Robinson Jeffers poem predicted global warming in early 1960s

I stumbled across this poem in the waning pages of “The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers,” edited by Tim Hunt. Jeffers wrote it in the very early 1960s, while the earth was in the middle of a 20-year cooling trend, and about 15 years before Wallace Broecker launched the term “global warming.” Jeffers was 73 when he wrote the poem. It was one of the last he would write:
The polar ice-caps are melting, the mountain glaciers
Drip into rivers; all feed the ocean ;
Tides ebb and flow, but every year a little bit higher.
They will drown New York, they will drown London.
And this place, where I have planted tree and built a stone house,
Will be under sea. The poor trees will perish,
And little fish will flicker in and out the windows. I built it well,
Thick walls and Portland cement and gray granite,
The tower at least will hold against the sea’s buffeting ; it will become
Geological, fossil and permanent.
What a pleasure it is to mix one’s mind with geological
Time, or with astronomical relax it.
There is nothing like astronomy to pull the stuff out of man.
His stupid dreams and red-rooster importance : let him count the star-swirls.
Throughout the 20th Century, scientists occasionally predicted the ice caps would melt, but there was no consensus, and they were as likely to predict a coming ice age. Jeffers may have read news coverage of a Dec. 31, 1959 speech by Chauncey D. Leake, incoming president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, who urged tree planting to offset carbon dioxide. But science, at the time, lacked Jeffers’ certainty and his vision.
The melting he predicts has become visibly evident, and though London and New York would seem to have a few years left, Washington D.C., Southern Florida, and the Louisiana Coast are under threat of inundation should the Antarctic ice sheet proceed along its present course toward collapse.
Jeffers is not as well known a poet as he should be, probably because he located himself and his concern on a far western promontory. The Eastern establishment tended to ignore him, and many of the poetry scholars I’ve met in Chicago had not heard of him.
I discovered Jeffers when I lived on California’s Central Coast. He became one of my guides there, not only to the landscape from Monterey to Morro Bay, or to the clash of mountain and sea, which he describes more vividly than anyone else I’ve read, but also to a mindful perspective on nature.
In “Vulture” he lies on a bare hillside and notices a vulture eyeing him as a potential meal. Jeffers contemplates his death, as many humans would, but without fear, horror, or resentment of the bird. Instead he imagines his flesh becoming a part of the vulture: “What a sublime end of one’s body. What an enskyment; what a life after death.”
Environmental journalism has its bright spots–we have largely stopped releasing the gases that created the ozone hole, for example–but the news is almost relentlessly bad at this stage in human proliferation, and sometimes the only way to clear the pessimism is to imagine the earth thriving beyond us. What a pleasure it is to mix one’s mind with geological time, or with astronomical relax it.
Jeffers built his house on Carmel Point in 1919, the tower in 1920, with rocks he collected and set by hand. He arrived there when the land was mostly pristine, but by the time he wrote this poem the Point was crowded with homes, which can be seen there today hemming his Tor House like pebbles clustered around an emerald. He laments the sprawl a decade earlier in a better known poem, “Carmel Point,” which makes the same final appeal to geologic time and offers some helpful instruction to the troubled human:
The extraordinary patience of things!
This beautiful place defaced with a crop of suburban houses–
How beautiful when we first beheld it,
Unbroken field of poppy and lupin walled with clean cliffs;
No intrusion but two or three horses pasturing,
Or a few milch cowes rubbing their flanks on the outcrop rock-heads–
Now the spoiler has come: does it care?
Not faintly. It has all time. It knows the people are a tide
That swells and in time will ebb, and all
Their works dissolve. Meanwhile the image of the pristine beauty
Lives in the very grain of the granite,
Safe as the endless ocean that climbs our cliff. –As for us:
We must uncenter our minds from ourselves;
We must unhumanize our views a little, and become confident
As the rock and ocean that we were made from.
Robinson Jeffers is the poet of this warming age.

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