earthweal weekly challenge: TURNING POINTS (CHTHULUCENE SQUIGGLES)

Endosymbiosis: Homage to Lynn Margulis, Shoshanah Dubliner, 2012


For me, reading and writing, walking and listening are the earthly rhythms of poetry. In all of these there have been turning points which led me through new doors.

First: A found experience: I met a woman, once, twice, who knows how many times, with all the waves in the world crashing nearby. Lyrics I was scrawling for a rock lobster anthem softened something to my eye. I happened on the poetry section at the local library where found slim volumes of wonder by Mary Oliver and Ranier Maria Rilke. I took notice the canopy of trees in my small town on a morning’s walk. Words lifted from their leaves.

In every experience it was like waking from a dream into the greater one I call, in private, with you all, Poetry. A watery experience, natal and juvenile, both the whale and her baptismal font. A transit and a discovery, first shore to Ultima Thule, of an awareness borne. (Ergo my screen handle of Brendan.) And then: the change.

Spring is uproarious here in Central Florida, daily temps topping into the 90s, the air a drench of citrus blossom and jasmine, the afternoons breezy and cloudless. (So begins the wildfire season.) The rainy season is a month or two away — who knows, with our Earth’s climate a poked angry bear. When it comes amid the tumult storm and worse, resulting in high and higher humidities drenching this state with an equivalent of sea-level rise already accomplished, drowning us in mosquito-thick air. It is a soppy heaviness of the spirit which does a wintry thing to poems, freezing them with drowning infinitude. (Come June we live in total air conditioning.)

Thus, here, I prepare. Yesterday I planted two rose bushes where they should savor the wild sun. Gotta get the sunpatiens and vinca in behind the back porch, trim the crepe myrtles, replace the white petunias in the flowerboxes and do something else for ground cover on the island in front of the kitchen window.

Such local springtime activities par with the world’s emergence from the long shadow of pandemic. A slow and raw spring tide of resumption. Here in Florida where in the name of good business we have few safety rules, spring breakers have overrun Miami Beach. Local health officials have put in a curfew on many nights and tensions run high among threatened. The COVID variants are dominant from Tallahassee to the Keys. A fourth wave of infection is blooming with the jasmine in the Sunshine State, so the pandemic is far from over.

Post-pandemic spring is, like our future, unevenly distributed. Where you read this may be back of this moment; far south of here, autumn leaves are falling. We have friends in town who are moving to New Zealand where a seemingly wiser future is well underway. But no matter where we live, we all are witness to changes happening to our beloved Earth that will be measured in millennia for humankind and millions of years for whatever remnant of life survives us.

Earthweal wakes to its second year asking where there is to go and grow. In 2020 we were busy taking stock of the moment, observing elemental changes in storm and rising seas and wildfires, in vanishing wildlife and the insanity of human mastery. We looked for sacred landscapes and our entanglement with orders living and nonliving. We grieved for the lost and heard the songs of ghosts. We celebrated seasons and festivals. We explored the relations of nature and culture, we sought a language for resistance and found mentors in masks and shamans and wise women. We felt joy and reverence and gratitude amid our despair and fury and shame.

A busy year. Have we said it all? Have we found a way into a better future or does it feel like we are circling the same doom?

Poetry – the art of dreaming next rooms — suggests we keep trying.

For this challenge, I’d like to play with the notion of a turning point of the human dominated end of life on earth to a squiggly pluriverse where we are just one star of a known galaxy in vast universe of joy we do not.

This turn of truth is out in wide view for some, but for me I had to wander to this point, reading and writing and walking and listening.

About five years ago, one book woke me to the harrowing advent of the Anthropocene and its unscrolling road of climate catastrophe. (I was late to the party.)

The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway (Columbia University Press, 2014) is a science-fictional account of our next 300 years. In their tale, based on a shared pedigree in the history of science, no one gets around to addressing climate change fast enough, coastal cities flood, continents burn and pestilence spreads. Governments fail to address the problems of food scarcity and mass migration and just about everything collapses. (China, the only country with a central government strong enough to relocate millions, and dominates for a time.)

Lets pick up their narrative set in a time fifty years forward of our current inaction addressing the brewing problem. The account by this 23d century scientist of the Second People’s Republic of China describes the catastrophic events later in this century:

Over the course of the next two decades (from 2073 to 2093), approximately 90 percent of the ice sheet broke apart, disintegrated, and melted, driving up sea level approximately five meters across most of the globe. Meanwhile, the Greenland Ice Sheet, long thought to be less stable than the Antarctic Ice Sheet, began its own disintegration. As summer melting reached the center of the Greenland Ice Sheet, the east side began to separate from the west. Massive ice breakup ensued, adding another two meters to mean global sea level rise. These cryogenic events were soon referred to as the Great Collapse, although some scholars now use the term more broadly to include the interconnected social, economic, political, and demographic collapse that ensued.

Analysts had predicted that an eight-meter sea level rise would dislocate 10 percent of the global population. Alas, their estimates proved low: the reality was closer to 20 percent. Although records for this period are incomplete, it is likely that during the Mass Migration 1.5 billion people were displaced around the globe, either directly from the impacts of sea level rise or indirectly from other impacts of climate change, including the secondary dislocation of inland peoples whose towns and villages were overrun by eustatic refugees. Dislocation contributed to the Second Black Death, as a new strain of the bacterium Yersinia pestis emerged in Europe and spread to Asia and North America.

in the Middle Ages, the Black Death killed as much as half the population of some parts of Europe; this second Black Death had similar effects. Disease also spread among stressed nonhuman populations. Although accurate statistics are scant because twentieth-century scientists did not have an inventory of total global species, it is not unrealistic to estimate that 60 to 70 percent of species were driven to extinction. … (31)

The only thing that saves humanity from complete extinction is the release of a genetically-altered lichen around 2090 which devours enormous amounts of carbon from the atmosphere and slows the runaway effect, giving humanity a chance to rebuild. Eventually about a half million survivors live in floating houses in the swamps of the 23d-century North Pole.

A sprung freak lichen sounds like a ghost in the machine, but if that’s what it takes to save us, yay. And while there’s nothing like a backward glance to see clearly what’s happening in our present, other books I soon encountered put the problem of the Anthropocene more straight-forwardly succinct, like Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature and Climate Change (2006), Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature(1989) and David Wallace-Wells’ planetary pot-boiler The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming (2019).

Such works paint a devastating picture of the Anthropocene. But how did we get here, and what can be done? For that I found another descriptor of the problem: Capitalocene. Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (2015) clearly and convincingly describes the forces of free market fundamentalism which have trapped us into this oncrushing cycle.

At the heart of this material fundamentalism is the time-worn belief that Earth is lode of oil, minerals, gold, food and other resources ripe for endless extraction. It is, she writes,

The mentality that allowed so many of us, and our ancestors, to believe that we could relate to the earth with such violence in the first place—to dig and drill out the substances we desired while thinking little of the trash left behind, whether in the land and water where the extraction takes place, or in the atmosphere, once the extracted material is burned. This carelessness is at the core of an economic model some political scientists call “extractivism,” a term originally used to describe economies based on removing ever more raw materials from the earth, usually for export to traditional colonial powers, where “value” was added. And it’s a habit of thought that goes a long way toward explaining why an economic model based on endless growth ever seemed viable in the first place. Though developed under capitalism, governments across the ideological spectrum now embrace this resource-depleting model as a road to development, and it is this logic that climate change calls profoundly into question.

Extractivism is a nonreciprocal, dominance-based relationship with the earth, one purely of taking. It is the opposite of stewardship, which involves taking but also taking care that regeneration and future life continue. Extractivism is the mentality of the mountaintop remover and the old-growth clear-cutter. It is the reduction of life into objects for the use of others, giving them no integrity or value of their own—turning living complex ecosystems into “natural resources,” mountains into “overburden” (as the mining industry terms the forests, rocks, and streams that get in the way of its bulldozers). It is also the reduction of human beings either into labor to be brutally extracted, pushed beyond limits, or, alternatively, into social burden, problems to be locked out at borders and locked away in prisons or reservations. In an extractivist economy, the interconnections among these various objectified components of life are ignored; the consequences of severing them are of no concern.

Against this titan presence in all of our lives — the global supply chain and its endless appetite for convenient consumption is buttressed by an imagination factory of ad agencies and lobbyists —  Klein urges radical change along a dozen practical venues, from blockades of drilling and pipeline infrastructure, divestment of extraction assets, clearing the skies and promoting renewal. She writes,

Resistance to high-risk extreme extraction is building a global, grassroots, and broad-based network the likes of which the environmental movement has rarely seen. And perhaps this phenomenon shouldn’t even be referred to as an environmental movement at all, since it is primarily driven by a desire for a deeper form of democracy, one that provides communities with real control over those resources that are most critical to collective survival—the health of the water, air, and soil. In the process, these place-based stands are stopping real climate crimes in progress.

Sherry’s challenge last week about deforestation at Fairy Point and the lengths loving people go to save the ancestor old growth (how little of it remains anywhere today!) is full-heartedly to this point.

The Green New Deal was the possibility on the horizon that climate change could be addressed and structurally remedied, at least in spirit (much like the Affordable Health Care Act). But then came The Empire Strikes Back and Donald Trump and his Death Star pro-industry berserker cabinet, tearing up decades of environmental regulation. For four years we’ve been soaked in misinformation, nasty-ass whiteman glory and shrill FOX News horns, a badass brass which captured headlines and turned stomachs worldwide.

That this woebegotten excuse for a human being could garner 70 million votes failing to get reelected speaks largely to the power of Capitalocene enchantment, that spell which blinds but the very richest to the traps and binds and damage it ultimately wreaks on the believer.

But if Trumpism were not enough, our joyride in extractionist market fundamentalism was crossed by the pandemic, itself climate feedback loop that crippled, for a time, the world’s economy and sent everyone into a wounded, wondering hiding. For a brief while, nature silenced what we could not, jets were grounded, cars didn’t drive and animals crept back into deserted city spaces from the wild.

But now we’re back – Trump is gone, Trumpism’s stinky is out of favor and the vaccinated world slowly emerges back into the commons. A $1.9 trillion dollar COVID relief bill cleared a bitterly divided US Congress almost intact — a jaw-dropping accomplishment that suggest the party line on Capital Hill has little resonance on Main Street.

Now a $3 trillion dollar infrastructure bill with renewable energy at its core is coming forward, and it may not encounter the same vitriolic response than when it was a Green New Deal election year punching bag. People want jobs and the weather extremes are getting old.

Have we reached a collective turning point? Klein quotes the novelist Arundhati Roy:

The first step towards reimagining a world gone terribly wrong would be to stop the annihilation of those who have a different imagination—an imagination that is outside of capitalism as well as communism. An imagination which has an altogether different understanding of what constitutes happiness and fulfillment. To gain this philosophical space, it is necessary to concede some physical space for the survival of those who may look like the keepers of our past, but who may really be the guides to our future.”

We’ll have to see. Will it be soon enough, and enough to budge the needle of the ages to come? So far all of our Anthropocene and Capitalocene miasmas are in crippling sight, from extreme flooding in eastern Australia to the constipated Suez Canal where a grounded freighter has the shipping colon of the world thoroughly blocked.

How to get moving out of this mess? It would seem a devouring Minotaur awaits both the Anthropocenic and Capitalocenic approaches; as I learned in AA, you can’t fix a diseased life with a broken brain.

Donna J. Haraway proposes a third course in her book Staying With the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (2016):

I am aligned with feminist environmentalist Eileen Crist when she writes against the managerial, technocratic, market-and-profit besotted, modernizing, and human-exceptionalist business-as-usual commitments of so much Anthropocene discourse. This discourse is not simply wrong-headed and wrong-hearted in itself; it also saps our capacity for imagination and caring for other worlds, both that exist precariously now (including those called wilderness, for all the contaminated history of the term in racist settler colonialism) and those we need to bring in alliance with other critters, for still possible recuperating pasts, presents and futures.

I don’t know about you, but I’m all for a view of this mess loaded with latent possibilities waiting to be explored, a way around the ends of humanity whose only proper response is guilt and despair. Well, why not invite everyone to the party? Haraway, again:

Unlike either the Anthropocene or the Capitalocene, the Chthulucene is made up of ongoing multipspecies stories and practices of becoming-with in times that remain at stake, in precarious times, in which the world is not finished and the sky has not fallen—yet. We are at stake to each other. Unlike. the dominant dramas of Anthropocene and Capitalocene discourse, human beings are not the only important actors in the Chthulucene, with all other beings able simply to react. The order is reknitted: human beings are with and of the earth, and the biotic and abiotic powers of this earth are the main story. (54-5)

The term Chthulucene first started for Haraway with a spider of the Northern California forest, Pimoa chthulu who “gets her generic name from the language of the Goshute people of Utah and her specific name from denizens of the depths, from the abyssal and elemental entities, called chthonic. (31) It was a small step then for Haraway to adjust the second name to chthulu, “a name for an elsewhere and elsewhen that was, still is, and might yet be: the Chthulucene. I remember that tentacle comes from the Latin tentaculum, meaning ‘feeler,’ and tentare, meaning ‘to feel’ and ‘to try’: and I know that my leggy spider has many-armed allies. Myriad tenacles will be needed to tell the story of the Chthulucene.”

Searching for a nonvertebrate ally to this cause, Haraway then became entranced with octopuses, “called spiders of the sea, not only for their tentacularity, but also for their predatory habits… They are good figures for the luring, beckoning, gorgeous, finite, dangerous precarities of the Chthulucene. This Chulucene is neither sacred nor secular; this earthly worldling is thoroughly terran, muddled, and mortal— and at stake now.” (55)

Such critter-like thinking does expand the mental horizon past the linear metronome of Me, Me, Me, Me. What about us, cried the seals to St. Moling. We, too, are sons and daughters of God. Such relations were possible for the monotheism of Only Homo Sapiens, back when our cortexes were diffuse and relational and echoleate for survival in trees. And there is a way back to it. As Daedalus knew, the mystery of the Labyrinth was solved by a decisive turn at the middle.

Haraway writes of a turning point in the disciplines.

A complex systems engineer named Brad Werner addressed a session of the meetings of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco in 2012. His point was quite simple: scientifically speaking, global capitalism “has made the depletion of resources so rapid, convenient and barrier-free that ‘earth-human systems’ are becoming dangerously unstable in response.” Therefore, he argued, the only scientific thing to do is revolt! Movements, not just individuals, are critical. What is required is action and thinking that do not fit within the dominant capitalist culture; and, said Werner, this is a matter not of opinion but of geophysical dynamics.

Haraway adds, “Werner is not the first or last researcher and maker of matters of concern to make argue this point, but his clarity at a scientific meeting is bracing. Revolt! Think we must; we must think. Actually think, not like Eichmann the Thoughtless. Of course, the devil is in the details—how to revolt? How to matter and not just want to matter?” (47)

How to matter and not just want to: That’s the challenge this week. What is the turning point that gets us out of this labyrinth of fated humanity? Who or what must we embrace? How do we find our way into the Totality? What are our responsibilities as the only critter in that mix with the power to shape according to our will? How to merge with the squiggly collective when we can’t come close to herding the collective will of Humanity?

There’s a poetry for this, ripe with turning points, gazing at the portals of possibility beyond. Maybe these turning points will suggest a course ahead for earthweal out of guilt and despair.

Take your shoes of and jump in the mudpuddle: There’s plenty of room for all and spring is full of gusto! What does your reading and writing and walking and listening say to you?

— Brendan




W.S. Merwin

A migrant tribe of spiders
spread tents at dusk in the rye stubble
come day I see the color
of the planet under their white-beaded tents
where the spiders are bent
by shade fires in damp September
to their live instruments
and I see the color of the planet
when their tents go from above it
as I come that way in a breath cloud
learning my steps
among the tents rising invisibly like the shapes of snowflakes
we are words on a journey
not the inscriptions of settled people

from The Compass Flower (1977)




Mary Oliver

And now as the iron rinds over
the ponds start dissolving,
you come, dreaming of ferns and flowers
and new leaves unfolding,
upon the brash
turnip-hearted skunk cabbage
slinging its bunches leaves up
through the chilling mud.
You kneel beside it. The smell
is lurid and flows out in the most
unabashed way, attracting
into itself a continual spattering
of protein. Appalling its rough
green caves, and the thought
of the thick root nested below, stubborn
and powerful as instinct!
But these are the woods you love,
where the secret name
of every death is life again — a miracle
wrought surely not of mere turning
but of dense and scalding reenactment. Not
tenderness, not longing, but daring and brawn
pull down the frozen waterfall, the past.
Ferns, leaves, flowers, the last subtle
refinements, elegant and easeful, wait
to rise and flourish.
What blazes the trail is not necessarily pretty.

from American Primitive (1983)




Galway Kinnell

On the tidal mud, just before sunset,
dozens of starfishes
were creeping. It was
as though the mud were a sky
and enormous, imperfect stars
moved across it as slowly
as the actual stars cross heaven.
All at once they stopped,
and as if they had simply
increased their receptivity
to gravity they sank down
into the mud; they faded down
into it and lay still; and by the time
pink of sunset broke across them
they were as invisible as
the true stars at daybreak.

from Mortal Acts, Mortal Words (1980)



earthweal open link weekend #62


Hi all,

Welcome to earthweal open link weekend #62. Share a favorite poem and visit your fellow linkers and comment.

The open link forum will last until midnight EST Sunday, March 28, when the next weekly challenge will roll out. Thanks Sherry for your great work on the last challenge.

See ya in the fray!




earthweal weekly challenge: DEFORESTATION (Last Stand at Fairy Creek)

Fairy Creek Valley (TJ Watt photo)


By Sherry Marr

All winter, through the blustery, windy, rainy cold, a group of grassroots forest defenders have shivered in tents and vehicles, standing guard at blockades to stop the logging company Teal Jones from moving into the heart of the pristine Fairy Creek forest, on unceded Pacheedaht territory, some of the very last of the old growth left on Vancouver Island.



As you can see on the map, there is very little left of low-elevation, high-biodiversity rainforest. Only 3%. Yes. Three. Orange shows that most of the forest on the Island has already been logged. The purple areas are what is presently “protected”, though still at risk of changing policies, after other forests are lost; green is unprotected and on the chopping block.

It is “talk and log” as usual, with government, while the logging companies decimate, not just trees, but ecosystems, water systems, habitat for wildlife, the biodiversity necessary for health and survival of all species. Including us. While scientists and conservationists frantically search for technological responses to the climate crisis, they are cutting down the best absorbers of carbon on the planet: trees.


Tree Defenders at Fairy Creek (Kieran Oudshorn/CBC photo)


This feels very personal to me. In 1993, I stood on the road to protect the forests of Clayoquot Sound, in the single biggest instance of Canadian civil disobedience at that time. Galvanized by the evening news, thousands came to join us from all over the world.  By the end of that glorious summer, 900 were charged and many drew fines and jail time for blockading during what is now known as the Summer of ’93.

In the end, the logging company withdrew. We made it too much trouble for them to continue; they went somewhere else. Clayoquot Sound was declared a biosphere region. This does not mean the forest is protected forever. We have lost an unbelievable amount of trees since then, and are losing more every year. But, so far, our mountainsides are still green and large tracts of what is now the very last of the Island’s intact old growth rainforest are still standing.

The Summer of ’93 showed that when enough of us stand firm, we have an impact. It is even more urgent that we stop the “talk and log” farce: endless discussion while the logging companies chop as fast as they can. It is unbelievable to me, all these years later, that we are still fighting this battle, with hardly anything left to save, even as the climate crisis accelerates.


TJ Watt photo


It is unfathomable to me that clearcutting still continues, that the trees are then exported to other countries.  For years, our old growth went to California to be made into phone books. We are a sadly unenlightened species.

Close to home – one short block away from me – is Tonquin forest. Half of it is slated to be felled to make way for a housing development, and they are already talking about Phase II. My heart sinks. To have this treasureof old growth forest to walk through is such a gift.

Trees have a certain consciousness. They communicate; they hold hands under the forest floor through their root systems, which are interconnected. They pass information when danger comes. I can only imagine their terror when the grapple-yarders roll in. It is going to hurt my heart, listening to this beloved forest falling, hearing from my yard the whine of the saws, the thumps as those huge bodies hit the ground.

In Tofino today, all these years after the Summer of ’93, we still do not have a tree protection bylaw. A group of us are working with District Council to develop one, but they are dragging their heels. I fear by the time it is passed Tonquin Forest might be nearly gone. Tourists come here from countries that have no old growth left; they are in awe of the treasure we have in our back yard. In a biosphere region, one would think trees and wildlife would be safe. But in the past few years we have seen more trees come down than ever before, thousands alongside the highway for a miles-long bike path paralleling Long Beach.

And now they are coming for Fairy Creek, where the tree defenders are determined to make their Last Stand. They have been blocking two entries into the valley since August 2020.

A few hundred people have come and gone during these months to support or participate in blockades; hopefully many more will come, if we need to repeat the uprising of Clayoquot Summer. “Worth More Standing” say their signs. “No Jobs on a Dead Planet.” The few jobs the logging company touts as justifying continued clearcutting are not worth the cost, to the Island, and the planet. These jobs will end soon, as the very last of the irreplaceable old growth forest disappears.

Years back, had the province legislated a requirement for sustainable, selective logging, with trees staying local and used for value-added industry, (all the things we asked for decades ago), we could have protected forestry jobs forever. But logging companies don’t care about sustainability – or loggers; only profit.

The B.C. government recently released a report stating they would defer logging in nine locations across the province, accounting for 353,000 hectares. The Fairy Creek watershed was not included in that deferment. The protectors say this is not enough; they are calling for a cessation of logging of old-growth in the province to save the precious little that is left.

“Our ancient old growth is being taken down faster than ever,” said one protest participant. “There is no room to lose any more. We are losing our biodiversity … but we aren’t going to stop. Some of us are determined to save the future for all of us.”*

So far, since it was winter, the logging company has not challenged the blockade. But now it is spring. They are ready to roll.

On March 5th, Teal Jones went to court seeking an injunction which would allow the arrest and removal of the protectors. The judge adjourned the hearing, granting the tree defenders three weeks to assemble their defense, “in the interests of justice.” This, and the fact the judge is a woman, gives me some hope the defenders will at least be heard. I say “at least” because there is no winning against corporations in a capitalistic system. But we have to try.

It is insane that we are removing, like mad surgeons, the very last of the lungs of the planet. We need the big trees standing. More carbon is sequestered by a 500 year old tree than a whole acre of seedlings. Our grandkids will be waiting decades for newly-planted carbon-breathers to grow. The greed and denial in a system whose bottom line is always money is already being felt in storms, wildfires, floods, melting poles and warming temperatures on land and sea. My Irish fatalism is clicking in when I look ahead five years, ten years. Years our grandchildren will be living through.

I hope others will come to stand with the tree defenders at Fairy Creek, as they did in Clayoquot Sound in 1993. The issue is even more urgent now. Elders from the Pacheedaht territory have been to the camp and have spoken at rallies before the legislature in Victoria about the need to protect the forest.

Personally, I wish all of the remaining old growth on the Island, the scarcity left by our colonial ravishing of the land, could be given to First Nations to manage – they, who lived in harmony with the land for ten thousand years, who observe strict protocols about use of resources in a manner sustainable to the seventh generation. What must it be like for them to observe our wanton ways, our sense of privilege and entitlement, and the devastating impact we have had on their ancient culture, on the wild world and its human and non-human beings?

Will Fairy Creek, one of the last of the old growth forests still alive, be the next magical grove to fall to the voracious, insatiable maw of industry? Not if the tree defenders have anything to say about it. Stay tuned.


For this week’s challenge, write a poem about the trees in your part of the world. Has forest loss impacted the area where you live? How has it affected human and non-human life?  Contemplate the direct connection between forest loss and the accelerating climate crisis. Have you felt those effects yet? Do you have any old growth left? Paint us a picture of your particular landscape as it relates to trees.

— Sherry


earthweal open link weekend #61


Hi all,

Lots of “visionary” contributions this week to the ANIMAL GAZE challenge! Thanks to all for participating.

For our week-ending open link forum, share a favorite poem new or old and visit your fellow linkers and comment.

Open links will be accepted until midnight EST Sunday, March 21.

Sherry takes over the reins next week with an important and timely challenge on saving the world’s forests.

Let the fun begin!


earthweal weekly challenge: THE ANIMAL GAZE


On my morning walk the other day I cut back through the downtown of my little Florida hamlet, a popular day trip destination for folks weary of the suburban megalopolis of Orlando. At 6 AM, all was lit in stillness, the shops and restaurants poised to spring into another chirpy day of commerce. Spring is here.

Beyond the defunct train station (rail cars use to load up a massive haul of local citrus bound for Northern markets), I came upon a row of dumpsters upon which black vultures had massed. They nest in a wild area just south of town along Lake Dora, and on windy afternoons you can watch hundreds of them spirals in the thermals. I wondered if their large population was partially due to all of these waste receptacles in a busy restaurant town. Vultures not going in and out of the dumpsters were arraigned on the nearby roof a real estate building, a row of ten or fifteen dark elders gazing at the growing light of dawn.

Are half-eaten burgers and fishwiches as nourishing as the dead? What does that make of vultures? And of us? Exploring the extinction of several vulture species, Thom van Dooren writes,

Death must be thought about not as a simple ending, but as completely central to the ongoing life of multispecies communities, in which we are all ultimately food for one another . As Heraclitus succinctly put it: “the one living the other’s death, and dying the other’s life.” In this context, vultures are at the heart of life and death’s transformative potential. But instead of taking life to produce their nourishment, they consume only that which is already dead, pulling dead flesh back into processes of nourishment and growth. I suspect that alongside the insects, bacteria, fungi, and other organisms that also make their living breaking down the dead, vultures have a special place in life’s heart. I cannot help but think here about Jean-Luc Nancy’s beautiful injunction not to separate life from death: “To isolate death from life—not leaving each one intimately woven into the other, with each one intruding upon the other’s core [coeur]—this is what one must never do” (Flight Ways: Critical Perspectives on Animals, p. 48)

Can death be domesticated? Did its deacons gaze upon me that morning foraging for mine, or were they like cows mooing for morning hay?

Then I saw the eagle, atop a nearby building, bulkier head and white crest differentiating her from the vultures. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one in my 25 years here . I was enthralled with the sight of it up there staring down on me. Even in the half-light, her yellow eyes glared. What a majestic bird! There was a great flapping of wings; then another eagle lowered down next to it. How narrowed and diminished I felt in their gaze. Too big for prey but way down here where I walked, incapable of communicating, part of the monstrous human weal which was fast erasing their habitat and meaning and glory. A diminishment which does something to their instinct as well as ours. (Ah, but we’re used to it …)

In 1986 Barry Lopez published Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape, an account of his 5-year stint as a biologist working in the Artic. Change was coming fast to that rough country, with oil exploration fast disrupting the fragile ecological balance of the wilderness. He writes of one day coming up out of a snooze laying on arctic tundra one summer with that creeping feeling of being watched: He looks around and sees a lemming staring at him from a few dozen feet away. “I lay there knowing something eerie ties us to the world of animals. Sometimes the animals pull you backward into it. You share hunger and fear with them like salt in blood.” But all that is most human in us sets up boundaries and walls to that connection:

Whenever I meet a collared lemming on a summer day and took its stare I would think: Here is a tough animal. Here is a valuable life. In a heedless moment years from now, will I remember more machinery here than mind? If it could tell me of its will to survive, would I think of biochemistry, or would I think of the analgous human desire? If it could speak of the time since the retreat of the ice, would I have the patience to listen?

Arctic Dreams won the National Book Award for nonfiction thanks to Lopez’ keen eye. in the decades since its publication, climate change has even more drastically affected that landscape in. How can we look arctic wildness in the eye now, with it melting virtually from sight?

Further on in my walk and now into residential neighborhoods, I came upon hawk in someone’s front yard, standing there perhaps on prey though I couldn’t see it: Just standing there, head turning slowly as I walked past maybe fifteen feet away. I could tell the bird was tensed to fly but instead it just stared at me. A hooded blackness, sharper than my unaided eyes could ever train. (The vision of humans is straight ahead; our eyes have central fovea which allow us a narrow distant focus. Hawks have both central and peripheral fovea in their eyes, allowing a more complex gaze, at once far and wide. Hawks can also see more colors than humans, diving deeper into the ultraviolet spectrum. Our gaze would be crippling to their task.)


The Giant Magellan Telescope is now being assembled and will eventually be installed in the Atacama Desert in Chile, a remote area 8,000 feet above sea level. With a 85-foot-wide mirror assembled from seven massive castings at the University of Arizona, the Magellan Telescope will have 10 times the resolution of the Hubble Space Telescope. As one scientist put it, someone in Washington DC will be able to distinguish the ball from the bat that hit it in San Francisco. Magellan will help astronomers gain deeper data into how galaxies form and grow, finding both the first sources of light and peer with greater clarity at planets much like our own (which are now difficult to see due to light from their nearby star). Humanity’s eye will become that of the universe staring at itself: How deep and penetrating our gaze will be: But the wisdom at both ends of our evolution tells us we must have the hawk’s gaze in understanding what see.

And how will we be held in that gaze? The telescope will be operational by the year 2030; will that be too late for us to see the wasteland grandeur of our error?

In her book Fathoms: The World In the Whale, Rebecca Giggs writes about encountering the look of the whale eye.

A sperm whale looked squarely at him, in the Azores, and the writer Philip Hoare said, “this was not the eye of a horse, or a cow. It absolutely was reading me.” A male grey whale returned his stare off Baja, and the journalist Charlie Siebert wrote in New York magazine, “I’d never felt so beheld in my life … (I)t felt to me as if he were taking one long and quizzical look in the mirror.” A killer whale trainee from Florida said to documentarians, “When you look into their eyes, you know someone is home. Someone is looking back. “A whale’s stare, according to marine biologist Ken Balcomb, is “much more powerful than a dog looking at you. A dog might want your attention. The whales, it’s a different feeling. It’s more like they’re searching inside you.”



I felt that gaze the other day in the raptors of life and death, both vitally affected and afflicted by my looking back. Reading the beastiary of my soul. Flying that far, diving that deep.

“Few things provoke like the presence of wild animals,” Lopez writes. “They pull at us like tidal currents with questions of volition, of ethical involvement, of ancestry.”

What are animals looking for? What are they seeing? That’s the essence of this week’s challenge, THE ANIMAL GAZE. Tell us of your encounters with that gaze. What do we share with that gaze, how do we differ? How can we understand it, considered in the marbled and congealed in masses of neurocortical fibers and dense clusters of culture and language and all-too-habitual mastery? And what does that gaze read in us?

I’ll leave you with my favorite animal gaze poem, written by (surprise surprise) Ranier Maria Rilke and translated by Stephen Mitchell.

The Eighth Duino Elegy

Ranier Maria Rilke

With all its eyes the natural world looks out
into the Open. Only our eyes are turned
backward, and surround plant, animal, child
like traps, as they emerge into their freedom.
We know what is really out there only from
the animal’s gaze; for we take the very young
child and force it around, so that it sees
objects — not the Open, which is so
deep in animals’ faces. Free from death.
We, only, can see death; the free animal
has its decline in back of it, forever,
and God in front, and when it moves, it moves
already in eternity, like a fountain.

Never, not for a single day, do we have
before us that pure space into which flowers
endlessly open. Always there is World
and never Nowhere without the No: that pure
unseparated element which one breathes
without desire and endlessly knows. A child
may wander there for hours, through the timeless
stillness, may get lost in it and be
shaken back. Or someone dies and is it.
For, nearing death, one doesn’t see death; but stares
beyond, perhaps with an animal’s vast gaze.
Lovers, if the beloved were not there
blocking the view, are close to it, and marvel…
As if by some mistake, it opens for them
behind each other… but neither can move past
the other, and it changes back to World.
Forever turned toward objects, we see in them
the mere reflection of the realm of freedom,
which we have dimmed. Or when some animal
mutely, serenely, looks us through and through.
That is what fate means: to be opposite,
to be opposite and nothing else, forever.

If the animal moving toward us so securely
in a different direction had our kind of
consciousness—, it would wrench us around and drag us
along its path. But it feels its life as boundless,
unfathomable, and without regard
to its own condition: pure, like its outward gaze.
And where we see the future, it sees all time
and itself within all time, forever healed.
Yet in the alert, warm animal there lies
the pain and burden of an enormous sadness.
For it too feels the presence of what often
overwhelms us: a memory, as if
the element we keep pressing toward was once
more intimate, more true, and our communion
infinitely tender. Here all is distance;
there it was breath. After that first home,
the second seems ambiguous and drafty.

Oh bliss of the tiny creature which
remains forever inside the womb that was its shelter;
joy of the gnat which, still within, leaps up
even at its marriage: for everything is womb.
And look at the half-assurance of the bird,
which knows both inner and outer, from its source,
as if it were the soul of an Etruscan,
flown out of a dead man received inside a space,
but with his reclining image as the lid.
And how bewildered is any womb-born creature
that has to fly. As if terrified and fleeing
from itself, it zigzags through the air, the way
a crack runs through a teacup. So the bat
quivers across the porcelain of evening.

And we: spectators, always, everywhere,
turned toward the world of objects, never outward.
It fills us. We arrange it. It breaks down.
We rearrange it, then break down ourselves.

Who has twisted us around like this, so that
no matter what we do, we are in the posture
of someone going away? Just as, upon
the farthest hill, which shows him his whole valley
one last time, he turns, stops, lingers—,
so we live here, forever taking leave.


— Brendan