earthweal weekly challenge: MENTORS FOR A CHANGED WORLD

Chiron instructs Achilles. Fresco in Pompeii, 65-79 AD


Like most of you, the assault of bad news resulting from climate change has left me feeling desperate, empty, angry and null. This summer in the Northern Hemisphere, wildfire and storm pitched to awful intensity due to a heating earth has ravaged habit and killed untold millions of plant and animal life. The human survival rate is almost a mockery of that—of course, the perpetrators survive (we watch that too in Washington DC)—and lends a haunted weirdness to it all.

What is most sickening is that we are seeing ourselves at our worst. Greed, incompetence, permission and short-term solutions set up the conditions for this wicked summer, and we’re all to blame. Whatever your stated politics or environmental beliefs, however you manage to live while this Earth fails, human existence is the problem for which it can offer no solution fast or deeply enough to matter. My inaction in the face of impending climate catastrophe—sitting in air-conditioned comfort in Florida while a changed night blows outside—is like my bland attitude about racism; because I think I have an enlightened armchair understanding do I acquiesce the lynch rope to its tree. Opinions didn’t kill this world, but inaction in the face of doom will. Or already has.

Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of migratory birds—warblers, swallows and flycatchers—have been found dead recently New Mexico, and though scientists aren’t sure yet what the cause, region-wide smoke from the massive West Coast wildfires are seen as a culprit. Repeatedly reporters, pundits and policy-makers have banged the drum about the mounting cost of climate change, but nothing was done in time so save these birds. Nothing will be done in time to save whales from their fate, or the African elephant or the pangolin or the California condor. This is human life in the twenty-first century: Tribes perched on vanishing ice floes, shouting invective at the other.

How are we to live in these haunted spaces? Here in the United States, the default mode of survival takes on the madness of a cult— worship of figures who promise the reality of lies.  Like a bad Hollywood celebrity tale, the ascent of the democratic experiment here has become the tawdry blaze of a falling star. The best is now the worst. Perhaps we were only fooling ourselves all along. (As Kurt Andersen writes in Fantasyland, Americans have a peculiar gift for believing nonsense.)

Who can teach us wisdom and grace and poetry in the throes of catastrophe? We might invoke the musicians on the Titanic—that failed experiment in engineering mastery—who played “Nearer My God To Thee” on the sinking ship while others boarded lifeboats. Or perhaps Vedran Smailovic, a cellist in the Sarajevo Philharmonic who watched the symphony become decimated by the shelling and siege of the city by Serbian nationalists the mid 1990’. Most of its members had joined other citizens in the provisional graveyard in the city’s soccer stadium. For 22 days, Smailovic went out and performed Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor in the ruined square of a downtown Sarajevo marketplace after a mortar round had killed twenty-two people waiting for food there. (In his honor, composer David Wilde wrote a piece for solo cello titled The Cellist of Sarajevo, and you can hear the piece performed by Yo Yo Ma here.)

What is without precedent may not have a wise self to advise—we have to look back millions of years, before the beginnings of humanity, to find equivalent conditions. Yet in our hominid experience there have been cataclysms, eruptions and plagues and floods. The gods have found us guilty, casting us into wilderness and adrift in penitential arks. Figures like Moses and Noah have led us into uncertain futures.

Erich Neumann writes in The Origins and History of Consciousness, “When an old cultural canon is demolished, there follows a period of chaos and destruction which may last for centuries, and in which hecatombs of victims are sacrificed until a new, stable canon is established, with a compensatory structure strong enough to guarantee a modicum of security to the collective and the individual.” I think of the centuries after the fall of Rome, the vast slowness of decay and the horrors to invade from the Titanic past.  Early Christendom possessed the wisdom of vast change, planting growing communities at the edge of crashing seas.

Many figures have helped us navigate change:

  • The shaman in Neolithic societies, initiate to the mysteries of the cave bear skull and Venus of Willendorf, knew the songs of healing and transformation.
  • In Greek myth, there is the cultured centaur (beings half horse, half human) Chiron, learned in the arts of medicine from his foster father Apollo and a highly revered teacher and tutor to the Argonauts.
  • Mentor was a wise old man who was put in charge of the education of Odysseus’ son Telemachus in The Odyssey. When Athena visited the boy at the hero’s palace, she took the form of Mentor.
  • Ambivalent wise ones help us to see the light in darkness and vice versa. My St. Oran is one of these figures, half-pagan, half-Christian, bridging the gap between with a willingness to found the change.
  • So many animal familiars from in Native American myth whose earthly nature and ways are instructive—Crow, Bear, Coyote, Orca, Eagle.
  • The poets we read growing up took root in our inner ear and sing on from there. You have yours; I have mine. We share a rich tradition and add to it with our own work. Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus are both a creative explosion and powerful channeling of poetry’s source, which tradition traces back to Orpheus, first singer:

A tree ascended there. Oh pure transcendence!
Oh Orpheus sings! Oh tall tree in the ear!
And all things hushed. Yet even in that silence
a new beginning, beckoning, change appeared.

Creatures of stillness crowded from the bright
unbound forest, out of their lairs and nests;
and it was not from any dullness, not
from fear, that they were so quiet in themselves,

but from simply listening. Bellow, roar, shriek
seemed small inside their hearts. And where there had been
just a makeshift hut to receive the music,

a shelter nailed up out of their darkest longing,
with an entryway that shuddered in the wind—
you built a temple deep inside their hearing.

—translated Stephen Mitchell

  • Ghosts are mentors.  My dead are just beyond the edge of thought, beckoning toward distant conclusions or coming to me for creative warmth.
  • When you think about it, fire is a mentor, too. Why else do we stare so fixedly into it, awaiting something—sleep, news, omens? What do we learn about ourselves from these wildfires, and how does such instruction matter?
  • There is instruction in climate change we can channel. I’ll never forget the sound of Hurricane Irma whipping around our house at 1 AM– a keening icy voice immensely strong and old. It could have been Thor, god of the north wind, or the year 2050 when this sort of storm breaks the world into the next.

Our times are dark indeed. For this week’s challenge, let’s write about mentors. Can these wise ones help with times like these? Can they rally and nourish a forwarding center? What are the figures, from myth and mystery, from the animal world and our dead, from prehistoric depths and personal history, who can tell us something important about going forward?

— Brendan

earthweal open link weekend #37

A tract of the Amazon jungle is seen burning near Ouro Preto, Rondonia State (Reuters)


Welcome to earthweal open link weekend #36. Share a favorite poem, visit your fellow linkers and comment.

Open link runs from now to midnight Sunday,

Hard to process all the environmental mayhem we’re experiencing at 1 degree Celsius of warming.


earthweal weekly challenge: CONSIDERING THE BEYOND-HUMAN WORLD


By Sherry Marr

You have entered the country of shadow. And a vast and brooding presence that had been hiding, moments earlier, behind the gauze of light is now slowly walking toward you through the clarified air. It is the breathing body of the mountain itself.

—David Abram, Becoming Animal

I am fascinated by the indigenous understanding that everything in the natural world is connected, that each has its role to play and is deserving of respect, that each has the right to exist. This is in direct counterpoint to settler consciousness, which is to view everything as a “resource,” to be extracted for financial gain. This view may temporarily bring financial wealth. But we are now living through the eventual result: that resources will be used up, and the earth, having lost much of her sustenance, will fall ill and begin to die. Settler consciousness forgets one basic fact: that we, too, are part of the natural world, and what we do to one, we do to all, and to ourselves.

We have a million species heading towards extinction. Only four percent of prairie tallgrass, essential for storing carbon, is left. Fish, sea life, birds, bees, coral, the Amazon, are all under threat. Humans have impacted everything on earth.

Right now, humans and wild and domestic animals are fleeing in terror all along the western seaboard of the United States in an Armageddon of flames and terrifying red-orange skies, in the worst wildfire season ever recorded. Governments continue to lament that “we can’t afford a Green New Deal.” When will they understand that the cost of trying to recover from these ever-more-apocalyptic events far exceeds what it would cost to try to prevent them? Sadly, this should have begun 40 years ago. It is astonishing to me that we wait until just before the end of the world to understand the climate crisis is real.

What I have noted in my small world is that if I praise the wild flowers growing on the hill in front of my house, the following year they double in profusion and brilliance…and there are the deer who know they need never, ever fear me.

….I think  I am telling you that the animals of this planet are in peril, and that they are fully aware of this….I am also telling you that we are connected to them at least as intimately as we are connected to trees.” 

Alice Walker, Living By the Word

In my last little trailer home, I experienced what Alice is describing, in the thriving of wild bluebells and daffodils around my big maple, which doubled year after year under my delight and whispered praise.

I believe everything has consciousness: trees, animals, plants, mountains. I was thrilled when New Zealand recognized the Maori’s river of sacred power, the Whanganui, granting it personhood, as an “indivisible, living whole, with all the rights, powers, duties and liabilities of an individual.” Progress. New Zealand is emerging as a country of advanced consciousness in so many ways in these times.

The Maori fought to maintain their spiritual connection to awa tupua – their river of sacred power. To them, it has always been a living entity. They mourned as it was dynamited, polluted, its gravel extracted. One of their proverbs is “I am the river, the river is me.” They believe their ancestors live on in the natural world. This is akin to the Tla-o-qui-aht people of my area, who have protocols and teachings around respecting all life surrounding them in the forest; even the lowly slug’s territory is respected. When they meet a wolf or bear, they respectfully retreat from its territory. They respect everything in their vicinity as their relations, as deserving of life as every other.

…There are people who think that only people have emotions, like pride, fear, and joy, but those who know will tell you all things are alive….each in its own way……And though different from us in shape and life span, different in Time and Knowing, yet are trees alive. And rocks. And water. And we all know emotion.

Ann Cameron, The Daughters of Copper Woman

I know that animals feel everything we feel; this is why it hurts me when they are treated horribly. In their innocence they cannot possibly understand why humans are so cruel.

If it is true that we reap what we sow, as a country we have only to recognize the poison inside us as the poison we forced others to drink. But the land is innocent. It is still Turtle Island. It is beginning to throw up the poison it has been forced to drink, and we must help it by letting go of our own; for until it is healthy and well, we cannot be. Our thoughts must be on how to restore to the Earth its dignity as a living being…. We must begin to develop the consciousness that everything has equal rights because existence itself is equal… Everything to the Indian was a relative. Everything was a human being.

Alice Walker, Living By the Word

I love “the land is innocent. It is still Turtle Island.” The land needs us now, to heal and repair what we can, where we are, and to speak up for her loudly enough to make legislators not only hear, but act.

For our challenge, let’s contemplate the beyond-human world. You can consider the entire natural world and our connection to it in its entirety. Or you might want to choose one aspect, an animal, a plant, a mountain, a tree, whose presence as an individual you strongly feel.

Whatever you write about, I will read with great appreciation.


earthweal open link weekend #36


Greetings all,

And welcome to earthweal open link weekend #36. Share a favorite poem, visit your fellow linkers and comment.

Open link runs from now to midnight Sunday, Then Sherry’s back with us for the next weekly challenge, which she titles “Considering The Beyond-Human Realm.”

Lots happening on our earth. Let’s hear your news.


earthweal weekly challenge: THE JOY

He who binds himself to a joy
Does the winged life destroy.
He who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise.

—“Eternity,” William Blake

Dark ecology begins in darkness as depression. It traverses darkness as ontological mystery. It ends in dark sweetness.—Timothy Morton

An infernally hot afternoon in my corner of Florida—96 straight degrees, but when you add 80 percent humidity it’s more like 106. This is the killing heat cropping up worldwide as the Earth’s atmosphere continues to warm. It’s hot also today in the Southwest United States, 116 straight degrees in Woodland Hills (CA), more than a hundred heat records expected to be broken across the region. This doesn’t bode well for California where wildfires don’t need much of a nudge to rage again. And hot oceans are brewing hurricane and cyclone trouble around the world, Super Typhoon Haishen taking aim on South Korea and three new systems forming over the Atlantic.

Ah, but what did we expect? High-pressure heat mixed with depressive lows foment storms whose scale and intensity can cause earthquakes and rattle the Earth’s jet stream. Typhoon Haishen will cause a wobble in the stream which will shoot cold air down into the US West, causing snowstorms where the day before there was record heat.

As the I Ching says, to and fro goes the Way, only now it feels more like dizzy skeltering as we hunker down awaiting a vaccine for COVID-19.

And as the Earth changes, so do our minds. We’re going crazy along with the crazing of our climate. The surface of our sanity is scarred from fire, pockmarked with melting permafrost, the deep time stasis which ballasts our unconscious vanishing with glaciers.

It’s deeply depressing—there are some who avoid this forum because indulging in such poetry feels suicidal—but if we’re already dead (scientists now believe the Greenland melt was already fated decades ago), then depression is for things we’ve already lost which we’ll never get back.

Philosopher Timothy Morton does an interesting take on depression in his book Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence (2016). He locates this condition in the disordered worldview of what he calls agriologistics, the technology of controlling earth processes which dates back to the beginnings of agriculture in Mesopotamia and the locomotive engine which accelerates climate change:

Agrilogistics is Easy Think spacetime. A one-size-fits-all depression temporality, a sad rigid thin gray tube. We are living inside depression objectified in built space. It’s in the way gigantic fields of rapeseed extend everywhere. It’s in the way huge lonely front lawns extend a meaningless one-size-fits-all statement about individuality. It’s in the way malls have gigantic parking lots, and housing lots have giant McMansions without so much as a garden. With its tiny temporality window, agrilogistic depression has turned the surface of Earth into a fatal place. Not only the land but also the oceans, which are the unconscious of the built space, the toilet where the chemicals go. As we have seen, there is a simple Freudian term for a fatal compulsion that keeps on retweeting: death drive.

Contrary to this depression is a style of thought he terms ecognosis, a knowledge centered in the world whose thought emanates Joy:

Now to think the Joy, we simply invert these parameters. Instead of the fatal game of mastering oneself, ecognosis means realizing the irony of being caught in a loop and how that irony does not bestow escape velocity from the loop. Irony and sincerity intertwine. This irony is joy, and the joy is erotic. As Jeffrey Kripal puts it, gnosis is thought having sex with itself. This is not a dance in the vacuum of an oukontic nothing. Eros is an attunement, and if there is attunement there is an already-being. A dance that knows itself: unlike the patriarchal “Woman,” a chora (container) who cannot know herself as such, ecognosis is a chora who can. (154-5).


The Joy is logically prior to life, deep inside life, the quivering between two deaths. Deep in the interior of life there are dancing puppets. In the same way that viruses are logically prior to bacteria, thoughts are logically prior to minds, hallucinations are logically prior to thoughts, flowers are logically prior to plants, patterns are logically prior to evolution. (157)

And again:

The Joy is not abstract or uniform, but so intimate you can’t see it, and you can’t tell whether it’s inside or outside: the “cellular” experience of bonds tightening between beings. It’s not an emotion that I’m having. I’m in a passion. A passion is not in me. The Ganzfeld effect of The Joy is haptic, elemental: so close that you lose track of something to be seen. Here thought itself is a way of getting high: human attunement to thinking has been intoxicated into recognizing its nonhuman status. Not simply thinking ecologically (the ecological thought), but rather thought as susceptibility, thinking as such as ecology. The structure of thought as nonhuman. Ecognosis. (158)

So lighten up! We are separated from nature only by our idealization of it. Ennui and nostalgia and yearning are all brewed from the illusion of distance.  Civilized societies—and therefore our life–pine for harmonies and raptures too predicated on a false sense of relation. Hard rain’s a gonna fall, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t dance. We are the dance, even though we don’t know it, can’t see it, won’t believe it. What’s there to be depressed about, pining for a structure which doesn’t exist and isn’t worth saving?

I know these are heady, even foggy concepts, but it’s far to easy to stay sunk in depressive depths wishing for Eden to come back.

For this week’s challenge, how about some poems of Joy? For their own sake, in their own manner and diction. High joy, dark joy, sweet joy, profane joy. Let’s see what this dancing is all about. A happier, more earth-centric aesthetics may be found in the difficulty of trying so.

This challenge will last until 4 PM EST Friday, Sept. 11, when open link weekend begins. Have fun, post whatever poem feels relevant or close, visit your fellow linkers and comment.

— Brendan