earthweal weekly challenge: An Anthropocene Michaelmas

Samuel Palmer, “The Harvest Moon,” 1833


September 29 is the Festival of St. Michael, patron saint of ocean-farers, boater of the dead to the afterlife and, down deeper, the old sea-god Manannan.

According to Carmichael, “As patron saint of the sea St. Michael had temples dedicated to him round the coast wherever Celts were situated. Examples of these are Mount St. Michael in Brittany and in Cornwall, and Aird Michael in South and North Uist, and elsewhere.” (Carmina Gadelica, 77)

Falling near the autumn equinox, the festival is one of four solar “quarter days” through the year, Lady Day (March 25), Midsummer (June 21), Michaelmas and Christmas (December 25). The pagan festivals which preceded them fall on “cross-quarter” days are midpoints between equinoxes and soltices – Candlemas (Feb. 2), Beltane or May Day (May 1), Lammas (August 1) and Samhain (Nov. 1) The act of giving on Michaelmas is a form of farewell to the productive year and a welcome to the new cycle which begins with a slow retreat and dying.

There are similar solar festivals in Hinduism and Buddhism; Islamic festivals follow the lunar calendar.

Carmichael, again:

On the 29th of September a festival in honour of St. Michael is held throughout the Western Coasts and Isles. This is much the most imposing pageant and much the most popular demonstration of the Celtic year. Many causes conduce to this—causes which move the minds and hearts of the people to the utmost tension. To the young the Day is a day of promise, to the old a day of fulfilment, to the aged a day of retrospect. It is a day when Pagan cult and Christian doctrine meet and mingle like the lights and shadows on their own Highland hills.

The Eve of St. Michael is the eve of bringing in of the carrots, of baking of struan {a Scottish harvest bread] of killing the lamb, of stealing the horses. The Day of St. Michael is the day of the early mass, the day of the sacrificial lamb, the day of the distribution of the struan, the day of the pilgrimage to the burial-ground of the fathers, the day of the burial ground service, the day of the burial-ground circuiting, the day of giving and receiving the carrots with their wishes and acknowledgements, and the day of the oda – the athletics of the men and the racing of the horses. And the Night of Michael is the night of the dance and the song, the merry-marking, of the love-making and of the love-gifts. (ibid.)

These Celtic-Christian festivals have all but vanished, though you can find Renaissance fairs and medieval reenactors celebrating them in some form. (At my father’s Columcille, fairly robust Samhain and Beltane festivals have been celebrated for two decades, though the liturgy is fanciful and ecumenically scattershot. In 1995 I held create a Michaelmas festival for the community.)

Festivals were great gatherings of the human community in celebrations of unity, culture, common purpose and faith. Modernity has ebbed greatly those qualities, and festivals are marginal, not central.

We have also learned much about the greater community humans are just one part of. It has not been an easy education for any. Mastery by a species both terribly powerful and awfully blind has shadowed much of Earth’s future.

Accelerating climate change brings to the horizon many firsts that are hard to face, much less accept—2020 alone, 5 million acres of burnt wilderness out in US West still early in the fire season, 40 million acres in Australia, 380 dead pilot whales in Tasmania, 356 elephants dead of toxic algae in Botswana, millions of birds suffocated by Western wildfire smoke, 3 billion animals expired in Australia, sea life greatly vanquished by ocean heat waves. Every week I have a new list; but rather than account these as firsts, one scientist recommends that we think of them as the last time we will only see this much destruction in the fast-heating 21st Century.

As the global year’s tide now turns—toward winter in the Northern Hemisphere, and summer in the South—I wonder what Michaelmas festival poems of the Anthropocene look like. Can we sing to the elements, sing to the depths, sing to the animals, sing to the change and its ghosts, and sing to our fellows? There’s no going back to pre-Christian 400 AD, much less the suburbs of the 1950s: We must comfit ourselves to this turning page. Maybe the music can only sound ironic and dreadful; maybe not. It is up to us to find out.

So what is your Michaelmas poem(s)?

— Brendan

earthweal open link weekend #38

An adult male jaguar rests after treatment for burn injuries on his paws after a fire in the Pantanal tropical wetlands region of Brazil. (Reuters)


Hello friends,

Welcome to earthweal open link weekend #38. Share a favorite poem fresh or vintage and visit your fellow linkers and comment.

Open link runs til midnight Sunday when the next weekly challenge rolls out.


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.