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earthweal weekly challenge: THE ANTHROPOCENE SUBLIME

“Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park,” Ansel Adams, about 1937.

 

John Muir’s “The Yosemite” (1912) is a feat of natural description for which it is hard to conceive it even being possible any more. Here he describes the Western Sierra Nevada mountain valley in central California valley which forms Yosemite National Park:

It is about seven miles long, half a mile to a mile wide, and nearly a mile deep in the solid granite flank of the range. The walls are made up of rocks, mountains in size, partly separated from each other by side cañons, and they are so sheer in front, and so compactly and harmoniously arranged on a level floor, that the Valley, comprehensively seen, looks like an immense hall or temple lighted from above.

But no temple made with hands can compare with Yosemite. Every rock in its walls seems to glow with life. Some lean back in majestic repose; others, absolutely sheer or nearly so for thousands of feet, advance beyond their companions in thoughtful attitudes, giving welcome to storms and calms alike, seemingly aware, yet heedless, of everything going on about them. Awful in stern, immovable majesty, how softly these rocks are adorned, and how fine and reassuring the company they keep: their feet among beautiful groves and meadows, their brows in the sky, a thousand flowers leaning confidingly against their feet, bathed in floods of water, floods of light, while the snow and waterfalls, the winds and avalanches and clouds shine and sing and wreathe about them as the years go by, and myriads of small winged creatures birds, bees, butterflies–give glad animation and help to make all the air into music. Down through the middle of the Valley flows the crystal Merced, River of Mercy, peacefully quiet, reflecting lilies and trees and the onlooking rocks; things frail and fleeting and types of endurance meeting here and blending in countless forms, as if into this one mountain mansion Nature had gathered her choicest treasures, to draw her lovers into close and confiding communion with her.

Such is the Sublime, back when glory and astonishment in solitary wilderness was once possible. And there was no greater rapturist in America than John Muir. The naturalist, environmental philosopher and advocate of wilderness preservation wrote letters, essays and book describing his adventures in nature, and his activism helped preserve the Yosemite Valley and Sequoia National Park. He is considered the patron saint of the environmental movement and may be the one person who achieved the most in saving modernity from its materialism.

Muir’s celebration of the sublime was religious in its fervor, taking up the transcendentalism of Emerson and Thoreau and the poetic exclamations of Wordsworth. To be alone in the wild and surrounded by majesty — “in close and confiding communion” with nature — was find heaven on earth two weeks out of the year. For those so inclined for these encounters, it was the briefest of socialist utopias,  so worthy that it led to the creation of the Sierra Club and the eventual passage of the Organic Act in 1916 forming a National Park Service “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and wildlife therein, and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

Today there are 63 national parks across the United States and they are busier than ever, packed with the pandemic-fatigued. Trails are jammed with visitors eager for that selfie with Yellowstone, creating Instagram scrolls of sublime imagery.  The vacation escape from one’s drab postindustrial suburban high-tech existence into these wilderness areas sets up a privileging of the sublime over the everyday and whatever natural space we might still be able to find around us.

Yet by saying that only those rare distant places are charged with sufficient nature to restore the soul, the ruptured places in which we live are profaned even more so, devoid of all possibility of greater communion and harmony.

For Muir and his Sierra Club allies, the founding vision of the sublime in America comes from Walden Pond and its natural mystic Thoreau. Their Thoreau had an aesthetic vision which saw nature unspoiled and whole. In After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene, Jedidiah Purdy suggests another reading of Thoreau is possible and increasingly necessary in the Anthropocene, where no natural space is not encroached upon by human change. The National Parks have been witness to this with the melting of Glacier National Park, wildfires in Yosemite, doubling of tree mortality in Sequoia National Park and the loss of bird species in Death Valley. Sea level rise by 2100 will drown half of Everglades National Park.

In the Anthropocene, Purdy writes, it is vital that we relocate the sublime from occasional, passive encounters with wilderness to more integral, daily celebration of local communion and grace:

Walden takes place, quite self-consciously, as a landscape transformed by long and intensive habitation. Thoreau tells that the woods around the pond have been cleared, that boats have sunk to its bottom, that it is regularly harvested for ice. His Concord is full of the artifacts of old and new settlements, down to the soil itself, seeded with stone tools and potsherd that tinkle against the hoe as he works in his bean-field. There is nothing pristine in this place, no basis for a fantasy of original and permanent nature. There is only a choice among relationships and attitudes toward ever-changed places. These do not just accommodate the damage and rupture of the landscape they begin from and depend on them. It may be that even to think of nature, let alone act on it, is to make a joint product of human and natural activity, so that to come to the pond is already to profane it. But profanation is simply a condition of the world, which is redeemed, if at all, by our deeper apprehension of that condition. (151)

We must leave behind the Instagram fantasy of the perfect natural vignette for the reality of what is. As the prostitute Crazy Jane says to the Bishop in W.B. Yeats’ poem,

…. A woman can be proud and stiff
When on love intent;
But Love has pitched his mansion in
The place of excrement;
For nothing can be sole or whole
That has not been rent.

The state of Florida where I live is in so many ways such a shitty place, sensitive environment routed for housing development, tourist theme parks and endless retail diversions. Red tide is an annual threat to coastal sea-life, spawned by overwhelmed sewage systems and agricultural runoff from sugar plantations. The state’s Republican legislature and governor is adamantly pro-business and has passed laws prohibiting localities from passing mask mandates, gun control measures or environmental protections. Tourists throng to be beaches and luxury resorts to savor their tropic fantasies while the gap between sweltering trailer parks and Palm Beach mansionry is as deep and wide as the Marianna trench. What’s to love here? Hunkering down in air conditioned gated communities of pool houses might allow a certain boozy indifference, but nature is widely in retreat here, and coastal areas are vanishing.

“The Garden of Hubris,” Sholto Blissett, 2020

Much of the wasteland is ours here, yet still gardens thrive and there are many ways to be out in the local richness. I walk every morning for an hour from our house down to the lake and back. At 6am the human world is vastly still asleep and the Florida night still in abundance. Down at the lake human boating traffic hasn’t yet begun and alligators troll the waters while egrets and vultures fly overhead. A richness is here, but you have to work harder to find it and accept that its hues are much striated by human presence.

Purdy outlines four evolutions in ecological imagination in American history: first the providential vision where the world exists for human nurture and development; the romantic vision of John Muir, finding aesthetic and spiritual inspiration in mountain peaks; the utilitarian vision of resource management; and now the ecological view where humanity is part of a complex biosphere of interpenetrating systems, all greatly affected by climate change. You’ll find each of these visions in the present moment, all competing for political solutions. Purdy:

Everyone living today is involved, intentionally or inadvertently, in deciding what to do with a complicated legacy of environmental imagination and practice, now that all simple ideas of nature are irretrievably gone. Losing nature need not mean losing the value of the living world, but it will mean engaging it differently. It may mean learning to find beauty in ordinary places, not just wonder in wild ones. It may mean treasuring places that are irremediably damaged, learning to prize what is neither pure nor natural burt just is – the always imperfect joint product of human powers and the natural world. All of this will require a vocabulary, and ethics, an aesthetics, and a politics, for a time when the meaning of nature is ultimately a human questions. And since it is a question we must answer together, it should – but not necessarily will — receive a democratic answer. (9-10)

After Nature was published in 2015, the past six years has only sharpened the debate on whether a democratic answer for this can be found. At one extreme is the radical right’s hunkering down into anti-democratic rule that refuses to account for humanity’s role in climate change; at its other, for the past year we’ve had a democratic president earnestly looking into ways to address the climate crisis. As the I Ching says, to and fro goes the way.

Regardless of whether political solutions will be better or worse for the Earth, here at earthweal we can work on the vocabulary and aesthetics of the issue. As you have repeatedly demonstrated here, the sublime is alive and well-ish in this charged, changing moment.

A poem that I think can get us started is Patricia Clark’s “Out with the Monarch, the Vole, and the Toad, from her 2005 collection My Father On A Bicycle and included in The Ecopoetry Anthology (2020 edition):

To live as they do, vulnerably, in the air,
the wing-assaulting wind, to breathe
the wind, the cool September air, and watch
the Sweet Autumn clematis twine and climb.
To live with the scruff and smatter of leaves
at the burrow hole, the dying fall of the pink
geranium petal, the tomato stalk blackening from last
night’s chill. To live with the thought, the weight — the dead
branch pitching down to shatter in the yard,
the hawk’s shadow, the days ahead
without sun. A full moon spills its cream
over Dean Lake and boys at midnight
putter on their scow. An exhalation from the lake
rises to surround them, safe with a light,
though far from shore. To live with water’s depth
and dark, some force that wants to pull things
in and down. To live hidden, hurrying, hurt.
The toad finds the upturned pot and crouches there,
but the snake crawls across the flagstones warmth
and surprises it. To live the death, the thrash
in red, the awful struggle, to let breath go.
To hunker down and yet be lifted up, skin tingling,
synapses firing, the heart a-beat, awash, eyes
wide, nose lifted to what is perceptibly near.

For this challenge, describe the Anthropocene sublime as you find it in your locale.  How is that experience similar to the Romantic moment of Wordsworth or Thoreau or Muir, and how has it changed?  Can enchantment and spiritual renewal be found in the everyday, even in ruined places?

Alive and beautiful but not pure. We must become singers of a diminished glory, of a faltering majesty. That is what is left to us, to find rapture in a weal no longer whole.

— Brendan

earthweal open link weekend #77

 

Greetings to all, and welcome to earthweal’s open link weekend #77. Share a poem new or old and visit your fellow linkers and comment.

Links acceepted until midnight Sunday, when the next weekly challenge rollse out.

Thanks to Sarah Connor for her fine Lammas challenge this week. I hope everyone felt part of the harvest.

Happy linking!

Brendan

earthweal weekly challenge: LAMMAS

Lammastide stamp issued by Great Britain in 1992 in a series celebrating folk traditions

 

By Sarah Connor

Welcome to earthweal, and welcome to Lammas!

Lammas is the third of the Celtic cross quarter festivals we’ve looked at this year. It sits between the Summer Solstice and the Autumn Equinox at the start of August. The ancient Celtic name is Lughnasadh –  the festival of Lugh, the sun god. The word “Lammas” is Saxon, meaning “Loaf-mass”, which is an indication of what this festival is all about: harvesting the corn.

This is the first of the great Celtic harvest festivals. The Autumn Equinox marks the second harvest of fruit, and Samhain is the final harvest of nuts and berries. When I was a child, our harvest festival was always around the Autumn Equinox – leading to a motley selection of harvest sacrifices: apples, overgrown marrows, tinned peas…  But Lammas/Lughnasadh is all about grain. Grain is essential for making bread, and for making beer – both very important commodities!

Here in the west of England we are mainly pastoral – sheep and cows dot the fields around here. It makes sense that Beltane and Samhain are celebrated here. Traditionally animals were put out to pasture on May Day and taken back into the shed on All Hallows. In the east of England there is much more arable farming, and harvest traditions lasted longer there. Here is George Ewart Evans, from The Pattern under the Plough:

Originally, it is suggested, the stranger was considered an embodiment of the Corn Spirit. This was a dubious role for anyone to have thrust upon him, as we know from those counties were there was a competition in the harvest-field to see who cut the last sheaf of standing corn. The reapers stood with their backs towards it, and turning round threw their sickles without properly sighting it. The man whose sickle actually cut the corn was roughly handled because it was considered that the Corn Spirit had migrated from the last sheaf to his person. It is suggested that the rough handling was the vestige of what was once a fertility sacrifice.

Who is the Corn Spirit, and what are we sacrificing?

And as well as two great commodities, there are two deities present here; the Corn Mother and Lugh himself. There are traditions across Europe that incorporate these two, who have come together to produce the harvest.

The Corn Mother has many names – Corn Mother, Grain Mother, Ceres, Demeter, Harvest Mother. This is the goddess in her mother aspect – bountiful, golden, abundant. There are traditions about cutting the first corn, which could be woven into an old wife and passed from farm to farm. The first grain is made into a Lammas loaf. The last corn was woven into a Corn Maiden, and kept until Yule, or even longer. Sometimes that Corn Maiden had a smaller Corn Maiden woven inside her belly.

The story of Demeter and Proserpine is thought to relate to the grain crop. Proserpine is the spirit of the grain, taken into the underworld while her mother grieves for here, and then emerging in the spring as the crop that will be cut down again at the end of the summer.

There’s another Corn Spirit, though. Lugh, the Sun God, is present in the golden colour of the corn. He has poured his energy into the crop, and now he’s being cut down. Here’s Steve Winwood singing “John Barleycorn must die” – a 14th century song about the death and rebirth of the barley crop (and beer. Don’t forget beer).

 

 

So what energy are we capturing here? The energy of bounty, of reaping what we have sown. We prepared the ground at Imbolc, we planted at Beltane, and now we are reaping our rewards. It’s time to celebrate our creativity and our achievements – but to remember that we have lean days ahead. The days are shortening, evenings are getting colder, and we must prepare ourselves.

Yes, we reap what we sow – but we also sow what we reap. The corn we gather now will feed us, but it will also be the seed for next year’s crop. Creativity doesn’t stop here – the work we produced last week, last month, last year, feeds the work we produce today – and the work we produce today will feed our creativity next week, next month, next year. The Corn Mother carries a Corn Baby in her belly.

The grain we gather now will also be transformed. Think how grain is ground down into flour, and then mixed with water and yeast to make bread. A total transformation from something small and solid to something light and airy. That same yeast and water will transform grain into ale. It’s amazing that those three basic ingredients can produce two such different things under different conditions. It’s rather like the poems we get from prompts – the same prompt can produce such different work from different poets.

For this Lammas/Lughnasadh prompt I’d like you to think about harvest at all levels. The actual harvest of grain, the production of food and seed for next year; but also how our wishes, dreams, plans have ripened. The things that have given us a sense of achievement, the things that turn out to be rungs on a ladder to something new. The experiences we have transformed through our own personal water, yeast and time. Of course, we are not the only creatures who gather harvest – squirrels create food stashes, bears prepare for winter. Corn, barley, wild grass – they all sacrifice themselves to plant the seeds of the next generation.

We reap what we sow, and we sow what we reap.

— Sarah

earthweal open link weekend #76

 

It’s the weekend, earth wheelers! So let’s get the party started on open link weekend #76. Share a favorite poem and visit your fellow linkers and comment.

This forum will be open until midnight Sunday, July 25, when Sarah Connor’s challenge will set the stage for Lammas celebrations.

Happy linking!

Brendan

 

A Poetry That Does Not Compromise (The Anthropocene Hymnal)

 

Ingrid Wilson, a regular earthweal contributor from her blog Experiments in Fiction, has just announced the July 24 publication of her poetry anthology The Anthropocene Hymnal. In it she has assembled 63 poems from 34 poets across the world in what she calls “a unique response to an unprecedented crisis.” Included in the lineup of poets are many earthweal participants (see below).

The book is available both in e-pub and print, and advance Kindle sales are now available at Amazon.  According to Ingrid, all profits from sales of the book will be donated to the World Wildlife Fund.

Lindi-Ann Hewitt-Coleman (a wonderful earthweal contributor from South Africa with her blog fresh poetry) wrote an advance review of The Anthropocene Hymnal, and it’s the perfect introduction to the work. “The Anthropocene Hymnal is both a voice of our time beautifully sung and a call to action,” she writes. You can read Lindi’s review in full here.

Ingrid consented to the following brief interview about her process with The Anthropocene Hymnal, and I reprint our email exchange in full.

Tell us something about yourself.

I’m a wandering soul. I’m from the north of England and have lived in Manchester, Newcastle, London, Barcelona, Malaga and both the north and south of Slovenia (where I live now). My head is a muddle of different languages and places. If nothing else, I think this helps my poetry. I also like to wander back in time and have studied ancient history and lost languages. There’s something inherently poetic about a language which is no longer spoken by anyone.

How did you come to create an anthology of Anthropocene-themed poems?

earthweal was my primary inspiration for the creation of this anthology. I’ve always been attracted to nature poetry, but recent circumstances have led me towards ‘what have we done to nature’ poetry, or eco-poetry, if you prefer. Writing for earthweal distilled my concerns for the planet into impassioned poetry, and I was moved by the work of other poets who I came to know through this forum. It occurred to me that such poetry deserved a book of its own.

Who are some of the folks who contributed?

I had an open call for submissions, and I also asked some of the earthweal contributors for permission to use specific poems. As a result, I have ended up with poetic voices from five continents, all with their own particular style and grace. Amongst the contributors are earthweal’s own Brendan {offline name David Cohea}, Sherry Marr and Sarah Connor. I have published the full contributor list on my blog, and you may well be familiar with many of them. I also wanted to leave a space for young voices in the anthology, as they will inherit the anthropocene future we create. The youngest contributors are Rishika Jain (aged 13) and Benji (My eldest son, aged 8).

Ingrid and son Benji enjoying earth’s garden.

What have you learned about the Anthropocene from your effort?
The first thing that strikes me every time I write the word is that my keyboard still doesn’t recognise it. I find this incredible. It recognises ‘twerking’ and ‘selfie’ but not the this man-made era into which we have slowly sleepwalked. The term was coined in the 1960s but gained popularity only recently, when denial that we are living in a new and dangerous era is all but impossible. I think by the time climate deniers start to change their minds, it will probably be to late, which may be a Catch-22 situation. Still, I refuse to go down without a fight.

Where did you get the cover artwork from? It’s incredible.
The cover artwork is a collage by New York based artist and poet Kerfe Roig. I think most visitors to earthweal will be familiar with her visually stunning and thought-provoking work. Kerfe also contributed four poems to the anthology.

How are you planning to sell the book?
I will sell the paperback and e-book via Amazon, and a PDF download via my website. I realise given the themes of the anthology that Amazon may not be the most appropriate outlet for the book, but I do not have the printing and distribution power that such a behemoth can offer. Love them or hate them, they will bring my book to a wider audience, which I think must be a good thing. I plan to donate all of my royalties to WWF, the charity selected by my readers.

What have you learned from the process?
For some reason, when I started the project, I thought an anthology would be easier than a collection of my own work, because I wouldn’t have to write all of the poems myself. I have learned the opposite to be true. There is so much to consider when compiling the work of others: permissions, rights, the order of the poems, layout of text, variations in punctuation and spelling, names and pseudonyms. I tried my best to make sure everyone who contributed will be happy with the result. I certainly am!

What poetry is needed for the challenges ahead?
Poetry which does not compromise. Poetry which looks Big Money in the eye and says, ‘you are to blame.’ Poetry which is not afraid to be shot down or burned. Poetry which can rise from the ashes of censorship and ignorance and be heard even louder because of the attempts to silence it. As soon as people start to listen, such attempts will be made. And these will be the clues that we are writing the right kind of poetry. Keep going!

Congrats to Ingrid on her accomplishment, and thanks from all of us at earthweal and global voices of Earth we represent. For this week’s challenge, let’s take up her call and write a poem of the Anthropocene which does not compromise.

It is indeed! Now tell us all about it!

The forum for this challenge will remain open until 4 PM EST Friday, when the next weekly open link weekend rolls out. Next week Sarah Connor takes us through the next cross-quarter Celtic holiday, the harvest festival of Lammas.

Happy linking!

— Brendan

Postscript: Kerfe Roig created the art used on the cover of The Anthropocene Hymnal. She posts frequently to earthweal, and her art is a constant companion to her poems.  I asked her in an email about how she came up with the cover. “It was inspired by the work of Redon,” she wrote back. “I often reference the works of artists I admire in my work.  And the images–the cosmos, the land and the sea and the sky, birds and winged creatures, fish and shells, sculptural figures, ancient architecture–all are prominent in my reference library, and in both my writing and art. …  The world is magic, and the magic is real.  We need to acknowledge and honor that with the way we live.  Which means being good caretakers of the earth and the life it sustains.  But I think that’s what all this art and writing is about, isn’t it?”

“New World” by Kerfe Roig