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?
AN ENCAMPMENT AT MORNING
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)
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)
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)
What a prompt! It really gets to te crux of the matter. Just one point – I don’t want to nitpick but as I know people who are directly affected by the floods I just wanted to put the record straight. Last week’s Australian floods happened in eastetn Australia – in some cases right on the land that suffered so terribly in the 2020 bushfires. Not only is climate change alarming it can be unspeakably cruel!
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Good catch Suzanne, my thought is upside down and backwards in the Southern Hemisphere. It is awful that the climate scourge has been harshest with two completely different elements. Cruel indeed. Thanks for the alert – Brendan
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Thanks for not be offended by my correction. 🙂
Thanks for sharing.
Oh wow, Brendan, what a spectacular essay! Well done. There is a lot of scope for inspiration here. I have not yet seen My Octopus Teacher but they say it is wonderful and heartbreaking. I love “words lifted from their leaves.” Yes. And I love the vision that we are simply one universe among many – a relief, actually, given our current state of affairs.
Thanks Sherry – I’ve seen some of that documentary, I love encounters between species that aren’t fatal, but even fructive …
Thanks Brandon for another all encompassing expansive prompt! I’ve more to say on this but one is a fickle mistress
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You really gave us a challenge here, Brendan. I don’t know if it’s even possible to rise to it, but we all must try. I watched and loved ‘My Octopus Teacher’ – I even dreamt of the Octopus afterwards. We are a part of nature and therein lies the spirit of our humanity.
Much to digest here. Thank you for the prompt.
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The Octopus Teacher expanded my heart, as this essay opened my mind. Sometimes I take my doses of reality in speculative fiction which can end without the turning. One amazing and unexpected turning that may interest you is in Sheri Tepper’s The Family Tree. Thank you for continuing to write. We need the challenge.
I loved Octopus Teacher too, it has lingered and slithered in my heart’s eye … I’ll look up The Family Tree. Speculative fiction does a great job of opening so many doors.
Reaching back to a Valerie Kaur inspiration for one kind of turning, gentle tho it may start with violence.
Update: The court ruled, unsurprisingly, in favour of the logging company, which means protesters will begin to be arrested at Fairy Creek. Outrageous, with only two or three percent of old growth left that they will cut it down. I hope thousands come to blockade as they did for Clayoquot Sound. The government is in the pocket of big industry. So disheartening.
Economic interests trump environmental ones every time in the court, or all too routinely. In Powers’ The Overstory, the only option for the protestors was then was to firebomb the corporate machinery. To woeful consequence, but what do you do when no human power can save the old trees?
Reaching back to a Valerie Kaur inspiration for one kind of turning, gentle tho it may start with violence.
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