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


13 thoughts on “earthweal weekly challenge: THE SWAN

  1. Yes, this seems to be an option for the affluent, the US style societies that refuse systematically to rein in their demands for more and bigger and quicker. It’s these societies that are at fault, not the poverty-stricken dirty places that maybe don’t have organised refuse collections, but whose carbon footprint is tiny in comparison. Banging on about technological solutions, adapting to the hell we’re producing, is presupposing that we hang onto the capitalist model—keep on consuming, just consume different stuff. Nope. It’s time the fat rich countries were made to face up to their responsibilities and consume less, better, make do, make things last and stop using the rest of the world as a rubbish dump/playground. End of rant. Now to try and write a poem!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The very second I posted the link to my poem plumbers from the Water Board started up a massive pump in my garden – those blocked drains I wrote about a while back are finally being cleared. I’m off for a bush walk right now and will get back and comment on everyone’s poems later (when it’s quieter). 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. A wonderful further exploration of what it is like to live now, Brendan, and as always, Mary Oliver has the definitive word. I also loved reading excerpts from everyone’s poems……..we are doing good work here. I am hearing of individuals who are trying, in their various ways, to undo some of the damage. A young man was on the news today who is trying to reduce globally the production and usage of single use plastic, one of our worst problems. They say if we dont change this, (and plastic is already in everything), it will destroy us. Locally, we continue to communicate with District Council to save trees. Slow progress, but they know we are not going away. It is true that a small number of people can effect change. I only wish humans would be galvanized in far greater numbers, large enough that various governments would have to listen. Meanwhile, we keep doing what we can. This is a prompt I will give some thought to tomorrow. Much food for thought here. And I love swans!


  4. Friends, right now we are gathering signatures on a petition to save the other half of Tonquin forest, half of which is now clearcut for housing. They are planning to raze the rest which is insanity for any number of reasons. I am including a link to our petition, should any of you wish to sign. Note that, while the petition is through, no donation is required. It is who puts in a request for donations. All we (desperately) need are your signatures, should you be so moved. Thank you so much.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.