earthweal weekly challenge: DISPATCHES FROM THE EDGE


By Sherry Marr

This poem by Louise Erdrich really speaks to me as rivers rage throughout my province.


We watched from the house
as the river grew, helpless
and terrible in its unfamiliar body.
Wrestling everything into it,
the water wrapped around trees
until their life-hold was broken.
They went down, one by one,
and the river dragged off their covering.

Nests of the herons, roots washed to bones,
snags of soaked bark on the shoreline:
a whole forest pulled through the teeth
of the spillway. Trees surfacing
singly, where the river poured off
into arteries for fields below the reservation.

When at last it was over, the long removal,
they had all become the same dry wood.
We walked among them, the branches
whitening in the raw sun.
Above us drifted herons,
alone, hoarse-voiced, broken,
settling their beaks among the hollows.
Grandpa said, These are the ghosts of the tree people
moving among us, unable to take their rest.

Sometimes now, we dream our way back to the heron dance.
Their long wings are bending the air
into circles through which they fall.
They rise again in shifting wheels.
How long must we live in the broken figures
their necks make, narrowing the sky.

In mid-November, almost ten inches of rain from what is termed an atmospheric river hit B.C. – a month’s worth of rain in 24 hours. Major flooding occurred, three towns were evacuated, houses and cars underwater. Infrastructure crumbled: a dam broke, huge areas flooded, and sections of major highways and infrastructure collapsed. Three hundred people were trapped between two landslides and had to be helicoptered out.

The hardest hit area was Abbotsford, where, years ago, a lake was drained to convert the land for agriculture. It became a lake again during the flooding and thousands of livestock drowned in their long metal sheds. Scenes on the news were apocalyptic – water everywhere, people boating along what once were streets, trying to save the stranded. People on skidoos pulling cows who were up to their noses in water, trying to save at least some of the desperate creatures.

Sadly, there were some human deaths – a few people caught in two landslides on the highway. Some are still missing. 300 people were trapped between the two slides for 18 hours and were finally helicoptered out. There is an incalculable number of animal deaths, both domestic and wild. This hurts the worst.

The Sumas Prairie agricultural area in flood

Everyone set to in the rescue effort. Then the army was called in to help sandbag and shore up vulnerable areas. Frantically, repairs were made to the dike, and crews worked around the clock to make temporary repairs to crumbled highways so supply routes could be re-opened.

Time was of the essence, because two more atmospheric rivers were predicted to arrive just one week later. In Tofino, we are feeling it as I type, in extremely heavy rain.

Well, folks, this is us, and climate change just got very real. As I was typing this, my phone rang and Tofino’s emergency alert system warned that some local streets in Tofino have flooded, and the highway through the mountains, dangerous even in dry weather, is flooding and even more perilous.

The frustrating thing is these events have been triggered by decisions made twenty years ago, forty years ago  –  and decisions not made — to address a warming planet. Extraction capitalism, clearcutting and addiction to fossil fuels have gotten us where we are, along with governments’ refusal to make tough decisions, caring more about re-election than being stewards of resources for the people, and for future generations. Yet we kept re-electing them, while the Green party languishes for votes.

Tzeporah Berman of Vancouer has been an activist all her life. Her strong voice emerged during the Clayoquot Summer of 1993, and she has spent the years since working for climate justice. If we were to treat climate change as an actual emergency, Berman says, our response would look like this:

The single most important intervention is the one that so far no government has been willing to touch: cap fossil fuel use and scale it down, on a binding annual schedule, until the industry is mostly dismantled by the middle of the century. That’s it. This is the only fail-safe way to stop climate breakdown. If we want real action, this should be at the very top of our agenda.

But will anyone do it? Words about climate change are finally issuing forth from Ottawa, and from provincial officials. But we need more than words. With efforts focussed on reacting to climate events, when will they ever get around to being pro-active? The cost of cleanup after such devastation will cost far more than addressing climate change would have, especially if they had begun 40 years ago, when the science was clear.

Target dates of 2050 for lowering emissions are ludicrous, given where we are at right now.

I felt I should report this, since I am living in the middle of this new vestige of the climate crisis, following the heat dome we suffered in the summer, and then the wildfires.

But I wasn’t sure where to take it in terms of an earthweal challenge. Brendan suggested we write Verse Letters: a form of address, akin to dramatic monologue, to all parties involved – letters to the lost, perhaps; to those who caused the extinction;  or to those of us who are in the middle. They can be letters to fossil fuels, windmills, dead zones, to new life. I think I know who I want to address!

Let’s give it a whirl. Take it in whatever direction you want. If you prefer to write in a different form, please do. I am not strict.  I look forward to your responses.

earthweal open link weekend #94


Greetings all,

Hope the week has not been to wild or woolly, overfed or ripe — And welcome to earthweal open link weekend #94. Share a favorite poem and visit your fellow linkers to comment.

The open link forum lasts until midnight Sunday EST when the next weekly challenge rolls out.

Happy linking!


earthweal weekly challenge: PRAISING IS WHAT MATTERS



Greetings all —

Here up in the Northern Hemisphere, the year wanes speedily now with cold winds and lengthening nights. (Even in Florida, we get a sampling of it.) There are fortunate places and ones less so; recently British Columbia and Washington State have been rocked by torrential rains from an atmospheric river that have flooded infrastructure and caused landslides. Our heart and good wishes go out Sherry on Vancouver Island, where some of the hardest rains have fallen. We pray you stay safe and find a way to keep singing.

The twenty-first century continues to roll out in that wintry shade, even as elsewhere across the globe the seasons stroll toward summer. Much uncertainty and crisis in the second year of the pandemic, global supply chains snarled and governments increasingly unable to address the mounting climate crisis.

Here at earthweal, there is much to grieve—we have spent time recently with our extinct brethren —but we shouldn’t allow ourselves to freeze in the gathering shadows. Whatever the pent and fraught news of the day may be, step outside into the day and you’ll find there still is much to be grateful for. As they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, a grateful drunk will never drink again.

In the decade of the Great War, the Austrian poet Ranier Maria Rilke suffered deeply from a depression which kept him from writing. He had begun his great Duino Elegies, but the onset of the First World War and the turbulence in Europe had rendered him silent.

1921 he repaired to the 13th century Chateau Muzot in Switzerland (which belonged to a patron) and there began to source deep into his old roots. He attuned by translating works by Paul Valery and Michelangelo into German; and then, after learning of the death of young woman, a friend of his daughter Ruth, he suddenly found the frequency and in a brief creative burst which he termed “a hurricane of the spirit,” wrote in few days the first section of 26 sonnets for The Sonnets to Orpheus. He then turned his attention to the Elegies and finished them in five days; then returned to his Sonnets and completed the second section of 29 sonnets in two weeks. In a letter to a friend, he later called the burst “the most mysterious, most enigmatic dictation I have ever endured and achieved.”

Orpheus the ur-poet is the subject of Rilke’s sonnets, the Greek singer who (in Ovid’s telling) sang so beautifully he entranced beast and tree and even the stones; lost his beloved Eurydice on their wedding day and then failed to retrieve her from the land of death; and was in the end torn to pieces by the maenads of Dionysos, his soul finally joining his wife Eurydice in the afterlife. For Rilke, the master of poetry leads to a world entranced and alive — “the crystal cup that shattered even as it rang,” as he wrote in Sonnet 2.13.

Three of Rilke’s Sonnets I’d like to share here, for they resonate especially for me in this time of grieving and loss. In the United States we celebrate Thanksgiving this week, an American harvest festival with a dubious history. It is traditionally a time for a communal meal and offering thanks for the year’s blessings. Native Americans have a different take on this advent of white colonization, but let’s stay focused on the idea of giving thanks.

The first two sonnets are from early in the first sequence. In Sonnet 1.7, Rilke states that the very origin of song derives from the outward emotion of praise:

Praising is what matters!
He was summoned for that,
and came to us like the ore from a stone’s
silence. His mortal heart presses out
a deathless, inexhaustible wine.

Whenever he feels the god’s paradigm grip
his throat, the voice does not die in his mouth.
All becomes vineyard, all becomes grape,
ripened on the hills of his sensuous South.

Neither decay in the sepulchre of kings
nor any shadow that has fallen from the gods
can ever detract from his glorious praising.

For he is a herald who is with us always,
holding far into the doors of the dead
a bowl with ripe fruit worthy of praise.

(all translations by Stephen Mitchell, 1980)


As the embodiment of life, song is that very bowl of fruit, a passing mortal thing which is yet a deathless, inexhaustible wine. Can we praise this world, and by so doing, render it alive?

In the next sonnet (1.8), Rilke takes the song of praise toward its distant, darkest corners.

Only in the realm of Praising should Lament
walk, the naiad of the wept-for fountain,
watching over the stream of our complaint,
that it be clear upon the very stone

that bears the arch of triumph and the altar.—
Look: around her shoulders dawns the bright
sense that she may be the youngest sister
among the deities hidden in our heart.

Joy knows, and Longing has accepted,—
only Lament still learns; upon her beads,
night after night, she counts the ancient curse.

Yet awkward as she is, she suddenly
lifts a constellation of our voice,
glittering, into the pure nocturnal sky.

Our altars to grief: They are still learning what “Joy knows, and Longing has accepted.” A curious figure … They tend the purest water in the heart, and can weave a “glittering” “constellation of our voice.” But what of the leading line? “Only in the realm of Praising should Lament / walk …” Why is it essential that grief travel so?

The third sonnet is from the very end of the second series (2.29), and for me reads as a glorious benediction for our work to come:

Silent friend of many distances, feel
how your breath enlarges all of space.
Let your presence ring out like a bell
into the night. What feeds upon your

grows mighty from the nourishment thus offered.
Move through transformation, out and in.
What is the deepest loss that you have suffered?
If drinking is bitter, change yourself to wine.

In this immeasurable darkness, be the power
that rounds your senses in their magic ring,
the sense of their mysterious encounter.

And if the earthly no longer knows your name,
whisper to the silent earth: I’m flowing.
To the flashing water say: I am.

I first encounted Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus about a decade after Stephen Mitchell’s translation was first published in 1980, and they are probably my most frequently returned-to poems, read in sequence as if pouring out from an inexhaustible source. Different sonnets have resounded at different hours, but for me they sum the poet’s living-ness in praise of this world.

For this challenge, share a poem in praise of this Earth, this life, the heart and its deep love for the world around us. Let’s give thanks, earthweal style.




earthweal weekly challenge: EXTINCTION TALES


Greetings all, 

Not much to celebrate coming out of COP26: National entities agreed to work somewhat harder at curbing their fossil fuel consumption, yet even the starting points — what countries say they are emitting —are disturbingly far from the countries’ actual emissions.

It didn’t help that fossil fuel industry delegates outnumbered every national delegation, or that the conference had the highest carbon footprint of all United Nations environmental conferences, an estimated 102,500 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. Ouch.

That there is any lasting consensus might be an achievement in itself, but a heating globe only heeds results, and we are far, far short of sufficient ones.

So we go on. Australian coal mines are booming, urban heat has tripled since 1980s, India is drowning, poor countries hit hardest by climate change have their hands out to wealthy nations most responsible for the problem and the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu is underwater.

The stories are both daunting and haunting, yet as we say at earthweal, there is both grief and hope. Ed Yong at The Atlantic reports a strange tale of extinction, interdependence and solutions. Modern whaling technology has all but wiped out the blue whale population, taking their numbers down from about 350,000 to less than 1,000. In the space of a century, some 2 million baleen whales were killed. These whales feed voraciously on plankton and krill (before industrial whaling, about 430 million metric tons every year); and though you’d think that krill populations would be booming now, they are actually collapsing, ironically due to the loss of all those whale who annually dumped millions of tons of iron-rich poop into the sea. Without the whale poop, entire food systems were deprived of fertilizer, turning vast areas of the Antarctic Ocean into deserts. But there’s hope: scientists believe that by seeding the oceans with iron again, plankton would again start to populate and provide a food source for recovering whale populations. And there’s a bonus: plankton are devourers of carbon dioxide, making them an excellent agent for fighting climate change. So pour, baby, pour.

The natural sciences teach us that extinction of a particular species never happens in isolation; entire ecosystems thrive and shadow in tandem with them. How do we learn to see these grander webs? How do we describe them, what do they mean? That work seems to be an essential part of the present moment and is where the humanities are needed. Thom van Dooren calls for

… a thinking that inhabits complex multi species worlds without the aid (and impediment) of simplistic divisions between the human and the nonhuman, the cultural and the natural. The world is far messier and more interesting than this. And so the tools of ethnography and philosophy are required to develop a fuller picture of the entangled significance of extinction, of its myriad meanings and the diverse ways in which it matters. Alongside endangered species themselves, again and again we have seen that possibilities for ongoing life for a variety of others are drawn into extinction events: the loss of healthy environments to live in, of pollinators, of livelihoods for some and religious practices for others. (Flight Ways (Critical Perspectives on Animals: Theory, Culture, Science, and Law) (p. 148). Columbia University Press. Kindle Edition.)

This is exactly where the power of poetry is so needed, to “add flesh to the bones of the dead and dying …  give them some vitality, presence, perhaps “thickness” on the page and in the minds and lives of reader” (van Dooren). Our shamanic powers helps us think like whales and krill, sea-bottom velds and Antarctic chill.

Earthweal is thus a call to action, “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” (ibid. 9-10).

Dooren again:

Extinction stories that implicate humans have a long history. But, despite this fact, we have not yet found good enough ways of thinking through what extinction is and what it means. At the same time, we have seen that there is no singular extinction phenomenon. Rather, in each case a different way of life, a different set of relationships and entangled significances, is at stake. And so just how these extinction stories might, or should, be told requires continual rethinking. Again and again, we need to ask: What does it means to bring an abrupt ending to this particular way of life? What does this loss mean inside its specific multispecies communities? How are “we” called into responsibility here and now, and how will we take up that call?  (ibid. p. 148).

What are the meanings of living in complex and interweaving ecosystem? How are we dependent on it, and what changes when a part of it is lost?

For this challenge, weave extinction tales. Make ithem a manifesto, a myth, a meander or a hymn. Ponder not only the loss of a particular lifeform but intimate web it has become a ghost in.