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Ways to Live on Earth

by James Graham 

Posted: 08 February 2006
Word Count: 392
Related Works: El Niņo (revised) • 

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Ways to Live on Earth


All but a very few
who were content to die there,
had left the valley long ago.

Now children born in the dry cold times
heard the language of gardens:

'We remember', they heard, 'the plants of the garden,
the oaks, the almonds, the lupins, the cranesbill.

On our day of rest we walked
with our children and dogs
in the meadows under the sun,
away from the village smells.
We talked and sang and slept,
and lovers went off alone.

We could leave many roots in peace
to grow again in the coming season.'

'A god created us', they learned, 'and made
the garden. But was displeased with us,
and brought the drought and cold.'

The great protagonists whose minds were greater
than the sum of earthly minds: they understood
the far, far joy of the sad departure.


When the Sea of Marmara
burst into the Euxine Lake,
and the crops and fish traps
and landings were all lost,
and the water advanced
as fast as a man could walk,
and so many were drowned,
and the people had to leave
their ruined gardens:

'We remember the flood,' they told their children,
'that covered all the earth. It was our god
that made the earth, and drowned our villages. '

Only the gods, long-sighted far beyond
the watcher on the mountain, could perceive
the long, long blessing of the deaths of children.


It was category five, the third in as many months.
The book of names was thumbed again, and Nathan romped
on the heels of Emily and Brett. But the mind

of the wind was known. Five days before
young Nathan found his feet, his cataclysmic dreams
were modelled in high resolution, and his courses
mapped and measured to the yard. And fill the sky
with roofs or brandish bridges as he might, the people
were all gone. All but a very few -

an oddball solitary who saw his rescuers off
with a salutory salvo, a company of twelve
snuggled in the basement of some Church of Light -

were off to breezy towns a hundred miles away.
In cars and buses heading west and east,
the children of the cities, free of school for now,
chattering, questioning, pointing at their screens,
contrived with their elders ways to live on Earth.

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Comments by other Members

James Graham at 17:44 on 08 February 2006  Report this post
This was 'El Nino', but the naughty child has scarpered. The new third section is a not-too-distant future scenario. Tell me what you think - is the last section convincing? Does it fit with the rest of the poem, or does it seem out of place?


Elsie at 20:27 on 08 February 2006  Report this post
Hi James, I had to go back over the third section to understand it properly, then it worked for me. I hadn't realised Nathan was a hurricane or similar. The 'high resolution' bit brought it immediately into now/the future. The only bi that I'm still strugglng with is: "we remember", they heard... made me wonder who 'they' is. But I think I'm maybe a bit overworked and tired (and dim) tonight.

James Graham at 21:24 on 09 February 2006  Report this post
Hi Elsie, I'm pleased the third section worked, even if it needed more than one reading. It's quite possible that the first two sections are more obscure than the third, because they depend on background knowledge that not every reader can be expected to have.

In the first section 'they' are children who hear the old folks telling them (more than they want to hear, no doubt)about how life was before climate change. This is a climate change that happened around 9000-8000 BC, a quite sudden but very long period of drought and cold affecting the Eastern Mediterranean especially. Long after people had to migrate from their drought-strickem lands, folk memories of the fertile valleys would survive - and grow into myths such as the Eden story.

It is quite a difficult poem, because it needs this sort of 'footnote' to some extent to make it clear. The third section is probably easier, because it's modern. (But I can see too how anybody might need a double-take to realise this is a hurricane. It's not you being dim, it's the poem being quirky.)


engldolph at 09:06 on 12 February 2006  Report this post
HI James,

I like the idea in the 3rd verse, and the contrast to how people reacted to similar natural events in ancient times..so the balance feels right...

I'm not totally convinced of the last line (and hence title) ..

To me, the whole piece is about our relations to the Gods..

something like (but not)...
contrived with their elders ways to know the gods.


James Graham at 20:54 on 12 February 2006  Report this post
Hi Mike - You're right, I suppose. For the sake of the continuity of the whole poem, there should be something about the gods in the last part. While writing this I was naturally thinking in terms of a future hurricane somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico region, and the hurricane names and the 'Church of Light' certainly suggest America. If those people in cars and buses are anywhere between Texas and Florida, God is surely going to feature in most of their conversations. Some might even say this is God's will, meaning much the same thing that the ancient people meant. Even if it wasn't America, there would still be people relating the storm in some way to a god.

But it's a poem of wishful thinking. I think the last line is saying 'contrived with their elders ways to live on Earth...without gods'. In the third section the gods are conspicuous by their absence. I've consigned the heirs of those ancient tribal people to the basement of a weird-sounding church, and equated them with an oddball recluse with a gun. Your comment makes me realise how secular this new ending really is - these people deal with natural disasters by predicting them accurately and then organising themselves to prevent loss of life. Reason and science. But should the poem still find a way to ask if reason and science are enough?


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