THE CAILLEACH BHEARE, WITCH OF WINTER

 

In the northern hemisphere we now deepen into winter, and the deity of this transformation is a very old, magical woman.

In Irish myth she the Calleach Bheare, the witch of winter who rules from Samhain to Candlemas. She is probably the survival of the mother-goddess of great antiquity, and her attributes lend her the gravitas of time measured in eons, not lives. Her residence is Beara, the peninsula of the south-west Irish coast where Gaelic humans were believed to have first stepped ashore and bid the resident mythic tribe of the Tuatha de Danaan to retreat from the surface into the Otherworld where they now reside. Likened to the winter solstice, it’s where all things end and come into being.

As the female matrix of sovereignty and fertile power, the Winter Witch is wild as the landscape and has three personas as maiden (the bean ghlúine or midwife), matron (bean feasa or wise woman) and crone (bean chaointe or keening-woman). She was present at the creation of the world and is associated horned beasts (especially cattle) and with winter storms. Some legends have her turning to stone on Beltane (May Day) and taking human form again at Samhain. Her reign reaches its fullness on the Winter solstice, at which time she is said to visit the Well of Youth and grows younger every day until she assumes the form of the young Bridget at Candlemas.

The eight-century Irish poem “The Lament of the Hag off Bheara” places her as a lonely soul in Christendom, her glories all in the past, become a withered emptiness:

 

 

How about a winter’s tale? The Winter Witch is renowned in folklore throughout the British isles; a Scottish version is recorded in Donald Alexander McKenzie’s Wonder Tales from Scottish Myth and Legend (1917):

Beira, Queen of Winter

Dark Beira was the mother of all the gods and goddesses in Scotland. She was of great height and very old, and everyone feared her. When roused to anger she was as fierce as the biting north wind and harsh as the tempest-stricken sea. Each winter she reigned as Queen of the Four Red Divisions of the world, and none disputed her sway. But when the sweet spring season drew nigh, her subjects began to rebel against her and to long for the coming of the Summer King, Angus of the White Steed, and Bride, his beautiful queen, who were loved by all, for they were the bringers of plenty and of bright and happy days. It enraged Beira greatly to find her power passing away, and she tried her utmost to prolong the winter season by raising spring storms and sending blighting frost to kill early flowers and keep the grass from growing.

Beira lived for hundreds and hundreds of years. The reason she did not die of old age was because, at the beginning of every spring, she drank the magic waters of the Well of Youth which bubbles up in the Green Island of the West. This was a floating island where summer was the only season, and the trees were always bright with blossom and laden with fruit. It drifted about on the silver tides of the blue Atlantic, and sometimes appeared off the western coasts of Ireland and sometimes close to the Hebrides. Many bold mariners have steered their galleys up and down the ocean, searching for Green Island in vain. On a calm morning they might sail past its shores and yet never know it was near at hand, for oft-times it lay hidden in a twinkling mist. Men have caught glimpses of it from the shore, but while they gazed on its beauties with eyes of wonder, it vanished suddenly from sight by sinking beneath the waves like the setting sun. Beira, however, always knew where to find Green Island when the time came for her to visit it.

The waters of the Well of Youth are most potent when the days begin to grow longer, and most potent of all on the first of the lengthening days of spring. Beira always visited the island on the night before the first lengthening day–that is, on the last night of her reign as Queen of Winter. All alone in the darkness she sat beside the Well of Youth, waiting for the dawn. When the first faint beam of light appeared in the eastern sky, she drank the water as it bubbled fresh from a crevice in the rock. It was necessary that she should drink of this magic water before any bird visited the well and before any dog barked. If a bird drank first, or a dog barked ere she began to drink, dark old Beira would crumble into dust.

As soon as Beira tasted the magic water, in silence and alone, she began to grow young again. She left the island and, returning to Scotland, fell into a magic sleep. When, at length, she awoke, in bright sunshine, she rose up as a beautiful girl with long hair yellow as buds of broom, cheeks red as rowan berries, and blue eyes that sparkled like the summer sea in sunshine. Then she went to and fro through Scotland, clad in a robe of green and crowned with a chaplet of bright flowers of many hues. No fairer goddess was to be found in all the land, save Bride, the peerless Queen of Summer.

As each month went past, however, Beira aged quickly. She reached full womanhood in midsummer, and when autumn came on her brows wrinkled and her beauty began to fade. When the season of winter returned once again, she became an old and withered hag, and began to reign as the fierce Queen Beira.

Often on stormy nights in early winter she wandered about, singing this sorrowful song:–

 O life that ebbs like the seal
I am weary and old, I am weary and old–
Oh! how can I happy be
All alone in the dark and the cold.

I’m the old Beira again,
My mantle no longer is green,
I think of my beauty with pain
And the days when another was queen.

My arms are withered and thin,
My hair once golden is grey;
’Tis winter–my reign doth begin–
Youth’s summer has faded away.

Youth’s summer and autumn have fled–
I am weary and old, I am weary and old.
Every flower must fade and fall dead
When the winds blow cold, when the winds blow cold.

The aged Beira was fearsome to look upon. She had only one eye, but the sight of it was keen and sharp as ice and as swift as the mackerel of the ocean. Her complexion was a dull, dark blue, and this is how she sang about it:–

Why is my face so dark, so dark?
So dark, oho! so dark, ohee!
Out in all weathers I wander alone
In the mire, in the cold, ah me!

Her teeth were red as rust, and her locks, which lay heavily on her shoulders, were white as an aspen covered with hoar frost. On her head she wore a spotted mutch.  All her clothing was grey, and she was never seen without her great dun-coloured shawl, which was drawn closely round her shoulders.

It is told that in the days when the world was young Beira saw land where there is now water and water where there is now land.

Once a wizard spoke to her and said: “Tell me your age, O sharp old woman.”

Beira answered: “I have long ceased to count the years. But I shall tell you what I have seen. Yonder is the seal-haunted rock of Skerryvore in the midst of the sea. I remember when it was a mountain surrounded by fields. I saw the fields ploughed, and the barley that grew upon them was sharp and juicy. Yonder is a loch. I remember when it was a small round well. In these days I was a fair young girl, and now I am very old and frail and dark and miserable.”

A turf roofed sheiling or shelter in Perthshire where the Calleach is said to winter from Samhain to Beltane.

 

 

It is told also that Beira let loose many rivers and formed many lochs, sometimes willingly and sometimes against her will, and that she also shaped many bens and glens. All the hills in Ross-shire are said to have been made by Beira.

There was once a well on Ben Cruachan, in Argyll, from which Beira drew water daily. Each morning at sunrise she lifted off the slab that covered it, and each evening at sunset she laid it above the well again. It happened that one evening she forgot to cover the well. Then the proper order of things was disturbed. As soon as the sun went down the water rose in great volume and streamed down the mountain side, roaring like a tempest-swollen sea. When day dawned, Beira found that the valley beneath was filled with water. It was in this way that Loch Awe came to be.

Beira had another well in Inverness-shire which had to be kept covered in like manner from sunset till sunrise. One of her maids, whose name was Nessa, had charge of the well. It happened that one evening the maid was late in going to the well to cover it. When she drew near she beheld the water flowing so fast from it that she turned away and. ran for her life. Beira watched her from the top of Ben Nevis, which was her mountain throne, and cried: “You have neglected your duty. Now you will run for ever and never leave water.”

The maiden was at once changed into a river, and the loch and the river which runs from it towards the sea were named after her. That is why the loch is called Loch Ness and the river the river Ness.

Once a year, when the night on which she was transformed comes round, Ness (Nessa) arises out of the river in her girl form, and sings a sad sweet song in the pale moonlight. It is said that her voice is clearer and more beautiful than that of any bird, and her music more melodious than the golden harps and silvern pipes of fairyland.

In the days when rivers broke loose and lochs were made, Beira set herself to build the mountains of Scotland. When at work she carried on her back a great creel filled with rocks and earth. Sometimes as she leapt from hill to hill her creel tilted sideways, and rocks and earth fell from it into lochs and formed islands. Many islands are spoken of as “spillings from the creel of the big old woman.”

Beira had eight hags who were her servants. They also carried creels, and one after the other they emptied out their creels until a mountain was piled up nigh to the clouds.

One of the reasons why Beira made the mountains was to use them as stepping stones; another was to provide houses for her giant sons. Many of her sons were very quarrelsome; they fought continually one against another. To punish those of them who disobeyed her, Beira shut the offenders up in mountain houses, and from these they could not escape without her permission. But this did not keep them from fighting. Every morning they climbed to the tops of their mountain houses and threw great boulders at one another. That is why so many big grey boulders now lie on steep slopes and are scattered through the valleys. Other giant sons of Beira dwelt in deep caves. Some were horned like deer, and others had many heads. So strong were they that they could pick up cattle and, throwing them over their shoulders, carry them away to roast them for their meals. Each giant son of Beira was called a Fooar.

It was Beira who built Ben Wyvis. She found it a hard task, for she had to do all the work alone, her hag servants being busy elsewhere. One day, when she had grown very weary, she stumbled and upset her creel. All the rocks and earth it contained fell out in a heap, and formed the mountain which is called Little Wyvis.

The only tool that Beira used was a magic hammer. When she struck it lightly on the ground the soil became as hard as iron; when she struck it heavily on the ground a valley was formed. After she had built up a mountain, she gave it its special form by splintering the rocks with her hammer. If she had made all the hills of the same shape, she would not have been able to recognize one from another.

After the mountains were all formed, Beira took great delight in wandering between them and over them. She was always followed by wild animals. The foxes barked with delight when they beheld her, wolves howled to greet her, and eagles shrieked with joy in mid-air. Beira had great herds and flocks to which she gave her protection-nimble-footed deer, high-horned cattle, shaggy grey goats, black swine, and sheep that had snow-white fleeces. She charmed her deer against the huntsmen, and when she visited a deer forest she helped them to escape from the hunters. During early winter she milked the hinds on the tops of mountains, but when the winds rose so high that the froth was blown from the milking pails, she drove the hinds down to the valleys. The froth was frozen on the crests of high hills, and lay there snow-white and beautiful. When the winter torrents began to pour down the mountain sides, leaping from ledge to ledge, the people said: “Beira is milking her shaggy goats, and streams of milk are pouring down over high rocks.”

Beira washed her great shawl in the sea, for there was no lake big enough for the purpose. The part she chose for her washing is the strait between the western islands of Jura and Scarba. Beira’s “washing-pot” is the whirlpool, there called Corry-vreckan. It was so named because the son of a Scottish king, named Breckan, was drowned in it, his boat having been upset by the waves raised by Beira.

Three days before the Queen of Winter began her work her hag servants made ready the water for her, and the Corry could then be heard snorting and fuming for twenty miles around. On the fourth day Beira threw her shawl into the whirlpool, and tramped it with her feet until the edge of the Corry overflowed with foam. When she had finished her washing she laid her shawl on the mountains to dry, and as soon as she lifted it up, all the mountains of Scotland were white with snow to signify that the great Queen had begun her reign.

Now, the meaning of this story is that Beira is the spirit of winter. She grows older and fiercer as the weeks go past, until at length her strength is spent. Then she renews her youth, so that she may live through the summer and autumn and begin to reign once again. The ancient people of Scotland saw that during early winter torrents poured down from the hills, and in this Beira fable they expressed their belief that the torrents were let loose by the Winter Queen, and that the lochs were, at the beginning, formed by the torrents that sprang from magic wells. They saw great boulders lying on hillsides and in valleys, and accounted for their presence in these places by telling how they were flung from mountain tops by the giant sons of Beira.

In the next chapter the story will be told of the coming of Angus and Bride, the King and Queen of Summer and Plenty, and of the stormy conflictswa ged during the closing weeks of winter and the early weeks of spring between Beira and Angus-the-Ever-Young, who comes from the fabled Green Isle of the West-the land of eternal summer and perpetual youth.

 

There is much we can make of this boreal queen as the year deepens down to its nadir. (To our friends in the Southern Hemisphere, you may need to lend your imaginative eye to a fullness six months from now or past; as I do here in Florida, where unseasonable heat even for the subtropics lingers on.) Our spiritual landscapes (figurative and real) were shaped by her. The wild is her element, bull and doe are her kin. Bitter, cold and windy nights invoked by her are holy maces of awe. On the darkest night of our souls, she is with us, pointing us toward regeneration. Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty writes in Other People’s Myths: The Cave of Echoes,

The private mythic moment is crowded by ghosts whom we cannot identify consciously, but whose multiplicity we are aware of. We know that what is happening to us has happened to them, because we have heard stories about them, and so they are present with us when those things happen again to us. If there is some piece of sad news that our children have to hear in real life, news of a death or a loss, we try to let them heart it from someone we know and trust — an aunt who was with us when we first learned about death ourselves, or a teacher or a wise friend. This is what great myths are — the stories that people all over the world have come to trust with their darkest and most troubling insights.

Much of the Cailleach — like her primal Mother — has been lost or appropriated to grant sovereignty to fool kings. We build machines defiant of her power, mechanical warm wombs for staying out of reach of her education. Gearóid Ō Crualaoich writes in The Book of the Calleach: Stories of the Wise-Woman Healer,

On the learned level of medieval Irish literary tradition the figure of the mother-goddess is both buried underground and transformed into that of a territorial sovereignty queen whose autonomy and independent authority is diminished and exploited in the politico-literary propaganda of patrilineal dynasties competing for political hegemony. At the popular “folk” level, however, the figure of the divine female agency, the mother-goddess of landscape, retains her autonomy and majestic authority in the local lore of place and thereby constitutes a traditional cultural resource contributing richly to the creativity of the popular imagination. All over the Gaelic world in Ireland and Scotland, down to the present age, traditions of the calleach, the supernatural female elder, are found attached to natural features of the physical landscape — mountains, lakes, rivers, tumuli, caves whose shape she has moulded and whose location she has fixed — and feature also in the abundant stories of supernatural encounter between humans and the native otherworld within that sacred feminine landscape. (28-9)

For this week’s challenge, write of the Witch of Winter.  She has many hames and bears a font of poetry. She could be the voice of geologic time; the impression of antiquity in the landscape; or the presence  and prescience of winter weather. What turns in these darkest days of the year, how or where does She walk in these end of year moments? How or where do you experience the otherworld in your landscape? And what boon can She still offer to a hot and hotter world?

Walk us into the primal heart of bitter cold — join us in this winter carol!

— Brendan

 

 

 

THE COLD EARTH SLEPT BELOW

Percy Bysshe Shelley

The cold earth slept below;
Above the cold sky shone;
And all around,
With a chilling sound,
From caves of ice and fields of snow
The breath of night like death did flow
Beneath the sinking moon.

The wintry hedge was black;
The green grass was not seen;
The birds did rest
On the bare thorn’s breast,
Whose roots, beside the pathway track,
Had bound their folds o’er many a crack
Which the frost had made between.

Thine eyes glow’d in the glare
Of the moon’s dying light;
As a fen-fire’s beam
On a sluggish stream
Gleams dimly—so the moon shone there,
And it yellow’d the strings of thy tangled hair,
That shook in the wind of night.

The moon made thy lips pale, beloved;
The wind made thy bosom chill;
The night did shed
On thy dear head
Its frozen dew, and thou didst lie
Where the bitter breath of the naked sky
Might visit thee at will.

 

THE CAILLEACH TO THE OLD WIDOW

Leanne O’Sullivan

The Universe said to me,
Old woman I have learned
a few good things,

 that when one part dies
in me another comes
tearing through the darkness

like a star, sudden
and tender and painful
as hell.  Each time

I have sat at the centre
of the world to see it,
each time I have crawled

the dark of my own belly
to not see, the shape
of the great light coming

and the dying one,
washed in such kindness
rising steadily towards it

— from Cailleach: The Hag of Bheara (2009)

 

WINTER LANDSCAPE, WITH ROOKS

Sylvia Plath

Water in the millrace, through a sluice of stone,
plunges headlong into that black pond
where, absurd and out-of-season, a single swan
floats chaste as snow, taunting the clouded mind
which hungers to haul the white reflection down.

The austere sun descends above the fen,
an orange cyclops-eye, scorning to look
longer on this landscape of chagrin;
feathered dark in thought, I stalk like a rook,
brooding as the winter night comes on.

Last summer’s reeds are all engraved in ice
as is your image in my eye; dry frost
glazes the window of my hurt; what solace
can be struck from rock to make heart’s waste
grow green again? Who’d walk in this bleak place?

 

TO JUAN AT THE WINTER SOLSTICE

Robert Graves

There is one story and one story only
That will prove worth your telling,
Whether as learned bard or gifted child;
To it all lines or lesser gauds belong
That startle with their shining
Such common stories as they stray into.

Is it of trees you tell, their months and virtues,
Or strange beasts that beset you,
Of birds that croak at you the Triple will?
Or of the Zodiac and how slow it turns
Below the Boreal Crown,
Prison to all true kings that ever reigned?

Water to water, ark again to ark,
From woman back to woman:
So each new victim treads unfalteringly
The never altered circuit of his fate,
Bringing twelve peers as witness
Both to his starry rise and starry fall.

Or is it of the Virgin’s silver beauty,
All fish below the thighs?
She in her left hand bears a leafy quince;
When, with her right hand she crooks a finger, smiling,
How many the King hold back?
Royally then he barters life for love.

Or of the undying snake from chaos hatched,
Whose coils contain the ocean,
Into whose chops with naked sword he springs,
Then in black water, tangled by the reeds,
Battles three days and nights,
To be spewed up beside her scalloped shore?

Much snow is falling, winds roar hollowly,
The owl hoots from the elder,
Fear in your heart cries to the loving-cup:
Sorrow to sorrow as the sparks fly upward.
The log groans and confesses:
There is one story and one story only.

Dwell on her graciousness, dwell on her smiling,
Do not forget what flowers
The great boar trampled down in ivy time.
Her brow was creamy as the crested wave,
Her sea-blue eyes were wild
But nothing promised that is not performed.

—from Collected Poems (1955)

 

OUTSIDE HISTORY

Eavan Bolann

These are outsiders, always. These stars—
these iron inklings of an Irish January,
whose light happened
thousands of years before
our pain did; they are, they have always been
outside history.
They keep their distance. Under them remains
a place where you found
you were human, and
a landscape in which you know you are mortal.
And a time to choose between them.
I have chosen:
out of myth in history I move to be
part of that ordeal
who darkness is
only now reaching me from those fields,
those rivers, those roads clotted as
firmaments with the dead.
How slowly they die
as we kneel beside them, whisper in their ear.
And we are too late. We are always too late.

 

WINTER STARS

Sarah Teasdale

I went out at night alone;
The young blood flowing beyond the sea
Seemed to have drenched my spirit’s wings—
I bore my sorrow heavily.

But when I lifted up my head
From shadows shaken on the snow,
I saw Orion in the east
Burn steadily as long ago.

From windows in my father’s house,
Dreaming my dreams on winter nights,
I watched Orion as a girl
Above another city’s lights.

Years go, dreams go, and youth goes too,
The world’s heart breaks beneath its wars,
All things are changed, save in the east
The faithful beauty of the stars.

— from Flame and Shadow (1920)

 

BURNING THE OLD YEAR

Naomi Shihab Nye

Letters swallow themselves in seconds.
Notes friends tied to the doorknob,
transparent scarlet paper,
sizzle like moth wings,
marry the air.

So much of any year is flammable,
lists of vegetables, partial poems.
Orange swirling flame of days,
so little is a stone.

Where there was something and suddenly isn’t,
an absence shouts, celebrates, leaves a space.
I begin again with the smallest numbers.

Quick dance, shuffle of losses and leaves,
only the things I didn’t do
crackle after the blazing dies.

— from Words Under Words: Selected Poems (1995)

 

THE CAILLEACH IN HER WINTER CAVE

Bee Smith

Deep in her winter cave
the Cailleach sits and croons.
She keeps with her a dog
whose coat is black at pitch.

She keeps the dog to have
company. But she has
with her a silver wolf
to keep strangers at bay.

Deep in her winter cave
the crone has her own light.
It is not a lantern.
Her right palm is alight.

She tosses that fire
like she would her dog’s ball.
She plays with it and it’s
not for warmth or cooking pot.

She has other needs. Look!
She watches it play out
bouncing on the walls like
a metronome for tunes.

She croons to the shadows.
She croons to winter cold.
She croons to her wolf pal.
She croons to her black dog.

She holds a tinderbox
in her other palm. It will
never scorch or cinder burn.
She keeps the need fire.

Deep in her winter cave
the Cailleach plays the light
and no matter how small
it shines on winter nights.

 

 

TENDING A DIFFICULT GARDEN

 

Today I’m feeling a tad hopeful where despair of the future had been an incessant drone.

Not a starry hope, but real. The midterm elections in the United States surprised everyone with the tepid performance of Republican red wave, especially from the MAGA election-denying horde. Normally midterm elections are a referendum two years after a presidential election; this year pundits thought that inflation woes (cast as Democratic mismanagement) and Democratic president Joe Biden’s low approval ratings would drive voters en masse to the polls for a Republican majority in Congress. Instead, Democrats gained a seat in the Senate and Republicans picked up barely enough seats to squeak out a majority in the House of Representatives. Election-deniers supported by Trump performed awfully, losing big in Arizona (where MAGA is most carnivorous) and failing to score most of the state attorney general seats critical to managing future elections.

Most are now saying that anti-democratic impulses of the far right in my country have been repudiated – albeit barely — to ensure this country is on better, operative ground heading forward.

Only in my home state of Florida did Republicans take all, including the re-election of governor Ron DeSantis, seen as a primary contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024. Donald Trump, who resides at his Mar-A-Lago resort in South Florida, announced Tuesday that he is running again, so we have an ex-president likely to be prosecuted for attempting to overthrow the government the last time he was in office running again. Florida was swiped by two storms in the past month coming from either direction and making it clear that paradisal beach residence is a pricey peril.

But hey — I’ll take optimism where I can. Battered and fragile though my country’s weal may be, the legislative threads exist to continue making progress in fighting climate change, providing economic opportunity, supporting freedom in Ukraine and continuing a global transformation into whatever this century is forming into.

The mood is striking because there has been so little evidence in our global moment to feel that way. For the past 20 years, it’s been political upheavals, economic uncertainty, war and the growing looming malevolent specter of climate change. The cascade of bad news becomes so suffocating we tune it out, look backward or in, find our comforts in the small and momentary. Nothing wrong with any of that — all part of a healthy daily regimen — but this lack of hope in the future caps everything with the pall of doom. What forward thinking is possible, even conceivable, under such conditions?

I didn’t grasp this until reading an interview with musician Brian Eno in The New York Times Magazine the other day. Eno’s been around since the ‘70s, was a founding member of the glam art-rock band Roxy Music, pioneered ambient music and has worked with rock luminaries including David Bowie, Talking Heads, U2 and Coldplay. Promoting his new album FOREVERNEVERMORE, Eno spoke with David Marchese on a wide range of topics.

But here’s what pricked my attention: Where I tend to think of culture as backward-focused (a current collection of poems I’m working an attempt at verse memoir), Eno asserts the reverse: “culture — art, if you like — has an important set of functions in preparing us for the future. If you read a book like 1984, you’re surrendering to a world with certain values and attributes and seeing what it feels like. Then, when you see something a bit like that starting to exist, you have a way of understanding it and how that might feel.”

Eno said FOREVERNEVERMORE was greatly influenced by the growing menace of climate change and how it is darkening all aspects of modern life. But rather than stay stuck in dystopian fin de siècle soundscapes (the album has some) Eno sees humanity’s arts as grasping for the change:

I can’t conceive of a future where there isn’t a threat. I think we’re in for a hard ride for maybe half a century. Then it will either be the end of civilization or a reborn humanity with a different set of ideas about who we are and where we belong and how we must relate to things in order to survive.

Dark as that may sound, are there not seeds there to plant as well? Isn’t there a garden of possibility aiming toward those new ideas, difficult and tortured as our current work may be? Rather than intoning requiems, maybe it’s baptism we should foster, building conditions for something further down from our late and last best work.

At least we can begin…

Eno’s sense of our best chances lays a lot of hope in the instrument which got us here — our brains — something I’m not sure I trust so deeply:

… I see a pessimistic short-term future. Not short-term for the person who’s living it but short-term in the history of civilization. Then I see this point at which we either really fail or we start to succeed. I think the succeed side has a very good chance because of the amount of human intelligence at work. There has never been more intelligence on the planet than there is now. Not only because there’s more brains than ever but there are also more augmentations of brains. There are more connections among all these brains. We’re in a sort of intelligence explosion. I hope.

In our human experience to date, misuses of intelligence far outnumber helpful ones. But as COP27 participants agree to greater transparency and honesty in their pledges (as well the outlines of a loss and damage fund), changed leadership in Brazil promises to slow Amazon deforestation and the green economy builds slowly up to scale, the righting balance yet be out there.

We can either despair of our slim chances or pick up a shovel and start working a row fertile for that future.

I suspect a major dislocation of our root embrace of modernity (blame Prometheus) will be necessary, at extreme but hopefully not fully extincting cost. That’s the edifice we have built (even if we have only lived through it), with our energy dependence, fossil fuel addiction economies of clearcut extraction, wealth discrepancy and amok capitalism.

The changes are coming, too slowly to prevent overheating the next few centuries at least. Devastation and loss will be growing oppressions of fact (they already are). Millions, perhaps billions, will die in flooded homelands and humid wastelands, beneath the migratory sea or at the gates of withering paradise. Most wildlife will vanish. Like Noah’s Flood, the shadow of Prometheus will cover the land. My hope is not personal but for this earth we love, that enough of it will remain with a humanity finally ready to get in step with it.

So what is the poetry that prepares such a difficult garden? Despair won’t work, and neither will impossible hope.

The Wendell Berry poem I keep coming back to is “Work Song,” published in his 1977 collection Clearing. It tells us not to despair of the difficulty. Here is the second part of that sequence:

If we will have the wisdom to survive,
To stand like slow-growing trees
On a ruined place, renewing, enriching it,
If we will make our seasons welcome here,
Asking not too much of earth or heaven,
then a long time after we are dead
The lives our lives prepare will live
Here, their houses strongly placed
Upon the valley sides, fields and gardens
Rich in the windows. The river will run
Clear, as we will never know it,
And over it, birdsong like a canopy.
On the levels of the hills will be
Green meadows, stock bells in noon shade.
On the steeps where greed and ignorance cut down
The old forest, an old forest will stand,
Its rich leaf-fall drifting on its roots.
The veins of forgotten springs will have opened.
Families will be singing in the fields.
In their voices they will hear a music
Risen out of the ground. They will take
Nothing from the ground they will not return,
Whatever the grief at parting. Memory,
Native to this valley, will spread over it
Like a grove, and memory will grow
into legend, legend into song, song
into sacrament. The abundance of this place,
the songs of its people and its birds,
will be health and wisdom and indwelling
light. This is no paradisal dream.
Its hardship is its possibility.

The last two lines frame the aesthetic of this week’s challenge, but these lines  resound with the extent of the difficulty: “They will take / Nothing from the ground they will not return, / Whatever the grief at parting.” It all goes back in the ground, my confusions and errors, best words and half-whole heart; our ghost forests and monster storms and wildfires; the lattice of tiny solutions — respect all life, sacrifice desire for the common good, find power within the heart, pray at waking and with last thoughts — all that big, better ones may rise. So thatl the last car may roll to a stop, and the last tree fall for an obsolete timber industry.

What are the poems of such compost, the manure of despair and loss buried, seeds tended by the art of the hardy possibility?

Toward that end, our present poetry doesn’t have to know the solutions that lie ahead, only be willing to acknowledge what doesn’t work and surrender any thought of escaping what must necessarily change.

In 1993 A.R. Ammons published a book-length poem titled Garbage, an offering to “the gods of our unpleasant necessities” where language may yet redeem itself. A brief section:

                                    … this is a scientific poem,

Asserting that nature models values, that we
have invented little (copied), reflections of

possibilities already here, this where we came
to and how we came: a priestly director behind the

black-chufffing dozer leans the gleanings and
reads the birds, millions of loners circling

a common height, alighting to the meaty streaks
and puffy muffins (pufffins?): there is a mound,

too, in the poet’s mind dead language is hauled
off to and burned down on, the energy held and

shaped into new turns and clusters,
the mind strengthened by what it strengthens: for

where but in the very asshole of comedown
is redemption: as where but brought low, where

but in the grief of failure, loss, error do we
discern the savage afflictions that turn us around:

where but in the arrangements love crawls us
through, not a thing left in our self-display

unhumiliated, do we find the sweet seed of
new routes:

To seek high, go low: to plant fertilely, spread the dead. To our savage afflictions and affections be true.

Terri Winding relates the following in “Sacred Springs and Other Water Lore”: “An old English folklorist told me once that nature spirits would live in a well, a spring, a lake or a grove of trees, only so long as they were remembered and addressed respectfully. If the spirits were neglected, they’d leave the place; the land would feel soul-less and dead henceforth.” Our attention and care of forgotten and abandoned spaces is an invitation to those spirits to re-inhabit us. Wastelands are the place to begin, where work on what has been spoiled is the greatest.

Maybe the strongest ingredient in this difficult soil is gratitude — gratitude for the good that remains, that its abundance may recoverand spread. For where there is gratitude, there is also hope.

For this challenge, tend a difficult garden.

Brendan

 

 

WHAT IS A GARDEN

W.S. Merwin

All day working happily down near the streambed
the light passing into the remote opalescence
it returns to as the year wakes toward winter
a season of rain in a year already rich
in rain with masked light emerging on all sides
in the new leaves of the palms quietly waving
time of mud and slipping and of overhearing
the water under the sloped ground going on whispering
as it travels time of rain thundering at night
and of rocks rolling and echoing in the torrent
and of looking up after noon through the high branches
to see fine rain drifting across the sunlight
over the valley that was abused and at last left
to fill with thickets of rampant aliens
that brought habits but no stories under the mango
already vast as clouds there I keep discovering
beneath the tangle the ancient shaping of water
to which the light of an hour comes back as to a secret
and there I planted young palms in places I had not pondered
until then I imagined their roots setting out in the dark
knowing without knowledge I kept trying to see them standing
in that bend of the valley in the light that would come

— From The River Sound (1999)

 

THE PRODIGY

Lola Haskins

He was born with the fingerpads of the blind.
By eight he could tell if someone
had been at the piano before him,
and how long before, and who.
Beginning Fur Elise one November afternoon,
he burst into storms of tears
because his sister had banged
her tuneless anger the night before,
and he felt the bruises still on the keys.
He was born with the ears of a dog.
He could hear his mother’s skin decay,
the soft give
as her cheeks sagged just barely more.
Sometimes his face would cloud
because the moan of needles becoming
earth seemed so incomparably sad.
Or brighten. He had heard
the sun come out on the beating feathers
of birds, miles away.
He was born with his life in his hands.
Toddling, he learned the little bells
of Grieg. Then he mastered Mozart’s
speech, its ache of clean and brittle
song. Then he learned to follow Bach,
crossing water from calm to flood,
up and down the stepping-stones
of the keys. He would dream
of his piano as if it were flesh.
In a room with a strange instrument
he would walk by it once or twice,
brushing it as if by accident
with his leg, his sleeve.

— from 44 Ambitions for Piano, 1990

 

ENRICHING THE EARTH

Wendell Berry

To enrich the earth I have sowed clover and grass
to grow and die. I have plowed in the seeds
of winter grains and of various legumes,
their growth to be plowed in to enrich the earth.
I have stirred into the ground the offal
and the decay of the growth of past seasons
and so mended the earth and made its yield increase.
All this serves the dark. I am slowly falling
into the fund of things. And yet to serve the earth,
not knowing what I serve, gives a wideness
and a delight to the air, and my days
do not wholly pass. It is the mind’s service,
for when the will fails so do the hands
and one lives at the expense of life.
After death, willing or not, the body serves,
entering the earth. And so what was heaviest
and most mute is at last raised up into song.

 

THE MATERIAL

Kay Ryan

The ratio between the material Cornell collected
and the material that ended up in his boxes
was probably a thousand to one.

— Deborah Solomon, Joseph Cornell

Whatever is done
leaves a hole in the
possible, a snip in
the gauze, a marble
and thimble missing
from the immaterial.
The laws are cruel
on this point. The
undone can’t be
patched or stretched.
The wounds last.
The bundles of
nothing that are
our gift at birth, the
lavish trains we
trail into our span
like vans of seamless
promise, like fresh
sheets in baskets,
are our stock. We
must extract parts
to do work. As
time passes, the
promise is tattered
like a battle flag
above a war we
hope mattered.

— from The Best of It: New and Selected Poems (2010)

 

TOR HOUSE

Robinson Jeffers

If you should look for this place after a handful of lifetimes:
Perhaps of my planted forest a few
May stand yet, dark-leaved Australians or the coast cypress, haggard
With storm-drift; but fire and the axe are devils.
Look for foundations of sea-worn granite, my fingers had the art
To make stone love stone, you will find some remnant.
But if you should look in your idleness after ten thousand years:
It is the granite knoll on the granite
And lava tongue in the midst of the bay, by the mouth of the Carmel
River-valley, these four will remain
In the change of names. You will know it by the wild sea-fragrance of wind
Though the ocean may have climbed or retired a little;
You will know it by the valley inland that our sun and our moon were born from
Before the poles changed; and Orion in December
Evenings was strung in the throat of the valley like a lamp-lighted bridge.
Come in the morning you will see white gulls
Weaving a dance over blue water, the wane of the moon
Their dance-companion, a ghost walking
By daylight, but wider and whiter than any bird in the world.
My ghost you needn’t look for; it is probably
Here, but a dark one, deep in the granite, not dancing on wind
With the mad wings and the day moon.

— from Cawdor (1926-28)

 

POETS TO COME

Walt Whitman

Poets to come! orators, singers, musicians to come!
Not to-day is to justify me and answer what I am for,
But you, a new brood, native, athletic, continental, greater than
before known,
Arouse! for you must justify me.

I myself but write one or two indicative words for the future,
I but advance a moment only to wheel and hurry back in the darkness.

I am a man who, sauntering along without fully stopping, turns a
casual look upon you and then averts his face,
Leaving it to you to prove and define it,
Expecting the main things from you.

 

NOW I UNDERSTAND

Linda Gregg

Something was pouring out. Filling the field
and making it vacant. A wind blowing them
sideways as they moved forward. The crying
as before. Suddenly I understood why they left
the empty bowls on the table, in the empty hut
overlooking the sea. And knew the meaning
of the heron breaking branches, spreading
his wings in order to rise up out of the dark
woods into the night sky. I understood about
the lovers and the river in January.
Heard the crying out as a battlement,
of greatness, and then the dying began.
The height of passion. Saw the breaking
of the moon and the shattering of the sun.
Believed in the miracle because of the half heard
and the other half seen. How they ranged
and how they fed. Let loose their cries.
One could call it the agony in the garden,
or the paradise, depending on whether
the joy was at the beginning, or after.

 

I HAVE NOT TOLD MY GARDEN YET

Emily Dickinson

I haven’t told my garden yet—
Lest that should conquer me.
I haven’t quite the strength now
To break it to the Bee—

I will not name it in the street
For shops would stare at me—
That one so shy—so ignorant
Should have the face to die.

The hillsides must not know it—
Where I have rambled so—
Nor tell the loving forests
The day that I shall go—

Nor lisp it at the table—
Nor heedless by the way
Hint that within the Riddle
One will walk today—

—  F 40 (1858)