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Poetry forum for a changing Earth.

earthweal weekly challenge: NATIVE TO THE NOW

 

Let us go in together,
And still your fingers on your lips, I pray.
The time is out of joint — O cursed spite,
That I was ever born to set it right!
Nay, come let us go together.

Hamlet I.v.186-190

A Jan. 3 essay in the New York Times Magazine was a real eye-opener to the now we’re in. In “This Isn’t the California I Married,” Elizabeth Weil writes about how much she and her husband have loved living in California, but the state is now behaving like a partner who had gone astray.

The dominant story in California these days is that the orange, dystopian smoke-filled sky that blanketed the state on Sept. 9, 2020, was proof that our beloved was corrupted and had been for some time. We were in the midst of the worst wildfire season in the state’s history, and the evident wrongness traumatized us and shook us awake. Living in California now meant accepting that fire was no longer an episodic hazard, like earthquakes. Wildfire was a constant, with us everywhere, every day, all year long, like tinnitus or regret. The dry spring was bad; the dry summer, worse; the dry fall, unbearable. Even a wet winter (if we caught a break from the drought) offered little reprieve. All thoughts, all phenomena, existed relative to fire. Where we are now — January, the fresh and less fire-alarming time of year — should be the moment for us to relax and reassess what we’re doing in California and how to live here well. Yet the rains turn the burn scars into mud slides and allow the next season’s flora, what the foresters call fuel, to grow.

“This was not the California I first married,” Weil continues, “but to be honest, I’m not the same person, either. Time is a beast. Did choosing to stay here mean a life defined by worry, vigilance and loss?”

Hasn’t time become a beast for all of us, with disturbing changes becoming a commonplace wherever we live? Wildfire in Australia, record flooding in British Columbia, monster hurricanes in the Gulf, weird winter heat and prolonged drought and wicked snowstorms … Events happen now with breathtaking frequency and frightening concurrence … The things which made us so love our home landscape have become so impinged by problematic and disturbing changes that no one is in Kansas anymore. (That means you.)

 

Victims of the Waverly fire in front of the ruins of their house, Jan. 2022.

 

Weil turns to climate futurist Alex Steffen for ideas. Steffen produces a podcast and newsletter called “The Snap Forward,” and she presents his thought like this:

The climate crisis has caused us to get lost in time and space; we need to dig ourselves out of nostalgia and face the world as it exists. As he explained to me in his confident baritone, yes, California, and the world, are in bad shape. But the situation is not as devoid of hope as we believe. “We have this idea that the world is either normal and in continuity with what we’ve expected, or it’s the apocalypse, it’s the end of everything — and neither are true,” he said. That orange sky in 2020? “We’re all like, Wow, the sky is apocalyptic! But it’s not apocalyptic. If you can wake up and go to work in the morning, you’re not in an apocalypse, right?”

The more accurate assessment, according to Steffen, is that we’re “trans-apocalyptic.” We’re in the middle of an ongoing crisis, or really a linked series of crises, and we need to learn to be “native to now.” Our lives are going to become — or, really, they already are (the desire to keep talking about the present as the future is intense) — defined by “constant engagement with ecological realities,” floods, dry wells, fires. And there’s no opting out. What does that even mean?

We’re living through a discontinuity. This is Steffen’s core point. “Discontinuity is a moment where the experience and expertise you’ve built up over time cease to work,” he said. “It is extremely stressful, emotionally, to go through a process of understanding the world as we thought it was, is no longer there.” No kidding. “There’s real grief and loss. There’s the shock that comes with recognizing that you are unprepared for what has already happened.”

I found Steffen’s sweeping, dark pronouncements comforting. He at least had language and a functional metaphor to describe what was going on. Most of us have dragged our feet and deluded ourselves for too long about the state of the world. While we remain stuck, our world pulled away from our understanding of it. We’ve now fallen into a gap in our apprehension of reality. We need to acknowledge this, size up the rupture, then hurl ourselves over the breach.

 

 

Weil goes on to report extensively on all the varied challenges of living in California, using Steffen’s lens to see a California blundered into its chaotic present by stealing from its future, using broken tools to address the worsening problem (like “managing wildfire” ) and engaging a politics stuck in the idea that there is a normal to return to. She then looks for ways of becoming resilient at the personal level to the threat of wildfire (for one, by “home-hardening” or fireproofing homes).

Weil’s biggest challenge is to surrender any notion that the California she married will be coming back. “Relinquishing the idea of normal will require strength, levelheadedness, optimism and bravery, the grit to keep clinging to some thin vine of hope as we swing out of the wreckage toward some solid ground that we cannot yet see.”

I signed up for the free part of Steffen’s newsletter subscription; in his most recent weekly update he took pains to clarify some of the points in Weil’s article. He writes: “First, though this story is about California — and that was the specific focus of the conversation Liz Weil and I had last summer — the changed realities Californians find ourselves facing are different only in their specifics from the challenges people all around the world now face.”

He continues:

Second, the reason why the planetary crisis is not an issue, but an era, is that we find ourselves living within a human world we’ve built, on a natural planet we’ve radically altered, and as we’ve driven planet-scale transformations through the climate and biosphere, our human world is increasingly unstable. The core challenge facing humanity is the need to rebuild the places, systems and societies around us to work on the planet we now inhabit. Every other problem we’re struggling with is subsumed under this overarching reality. There is nowhere to stand outside of it.

Which means we’re living in a deepening discontinuity.

Billions of us will collide with this fact in the next few years. The suddenness of our understanding of this reality — a reality that’s been solidifying for decades, but that a combination of predatory delay, entrenched entitlement and cultural inertia have kept us from seeing — means that our sense of tempo is shot to hell. Enormous changes will now come very fast.

Pretty unsettling, to think that what we thought of a normal, stable and durable has been lost at incomprehensible scales and speed.

 

 

Steffen however is quick to point out that we aren’t at Armageddon, at least not yet.

The planetary crisis ain’t the Apocalypse. We do not face the End of Everything. We face the obliteration of our certainties, sure. We also face the destruction of many of the wonders of nature. And we face the reality that for billions of people, life will feel pretty damn apocalyptic, even as humanity as a whole staggers along. We live now in a transapocalyptic world.

This changes what we might think of as right action in this moment. We are not the ones who are going to save the world by keeping the planetary crisis from happening, because it is already in motion, with more to come. There’s this line from ‘No Country for Old Men’ that I can’t get out of my head: “You can’t stop what’s coming. It ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity.”

What this means is that we aren’t going to be able to transition to a sustainable future fast enough from our habitual destructive systems. The damage is going to continue to get worse. There will be big economic losers—those who make their profits on things they don’t have to pay for, the way fossil fuel extraction creates air pollution; those who reap value from things that are vulnerable (like building on coasts and accumulating expertise for things being lost, like sustainability). A separate industry flourishes by selling the dream that such things aren’t imperiled (aided, paradoxically, by “idealists insisting that we can restore continuity in a discontinuous world — that we can ‘reverse’ the planetary crisis.”)

 

 

This leads to Steffen’s most important point, that we’re all in the process of waking up to what he calls the Snap Forward:

We are, in increasing numbers, coming to realize that not only is the world already profoundly different than we thought — a rupture with our past — but that over the next few decades, the world will depart even more wildly from what we still think of as normal.

If we want to understand our immanent future, we have to engage seriously with ways of looking at the world that are still only emerging. Shit is getting real. Discontinuity is the job.

Discontinuity is the job for those of us who want to succeed with purpose, to have our own aspirations connect with strategies to deliver new solutions at the scope, scale and speed reality demands.

Furthermore, discontinuity is everyone’s task now, whether we think of it or not. This includes

billions of people who are more concerned with their own selves, families and communities than with the fate of the Earth. People acting from necessity — from the need to secure themselves from danger, to seize the opportunities to be found in rapid change before others can, to find cohesive constituencies who are ready to move with the speed demanded — are going to change our society far more in the near term than even the massive ecological dangers unfolding in front of us. Indeed, a core part of the Snap Forward is recognizing that people responding to discontinuity have become the dominant force of change on the planet:

“[What’s coming is] a realization that large-scale actions are now being driven not primarily by collective agreement of all parties, but by the growing power of those who see fast action as not only being in their self-interest, but also to their direct advantage.”

None of this is under control, much less optimal, but that’s what happens when you melt the damn ice caps.

This is transforming the shape of the possible, not taking it away but in fact making it hugely present for all of us—just not in any one conceivable way. “It is not too late for humanity to find a future that’s brighter than the present, but it won’t happen because we all agree on what it should look like. Nothing is that simple, or linear, or collective, or predictable anymore.”

And finally, to our challenge:

It’s important to live when we are. Being native to now, I think, is our deepest responsibility in the face of all this. And being at home in the world we actually inhabit means refusing to consign ourselves to living in the ruins of continuity, but instead realizing we live in the rising foundations of a future that actually works. It may be a fierce, wild, unrecognizable future, but that doesn’t mean it’s a broken future. Indeed, it’s the present that’s broken beyond redemption.

When it comes down to it, humanity’s discontinuity is made up of billions of personal discontinuities. Facing our own discontinuity forces the reality of changes that we desperately want to think of as “out there” into our own work, our own lives, our own homes, our own hearts. Even this, though, can be liberating.

That’s what we’re here to talk about: liberating, in this new reality, the best possibilities of our selves, our solutions and our societies from the dusty, decrepit certainties of a predatory past. Succeeding in every sense.

If that sounds good to you, you’re in the right place.

Native to a dysynchronous now: As crazy as the moment is — as crazy as every moment nowadays — this is our only homeland and possible future out of a no-longer-salvagable past. The way forward must become the way back to our roots, the canopy, the healing communion. With our dyssynchronous moment, this homeland of the possible.

Weil concludes her essay,

Across California — across the world — it’s easy, even comforting, to sit in despair. To stay depressed and mired in a state where not that much has truly changed. But nihilism is a failure of imagination, the bleak, easy way out. We need to face the lives before us. We need to name the discontinuity: See, there it is, the tear in the universe created by our fear and greed. What we believed was the present is actually the past. That was Steffen’s message to me in the Berkeley bar. We failed to keep pace with the future. And the longer we sat there, drinking our beers, the wider the gap became.

We can’t fix California’s wildfire problem with a big idea. We can only settle into the trans-apocalypse and work for the best future, the best present. That starts with acknowledging that our political structures have failed us and keep failing us every day. The powerful have failed the vulnerable. The old have failed the young. The global north has failed the global south. We have failed one another.

It’s a real, grown-up, look-mortality-in-the-eye moment we face.

Working for the best present, this shifting, dysynchronous, pre-apocalyptic now: That is your challenge this week. What does the landscape of this look like where you live and celebrate your being?

— Brendan

 

 

CLIMATE IS SOMETHING DIFFERENT

Paul Otremba

This was a heron, and the oddly effortless but dense wedge
in 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 little heat and time
and teams of hungry organisms drunk and belching their conversions,

with our bodies. To complaining 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 at 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,
whatever finds it might carry gratefully across their lips
these agents of the loop now circling through us.

— from Levee, 2019

earthweal weekly challenge: GRATITUDE

by Sherry Marr

“Gratitude is happiness
doubled by wonder.”
– G.K. Chesterton

Happy New Year, friends! May 2022 bring heightened awareness and action on the climate crisis to leaders and people of the world. Earthweal’s mantra is grief and hope. For some time, my frustration, angst and outrage has been dominating my thoughts and my poetry. But lately, I have been feeling an inner shift, towards gratitude for what is, while we still have it.

This year I have watched accelerating extreme weather events decimate several entire towns in B.C. We have had heat domes, wildfires that took down whole towns (and an untold number of wild creatures and their habitat), followed by catastrophic flooding which wiped out a few more towns, agricultural areas and animals both domestic and wild. We now have thousands of climate refugees close to home. It isn’t somewhere else that it is happening any longer.

Weird weather events have continued around the globe all year: cyclones, hurricanes, snow in Hawaii, typhoons, a December wildfire in Colorado. The other afternoon, in a sudden storm, the thunder was so loud and close it shook my windows. In Regina, where my older son lives, it is minus 40 and 50, too cold even for hardened prairie residents.

I recently watched Don’t Look Up, a Leonardo de Caprio film about two astronomers trying to warn the President of the USA (a trump-like character played to perfection by Meryl Streep) that an approaching comet was going to destroy the earth. They got the same reaction, scoffing and ridicule, that climate activists and scientists get, trying to wake people up to the fact that we have a “comet” of climate catastrophe heading our way (even as Mother Earth is using all her voices to warn us of her distress.)

It was amusing in its fictional portrayal of the crazy reality show we have been watching, complete with some trump-style rallies of denial and derision. It is devastating in its ending, especially the few scenes showing the impact on wild creatures – the part of this whole mess that hurts my heart the most.

We have clearly passed the tipping point. And yet there is still time, if governments and populations act, to slow the pace of this wild ride we’re on.

This summer, my son, age 50, suffered a stroke and in one moment lost the use of the left half of his body. Everything he had known of mobility, ease of function, and enjoyment of life, was transformed in one instant into difficulty.

The lesson, which I am learning in the very fibre of my soul, is to be grateful for the now, for this moment, for all we have, for being able to walk, to breathe, to look out our windows and watch the sun rise over the mountains, to walk wild beaches, to breathe in the scent of cedar and spruce, of seaweed and salal. To feel and express gratitude for our lives right now because, in an instant, everything can change, a reality of which we are increasingly becoming aware.

Towards the end of Don’t Look Up, one character who attempted to warn the government says “I’m grateful we tried,” and the other mused, “We really did have everything, didn’t we?”  And we do. We just take it for granted, until or unless we lose it all.

So I have noticed the tone of my poems changing. I seem to have resigned myself to whatever comes, because there is not much I can do about capitalists and government officials being derelict in their responsibilities to their fellow man and other beings. But while I am still here, I want Mother Earth to know I love her. I deeply appreciate the beauty she showers on us so generously every day, even in the midst of her distress. Poems of angst are becoming poems of gratitude. (My inner voice whispers: perhaps also of farewell?)

So your challenge, my fine poetic friends, is to pen poems of gratitude: you can go small or big, or use the whole spectrum. Find something you are grateful for and bring it here to us. Here is a poem by Ellen Bass that expresses some of what I have been feeling about reciprocity between Earth and we her people … because what we love, we try to save, and Mother Earth needs us now. In saving her, we might manage to save ourselves, too.

THE WORLD HAS NEED OF YOU

by Ellen Bass

       ….everything here / seems to need us…-Rilke

I can hardly imagine it
as I walk to the lighthouse, feeling the ancient
prayer of my arms swinging
in counterpoint to my feet.
Here I am, suspended
between the sidewalk and twilight,
the sky dimming so fast it seems alive.
What if you felt the invisible tug
between you and everything?
A boy on a bicycle rides by,
his white shirt open, flaring
behind him like wings.
It’s a hard time to be human. We know too much
and too little. Does the breeze need us?
The cliffs? The gulls?
If you’ve managed to do one good thing,
the ocean doesn’t care.
But when Newton’s apple fell toward the earth,
the earth, ever so slightly, fell
toward the apple as well.

 

earthweal open link weekend #100

 

Greetings, and welcome to earthweal’s 100th open link weekend.

Share a favorite poem and visit your fellow linkers and comment.

Open links will be taken until midnight Sunday EST when the next weekly challenge rolls out. Sherry will be taking up the reins with a challenge she titles GRATITUDE.

Happy linking!

Brendan

earthweal weekly challenge: A KEEN EAR FOR A QUEER EARTH

 

I walked out this morning for my early walk into a gentle weeping of the trees.

Heavy fog had drifted in, a winter occurrence here in Florida when nights are warm. (For the past month we’ve been unseasonably so.) Condensation from the fog gathers in the limbs and leaves of trees drips with a slight, pale and distant sound. Its disconcerting at first because it isn’t actually raining though the trees are behaving as if it were.

A slow seeping of moisture, not rain but fertile. A grievous leaking of broken skies in the midst of a winter warm by Florida standards, cutting short whatever small reprieve we have before the next longer hotter summer season.

Whatever your reading (we are poets), the sound was a gentle and sad.

Grieving the year that has just ended, or the one to come? They merge here, one door closing, the next creaking open. Our breeding climate miasmas steel us (or should) to increase the threat by unknown factors. On Thursday a Colorado wildfire fueled by drought, unseasonably warm temperatures and 100 mph winds destroyed nearly 1,000 homes; by the weekend, winter weather had reversed the course with snow falling heavily over the same area. On Saturday a line of storms producing tornadoes marched through the same counties devastated by tornadoes two weeks ago — with a winter weather advisory in their wake. In the Philippines, residents are still plying the wreckage of Typhoon Rai, the island nation’s 15th cyclone of the year. More than 400 were killed and some 530,000 houses were damaged by the storm. And in the northeastern counties of Brazil, where drought has plagued the region for 5 years, the skies opened in December with the most rainfall in three decades, driving 50,000 from their homes. Natalie Untersell, president of a climate policy think tank in Brazil, urged the government to take climate change into account when rebuilding “Brazil is built to a climate that no longer exists,” she said.

The range in Celsius: -39.4 C – 37 C

Concurrent with this (always some equally worrisome concurrency in our new world), the Omicron variant runs rampant — 5 million new cases worldwide in the past week; in Florida alone, 77,848 new cases of COVID were reported on Thursday, almost double the previous one-day record set a day ago. And we can’t be sure these number are close to the accurate count since home testing became available and those infections are rarely reported. Florida’s Republican governor, who has warred on mask mandates and vaccine requirements, has been absent from public sight, and the state doesn’t plan to open new testing sites. I remember when 10,000 new cases was a jaw-dropping new reality. Twenty eight percent test positivity and few wear masks at my local grocery store.

Now I’m sure you are weary of these weekly body-counts as evidence of a dying Earth. If you are still looking for that evidence, you won’t be disappointed; if you’re hoping it will convince others to act, well, the dance has become almost meaningless. For the incessant patter of it is like moisture falling from fog-bound trees — here but already gone.

My body-sense of this death is ambiguous — so far and too near — and with no sense of linear progression. Change keeps coming in unpredictable ways.

New year, same old harrows, new and old at the same time.

A winter storm blew in within hours of a wildfire that burned down more than 1,000 houses near Boulder, Co, 1/1/21

As I said a few weeks ago, I’ve been reading Pauline Boss’s new book The Myth of Closure: Ambiguous Loss in a Time of Pandemic and Change. It seeks a larger riff on her life’s work studying how grief is endured and perpetuated in families, between generations and in society at large.

While some losses can be grieved in linear fashion — something that feels like a beginning, middle and end — many losses cannot, either because the fact of death was never quite confirmed or understood or the departed is has only been lost in one sense, like an alcoholic parent who is physically present but emotionally gone. Ambiguous losses like this are rarely acknowledged, which leads both the loss and grief of it to frozen. In such cases, people simply wait for things to go back to normal but they never quite do.

Other ambiguous losses range from the personal — breakups, separations, migration — financial (loss of job and financial security) to collective ambiguous losses due to slavery and racism (think of all the opportunities lost) and more widespread ambiguous losses due to catastrophe.

Piano in flooded living room after Hurricane Harvey, 2017.

Traditional models of grief recovery say that closure is needed — to finally put the thing behind us and go on — but with ambiguous loss, the timeline is all screwed up. When a spouse goes missing, when does one finally declare they are widowed? Also, shutting the door to old pain may be a way to force forward movement, but few really benefit from burying their losses. Rather, we live an absent ghostly host; to be rid of them would to lose the better half of our heart. Rilke famously refused psychotherapy, saying, if you rid me of my devils I will lose my angels, too.

In many cases of grief, closure is the wrong tack. There are no clear and absolute endings. As Mitch Abrom wrote, “Death ends a life, not a relationship.” Divorce ends a marriage, but not other elements of that relationship including friendship or co-parenting. What if the missing spouse should return, the alcoholic parent sober up? Both possibilities remain real; the reality is that one must live with that ambivalence. Likewise, while it important to form new relations and connections with life after a loss, memory of the departed becomes a part of one’s identity, and to lose it is to lose one’s own past. Our culture is hasty about getting over the hard parts, is too quick to erase cultural memory of its stains. Mastery and control create many ghosts.

People have suffered a wide range of ambiguous losses due to the pandemic. Here are some that Boss lists:

  • Loss of hopes, dreams, and plans for your future—the loss of a way of life that had promised fulfillment and satisfaction
  • Loss of certainty about safety and health for yourself and family
  • Loss of routines
  • Loss of playdates for young children and at-school learning for all students regardless of age
  • Loss of parental time and freedom to go to work due to the need for at-home schooling for their children
  • Loss of ability to be with a loved one who is hospitalized and/or dying
  • Loss of traditional rituals of mourning and burial, not knowing where the body of a loved one is
  • Loss of ability to celebrate or mourn major life events—births, graduations, marriages, deaths, etc., in community with others
  • Loss of support and comfort from your community at times of loss
  • Loss of ability to attend large events—concerts, sports, lectures, reunions, and so on
  • Loss of control of how much time is spent with partner and children (too much, too little)
  • Loss of trust in the world as a fair and just place
  • Loss of trust in leaders and authorities
  • Loss of freedom to move about as we please

Pandemic losses suggest the scope of the pandemic in ways we don’t see as fully looking at it straight on, taking in only the hard counts of infected and dead. Now heading into its third year, it’s hard to imagine some things ever coming back; we wonder if the faces behind all those masks have been erased.

In a very similar vein, climate change is creating myriad ambiguous losses. Many are losing their homes and livelihood due to rising seas, wildfire, drought and excessive rain. Millions are on the move, with a homeland vanishing behind and no welcoming place to go. The skies are emptying of birdsong, wildlife is vanishing, tree populations are dwindling to clear-cutting and pestilence introduced by exotic species. A hard dread forms at the beginning of hurricane and wildfire season. I don’t know how fast the coasts of Florida will inundate, but millions of residents will be on the move, inland and up-state exactly where I live. How soon? Will we have to move too if we are still living here, in what will probably be our advancing age?

Starting over after Typhoon Rai in the Philippines, Dec. 22, 2021

Making these things even worse, our language for addressing these changes feels lost. The experiences are so new we haven’t found words for them. The Australian environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht got on the map for formulating the word solastalgia, meaning grief for one’s homeland vanishing due to environmental damage; he went on to write Earth Emotions, a book that reaches for this new lexicon —like meteoranxiety, for dread of the weather to come, and meucide, the extinction of human emotion. (While these words are a helpful start, I don’t think they work in poetry since they have no collective legs to walk on.)

Our public dialogue too easily slips to extremes of denial and hysteria. The change is so big, so global, no regional language feels apt. How does one love in an age of global catastrophe, raise children, make enduring contributions? And the technologies which sped us here are speeding past — they may have already fled — rendering written language obsolete, leaving us with memes and emoticons to describe the ineffable. I have nieces in their late 20s; I can’t even imagine building a career in the wake of the transformative shimmer.

Boss suggests some strategies for living with ambiguous loss:

  • Develop resilience, “the ability to be flexible in the face of pressure without breaking down.”
  • Learn to live with ambiguity. Instead of mentally closing out the loss or denying the loss or its ambiguity, learn to live with tolerate the ambiguity and live well despite it. “Instead of neat and precise endings, the reality of loss comes in complicated shades of grey … Continuity and change, the ultimate contributors to paradox, must be recalibrated now and then and changed into something new.”
  • Embrace both/and thinking. Instead of seeking perfect solutions where none is possible, “use the ongoing tension of conflicting ideas to provide the momentum to move us forward toward adaptation and change—living life in a new way without the lost person.” Sometimes a loss is both present and gone; both/and thinking “is more fluid, less absolute, and thus closer to the truth of ambiguous loss.”
  • Find meaning. Make sense out of the loss, and when the loss is meaningless, accept that as its meaning.
  • Adjust mastery. “The more we try to control the pain of loss, clear or ambiguous, the more it dominates us. It is better to flow with the sorrow when it comes,”
  • Reconstruct identity. “Knowing who we are in relation to a lost loved one requires reconstructions in mind and emotions about who we are, what we do, and how we act …. Over a lifetime, loss and change accumulate, so we must be malleable enough to grow and shift who we are and what we do.”
  • Normalize ambivalence. “If we live in contexts of confusion and ambiguity, it helps to acknowledge our mixed emotions so that we can more likely manage our anxiety and guilt. It takes mental strength and resilience to manage such uncomfortable feelings.”

These newer approaches to grief recovery have resonated in the academic disciplines. One that you might not have thought is archaeology. In a Neolithic Near Eastern settlement, bodies that were buried were later retrieved as skeletons, the skulls removed and then fashioned into “faces” adding gypsum, lime or mud plaster. Why? Were these tribal elders or men of some other social or economic status? Traditional anthropologies have “read” these remains as such, but an elaboration of Boss’s work called Continuing Bonds theory say that societies need space and time to grieve its collective losses. Some archaeologists now argue that rather than putting the dead behind, the adorned skulls allowed them an ongoing place in tribal life, to the point of “reconstruction” to keep their memory alive for generations. Forensic analysis of the skulls also reveals that they were from a cross-section of the population, including women and children; that may mean that the entire community shared in the grief process.

Traditional archeology has also centered on and in the head, imaging bone that has lost all trace of life and focusing on precise dating and making a wide cultural inference from the data. There is a bias in our Western civilization placing importance on hierarchy and the self, where other cultures were far more collective and ambiguous about identity. Dating provides context, but can obscure the complexity of cultural change. The grand theory that hunter-gatherers lay down their spears and took up plowshares to become famers of the Neolithic is just not true; agricultural practices were slowly merged with hunting culture, with centuries, perhaps millennia, of co-existence. Likewise, there wasn’t a sudden change from paganism and oral culture to Christian and literate; the medieval clerics who wrote Baile Suibne were five hundred years removed from the historic events and yet were still able to capture the haunting forest melodies of Mad Sweeney.

“Queer” theory has led to important reassessments of reading history from bone. If identity is fluid, then seeing with the body instead of just from the head means bodies were more than skulls. How to bring all the senses into play, and not just the peering eye, staring at remains? What about the stench? The sounds of devouring birds? And now central was identity in the long haul of the centuries? Karina Croucher and Stuart Campbell write in “Dying for a change? Bringing New Senses to Near Eastern Neolithic Mortuary Practice,”

Within Near Eastern archaeology, mortuary practices, such as the high degree of intentional fragmentation of the body … often suggest that concepts of the bounded individual body were neither intended nor apparently relevant in certain mortuary contexts, where we witness a high fragmentation and de-individualisation of both the human body, as well the bodies of animals, and certain material objects. Such cases allow for an investigation of the themes of individuality and identity, often in relation to practices of fragmentation, circulation, manipulation and discard, in relation to human bodies, animal bodies, and material culture, and their conceptualisation in reference to the body. (In Que(e)rying Archaeology: Proceedings of the 37th Annual Chacmool Conference, University of Calgary, 2009)

This “queering” of the body also allows for a more fluid identification of the human body with the wider tribe of animals.. Chantal Conneller examined findings of the Mesolithic Starr Carr site dating back to the second half of the tenth millennium BP and focused on one partially submerged platform that for centuries  had ritual use in the production of animal beads and the deposition of bones in lake waters, particularly deer frontlets. Contrary to prior theories that the frontlets were used as a hunting disguise, Conneller proses the frontlets were a means to reveal, not conceal, the body:

At, or in the vicinity of, Star Carr, animal bodies were broken down and reassembled with other things and agents. Antlers were partitioned from red deer and transformed into the frontlets and also into barbed points. Elk antlers were made into mattock heads (Figure 4). Elk and aurochs bones were used for tools such as scrapers and awls. Red deer teeth and bird bones were used as beads. As noted above, use wear reveals that hide working was a major task at Star Carr (Dumont 1988; 1989), while the recovery of faunal remains indicates that flesh was also partitioned at the site. In all these ways, animal effects extended the human body. People wore animal skins and beads of animal teeth and bone, they ate animal flesh as food and used parts of animals to extend their capacities in various tasks. These animals were intrinsic parts of different human identities. So in this sense there is already, in mundane daily activity, ambiguity about where human bodies end and animal bodies start. Parts of humans transform animals, who in turn alter and extend human bodies. (47-8)

… This is not to say that the person following this recipe will literally become a dog. Becoming animal is not about moving between different bodies. Though the animal is not literal, the transformation is. Parts of human bodies connect with parts of animal bodies to produce a new assemblage of bodily effects, one that is something else entirely, not human, not dog, that relates to the world in a new way. Just as the animal part transforms the human body, so the conjunction with human parts transforms the animal. With these insights in mind, we can move beyond Clark’s ritual–functional impasse. We can stop seeing the frontlets as a disguise, but rather explore how humans and animal bodies were produced at Star Carr. As animal effects, the frontlets facilitated a bodily transformation. This was not a literal transformation into deer, but one that turned the human body into something else, by taking on the effects of the animal. Taking on the frontlets also enabled new ways of seeing. As Donna Haraway points out, viewpoints of the world are not simply related to biologically discrete organisms or individuals, but are materially mediated and are constructed and extended through the use of tools and instruments. In this way, she talks of the need to learn to see faithfully from others’ point of view ‘even if the other is our own machine’. (Haraway 1988, 583). By ‘machine’ she refers both to the human body and its organs and to the machines and tools through which perceptual translations are arrived at. Wearing the frontlets would be one such way of seeing from another’s point of view, since it would facilitate engagement with the world from a different perspective. (50)

(Chantal Conneller, “Becoming Deer: Corporeal Transformations at Starr Carr.” Archaeological Dialogues 11 (1) 37–56 ©2004 Cambridge University Press)

Antler frontlet from Starr Carr, ca 9500 BC.

I go to this at length (I know, typically, endemically) to get back to earthweal’s motto: “The grief is real. So is the hope.” Is it possible to grieve and hope at the same time? Such a question addresses I think our predicament as carrying on with poetry in the midst of such widespread environmental loss. What is our meaning? How can we proceed without becoming emptied by  despair? How does our individuality scale with global change? What of our human tribe that has caused this mess, is there any way to reintegrate it with the world? Is there hope?

Pauline Boss’s ideas about ambiguous loss and the grief-work it presents is vastly different from those of mastery and closure; a tech mogul launching a rocket to the stars with a few human survivors is not a healthy mythologem for grief.

Perhaps we can see the change better with our ambiguous, collective, animal eyes. For this challenge, try to sense the ambiguous losses due to climate change in your world. They may be personal (like stunted encounters with a failing environment) or societal (the body’s atrophy in the technological apotheosis of self) or natural (a tree’s observation from its height and age of fifty years of change adding to its half-a-billion-year rootstock).

We have the scientific analysis of this change with its almost 100 percent certainty of carbons heating the atmosphere, rising seas, crashing and violent weather extremes and grand species extinction: But how does the heart feel this, the body sense it, the symphony of organs breathe, circulate, digest and procreate it?

Sensed by our embodied poems, perhaps our climate catastrophe will ring bigger bells for us to act. “The lens of ambiguous loss can help us make sense of these contemporary losses so that interventions can take place at multiple levels—the personal, the familial, the societal, and the global,” Boss writes. (p28)

What is this weeping of the trees?

Brendan

 

THE DEAD TREE

Peter Meinke

Last spring you said
it’s an ancient mariner,
this white ash poised

like a spar among
the flat-footed maples,
bare arms upborne,

diver in perfect form.
Now it’s late June
and the mountain

swims in green
but the ash stands gray
and rigid against the wind

like driftwood
whipped by seaweed
in the eddying shoals.

Our neighbors say
Cut it down
for its straight grain

and pure line—but
we’re not finished yet:
nature includes its dead.

A wren’s nest, a squirrel’s
shortcut, brief rest
in a monarch’s long trek:

this ash is more
than timber—and
you, father, anchor

and keel, sing
in the rigging
as the ship sails on.

from Liquid Paper (1991)