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?