Poems from What We Have Instead: Poems by Gus Speth
Thinking Like a Mountain
Aldo Leopold knew nature
like few before or after.
He urged those who listened
“to think like a mountain.”
Well, hell, I say, I am a mountain!
I am Storm King, here beside the Hudson,
a sentinel with which to reckon.
From my shining east flank I
often heard Pete Seeger singing,
notes forming tunes and rising
from the bow of the sloop Clearwater
as it tacked the Highland’s wind gate.
From far on my top I’ve seen
many times, way past when,
Clearwater and Pete were strongest
sailing upstream against the wind.
Pete sang to all the parts of me,
not just my verdant slopes rising steep
from the fast-flowing river, but the parts that
move around, rub brown fur against
the parts that sink deep in me and share
my waters and my nourishment.
I give it freely, as do critters too small to see.
They too are part of me.
My leaves shimmer in chartreuse,
for spring I am bringing back.
I want to hear the ovenbird again,
to help the goldfinch find its gold,
to see soon the evening grosbeak
dancing among my limbs and leaves.
If you want to think like a mountain,
you must come to see me whole.
Energy flows coursing through me;
life each day from entropy stole.
Can you come to see me sacred,
all the beauty consecrated?
I am alive and fertile and fecund,
providing sustenance and refuge.
I know then what I am,
what I do in this world,
how to weather many threats,
how yet to sing back to the river,
how I am old, yes also that.
But even now I, Storm King,
am not clear on all that we
mountains are supposed to think.
I have told what Aldo meant.
Perhaps that is enough.
But there may be other thoughts,
thoughts waiting to be remembered.
Not Far from the Tree
He saw it coming,
saw the wreckage coming,
wreckage driven ever on
and on by the warming,
the rising, and the changing.
Saw it early, decades ago,
and he cried out,
thinking they would listen.
He saw then that it was
the heart that would decide.
He cried to a big world
from a small pulpit.
Young then and hopeful,
hopeful that words would matter,
words could reach the heart.
And so he wrote, invoking
the whole life community
that evolved here with us -
life we did not create and
over which we are not lord.
Years later, as an old man,
he challenged his few readers
to imagine Earth without us.
When asked why he would
even think such a thing, he said,
consider the wreckage
gathering at your feet.
Does it not break your heart?
Now pause, he said, be still,
and contemplate such a world:
living canopies so vast
a small squirrel can move in trees
from the Delaware to the Mississippi,
oceans so fish-filled there appear
to be paths across the water,
flocks of passenger pigeons that
cast large shadows on the landscape,
great herds of ungulates
grazing across cool savannahs,
an Earth thriving with diversity.
But without us.
It’s a test, he said, of our
If we can imagine such a world
with feelings of awe and reverence,
taking joy in its existence
even though we are no part of it,
nature for nature’s sake,
then we are ready
to answer a question.
What is a species worth?
Perhaps just a small part
of nature’s tapestry?
It depends on what is
vital and alive to you,
what your imagination sees.
Place yourself, the old man urged,
not as superior to nature
but as evolution’s child,
close kin to wild things,
part of nature’s flourishing,
threads in the tapestry.
Then you will know the answer.
The heart will decide.
Gus Speth recently served as dean of Yale's school of environment and forestry and as professor of law at Vermont Law School. At the United Nations, he was the head of the UN's Development Program. Prior to that, he was co-founder of both the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the World Resources Institute (WRI), where he led on many environmental issues over a period of 17 years. During the Carter years, he served as chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. In jail in Washington DC with Bill McKibben and others on a climate protest, Speth said the following of his 3-day stay, "I've held a lot of important positions in this town, but none seems as important as this one.
Click here to read more about James Gustave Speth.