earthweal weekly challenge: A MODERN COMMONS

Jean-Franciois Millet, The Gleaners (1857)


Greetings all,

Special thanks to Sherry for carrying the earthweal load for the past several weeks. I appreciate the break.

In the Northern Hemisphere, we are now approaching the summer solstice, also known as midsummer: High noon for Ol’ Sol. In much of the continental United States of late, we have accordingly been hot! hot! hot! On Thursday (June 16), more than a dozen U.S. cities set daily records for heat; 100 million were affected. A heatwave is also underway in Europe, with Madrid hitting 105F (40.5C) the other day and St. Jean-de-Minervois hitting 40C — the earliest that France has hit that high temperature ever. Here in the U.S., another heat dome is expected next week. For us Floridians, 100 degree heat is rare for all the humidity we’re soaked in, but three afternoons last week nudged the century mark.

Call me crazy from the heat, but the dearth of shadows at this noon makes some things seem most evident. I’ve been watching public hearings of the January 6th Committee, and in my mind they make an airtight case that there was criminal intent to overthrow the rule of law and declare Donald Trump the winner of the 2020 presidential election.

Airtight: A showdown not between nuances of fact, but fact and fiction. And yet it’s difficult not to say that fiction will win out — the same way that it’s hard not to say that Putin will not defeat Ukraine and all Europe for the glory of the Russian empire, or that the Earth won’t cook this century and the next and make life on Earth a near impossibility except for some very wealthy people living at the North Pole preparing to move to Mars. That all poetry will be lost in the digital white noise which extracts, with each distracting beep and flash, all measure of the human spirit, down to the one and then the zero.

The clarity of this year’s noon is not one of brightness but the sureness of such darkness.

I sense these things are too close to their tipping points, which means they have already sprung and I am mouthing is what amounts to a nostalgic farewell. But we’re believers here at earthweal, so we have to dig our fortifications against insanity as we can. So let’s dig down to the bare outlines of this week’s challenge. I know it’s there, somewhere …

A child plays in a London fountain to beat the heat, June 17, 2022


How could things seem so hopelessly lost for us? It’s like knowing that every dice will come up snake eyes, that every hand you’re dealt will be garbage. How did fate get such an upper hand over us? How did we lose control over our destinies?

Some say it’s been evolving for centuries. In her June 8 essay in The New Yorker, “The Theft of the Commons,” Eula Biss writes, “The idea that shared resources are inevitably ruined by people who exploit them is sometimes called the tragedy of the commons.”

(For you regulars, we delved into the commons in an April 25 challenge.)

If you’re familiar with the phrase “the tragedy of the commons,” it was coined in a 1968 essay by ecologist Garret Hardin, and his beef was that nonwhite people would eventually bring ruin to all the white people who share in the commons. (It’s now called “replacement theory,” a firearm used by commentators on FOX News.) Biss turns that over to say that the real ruin comes from those who assert their privilege over others. She writes,

Capitalism, the scholar Cedric Robinson argues, was not a revolutionary departure from feudalism but an extension of it, a new permutation. Under feudalism, the English rehearsed a racial hierarchy based on blood and birth, and this was the first stage in the development of an economic system dependent on racism. Later, Southern planters in the U.S. would imagine themselves as landed gentry and their slaves as feudal subjects. Capitalism here was built on slavery, and capitalism everywhere has depended on the idea that one group of people is entitled to extract profit from another, an idea that is often expressed in terms of us and them.

To be landless and then deprived of one’s commons by the rule of law is to be doubly-disinherited, a people with no name or purpose. A short English poem (quoted by Biss) put it this way:

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common,
But lets the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from the goose.

It makes one nostalgic for the good old days, but that’s an emotion shot with peril. Good stuff was back there all gilt and rosy, but a lot of other stuff, too. The fabled Earth of our upbringing has a childlike cast to it because we were children, and much was scrubbed from memory (like DDT in spring water and sexual health before Roe vs. Wade) by parents who thought the Disney vision of childhood was a purer substitute for reality. Similarly, political nostalgia for America when it used to be Great sweeps a lot under its rug. It’s great for white people who didn’t have to worry about fairness to the disadvantaged.

Surely though there’s got to be a haunting sense we’re throwing a baby Jesus of possibility out with the stale bathwater of modernity.

John Clare (1793-1864) is a great recaller of the freedom of the commons. He begins his poem “The Moors”:

Far spread the moorey ground a level scene
Bespread with rush and one eternal green
That never felt the rage of blundering plough
Though centuries wreathed spring’s blossoms on its brow
Still meeting plains that stretched them far away
In uncheckt shadows of green brown, and grey

Unbounded freedom ruled the wandering scene
Nor fence of ownership crept in between
To hide the prospect of the following eye
Its only bondage was the circling sky.

Such freedom is still privileged; nostalgia probably didn’t resemble anything like that to Clare’s wife, who had to raise seven children in poverty while John was off writing poetry and drifting in and out of asylums.

We might say that Clare was selectively embued with nostalgia but powerfully, especially because he sharply contrasts those motifs in the poem with England’s growing enclosure:

… Fence now meets fence in owners’ little bounds
Of field and meadow large as garden grounds
In little parcels little minds to please
With men and flocks imprisoned ill at ease.

In Clare’s voice the nostalgia seems fresh, for a commons only recently lost. Indeed, Parliament in 1801 passed the Enclosure Act. Biss writes, “the nature of ownership changed within the newly set hedges of an enclosed field, where the landowner now had the exclusive right to dictate how the land was used, and no one else belonged there.” She continues,

“The Wall,” John Berger writes, “is the front line of what, long ago, was called the Class War.” Walls, fences, hedges, and ditches were all used to mark the boundaries of enclosed land, so that sheep could be kept there, or some other profit could be pursued. Enclosure is how nearly all the agricultural land in Britain came to be owned by less than one per cent of the population. In The Making of the English Working Class, the historian E. P. Thompson writes that enclosure was “a plain enough case of class robbery, played according to fair rules of property and law laid down by a parliament of property-owners and lawyers.”

It was the culmination of two hundred years of evolving law to increase agricultural production and render commoners (landless folk who had been permitted to work the land) into proletariats  — walled-off surplus labor to feed into the mills of the Industrial Revolution.

If you haven’t guessed it already, it was also the inspiration for Romantic poetry, and the early greats — Wordsworth, Byron, Blake, Keats and Clare — embraced the natural world as one would a lost God, sublimely. John Keats writes of this in the 1817 sonnet:

To one who has been long in city pent,
         ‘Tis very sweet to look into the fair
         And open face of heaven,—to breathe a prayer
Full in the smile of the blue firmament.
Who is more happy, when, with heart’s content,
         Fatigued he sinks into some pleasant lair
         Of wavy grass, and reads a debonair
And gentle tale of love and languishment?
Returning home at evening, with an ear
         Catching the notes of Philomel,—an eye
Watching the sailing cloudlet’s bright career,
         He mourns that day so soon has glided by:
E’en like the passage of an angel’s tear
         That falls through the clear ether silently.

Just to vision a clear sky in the dense coal-smoke of London was rapture.

Biss notes that nostalgia was first used by a Swiss physician in 1688 to describe someone who was categorized it as a disease of the mind which affected the body. A girl he was treating was in a hospital far away from her home. She refused to eat and demanded to go home. He prescribed induced vomiting and bleeding, and if those things failed, to send her home. For hundreds of years it was treated as a mental illness, and as late as 1938 it was described as an “immigrant psychosis” whose only cure was going home.

Indeed, nostalgia is its own enclosure, a bondage to the distant past which locks out all sense of home in the present—especially if one refuses to make a home there.

But is there any alternative? Many don’t think so. Clare didn’t see any hope in what lay ahead, not with it owned by someone else. After writing on in “The Moors” (1820) about the myriad paths that happily meandered the wild, he finds them now closed to commoners like himself:

These paths are stopt – the rude philistine’s thrall
Is laid upon them and destroyed them all
Each little tyrant with his little sign
Shows where man claims earth glows no more divine
But paths to freedom and to childhood dear
A board sticks up to notice ‘no road here’
And on the tree with ivy overhung
The hated sign by vulgar taste is hung
As tho’ the very birds should learn to know
When they go there they must no further go

Thus, with the poor, scared freedom bade goodbye
And much they feel it in the smothered sigh
And birds and trees and flowers without a name

All sighed when lawless law’s enclosure came
And dreams of plunder in such rebel schemes
Have found too truly that they were but dreams.

“Lawless law’s enclosure” makes me think of Allan Bloom’s 1994 book The Closing of the American Mind, a critique of the culture wars then raging in academia. (Who knows, maybe they still are.) He believed that the relativism had poisoned contemporary criticism by paradoxically closing off the possibility of a culture defined by critical thinking and advocacy of “what is best.” I sure agree with him trying to plow through the New York Times’ Sunday book review section. Maybe I’m playing cultural landowner here, but we who live now in the land of unbounded choice too often find us scrolling and scrolling finding nothing — a strange displacement.

Call me Luddite, but to me the enclosure of the limitless digital realm seems worthy of rebuttal, a counterforce equal to its white noise. Literature has widely failed — who reads, anymore? — and poetry seems even more arcane. Yet here we are, posting our earth poems every week, celebrating a world we don’t see as lost. Not yet, though I sometimes wonder if we mistake applause for tipping points passing us by.

According to Biss, perhaps the quest of Romantic poetry should be reframed:

Would you go back?” strikes me as the wrong question to ask of nostalgia. The question, as Zadie Smith puts it, is how to “restate the things you find valuable in the past … in a way that’s livable in this contemporary moment.” How to locate the commons in a world that is mostly enclosed. How to recover a tradition of rebellion against monied claims to property. How to use machines rather than be used by them. How to be canny, like the workers of the past, and how to be conservationists, like commoners. We can learn from the time before enclosure, but we can’t go back there. “Time,” the poet Robyn Schiff tells me, “is the enclosure that encircles us all.”

We have several survivals of the commons in our contemporary landscape — parks, especially the big national ones, open to all. Public libraries, with their free access to our civilization’s learned resources. And earthweal, which invites every local poetic eye to help create a global vision.

Naming commons human may be part of the problem. The ocean is a vast interspecies commons interrupted only by meteors, undersea volcanoes and us, our relentless extraction. The forest is a commons. You wouldn’t think of suburbs as a natural commons — chock-full of fences and walls — but step outside and you walk grounds that belong to owls and squirrels, sand and orchid, gators and butterflies who haven’t read our property laws.

The medium of this — at this forum, anyway — is poetry, which brings me now down this meandering path to the challenge of writing contemporary commons poetry. What does it meant to be open, unbounded, united and free in an enclosed world?

Let’s find out!




Tony Hoagland

Of course there is a time of afternoon, out there in the yard,
an hour that has never been described.

There is the way the warm air feels
among the flagstones and the tropical plants
                                                with their dark, leathery green leaves.

There is a gap you never noticed,
dug out between the gravel and the rock, where something lives.

There is a bird that can only be heard by someone
who has come to be alone.

Now you are getting used to things that will not be happening again.

Never to be pushed down onto the bed again, laughing,
and have your clothes unbuttoned.

Never to stand up in the rear
of the pickup truck and scream, as you blast out of town.

This life that rushes over everything,
like water or like wind, and wears it down until it shines.

Now you sit on the brick wall in the cloudy afternoon and swing your legs,
happy because there never has been a word for this,
as you continue moving through these days and years

where more and more the message is
                                                    not to measure anything.

— published in The Sun



Aimee Nezhukumatathil

Come in, come in. The water’s fine! You can’t get lost
here. Even if you want to hide behind a clutch
           of spiny oysters — I’ll find you. If you ever leave me
           at night, by boat, you’ll see the arrangement

of red-gold sun stars in a sea of milk. And though
it’s tempting to visit them — stay. I’ve been trained
          to gaze up all my life, no matter the rumble
          on earth, but I learned it’s okay to glance down

into the sea. So many lessons bubble up if you know
where to look. Clouds of plankton churning
           in open whale mouths might send you east
           and chewy urchins will slide you west. Squid know

how to be rich when you have ten empty arms.
Can you believe there are humans who don’t value
          the feel of a good bite and embrace at least once a day?
          Underneath you, narwhals spin upside down

while their singular tooth needles you
like a compass pointed towards home. If you dive
            deep enough where imperial volutes and hatchetfish
            swim, you will find all the colors humans have not yet

named, and wide caves of black coral and clamshell.
A giant squid finally let itself be captured
           in a photograph, and the paper nautilus ripple-flashes
           scarlet and two kinds of violet when it silvers you near.

Who knows what will happen next? And if you still want
to look up, I hope you see the dark sky as oceanic —
          boundless, limitless — like all the shades of blue in a glacier.
          Listen how this planet spins with so much fin, wing, and fur.

— from Ocean, 2018



Mary Oliver

The birds shrug off
the slant air,
they plunge into the sea
and vanish
under the glassy edges
of the water,
and then come back,
as white as snow,
shaking themselves,
shaking the little silver fish,
crying out
in their own language,
voices like rough bells–
it’s wonderful
and it happens whenever
the tide starts its gushing
journey back, every morning
or afternoon.
This is a poem
about death,
about the heart blanching
in its folds of shadows
because it knows
someday it will be
the fish and the wave
and no longer itself–
it will be those white wings,
flying in and out
of the darkness
but not knowing it–
this is a poem about loving
the world and everything in it:
the self, the perpetual muscle,
the passage in and out, the bristling
swing of the sea.

— from House of Light


5 thoughts on “earthweal weekly challenge: A MODERN COMMONS

    • “Hold it sacred” indeed — I wonder if the modern mind has become so fragmented — a hall of smashed mirrors — that holding anything is a labor too great. All the more reason to hold the wild sacred. Thanks Susan –


  1. What a great essay, Brendan! Your line “Surely though there’s got to be a haunting sense we’re throwing a baby Jesus of possibility out with the stale bathwater of modernity” is so good! I love the poem “Into the Mystery”. Wow. Here in B.C. floods are happening again, rivers flooding their banks under the too-fast snow melt and all the rain. There is talk of heat domes on their way. And the damage to infrastructure in Yellowstone by flooding last week was alarming. Government and media still seem to regard these as one-time single incidents, while the rest of us can clearly connect the dots. Most frustrating. All we hear on the news is the Economy, the great gold god.


    • Living in a world of constant greater threat is a winnowing — some hunker further down into their denials, others become more strident in their alarm — yet we all have to live through it. I know of many South Floridians who are blithe to the fact that their houses will be underwater in 50 years, that their streets are growing more impassable daily: they just go on. To live inside the howl is a strange, modern experience, quite unlike the suburban optimism of the 1950s. Long long time ago. Maybe the idea of commons will become increasingly worth fighting for as the oppression of our moment bears down.


  2. Not sure if anyone else is having this problem, but I am having trouble commenting on some WordPress blogs and all the Blogger blogs. I can’t even comment anonymously on some of them. So it’s not that I’m not reading your work, I just can’t comment. (K)


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