It’s unseasonably warm here in Florida as I write — today where I live we are forecast to beat the record temperature of 87 degrees F. But it’s been warm everywhere across the United States and Canada, in some places 60 degrees warmer than normal. The lock is due to a polar vortex which has regions further north locked in jarring cold, especially Alaska, northern Canada, Scandinavia and northeast Russia. Earlier this week it hit -78F (-61C) in Delynakir in Siberia, the lowest temperature recorded in Russia since 1984.
Wet weather continues to thrash areas of the world — a slow-moving storm dumped 7 inches of rain on Honolulu in Hawaii on Dec. 7, and up to 3 feet of rain has fallen from tropical cyclone Jawad on coastal Indian states, South Sudan is underwater and areas of Australia decimated by bushfires two years ago are now experiencing heaviest-ever rains. And Friday night a tornado carved a 240-mile track across four states — the longest in U.S. history — knocking out power to 300,000, killing several at an Arkansas nursing home, ripping up the city of Mayfield, Kentucky (pop. 10,000) — including a candle factory where 100 were working, killing dozens — collapsing homes and buildings in Defiance, MO., and tearing off the roof of an Amazon warehouse in Illinois. Rough nature continues apace in our whirling climate present.
It’s been (another) exhausting year, between an ongoing pandemic and choke-holds in the global supply chain (never-ending, it seems from this moment) and this rising tide of worsening weather events, met with such ineffectual response from the global entities who matter. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman put it this way in a Nov. 16 op-ed:
If I am brutally honest, there is only one motto I would give to the movement to stem climate change after the Glasgow summit: “Everyone wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die.”
On the one hand, liberal greens will tell you that the world is ending — but that we must not use nuclear power, an abundant source of clean energy, to stave it off. On the other hand, conservative greens will tell you that the world is ending, but that we can’t burden people with a carbon tax or a gasoline tax to slow global warming.
On a third hand, suburban greens will tell you that the world is ending, but that they don’t want any windmills, solar farms or high-speed rail lines in their backyards.
On a fourth hand, most of today’s leaders will tell you that the world is ending, so at Glasgow they’ve all decided to go out on a limb and commit their successors’ successor to deliver emissions-free electricity by 2030, 2040 or 2050 — any date that doesn’t require them to ask their citizens to do anything painful today.
The unwillingness to do anything painful about this looming disaster —all the things which must be done now — echoed in an ironic way when my wife and I spent a few days earlier this week up in the Big Bend of Florida at the small fishing village of Apalachicola. It sits at the mouth of the Apalachicola River, which is now dwindling fast due to a Supreme Court decision giving Georgia rights to much of its water in upstream reservoirs created by the Army Corp of Engineers to provide water to thirsty growing urban populations in the Peach State. The result has been hard on the estuary and all about annihilated the oyster trade; the US fisheries service has banned oyster harvesting for five years, so you can imagine the mood in Apalachicola, which became apparent to us only after we had arrived. Not wanting to lose our business, no one at the hotel said anything about it — who wants to admit they are dying?
But if that was bad, imagine things in Mexico Beach down the road about twenty miles, which Hurricane Michael all but wiped off the map in 2018. Within 36 hours, a tropical wave hit the Gulf and intensified into uncharted territory, with winds exceeding Category 5 strength. Making landfall at Mexico Beach, the storm pretty well wiped the town clean, doing intense damage as well to nearby Port St. Joe and Pensacola. As we drove through three years later, it was all empty lots and new construction, four- and five-story rental vacation homes perched on 15-foot legs. I felt like those Native Americans watching astonished as San Francisco was reconstructed after the great earthquake. The Gulf coast has taken annual hammerings by hurricanes since Michael in 2018, Louisiana taking so many punches that coastal life there is edging towards extinction. But there’s money to be made on them thar vacationers, so despite the looming risk, they rebuild and fast. On either side of Mexico Beach for miles the wilderness areas were brutal assemblies of pines bent haphazardly from the storm or snapped at their trunks. Eighty percent of the local pine timber trade was lost to the storm, bad nature accomplishing what mercantile human nature would have achieved anyway. Somehow it seemed just, centuries of human predation on the Gulf Coast meeting up with the master predator it nourished with effluent and emission. A meeting of the dead zones. Driving through that gloomy landscape, the late winter light was sad and old — already dead.
Amid these darker tones it is also advent season once again, that ritual heightening of expectation on the arrival of the Christ child in the Christian religion. It can also be read as a tone-poem of the year’s last darkening days leading to the winter solstice. And like Tarot deck which has alternate meanings when cards are dealt upside down (reversed meanings, though in many different senses), advent in the lower latitudes beneath the equator (in the Southern hemisphere) marks the seasonal progression toward the summer solstice — not quite the opposite of Christmas (for the holiday is still celebrated then) but translated into the fullness of the year.
The word advent comes from the Latin adventus or “arrival,” from ad “to” and venire “to come.” The Christmas hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” expresses the sentiment with aching ancient longing:
O come, O come, Immanuel
and ransom captive Israel
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel
shall come to you O Israel.
The hymn was first created in Latin for the last seven days of the Advent season in the Roman Catholic Vespers service — the last of the canonical hours, set in the final hours of the solar year. Documents bearing the title and words of the Latin carol “Veni, Veni Emamnuel” date to 1710. The melody traces back to 15th century France where it was apparently one of several used for burials. From there the text goes back much further back, to Pope Gregory 1 of the sixth century (where the Great O Antiphons first appeared in the Liber responsalis) and much further back into Hanukkah traditions of the Jewish faith. The Latin carol was translated into English in 1851 and has been a mainstay of popular Christmas caroling since. (Another melody from then was adapted for “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen.”)
The song has to do with the perpetual yearning of ancient Israel for its eventual Messiah, foretold by the prophets and come to birth with Jesus Christ, in Christian reckoning anyway. (The Jewish faithful see Christ as a holy man but no Messiah; that day has still not come; and there is no Trinity, but only God.) Though my own beliefs have wandered far from the Christian faith of my youth, I still love the song for its aching desert night yearning, echoing far, like the ringing of Advent bells.
Wherever you are, advent represents the final week before the winter or summer solstice. It is a very pregnant moment, heavy with the impending shift. I wonder: are their earth songs to fit this mood?
If there is an environmental Emanuel, a hope for this planet, the 21st century version must somehow resemble what Friedman concludes in the same essay:
… I have nothing against Glasgow. I admire those leaders who are trying to inspire the world to cut CO2 emissions, preserve biodiversity and hold each other to account. But we will not decarbonize the global economy with a lowest-common-denominator action plan of 195 countries. Not possible.
We will get there only when Father Profit and risk-taking entrepreneurs produce transformative technologies that enable ordinary people to have extraordinary impacts on our climate without sacrificing much — by just being good consumers of these new technologies.
In short: we need a few more Greta Thunbergs and a lot more Elon Musks. That is, more risk-taking innovators converting basic science into tools yet to be imagined to protect the planet for a generation yet to be born.
I would add, we need a lot more poets singing charms into the womb-waters of what must come.
this morning and all day
continued, its white
calling us back to why, how,
whence such beauty and what
the meaning; such
an oracular fever! flowing
past windows, an energy it seemed
would never ebb, never settle
less than lovely! and only now,
deep into night,
it has finally ended.
and the heavens still hold
a million candles; nowhere
the familiar things:
stars, the moon,
the darkness we expect
and nightly turn from. Trees
flitters like castles
of ribbons, the broad fields
smolder with light, a passing
heaped with shining hills;
and though the questions
that have assailed us all day
remain — not a singled
answer has been found —
walking out now
into the silence and the light
under the trees,
and through the fields,
feels like one.
from American Primitive (1978)
For this challenge, write poems of Advent. O Come!