The Magazine

Nature vs. Man

For Robinson Jeffers, it wasn't even close.

May 28, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 35 • By JOHN FELSTINER
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Not Man Apart. For a 1965 Sierra Club photo book, the environmental activist David Brower took this title from Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962). A mind-cleansing rightness strikes home if we hear those three spare words, "Not Man Apart," the way they actually occur. Praising "Organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things," Jeffers then says: "Love that, not man / Apart from that"--a loaded line break!

Ansel Adams found Jeffers "a strange presence with his rugged features and relentless glance" when they met in 1926. Later, he told Alfred Stieglitz he hoped "to call attention to the simplicities of environment . . . to 'the enormous beauty of the world,' as Jeffers writes. Pray for me." His photographs of California's Big Sur coast were featured in Not Man Apart, and Adams mostly turned his lens on the non human world.

Jeffers deplores the "contagion" of selfish human consciousness on our planet,

But who is our judge? It is likely the enormous

Beauty of the world requires for

completion our ghostly increment.

Less hangs on "Beauty" here than on "enormous," the cosmos in which humanity is a late and transient addendum. Completion, perhaps, and consciousness, yes, his poems pulse with it. But not egocentric self-consciousness.

Not "man / Apart," he wrote, and this too: "No imaginable / Human presence here . . . " Jeffers's "The Place for No Story" holds back like George Oppen's "Psalm," impinging on a landscape only by the force of imagery.

The coast hills at Sovranes Creek;

No trees, but dark scant pasture drawn thin

Over rock shaped like flame;

The old ocean at the land's foot, the vast

Gray extension beyond the long white violence;

A herd of cows and the bull

Far distant, hardly apparent up the dark slope;

And the gray air haunted with hawks:

Notings only, with no main verb, and semicolons hold this terrain intact, unstoried (as Frost, a continent away from Jeffers, said about "the land vaguely realizing westward"). But any scene requires a seer: "shaped like flame," he says, "hardly apparent." And whose pasture, whose herd? Jeffers might have ended on "gray air haunted with hawks," but his colon there won't let him:

This place is the noblest thing I have seen. No imaginable

Human presence here,

he moralizes. No human could help but "dilute" raw rock, old ocean, the surf's white violence. Let such things stay pristine, primal, "as if I were / Seeing rock for the first time," he says in a later poem.

Prophetic arrogance has been the charge against Jeffers, and misanthropy, something sharper than Frost's "I had a lover's quarrel with the world." Yet the bitterness Jeffers felt at human spoliation--the "year's filth," "the wheels and the feet," "the power-shovels"--always sprang from awe of the earth he settled upon and basic faith in our love for it.

His family, strict Calvinists, had moved from Pennsylvania to California in 1902. At 17, in The Youth's Companion, Jeffers published "The Condor," whose rhyme and meter he'd soon abandon but not its austere stance: "My wings can dare / All loneliest hanging heights of air; / . . . I reck not of the earth below." California condors had thrived for tens of thousands of years, until whaling and sealing deprived them of marine carcasses. Then, thanks to power lines, pleasure shooting, and lead poisoning from hunters' kills, Jeffers saw them decline from 600 to about 50 to none in the wild. By 1985 one breeding pair remained. Then an astonishing recovery program literally snatched them from the brink of extinction and they're now back in the hundreds.

After college in southern California, Jeffers in 1914 moved north with his new wife Una. Traveling by stagecoach they "looked down through pines and sea-fogs on Carmel Bay"--"our inevitable place." Una describes Big Sur, south of Carmel, with the skill and verve of a Dorothy Wordsworth transplanted to the Pacific rim: "Canyons, gushing springs and streams, are thickly wooded with redwoods and pines, laurels, tan-oak, maples and sycamores, and, high up, the rosy-barked madrones. . . . Lashing waves roll in, incredibly green and blue beyond the foam, menacing and gray in storm"; wild flowers of every sort, "Flashing bird-wings . . . And high above, arrogant hawks hover, marsh hawks and sparrow hawks, redtails and peregrine falcons. Vultures too peering down, and a rare pair of eagles." In "Lashing," "Flashing," "peering," you can feel the bent of mind she shared with her husband, plus what he mightn't have said: "incredibly," "menacing," "arrogant."