Our newest correspondent is Megan Mayhew Bergman, who will be writing about naturalism. For her first piece she considers the writer Alan Watts and the “age of environmental anxiety.”
For the others, like me, there is only the flash
Of negative knowledge, the night when, drunk, one
Staggers to the bathroom and stares in the glass
To meet one’s madness
—W. H. Auden, “The Age of Anxiety”
Living in rural Vermont, I enjoy proximity to wilderness, though I observe its sickness at close range. In spring, my family marks the return of swallows and red-winged blackbirds on the barn door. But the migrations are off, and the frosts are late, the harvests erratic, and the thaws early. Though the landscape looks bucolic, and the foliage bright, industrial perfluorooctanioic acid poisons our wells and the herons in town fish from polluted ponds. This year, the maple season started three weeks earlier than ever recorded, and some ski resorts saw only a few days of snow.
In the last decade, as I’ve followed the harrowing environmental data, I’ve experienced sharp pangs of human guilt and fear of the future. Fortunately, I’m able to turn to books like medicine in times of crisis. Recently, on an eighty-five degree October day, my crimson dahlias unusually fat and healthy outside, I felt my anxiety bloom and looked to Alan Watts’s The Wisdom of Insecurity, A Message for an Age of Anxiety. Read More
A brief history of London’s Tower Menagerie.
It was New Year’s Eve 1764, and John Wesley—founding father of Methodism, horseback proselytizer, teetotaler—stood before the structure now known as the Tower of London, accompanied by a flautist, who was, in turn, accompanied by his flute. Wesley had traveled to this sprawling complex in the hope of testing a hypothesis. Could music soothe the most savage of beasts? If it did, Wesley might clear up a burning theological ambiguity—the question of whether nonhuman animals had souls. With his contracted companion in tow, he marched through the tower, determined to find some big cats and to smother them with song.
Zoos, as we know them today, did not exist in Wesley’s lifetime—the zoological garden is a distinctly modern phenomenon. Even the London Zoo, one of the oldest “scientific” outdoor sites for animal rehoming, opened six decades after his tower trip. If Wesley wished to glean the spirituality of lions firsthand, the infamous citadel, all arched cages and grilles, was his best bet in England. (Spoiler: the reaction to a live flute performance was mostly lukewarm—only one out of five lions stirred and stood up on all fours—not quite what our preacher had been hankering for.)
For those unfamiliar with the capricious usage history of the Tower of London, it might be hard to imagine parts of the site used as a full-blown menagerie—one that lasted about six hundred years. But through its almost thousand-year history, the place has morphed like a sort of Room of Requirement, having served variously as a palace, a public-record office, an armory, a torture chamber, a private ground for beheadings, and the Royal Mint. Its most recent incarnation is as a magnet for jewel-ogling, cash-happy tourists. Today the tower’s official website reflects this diversity—it includes a Peasants’ Revolt Quiz (“Are you revolting?”), details on venue hire for weddings, and an e-shop peddling miniature armor and replica Lionheart shields. Read More
Judy Longley’s poem “First Breakfast at Home Following an Emergency Appendectomy” appeared in our Summer 1998 issue. Her collection My Journey Toward You was the 1993 winner of the Marianne Moore Prize for Poetry. Read More