earthweal weekly challenge: O COME! ADVENT POEMS FOR EARTH


Greetings all,

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.



Mary Oliver

The snow
began here
this morning and all day
continued, its white
rhertoric everywhere
calling us back to why, how,
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.
The silence
is immense,
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
creekbed lies
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!

— Brendan

earthweal weekly challenge: THE JOURNEY


Often the journey — the tale of where we have been — has much to tell us about where there is to go. What we’ve seen and learned, how those strange places have given us unusual vantages in which to see the world: History unites us with the land, and its mysteries reveal and guide the subtle relations between the three worlds.

For healers in primitive societies, the shaman was the mediator of the realms, having gained knowledge of the various afflictions and their cures. His or her education was a brutal one, delivered through a frequently deadly initiation. The shaman-prospect suffered a disordering event, went off into the wild and experienced an initiation dream where they journeyed to the ends of heaven, earth and the sea. There the spirits tore h/her apart and ritually reassembled the shaman with the extra singing bone. Then came apprenticeship to an old shaman who instructed in practical matters of drumming and dancing, building a ritual tent, learning the songs and performing the rituals. All of the shaman’s future work was rooted in that singular journey.

As agricultural societies slowly took over, the shaman evolved into a poet-priest deeply rooted in the oral culture but whose initiation was more culturally conducted, through the long education in the oral literature, its spells and songs.

The following initiation dream of an Avam Samoyed shaman, recounted by A.A. Popov and related in Mercea Eliade’s Shamanism: Archiac Techniques of Ecstasy is rich with instruction and delivers it in a whale of a tale. As you read it, be thinking of how your own unique story as a person, poet and animal on this earth and how it has provided gifts for all. Did a dream once open so many doors for you? Was there an experience on your road which implicated so many doors, or was the journey itself an undulating road of portals?

Sick with smallpox, the future shaman remained unconscious for three days and so nearly dead that on the third day he was almost buried. His initiation took place during this time. He remembered having been carried into the middle of a sea. There he heard his Sickness (that is, smallpox), speak, saying to him: “From the Lords of the Water you will receive the gift of shamanizing. Your name as a shaman will be Huottarie (Diver).”

Then the Sickness troubled the water of the sea. The candidate came out and climbed a mountain. There he met a naked woman and began to suckle her breast. The woman, who was probably the Lady of the Water, said to him: “You are my child; that is why I let you suckle at my breast. You will meet many hardships and be greatly wearied.”

The husband of the Lady of the Water, the Lord of the Underworld, then gave him two guides, an ermine and a mouse, to lead him to the underworld. When they came to a high place, the guides showed him seven tents with torn roofs. he entered the first and there found the inhabitants of the underworld and the men of the Great Sickness (syphilis). These men tore out his heart and threw it into a pot. In other tents he met the Lord of Madness and the Lords of all the nervous disorders, as well as the evil shamans. Thus he learned the various diseases that torment mankind.

Still preceded by his guides, the candidate then came to the Land of the Shamanesses, who strengthened his throat and his voice. He was then carried to the shores of the Nine Seas. In the middle of one of them was an island, and in the middle of the island a young birch tree rose to the sky. It was the Tree of the Lord of the Earth. Beside it grew nine herbs, the ancestors of all plants on earth. The tree was surrounded by seas, and in each of these swam a species of bird with its young. There were several kinds of ducks, a swan, and a sparrow-haw. The candidate visited all these seas; some of them were salt, others so hot he could not go near the shore.

After visiting the seas, the candidate raised his head an, in the top of the tree, saw men of various nations; Tavgi Samoyed, Russians, Dolgan, Yakut, and Tungus. He heard voices: “It has been decided that you shall have a drum (that is, the body of a drum) from the branches of this tree.” He began to fly with the birds of the seas. As he left the shore, the Lord of the Tree called to him: “My branch has just fallen; take it and make a drum of it that will serve you all your life.” The branch had three forks, and the Lord of the Tree bade him make three drums from it, to be kept by three women, each drum being for a special ceremony — the first for shamanizing women in childbirth, the second for curing the sick, the third for finding men lost in the snow.

The Lord of the Tree also gave branches to all the men who were in the top of the tree. But, appearing from the tree up to the chest in human form, he added: “One branch only I give not to the shamans, for I keep it for the rest of mankind. They can make dwellings from it and so use it for their needs. I am the Tree that gives life to all men.” Clasping the branch, the candidate was ready to resume his flight when again he heard a human voice, this time revealing to him the medicinal virtues of the seven plants and giving him certain instructions concerning the art of shamanizing. But, the voice added, he must marry three women (which, in fact, he later did by marrying three orphan girls whom he had cured of smallpox).

After that he came to an endless sea and there he found trees and seven stones. The stones spoke to him one after the other. The first had teeth like bears’ teeth and a basket-shaped cavity, and it revealed to him that it was the earth’s holding sone; it pressed on the fields with its weight, so that they should not be carried away by the wind. The second served to melt iron. He remained with these stones for seven days and so learned how they could be of use to men.

Then his two guides, the ermine and the mouse, led him to a high, rounded mountain. He saw an opening before him and entered a bright cave, covered with mirrors, in the middle of which there was something like a fire. Then he saw that there was no fire burning but that the light came from above, through an opening. One of the women told him that she was pregnant and would give birth to two reindeer; one would be the sacrificial animal of the Dolgan and Evenki, the other that of the Tavgi. She also have him a hair, which was to be useful to him when he shamanized for reindeer. the other woman also gave birth to two reindeer, symbols of the animals that would aid man in all his works and also supply his food. The cave had two openings, toward the north and toward the south; through each of them the young women sent a reindeer to serve the forest people (Dolgan and Evenki). The second woman, too, gave him a hair. When he shamanizes, he mentally turns toward the cave.

Then the candidate came to a desert and saw a distant mountain. After three days’ travel he reached it, entered an opening, and came to a naked man working a bellows. On the fire was a cauldron “as big as half the earth.” The naked man saw him and caught him with a huge pair of tongs. The novice had time to think, “I am dead!” The man cut off his head, chopped his body into bits, and put everything into the cauldron. There he boiled his body for three years. There were also three anvils, and the naked man forged the candidate’s head on the third, which was the one on which the best shamans were forged. Then he threw the head into one of the three pots and stood there, the one in which the water was the coldest. He now revealed to the candidate that, when he was called to cure someone, if the water in the ritual pot was very hot, it would be useless to shamanize, for the man was already lost; if the water was warm, he was sick but would recover; cold water denoted a healthy man.

The blacksmith then fished the candidate’s bones out of a river, in which they were floating, put them together, and covered them with flesh again. He counted them and told him that he had three too many; he was therefore to procure three shaman’s costumes. He forged his head and taught him how to read the letters that are inside it. He changed his eye; and that is why, when he shamanizes, he does not see with his bodily eyes but with these mystical eyes. Then the candidate found himself on the summit of a mountain, and finally he woke in the yurt, among his family.

Now he can sing and shamanize indefinitely, without ever growing tired. (pp. 38-42).

I’ve always related to the shaman’s initiation-dream, its telling and journey, mainly because my own story is finned with it. I was a mess at age 18, lapsed from the faith of my upbringing, in and out of college, drinking like a madman and suffering an onslaught of petit-mal seizures in the depth of a Northwestern winter. I should have died of it — committed suicide or drank myself to death — but didn’t, and through the bowels of that experience emerged the person I became, fitfully, wrong-headedly, bereft of any decent instruction until at age 30 I gave up drinking and entered AA. Lots of installments in that journey since, but suffice here to say that I come to see it as shamanic in nature and has provided a deep reservoir — a well, if you will — for poetry.

But enough of my journey: what of yours? How would you compress that journey into a poem? Is there an installment, an island-shaped episode which is crucial to the whole? How has your telling aged, perhaps matured or gone weedy and strange? And importantly, how is your journey meshed with this world’s? We are products of the time yet children of a god: the history and mystery of it is fascinating, at least to poetry. I don’t think the digitally-disrupted, fin-de-siecle dystopias of the media world are sufficient nor really true: they neglect the ocean of song and all the journeys swimming there.

For this challenge, write a journey-poem. If you were a famous explorer, what new worlds could you say you’ve found? What treasures hard to find have you come back with? What have you learned about story-telling? Where do tellings fail? And what of the Earth’s own journey into this strange, post-Holocene era? How is your journey entwined with that tale?


— Brendan