Twenty-five feet below Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark in Birmingham, Alabama, I found this tunnel. See for yourself. Rusting metal chutes jutting from the ceiling. Water seeping through the walls and trickling into black puddles on the floor. A blooming pattern of lime-green and ocher. Underfoot, a metal grid forever carrying the ghosts of furnace workers, swinging their ropy forearms, into the darkness beyond.
What strange beauty.
I’ve been thinking recently about some words from an old essay by Adam Parry on the Aeneid. They go, “It is as if Virgil were telling us that the way to resolve our personal sorrow over the losses of history is to regard these losses in the same mood as we would a beautifully wrought vessel of clear glass.”
They put me in mind of a scene described by Holocaust survivor Thomas Buergenthal in his memoir A Lucky Child:
As the train moved slowly through Czechoslovakia, making frequent stops, we began to see men, women, and children standing on the bridges we passed under. They waved to us and shouted, and then loaves of bread began to fall into our train.
Can you see it? Two lines, crossing but not quite intersecting. Above, faces looking down, arms extended. Below, faces turned up, arms reaching. Look now, loaves of bread falling, falling, falling through the empty air. Other lines, too — the invisible ones of a gargantuan family tree, millions upon millions of branchlets that you must trace back to their union with sturdy branches and then to their joining at massive limbs and finally to the trunk itself, where (behold!) carved into the bark are pictures of hunters and gatherers, standing amazed before a field ruled with furrows straight as a train track. Hoe, mattock, plow. And there, too, an image of the very first oven for baking bread, ancient precursor of the iron ovens at Auschwitz, to which Tommy Buergenthal’s train is headed, inexorably, ten thousand years later.
A mirage, then. All those straight lines are a mirage. Instead, a perfect circle. As perfect, in its way, as a beautifully wrought vessel of pure glass.
I read the other day that outbreaks of Ebola virus in humans are quite probably due to deforestation. Fruit bats from deep in the forest are attracted to the newly open areas. These bats bring the virus with them. Patient Zero in the outbreak in 2014, which killed 11,000 people, was a toddler in Guinea, who had been playing near a giant dead tree swarming with bats.
For millennia, we’ve cleared the forests to farm, to gather fuel, to harvest building materials, and to dig for precious metals and minerals. We’ve hacked our way through the primordial forest to locate the Tree of Life. And in doing so, we’ve opened a Pandora’s box of deadly viruses, exterminated an untold number of potential cures for disease, and filled Earth’s atmosphere with greenhouse gases. That is, we went looking for life, and we’ve managed in doing so to hasten our own death.
What strange beauty, the symmetry of it all.
There’s a verse in Virgil’s Aeneid that reads, sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt (1.462). It means something like, “Here are tears for the way things are, and the plight of mortals touches the heart.” In Adam Parry’s view, the epic poet is inviting his readers to find consolation and hope in our willingness to look squarely at all of human history, both good and bad, with detachment enough to feel sorrow at what is undeniably sorrowful in our condition, even — though it may be difficult for any of us to reach this degree of detachment — to regard sorrow itself as a thing to be desired.
Longtime readers of Traces know that Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998) is a touchtone for me. In the scene below, Malick captures something of the sensibility that Parry claims infuses Virgil’s Aeneid. Private Witt (Jim Caviezel) stands in for us, the film’s audience, as he stands watching the Melanesian villagers with whom he has been living, and thinks about the death of his mother:
I remember my mother when she was dyin’, looked all shrunk up and gray. I asked her if she was afraid. She just shook her head. I was afraid to touch the death I seen in her. I couldn’t find nothin’ beautiful or uplifting about her goin’ back to God. I heard people talk about immortality, but I ain’t seen it. I wondered how it’d be when I died, what it’d be like to know this breath now was the last one you was ever gonna draw. I just hope I can meet it the same way she did, with the same… calm. ‘Cause that’s where it’s hidden – the immortality I hadn’t seen.
In that calm, even if it is a sorrowful calm, we can be open to the full range of our existence, from our births to our deaths, from our triumphs to our failures, from our great suffering to our wonderful consolations.
In that calm, we can honor those who came before, and those who will come after.
In that calm, we can live fully, capable of acting both for ourselves and for others.