earthweal weekly challenge: VAST PARTICULARS

Distant wings of Tropical Storm Arthur ruffle over the lake I walk by daily, May 16, 2020.


Stay with me folks, it will take a while to approach what might be called a grasp of the challenge …

Today (I began drafting this weekly challenge on Saturday) it’s warm toward hot as you’d expect late-spring in Florida, blustery as Invest 90 foments into Tropical Storm Arthur off the eastern coast. Not much effect from it here a hundred miles to the west—as the storm was frothing up, it raked south Florida with storms. But if there’s a truer, balder herald of summer in the Hot Years to Come, it’s not the arrival of the rainy season (due in a few weeks) but these early and earlier big and bigger storms. The oceans are heating faster than the land, and our annual columnar proof comes swirling, vast, and fraught with increasing peril.

Facts of life in the Change: Already tired from gardening efforts the day before, I did my weekly mowing small beneath that slowly heaving, more muscular sky, feeling mortal, diminished and vulnerable. It reminded me that my part of the collective story is just a tiny sensor or beacon upswirling into a vast dark mass.

So much for business as usual in a heating world turbocharging its lessons these days with pandemic. Or would it be more appropriate to say the pandemic is fast recalibrating what we call business as usual?

You could say this pandemic is a gas pedal flooring us faster into

the surging realities of a mastered world careening out of control. It has taken the focus off the greater change in the Earth’s climate, yet speeds in one of those weird timescales we explored here some time ago, the rapid unfoldment of the pandemic replicating a spike in months what the saturation of carbon in the Earth’s atmosphere will uptick over decades.  It’s an apt lens for humans to understand how fast all this is coming at us, how little time there is to prepare, and the vast particularities of that which we can explore in our poems.

Climate change has only faded in the news, filtering through more randomly during this pandemic and its primarily human shock. But it surfaces and echoes with fearsome volume. There’s record heat up in the Arctic for this early in the year, with scientists wondering if this will be the year the Arctic Ocean goes ice-free this summer and how much melt will accelerate in Greenland. In the Antarctic summer just passed there was record heat as well. Ninety percent of the Earth’s stable glacial ice is located there, which means that melting and calving of the ice steppes there means glub glub everywhere, a pandemic of rising waters.

Wildfires have started up in Florida’s panhandle and in the state’s southwest, fanned by high-pressure hot winds still thronged with ghosts from earlier great fires in New South Wales and Jakarta, the Amazon rainforest and California.  They came and they’re coming again, infected with the prior stain and rising degrees. One doesn’t have to wait for long for a new disaster to begin, much for less concurrent disasters to flare and rage.

And yet, this: Despite the ferocity of evidence now piling in—a rising tide of dire proof that action is desperately needed—the human response is weirdly less engaged and empathetic. It’s as if there is a secret corollary between ever-more dramatic spikes and duller, slower, more fiercely denialist inaction.

The pandemic could be blamed for this—who gives a shit about rising tides in Southeast Asia, when in the USA (for example) 40 percent of those making less than $40,000 a year are now unemployed? But again, our human response to the latter is a weird duplicate of the former: The greater the infection and death curve, the louder the hysterics about everything the pandemic is not, from Chinese military lab shenanagans to bleach cures to armed rightwing militias parading outside state capitals chanting Open ‘Er Up, a minor variation on the good ole Lock Her Up intonations at legacy Trump rallies.

I’ll get off purely USA difficulties in a minute, but the worst-case scenario for handling a major pandemic is in ample evidence in my native country. We ignored the news, didn’t prepare, didn’t isolate, don’t test, don’t contract trace, waited too long to lock down and open back up way too early. How could such wealthy and self-aggrandizing nation fuck up so miserably? It’s easy (and probably fit) to blame our current President and the will of his administration to gut the workings of government, but there’s a collective will behind his ways, and its main directive seems to be arm up, hunker down and blame something else.

A vastly bad particular: in our state of Wisconsin, the partisan Republican Supreme Court sided with the Republican legislature against the stay-in-place orders of Democratic governor Tony Evers. The court’s order threw communities into chaos, with bars opening en masse in some while other locales still struggled to contain the virus. Who knew that something so apolitical as a virus would become such a partisan wedge?

Most Western democracies are suffering the same to varying degree; it’s as if the 21st century consciousness they embody is woefully unprepared for the greatest challenges a civilization could face—a global human pandemic and the greater extinction of life on the planet due to human-induced climate change. Our mastery has been outstripped by primitive impulses of greed and fear; does one invoke the other?

Who knows. But today the wind is blowing, heaving the live oaks outside my living room window in a way that smirks at my air-conditioned, suburban stasis. Just like the teeny tiny COVID 19 virus, those big winds don’t care one whit about what I believe or think. Poke the Earth too hard and you get an angry mama bear of a future; sweep the virus under the rug and it glows and glowers all night, whispering our names, our loved one’s names, so many names we can never absorb the total from our solitary vantage.

Like climate change, this pandemic is a global phenomenon with myriad local and personal inflections. Some countries have their collective act in decent enough shape to be beneficial for most of its residents; South Korea has only suffered some 260 fatalities from the virus. Other countries are a mess—USA, 89,000 fatalities, a number which would be higher if state authorities weren’t locking down the count. Bangladesh is too poor and populous to do more than suffer COVID’s spread; New Zealand sits at the other end of that spectrum, and returns a wise normalcy having taken decisive, right and affordable action right from the start. Despots in Russia and Brazil and the Phillipines prevaricate and hide the truth of pandemic in their ruined worlds. In Moscow, several COVID wards have burned due to ventilators catching fire, and health care workers who have been forced to work and have few protections have been reported jumping from hospital windows in suicide attempts. But health care workers in the most well-furnished ERs in New York City are suffering into a mid-game with the pandemic, initial spike soothing, adrenaline fading, leaving a daily grind and toll which cannot be relieved in a hospital system going broke.

Very few have passed the time unaffected—scientists working in the Antarctic, astronauts in the International Space Station, a lone sea traveler who just came to shore after three months. So few that it shocks the awareness how globally unprepared and vulnerable the human population of Earth is in the age of COVID.

Two more lines work in opposite directions: an upwardly spike of deaths, the downward precipice of economies. In between, the casualties are too many and varied to properly count. Clothing factories at a standstill, daily workers starving, the tide of hunger rising. Locusts swarm in Africa, murder hornets behead bees in Washington State. Upwards to 40 million unemployed Americans face hunger and rent payments without healthcare, many in states which have lagged horribly in getting unemployment benefits out to them. State and local governments struggle to keep firemen and police officers on the payroll.

The vast particulars are local. A neighbor’s wife who had gone to visit her sick mother in Germany has been stuck there on lockdown for three months. Local mothers whose work and family lives have collapsed into each other walk their kids late in the day with distant eyes. I wonder how the black community in my town is faring, normally off the white radar and now even more impoverished and remote. Who knows what it’s like for undocumented workers cut off from work and government benefits. My wife is desperate to get her father into memory care at a nursing facility but the virus reaper treads heavily there. I attend Zoom AA meetings and worry about all the AAs I don’t see there, how many may have relapsed trapped in diminishing spaces. Who knows what it’s like for opioid addicts whose thread of sobriety is far more perilous, or compulsive hand-washers and schizophrenics cut off from supportive human contact. What new victims madness will claim, through nightmares, insecurity, lost connection, too much time. What a terrifying cavern the lonely human self, in this most indulged age of the individual …

The suburban everyday fabric is slow to dissolve, but this summer I fear there will be food riots in Miami which will spread here in the form of masked store employees getting beat up or shot by the outraged and unmaskable. Teeth grinding this way result in a long low simmering headache and botched dreams, like the one the other night where someone pounded dead animals—a giraffe, a dog, an alligator—against the pavement in a grotesque comedy routine I could feel the world cheering for.

This forum was founded in the hope of a collective forum for a changing medium—some number of local inputs on a global phenomenon. We are still about that work. We learn late and slowly that pandemic is one of that changing world’s apocalyptic horsemen, rare in that it preys mainly on the perpetrator where other events—rising seas, water scarcity, oppressive heat, wildfire—wage even harder war upon the victims, our companion animals and plants and their intermingled ecologies. A strange comeuppance in one view, humans leveled by the viral; in another, shifting the time’s focus in ways that both help and hinder the Earth.

On those thoughts, this weekly challenge of VAST PARTICULARS:

  • Illustrate the changing tenor of the time with a snapshot or observation or tale which is both vast and particular.
  • Do vast particulars – global yet local, earth-sensitive yet human-driven, pandemically reeling a decades-long unfolding—document the news of the moment?
  • What new tensions are revealing themselves? Stripped of our daily routines, shriven from assurance of a well-meaning (at least, promised) future and encroached by shadows of collapse, just who stares back in the mirror of this moment?
  • If pandemic is the astringent which is fast clearing away the niceties and collective givens we call human, what vast particulars reveal homo sapiens behind its peeling mask?

The mythic cycles we’ve employed – hero’s quest, perilous chapel—have been traversed and leave us (gifted or cursed) with this new world, one whose outlines are vaguely, slowly revealing themselves. Who are we now? What do we do with enforced solitude, which changing social norms and the omnipresent specter of a crusading disease? Who do we wear the mask for? We have sacrificed our own security in the name of collective good; what is the payoff?

Maybe it seems like pretty wide reconnaissance (my wife correctly accuses me of Big Picturism), but reportage of the moment requires vast particulars. That’s an odd phrase, but it contains the tension between two curves moving in opposite directions.

For example, this poem I read in the May 18 New Yorker offers such a vantage:


Rae Armantraut


In Chuck’s dream, a strange woman
is smoking in our kitchen.

She’s doing her best, she says,
exhaling into the oven.

Then three military men
burst in without knocking.

They say they’ve come
to establish order,

but their uniforms are strange.
Chuck suspects they’re really salesmen.

Their leader stands too close
as he begins his pitch—

close enough to spread a virus.


I take a photo of a house
painted half blue, half pink.

Why am I drawn
to things that make no sense?

Or is their sense excessive?

You need to decontextualize
an object
in order to see it,

I once said.

Last sloth
in a pocket of rain forest;

exquisite scent
of hyacinth

on the wingless breeze.

What particulars—daily iota of evolving knowns, raw data becoming the softest sursurration of changing weather—are vast with the news of what we really are and/or can be no more?

Weeks before the official start of the hurricane season, Tropical Storm Arthur looks to brush the coast of North Carolina before spiraling out into the colder waters of the mid-Atlantic. Good news for the East Coast of the USA, but another storm, Cyclone Vongfong, barreled last Friday straight into Luzon, the most populous island of the Philippines. The evacuation of a hundred thousand residents was complicated by efforts to maintain social distancing during the nation’s lockdown. Facing off with the West Pacific’s first named storm of the season, shelters were only allowed to fill halfway and evacuees expected to wear masks.

I went out to water the impatiens and gardenias we planted out back—slow curve of slight water from a hose, feeding what we have chosen to flourish—while the sky bucked and rolled and heaved—gently enough—with the distant swelling of Tropical Storm Arthur.  I don’t have a job, what else am I gonna do? Stay home and keep safe. I looked down at those pretty, tiny, frail blossoms weaving in the same wind and whispered the same to them before heading back inside to the air-conditioned shelter of this post.

Who wins, I wonder. Who knows.


9 thoughts on “earthweal weekly challenge: VAST PARTICULARS

  1. And not just rising waters, with the polar melt. Scientists say there are thousands of ancient viruses up there that will come alive with the melting. Yikes. You unfortunately have the worst possible administration to handle this pandemic. And with the militarized right wing rattling their sabres, I fear for the days ahead. Politics has no place in a pandemic and the loss of life and potential collapse of your health system may be the price of the apathy of the republican party to speak up to the president and SERVE THE PEOPLE. It drives me CRAZY. Who knew when you began this forum (not that long ago) that we would be writing our way through a global pandemic? Who knew, when we were gnashing our teeth back then, how much worse things would get? I am grateful for the thoughtful gathering of folk here. Your challenge is a good one, and a broad one. I will think about it for a bit to see what comes through. I have been writing about my frustration. Will try to find a poem to pin some thoughts on. I love your wife’s term Big Picturism. LOL. I love the poem from the New Yorker. Cool. Thanks, Brendan, for keeping this forum going through the ups and downs. I love your photo, by the way, what a beautiful place to walk in every day. May the storms stay away, and the virus, too.


  2. Hello Brendan!

    I found your page off of a fellow online poet writer who uses your writing prompts and I figured I might check it out. You said many many things here and I just feel compelled to reply by saying thank you for what you said sharing about some distant countries and others affected by COVID, like the lone sea traveler, minorities, and what it is like in Russian and Brazil. I have been keeping myself from reading too much in the news about everything as it is just too much for me, and it news and media just overwhelms in me in general (saddens also?) but I have noticed with my poetry I have written quite a few poems in April and May, but have not had time to type and post them (I luckily am a person still employed, working from home remotely and my work has become extremely busy due to all services moving online). So I am very grateful I continue to be able to pay my rent, but back to the topic here, despite feeling a tiredness of everything being COVID related, focus pulling away from our climate and the issues of our planet (very easily done as we are such a self-centered society) I did notice how COVID and the pandemic slip into my poems here and there, as it is just unavoidable.

    I also am in AA and attend AA zoom meetings. I have wondered also how many have relapsed, but really I have noticed some absences but also have delighted in seeing people I have not seen in a LONG time due to schedule conflicts, etc in these meetings and have heard many people are going to even more meetings because of the convenience of connecting online (or having more time) and newcomers coming in feeling less pressure because they can join online instead of in person. I am personally very mixed about the zoom meetings, (I celebrated 4 years sober and had to “celebrate” digitally which was a slightly lacking experience, but I am grateful for technology that allows us such an option vs. nothing. My most recent poems have been inspired by this divide between nature, our planet, and the beautiful convenience and connection that we obtain with technology. Anyways, thanks for all you said and your openness and beautiful words. I am also going to try the doing these weekly prompts (when I can find time!)


    • So happy to hear from you here and hope to see you in the posting fray as time allows. I composed longhand for years but it got to time consuming to write that way and then type it in (and revise). Not sure the poems are better for the transition, but the effort is more efficient … Any news you can bring of your experience in your poems would be greatly appreciated. Much of what we do here explores the pain of the divide between human and nature, but there is joy, too. (And PS, Zoom meetings do suck but whaddayagonna do? Suffering alkies like me do not fare well too far removed from daily connection.) Thanks again! – Brendan


      • Thank you for replying Brendan! I’m excited to find your page and have more of a push to type and share my writing, especially as it does tend to follow these very themes of human & nature. Random question, do you ever write about your recovery in poetry? And you certainly got that right regarding the time consuming process of editing, typing, and posting poetry, which is why during April NaPoWriMo I did not even post a single poem as I had no time. I keep putting it off and then suddenly its next year. And yes, daily connection is tricky during these times, text, phone and zoom can only get us so far, but I’m grateful that at least we have that. Take care!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Hi, I’ve written much about alcoholism and recovery at my personal poetry blog Oran’s Well ( Look up “Salem Rain Falling” or “The Clearing” or “Drunk Math’ in the search bar and you’ll see a representative sample. I use the screen name of Brendan for a mask of anonymity — the stories are written as truthfully as I can — they are nonfiction — but the personal history becomes more of a collective mystery told through the mask.


  3. It took me a while to get my head around this one – and an hour long on-line writing workshop this afternoon to write a poem, which I think is vast and particular, or maybe the other way around!


  4. (I put this comment in the open link response by mistake–which gave me time to think about whether I wanted to say it or not. I do.) Another powerful and inspiring essay, Brendan. Pandemic as gas peddle, oppositions, vast and particular. Wow! Where can I enter this? Lately a different awareness has come to me–things that make me hopeful. Groan. In the face of your writing they may just be distractions. I was in a clearness group the other day where I chose to focus on the positive, and the witnesses were so stunned that they had NO clarifying questions! I had made a split second decision–that my mere 20 minutes were too short to talk about what was troubling me and needing solutions, so I simply flipped the script to talk about what was short enough to fit my allotted time–good things, like being more open to God’s love and feeling it emanating back out again through my heart. Let that experience back up against the physical realities I have seen and know about, and I know it’s is only a craziness that helps me stay sane! It can’t be touched or wrapped and given as protective gear. Hmm.


    • Thanks Susan — if the time deems that particular is vast — and what is vast is also particular — then responses must be freighted, paradoxical, unweildy, mourning and joyous, making haste slowly and dancing on coffins. So many new patterns and forces are striding forth, who can read them with any accuracy? The hive most of all, I think and the varied responses to this challenge show many minds at work come up with a surer tally. There is love and there is woe. We grieve and affirm at once. Crazy perhaps, but how else are we gonna stay sane?


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