Friday, May 22, 2015

Loren Eiseley: "The Sandburs Say No"

Life is persistent and patient.  I think Life is the source of the saying, "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again."  Loren Eiseley's poem is an example of this.

The Sandburs Say No

Along the edge of the airfield between the jet blasts
from ascending bombers,
low life, the tougher
seeds from the far Cretaceous, surreptitiously test the concrete,
with the old mindlessness
sow crevices and and wait.

The blue devil's darning needles
dance their mating ecstasy across the bombing targets--
nature's archaic first streamlining,
still magnificent in a small way but useless,
the guns ships deadlier, more purposeful, but

the sandburs say no, the sandburs
are older, the sandburs
toughen the seed containers, the life bombs,
against thermite, napalm, tear gas.  The sandburs
like spendthrift governments pack the little brown
                                            bullets and send them
 out on each wind.

Each season they test the concrete and the bomber's targets.
The explosions are soundless but the stone fractures.      
The sandburs say no with the life bombs,
the sandburs say no.

I like the juxtaposition Eiseley chooses here:  the destructive power of the bomber's weaponry and the life affirming actions of the sandburs.  Although the sandburs' life bombs are at first destructive, the fracturing of the concrete, this destruction then makes life possible as it frees the soil for various plants and animals and insects and provides nutrients and a habitat for other creatures.  It's a duel between the destructive thermite and napalm bombs and the sandburs' life bombs.

A bit of trivia here:

"Field sandbur (grassbur) is a summer annual grassy weed that can be found in home lawns, sports fields, parks and along roadsides. This weed is especially adapted to dry, sandy soils but can be found growing in other types of soils as well. The big problem with this weed is the sharp, spiny burs that are part of the inflorescence. These burs can be painful and are difficult to remove from clothing material. Field sandburs (grassburs) generally start germinating in late spring and will continue to germinate until late summer or early fall months. This weed will continue to grow until the first hard frost or freeze occurs in the fall."
James A. McAfee, Ph.D.
Associate Professor and Extension Turfgrass Specialist
Dallas, Texas

"In their 2005 book A Dazzle of Dragonflies, Forrest Mitchell and James Lasswell explain that the dragonfly-epithet “devil’s darning needle” has its origins in the Europe of the Middle Ages. The long and slender shape of the insect’s body, combined with the superstitious belief that it, like the fly—consort of Beelzebub—was in league with the darkest of forces, produced a myth durable enough to make the journey with the colonists to the United States. Today in Iowa, the authors write, “devil’s darning needles sew together the fingers or toes of a person who falls asleep…in Kansas, they may sew up the mouths of scolding women, saucy children…and profane men.”


  1. Yet sandburs are so annoying, which is I suspect part of the message: Nature does not make any promises that life is going to be easy, so quit complaining and get on with it. It seems to me -- in my lucid moment here -- that a similar strand runs through the poems of Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost, but perhaps I am reaching too far with a too simple POV.

  2. R.T.,

    I don't know that much about Emily Dickinson, but she seems to accept death too readily--it's a part of life, so don't fight it. Frost, I think, sees the darker side much more than Dickinson. However, as I said, I really haven't read that much of Dickinson's poetry, so I could easily be wrong.

    1. Wrong? Never worry about being wrong about literature. I resent it when folks insist upon always being right.

    2. R.T.,

      Or can't admit when they are wrong?