age beyond reckoning, a Grandfather of Rivers, a place of myth and legend, that has seen terrible and heroic deeds, and will see them again.
This is what the arts do for us. Artists beckon us to see anew what we have been looking at all our lives.
Through art, even a trash-filled, putrid stream is given a name, an ancestry, a history, a mythic quality. Through art, a place that is placeless, so to speak, is invested with meaning. We are finally able to see it, and seeing it, we can all gather around the vision.
I was in Italy a few years later, walking along the Amalfi Coast with my wife. We walked down from a ridge through groves of olive trees. Of course, I thought of Odysseus. And as we approached our hotel, on the beach, I noticed a gulch over to my left. I wandered over, and I found a stream, a small river, choked with garbage, iridescent with algae, almost smoking with toxins. My guess is that if we had asked our innkeeper about it, she would have said, “What stream?”
Now, if you’d like, listen to me read the short episode in Homer’s Odyssey that I mentioned above. The translation is by Richmond Lattimore. Click here: Homer, Odyssey, End of Book 5