earthweal weekly challenge: EVERYTHING IN THE FOREST IS THE FOREST


If you think nature is about survival of the fittest, consider fitness as a collective term.

In Richard Powers’ novel The Overstory, nine people come together after life-altering experiences with trees to work to prevent the destruction of forests. Things don’t go so well for the trees, but in the end we see how redemption belongs to them, not us. I found it deeply moving, even transformative.

Patricia Westorford is a botanist who comes to understand the familial nature of trees in the forest, that they bond together into one unit.

The things she catches Doug-firs doing, over the course of these years, fill her with joy. When the lateral roots of two Douglas-firs run into each other underground, they fuse. Through these self-grafted knots, the two trees join their vascular systems together and become one. Networked together underground by countless thousands of miles of living fungal threads, her trees feed and heal each other, keep their young and sick alive, pool their resources and metabolites into community chests . . . It will take years for the picture to emerge. There will be findings, unbelievable truths confirmed by a spreading worldwide web of researchers in Canada, Europe, Asia, all happily swapping data through faster and better channels.

Her trees are far more social than even Patricia suspected. There are no individuals. There aren’t even separate species. Everything in the forest is the forest. Competition is not separable from endless flavors of cooperation. Trees fight no more than do the leaves on a single tree. It seems most of nature isn’t red in tooth and claw, after all. For one, those species at the base of the living pyramid have neither teeth nor talons. But if trees share their storehouses, then every drop of red must float on a sea of green. (142)

Everything in the forest is the forest: how can one be more inclusive than that? The Overstory is a story about trees and our human failure of them along with just about everything else at this tragic moment of green history. We as a species are just too late in understanding what a unity we live in, that our extractionist greed has sawed off the very branch we were meant to sit and sing upon.

In her notebook Patricia writes,

Trees know when we are close by. The chemistry of their roots and the perfumes of their leaves pump out change when we’re near … When you feel good after a walk in the woods, it may be that certain species are bribing you. So many wonder drugs have come from trees, and we haven’t yet scratched the surface of the offerings. Trees have long been trying to reach us. But they speak on frequencies too low for people to hear. (424)

Unfortunately, the human community fails this 4-billion-year old history in spectacularly bad fashion, cutting some of the great remaining old growth trees, including the one named Mimas,

wider across than his great-great-great-grandfather’s old farmhouse. Here, as sundown blankets them, the feel is primeval, darshan, a face-to-face intro into divinity. The tree runs straight up like a chimney butte and neglects to stop. From underneath, it could be Yggdrasil, the World Tree, with its roots in the underworld and crown in the world above. Twenty-five feet aboveground, a secondary trunk springs out of the expanse of flank … Two more trunks flare out higher up the main shaft. The whole ensemble looks like some exercise in cladistics, the Evolutionary Tree of Life — one great idea splintering into whole new family branches, high up in the run of long time. (260)

It is the one tree that must be saved from the loggers, and it’s the one they cannot. The loss is staggering to the woman who believes the tree had once promised her that no one be harmed. She stands next to a stump that is taller than her and breaks down sobbing. Her friend tries to console her, but “There are consolations that the strongest human love is powerless to give.” (550)

It is tempting to take up arms here against the earth-killers – some of the protagonists do — but the gesture is futile. All they can do is plant seeds against a future no one may see.

The Overstory is a vital yet heartbreaking book, transforming author and audience both … the way a forest joins all in its work.

In an interview with Ezra Klein, Powers spoke about how his own perception had changed as he was writing the book.

 I think what was happening to me at that time, as I was turning outward and starting to take the non-human world seriously, is my sense of meaning was shifting from something that was entirely about me and authored by me outward into this more collaborative, reciprocal, interdependent, exterior place that involved not just me but all of these other ways of being that I could make kinship with. And when you make kinship beyond yourself, your sense of meaning gravitates outwards into that reciprocal relationship, into that interdependence. And you know, it’s a little bit like scales falling off your eyes. When you do turn that corner, all of the sources of anxiety that are so present and so deeply internalized become much more identifiable. And my own sense of hope and fear gets a much larger frame of reference to operate in.

… I would say, for my journey, the way to characterize this transition is from being fascinated with technologies of mastery and control and what they’re doing to us as human beings, how they’re changing what the capacities and affordances of humanity are and how we narrate ourselves, to being fascinated with technologies and sciences of interdependence and cooperation, of those sciences that increase our sense of kinship and being one of many, many neighbors.

This carried over to Powers’ next novel Bewilderment, where a widowed astrobiologist seeking signs of life in the universe and his hypersensitive and grieving 9-year old son are caught up in the agony of observing an Earth in peril. They find solace in the wild — in an author’s note, Powers explains that bewilderment originally meant that, returning to wilderness — but the dystopic human world keeps interfering and we are harrowed by the modern sense of the title. The ending is tragic and sad for the inescapable conclusion we all face. I am gripped by how wanton and careening the news of our sickening Earth is these days; nothing seems to be able to belay its fate. The Holocene has ended in the violently changing moment we are now in.

If there’s a note of grace or hope, Powers approaches it at the end of The Overstory with a quote from The New Metamorphosis by Charles Bowden:

The Greeks had a word, xenia — guest friendship — a command to take care of traveling strangers, to open your door to whoever is out there, because anyone passing by, far from home, might be God. Ovid tells the story of two immortals who came to Earth in disguise to cleanse the sickened world. No one would let them in but one old couple, Baucis and Philemon. And their reward for opening their door to strangers was to live on after death as trees — an oak and a linden — huge and gracious and intertwined. What we care for, what we resemble will hold us, when we are us no longer … (498)

Three poems suggest this intimacy.


James Wright

This time, I have left my body behind me, crying
In its dark thorns.
There are good things in this world.
It is dusk.
It is the good darkness
Of women’s hands that touch loaves.
The spirit of a tree begins to move.
I touch leaves.
I close my eyes and think of water.



James Wright

Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.
At home once more,
They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.


Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

For this challenge, write about what we care for and resemble, remembering that everything in the forest is the forest.

‑ Brendan

earthweal weekly challenge: THE LANGUAGE OF THE WILD


Greetings all — it is becoming increasingly difficult to find wild shelter here, what with all the sound and fury coming at us now from Ukraine. Some of you find yourselves very close to it; all of you have responded with your best.

Hard to not be affected by the news, at levels disturbingly deep. I don’t know what else to say about that other than we must live at the border of two worlds, one wild, one all too human, and find a way to speak of both. For this forum, our work as I see it is to become citizens of the wild we share with the world.

“To be native to a place we must learn to speak its language,” Robin Wall Kimmerer writes In “Learning the Grammar of Animacy” (collected in Braiding Sweetgrass, Milkweed Editions, 2013). She continues,

I come here to listen to nestle in the curve of roots in a soft hollow of pine needles, to lean my bones against the column of white pines, to turn off the voice in my head until I can hear the voices outside it: the shhh of wind in needles, water trickling over rock, nuthatch tapping, chipmunks digging, beechnut falling, mosquito in my ear, and something more — something that is not me, for which we have no language, the wordless being of others in which we are never alone. After the drumbeat of my mother’s heart, this was my first language. (48)

How are we to write a poetry of earth if it we have difficulty speaking it? Our attempts to proximate that “first language” with our own is conditional and faulty at best. Science gives us precise names, but it can only characterize the object, not sing its soul.

Listening in wild places, we are audience to conversations in a language not our own. I think now that it was a longing to comprehend this language I hear in the woods that led me to science, to learn over the years to speak fluent botany. A tongue that should not, by way, be mistaken for the language of plants. I did learn another language in science, though, one of careful observation, an intimate vocabulary that names each little part. To name and describe you must first see, and science polished the gift of seeing. I honor the strength of the language that has become a second tongue to me. But beneath the richness of its vocabulary and its descriptive power, something is missing, the same something that swells around and in you when you listen to the world. (48-9)

When the world is alive, there is a wild animacy to language:

A bay is a noun only if water is dead. When bay is a noun, it is defined by humans, trapped between its shores and contained by the word. But the verb wiikwegamaa — to be a bay — releases the water from bondage and lets I live. “To be a bay” holds the wonder that, for this moment, the living water has decided to shelter itself between these shores, conversing with cedar roots and a flock of baby mergansers. Because it could do otherwise — become a strem or an ocean or a waterfall, and there are verbs for that, too. To be a hill, to be a sandy beach, to be a Saturday, are all possible verbs in the world where everything is alive. Water, land, and even a day, the language a mirror for seeing the animacy of the world, the life that pulses through all things, thorugh pines and nuthatches and muschrooms. This is the language I hear in the woods; this is the language that lets us speak of what wells up all around us. (55)

That animacy is also intimate: “in Potawatomi and most other indigenous languages, we use the same words to address the living world as we use for our family. Because they are our family.” (55). As Thomas Berry writes, “we must say of the universe that it is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.”

Intimacy is a homecoming. “To become native to this place, if we are to survive here, and our neighbors too, our work is to learn to speak the grammar of animacy, so that we might truly be at home.” (58)

It is the language of the heart, and that is where we hear it best. Kimmerer concludes,

I remember the words of Bill Tall Bull, a Cheyenne elder. As a young person, I spoke to him with a heavy heart, lamenting that I had no native language with which to speak to the plants and the places that I love. “They love to hear the old language,” he said, “it’s true.” “But,” he said, with fingers on his lips, “You don’t have to speak it here.” “If you speak it here,” he said, patting his chest, “They will hear you.” (59)

Here are some poems which feel writ in wild language.


Theodore Roethke

I strolled across
An open field;
The sun was out;
Heat was happy.

This way! This way!
The wren’s throat shimmered,
Either to other,
The blossoms sang.

The stones sang,
The little ones did,
And the flowers jumped
Like small goats.

A ragged fringe
Of daisies waved;
I wasn’t alone
In a grove of apples.

Far in the wood
A nestling sighed;
The dew loosened
Its morning smells.

I came where the river
Ran over stones:
My ears knew
An early joy.

And all the waters
Of all the streams
Sang in my veins

That summer day.

(from The Lost Son and Other Poems, 1948)



Mary Oliver

cries for three days, in the gray mist.
cries for the north it hopes it can find.

plunges, and comes up with a slapping pickerel.
blinks its red eye.

cries again.

you come every afternoon, and wait to hear it.
you sit a long time, quiet, under the thick pines,

in the silence that follows.

as though it were your own twilight.
as though it were your own vanishing song.

(from House of Light, 1990)



William Stafford

Evenings, after others go inside,
my glance quietly ascends through leaves,
through branches. The night wind sighs once
and bends over. Far beyond my glimpse of sky
those friends now gone begin their chorus.

There’s a reason for whatever comes,
their song says. Released into light one star
appears, another, and those patterns affirm
where they have been waiting dissolved in blue
but holding their place inside of time.

Every evening this happens, an arch and promise
renewed. Nobody has to notice: a breath
crosses the lawn, or outside the window
a spirit roams, as mysterious as any wander
ever was. And it was only the night wind.

(from Who Are You Really, Wanderer? 1993)

Let’s learn more about THE LANGUAGE OF THE WILD this week!



earthweal weekly challenge: SHELTER


As I begin drafting this prompt, a line of storms barrels this way, part of a massive front stretching from New Mexico to the Canadian border of New England: A “bomb cyclone” of brutal cold and snow and thunderstorms packing tornadoes. It’s what happens when warmer Gulf air mashes with brutal polar cold flowing down from our miasmic jet stream . It was -7 degrees F (-21C) Thursday morning In Denver, Colorado, the coldest temperature recorded there this late in the year since 1886 and dipped as low as -43 degrees F (-41C) in Yellowstone Park. Nothing like that here in Florida, though tonight it will dip briefly into the low 30s F, still record cold for these parts.

It was 29 years to this day — March 12 — that the Storm of the Century ravaged an area stretching from Honduras to Canada. It produced hurricane-force winds and high storm surge in Florida’s Big Bend, killing dozens, brought record cold in the Southeast, piled 56 inches of snow at Mount Le Conte in Tennessee and capsized the cargo ship Gold Bond Conveyor off Nova Scotia with the loss of all 33 crew. Locally a pack of tornadoes went on a 30-mile course of destruction with the epicenter of its fury in my small town, uprooting 500 trees and splitting 2,000 more, hauling down more than 50 power poles and lines all over town. Fortunately, there were only two deaths locally (a tree fell on a trailer), but many of the tree casualties were stately oaks planted when this town was founded in the 1890s. The house where my wife and I would move to in 1995 lost three trees in the front yard. Power was out locally for two weeks. In its zeal to rebuild, the city planted laurel oaks, which grow faster but have shorter lifespans; many are now past maturity.

This morning has a sickly, yellow-greenish, blowing and overwarm feel to it. You can sense every house and nest and den hunkering town, preparing to take shelter from the coming storm. I’ve started stocking up on stuff we’ll need if we lose power – batteries, Sterno, canned foods, water — for a storm this might become, for coming summer hurricanes and the threat of power outages resulting from cyberattack — fears of which are now intensifying. Always in moments like this there is the sense of sandbagging, wondering if we have put away enough for the crisis.

Shelter takes on added meaning in the Anthropocene as we are confronted by an angrier Earth’s blistering heat, furious rainfall, rising tides, big winds and wildfire and abnormally cold temperatures. What once was shelter is becoming an existential question of  higher ground and sounder walls. Changing climate is putting millions globally more on the move, and billions of animals too as their habitat is increasingly threatened.

And now a flood of Ukrainian refugees are seeking shelter across Europe. It is the fastest-growing refugee crisis since the Second World War. Poland’s two largest cities of Krakow and Warsaw are struggling to cope with the influx. Some 2.5 million Ukranians have already fled their home country (most to Poland), and some estimate the total could top 4 million.

Many more of Ukraine’s population of 40 million are hiding in terror in basement shelters without power or water or much food under the incessant assault of Russian shells.

Faced with these traumatic agencies and events, our instinct is to hunker down materially as well as spiritually, seeking the closest approximate to comforting wombs and inviolate borders. For many, that may just be a parent’s enfoding arms or someplace dry and removed from the elements.

Others more fortunate wall themselves into into self-sufficient fortresses. The very definition of suburbia, this is at its worse selfish and insensitive to the commons, a vanishing act with no return.

On the other hand, offering a place in one’s own shelter to the weary and frightened is an enlarging act; we are better for it, especially when done anonymously and with no thought of return. Many indigenous cultures have rites of hospitality based on the essential nature of shared need. You never know when it will be your turn to go begging. We offer shelter to our nuclear families, open our doors to the ragged refugee and offer what we can to struggling animal life around us. Shelter is what our mother Earth provides us, through her landscape and trees and the people who inhabit it. Black Elk related the following from his initiation dream:

A great many other marvels followed, of which the culmination was the arrival of the boy, still riding his bay horse, on the highest mountain of the world.  “I was seeing in a sacred manner,” he said, “the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shapes of all the shapes as they must live together like one being. And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father.

It seems appropriate to honor this moment with poems about shelter.

The creature comfort of shelter most often finds its most immediate sensation in the bonds of human relationship: Yet as Robert Bly writes, humans are poor in instinct and awkwardly learn to cobble their shelters.


Robert Bly

After we had loved each other intently,
we heard notes tumble together,
in late winter, and we heard ice
falling from the ends of twigs.

The notes abandon so much as they move.
They are the food not eaten, the comfort
not taken, the lies not spoken.
The music is my attention to you.

And when the music came again,
late in the day, I saw tears in your eyes.
I saw you turn your face away
So that others would not see.

When men and women come together,
how much they have to abandon. Wrens
make their nests of fancy threads
and string ends, animals

abandon all their money each year.
What is it that men and women leave?
Harder than wren’s doing, they have
to abandon their longing for the perfect.

The inner nest not made by instinct
will never be quite round,
and each has to enter the nest

made by the other imperfect bird.

In living spaces in which we shelter — homes, apartments, trailers, rented rooms, cabins — singular items are the very definition of it:


Joy Harjo

The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.

The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on.

We chase chickens or dogs away from it. Babies teethe at the corners. They scrape their knees under it.

It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make men at it, we make women.

At this table we gossip, recall enemies and the ghosts of lovers.

Our dreams drink coffee with us as they put their arms around our children. They laugh with us at our poor falling-down selves and as we put ourselves back together once again at the table.

This table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun.

Wars have begun and ended at this table. It is a place to hide in the shadow of terror. A place to celebrate the terrible victory.

We have given birth on this table, and have prepared our parents for burial here.

At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks.

Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.

For us humans to understand the meaning of shelter, it is important to understand what it is like to be stripped of it — to empathize with the experience of the homeless and prodigal and refugee. Carolyn Forché writes powerfully of Middle Eastern migrants lost at sea between nothing and less. (The last migrant crisis is far from over.)


Carolyn Forché

We were thirty-one souls all, he said, on the gray-sick of sea
in a cold rubber boat, rising and falling in our filth.
By morning this didn’t matter, no land was in sight,
all were soaked to the bone, living and dead.
We could still float, we said, from war to war.
What lay behind us but ruins of stone piled on ruins of stone?
City called “mother of the poor” surrounded by fields
of cotton and millet, city of jewelers and cloak-makers,
with the oldest church in Christendom and the Sword of Allah.
If anyone remains there now, he assures, they would be utterly alone.
There is a hotel named for it in Rome two hundred meters
from the Piazza di Spagna, where you can have breakfast under
the portraits of film stars. There the staff cannot do enough for you.
But I am talking nonsense again, as I have since that night
we fetched a child, not ours, from the sea, drifting face-
down in a life vest, its eyes taken by fish or the birds above us.
After that, Aleppo went up in smoke, and Raqqa came under a rain
of leaflets warning everyone to go. Leave, yes, but go where?
We lived through the Americans and Russians, through Americans
again, many nights of death from the clouds, mornings surprised
to be waking from the sleep of death, still unburied and alive
but with no safe place. Leave, yes, we obey the leaflets, but go where?
To the sea to be eaten, to the shores of Europe to be caged?
To camp misery and camp remain here. I ask you then, where?
You tell me you are a poet. If so, our destination is the same.
I find myself now the boatman, driving a taxi at the end of the world.
I will see that you arrive safely, my friend, I will get you there.

—  Best American Poetry 2016, ed. Natasha Trethewey


Here at earthweal we gather our kindred spirits and poetries, protected in a global weal of  local nature and nurture. We find shelter in the wild, as Sherry Marr did in response to the May 2021 Sanctuary challenge.


Sherry Marr

Forest of green
on the far edge of town,
along your well-trodden paths
I walk
on hallowed ground.

sepulchre and tabernacle,
home and refuge to
teach us how to be
so we
regain your trust.

Shelter, refuge,
in my need,
forest serene,
my sanctuary blessed,
it is
to you I come,
when I
seek rest.

A terrible sense of homelessness results when these wild places are lost, as Sherry has seen with the clear-cutting of much of what remains of this old-growth forest. (Grief of losing such rich environs in the Anthropocene has a name —Solastalgia — a theme we explored here in February 2020.)

Wild listening locates a special sense of shelter in the ear:


Ranier Marie Rilke

A tree ascended there. Oh pure transcendence!
Oh Orpheus sings! Oh tall tree in the ear!
And all things hushed. Yet even in that silence
a new beginning, beckoning, change appeared.

Creatures of stillness crowded from the bright
unbound forest, out of their lairs and nests;
and it was not from any dullness, not
from fear, that they were so quiet in themselves,

but from simply listening. Bellow, roar, shriek
seemed small inside their hearts. And where there had been
just a makeshift hut to receive the music,

a shelter nailed up out of their darkest longing,
with an entryway that shuddered in the wind—
you built a temple deep inside their hearing.

—  The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, transl. Stephen Mitchell, 1982

The writing of poetry is a process of sheltering — finding momentary respite and comfort and meaning — yet it reminds us that we can never become too habituated to what we find, else we fade out in what Rilke called “heated rooms and narrow similes.” W.S. Merwin wrote about it this way:


W.S. Merwin

A migrant tribe of spiders
spread tents at dusk in the rye stubble
come day I see the color
of the planet under their white-beaded tents
where the spiders are bent
by shade fires in damp September
to their live instruments
and I see the color of the planet
when their tents go from above it
as I come that way in a breath cloud
learning my steps
among the tents rising invisibly like the shapes of snowflakes
we are words on a journey
not the inscriptions of settled people

— from The Compass Flower (1977)

Words on a journey, yes, shared by the firelight of our commons.

Finally, the deepest, most sustaining emotion which comes from shelter is security, the feeling of being safe and sound. (Interesting pairing.) A meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous is an open door for any drunk to come in out of the cold and be sheltered for an hour, welcomed and assured they aren’t alone any more & offered some warm soup of the soul. Shelter provides a grounding for all the necessary time spent away from it, earning our daily keep wearying in the labors of the world: an assurance that shelter will be there at day’s end, welcoming and warm. Shelter is that moment when you recognize that everything will be all right.


Wendell Berry

When despair grows in me
and I wake in the middle of the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

For this week’s challenge, write of SHELTER. You can address any of these questions, or come up with any of your own:

  • Where do you find shelter?
  • How do you create shelter?
  • Do you share your shelter, and how?
  • What have your learned from our wild mother about shelter, nesting, dens?
  • What is it to journey, finding only temporary shelter at day’s end?
  • What does homelessness teach us about shelter, or the abandonment of homeland by the refugee or the yearning for homecoming by the prodigal?
  • When does shelter become the greedy cloak of invisibility?
  • How would you compose (or recompose) the Biblical manger scene depicting the birth of Christ?
  • How are poems shelters?
  • What does it mean to be “safe” and “sound”?
  • What shelter can we offer others in this uprooting time? How do we spread the canopy?

Let’s construct an earthweal shelter!

— Brendan