earthweal weekly challenge: A LYRE FOR A CHANGING EARTH


Greetings all,

I am exceedingly fortunate and happy to be writing and uploading this post after Hurricane Ian barreled through Florida. As it turns out, the storm passed about 25 miles to the south of my home, so while we had tons of wind and rain, we didn’t get flooded, lose power or suffer structural damage. But it was close. Just ten miles away, rainfall totals doubled from our 7 inches and many more lost power. It was sheer luck of the draw that we managed to avoid the storm’s middle bad impacts.

Ian’s path through Florida. My little town is the blue dot above the path of the storm.


With Gulf waters getting so warm now in the hurricane season, coastal living is becoming increasingly dangerous, if not impossible. Hurricane Ian, the fourth most powerful storm to strike the United States, just proved that again in my state’s southwest coast between Fort Myers and Sanibel Island. The coastal dreams of tens of thousands of residents were mowed by 150 mph winds (just shy of Category 5 strength, the highest intensity on the Saffir-Simpson Scale) and a storm surge that was twice my height in some places.


There’s much anxiety as a storm approaches because their path is so fickle. Ian had been projected to hit the Big Bend area of Florida, about 350 miles north of Fort Myers; but a descending cool front kept pushing the storm slowly further south of the state, narrowly missing the overdeveloped and extremely storm-prone Tampa Bay. This drives weather newscasters nuts as their dire predictions continued to evolve and change location.

But where prediction might have been dicey about storm’s path, the general effect once it did make landfall was horrendously predictable. Multimillion-dollar seaside castles were decimated along with thousands of cheap manufactured homes wedged into tiny vulnerable tracts. So far, more than three dozen have been found dead in the wreckage and thousands more are still trapped in their homes.

On Thursday afternoon, the storm having crossed the state and pushed off from the coast near Cape Canaveral (headed toward South Carolina), I worked in my yard out back of the house collecting yard debris while the wind heaved and sawed overhead, the rain finished and gusts beginning to eddy from shriek to roar. I was out again over the next two days, clearing more debris, getting patio furniture out of the garage and back up on the upper deck and mowing the front yard. The sky slowly cleared and it was surprisingly cool for Florida with temps in the low 70s (21-23 C). A gorgeous fall day — who would know such violence would have so recently passed?

These storms are still rare for my part of Florida — it’s been 18 years since Charley carved a similar path — but a monster smashes some part of the Gulf Coast about every year now — Harvey in Texas, Katrina and Ida in Louisiana and Mississippi, Michael in the panhandle of Florida. That storm (in 2018) brewed up from a tropical wave to the very top of the Cat 5 scale in just 36 hours, smashing into Mexico Beach with such fury it scoured the tourist town clean — nothing remained standing. My wife and visited there three years later last winter  and towns up there were still rebuilding, with many buildings still roofless apparitions. The surrounding forest was flattened for fifty miles. Bigger storms also lurk up the Atlantic coast, like Superstorm Sandy, delivering a Halloween wallop with a windfield that stretched from Canada to Kentucky.

My wife and I live 50 miles inland from Florida’s coast; storms weaken to Cat 1 strength at best when they arrive here. But it is truly terrifying to lay in bed at night listening to everything heave and thrash outside, wondering if the windows will hold and the big oaks out back won’t crashing down on us with the next gust. We’ve talked about moving someplace less vulnerable to these storms, but nowhere has been convincing enough for us. (The devils we know here are much smaller than all the ones we don’t yet know elsewhere.) Florida may become unlivable within 20 or 30 years as temperatures continue to rise and the storms grow even bigger and more fierce; one way or another, we’ll be gone by then.

Globally, Florida’s present hurricane woes are just one of a long list of climate-related catastrophes increasing in number and duration — record heat and drought and wildfires in the Northern Hemisphere now descending to the lower latitudes in the seasonal shift, along with inundating rains and migrants on the move. The surprisingly raw experience of climate change is becoming the bitter repetition of more troubling events as more carbon churn the sky’s arteries and the dazed firmaments of land and sea react with flood and fire.

Here at earthweal, living as we do spread across the global north and south, our collective experience doesn’t always concur with events like rampant hurricanes (thank you all for your concern), but most of us tune into such news and s experience a disturbing feeling that we’re all stuck on the same globe afflicted by these events. Wildfire and hurricane register very different effects, but dread of their approaching season is very similar. Fear of losing one’s home I’m sure is universal, as is anger at having to go about one’s daily routines without power, internet, cell phone service and Amazon Prime. And no matter what our personal footprint, the sense of shame at humanity for allowing such an atmospheric catastrophe to occur echoes back and back and back as grand ecosystems dwindle and fade.

Our poetry cannot help but carry all this forward into the worsening future of this Earth — to grieve, of course, but also to try and help us live the best we can under such conditions. To love and plant and walk by the sea, to feel soft rain on our faces as some light alters in the distance.

All that’s the stuff of hope. I mean, why else should write another word? Kate Marvel reflected as such in her essay “Thinking About Climate on a Dark, Dismal Morning” (Scientific American, Dec. 25, 2018):

… It’s true that we’re not going to get utopia. The planet has already warmed by one degree Celsius. Most of the coral reefs are going to die, and many of the glaciers will melt. Climate change is here, leaving grubby human fingerprints on parched, burned, flooded and melted landscapes. But we don’t have to settle for dystopia. It’s going to be worse, but it doesn’t have to be bleak. We can have a “topia,” an ordinary future where we go about ordinary lives in cities on stilts, missing what we’ve lost but looking forward to better things. There is light in the future that doesn’t come from burning.

Hope, said Emily Dickinson, is the thing with feathers. I have never understood this poem. Hope does not keep me warm, nor is it always there. Hope is not comfortable. It demands things, drains you, makes you sad and anxious. Hope is the knowledge that we can prevent bad things, and the realization that we might choose not to.

Hope, then, as “topia,” where we grieve what’s lost but look for better things. Hope so constructed is a curious instrument, and one we must somehow learn to play better as the century progresses.

For this challenge, attune to one or more of the world’s changing voices in a poem. Tell us about a memorable storm or fire or other natural calamity you witnessed, as both external and internal event. Or describe the empty space left by an animal lifeform now extinct, like the Chinese river dolphin or ivory-billed woodpecker: how does that absence affect the time’s melodies? What new symphonic textures are found in lengthening seasons and strange new currents? How do the mind’s colors change, how does the heart sing, where do the ghosts gather and how does the instrument sound using a profoundly changing bow? And where is the hope? How would you address these insights for time, as in a note left on a table for one’s children’s or rolled in a tight scroll and squeezed into a bottle to set on the tide.

The sound is grievous but the message is hope: Out of what wood and gut could such a lyre be fashioned?

— Brendan



Patricia Smith

I was birthed restless and elsewhere

gut dragging and bulging with ball lightning, slush,
broke through with branches, steel

I was bitch-monikered, hipped, I hefted
a whip rain, a swirling sheet of grit.

Scraping toward the first of you, hungering for wood, walls,
unturned skin. With shifting and frantic mouth, I loudly loved
the slow bones

of elders, fools, and willows.

— from Blood Dazzler (2008)



Maxine Kumin

Lake Buena Vista, Florida, June 16, 1987

Death claimed the last pure dusky seaside sparrow
today, whose coastal range was narrow,
as narrow as its two-part buzzy song.
From hummocks lost to Cape Canaveral
this mouselike skulker in the matted grass,
a six-inch bird, plain brown, once thousands strong,
sang toodle-raeeee ahzee, ending on a trill
before the air gave way to rocket blasts.

It laid its dull white eggs (brown specked) in small
neat cups of grass on plots of pickleweed,
bulrushes, or salt hay. It dined
on caterpillars, beetles, ticks, the seeds
of sedges. Unremarkable
the life it led with others of its kind.

Tomorrow we can put it on a stamp,
a first-day cover with Key Largo rat,
Schaus swallowtail, Florida swamp
crocodile, and fading cotton mouse.
How simply symbols replace habitat!
The tower frames at Aerospace
quiver in the flush of another shot
where, once indigenous, the dusky sparrow
soared trilling twenty feet above its burrow.



Chris Otremba

This was a heron, and the oddly effortless but dense wedge
its body made across the sky, and more odd for being unfamiliar,
landing on the puddled roof of the nearby frame shop,

the second day of the flood receding. Then, there was the crew
of red-vented bulbuls (which took me days of search terms
to identify — “black-crested bird with red breast,” “bird with red chest,”

“bird red stomach,” “bird” & “red” “& “Houston” — when they invaded
last summer’s ripened fig tree), the black-crested birds that came stowed
full of potential — mutated germs in the seedpods’ husks — in cargo holds

of boats docked in the ship channel, before leaching into the city
like benzene jumping pipes for the gulf. I mean this flood now abated,
yet still as it will be fifty, a hundred years from now, and you, gathered

on what shore you may have found there, you in this echo
I might have detected in pulses under the water’s depth,
and — measuring them — have found myself also, does it help

I only wanted so I could have the need? What I denied myself had a border
as elastic as risen dough, the kind that requires a little heat and time
and teams of hungry organisms drunk and belching their conversions.

You are the life in you, like we here are the life in us. I tried spending
the better part of an hour last week casually dredging the net
for a record of the moment the microbiome takes up residence

with our bodies. To complain about the flood as only this flood
and then rue today’s temperature is only sticking my hand outside
to get an estimate on the weather. I can report it is uncomfortable,

the air hovering the edges of volcanic breath. If there is a lesson
on how not to worry, it’s that you’re not stuck only being one thing,
the multitudes in me and the multitudes in you. When ice-melt

exposes the bottle brought aboard the ship suspended on its journey,
whoever finds it might carry gratefully across their lips
these agents of the loop now circling through us.

— from Levee (2019)



Carolyn Forché

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.

From In The Lateness of the World (2020)



W.S. Merwin

This is what I have heard

at last the wind in December
lashing the old trees with rain
unseen rain racing along the tiles
under the moon
wind rising and falling
wind with many clouds
trees in the night wind

after an age of leaves and feathers
someone dead
thought of this mountain as money
and cut the trees
that were here in the wind
in the rain at night
it is hard to say it
but they cut the sacred ‘ohias then
the sacred koas then
the sandalwood and the halas
holding aloft their green fires
and somebody dead turned cattle loose
among the stumps until killing time

but the trees have risen one more time
and the night wind makes them sound
like the sea that is yet unknown
the black clouds race over the moon
the rain is falling on the last place




9 thoughts on “earthweal weekly challenge: A LYRE FOR A CHANGING EARTH

  1. I am so glad you came through that with everything intact. That blue dot looked to be right in the maw of the beast, but fortunately it gobbled something else instead. I saw a time-lapse photo of the storm – the depth of the water roiling in is terrifying – if that happened here, our entire village would be pulled out to sea. Bound to happen one day. It is hard to have hope when no leaders are talking about lowering emissions, even now, when it is urgent that this needs to happen, that we all – citizens, corporations, leaders – need to change how we live. Sigh. However, the good news today is that you and your household survived. I was worried.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is heart stopping as you describe the present hurricane and the others. and your own closeness. I hope you are safe but know even in our areas the storms are stronger and it is frightening. Ours was a storm called Tormenta Barbara and although none of our trees fell the heavy branches created awful damage. That was bad. Worse is the longer Mediterranean drought and the more constant heat with threat of wildfire. But worst is where there is indifference to Nature’s cry and all the suffering because we can change some of the outcomes, yes into a topia. I like the term. Hope for me at the moment is rather feathery as there is so much decline in bird species due to many factors but mostly human. I love your posts and you help us believe in the possibility of healing.


  3. So glad to hear you and yours made the rough journey of soldiering through the wild weather, B. I thought of you all throughout, especially your feral felines. The photos of storm surge and flood were terrifying. Thanks for the fine and inspiring poetry here with your theme, particularly Merwin’s, which helped me write and think and perhaps play the lyre just a bit. I’ll be around later in the week to read.


  4. I am always aware of the other side of the ‘Glad you are safe’ coin when I speak those words. Nonetheless, Glad you and yours are safe Brendan. Late to proceedings as I am not in the rhythm and flow of this group as yet. I have played at the edge of the prompt, focusing more on the idea of hope, than on any other particular catastrophe.Will get to the readings shortly.


  5. Thanks Sherry. I am as always humbled by the talents and the dedication of the poets in this wee corner of the world. I have added a short video of Stephen Jenkinson talking about Hope under my poem, for those who might wish to understand the roots of my piece a little more.


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