January 2, 2016
If you’ve read Sandra Steingraber’s book, Living Downstream, you have been alerted to the environmental causes of cancer – environmental that is, in the human-made sense of the word. And you’re aware of a whole mob of scientific terms and “parts-per-million” language that name and describe contaminants and their levels in our air, ground, and water. Establishing proof that these environmental contaminants cause cancer leads, Steingraber says, to a chase down complicated and riddled paths. Steingraber weaves evidence of environmental cause of cancer into the story of her own struggle with cancer and the poetry of her life in central Illinois, the romance of its slow rolling fields, and her fascination with its rivers and river towns. The Illinois River is central to her story, but the Fox River comes briefly into her narrative.
I wish I could say that the Fox’s moment in her text is a bright one. She cites the Fox as one of the first rivers, over a forty-year period ending in 2007, in which cancerous tumors were identified in walleyes, pickerel, bullheads, carp, and hog suckers, among others. Whether or not we knew of this particular fact, most of us are aware that the Fox River has seen much better days. We are left with a riddle of our own, “How to love and care for a river whose past glory we never saw and about whose present circumstances we may have reason to be uneasy?”
It may be that Robert Frost’s poetic voice and language emerged from something like this kind of uneasy expectation of prospects. I think Frost was looking for an artistic language that could honestly confront his doubts and uncertainties, even running the risk of losing itself in cynicism, while still anticipating insight from the natural world. I’m reminded of Robert Frost’s poem, “The Oven Bird.”
There is a singer everyone has heard,
Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird,
Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.
He says that leaves are old and that for flowers
Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.
He says the early petal-fall is past,
When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers
On sunny days a moment overcast;
And come that other fall we name the fall.
He says the highway dust is over all.
The bird would cease and be as other birds
But that he knows in singing not to sing.
The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.
Written by Joel Sheesley, Artist-In-Residence, Fox River Initiative