Hymns to Earthworms and Robot Suicides

opb opal whiteley

Opal Whiteley’s childhood diary is a magical document.  It’s full of extravagantly named animals such as Peter Paul Reubens (a pig), Brave Horatius (a dog), Thomas Chatterton Jupiter Zeus (a woodrat) and Felix Mendhelssohn (a mouse).  In the diary, Opal relays her experiences as a child in a logging camp near Cottage Grove, Oregon with these animal friends as well as plant friends, tree friends, and many others.  It is an enchanted world that few of her contemporaries—young or old—perceived.

The authenticity of the diary has been questioned as it is difficult to imagine a six-year old composing it.  I am happy to set the controversy as to its authorship aside and to glean what I can from it regardless of whether it was written by a child or an adult.

Consider the following passages for a sense of Opal’s rich world:

“Now are come the days of the brown leaves. They fall from the trees; they flutter on the ground. When the brown leaves flutter, they are saying little things. I hear them tell of their borning days, when they did come into the world as leaves…They told how they were a part of earth and air…In the gray days of winter they go back to the earth again.” (138)

“I watched the raindrops in the brook going on and on. When I grow up, I am going to write a book about a raindrop’s journey.” (136)

“Most grownups don’t hear them at all. I see them walk right by in a hurry, and all the time, the lichen folk are saying things; and the things they say are their thoughts about the gladness of a winter day. I put my ear close to the rocks, and I listen. That is how I do hear what they are saying.”

“More fir trees of great tallness was on either side of the road—they did stretch out their great arms to welcome us. I so do love trees. I have thinks I was once a tree, growing in the forest. Now all trees are my brothers.” (181)

As an adult, Whiteley attended the University of Oregon.  Older but no less eccentric, Whitely was purportedly seen by the wife of the university president stooped over singing hymns to the resident earthworms.

*****

In sharp contrast is a recent news story that reports on what is described as the first documented robot suicide.  A “rogue Roomba” inexplicably turned itself on, rolled onto a kitchen hot plate, and then was burnt—some might say—to death.

Some news stories even included speculation that being overworked prompted the suicide.

The owner of the Roomba is considering suing the manufacturer so apparently, the “rogue Roomba” isn’t being singled out as the sole responsible party.

*****

Almost anything can seem plausible given the right background assumptions; the most rigorous logic can support the most fanciful conclusion provided it is derived from equally fanciful premises.  One’s worldview can make certain claims seem more or less plausible: worthy of genuine consideration or not worthy of a second thought.  Opal Whiteley regularly had conversations with pigs, horses, and mice and counted them amongst her dearest friends; she eavesdropped on leaves as they conversed with the wind.  She wondered about what potatoes saw when they were in the ground.

Opal was born in 1897 with the diary allegedy being composed in approximately 1904 and published in 1920.  The robot suicide story is from this month.  In the present, the robot suicide may seem to be the more reasonable of the two stories, at least to many.

Opal’s worldview is quite foreign to most people; her peculiar claims are not likely to get widespread consideration beyond possibly their poetic merit.  But perhaps it would be prudent to consider the worldview that is currently taking shape which allows its adherents to perceive a household accident as a “robot suicide”.   Opal Whiteley’s background assumption when singing to an earthworm is that the earthworm was “a creature of God” and thus worthy of respect and perhaps, in some sense, an equal.  What is the background assumption behind news of a robot suicide?  Is this any less peculiar than listening to the wind or considering what life means to an earthworm?

The tone of the newspaper headlines on the robot suicide is seemingly somewhere in between a joke and complete sincerity.  No one is mourning this suicide as they would other more conventional suicides.  But the headlines may be a cultural exercise in trying out new ways of speaking and perceiving; getting used to the idea that a robot might be capable of something so profound; that the robot is, in some sense, an equal.  Between talking leaves and rogue Roombas, which is the more fantastic story?

For myself, I will more readily cup my ear, lean close to a rock, and listen for the voices of the “lichen folk” than to humor the idea of robot suicides.  For what it’s worth, a great many of Opal’s diary entries conclude with sentiments such as, “This is very wonderful world to live in.”  Furthemore, biographer Benjamin Hoff writes that “Opal Whiteley did not merely care for the world; she was in love with it.” [emphasis in original].   Such a love is quite possibly a prerequisite for adequately addressing the ecological crisis we face.

The alternative is a world where even the machines are becoming suicidal and looking for a way out.

opal whiteley mural

Opal Whiteley mural in Cottage Grove, Oregon.

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