What happens when awe exceeds our capacity to behold it? Jack Gilbert struggles with this in “Measuring The Tyger”:
Barrels of chains. Sides of beef stacked in vans.
Water buffalo dragging logs of teak in the river mud
outside Mandalay. Pantocrater in the Byzantium dome.
The mammoth overhead crane bringing slabs of steel
through the dingy light and roar to the giant shear
that cuts the adamantine three-quarter-inch plates
and they flop down. The weight of the mind fractures
the girders and piers of the spirit, spilling out
the heart’s melt. Incandescent ingots big as cars
trundling out of titanic mills, red slag scaling off
the brighter metal in the dark. The Monongahela River
below, night’s sheen its belly. Silence except
for the machinery clanging deeper in us. You will
love again, people say. Give it time. Me with time
running out. Day after day of the everyday.
What they call real life, made of eighth-inch gauge.
Newness strutting around as if it were significant.
Irony, neatness and rhyme pretending to be poetry.
I want to go back to that time after Michiko’s death
when I cried every day among the trees. To the real.
To the magnitude of pain, of being that much alive.
— from The Great Fires (1995)
I’ll always remember what novelist E.L. Doctorow said in a lecture at a local university back in 1995: “It is the writer’s main task and only value to bear witness to a magnitude.”
For me, Doctorow’s novels are just that — a stunning witness to the human spirit at a specific crossroads in the past. The magnitude of what he captures looms heavily into the present moment, chilling us with the recognition that those who don’t learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them. (Favorite Doctorow novel: Billy Bathgate.)
His vision failed however to witness what was then coming monstrously to view, but maybe magnitude needs a moment of the past to triangulate itself. (Jack Gilbert understood magnitude but only at heart scale.) We can use the climate silence of our literature as such a referent. Silence in the face of this? Today it’s hard to imagine a setting not burning in from the edges.
Now climate-related disasters grow so great in magnitude that one wonders what comes to pass when awesomeness outstrips scale. What happens when fire is too great, when humans can’t live in such heat? We comfit to the steadily worse like the proverbial frog in the boil, but what occurs in the human spirit when rolling bubbles is all there is? For many, you either hunker down in the blind comfort of grievance or write one long poem of grief. Either approach suggests that we’ve run out of calibration.
A wildfire in New Mexico (US) has ballooned to 165,000 acres, threatening a traditional Hispanic culture that has lived in the area before the United States came into existence. Thousands of homes may be destroyed. On Friday the state’s governor warned of 100 consecutive hours of wind and extreme temperature to come starting Saturday. Six major fires across the state are escalating. So the long, long wildfire season in the Northern Hemisphere continues to grow.
India and Pakistan saw temperatures soar a month ago and they haven’t budged — daily high temperatures are 5 to 8 degrees C above normal (that 9-15 degrees F), and in New Delhi last week it hit 118 degrees F (47.7 C), and the maximum high temperature in April averaged more than 104 degrees (40 C). In areas of high humidity, temperatures in excess of 35C (95F) are considered at their “wet bulb” threshold, where the human body is at risk of cooking itself. Wheat harvests have been damaged, and electricity consumption is soaring (placing an even high demand for coal at coal-fired plants).
A cartographer with NASA Earth recently mapped the world’s largest cities, showing the ones most affected by temperature rise in shades of orange and red. India is pockmarked with the largest and darkest red circles:
About 99 million people live in India’s 10 hottest cities. And let’s remember that India has seen about 1 degree Celsius in warming since the Industrial Age, with a 3.5 C increase predicted for India by century’s end.
The question dawning on us now is this: Is it even possible to protect populations against a future riddled with extreme heat? The same question can be asked about wildfires in the Western United States and Canada, eastern Australia and Siberia. Or flooding in Queensland and the midwestern United States and South Africa.
Is human habitation no longer possible in forest areas? Are there enough sandbags to stack?
Behind those questions, an even more awful one: If we are asking wondering these things at 1 degree C warming from Industrial Age levels, what happens when we hit 2 and then 3 degrees C warming in the coming decades?
Does human life become a seasonal probability? And how will we then calibrate the human spirit?
It becomes harder and harder to behold magnitude without succumbing to terror, which for many means hunkering down and refusing to witness anything.
It certainly is understandable, but such denial dooms us to repeat what happens when populations go on blinding themselves. Imagine Pompei in 78 AD with Aetna billowing smoke or cafes in Warsaw Poland in 1938 as German armor revs up nearby. And how different Christmas in Ukraine in 2021 and then 2022 …
I’ve been reading Carolyn Forché’s 2019 memoir All That You Have Heard Here is True, about her awakening as a poet and human rights activist when she innocent American poet learning something fundamental about witness while visiting El Salvador at the outbreak of the bloody civil war that began in 1979. It’s about reading the signs of the future in the present moment, something that still was understood by the remnant natives descended from ancient Mayan culture:
The Mayans don’t distinguish between past, present, and future … They have one word to describe all instances of time, meaning something like “It comes to pass.” If you know the past, you know the cyclic forces that created the present, and by knowing the cyclic influences that created the present, you can foresee the future … If you can learn to read the present, without preconceptions, you will better know which of all possible futures will come to pass. There is nothing magical about this. It is a skill that can be acquired by anyone with the inclination and discipline. (207)
She is brought to that impoverished country by a Salvadoran man who asks her, “Are you going to write poetry about yourself for the rest of your life?” He shows her the vast suffering of the population contrasted by the incredible privilege of the elite. Her experience opened her eyes and led her to become one of the most outspoken poets on human rights in Central America. From it she began to write a “poetry of witness,” the “evidence of what occurred.”
Does magnitude allow us to see this present moment clearly in its awesome and awful unfolding, and vision what is wheeling slowly and to view? What must our eyes unlearn to see in order to bear witness to that magnitude?
A breezy hot afternoon here, the trees thrashing in gusts which now bear the menace of the normal. Wildfires are raging here in Florida too, down south near the Everglades. Spring is for burning, summer brings storm.
For this week’s challenge, What is your witness to the magnitude?
WHAT KIND OF TIMES ARE THESE
There’s a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows uphill
and the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows
near a meeting-house abandoned by the persecuted
who disappeared into those shadows.
I’ve walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don’t be fooled
this isn’t a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear.
I won’t tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods
meeting the unmarked strip of light—
ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise:
I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.
And I won’t tell you where it is, so why do I tell you
anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these
to have you listen at all, it’s necessary
to talk about trees.
MORNING ON THE ISLAND
The lights across the water are the waking city.
The water shimmers with imaginary fish.
Not far from here lie the bones of conifers
washed from the sea and piled by wind.
Some mornings I walk upon them,
bone to bone, as far as the lighthouse.
A strange beetle has eaten most of the trees.
It may have come here on the ships playing
music in the harbor, or it was always here, a winged
jewel, but in the past was kept still by the cold
of a winter that no longer comes.
There is an owl living in the firs behind us but he is white,
meant to be mistaken for snow burdening a bough.
They say he is the only owl remaining. I hear him at night
listening for the last of the mice and asking who of no other owl.
THE BIG PICTURE
I try to look at the big picture.
The sun, ardent tongue
licking us like a mother besotted
with her new cub, will wear itself out.
Everything is transitory.
Think of the meteor
that annihilated the dinosaurs.
And before that, the volcanoes
of the Permian period — all those burnt ferns
and reptiles, sharks and bony fish —
that was extinction on a scale
that makes our losses look like a bad day at the slots.
And perhaps we’re slated to ascend
to some kind of intelligence
that doesn’t need bodies, or clean water, or even air.
But I can’t shake my longing
for the last six hundred
Iberian lynx with their tufted ears,
Brazilian guitarfish, the 4
percent of them still cruising
the seafloor, eyes staring straight up.
And all the newborn marsupials —
red kangaroos, joeys the size of honeybees —
steelhead trout, river dolphins,
so many species of frogs
breathing through their damp
Today on the bus, a woman
in a sweater the exact shade of cardinals,
and her cardinal-colored bra strap, exposed
on her pale shoulder, makes me ache
for those bright flashes in the snow.
And polar bears, the cream and amber
of their fur, the long, hollow
hairs through which sun slips,
swallowed into their dark skin. When I get home,
my son has a headache and, though he’s
almost grown, asks me to sing him a song.
We lie together on the lumpy couch
and I warble out the old show tunes, “Night and Day”. . .
“They Can’t Take That Away from Me.”. . . A cheap
silver chain shimmers across his throat,
rising and falling with his pulse. There never was
anything else. Only these excruciatingly
insignificant creatures we love.
Greetings and a happy belated May Day to all. If you’ll recall Sarah Connor’s enchanting Approaching Beltaine challenge from last year, this is a time in Gaia’s North for bright fire, fertility dances and merriment. We weave those joys round a maypole, lacing ourselves in the rapture. The festival opposite to this is Samhain, the celebration of coming winter, and our members in Gaia’s South weave the spirits of cold starlight into late and later mornings.
One morning earlier this week there was an odd celestial alignment on my early morning walk: a crescent moon, followed by bright Venus and then a smaller Jupiter all in a tight row in the southeastern sky. Did you see it? A strange bed of fellows there, Earth’s orb of night consciousness partaking something with Gaia’s naughty sister and their Big Daddy in the distant solar system. As we conjoin at this moment of the year from our opposite festivals, the heavens themselves seemed to express a desire to join a feast it is for us to name, from both poles now …
Proceeding from Gary Snyder’s discussion of the commons (a fruitful concept for last week’s earthweal challenge) in Practice of the Wild, he goes on to talk about bioregions, the broader lay of local lands.
The little nations of the past lived within territories that conformed to some set of natural criteria. The culture areas of the major native groups of North America overlapped, as one would expect, almost exactly with broadly defined major bioregions. That older human experience of a fluid, indistinct, but genuine home region was gradually replaced — across Eurasia — by the arbitrary and often violently imposed borders of emerging national sates. These imposed borders sometimes cut across biotic areas and ethnic zones alike. Inhabitants lost ecological knowledge and community solidarity. In the old ways, the flora and fauna and landforms are part of the culture. The world of culture and nature, which is actual, is almost a shadow world now, and the insubstantial world of political jurisdictions and rarefied economies is what passes for reality …
Regions are “interpenetrating bodies in semi-simultanteous spaces” (Cafard, 1989). Biota, watersheds, landforms, and elevations are just a few of the facets that define a region. Culture areas, in the same way, have subsets such as dialects, religions, sorts of arrow-release, types of tools, myth motifs, musical scales, art styles. (40-1)
Snyder uses trees as one signia of a bioregion, like the Douglas Fir in the Pacific Northwest.
The presence of this tree signifies a rainfall and a temperature range and will indicate what your agriculture might me, how steep the pitch of your roof, what raincoats you’ll need. You don’t have to know such details to get by in the modern cities of Portland and Bellingham. But if you do know what is taught by plants and weather, you are in on the gossip and can truly feel more at home.
Snyder now gets to a most interesting point.
The sum of a field’s forces becomes what we call very loosely the “spirit of the place.” To know the spirit of a place is to realize that you are part of a part and that the whole is made of parts, each of which is whole. You start with the part you are whole in. (41)
The part we are whole in! How distant is this perspective from the modern one of existence in another anywhere, which is the definition of suburbia. The spirit of place is the ensouling presence where we make our home. The part we are whole in.
Snyder goes on about this spirit of place:
Sometimes in the mid-seventies at a conference of Native American leaders and activists in Bozeman, Montana, I heard a Crow elder say something similar: “You know, I think people stay somewhere long enough — even white people — the spirits will begin to speak to them. It’s the power of the spirits coming up from the land. The spirits and the old powers aren’t lost, they need people to be around long enough and the spirits will begin to influence them.” (41)
My upbringing was archetypically American — we moved around a lot. My father was an ordained minister starting out, and he took parishes in Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania), Rahway (New Jersey) and a beeline of suburban Chicago churches from Winnetka to Wilmette to Evanston, from the time I was born until I was seven years old. The five years we were in Evanston offered my first sense of home, but our family was fragmenting and soon enough we were on the move again, as my mother took me and my siblings south to Florida for a few years and then we moved back to Chicago as they tried to patch up the marriage. Failing that, my family scattered, with my father moving to New York City, my mother moving south to Florida again with my younger siblings, my older brother to California and me to Washington State, where I lived for seven years of college and bad rock and roll bands before moving to Florida in 1980. I had a dozen addresses until 1996 when I married for a second time and moved into the house I am sitting in today as I write.
My sense of place in the past is a blur, but I am quite happy to say I slowly but surely found home at last. In my lingering here I’ve dug into local history and ecology, coming to know, as they say, the bones of the place. A few years ago my career job was eliminated and I no longer commuted long distances to work every day. My days are now fully here, up early with the late night blowing in the trees outside, walking at dawn through the same quiet waking neighborhoods, the same trees, the same alligators down at the lake. Maybe the spirit of place now has a trustworthy bridge into my awareness.
Another example comes to me from my father, who eventually settled in the woods of Pennsylvania to found Columcille, what he called a megalithic park — big stones threading 40 acres of field and woodland. I’ve written here about it before, but what is evident to just about anyone who comes to visit the park is this abiding presence in the land, a divinity in the rooks. For forty years my father slowly worked and tended and loved that small rural veld, and there emerged a deep sense of participation between nature and divine. The spirit of place can be manifest in our work.
That work must have its own language, carefully named and articulated. Snyder works on this as a North American, but all residents of Gaia are invited:
Bioregional awareness teaches us in specific ways. It is not enough just to “love nature” or to want to “be in harmony with Gaia.” Our relation to the natural world takes place in a place, and it must be grounded in information and experience. For example, “real people” have an easy familiarity with the local plants. This is so unexceptional a kind of knowledge that everyone in Europe, Asia, and Africa used to take it for granted. Many contemporary Amercians don’t even know that they don’t know the plants,” which is indeed a measure of alienation. Knowing a bit about the flora we could enjoy questions like: where do Alaska and Mexico meet? It would be somewhere on the north coast of California, where the Canada Jay and Sitka Spruce lace together with manzanita and Blue Oak. (42-3)
Unfortunately, climate change is rapidly altering some of these boundaries as animal and vegetable life moves away from heating latitudes. Is the spirit of place being uprooted as well? Who will be able to name them?
Similarly, the Anthropocene is rapidly altering the natural terrain with mountaintop mining, clearcut forestry and tar sands oil extraction. Even our solutions mar the landscape with wind propellors and vast seas of solar screens. Wildfires erased almost 100,000 square miles of forest cover last year, an area roughly the size of Oregon. The seas are creeping up and in, devouring most of my state of Florida in a century or so. And war is brutalizes human and natural environment alike, invoking the terrible ghosts of nuclear annihilation.
So before it is too late, we had better find a way to make ourselves home here, for it is only those whose homeland is threatened who are willing to do whatever they can to save it.
There are millions of people in North America who were physically born here but who are not actually living here intellectually, imaginatively, or morally. Native Americans to be sure have a prior claim to the term native. But as they love this land they will welcome the conversion of millions of immigrant psyches into fellow “Native Americans.” For the non-Native American to become at home on this continent, he or she must be born again in this hemisphere, on this continent, properly called Turtle Island.
That is to say, we must consciously fully accept and recognize that this is where we live and grasp the fact that our descendents will be here for millennia to come. Then we must honor this land’s great antiquity — its wildness — learn it — defend it — and work to hand it on to the children (of all beings) of the future with its biodiversity and health intact. (43-4)
For this week’s challenge, write about the spirit(s) of place where you live and have your being in. What is the biological description of your home? How does living in a biogregion change the contours and boundaries of your day? In what places is the spirit of place most resonant for you, and where it is most faint? What is the deep voice of assurance it offers? Can it be channeled in an earth poem? And how do we carry the spirit of place forward into a drastically changing Earth?
THE GREAT SEA
Eskimo woman shaman quoted by Rasmussen
The great sea
Has sent me adrift,
It moves me as the weed in a great river,
Earth and the great weather move me,
Have carried me away,
And move my inward parts with joy.
from News of the Universe: Poems of Twofold Consciousness, chosen and introduced by Robert Bly (1980)
IN THE ALL-VERBS, NAVAHO WORLD
“The Navaho world is made of verbs.”
Left-alone grow-things wait, rustle-grass, click-
trunk, whisper-leaf. You go-people miss the hold-still
dawn, arch-over-sky, the jump-everywhere glances.
This woman world, fall-into eyes, reaches out her
make-tremble beauty, trolls with her body, her
move-everything walk. All-now, our breathe-always
life extends, extends. Change. Change your live-here,
tick-tock hours. Catch all the flit-flit birds,
eat the offer-food, ride over the clop-clop land,
our great holds-us-up, wear-a-crown kingdom.
from Even in Quiet Places, 1996
What must a man do to be at home in the world?
There must be times when he is here
as though absent, gone beyond words into the woven shadows
of the grass and the flighty darknesses
of leaves shaking in the wind, and beyond
the sense of the weariness of engines and of his own heart,
his wrongs grown own unforgiven. It must be with him
as though his bones fade beyond thought
into the shadows that grow out of the ground
so that the furrow he opens in the earth opens
in his bones, and he hears the silence
of the tongues of the dead tribesmen buried here
a thousand years ago. And then what presences will rise up
before him, weeds bearing flowers, and the dry wind
rain? What songs he will hear!
from Farming: A Hand Book (1970)
Every day I see or hear something that more or less
kills me with delight, that leaves me like a needle
in the haystack of light. It was what I was born for — to look, to listen,
to lose myself inside this soft world — to instruct myself over and over
in joy, and acclamation. Nor am I talking about the exceptional,
the fearful, the dreadful, the very extravagant — but of the ordinary, the common, the very drab,
the daily presentations. Oh, good scholar, I say to myself, how can you help
but grow wise with such teachings as these — the untrimmable light
of the world, the ocean’s shine, the prayers that are made out of grass?