Being but Men: Astronomer Natalie Batalha Reads Dylan Thomas’s Cosmic Serenade to Trees and the Wonder of Being Human
“Children in wonder watching the stars, is the aim and the end.”
By Maria Popova
Trees are unworded thoughts, periscopes of perspective. They are both less alive than we think and more sentient than we thought. In them, we see what we are and see what we can be. From them, we draw our best metaphors for love, for art, for happiness.
Crowning the canon of branched reflections on what it means to be human is the poem “Being but Men” by Dylan Thomas (October 27, 1914–November 9, 1953).
Written in 1939 — a time when we were all “men,” a time when Thomas was only twenty-five — and posthumously included in the indispensable Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas (public library), it came alive anew at the 2020 Universe in Verse, celebrating fifty years of Earth Day, in a reading by astronomer Natalie Batalha, who spearheaded NASA’s Kepler mission and its search for habitable worlds outside our solar system and who prefaced her reading with a personal reflection as poetic as the poem:
BEING BUT MEN
by Dylan Thomas
Being but men, we walked into the trees
Afraid, letting our syllables be soft
For fear of waking the rooks,
For fear of coming
Noiselessly into a world of wings and cries.
If we were children we might climb,
Catch the rooks sleeping, and break no twig,
And, after the soft ascent,
Thrust out our heads above the branches
To wonder at the unfailing stars.
Out of confusion, as the way is,
And the wonder, that man knows,
Out of the chaos would come bliss.
That, then, is loveliness, we said,
Children in wonder watching the stars,
Is the aim and the end.
Being but men, we walked into the trees.
Complement with astronaut Leland Melvin — one of a handful of humans in the history of our species to have seen Earth’s trees from the dwelling place of the stars — reading Pablo Neruda’s love letter to the forest, Mary Oliver’s poem “When I Am Among the Trees,” and Annie Dillard on what mangrove trees teach us about our search for meaning in an impartial universe, then revisit a rare recording of Dylan Thomas reading his iconic poem “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night,” along with the story behind it — a poem popularized among a new generation by the final scene of Interstellar, a film entertaining in science fiction the possibilities Natalie’s work in science holds for our shared future as sojourners in space.
Savor more highlights from The Universe in Verse — a charitable celebration of science and the wonder of nature through poetry — here.
Published October 27, 2020