Thursday, November 3, 2011

Poetic Pursuit in the Museum: Seamus Heaney and Bogland

Twilight at the museum, though, to be honest, it’s always twilight in much of this building, never night when, as we well know, the specimens on display would come alive.  The visitors are departing, leaving in their wake faint pulses of voices and fading fragments of sentences.

On a quest, I peer into one hallway – early and middle Cenozoic mammals – too early.  The Ice Age and beyond is to my left – much more promising.  In the soft gloom, I pass a giant sloth, round a corner and stop.  As though from a mist, rises Megaloceros giganteus, the Irish Elk.

What an amazing creature, seemingly a victim of size gone wrong.  During a brief warm period, some 12,000 to 11,000 years ago, the Irish Elk bulked up and grew those monstrous antlers, spanning upwards of 12 feet and weighing 100 pounds.  But, as Stephen Jay Gould described, the animal, neither an elk (it was a deer) nor exclusively Irish (fossil remnants are found throughout Eurasia), was a battleground over which Darwinians and their naysayers long fought.  The latter at times contending that an attribute such as those grossly huge antlers showed the impotence of natural selection, once an animal started down an evolutionary path, there was no turning back even if it lead directly to the animal’s extinction.  Though the former have won this field, they remain somewhat at odds among themselves over the forces actually at work in driving up body and antler size.

Gould, in his essay The Misnamed, Mistreated, and Misunderstood Irish Elk (in the essay collection Ever Since Darwin (1977)) offered evidence for the allometric relationship between body size and antlers (as the one increased so did the other), and concluded that selection was working on the antlers.  As selection drove an increase in antler size, body size increased along with them.  He proffered that the oversized antlers were used in ritualized combat between Irish Elk males, a process that established dominance hierarchies without inflicting fatal injuries on the vanquished, and, most importantly, ensured the reproductive success of the more robustly antlered victors.  Others argued that the key was body size and it was the antlers that were along for the ride.  The plaque below the skeleton of M. giganteus here in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History posits just that.  Extinction, Gould argued, came when the climate cooled and the flora changed with it, no longer able to support these animals.  The plaque cites as the principal cause of the beast’s extinction the impossibility of moving with their racks through the forests that arose with the changing climate.  Some have offered up a more convincing hypothesis, arguing that the nutritional requirements for animals of this size with their array of antlers could not be met by the newly available flora, and that it changed too quickly for the animals to adapt, all the while sexual selection continued to promote larger antlers. (Ron A. Moen, et al., Antler Growth and Extinction of the Irish Elk, Evolutionary Ecology Research, 1999.)  Regardless of the precise cause of the extinction, Gould concluded that all this was fully in keeping with the theory:
Darwinian evolution decrees that no animals shall actively develop a harmful structure, but it offers no guarantee that useful structures will continue to be adaptive in changed circumstances.  (p. 90)
So why my quest for the Irish Elk?  It grew out of my reading Bogland, a poem by Seamus Heaney, 1995 Nobel Laureate in Literature (awarded "for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past").  (Bogland was published in a 1969 collection titled Door into the Dark.  I am reading it in Opened Ground:  Selected Poems 1966 – 1996.)

I come late to Heaney’s poetry and have been reading mostly his earliest pieces, those that most center on the ebb and flow of rural life in Ireland and the Irish landscape.  Here a spongy, porous boundary separates past and present.  In this bogland of Ireland, this watery earth, the past is just below the surface and seemingly unchanged.  In Bogland, Heaney writes of butter buried for a hundred years reemerging “salty and white.”  And ancient trees that turn not to coal, but to “waterlogged trunks/ . . . , soft as pulp.”  In the harvesting of peat, the past is present – “Our pioneers keep striking/ Inwards and downwards,/ Every layer they strip /Seems camped on before.”

And my quest?  “They’ve taken the skeleton/ Of the Great Irish Elk/ Out of the peat, set it up,/ An astounding crate full of air.”

A striking and true image of the ribcage?  I think so.

But I am puzzled why it’s the ribcage the poet remarks on, not the massive set of antlers.  Perhaps it’s just a striking image, though I think not with this poet.  A comment on the meaning of the past?  On an effort to recreate it?

Bog-mediated preservation of the past recurs often in Heaney’s early poems.  For example, in a series of poems, including The Tollund Man, he finds a resonance between the violent troubles in his home land (Northern Ireland) and the well preserved bodies found in bogs in Denmark, victims of sacrifice 2,000 years ago.  (William Doreski, Diggings, Harvard Review, Spring 1996.)

The first of Heaney’s poems I read was Death of a Naturalist from the 1966 collection of the same name.  (Heaney was featured in a recent installment of the PBS NewsHour’s Poetry Series; the text of the poem and a video of Heaney reading it appear on the NewsHour’s website.)  The poem offers an almost maddening array of stimulations for the senses.  It demands to be read aloud and savored.  Every spring, the narrator, Heaney as a boy, I assume, gathered frogs’ eggs (“frogspawn”) in jars and watched them develop on window sills at home and shelves at school.  And, as the poem reads, every spring his teacher, Miss Walls, told the children of daddy frogs and mammy frogs.  To mark the boy’s youthfulness, the first portion of the poem ends with a delightful non sequitur about how the color of the frogs changes depending upon the weather – the prototypical young child telling all he knows about a subject, whether relevant or not.

That innocence vanishes in the second portion of the poem when the boy comes upon a gathering of croaking bullfrog – “Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.”  The would be naturalist?  “I sickened, turned, and ran.  The great slime kings/ Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew/ That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.”  Death of a naturalist.  Actually, I think not.

I am still working on this poem, considering if it’s about the death of sexual innocence (though why at that particular moment when Miss Walls had told him often about mammy and daddy frogs), if it marks the moment of the boy’s realization of the potential dangers of the natural world, if there’s some Irish folktale about vengeful frog kings, or if . . . .  Regardless, I do not, for a moment, believe that it describes the death of the naturalist in Heaney.  His poetry says otherwise.

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