weekly challenge: WATER

Photo: StockSnap

Greetings all,

As earthweal slowly wheels out its well for the global commonwealth of Earth, how wonderful to see participation from such corners of the world! From England to Australia, South Africa to India to Canada and Sweden to the USA, with way-stations ranging from Michigan to Florida to Pennsylvania to Michigan to Oklahoma. Does this forum begin to feel to you like a global hangout for local muses? Keep it coming—and keep including your port of call in your link.

On to earthweal’s third weekly challenge. In these themed prompts, poets are asked to submit a poem with local perspectives on global events and / or illustrate it through the lens of your artistic expression and development. The weekly forum sails forth first thing on Monday and remains open until Friday afternoon at 4 PM EST when the earthweal’s open link weekend kicks off. Feel free to contribute multiple times if helps scale the theme.

Next Monday, Sherry Marr takes over the reins with a weekly themed challenge on ANIMALS. Our wild world needs some poetry to envoy their presence! She will return again with future prompts as well.

If WATER is all you need to start working on your poem, Mr Linky follows. A dive into the theme follows.

Anchors away!





Photo of Earth by Voyager 1 from 3.6 billion miles away, June 6, 1990, as the probe was leaving the solar system.


earthweal week 3 challenge: WATER

The space probe Voyager 1 has been a busy camper since it left the Earth in 1977. It passed Jupiter in 1979 and Saturn in 1980, sending back to Earth the first detailed images of our largest solar system cousins. Though the mission had only intended to work that far, Voyager 1 kept sailing—it’s now about 14 billion miles out—and as long as nothing bigger collides with it, the probe will take about 300 years to reach the Oort Belt in the outermost ends of the Solar System,  another 40,000 years to get within 1.6 light years of the star Gliese 445, and 300,000 years to pass by the porches of the MTV star TYC 3135-52-1.

As Voyager 1 was leaving the solar system in 1990, it was commanded to turn its camera back for a last shot of Earth in the vast expanse of space. If you check out the photo which began this section, you can just make it out inside the bright vertical band toward the right. When he reflected on the photo, the astronomer Carl Sagan labeled it Pale Blue Dot and made that the title of a book exploring humanity’s relationship with the Earth and cosmos. Human pride made us Earth-centered, he writes, but astronomy eventually pulled our gaze away, helping us see that we are not the core of the heavens. Sagan concluded that if we are to survive, we must thrive elsewhere as well in space.

The pale blue color of Earth observed in the photo comes both from the scattering of sunlight in the Earth’s atmosphere, as well as the massive sprawl of oceans which 70 percent of its surface. Air and heat and water and voila, Pale Dot Earth. Before we leave this planet—spat out into the ether like watermelon seeds and/or some errant virus—let’s take a warm soak in one of our defining elements and look for new poetry there.

First, this confession: I’m a water baby. Maybe my mother’s uterus was just so damn comfy. Maybe the sound of her voice over the sea when we visited Jacksonville Beach made crashing surf sound like a welcome. Maybe a spell of wonder permeated my waking conscious mind when at 3 years old I fell into the deep end of a swimming and hovered there amazed at the shifting blue til a frantic lifeguard’s hook retrieved me. Who knows.

I agree with Fiona MacLeod: If you get splashed a certain way by the wave, yearning becomes part of you, your story, your song. I was baptized in the Atlantic Ocean off Melbourne Beach in Florida when I was 14, and the wave that washed over me while I was submergedwashed my entire soul.

Falling in love was like rebirth in water.

My tarot card is the Page of Cups.

My thirst for firewater comes from the burning abyss.

My poetry blog is named after a mythic well on Dun Manannan on the Island of Iona.

My online namesake is a hybrid of voyager and seal-man.

The sound of rain on the tin roof of this house has the murmur of blessing.

The ocean waves crashing harder and louder against the shores of my state of Florida are disturbing.

If you want to understand water, you should get to know the sea. One of the great books for this education is Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us. Published in 1951, the science has evolved some since—current cosmology has our Moon an errant planetary visitor, where Carson’s time believed it was born from depths now occupied by the Pacific Ocean—but as a poetic book of scientific wonders, you can’t get more satisfying draught.

To paraphrase the tale of water from Carson:  Two billion years ago, after our Earth had cooled enough from its formational fury, rains began to fall, steadily and incessantly for years, millennia, aeons, slowly filling the ocean basins and flooding higher ground. As mountain ranges eroded, minerals flowed back into the waters and the seas slowly turned saline. Life began to brew in the fertile soup, feeding first on inorganic matter and then developing chlorophyll, the process by which carbon dioxide in the air could be mixed with water to build organic substances. The oceans greened with undersea forests. Other life evolved to feed on this aquatic plant life, building shells from carbon stored in the water, followed by life which fed on plant eaters, then bigger life to prey on that life: And so the food chains evolved.

About 600 million years ago life crept ashore and the bare rock of dry land slowly turned green with plant life.  Some life grew lungs to breathe on land, legs to move about and wings to navigate an ocean of sky. Reptiles grew huge while tiny mammals evolved in their shadow. 50 million years or so some animals returned to the sea, becoming sea lions and dolphins, seals and whales.

Life on Earth rose and fell five previous times due to cataclysmic events like meteor strikes or major volcanic eruptions and the massive release of methane stored in seabeds, vastly changing the composition of Earth’s atmosphere. The most devastating was about 250 million years ago in the Late Permian Age, when 70% of all land life and 96% of the sea life went extinct. (The prevailing theory for that extinction event was that massive releases of volcanic gases resulted in a killing acid rain.)

All the while, water circulated in the oceans, evaporated into the sky and fell back down again as rain or snow. 100,000-year cycles of glaciation occurred as atmospheric CO2 rose and fell. At the height of the last glacial period in the Pleistocene, ice sheets covered vast areas of North America and Europe and the oceans were about 400 feet lower than they are now.

Humans appeared late in this story, only 3 million years ago, and it’s only been in the last 10,000 years have we developed tools which have allowed us live and thrive just about anywhere on Earth. To accomplish that, we have had to beat water at is work. Fire and flint spears kept us alive in frozen Paleolithic caves; irrigation provided water for agriculture; boats carried us far over the oceans; aqueducts fed cities with water; lighthouses helped voyagers navigate perilous shores; barrels stored drinking water; fermentation turned water into whoopie parties.

There is water in the ocean as old as the Earth. Ocean currents circulate water from surface to abyss and around every continent, so that the entire ocean—and most of Earth’s history—is represented by one drop. The salinity of ocean water is exactly the same percentage as what’s in our blood; we are more ocean than we think. As human embryos develop they lose vestigal fish-tails, and gills form into ears. Freshwater supplies derive from lakes scoured into place by past glaciations, and snowmelt from mountains which erode via rivers into the sea.  About a million billion snowflakes fall every second, yet each ice crystal bears the signature of the wholly unique.

Water is a mystery and sacrament, the very font of life and a tidal rhythm strummed across the Earth. It is also deeply part of our peril on a changing planet. Ice cores taken from Antarctica in scientific missions of the latter 20th century revealed dramatic changes in the Earth’s atmosphere in recent centuries; carbon dioxide levels were rising dramatically due to industrialization and burning fossil fuels, creating greenhouse conditions which would warm the atmosphere, melt the polar ice caps, dramatically raise sea levels and create a host of interwoven climate impacts, from more intense storms, drought, wildfire and freshwater loss, reduced growing seasons to a massive die-off of life in a sixth extinction event. The very thing which allowed humans to master their environment is now killing off and long-term chance of its survival, and the human ape proving exceptionally bad at foresight and care of its future.

We don’t have far to look for local news. Jakarta has been flooding from torrential rains, and spring rains last year caused massive agricultural disruptions in the American Midwest. Major cities around the world have had water crises, including Cape Town in South Africa and Chennai in India, with Cairo, Sao Paolo and Mexico City headed there. The recent Australian brushfire catastrophe is the result of a three-year drought and record high heat. Giant kelp forests offshore the southeastern corner of the content have been killed by record heat in the ocean, and blob of hot ocean in the northeast Pacific is said to have killed a million seabirds.

Without drastic steps to cut fossil fuel emissions over the next three decades, global warming will unleash upwelling impacts for centuries; we talk about sea level in 2100 as possibly ten or fifteen feet higher—flooding many coastal areas—but as Greenland and the Arctic and Antarctica melt, oceans will rise more than 250 feet in the centuries to come (bye bye, Florida), and large swaths of the world, including Australia and most tropic regions, will be uninhabitable due to swelter, storm and fire.

In their speculative fiction The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View From the Future, scientists Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway tell the story from 23d Century—200 years from now—unfolding the tale of scientific discovery, climate denial, catastrophic events, government collapse and retreat and retrenchment into human world reduced to half a million people living in the northern reaches of Canada, Europe and the Russia, the final temperate islands on a flooded Earth.

There are those who are earnestly seeking technological fixes to this massive problem, from carbon traps to interplanetary geoforming missions as Carl Sagan imagined. Maybe one will come along in time. Nearby places like Venus and Mars are poor substitutes for Earth, the former an 800-degree nightmare example of runaway climate change, the latter a dry, cold and barren rock, having lost most of its atmosphere due an opposite effect of climate change. It’s a long, long way to our nearest star neighbors, and science fact is distant from runaway fictions of star ships zipping around the universe. More like crossing the monstrous Indian Ocean in thimble with a shingle for a sail.

For those stuck here in the early 21st Century, we have to deal with a changing relation to water. Seas are rising, storms are intensifying, rivers are flooding, plains are drying out and burning, clean drinking water is getting harder to find and summer swelter has a killing edge to it.

For this week’s challenge, write a poem about water in one of its myriad manifestations—in sea or river or bath; in tides and waves; falling from the sky or upwelling from down under; as rain or snow or sleet or hail. Write about water as thirst quenched and parched; as porch to voyage or adventure; as common element in womb and heart and brain and liver; as drainage and effluent, sweat and lubricant and abyssal reach and frozen edge.

How is water changing your Earth?


12 thoughts on “weekly challenge: WATER

  1. What a fascinating exploration, personal and planetary, you have made of this element, B. I hope I haven’t broken this week’s canon too badly by presenting not water, but the consequences of its absence, in my effort.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks H — Dryness and drought are essential to a prompt like this. The mystery to a wacko warming world is how one areas out-floods Noah while next door is the purest pucker of parch. Go figure … I wonder how our conception of the human is changing, knowing we are devils and poets of this change …


  2. I am a water person, too. Once you love the ocean, you are never happy away from her. A very interesting essay, Brendan. In Tofino, and in northern B.C., we have things coming to a head as the Wet’suwet’en people stand against the militarized RCMP to protect their fresh-water river from the gas pipeline the government wants to ram through their unceded traditional territories. We are ready for a protest march in solidarity if the people are forcibly removed from their blockade. There will be larger marches in city centres. “Water is life!” is the rallying cry, as it was at Standing Rock.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Sherry — It must be especially fraught in Canada for indigenous peoples, with two centuries of white theft complicated by the vast distant disemboweling of the climate. There is a book by Jonathan Lear, “Ethics in the Face of Cultural Annihilation,” about Crow chief Plenty Coups in the 19th century who saw no way for his tribe to survive — their culture was becoming as unintelligible as their way of life was becoming impossible. He wondered if there was an alternative to annihilation. He tried to find “a new Crow poet: one who could take up the Crow past and—rather than use it for nostalgia or ersatz mimesis—project it into vibrant new ways for the Crow to live and to be.” If there is no culture for hunting buffalo because the animal is gone, then what? Is there a way to find a ritual which mourns that loss while starting over in some way? Can we see the collapse fossil-fuel-based civilization as a door? Hmm, has me thinking …


  3. If/when that collapse comes, I trust it WILL be a door into rewilding, learning to live as part of nature, rather than as the dominant species. Those who survive will , if they keep their wits about them, learn how to live simply, with what is around them. We live in hope.


  4. I’m all in. How could I not respond to “water”?
    Our beautiful blue world. I wasn’t baptized in water but I’m lucky to live where one is never more than seven miles from a river, a lake, or a stream.

    Thanks for this timely prompt, for while we can’t live without it, will it soon be what we can’t live with?


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