Monday, December 23, 2013

Lessons Learned, Lessons Forgotten

H/t Catherin Bradbury

'God save thee, ancient Mariner!
From the fiends, that plague thee thus!—
Why look'st thou so?'—With my cross-bow
I shot the ALBATROSS.

-excerpted from The Rime of The Ancient Mariner, by Samuel Coleridge

In what may seem like a very long time ago but is, by historical standards, really but a blink of the eye, our forebears had a quite healthy respect for nature. They knew of its power and its fury, its capacity both to give and to take, and the rhythms of the seasons imposed their own kind of discipline on people. Whether setting off on a sea voyage or planting crops, there was an innate understanding of humanity's place in the scheme of things. We were not the masters and mistresses of our own fates. Although we were bold and took many chances, propelled by our curiosity about the world around us, we still recognized our limitations.

Sadly, that wisdom has been forgotten.

When I was in the classroom, one of the works I delighted in teaching was Coleridge's The Rime of The Ancient Mariner. For me, the poem has always stood as a parable of humanity's willfulness; very briefly, it is the story of the humbling and horrible lesson a mariner must learn. The hubris informed by his own ego tells him that he is the pinnacle of creation and thus entitled to do as he pleases, with disastrous results.

In the early part of the poem, the Albatross is associated with good fortune, leading the sailors out of a dire predicament. After the crisis has passed, however, for reasons never directly explained, the Mariner, who is essentially the captain of the vessel, kills the albatross, an act that ultimately results in the death of his entire crew and the complete isolation, both physical and spiritual, of the Mariner. As I used to suggest to my students, he likely killed the Albatross simply because he could; in other words, it is one of those many heedless acts that seem to reflect so much of our human nature.

By the poem's end, the Mariner has learned his lesson, but at a horrible price. Unfortunately, in our time we seem, as a species, incapable of gaining such insights, the evidence of our willfulness so plentiful I will not insult you by pointing it out.

Every so often, even in our cossetted 'first-world' experience, we are reminded of our folly. In Southern Ontario, where I reside, yesterday's ice storm left parts of my community, including our house, without power for six hours, a minuscule inconvenience compared to the over 250,000 still without power in the Toronto area as I write this; some may even remain in the dark until at least Christmas Day.

Yet the storm, emblematic of a much more profound disturbance in the environment, will, as other countless disasters in recent years, go largely unremarked by the population at large and, of course, by those we entrust to lead us. Climate change amelioration? Carbon pricing? Valuing capital? Forget it. Adaptation? Maybe. But more likely our 'masters' will continue to say and do things that people want to hear: everything is fine, the economy is rebounding, and global warming is but a contentious 'theory'.

The Ancient Mariner learned a hard lesson that drastically altered the course of his life. It seems to be our fate as a short-sighted species never to learn ours.


  1. I fear civilization in every corner of the planet is in store for a crash course in the supremacy of the environment we have been taunting and stressing for so long. As climate scientist McPherson noted in naming his blog, "nature bats last." Merry, merry, Lorne.

    1. I regularly read your exemplary coverage of environmental issues, Mound. Your comments carry great weight. Keep up the good fight in 2014!