WONDERFUL to see so many of you turn out for the first open link forum at earthweal! We should all feel encouraged and affirmed that so many are willing to bear witness to a changing earth. I don’t know about you, but reading everyone’s comments on each other’s posts made it feel like a real community is helping to carry a very difficult burden. Thanks for participating and please help get the word out. Now on to earthweal’s first weekly challenge …
It was New Year’s Eve when I begin laying out the foundations of this first earthweal challenge. The latest climate news on the media radar is the wildfire season ravaging Australia. After an awful few weeks burning out of control in New South Wales, record heat returned to the tinder-dry southeast and the fires took off again.
In Mallacoota, on the coast near Melbourne, temps the morning of New Year’s Eve were at 49C (120F) and fires burned so close that thousands of residents took refuge on the beach. The eerie orange glow of midnight had replaced at daybreak an absolute darkness of smoke and ash. Sirens went off and emergency personnel directed residents into the water where they huddled or were picked up by boats.
From the town came the sound of gas bottles exploding and houses burning down. This past weekend, the fires have whipped up with greater ferocity with entire communities evacuated and most of the continent in smoke and on edge. The fires have grown so large and intense they are creating their own weather, with anvil-like pyrocumulonimbus clouds rising 10 miles high, creating unpredictable winds and spawning fire tornadoes. One firefighting volunteer was killed when a fire tornado lifted a 12-ton truck and crushed him.
In a New Year’s Day video, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison encouraged his countrymen to be brave, praised the work of firefighters, lamented the loss of human life and said that Australia was still a fine place to raise one’s children. Later in the week, photo-ops with the public staged for Morrison ran afoul of residents who had lost everything in the fires. Rupert Murdoch’s flagship Australian newspaper has been tellingly silent in its reportage, and far-right elements of the ruling Liberal Party have continued to beat their drum for Christ, Coal & Cops—the trinity of extraction politics.
For the past several years, wildfire has been a leading climate storyline across the world, on every continent and in both hemispheres. And for many where heat and drought are increasing, it is an ever-present, ever-rising concern—the next bad wind away.
Cracks are widening in the cultural denial which have kept us asleep as the dream of civilized progress devolves by fire into nightmare. “For a time we had come to believe that civilization moved in the other direction—making the impossible first possible and then stable and routine, ” David Wallace-Wells writes in The Uninhabitable Earth. “With climate change, we are moving instead toward nature, and chaos, into a new realm unbounded by the analogy of any human experience.”
In Borneo, illegal agricultural fires have eaten up 3,500 square miles of jungle to clear land for plantations making the palm oil which goes into half of all supermarket products. (releasing 626 megatons of carbon). Nearly a million Indonesians were treated for acute respiratory distress from the smoke. Critically endangered orangutan populations have lost habitat and less than 15,000 are believed to be in the wild.
Around the same time in Brazil, 80,000 fires were burning across the Amazon rainforest, many of them started illegally for agricultural clearing. President Jair Bolsonaro’s pro-business policies have greatly weakened environmental regulations. 300,000 indigenous peoples are being forced from their land by encroaching development. The lowland, wetland rainforest is less able to contend with wildfire; less mobile animals like sloths, lizards and anteaters are perishing wholesale. The Amazon forest is the largest terrestrial carbon sink and plays a significant role in mitigating the effects of carbon change, but scientists warn of an imminent tipping point where enough rainforest is lost and the area transforms to drier savannah with far less capability for storing carbon. Some scientists warn that that tipping point immanent or passed.
Social media feeds of the panic and horror of these cataclysms unfolding in real time have lent a new sense of global witness to decimated fields and forest, homesteads and animal life. The 2018 Camp wildfire in Northern California erupted at the center of our cultural lens. Thought to be sparked by a faulty transmission line, the fire raced down hills into developed area, consuming the small town of Paradise, where cheaper housing had attracted retirees and working families.
The fire charged through the town so fast that it literally caught evacuees in their tracks, melting their sneakers as they ran and immolating others in their cars. For those who escaped, they recorded the hellish burning landscape with their cellphones and fed the footage into the social media firestorm.
The panic and despair of an irreversible change made it feel like instead of a new century of progress and achievement, we were entering a time of The Fall. The Camp Fire killed 85, destroyed some 11,000 houses and $16 billion in losses—a quarter uninsured. Most of the survivors have moved to states where property is cheaper; some live on in the ruins of their former dream homes.
Wildfires in the past several years also raged in Siberia, British New Columbia, Lebanon, California, Greece, the Congo Basin, Bolivia, and India, where smoke mixed with industrial pollution to create smog in New Delhi three time worse than the “hazardous” level of the global air quality index.
Wildfires are erupting so frequently now that it is becoming eerily normal. The Australian fires have been burning since September, and in California the fire season grows toward year-round. The frantic desperation of fleeing residents during the Paradise fire in 2018 is becoming an ostinato, a terror never that far and immanent. The sickening pall of smoke is now part of our common atmosphere, with megatons of climate-heating carbon is released by each new fire and the spectral remains of the dead settling silently over us all.
Maybe because the Australian fire catastrophe is so far away and has been burning for so long that for its scale—at present 14 million acres, 90 times larger than the Camp Fire—the cultural awareness has been fleeting. There’s always a next big bad event happening somewhere else, and if it isn’t at our doorstep, we don’t take much notice. Or won’t, until it’s our own house that burns, our own beloved local nature which vanishes.
Such fleeting attention is surely dulled by social media opiates and fossil-fuel industry ads for the happy suburban (commuting) life. We’re taking too many selfies for that world for the big picture of the real world to come into focus. It doesn’t help either that Iran and the United States are currently involved in some flashy saber-rattling.
Maybe what is coming to view is just too difficult to envisage. David Wallace-Wells, again:
… California governor Jerry Brown described the state of things in the midst of the state’s wildfire disaster: “a new normal.”
The truth is actually much scarier. That is, the end of normal; never normal again. We have already exited the state of environmental conditions that allowed the human animal to evolve in the first place, in an unsure and unplanned bet on just what that animal can endure. The climate system that raised us, and raised everything we now know as human culture and civilization, is now, like a parent, dead. And the climate system we have been observing for the last several years, the one that has bettered the planet again and again, is not our bleak future in purview. It would be more precise to say that it is a product of our recent climate past, already passing behind us into a dustbin of environmental nostalgia. (ibid 18-19)
How does anyone carry that dawning information? Can anyone carry it alone? What can the world’s poets do?
Earthweal’s first weekly challenge is Fire. How have you seen fire changing the world YOU live in? Maybe wildfires have come close or roared through. Maybe you are encountering smoke from distant fires. Personal witness of these events in the media have been shallow (has anyone seen accounts from indigenous Australians? Or read how their traditional methods of managing wildfire demand an intimacy with landscape?)
Is there something in the history and myth of fire you find compelling? Have you been burnt badly by fire or its emotional equivalents? Drank too deeply the vintage of what the Greeks called “the fiery drink of the black mother”? Perhaps you care to sing for a species of life which was devastated or vanished in the Australian fires, the koala or wombat or dunnart, the mountain pygmy possum or rufous scrub-bird or plants like the blue-top orchid found nowhere else in the world. What is signified by a burning tree?
Give us your news!
Click on the Mr. Linky icon below and you’ll proceed to another page where you can enter your link. If you would, enter your location after your name in the link.
The Fire challenge will be remain open Monday til Friday. Contribute several times if you like and be sure to visit your fellow linkers and comment. It was wonderful to see so much rich commentary in this past weekend’s open link forum. Let’s grow a vibrant community!
Friday afternoon at 4 PM EST earthweal hosts its second open link weekend; the second weekly challenge follows on Jan. 13.
For more details about earthweal, see the Jan. 1 2020 opening post or click on the “about earthweal” link at the top.
If you’re having difficulties or have would like to comment offlline, you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Good Morning Brendan,
I have joined your challenge this morning. I’m glad I don’t live in Australia but not naive enough to think I’m safe, even here, in the middle of the Great Lakes, a valuable resource which is not adequately protected.
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Sorry, I forgot to post my location after my name (Michigan)
Thanks Yvonne — We may not be facing the same direct challenges as other places around the world, but we either see ripple effects or are part of other worsening patterns. Great Lakes are rising, aren’t they? And increasing summer heat is spawning algae. I also remember how Lake Superior was burning back in the ’70s due to pollution. Keep up the good work, (And thanks for including your location on future posts.)
Thank you for this timely prompt, Brendan.
Thanks for coming by Susan, and for words of courage. Much much needed.
I wrote my poem on New Year’s Day, sickened by the freaking fireworks set off the night before in the middle of Australia’s devastation. My sorrow over the wild creatures caught and immolated in the flames has reached critical mass. I am both comforted and strengthened by joining other voices in this forum, a place to put some of this grief and horror. Before Tofino, I lived in the Alberni Valley, where my sister lives, in the very centre of Vancouver Island. Because it is a valley, heat gets trapped there and there have already been wildfires, where the sky turned yellow. Every summer it is a worry and my sister organized training for first responders in evacuating large animals (she has horses). There is only ONE ROAD OUT. Can you imagine? Wildfires occur every summer in B.C. And still people toss their cigarettes out their car windows and along forest trails. I hope our heightened awareness leads people to modify their behaviour. It is vital. More than that, we need to force governments and corporations to modify theirs. They are why things have reached this point. Thank you for this place to put my grief, Brendan. Along with the litle hope I can muster.
Thanks Sherry, even though I assert the idea of shared grief, we’ll have to see if this forum can really deliver that. Who isn’t beset with doubts? I think what was most disheartening about the BC fires is that they tear through boreal forest — the part not yet cut down by human hands. Annie Proulx’s 2016 novel The Barskins — about a family of Canadian forest cutters from the first colonial axe-bite to the present–was too difficult for me, the pathos of cutting so much forest down for church spires and markets. (I love Moby-Dick, but can’t read it any more for the violence against the whales.) Now we hear that the animal toll in Australia has surpassed one billion. One of my prayers here is that human voices will sacrifice their human ends to speak for those animal ghosts. Work to do! And hope, perhaps, if only that the magnitudes be leveled out in favor of the whole earth.
I was not lucky enough at the muse factory to manufacture something totally new; I was able tho to find an old poem that was rather more about something else, but had some elements that apply here–I did rewrite a large percentage of it, so hopefully it will pass muster. Danger and destruction seem to be our daily bread now, B. I am losing my appetite for it, as ashes have no taste, but I’m afraid the meal will continue anyway..( I’ll be around before the week is out to read and comment–the next few days are unfortunately taken up with more mundane tasks..)
Thanks Hedgewitch — ‘Tis true, a diet of ashes if poor fare, and I hope that doesn’t become the only larder in the earthweal pantry. Yet we may not be able to find much to eat not somewhat polluted by the ghosts of fire …
We have not been too exposed yet to wildfires yet here in Sweden. at least not too close to where I live… of course it’s a combination of many factors, and climate change is just one. Forestry with vast mono culture of spruce is also to blame (actually firs can thrive with some forest fire. I need to think about this personal witness thing…
Thanks Bjorn — Wildfire is one effect of global warming and not local for all (but didn’t Sweden experience its first wildfire season back in 2018? How did that go?). The whole warming phenomenon comes from a way of burning, and the fossil fuel life backgrounds all modernity. The juice which powers our laptops and cellphones is a freight of fire, an extension of the coal furnace and steam engine. How is fire changing things in Sweden? I also hope someone explores the myths of fire, and that can be a personal exploration (how those kisses of old used to ignite us!)
That’s just about as thorough as you could possibly be without writing a book! And it’s rough to see all these events sprawled out so close to each other on a timeline.
Going to enter this contest!
Thanks Scott — I am ever accused of going too long, in poetry and prose. I will try to tamp that down that in upcoming prompts. I’m hoping earthweal will serve as a lens to keep things focused; right now it’s wildfire, but the global catastrophe map will pick up weird warming/cooling event, a hot Arctic and melting sea ice, dry seasons, drought, monsoons and hurricanes. Looking forward to seeing your work.
My heart is heavy – the news is becoming harder to watch each day. So much going on and I am afraid more disasters are coming.
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I appreciate your article, B. My brain is in a crisis over the chaotic state which you have highlighted. I think about writing poetry and the thoughts just die in my mind. The devastation is too huge for me to formulate lines about it. Your prompt has spurred me, but my attempts may not make it to a full poem.
Just so you know, I am not ignoring the issue, just having trouble dealing with it on an intellectual level.
Thanks Kerry — I am well aware of the difficulty of writing about these things and the peril of the despair. It is choking. I don’t know yet if twenty poems writ in that despair will have the effect of communal strength or push us all further into solitude but I don’t know what else to do. I can’t keep this from infecting my work but avoidance isn’t working either. I’m hoping the alternation of a focused challenge and an open link weekend will help with the guardrails. In some ways we are just beginning and need a common source for inspiration, hope and a way to air the pain. We’ll see.
I feel similar to Kerry but have some words percolating, we’ll see if they turn into anything that can be read and shared. Thanks for this, Brendan.
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Thanks for being here. In a common pot, it takes every flavor, complete and hinted. I think there’s another poetry somewhere behind the despair and brittle hope, and we’ll have to write our way there. Doing that together may help the process.
I forgot to put location. Which is Sweden. Today I’m unusually brief.
Something came me in the dead (!) if night, so here it is. Very occupied offline for some time, but will get around to read others asap.
I hesitated a lot to post this second piece, first it’s prose, not a poem. Second it’s darkly cynical.
Remove it if is dosen’t fit.
Ok, I have rushed to get this poem finished, not realizing I had to list, where I am from. Here goes nothing: Toronto, Ontario. Canada’s version of New York City and largest city, too. This weekend, the city of Toronto has issued a flood warning, to us, its residents. Instead of the usual advisory about heavy snowfall, freezing rain, or ice pellets. At the same time, for the 3rd time out of 4 years, Lake Ontario’s water levels are expected to set new record levels.