I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
I used to teach this verse to my English students. Look, I’d say: images, simply put, can carry rhetorical weight. Don’t use a ten-dollar word when you can get one just as good for a nickel. I’d think I could see the light go on behind their eyes, and they’d ruminate a bit, and then say “Huh?” …and “How much does rhetorical cost?”
In the end, I probably enjoyed the lesson more than they did. It helps that both the book and the score, so to speak, both Ecclesiastes and the King James translation itself, are pitch-perfect. A well-cast bell. You only have to look at other translations (“Here is something else I have observed…”) to hear the tin-eared clunk! of someone trying to render the wisdom more literally or in a more contemporary voice. It’s always a mistake when you have poetry — Earth’s highest flower of poetry, in this case, if you believe Thomas Wolfe — to pretend it should be anything else.
But it wasn’t nostalgia for lessons past that got me thinking about Ecclesiastes 9:11 again. I was thinking how easily we’re constrained by convention, how often we perceive a thing in only one form because it’s been handed to us that way. How insistent those thought forms are. So, for instance, we have the notion, old as Rome, of ostriches burying their heads in the sand to avoid predators — by analogy, we stubbornly avoid the obvious: “US government burying head deeper in sand on climate change” is the headline of one recent article. Except that ostriches do nothing of the kind. Doesn’t matter. The idea is too valuable in argument to let fact interfere.
Similarly, we tend to see foot races only in terms of speed. The race goes (or it doesn’t) to the swift. And that’s sensible enough, for a word that originally referred to a current or a rush of water. But it does short-change the act of running. We allow that some “races” can be for distance rather than speed; others are simply to be survived. No one actually finished the 2018 Barkley ultramarathon. One day we’ll conceive of a race so difficult that no one will show any interest in it, and they’ll save a lot of money on bananas and Gatorade at the water stations. But why not a race judged on form or fashion instead (“Sorry, Usain. Yes, you did break the tape — but Gatlin clearly had the better shoes.”)? How much richer running would be if we weren’t obsessed with one or another competitor being the fastest.
We constrain plants and animals, as well, with analogy. Strong as an ox. Lovely as a rose. Sly as a fox. Restless as a willow in a windstorm. Naked as a jaybird. And so on. No one, however, has ever said “mighty as a cottonwood.” Nor any other thing either except “If that tree drops another branch in the night we’re going to lose the house.” And that’s probably a good thing. It is free to be whatever it wants to be in the landscape. The plains cottonwood we have growing in the ravine (Populus deltoides ssp. monilifera) is a case in point. As far as I know, it’s the only significant cottonwood on the property, dominating a little stretch of ground by the ephemeral stream. Half of the year you would swear it was dead; then suddenly you turn around to find it in full green leaf; and then again, a fantastical canopy of gold. So, Great Cottonwood. Splendid as a cottonwood. Even in the dead of winter, when you might be forgiven for not seeing its poetry, it would be a mistake to pretend it was anything else.