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Neither fire nor ice would be nice

One hundred years ago, Robert Frost, wrote:

“Some say the world will end with fire,

Some say in ice.

From what I’ve tasted of desire

I hold with those who favor fire.

But if it had to perish twice,

I think I know enough of hate

To say that for destruction ice

Is also great

And would suffice.”

How do we stand now on these conflicting versions of our future? In the century since Frost’s analysis, how have we affected its prospect?

Frost’s first two lines probably referred to the then-current scientific uncertainty as to the eventual death of our sun — as an expanding fireball or as a shriveling burnt-out star. We now know the first prediction is correct but is billions of years away.

Frost would not have considered these lines to refer to the Earth’s climate. One hundred years ago the bounty of the Earth was just too great to run out by our tapping into it. No one would have thought that human activity, expansive as it was, could affect the future of the Earth. But in that time we certainly have.

Fire is routing the vanishing hold of ice. Orange trees of Florida covered in frost are a fading memory, replaced by waterfalls and calving glaciers spilling Greenland’s ice blanket into the sea. Greenland is about to become worthy of its name. Meanwhile, fire, feeding on the dry fuels of drought, ravishes forests and families, increasingly taxing our will and resource to control it.

It seems that Frost showed good judgment in holding with those who favor fire. We in our time on Earth have enveloped ourselves in a gaseous greenhouse, not letting him down.

But there is also a metaphorical reading that Frost suggests in the rest of his poem. Here human fires of passion, desire and creation are competing with the icy chill of hate, destruction and inaction. In this battle we’ve been less partisan. Our fiery passions have created works of art, engineering and explorations, even to the edges of our universe, which are far out of proportion with our small stature.

Expansion of our knowledge and skills in manipulating our world continues to accelerate, even to the point where some question whether it will outstrip our ability to adapt to the consequences. But we also have triggered disproportionate destruction by war, tribalism and wounding of the Earth itself. In the combat between our creative angels and destructive devils, the outcome is quite uncertain, as is the net of our influence on it.

What we can say with certainty is that the world’s end has not occurred on our watch, during the century since Frost’s musings. We have not yet yielded to fire, nor to ice. We have brought about neither utopia nor Armageddon. The world’s end and our future is now in the hands of our younger heirs. Or perhaps it is only hubris that causes us to believe that we, or they, have any influence at all on the outcome.

Again Frost, in his words carved above where he lies, may provide the fitting frame for our struggles with fire and ice: “I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.”

Rich Kinsinger lives in Ashland.

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