Lovelier Than Tenochtitlan

March 30, 1993|By Tom Horton

Mother Nature, giddy with spring, contemplates the latest satellite images of the Chesapeake Bay from space:

I declare, until the last few seconds -- decades as you reckon time --

I did not think you

would ever get it, ever

come to see the way things really are.

Columbus, gaze fixed distantly on Asian wealth,

stubbed his toe on a new world, and soon

Cortez was pushing inland, entering gleaming Tenochtitlan.

"The most beautiful city in the world," he called the Aztec capital.

Azure canals, their banks adorned

by a thousand perfumed and fruiting plants --

Venice raised to the tenth power;

And the birds!

Living rainbows of the tropics, they shimmered and sang,

Festooned the capital throughout in magnificent aviaries.

And for wealth and power, for progress as you saw it,

Cortez, canal by canal, took the place and its people apart,

And the aviaries he fired to cinders.

A century more, and on a grayer shore the Puritans

taught Native Americans about ownership of land:

Use it or lose it,

Deforest it, fence it, plow it, plant it, build there -- or we will.

And behind bulldozer ethics you pushed toward new frontiers,

Uprooting trees, prairies and cultures.

The work of rivers, you said, was to carry your commerce.

On the Susquehanna, too shallow for navigation, you sighed relief

When dams began to harness all that "wasted" flow to the Chesapeake.

But 10 million shad and herring ceased their upstream running,

Severing a circuit that linked Atlantic to Appalachians

On you went, filling, paving, mining, damming; using,

Looking for new frontiers to conquer.

Oil in the Arctic, minerals in the Antarctic, in the sea bed.

And Space, the ultimate frontier, New Worlds without end.

You rose to meet the challenge astride

Polished steel shafts propelled on pillars of flame,

Big macho indeed. I wondered:

Would you rape the very heavens?

And then, expecting conquests ahead beyond imagining,

You looked back

And saw, oh, lovelier by far than Tenochtitlan,

The blue ball whence you came

Floating, whole, alone and fragile.

Where had the frontier been?

It was a globe, a circle, all connected,

And the pioneer, the trailblazer would ultimately come upon tracks

-- his own.

And a new feeling swept over you, awed, protective.

The astronaut Schweikart said, in words strange for an explorer

-- and welcome:

and you realize that little blue and white thing

is everything that means anything to you,

all of history and music and poetry

and art and war and death and birth and love.

tears, joy, games,

all of it is on that little spot out there you can cover with your thumb.

and when you come back there's a difference

in that relationship between you and the planet,

and you and all those other forms of life there

Well, I declare I wondered what it would take to make you see

The wholeness, the connectedness, the fragility of it all.

Nothing less than a rocket to your backside!

The satellites do not blink, do not lie.

@Looking down they see

The rainforest shrinking daily,

The tattering of the ozone

And great bays like your treasured Chesapeake in true context.

No great bay at all, rather, a smallish skim of moisture, embedded

Within a basin 20 times its size, connected.

Great webs of branching water weave a fabric

lands from New York, West Virginia, Delaware

Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia.

And every pipe and ditch and barnyard within,

Every roof and road and barren building lot

Sheds water, pays tribute, nourishes and pollutes in one

direction --

Bayward

Five hundred years it took, from from Nina, Pinta, Santa Maria

-- to Apollo.

But you've finally got the picture

And lost your last excuse.

Tom Horton is author of "Bay Country" and "On the Bay," a Saturday column in The Sun. He writes from Hebron, near Salisbury.

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