earthweal weekly challenge: A FEAST OF EARTH FOOLS


As solstice and the Christmas holiday fade to the rear, we approach the New Year’s celebration. It’s not much of a holiday, really; for many of us, our spiritual calendars are aligned differently from the Julian reckoning appointed January 1 the New Year. Outside, there will be lots of fireworks, gold streamers, cork-popping and assorted drunken whoopie by those who don’t normally exceed their limits. (In AA, we call it Amateur Night.) As the holiday which marks the passing of the old year into the new, for many it is a time of reflection and resolution-making, clearing away the detritus of a difficult 2020 in the hopes that 2021 will be of a different order, ken and boon. Fingers crossed for all of us — all of Earth, too.

Our New Year’s k is usually modest at best; my wife and I wake briefly at midnight hearing all the local fireworks, kiss and wish each other a Happy New Year, and turn back to our Otherworld perambles. Black-eyed peas, short ribs in sauerkraut, collard greens and shortbread may be the order for dinner on New Year’s Day. The Christmas tree will probably come down, too, and head for the curb; the wreath on our front door, brown for weeks now, departed the morning after Christmas.

When the moon was closer to the earth, tides would wash hundreds of miles back and forth; every year the moon gets a little more distant, the insanity of moonlight diminishes, the tides grow more gentle. (Tides creep inland more now not because of the moon but because the oceans are overfilling with glacial melt.) Do our human festivals ebb too, or am I just getting old?

Certainly, Twelfth Night has faded to a dull, distant lustre: how much, I wonder, can its ghosts  yet bestir and betide us?

Let us see …

* * *

Human society is held up by strong rules of order, but the very nature of those bonds means we must be able to imagine beyond them, to experience how human society plays in reverse. Perhaps the only way to embrace the rules of order is to recall the chaos of disorder. Saturn may have ruled the Golden Age, but his Titan family were primordial gods, trapped in the chthonic underworld after the Olympians took to Heaven, and their passions (and cruelty) were primal.

There is a long sacred history of anointed misrule. In ancient Athens, the Anthesteria was one of four festivals of Dionysos through the year, usually at the January or February full moon. During a three-day feast wine stored at the previous vintage was uncasked and the social order was inverted, with people dressing up as figures from the god’s entourage, the dead walking among the living and slaves (and the dead) invited to the feast.

The Romans picked up the idea in their week-long Saturnalia festival from December 17 to 23. It was also a celebration of dead, resurrecting Saturn from Tartarus and bringing back the Golden Age for a week — a time out of time. Misrule was decreed, guilt-free revelry ensued. Priests offered sacrifices to Saturn with their heads uncovered (usually verboten), courts were disbanded, drunkenness and gambling were approved of and slaves were free to revile their masters. Gifts of tiny import were exchanged. A Lord of Misrule acted as master of ceremonies for the mayhem; chosen by lot, s/he would make all manner of capricious demands, bidding this one sing naked or that one get spanked. To mark the winter solstice and the rebirth of the sun god Sol Invictus, trees were decorated with ornaments. Groups of revelers went door to door singing “carols,” usually of a profane nature.

Pagan Germans celebrated Yuletide in the three days preceding the winter solstice. Like the harrows before Samhain on Halloween, the doors to the otherworld spring open. The god Odin led a Wild Hunt of the dead through the sky (on Dancer!), animals were sacrificed to the Mothers and great Yule logs were burnt (turning night into day).

In the Christian era, Christmastide or the Twelve Days of Christmas lasted from Christmas Day to the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6. The earlier Advent season was seen as sober and reflective preparation for this festival. Elements of Yuletide were adopted (the Yule log survived) as well as remnants of Saturnalia, with festivity and sport. The medieval romance Sir Gawain and The Green Knight is set at Twelvetide, and Shakespeare’s comedy Twelfth Night is named for the culminating event.

Part of the festivities was the Feast of the Fools, normally on Jan. 1 or the Feast of the Circumcision. In it roles were reversed, with the higher and lower clergy exchanging places and a Lord of Misrule a peasant or lower clergy put in charge of Christmastide festivities, which included all sorts of drunken mayhem. (In Scotland, he was called the Abbot of Unreason.)

Christmas folly stuck around for a long time. A 17th century Anglican priest complained, “men dishonor Christ more in the twelve days of Christmas than in all the 12 months besides.” Puritans in America banned Christmas altogether from 1659 to 1691. (So contrary to the way we hear of it today, the War on Christmas has its roots in religion’s right wing.)

Today, the festivals of foolery are mild, perhaps because there is much more permission for individual excess. There’s Carnival, Halloween, April Fool’s Day: The antics there seem childish, not of any adult substance or import. That doesn’t mean people aren’t crazy today with deadly seriousness. That’s the problem, I guess. there’s nothing sacred about foolery, just literal reiterations: farty frat-party pranks .

Why these celebrations of reversal? One idea is that ordered societies need a safety valve to vent repressed energies. A French cleric once wrote, “We do these in jest and not in earnest, as the ancient custom is, so that once a year the foolishness innate in us can come out and evaporate. Don’t wine skins and barrels burst open very often if the air-hole is not opened from time to time? We too are old barrels.”

However, it may be that all that repressed and dead and dark material lives in the vast unconscious substratum, and it’s perilous to get too far from it. Religion gets its deepest sources from there, and the priests know it. Consider how the Delphic sibyl became possessed by the god and ranted incoherently; the priests then “translated” that into the semblance of cryptic oracle.

Dark knowledge is topsy-turvy, infernal, diabolical: all that can’t abide in the light flourished in the dark. It is to see and think as my patron St. Oran, who said up from the grave to St. Columba, “There is no wonder in death, and hell is not as it is reported. In fact, the way you think it is is not the way it is at all.” Columba had Oran promptly re-buried, but he also made him the tutelary guardian of the Iona abbey graveyard, saying, “no one my access the angels of Iona but through Oran.” So order and disorder are faces of the same agency, and we had better pay attention to disruptive voices — the dead, fools, asses and imps.

Modernity recognized this. “Wisdom consists in keeping the soul liquid,” Emerson wrote in his journal of 1842. “There must be the Abyss, Nyx, and Chaos, out of which all things come, and they must never be far off. Cut off the connection between any of your works and this dread origin, and the work is shallow and unsatisfying.” But it’s hard to imagine Ralph Waldo out dancing with the dead.

It may also be that in the human heart, the dead never leave us. Festivals of reversal gave the dead our living due. Ancestors were invited to the Saturnalia feast, and at Celtic Samhain it was believed that dead ancestors came home for once a year and must be welcomed (or else). Stonehenge and New Grange, both megalithic monuments for the dead, were constructed to align precisely to the winter solstice, their doors open to eternal light. (And what are to do with all those ghosts in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol? Do they belong to the past, or our future?) While there are societal reversals such as slaves served the feast by their masters or the rabble partying down at the lord’s manor, the ultimate reversal is when the dead take the place of the living.

And let’s not forget the centerpiece of this seasonal freakshow, the fool—nature’s wiseguy, the king’s shadow, hallowing the night with witty utterance and Bronx cheer. Society’s spectre, the medieval mind’s trickster, the fool was the ultimate buffoon and critic, both dumber and brighter than the lot. Originally the poet was in this position in ancient Celtic Britain, both anointer and satirist, king-maker and -breaker: But as the power of words (and poets) began to recede, the fool stepped in. Everything about the fool’s costume was in jest —clothes cut short, in motley colors (yellow and green were colors of disorder), belt hung with bells and fool’s-head mounted on a stick, used as the straight man in their comic routines. Physical features of marginal ability— the hunchback and long nose, the ass ears and prominent bump on the forehead (called the “stone of folly”) — all were part of an ancient ritual invocation of disorder, nature turning upside down to bare its ass at polite society.

Shakespeare’s fools are the brightest bulbs in his plays — Feste, Falstaff, Touchstone, Lear’s Fool, the memory of Yorick now a skull in Hamlet’s hand —: The best wisecracks come from them, as well as the most sublime statements. They are the essence of life — mercurial, profane, to the point and endlessly robust. They were beaten mercilessly for sport, suffered miserably without patronage, and fooled without end at the living margins of the world.

As civilization allowed more private license, perhaps the need for collective release has waned. Order is like the gravity of the moon, its extremes wane the farther the two orbs are from each other. The dead stay dead, clowning has become stand-up where there isn’t all that much to laugh at. As a result, there is little to speak truth to power, not from the edges where they are most potent. I suspect too that the center has faded greatly, losing much of its centrifugal power. Some reversal is afoot. No one goes mad in moonlight, but kings are frequently insane. (America’s outgoing president is driving his country insane.) Maybe Columba must now go into the footers so that Oran may build his dark chapel.

It may also be that the human center is dissolving, opening up greater possibilities of trans-species and extra-human relations to muster. We need the brooding gaze vultures who know everyone’s time comes up, the smash of whaleflukes to right-size our vanitas for whale-watching and the microbial flourish at the bottom of every whalefall.

For this challenge, invite your dead to the feast. Stage your own masque. Appoint a Lord of Misrule—a climate migrant, say, one of society’s lowlies. Quest for a Green Chapel and exchange heads with a Green Knight. Visit Saturn (or Dionysos or Odin or Father Christmas) in his Otherworldly abode and describe the thing you have brought back — sword or cauldron, squashes from the garden of Priapus or fanny-pack of Aphrodite Kallipygos.

But let’s go further and make this a Feast of Earth Fools. That’s what this whole party is about, right? The “complicate amassing harmony” Wallace Stevens wrote about speaks to the inside of life. Our job, as Robert Bringhurst wrote in his poem “Occupation” “… is not / to change the world / nor even to keep it from changing.”; rather, our “only” task is “being changed.” We are already in the midst of a massive masque.

According to Thom van Dooren, this bids us write not from the outside looking in — a dead-end human trope on individual consciousness — but rather to embody and embrace

… a form of witnessing that is from the outset already seized, already claimed, by an obligation to those whose stories we are attempting to tell. This is particularly the case when our stories play the role of witness or testimony to the suffering and deaths of others … In the context of extinction, these kinds of stories are not an attempt to obscure the truth of the situation, but to insist on a truth that is not reducible to populations and data: a fleshier, more lively, truth that in its telling might draw us all into a greater sense of accountability (Flight Ways, Columbia University Press, pp 9-10)

So transform! Mix your human essence with another living entity, be it frog or palm or eel: Sing as frog-man, palm-woman, eel-king. Bring an extinct species back for a seat at the banquet. Make them “thick” with life.

I think that is something to celebrate, and why I’m calling this challenge A FEAST OF EARTH FOOLS. Humantide’s passing is upon us: the doors are opening for the extinct and the marginalized to enter our walled city and turn things upside down. For a poem, at least.


earthweal open link weekend #50


Greetings all,

Happy solstice and merry Christmastide to all of you. Hoping you and your loved ones (including our good mother Earth) the best of the season.

And welcome to our 50th open link weekend. Link a favorite poem and visit your fellow linkers and comment.

The open link forum lasts until midnight Sunday EST, when our next weekly challenges rolls out, tentatively titled A FEAST OF EARTH FOOLS.

— Brendan

earthweal weekly challenge: A SOLSTICE BELL


Today is the winter solstice, shortest day of the year for those of us living North of the Earth’s equator, also the longest night. Thus begins (for us) astronomical summer, a six-month march of increasing light capping off at the summer solstice (the beginning of astronomical winter.)

For Christians, it’s a short march from the winter solstice to Christmas Eve on December 24 and celebrations of the Christ child on Christmas. This year, however, church-goings and vigils and gatherings will be muted due to the pandemic. Strange moment, with the pandemic at its greatest winter howl just as the long-awaited vaccine is reaching its first millions. (A sort of solstice, in that.)

For many it will be too late, as for the eight Catholic nuns who succumbed to COVID-19-related conditions within one week of each other earlier this month at Notre Dame at Elm Grove, a retirement home for Catholic sisters in Wisconsin. They were educators, music teachers and liturgists, living out their remaining years in the residential facility after lifetimes of service.

A freezing, dark moment. Most of the state of California is under lockdown as daily new cases exceed 50,000 and ICU hospital bed capacity reaches a critical threshold. London and most of England’s southeast are now on lockdown as more-transmissible mutation of the virus is fast afoot. France’s premier Emmanuel Macron is out with the disease. Black country music legend Charley Pride has died of it. A few days ago a man boarded a flight from Orlando to Los Angeles, and though he noted no COVID symptoms in a pre-flight checklist, he died of the disease in his seat high above the living world. Zenith and nadir: solstice bears both.

Neo-pagans would have gathered around Stonehenge today to celebrate the winter solstice in the old-school way: But due to the pandemic, festivities have been cancelled. (A live-stream of the solstice at the 5,200-year-old New Grange tumulus will be available here.) And at my father’s Columcille there would also have been some of that, lighting a fire at daybreak up on Signal Hill and later singing carols in the St. Columba chapel in the woods he and I used to love walking in. In keeping with our patron saint Oran, pagan and Christian co-abide there.

But nature alone this solstice will have abide, as human absence takes the place of presence.


The yule-tide season begins today, lasting from now until the New Year. The so-called Twelve Days of Christmas or Yuletide roots in older pagan Germanic festivities involving a Yule Log (a tree sacrificed to the flame), the Wild Hunt, worship of Odin and the Night of the Mothers. Twelfth Night celebrations echo with the rites of reversal from the Roman Saturnalia, so it’s a jolly weird time. (Next week’s challenge will jest that way in the name of Earth; who shall be crowned Fool King? Worm or fungus or butterfly?)

This year’s solstice is auspicious another way, astronomy-wise, at least from the perspective of life on Earth: for two hours after sunset today, Jupiter and Saturn will pair on the southwest horizon. It’s the closest the two have been in our night sky since the Renaissance (1623, seven years after Shakespeare passed into the bourne from which no traveler returns). Of course, the two planets will only be close to our eyes; the two remain millions of miles apart.

What can we truly see? Humans always envisioned death and rebirth at the winter solstice; the bears just hibernated on through. Awareness is a tricky thing, and the mind plays all sorts of tricks on itself. Especially when it fears.  In Norse myth, the goddess Frigga gives birth to her son “the young sun” Baldr. This post launches mid-course of Mother’s Night (Modranecht), with hope and trepidation that all will come to pass safe and sound. (Remember, the leading cause of death — bar none — is birth.)

And what if there is death? BJ Miller, a hospice physician, wrote yesterday in a New York Times op-ed,

Nowadays, being dead sounds like a lullaby compared with the process of dying. Given a steadily awful diet of stories about breathing machines and already-disenfranchised people dying alone, we’re told to imagine the worst, before cutting to commercial. Our choices seem to be either to picture a kind of hell — that could be Mom or me, breathless and alone — or to distance ourselves from the people living those stories, not just in body but in every way, to de-identify with our fellow human beings.

But this is how we make hard things harder. Maybe our fear of death has more to do with our perceptions of reality than with reality itself, and that is good news. Even if we can’t change what we’re looking at, we can change how we look at it.

Longest night or return of light? Depends on how you stare at the glass.

So much vanishes out of human sight and care because we won’t look. This past year, the Earth has taken some pretty hard hits. As temperatures steadily rise, wildfire has become an avenging angel, wreaking havoc on coastal Australia, in South America’s wetlands, in the Siberian Arctic and in California, where fires wiped out entire forests of the state’s oldest and most beloved trees—Joshua Trees to the south, giant sequoia and redwood to the north. It was record 125 degrees F in Baghdad in June, 100 degrees F in the Arctic Circle. Athens now suffers 120 heat days (when temps rise above 99 F). Heating oceans whip storms up with especial froth, as America’s Gulf Coast was hit by four tropical systems and Nicaragua was belted by two late-season monsters just two weeks apart. A quarter of Bangladesh was flooded in July, and 70 million Chinese were affected when more than 700 rivers flooded. Humans are on the move from vanquished homelands into uncertain futures and animal habitats are eroding from sight. The monarch butterfly has almost vanished, as has the wolverine and blue whale and the Sumatran orangutan. These signals of cataclysm must be part of this year’s winter solstice, indicating that the year’s rebirth is fraught and endangered.

Our pandemic suffering is a synecdoche of climate catastrophe, the way a star over a distant manger should have meant outpouring from the Earth’s golden womb rather than a door away from it. We can’t see the forest or the trees, and so we continue to get it wrong. There is a growing numbness or vacancy in the human imagination. Why is reality becoming so hard to accept? Times columnist Paul Krugman put it succinctly: “Republicans spent most of 2020 rejecting science in the face of a runaway pandemic; now they’re rejecting democracy in the face of a clear election loss. What do these rejections have in common? In each case, one of America’s two major parties simply refused to accept facts it didn’t like.”

I’ve deeply believed that humanity won’t adjust in time to the climate crisis simply because it derives too many of its comforts and conveniences from the fossil-fueled lifestyle; in my country, such an embrace of historic and increasingly cataclysmic selfishness drives us off the cliff of relevance. Slavery 101 devolves easily to Earth Rape 202. All you have to do is nothing.

Enough. The traditional moment is lush and quiet, a defining stillness. But this Yule carries an added, fraught resonance. This is a separate, solemn time for homo sapiens, stocked up for lockdown, distanced from the past and unsure where to go. The bells that ring in this silver darkness are both halcyon and icy.

Thus we come to this week’s challenge, which finds its essence in a poem by Canadian Robert Bringhurst. Sherry quoted from it in her poem posted to our open link weekend, and she shared it with me in its entirety. Here it is:

The Occupation

Robert Bringhurst

I will tell you how it was the world
changed, she said — and darkness
wrapped us round.
I heard her clearly, though I barely
heard the words. It was nearly — yes —
as if she were singing.
Our job, she was saying, is not
to change the world — nor even
to keep it from changing.
No, she was saying (the story
was over already): our only
job is being changed.

– from Selected Poems, Copper Canyon Press, 2012.

Being changed: That is the earthweal challenge for this week of Yuletide hallows. Ring a solstice bell for the change we are. (Be sure to take a look outside before using the word “we.”) What is the change revealed in this seasonal moment, and what does portend for the coming year? Out of darkness, what stirs and wakens?

And on that silver note— season’s greetings to all. And thanks for a great year of earth poems.

— Brendan


St. Columba chapel, Columcille

earthweal weekly challenge: SHARK POETRY

“We have a bright future if we want it. But we have to do something about it. Now.” — Rob Stewart, Canadian filmmaker and conservationist

by Sherry Marr

Rob Stewart lived his life in love with the creatures of the deep, especially sharks, whom he swam with and found beautiful, mysterious and non-threatening. He made the films Sharkwater and Sharkwater Extinction in an effort to show their beauty to the world. He also wanted to expose the shark fin trade which kills 150 million sharks a year, along with catching 54 billion other species, whales, dolphins, and sea turtles who get caught in the nets and die.

I personally believe driftnetting should be banned. Such a cruel method of over-fishing, it is wasteful and inhumane, and will soon empty the sea.

Sharks have survived five global extinctions; they have been alive for 450 million years. But in just thirty years, we have decimated their populations by 90%. Think about that. These are living, sentient beings, being massacred in the most brutal of ways. Fishermen bring them aboard, beat them, slice off their fins, then throw the sharks back into the water to die. (This makes me feel as if animals are more sentient than we. For certain, they are more just.)

“People just don’t know,” said Rob. “If they knew, their moral compass would lead them to insist the government create legislation for a more just world.” Well, we hope so, at least.

Rob died at 32, during a dive off the coast of Florida, while shooting Sharkwater Extinction, which his teammates completed after his death. The movie includes footage of Rob and the sharks swimming in a beautiful blue duet. He lived and died following his passion, while exposing some harsh truths to the world. His too-short life had great impact.



He was stunned to discover one of the biggest shark fishing offenders was operating off the coast of Los Angeles. The footage of sharks trapped in the net, dying agonizing deaths, their expressions of pure misery, is hard to see. And necessary, if we are ever to wake up and demand that governments at every level address the injustices and inequities of this world. We can have that bright future Rob promises in the quote above. But we have to participate in demanding the changes that need to be made. Letters to every level of government do have impact. I have seen this in the village where I live, which is now, at our insistence, putting together a long overdue tree protection bylaw. We citizens had to demand what was important to us; government could not ignore us. They work for us!

While some countries have banned shark fin fishing, they haven’t banned importing them, so the industry continues to driftnet fish, taking so many lives in the process. Living sentient beings seen as resources – this is the capitalist formula, along with ‘take it all now, before it’s gone’, which is completely unsustainable. We are now facing the hard truth that the resources of the earth are finite.

Rob says the Hollywood story that sharks are dangerous and will attack us is not true. He swam with them for years and found them to be gentle, peaceful and mysterious. While I watched the film, and the barbaric way humans treat these gentle giants, I pondered how it is we humans can be so violent and without mercy, what people tell themselves to make what they are doing okay. We should have evolved more, by now. We are the most dangerous predator on earth.

Aside from the infamous shark fin soup, considered a delicacy by some, shark can be found in such unexpected places as beauty products, pet food, fast food and garden fertilizer. Jaws and teeth are sold as souvenirs.  Sharks are full of toxins from mercury and other ocean pollution. Consumers are ingesting more than fish these days.

“Be conscious about where you put your dollars, how you live your life,” Rob tells us towards the end of Sharkwater Extinction. “There’s nothing more important.”

Sharks are endangered. In 2019, Canada proposed a bill, backed by the UK, to regulate trade in shark fins. It was not even an outright ban (which I personally feel should be global.) The EU and the USA opposed it; no agreement was reached. One “sports” fishing charter, who takes customers out to catch sharks, told Rob, “If you put a trophy price on something, it’s gonna die. Show me the money.” Wow.

What he is not wanting to know is that if we remove one species, the entire ecosystem is affected as, ultimately, are we.

Forever, now, when I think of Rob, I will picture him swimming serenely and joyously with these gentle creatures he loved so much and tried so hard to save. He gave his heart to them. In the film he said, “I know how I will die”, and it seems he was right. He died swimming with the beings he loved most on earth, trying to bring their beauty to us, so we would carry on his work.

For our challenge, write about sharks, the ocean, shark fin soup, human predators, or whatever this information brings up in you.

I await your responses with anticipation.

— Sherry