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.
ON LISTENING TO THE KÖLN CONCERT
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:
PERHAPS THE WORLD ENDS HERE
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.)
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.
Forest of green
on the far edge of town,
along your well-trodden paths
on hallowed ground.
sepulchre and tabernacle,
home and refuge to
teach us how to be
regain your trust.
in my need,
my sanctuary blessed,
to you I come,
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:
SONNETS TO ORPHEUS I,1
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:
AN ENCAMPMENT AT MORNING
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.
THE PEACE OF WILD THINGS
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!
A wonderful essay, Brendan, and a timely topic, with so many refugees on the move as this TERRIBLE war goes on. Thank you for using my poem. I love Joy Harjo’s poem so much, and Wendell Berry’s is one of my favourites.
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p.s. I hope you weather the storm safely. I hear you about stocking up for whatever comes next. Good idea. As an aside, have you seen the facebook and tv news articles about giant spiders that are expected to parachute from the sky on the east coast this spring and summer? It feels like a lot of Biblical prophecies are coming true. Yikes.
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Once again late to the party, but I was drawn into the poems you chose, especially the ones by Bly and Merwin, and Harjo, of whom I have not read much. Thanks Brendan for this opportunity to think of what brings peace amid all the klaxons shouting death, damage and destruction in our ears.
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Thanks H – I thought it was going to be an easy task, finding poems about shelter, but oddly I had to search around quite a bit. Poets are more accustomed to wandering than sheltering, I guess. Some very different challenges these days.
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