earthweal weekly challenge: GREEN FIRE (WILD AND SACRED)


Let’s begin with a May Swenson poem:


Colors take bodies,
become many birds.
Odors are born
as earliest buds.
Sounds are streams,
the pebbles bells.
Embraces are
the winds and the woods.

Hills of lambskin
stroke our feet.
We move in an amnion
of light,
fondle moss
and put our cheeks
to birches
and warm slate

sides of rocks.
Cardinal on a limb
gripped: if we
could take him
into our hand,
the whistling red
the velvet plum —

and seize those other
hues, hot, cool:
indigo bunting sky-piece,
in brown shadow,
oriole apricot-breasted,
hush-wing harlequin
towhee — alive!

If we could eat snowdrops,
sip hyacinths,
make butterflies
be bows in our hair,
wade the tinkling streams
of innocence,
wear lambskin grass,
and suck but milk of air!

A dance commences between us and our earth, a holy round. As Thoreau wrote, “in wildness is the preservation of the world.” Not out there in a separate and distant wilderness, but in wildness, the heart we share with all creation.


The amnion of light surrounds and nourishes us. “For me, nature includes everything: the entire universe, the city, the country the human mind, human creatures, and the animal creatures,” Swenson said in an interview. “Nature is the big construct.”

Wildness enervates words with vibrant intensity. “I think of the poem as a mobile,” Swenson continues, “almost a construct, something you can look around, that moves, that is concrete … you can almost hold it in your hand.”

The aesthetic response to wildness is always one of surprise. The emotion is rooted in our limbic system, our animal senses, our carnal sympathies. James Hillman notes,

In the ancient world the organ of perception was the heart. The heart was immediately connected to things via the senses. The word for perception or sensation in Greek was aisthesis, which means at root a breathing in or taking in of the world, the gasp, “ah,” the “uh” of the breath in wonder, shock, amazement, an aesthetic response to the image (eidelon) presented. In ancient Greek physiology and in biblical psychology the heart was the organ of sensation, it was also the place of imagination … The heart’s function was aesthetic.  (“Anima Mundi,” 107)

Surprise invokes a rapt attention; thus embraced, the world becomes sensible, A.R. Ammons writes in “Full”:

I retire from
the broad engagements,
leave the line
and go
back into the woods
to openings of
hillslides and lakes:
I do not want
to be
loud with emptiness
a hundred years
from now: the
simple event
suffices — complete —
when fall
hawkweed spindling
lifts a single
adequate blossom.

“Suffices” is the critical word. It says that every pattern serves for the whole. And the whole disappears without the single thread.

… An aesthetic response to particulars would radically slow us down. To notice each event would limit our appetite for events, and the very slowing down of consumption would affect inflation, hypergrowth, the manic defenses and expansionism of the civilization.  Perhaps, events speed up in proportion to their not being appreciated; perhaps events grow to cataclysmic size and intensity in proportion to their not being noticed. (Ibid 115)

At its most intense, the wild crosses over into the sacred. Intense in its particulars — what is wild is tactile, sensible, independent yet soaked in peripheral awareness and deeply rooted — it becomes all of creation in one shimmering example. The sacred exceeds our capability to comprehend and thus calls us to grow in deeper understanding.

The sacred is what makes wildness so necessary. We go to such places, live in them, dream of them, says Montana writer William Kittredge, “to renew our intimacy with a world that is natural and perhaps sacred. To me, sacred means necessary. We evolved in nature, with other animals … Isolate us from nature too long, as individuals, as societies, and we start getting nervous, crazy, unmoored, inhabited by diseases we cannot name, driven to thoughtless ambitions and easy cruelties.”

Douglas Burton-Christie writes in his essay “The Sacred and the Wild,” “It is in response to this rich, relational reality, in profound poetic response, through play, storytelling, song, and dance that we come to know who we are in the world, that we come to know the ground of our own being, the ground of the world, ultimate ground. Without this reality, without the fluid poetic process it calls forth from us, we will remain stunted, emotionally and spiritually impoverished. And we will end up imposing our own sense of impoverishment upon the physical world.”

The aesthetic response to wildness is poetry as prayer. Matthew Fox, whose creation spirituality has attempted to rescue Christianity from Heaven, writes that awareness is a radical response to our sacred wildness:

To respond radically to life’s mysteries, we must be aware of them or know them. Prayer is first of all a growing to awareness of life and its mysteries. It is growing into life, learning to feel and breathe and sense life. Sir William Osler observes that “half of us are blind, few of us feel, and we are all deaf.” Awareness is seeing buildings and teapots and not just thinking “shelter” and “drink” but form and shape and beauty and curvature. It is hearing a sparrow sing and identifying one’s own voice with another animal’s. Awareness is the capacity to be wholly where one is and to be alert to the possibilities of enjoyment and wonder, awe and beauty, goodness and peace exactly where one is. (On Becoming a Musical Mystical Bear, 1972, p. 78)

Pursuit of the sacred is a devotion and discipline; we revise our poems seeking to find the truest expression of our wild nature. In early Christian Ireland there were three ways to sacrifice oneself to be in total communion with God: the “red” martyrdom of sacrifice of one’s life; the “white” martyrdom of pilgrimage, which might mean committing oneself to the wave as St. Brendan and sailing the ocean of God; and the “green” martyrdom of forest hermitage, renouncing the pleasures of human community to live wide and open to nature. It is in the wild that the transformation of the poet occurs. Culdees of the 8th and 9th centuries were secular in nature yet devotional in the same vein, often living up in trees or other sanctuaries immersed in the wild. Suibne Geilt (Mad Sweeney) is a penitent of Culdee tradition, driven insane by the clamor of battle and retreating to the wood. There his poetry sang of the sacred wild.

The wild informs our literacy, as this ninth-century copyist observes:

A wall of forest looms above
and sweetly the blackbird sings:
All the birds make melody
over me and my books and things

There sings to me the cuckoo
from bush-citadels in grey hood.
God’s doom! May the Lord protect me
writing well, under the great wood.

(transl. James Carney

Wildness is a sacred trust we preserve with both ferocity and humility. Hallowed is “green fire,” as Aldo Leopold put it, that “a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants, and animals.” In the presence of the sacred we are  humbled, right-sized.

Humility. From humus, ground or soil. It is a word, an idea, whose meaning we have hardly begun to understand. It suggests a kind of moral and spiritual disposition of lowliness, littleness. Not self-abnegation or self-loathing as some of our spiritual traditions have taken it to mean. Rather an honest acknowledgement of who we are, or who we might become: beings close to the earth, of the earth, aware of our kinship with other living beings, capable of looking out onto the world from below. (Burton-Christie, ibid.)

Wendell Berry takes his sabbath in the old forest, becoming a humble mote in a cathedral  dancing light:

Slowly, slowly they return
To the small woodland let alone;
Great trees, outspreading and upright,
Apostles of the living light.

Patient as stars, they build in air
Tier after tier a timbered choir,
Stout beams upholding weightless grace
Of song, a blessing on this place.

They stand in waiting all around,
Uprisings of their native ground,
Downcomings of the distant light;
They are the advent they await.

Receiving sun and giving shade,
Their life’s a benediction made,
And is a benediction said
Over the living and the dead.

In fall their brightened leaves, released,
Fly down the wind, and we are pleased
Top walk on radiance, amazed.
O light come down to earth, be praised!

Sacred wildness is an ultimacy which finds a center in every location, as Scott Russell Sanders writes in Staying Put: Making A Home in A Restless World (1993):

The likeliest path to the ultimate ground leads through my local ground. I mean the land itself, with its creeks and rivers, its weather, seasons, stone outcroppings, and all the plants and animals that share it. I cannot have a spiritual center without having a geographical one … If our interior journeys are cut loose entirely from . . . place, then both we and the neighborhood will suffer.

In the center of what is local to us — tree, grove, garden, lake, hill, shore — a sacred ultimacy wells the green fire. It is what twelfth century mystic Hildegard of Bingen called viriditas, God’s fire incarnate. Viriditas enlivens the four elements, moistening stones and shimmering in waters, refreshing the breeze and glowing in fire. It is for us to locate those places, to sing of them and be humbled by them, to worship the sacred wildness of them and protect them for the generations to come. (The Celtic goddess Brgit, later Christianized as St. Brighid, is a reservoir of green fire and the patron of blacksmiths, midwives and poets. Her feast day of Feb. 2 is Imbolc – a quickening fire in Earth’s belly – and later Candlemas. Sarah Connor did a marvelous Imbolc challenge a year ago.)

This week, earthweal is a sanctum of green fire. Tells us about wildness in your world and what makes it sacred.

Here are some starting points of departure for your response, though you are free to go in any direction that feels true to challenge. (Feel welcome to post multiple responses!)

  • How are wilderness and wildness different?
  • Why is wildness so necessary?
  • How does wildness play into your development as a poet?
  • What does it mean to be wild and sacred? How does each affect our understanding of the other?
  • Where are your wild and sacred places?
  • How does one grow spiritually into wildness?
  • How has your sense of the wild and the sacred evolved?
  • Where do you find green fire? How does viriditas course through a life?
  • About what things are you most fierce and yet humbled?
  • Is poetry prayer?
  • How does the sacred wild inform this time of radical climate change?

Here’s to poets going wild!

— Brendan



Mary Oliver

The poppies send up their
orange flares; swaying
in the wind, their congregations
are a levitation

of bright dust, of thin
and lacy leaves.
There isn’t a place
in this world that doesn’t

sooner or later drown
in the indigoes of darkness,
but now, for a while,
the roughage

shines like a miracle
as it floats above everything
with its yellow hair.
Of course nothing stops the cold,

black, curved blade
from hooking forward —
of course
loss is the great lesson.

But also I say this: that light
is an invitation to happiness,
and that happiness,

when it’s done right,
is a kind of holiness,
palpable and redemptive.
Inside the bright fields,

touched by their rough and spongy gold,
I am washed and washed
in the river
of earthly delight —

and what are you going to do —
what can you do
about it —
deep, blue night?

earthweal weekly challenge: THE SWAN


I’m titling this challenge The Swan as an alternate take on what I posted in last week’s Native to the Now challenge.

A New York Times Magazine essay by Elizabeth Weil had stirred something, but it’s taken your responses and some further reflection to get closer to what that might be.

Suffering a very different California these days than the one she had “married” several decades before, Weil turned to climate futurist Alex Steffen, author of The Snap Forward newsletter, for perspective. “We need to face the lives before us,” she writes. “We need to name the discontinuity: See, there it is, the tear in the universe created by our fear and greed. What we believed was the present is actually the past.”

Steffen in one of his newsletters put it this way: “Pretty unsettling, to think that what we thought of as normal, stable and durable has been lost at incomprehensible scales and speed.” I seized on this:

It’s important to live when we are. Being native to now, I think, is our deepest responsibility in the face of all this. And being at home in the world we actually inhabit means refusing to consign ourselves to living in the ruins of continuity, but instead realizing we live in the rising foundations of a future that actually works. It may be a fierce, wild, unrecognizable future, but that doesn’t mean it’s a broken future. Indeed, it’s the present that’s broken beyond redemption.

It was our collective poetic struggle to find a center for “being native to now” that gave me pause. I sure wasn’t sure how to proceed in my poem, “Native to Now”:

This gnawing
dysynchrony will not abate
so it’s ours to plant gardens
in this dubious fate

or run the risk
of ruin too rampant
evicting Eve and apple
from melting’s state

I honestly thought most of you would pass on the challenge as too vague or difficult. But as it turned out, this challenge produced some of the most varied and interesting work at earthweal.

In Ingrid’s “Transapocalyptic” our vision of the past is in desperate need of correcting:

… What’s past is prologue
what’s past is now
what’s here is now
the here and now
is not what we imagined
and the past looks golden
through rosy glasses tinted with nostalgia.

There are positive notes, as in Suzanne’s “Here In The Now”

… Changing with the climate
here now at the brink
we stand on hallowed ground,
the creative power of transformation
birthing in uncertainty.

For Sherry in “Being Here Now,” the daily fight is heartbreaking but there is no other choice:

For Sherry in “Being Here Now,” the daily fight is heartbreaking but there is no other choice:

… Every day we write a letter to Council,
pen a poem. visit a tree. We steadfastly love
the sea that one day will swallow us.
We love where we live, while, every day,
its destruction is breaking our hearts.

Susan in “Collision With Truth” affirmed the work that we can do:

… What better use of our senses now than to observe and attend to
the wealth and stress of what surrounds us (and beyond),
to experience the shoes, roots, and ripples of other lives, and to try
what we can not imagine alone.  Let’s live that fully as long as we can.

The now’s muddy discontinuity makes the work so difficult, as Kerfe observed in “Coiling”:

… My sojourns repeat themselves, going
after relics that never existed, recapturing
the memories of ghosts.  You may ask
why I continue to tolerate a hopeless
cause, finding solace in circles—

I do not know how to define existence,
or the way to measure its boundaries.
I am lost and confused by an absence
that seems to be devouring what
might have become the future.

It’s hard enough on the personal level, but Eric in “Nineteen eighty something spaceman” wondered how in heaven’s name can we translate the effort to the collective:

… Your heart knows, your head invents excuses.
In one of us, this battle is waged
But in a group of us, a team
A corporation, a government
Where is the Heart that knows what’s right?

Absence clings to presence like old wildfire smoke in the woodwork of grapeling’s “bite free”:

… redwood slabs, weathered smooth, feel real.

my thin cotton shirt flutters with each heart beat
as though skin and blood is real as fire and stone,

as though touch and a pulse and pain are real
as green-hued empty air yearning for the sound of bees

Hopelessness can become so layered in the now that words to describe it are almost impossible, as Jane posted in “One Life Less”:

.. All of human grossness is in the act of a boor, in the unthinking act that destroys a life.
That act, finger on the trigger, echoes again and again the world over, in the mines and factories, the safaris, cruise ships, circuses and zoos, the forests maimed, oceans defiled, the caged and miserable.
The common factor, the finger on the trigger, human, greedy, selfish.
I curl up around my universal hurt and keen in silence, seeing no remedy.

Lindi painted a desperate picture of this present also in “nativity of now,” locating a now full of “when’s” – “when one by one the trees fell,” “when coal of the deep / burned and burned /eating the sky and lungs of the living/ until even the moths changed colour to survive” and, immensely, “when whalesong became cries and pleas /rumbling the bones of our sleep” — and asks, “who among us / did not know this was wrong, / which child did not grow up asking / but why?” And yet, for all that is lost or soon to be, there is a Now that is rich and purring and intimate, so that it is still possible to summon a breeze the earth so desires —

we summoned the change wind
and it came
like a slow salt beast, barnacle-skinned
we summoned the change wind
shaping our siren prayers – luminous, winged
until our skin remembered the taste of rain
we summoned the change wind
and it came

In none of our responses did I see an embrace of the spirited and disruptive technological gallop that Steffen envisions as the only solution for runaway climate change. “It is no longer possible to make an orderly transition, to combine action at the scale and speed we need with a smooth transition and a minimum of disruption,” he writes elsewhere. Acceleration for Steffen is the key. As he sees it, “We are coming into a moment of disruptive solutions, of disaggregated systems, of chaotic impacts, of technological upspirals, of deep conflicts over the tempo of change, and of unprecedented realignments and new alliances in our politics, economy and society. We have to learn how to move through all that, and quickly.” And it has to be accomplished while knowing that the endpoint will in no way resemble the old normal.  “We are going to experience a sort of standing wave of discontinuity, with no insight ever becoming certain, no expertise ever being quite definitive, no strategy ever being completely reliable. We’re going to have to keep relearning, over and over again. That is simply one of the costs of having destabilized the planet.”

While this is probably true, I have yet to find a poetic strategy for it. Envisioning a changing now, yes; finding spiritual foundation for a world in which such transformations will happen at such speed, maybe. But poetry doesn’t serve well as lube for those wheels. Indeed, what comes to me as the truest embrace of the now comes from behind, in a traditional, nonpolitical and even nonecological poem like Mary Oliver’s “The Swan.”

Across the wide waters
something comes
floating–a slim
and delicate

ship, filled
with white flowers–
and it moves
on its miraculous muscles

as though time didn’t exist
as though bringing such gifts
to the dry shore
was a happiness

almost beyond bearing.
And now it turns its dark eyes,
it rearranges
the clouds of its wings,

it trails
an elaborate webbed foot,
the color of charcoal.
Soon it will be here.

Oh, what shall I do
when that poppy-colored beak
rests in my hand?
Said Mrs. Blake of the poet:

I miss my husband’s company–
he is so often
in paradise.
Of course! the path to heaven

doesn’t lie down in flat miles.
It’s in the imagination
with which you perceive
this world,

and the gestures
with which you honor it.
Oh, what will I do, what will I say, when those white wings
touch the shore?

from House of Light, 1990

Reading this I sense what is missing in Steffen’s steamy ecological futurism. The “technological upspirals” and speed-of-light changes he embraces feel like “flat miles” to the slowing anticipation Oliver as “those white wings” approach the shore. Nature knows no speed in growth and maturity and outwitting it works only in the virtual worlds of sci-fi fantasy.

Recently Microsoft purchased the video game company Activision Blizzard, maker of diversions like “Call of Duty,” “World of Warcraft” and “Candy Crush,” for just shy of $76 billion dollars. It’s their pricey gamble that the so-called Metaverse will dominate the consumer computing in the coming decades, a simulated digital universe using recent innovations like augmented reality, virtual reality and blockchain.

If a world is changing, it is certainly changing fastest there; and yet it also reminds me of 1950s space masturbation fantasy, leaving frumpy old Eve behind for racier adventures in the beyond.

I think we all know that human civilization faces devastating changes in the coming decades if it is to prevent climate catastrophe. Rooting out fossil-fuel dependence is like shedding one’s skin and ghost at the same time. It’s going to be hard, dismal, frustrating and despairing work.  And far too much of humanity doesn’t care to get started. Like Thomas Friedman said, everyone wants to get to heaven but no one wants to die.

Yet what is left of us if we fail to rid enough of it to save our nature? As Emerson writes,

The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward sense are still truly adjusted to each other, who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of adulthood. His intercourse with heaven and earth becomes part of his daily food. In the presence of nature a wild delight runs through the man, in spite of real sorrows. (“Nature”)

Wild delight is the terrain of Mary Oliver’s “The Swan, something I find lacking in the future Steffen calls on us to embrace at meltingly disruptive speed. Virtual delight takes monstrous energy to sustain, while the wild’s voltage is tempered by darkness and death.

Another swan-like poem to consider:


Richard Wilbur

Beasts in their major freedom
Slumber in peace tonight. The gull on his ledge
Dreams in the guts of himself the moon-plucked waves below,
And the sunfish leans on a stone, slept
By the lyric water,

In which the spotless feet
Of deer make dulcet splashes, and to which
The ripped mouse, safe in the owl’s talon, cries
Concordance. Here there is no such harm
And no such darkness

As the selfsame moon observes
Where, warped in window-glass, it sponsors now
The werewolf’s painful change. Turning his head away
On the sweaty bolster, he tries to remember
The mood of manhood,

But lies at last, as always,
Letting it happen, the fierce fur soft to his face,
Hearing with sharper ears the wind’s exciting minors,
The leaves’ panic, and the degradation
Of the heavy streams.

Meantime, at high windows
Far from thicket and pad-fall, suitors of excellence
Sigh and turn from their work to construe again the painful
Beauty of heaven, the lucid moon
And the risen hunter,

Making such dreams for men
As told will break their hearts as always, bringing
Monsters into the city, crows on the public statues,
Navies fed to the fish in the dark
Unbridled waters.

Should we adapt our living as best as we can to the needed changes, reducing our carbon footprint, fire- and flood-proofing our homesteads and advocating for the political and structural changes needed by the greater weal? Or course. There are paths to these things in our poetry, but the spiritual roots we must tend are powerful and important growing both forward and back. We cannot lose our ghosts without beheading our angels and the world to boot.

The swan’s beauty demands an aesthetic response — beauty in kind — with the added burden now that we have lost so much of our animal selves. Trimming the hedges and piping in gentle background music are attempts at virtual nature, which we usually call suburbia. We need to re-learn our animal senses and “our animal sense of the world,” as James Hillman writes in “Anima Mundi” — “a nose for the displayed intelligibility of things, their sound, smell, shape, speaking to and through our heart’s reactions, responding to the looks and language, tones and gestures of the things we move among.” Aisthesis, the aesthetic language of the world heart.

That said, purity and innocence can never quite be again what it once was. (Except maybe as ghosts, steadfast in their spectral primavera.) If limitation and extinction are eating away at the forest, then Eden’s beauty may only be a difficult one. If the now is dysynchronous, the meter is off, the rhyme is slant; poetry’s redress can only be imperfect and flawed. Hamlet’s Ghost voice calls “adieu, remember” from the mist, but cultural dementia keeps losing the signal. The metaverse has no memory.

The swan teaches us to make our haste slowly, which is the Renaissance maxim of festina lente.

I remember reading in an ancient futuristic book, Alvin Toffler’s The Third Wave (1980) that the only way to thrive in a period of dramatic technological change is to develop a personality that is wide-open to change on one side while the other tends deep traditional bonds. If we would embrace the change, we must flow with the swan.

What else are we going to do with THE SWAN when she reaches the shore? How else are we to sing? What is your wild delight?

— Brendan


earthweal open link weekend #102

Greetings all – and welcome to earthweal open link weekend #102. Share some of your earth’s bounty and visit your fellow linkers’ bounty and comment.

Thanks to so many of you for participating in the past week’s Native To The Now challenge — so much heavy lifting and great work done by you.

This open link forum is open until midnight EST Sunday, Jan. 23, when the next weekly challenge will roll out.

Happy linking!




earthweal weekly challenge: NATIVE TO THE NOW


Let us go in together,
And still your fingers on your lips, I pray.
The time is out of joint — O cursed spite,
That I was ever born to set it right!
Nay, come let us go together.

Hamlet I.v.186-190

A Jan. 3 essay in the New York Times Magazine was a real eye-opener to the now we’re in. In “This Isn’t the California I Married,” Elizabeth Weil writes about how much she and her husband have loved living in California, but the state is now behaving like a partner who had gone astray.

The dominant story in California these days is that the orange, dystopian smoke-filled sky that blanketed the state on Sept. 9, 2020, was proof that our beloved was corrupted and had been for some time. We were in the midst of the worst wildfire season in the state’s history, and the evident wrongness traumatized us and shook us awake. Living in California now meant accepting that fire was no longer an episodic hazard, like earthquakes. Wildfire was a constant, with us everywhere, every day, all year long, like tinnitus or regret. The dry spring was bad; the dry summer, worse; the dry fall, unbearable. Even a wet winter (if we caught a break from the drought) offered little reprieve. All thoughts, all phenomena, existed relative to fire. Where we are now — January, the fresh and less fire-alarming time of year — should be the moment for us to relax and reassess what we’re doing in California and how to live here well. Yet the rains turn the burn scars into mud slides and allow the next season’s flora, what the foresters call fuel, to grow.

“This was not the California I first married,” Weil continues, “but to be honest, I’m not the same person, either. Time is a beast. Did choosing to stay here mean a life defined by worry, vigilance and loss?”

Hasn’t time become a beast for all of us, with disturbing changes becoming a commonplace wherever we live? Wildfire in Australia, record flooding in British Columbia, monster hurricanes in the Gulf, weird winter heat and prolonged drought and wicked snowstorms … Events happen now with breathtaking frequency and frightening concurrence … The things which made us so love our home landscape have become so impinged by problematic and disturbing changes that no one is in Kansas anymore. (That means you.)


Victims of the Waverly fire in front of the ruins of their house, Jan. 2022.


Weil turns to climate futurist Alex Steffen for ideas. Steffen produces a podcast and newsletter called “The Snap Forward,” and she presents his thought like this:

The climate crisis has caused us to get lost in time and space; we need to dig ourselves out of nostalgia and face the world as it exists. As he explained to me in his confident baritone, yes, California, and the world, are in bad shape. But the situation is not as devoid of hope as we believe. “We have this idea that the world is either normal and in continuity with what we’ve expected, or it’s the apocalypse, it’s the end of everything — and neither are true,” he said. That orange sky in 2020? “We’re all like, Wow, the sky is apocalyptic! But it’s not apocalyptic. If you can wake up and go to work in the morning, you’re not in an apocalypse, right?”

The more accurate assessment, according to Steffen, is that we’re “trans-apocalyptic.” We’re in the middle of an ongoing crisis, or really a linked series of crises, and we need to learn to be “native to now.” Our lives are going to become — or, really, they already are (the desire to keep talking about the present as the future is intense) — defined by “constant engagement with ecological realities,” floods, dry wells, fires. And there’s no opting out. What does that even mean?

We’re living through a discontinuity. This is Steffen’s core point. “Discontinuity is a moment where the experience and expertise you’ve built up over time cease to work,” he said. “It is extremely stressful, emotionally, to go through a process of understanding the world as we thought it was, is no longer there.” No kidding. “There’s real grief and loss. There’s the shock that comes with recognizing that you are unprepared for what has already happened.”

I found Steffen’s sweeping, dark pronouncements comforting. He at least had language and a functional metaphor to describe what was going on. Most of us have dragged our feet and deluded ourselves for too long about the state of the world. While we remain stuck, our world pulled away from our understanding of it. We’ve now fallen into a gap in our apprehension of reality. We need to acknowledge this, size up the rupture, then hurl ourselves over the breach.



Weil goes on to report extensively on all the varied challenges of living in California, using Steffen’s lens to see a California blundered into its chaotic present by stealing from its future, using broken tools to address the worsening problem (like “managing wildfire” ) and engaging a politics stuck in the idea that there is a normal to return to. She then looks for ways of becoming resilient at the personal level to the threat of wildfire (for one, by “home-hardening” or fireproofing homes).

Weil’s biggest challenge is to surrender any notion that the California she married will be coming back. “Relinquishing the idea of normal will require strength, levelheadedness, optimism and bravery, the grit to keep clinging to some thin vine of hope as we swing out of the wreckage toward some solid ground that we cannot yet see.”

I signed up for the free part of Steffen’s newsletter subscription; in his most recent weekly update he took pains to clarify some of the points in Weil’s article. He writes: “First, though this story is about California — and that was the specific focus of the conversation Liz Weil and I had last summer — the changed realities Californians find ourselves facing are different only in their specifics from the challenges people all around the world now face.”

He continues:

Second, the reason why the planetary crisis is not an issue, but an era, is that we find ourselves living within a human world we’ve built, on a natural planet we’ve radically altered, and as we’ve driven planet-scale transformations through the climate and biosphere, our human world is increasingly unstable. The core challenge facing humanity is the need to rebuild the places, systems and societies around us to work on the planet we now inhabit. Every other problem we’re struggling with is subsumed under this overarching reality. There is nowhere to stand outside of it.

Which means we’re living in a deepening discontinuity.

Billions of us will collide with this fact in the next few years. The suddenness of our understanding of this reality — a reality that’s been solidifying for decades, but that a combination of predatory delay, entrenched entitlement and cultural inertia have kept us from seeing — means that our sense of tempo is shot to hell. Enormous changes will now come very fast.

Pretty unsettling, to think that what we thought of a normal, stable and durable has been lost at incomprehensible scales and speed.



Steffen however is quick to point out that we aren’t at Armageddon, at least not yet.

The planetary crisis ain’t the Apocalypse. We do not face the End of Everything. We face the obliteration of our certainties, sure. We also face the destruction of many of the wonders of nature. And we face the reality that for billions of people, life will feel pretty damn apocalyptic, even as humanity as a whole staggers along. We live now in a transapocalyptic world.

This changes what we might think of as right action in this moment. We are not the ones who are going to save the world by keeping the planetary crisis from happening, because it is already in motion, with more to come. There’s this line from ‘No Country for Old Men’ that I can’t get out of my head: “You can’t stop what’s coming. It ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity.”

What this means is that we aren’t going to be able to transition to a sustainable future fast enough from our habitual destructive systems. The damage is going to continue to get worse. There will be big economic losers—those who make their profits on things they don’t have to pay for, the way fossil fuel extraction creates air pollution; those who reap value from things that are vulnerable (like building on coasts and accumulating expertise for things being lost, like sustainability). A separate industry flourishes by selling the dream that such things aren’t imperiled (aided, paradoxically, by “idealists insisting that we can restore continuity in a discontinuous world — that we can ‘reverse’ the planetary crisis.”)



This leads to Steffen’s most important point, that we’re all in the process of waking up to what he calls the Snap Forward:

We are, in increasing numbers, coming to realize that not only is the world already profoundly different than we thought — a rupture with our past — but that over the next few decades, the world will depart even more wildly from what we still think of as normal.

If we want to understand our immanent future, we have to engage seriously with ways of looking at the world that are still only emerging. Shit is getting real. Discontinuity is the job.

Discontinuity is the job for those of us who want to succeed with purpose, to have our own aspirations connect with strategies to deliver new solutions at the scope, scale and speed reality demands.

Furthermore, discontinuity is everyone’s task now, whether we think of it or not. This includes

billions of people who are more concerned with their own selves, families and communities than with the fate of the Earth. People acting from necessity — from the need to secure themselves from danger, to seize the opportunities to be found in rapid change before others can, to find cohesive constituencies who are ready to move with the speed demanded — are going to change our society far more in the near term than even the massive ecological dangers unfolding in front of us. Indeed, a core part of the Snap Forward is recognizing that people responding to discontinuity have become the dominant force of change on the planet:

“[What’s coming is] a realization that large-scale actions are now being driven not primarily by collective agreement of all parties, but by the growing power of those who see fast action as not only being in their self-interest, but also to their direct advantage.”

None of this is under control, much less optimal, but that’s what happens when you melt the damn ice caps.

This is transforming the shape of the possible, not taking it away but in fact making it hugely present for all of us—just not in any one conceivable way. “It is not too late for humanity to find a future that’s brighter than the present, but it won’t happen because we all agree on what it should look like. Nothing is that simple, or linear, or collective, or predictable anymore.”

And finally, to our challenge:

It’s important to live when we are. Being native to now, I think, is our deepest responsibility in the face of all this. And being at home in the world we actually inhabit means refusing to consign ourselves to living in the ruins of continuity, but instead realizing we live in the rising foundations of a future that actually works. It may be a fierce, wild, unrecognizable future, but that doesn’t mean it’s a broken future. Indeed, it’s the present that’s broken beyond redemption.

When it comes down to it, humanity’s discontinuity is made up of billions of personal discontinuities. Facing our own discontinuity forces the reality of changes that we desperately want to think of as “out there” into our own work, our own lives, our own homes, our own hearts. Even this, though, can be liberating.

That’s what we’re here to talk about: liberating, in this new reality, the best possibilities of our selves, our solutions and our societies from the dusty, decrepit certainties of a predatory past. Succeeding in every sense.

If that sounds good to you, you’re in the right place.

Native to a dysynchronous now: As crazy as the moment is — as crazy as every moment nowadays — this is our only homeland and possible future out of a no-longer-salvagable past. The way forward must become the way back to our roots, the canopy, the healing communion. With our dyssynchronous moment, this homeland of the possible.

Weil concludes her essay,

Across California — across the world — it’s easy, even comforting, to sit in despair. To stay depressed and mired in a state where not that much has truly changed. But nihilism is a failure of imagination, the bleak, easy way out. We need to face the lives before us. We need to name the discontinuity: See, there it is, the tear in the universe created by our fear and greed. What we believed was the present is actually the past. That was Steffen’s message to me in the Berkeley bar. We failed to keep pace with the future. And the longer we sat there, drinking our beers, the wider the gap became.

We can’t fix California’s wildfire problem with a big idea. We can only settle into the trans-apocalypse and work for the best future, the best present. That starts with acknowledging that our political structures have failed us and keep failing us every day. The powerful have failed the vulnerable. The old have failed the young. The global north has failed the global south. We have failed one another.

It’s a real, grown-up, look-mortality-in-the-eye moment we face.

Working for the best present, this shifting, dysynchronous, pre-apocalyptic now: That is your challenge this week. What does the landscape of this look like where you live and celebrate your being?

— Brendan




Paul Otremba

This was a heron, and the oddly effortless but dense wedge
in its body made across the sky, and more odd for being unfamiliar,
landing on the puddled roof of the nearby frame shop,

the second day of the flood receding. Then, there was the crew
of red-vented bulbuls (which took me days of search terms
to identify — “black crested bird with red breast,” “bird with red chest,”

“bird red stomach,” “bird” & “red” & “Houston” — when they invaded
last summer’s ripened fig tree), the black-crested birds that came stowed
full of potential — mutated germs in the seedpods’ husks — in cargo holds

of boats docked in the ship channel, before leaching into the city
like benzene jumping pipes for the gulf. I mean this flood now abated,
yet still as it will be fifty, a hundred years from now, and you, gathered

on what shore you may have found there, you in this echo
I might have detected in pulses under the water’s depth,
and — measuring them — have found myself also, does it help

I only wanted so I could have the need? What I denied myself had a border
as elastic as risen dough, the kind that requires little heat and time
and teams of hungry organisms drunk and belching their conversions,

with our bodies. To complaining about the flood as only this flood
and then rue today’s temperature is only sticking my hand outside
to get an estimate on the weather. I can report it is uncomfortable,

the air hovering at the edges of volcanic breath. If there is a lesson
on how not to worry, it’s that you’re not stuck only being one thing,
the multitudes in me and the multitudes in you. When ice-melt

exposes the bottle brought aboard the ship suspended on its journey,
whatever finds it might carry gratefully across their lips
these agents of the loop now circling through us.

— from Levee, 2019