Poetry as Protest and Sanctuary: Jane Hirshfield’s Magnificent Poem Against the Silencing of Science and the Assault on Nature
By Maria Popova
“The facts were told not to speak / and were taken away. / The facts, surprised to be taken, were silent.”
“The real wealth of the Nation lies in the resources of the earth — soil, water, forests, minerals, and wildlife… Their administration is not properly, and cannot be, a matter of politics,” biologist and writer Rachel Carson admonished in her prescient 1953 letter against the government’s assault on science and nature. She devoted the remainder of her life to this courageous mission of speaking inconvenient truth to power. In writing Silent Spring, which catalyzed the modern environmental movement, Carson was greatly emboldened by a line from a 1914 poem by Ella Wheeler Wilcox: “To sin by silence, when we should protest, makes cowards out of men.”
Poetry, indeed, has always been one of humanity’s sharpest tools for puncturing the shrink-wrap of silence and oppression, and although it may appear to be galaxies apart from science, these two channels of truth have something essential in common: nature, the raw material for both. To impoverish the world of the birds and the bees is to impoverish it of the bards and the biologists.
Nature, with its fragile yet resilient magnificence, models for us what aliveness means and reminds us that we are mortal. Poetry wrests from it images and metaphors that chisel from the bedrock of our humanity a measure of graspable truth, teaching us how to live and how to die. Science mines nature for truth of a different order — it is our mightiest means of communing with reality, probing its mysteries, and gleaning from them some sense of belonging, of locating ourselves in the universe, understanding our place in it, and liberating ourselves from delusion.
That common ground between poetry and science is what poet Jane Hirshfield sows with splendor in her poem “On the Fifth Day,” written for the 2017 March for Science in Washington, D.C., protesting the anti-fact, anti-truth, anti-science political climate of the current American administration.
It is my immense pleasure to share, with Hirshfield’s permission, this gift of a poem, read by comedian, philosopher of science, and my dear friend Emily Levine — the person who first made me fall in love with poetry many moons.
ON THE FIFTH DAY
by Jane Hirshfield
On the fifth day
the scientists who studied the rivers
were forbidden to speak
or to study the rivers.
The scientists who studied the air
were told not to speak of the air,
and the ones who worked for the farmers
and the ones who worked for the bees.
Someone, from deep in the Badlands,
began posting facts.
The facts were told not to speak
and were taken away.
The facts, surprised to be taken, were silent.
Now it was only the rivers
that spoke of the rivers,
and only the wind that spoke of its bees,
while the unpausing factual buds of the fruit trees
continued to move toward their fruit.
The silence spoke loudly of silence,
and the rivers kept speaking,
of rivers, of boulders and air.
In gravity, earless and tongueless,
the untested rivers kept speaking.
Bus drivers, shelf stockers,
code writers, machinists, accountants,
lab techs, cellists kept speaking.
They spoke, the fifth day,
Join me in supporting Hirshfield’s wonderful #PoetsForScience initiative, a kindred spirit to my own The Universe in Verse project, then revisit Rebecca Solnit on breaking silence as our mightiest weapon against oppression, astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell on how poetry and science enrich one another, and Hirshfield on the effortless effort of creative work.
Photograph of Emily Levine by John Keatley
donating = loving
Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes me hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.