We Have Given Our Hearts Away
This is Leslie VonHolten from the High Plains of Kansas with another HPPR Radio Readers Book Byte.
“The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!...”
So begins the lament by the Romantic English poet William Wordsworth, written over 200 years ago, in 1807. We have lost our connection to nature and its cycles, he mourns, and we now spend our days working for a dollar just to spend it the next day. (Or often, in my case, to pay back a promise of a dollar spent on my mortgage.)
I thought of Wordsworth as I read Bewilderment by Richard Powers. Although Powers and Wordsworth are writers separated by centuries and, to me, emotional impact, in ways they share the same concern: that we have raced forward much too fast into what industrialization, technology, and capitalism has shaped for us. To be healthy people with a healthy relationship with the natural world—what Robin Wall Kimmerer calls kinship—we must resist the larger culture of company work and consumption. But how can we do that and still function within society?
I won’t pick at Wordsworth too much here. His life was so very different than ours on the High Plains. But I use his poem as a way to illustrate that we have had anxieties about our relationship with the natural world for a very long time.
This is a continual question for Theo, the father character in Bewilderment, also. Where is the line between protecting his son Robin’s fierce love of nature, and where should he try to get Robin to relax, to be a kid unconcerned with intractable problems like mass extinction? Not that you can tell a child to calm down or chill out. I’ve tried that. It doesn’t work.
The problem is that Robin’s love of animals is the defining core of him. From small-cell creatures to the Great Horned Owl at the park, Robin exults in the natural world. At one point he exclaims, “If people only knew, you know? We’re all bajillionaires.” He is referring to the riches that surround us every day.
This deep love, however, also drives his anxiety. This world is so much, so vast and beautiful, and also so full of injustice and evil. He is a small child afflicted with a brilliant brain that struggles to compartmentalize the problems he sees.
Many of us know children like this—kids who are bright, eager readers thirsty for the information that the world holds. But their maturity has not caught up with them yet. They do not have the inner voice that tells them that not all problems can be solved by one person. That the world’s burdens are not carried on their shoulders alone.
Theo, the father, is in a tight spot. As he says during a depressive episode, “The question wasn’t why Robin was sliding down again. The question was why the rest of us were staying so insanely sanguine.” In other words, shouldn’t we all be panicking?
Theo—and Powers—does not give us answers. It’s a tough one, how to raise a child in this world. Many days it is a matter of putting one foot in front of another and to keep going, with compassion and curiosity.
This is Leslie VonHolten inviting you to join us in reading Bewilderment by Richard Powers. Learn more at HPPR.org, or like us on Facebook.