earthweal weekly challenge: GIFTS


It’s been a rough week for democracy for United States. Lots to be angry at, resent, fear. I don’t know who to feel sadder for, the woman shot and killed breaching the House chamber or the Capital policeman battered with flagpoles and then clocked dead by a fire extinguisher, attendants who had to clean excrement off the marble floors or the guy trying to steal a portrait and tased himself in the balls and suffered a fatal heart attack.

Or all of us. My country sure is tasing itself with aplomb and verve. The world is astonished we don’t know it. So it goes where climate denialism is but a symptom of a collective reality disease.

Oh, and did I mention that 2020 tied 2016 as the hottest year ever? Global temperature is up 1.25 degrees C over pre-industrial level, which mean in just a few years we’ve gone halfway to the dropping-dead threshold of 1.5 C. Some parts of the Arctic were 6 C higher than the baseline. Some 10 million acres of the Western United States burned and 30 Atlantic storms brewed and hurled against the Americas, both worst-ever phenomena of the lower porches of whatever we’re striding into.

And COVID’s everywhere, lurid where we breathe.

Arrgh. All of that is like some stratospheric seethe in the mind, a Twitter vortex speeding in cycles of boiling rage and icy fear. (Some of you, I know, are suffering from spillage from the real polar vortex right now—did I hear that temps in England went down to -9C Saturday night?).

You have to wonder how it keeps it all together. Maybe it doesn’t; and then what are we to do?

Did I mention this challenge is about gifts?

I’ve been reading a wonderful book by Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and The Teaching of Plants (Milkweed Editions, 2015), and the best way to segue to my challenge is to turn it over to her in the chapter “The Gift of Strawberries.”

“In a way,” she writes,

I was raised by strawberries, fields of them. Not to exclude the maples, hemlocks, white pines, goldenrod, asters, violets and mosses of upstate New York, but it was the wild strawberries beneath the dewy leaves on an almost-summer morning, who gave me my sense of the world, my place in it.

… Even now, after more than fifty Strawberry Moons, finding a patch of wild strawberries still touches me with a sensation of surprise, a feeling of unworthiness and gratitude for the generosity and kindness that comes from an unexpected gift all wrapped in red and green. “Really? For me? Oh, you shouldn’t have.” After fifty years they still raise the question of how to respond to their generosity. Sometimes it feels like a silly question with a very simply answer: eat them.

But I know that someone else has wondered these same things. In our Creation stories the origin of strawberries is important. Skywoman’s beautiful daughter, whom she carried in her womb from Skyworld, grew on the good green earth, loving and loved by all other beings. But tragedy befell her when she died giving birth to her twins, Flint and Sapling. Heartbroken, Skywoman buried her beloved daughter in the earth. Her final gifts, our most revered plants, grew from her body. The strawberry arose from her heart. In Potawatomi, the strawberry is ode min, the heart berry. We recognize them as the leaders of the berries, the first to bear fruit. (22-23)

Did you ever come across something in this world which is both a surprise and a gift? I remember looking for wild strawberries at my father’s house in Pennsylvania those summers I worked on Columcille, helping him to build his New Age megalithic park. All the energy went toward raising those big stones, but the real sweetness of summer was in the wild strawberries. And though one summer we tended a massive garden inspired by Findhorn, ferrying bushels of squashes back to the house, there was still the magic of the given, the found. Tiny as it was, or because it was so.

More recently, often on my walks in this small Florida town, down by the lake which marks my turning point to the circuit back, I witness massive spirals of turkey buzzards and black vultures. They’re a cooperative species, with the vultures possessing far sight and the buzzards a keen sense of smell. No wonder their colony is so large. Some days I see hundreds of the spiraling in the air, deacons of some immense gospel service of a church two thousand feet in the sky. My head is hunched down as I walk, my thoughts intent on whatever (too often lost in the Trump Vortex): I glance up and … miracles! Exultation and rapture for the everyday eye.

All we have to do is notice. But to let Kimmerer continue:

Strawberries first shaped my view of a world full of gifts simply scattered at your feet. A gift comes to you through no action of your own, free, having moved toward you without your beckoning. It is not a reward; you cannot earn it, or call lit to you, or even deserve it. And yet it appears. Your only role is to be open-eyed and present. Gifts exist in a realm of humility and mystery — as with random acts of kindness, we do not know their source. (23-4)

Freely given, freely received: between the two, something forms.

Gifts from the earth or from each other establish a particular relationship, and obligation of sorts to give, to receive, to reciprocate. … When the berry season was done, the plants would send out tender red runners to make new plants. Because I was fascinated by the way they would travel over the ground looking for good places to take root, I would weed out little patches of bare ground where the runners touched down. Sure enough, tiny roots would emerge from the runner and by the end of the season there were even more plants, ready to bloom under the next Strawberry Moon. No person taught us this – the strawberries showed us. Because they had given us a gift, an ongoing relationship opened between us. (25)

It’s something I learned in AA: A gift freely given cannot be kept unless it is given fully away. It’s why service is one of the pillars of recovery.  Such service, I think, can also be given the world in a poem, as Emily Dickenson shows here. What is found is deeply a part of what is lost.

As imperceptibly as grief
The summer lapsed away, —
Too imperceptible, at last,
To seem like perfidy.

A quietness distilled,
As twilight long begun.,
Or Nature, spending with herself
Sequestered afternoon.

The dusk drew earlier in,
The morning foreign shone. —
A courteous, yet harrowing grace,
As guest who would be gone.

And thus, without a wing
Or service of a keel,
Our summer made her light escape
Into the beautiful.


Going further, Kimmerer says once something has been given, it can never be sold.

As the scholar and writer Lewis Hyde notes, “It is the cardinal difference between a gift and a commodity exchange that a gift establishes a feeling-bond between two people.”

Wild strawberries fit the definition of gift, but grocery store berries do not. As a gift-thinker, I would be deeply offended if I saw wild strawberries in the grocery store. I would want to kidnap them all. There were not meant to be sold, only to be given. Hyde reminds us that in a gift economy, only one’s freely given gifts cannot be made into someone else’s capital. (27)

From the viewpoint of a private property economy, the “gift” is deemed to be “free” because we obtain it free of charge, at no cost. But in the gift economy, gifts are not free. The essence of the gift is that it creates a set of relationships. The currency of a gift economy is, at its root, reciprocity. In Western thinking, private land is understood to be a “bundle of rights,” whereas in a gift economy property has a “bundle of responsibilities” attached. (28)

It is one thing to be grateful for the gift; another, to act like it. Since the US election — a victory, in one sense, a terrible fall in another — I have taken to the woods in a suburban way, walking early mornings (a great gift from my former employer, eliminating my job from a business located 20 miles away). I feel like Mad Sweeney, the 8th century king who went mad from human noise and fled to the woods to roost in trees. Fitted with the feathered tuion of the ancient filid, he sang so beautifully of wild nature that monks of the 12th century had to write those poems down because gothic arches weren’t a strong enough margin for the old druid culture. After a few months of daily attention to the beauty and glory of trees, I feel a kinship now which has been there all along.

The gift I’m trying to give back. If you’ve read any of the Sweeney poems on my blog, you might sense a change of perspective underway from the climate fatalist of some months prior. I felt dead-ended: if the world is truly screwed because humans won’t or can’t change in time, then what else is there to do, to say? It does take the air out of adventure and discovery.

How much changed in me when I shifted my gaze from the ruined human terrain (suburbanized to death, at least), up to the trees. Kimmerer again:

… our human relationship with strawberries is transformed by our choice of perspective. It is human perception that makes the world a gift. When we view the world this way, strawberries and humans alike are transformed. The relationship of gratitude and reciprocity thus developed can increase the evolutionary fitness of both plant and animal. A species and a culture that treat the natural world with respect and reciprocity will surely pass on genes to ensuing generations with a higher frequency than the people who destroy it. The stories we choose to shape our behaviors have adaptive consequences. (30)

So my challenge has been to choose gratitude over despair. It’s a slower route and much less certain — thorny,, too — but time and patience in the work of gratitude results in deeper roots and a wider canopy than I could ever have found writing as a solitary monk by the ruined sea.

Saturday as I drove to the grocery store (with a scribbled list in pocket including corporate strawberries, genetically-altered for redness and something akin to sweetness), some of my beloved vultures were gathered next to dead tabby cat on the side of the road, flopping their wings and leaping about. So sad to see a feline picked off by cars, and the work of nature is so much harder to look at than when it soars: But those great wings are flown for this purpose, as I was grown to be witness and have a heart full enough to grieve and give thanks at the same time.

Kimmerer concludes her essay about the gift of strawberries with this gift of her own:

In those childhood fields, waiting for strawberries to ripen, I used to eat the sour white ones, sometimes out of hunger but mostly from impatience. I knew the long-term results of my short-term greed, but I took them anyway. Fortunately, our capacity for self-restraint grows and develops like the berries beneath the leaves, so I learned to wait. A little. I remember lying on my back in the fields watching the clouds go by and rolling over to check the berries every few minutes. When I was young, I thought change might happen that fast. Now I am old and I know that transformation is slow. The commodity economy has been here on Turtle Island for four hundred years, eating up the white strawberries and everything else. But people have grown weary of the sour taste in their mouths. A great longing is upon us, to live again in a world made of gifts. I can scent it coming, like the fragrance of ripening strawberries rising on the breeze. (31-2)

What gifts have come our way, I wonder. What gifts does gratitude return. For this challenge, let’s write about gifts and find out.

I mean, what else are we going to do these days? Seethe?

I’ll end with this poem from Wendell Berry:

Slowly, slowly they return
To the small woodland let alone;
Great trees, outspreading and upright,
Apostles of the living light.

Patient as stars, they build in air
Tier after tier a timbered choir,
Stout beams upholding weightless grace
Of song, a blessing on this place.

They stand in waiting all around,
Uprisings of their native ground,
Downcomings of the distant light;
They are the advent they await.

Receiving sun and giving shade,
Their life’s a benediction made,
And is a benediction said
Over the living and the dead.

In fall their brightened leaves, released,
Fly down the wind, and we are pleased
Top walk on radiance, amazed.
O light come down to earth, be praised!

1986, collected in A Timbered Choir

— Brendan

earthweal open link weekend #52



Greetings all,

Welcome to earthweal open link weekend #52. Share something you’re working on and visit your fellow linkers and comment.

Open link lasts until midnight Sunday when our next weekly challenge rolls out.

Lots happening in the world! Tell us all about what’s going on in your corner.



earthweal weekly challenge: WHEN ANIMALS SPEAK


by Sherry Marr

I recently read a fascinating book titled Animalkind – Remarkable Discoveries About Animals and Revolutionary New Ways to Show Them Compassion, written by Ingrid Newkirk and Gene Stone.

It tells wonderful stories about all manner of creatures:  an albatross, the first living being to circumnavigate the globe; chimpanzees who defeat college students in computer games; a horse trained to choose among various symbols to indicate whether he would like his blanket off or on, or would like a snack. Trainers described the horse as being excited by now having the ability to communicate and express preferences.

The authors describe an Australian sheepdog trained to retrieve – by name – 200 objects. When told to retrieve an unknown object, he correctly deduced that the unknown toy he had not seen before must correspond to the unfamiliar name. Deductive reasoning. So smart. I was smitten, hearing about the tiny desert mouse, who places a stone outside her burrow in order to drink the early morning dew.

Animals are delightfully amazing. And they seem to have a sense of humour as well. I have seen this in dogs and horses I have known. They also exhibit pure compassion and devotion, beyond what humankind seems capable of. This is why it breaks my heart that so many millions of living sentient beings are treated so brutally by humans, who often tend to view them as resources, property, put there for our use, creatures without feelings, rather than part of an ecosystem in which each one has its place and purpose and right to exist.

People who work in abattoirs or vast factory “farms” must tell themselves they are “dumb beasts” who don’t feel pain. But all we have to do is look into their eyes to know they feel every emotion we feel: pain, grief, fear, sorrow, terror, as well as joy, happiness, contentment and love (those who are more gently treated.)

“An animal’s eyes have the power to speak a great language,” said Martin Buber, the German philosopher.  The authors of Animalkind pose the question: can animals love? We all know the answer to that.

I have seen a dog lie on an owner’s grave and sob with grief; a horse lay his head on his person’s casket, and weep.


Source: Thula Thula


While I was writing this, I read a wonderful book, The Elephant Whisperer, by Lawrence Anthony,  the story of how he accepted a herd of wild elephants at his vast wildlife reserve, Thula Thula, in Zululand, to save them from being killed. They arrived traumatized at being removed from their familiar territory, and, only 48 hours before, having seen their matriarch and her baby being shot. Mr. Anthony was determined to save them, hoping patience and stability would settle them down. They broke out right away, causing local rangers to allow him only a short time to turn things around, or they would be killed.

He set up camp beside the fence of their compound and stayed day and night, trying to gain their trust. At 4:45 every morning, the elephants would tense, facing the direction of their homeland, preparing to break out. Each time he pled with their new matriarch, Nana: “Don’t do it, girl. They will kill you if you get loose. This is your place now. It is a good place. Please stay.” This was repeated every morning, for some time. Each time, Nana seemed to reflect on his words, understand, and decide not to break out.

Then, one morning, she came right up to the fence. Intuitively, Mr. Anthony went to her, overcoming his nervousness. She looked at him with her wise, old eyes, and reached out her trunk to whuffle at him. Trust had forged its bond. He then decided he could let them out of the boma, (their early compound), into the wider expanse of the sanctuary, which has now grown to 4500 hectares. “Something happened between Nana and me,” he writes, “a moment of connection. It gave me a sliver of hope.”

Trust grew among the herd, which settled in and did not try to escape again.

We know elephants, like whales, can communicate across vast distances, sometimes at ultrasonic frequencies humans can’t hear. Their rumblings can be felt traveling underground by other herds for as much as six kilometres.  Mr. Anthony noted that they somehow intuited across vast distances when certain important events occurred, such as the birth of his sons, or his return from a trip abroad. They came to meet his babies, as they had come to present their calves to him. They always came to welcome him home.

Mr. Anthony writes, “In our noisy cities, we tend to forget the things that our ancestors knew at a gut level: that the wilderness is alive, that its whispers are there for us all to hear – and to respond to.” At the end of his book, he summarizes, “The most important lesson I learned is that there are no walls between humans and elephants except those we put up ourselves. Until we allow not only elephants, but all living creatures their place in the sun, we can never be whole ourselves.” I agree.

When he died suddenly of a heart attack in 2012 at the age of 61, twenty elephants walked for twelve hours to his house, where they stood for two days and two nights to pay their deep respects in his honour.

To make this even more uncanny, Mr. Anthony died away from home, in another country. Yet the elephants, many miles away across the reserve, somehow knew he was gone.  His wife, Francoise Malby-Anthony, in her book An Elephant in My Kitchen, wrote about this: “We hadn’t seen them in months. Why now? Why this exact weekend?….To me, it makes perfect sense. When my husband’s heart stopped, something stirred in theirs, and they crossed the miles of wilderness to mourn with us, to pay their respects, just as they do when one of their own has died.”

Even more astonishing, on the same day each subsequent year, they marched to the house again in his honour. This Knocks. Me. Out. Elephants never forget a kindness, and we know that elephants grieve. (To find out more about Thula Thula, click on this link:

There is a larger landscape
than the one we see.

—Sarah Ban Breathnach

We’ve all read stories of dogs traveling great distances to return home, or re-unite with a beloved companion. Howie was a Persian cat who traveled 1,000 miles across the Australian Outback to return home. Truly remarkable.

Dolphin skin is so sensitive, it can feel sound waves in the water; their echolocation and communication system is highly evolved, much of it, as with elephants, beyond the human auditory range. The noise of boat motors and propellers must be excruciating for them.

I found fascinating the authors of Animalkind’s explanation that the mystery of flight begins, not in wings or feathers, but in birds’ light, hollow bones that make it easier to lift. The bones are full of tiny air sacs that take in oxygen independent of the lungs, which allows the birds to sustain the energy needed to fly. I didn’t know that. Bird songs serve a practical purpose; they call mates, find their flock, scare intruders, warn about predators. They use distinct notes in correct order.

The authors explain that fish feel pain and are aware of themselves as individuals. I have a friend who tapes pictures to her fishbowl, and says her fish spends time looking at them; it shows interest when the pictures are changed for new ones. Wow.

My grandson, at the age of nine, turned vegan, saying, “I don’t want to eat anything that has a face.” He is a man now, still not eating anything that has a face.

We are sharing the world with feeling creatures. This is why it hurts my heart when I read about the excruciating lives so many animals live under human domination.

The words of Jenny Leading Cloud of the White River Sioux speak to me:

“The buffalo and the coyote are our brothers; the birds, our cousins. Even the tiniest ant, even a louse, even the smallest flower you can find – they are all relatives. We end our prayers with the words Mitakuye Oyasin – All Our Relations – and that includes everything that grows, crawls, creeps, hops and flies on this continent.”

I long for the day when enough of the population awakens to the plight of animals to demand legislation to protect these gentle beings. The beyond-human realm is vast and largely unregulated. We scroll past the horrors; we can’t bear to look. But once we know, we can’t not know that a world of sentient beings who cannot speak are telling us in every way they can that they need our help and protection.

For this week’s challenge, speak for animals, or let the animals speak. You can write about wildlife refuges, the need for them and the challenges. Or choose an animal and write a poem in its voice as a non-human being. What is its song, what does it love or fear or need? How does the climate crisis impact it? I am waiting with both fear and anticipation to find out!

— Sherry

earthweal open link weekend #51


Happy New Year earrhwealers, and welcome to our 51st open link weekend and first of 2021. Gotta get used to using that new number!

Share a favorite poem and stop by your fellow linkers and comment.

Open link lasts til midnight EST Sunday night when we make room for the first weekly challenge of the new year. Sherry steps in with one she has titled, “When Animals Speak.”

Have fun!

— Brendan