"Something startles me where I thought I was safest,
I withdraw from the still woods I loved,
I will not go now on the pastures to walk.
O how can it be that the ground itself does not sicken?
How can you be alive you growths of spring?"
These words of Whitman may well recur to the husbandman as he digs and dungs his land and sets his tilth a-growing. Life leaps with the winds over the changing hills and the sun draws the odor of creation out of the soil. And yet
‘I am terrified at the Earth, it is that calm and patient.
It grows such sweet things out of such corruption,
It distils such exquisite winds out of such infused fetor,
It renews with such unwitting looks its prodigal annual, sumptuous crops,
It gives such divine materials to men, and accepts such leavings from them at last."
Even so it is.
"The summer growth is innocent and disdainful above all those strata of sour dead.
That the winds are really not infectious,
That the cool drink from the well tastes so good,
That when I recline on the grass I do not catch any disease,
That all is clean forever."
What chemistry indeed! What miracle of transformation! What magic change of irksome rubbish into glory! What redemption of life from the grasp of death! Once more the heaven-born Herakles rescues Alkestis from the tomb.
O but is all simple enough, says one. It is just a question of solution and oxidization, a little more heat-energy, and the tireless industry of the invisible microbe. He who will may call it simple, and may think he understands. At least it is wonderful and beneficent, and we understand not the process, though we are blessed by the result. And so, with ages of evil behind and ages of evil before us, the pursuing good frustrates the wrong and prevents it from making one ultimate foot’s advance. There is a power which insists on healing all our diseases, and on forgiving all our iniquities.
Not the earth only, but human nature too, is a very strange, but withal an inspiring compost. Both are being constrained towards perfection. Cast what you will into the earth, she only retorts with a smile of beneficent irony, "We rend her bosom and she gives us bread." Cast what you will into the heart of man—the fierceness of the tiger, the subtlety of the serpent, the greed of the swine, the poison of poverty and the poison of wealth—he "counts it all dung" and grows you goodlier crops of all the virtues. "I cannot understand the frightful amount of evil in the world," said my dolorous neighbor some time ago. Since then he has been at work with his fork in his garden and discovered that the riddle is the riddle of manure. He has found himself mixed up in a strange compost, an amalgam of sweet and sour on which he nevertheless stakes his hopes, and which cheers him with pleasant reveries of spinach and asparagus. All things work together in the heart of the sot as they do in the heart of the sod. The criminal on the scaffold is on his way to the kingdom of heaven, as Emerson said. The earth is predestined to beauty, man is predestined to goodness. He is free to grow, and, like pity standing before opportunity, he cannot resist. "I will call them my people who were not my people, and her beloved who was not beloved." We consume our sins as earth her fallen leaves.
Thanks to the Catholic for his doctrine of Transubstantiation. It is essentially true, though not only or exactly how he interprets it. What is there that may not be raised to a higher order as bread into the flesh and blood of man, of Christ? We, too, poor millions, in the summer prime of the spirit may yet be made men of, and perfected men too.
All sin, disease, suffering, and disorder are real and bad in themselves. But they are good, for something else. They are indispensable fertilizers. We shall all be changed—though not in the twinkling of an eye. All is being made clean forever and forever—clean as the clouds which are fogs till they soar; sweet as the haying which follows the flood.
It is worth noting, too, in this relation, how littIe tendency there is in evil of any kind to accumulate. The earth is never suffocated with dust and ashes. The errors of men are dropped by the way and forgotten. Their fresh-found truths, their mellower customs, their fairer laws, tend to take root and appeal to our fostering care. Them we keep, for they are worthy.
Your own life will illustrate for you the principle. In what confusion and trouble you have been sometimes. You have lost your way in the tangle of perplexities, lost hope in the midst of disappointment. You could not see your way out. You came to feel that if there were a way out you had not sufficient concern for your own good left to avail yourself of it. You did nothing to expel the demon. And yet he went. There was a bright power within you in whose company he could not stay.
The oldest of us is but a child, and, petulant as we may be at ill-fortune, the stress of beautiful order works its own way back through the heart, the magnified pain reassumes its rigid proportion. The fire dies out, as fires will do. Our sins become insipid, and at last we fling them away in disgust. We have not measured the strength of the redeemer we possess in our own souls, and who fights for us in spite of the indifference of our wills. Do you stand aghast at this compost of human nature? Is it full of wounds and bruises, as the prophet said? Stay. You shall find it presently wholesome as the summer grass, and as free from moral infection as the west wind coming over the sea.
—H. M. L., in The Christian Life