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Poetry forum for a changing Earth.

earthweal weekly challenge: DEEP TIME

 

We live amid aeons. Beneath my house here in Florida is sand from seas a million years old, and sediments washed here as the Appalachian mountains eroded from Alps to rolling headless shoulders. Ninth Avenue was built from crushed limestone, the foundation of this state. The tap water used for the coffee I drink is siphoned from an aquifer of fresh water about 25 thousand years old. I was baptized in the Atlantic ocean at age 14, just when the Now was flooding through me in a torrent; the wave which rolled over me and somehow through me was composed of salt water 3 billion years old. The air I breathe was created 3.5 billion years ago and I have shared it with settlers and squanderers, gators and vultures, pine and camellia and dollarweed.

These hands on the keyboard are 63 years old in this incarnation, but they flourish from a 3- million-year legacy of homonid existence, bound to an apelike mammal existence 11 million years long and mammals dating back 200 million years. I have my mammal ancestors to thank for the womb in which my ideas are conceived, the generating heat of a thought, the convoluted sense of glyphs carved into white space.

And these hands are inheritors of articulation – wings, fins, claws, suckers — means of grasping water and air, love and prey.

And earthweal challenges …

Yes, the moment is all. A few of them ago I had no idea what I was going to write about, now I’m bouncing around in this huge echo chamber homo sapiens calls time. It’s the embryonic fluid washes through all life and reverberates in mineral and other orders of nonlife. And it’s present only for a moment’s notice and then gone into the immense background we take for granted as dailiness.

Like stars. Light from stars arrives from thousands, millions of years ago, even more. The star SMS J031300.670839.3 is 6,000 light-years away from Earth, meaning its flicker tonight is 6,000 years old. That star is also 13.8 billion years old, formed at the beginning of our known universe, so its light is also of the oldest vintage. Another star, Icarus, was discovered by the Hubble Space Telescope in a spiral galaxy so far from the Earth its light takes nine billion years to reach here. A walk in starlight is an eerie symphony of deep time. Who knew?

Stars also teach us about afterlife, the lingering of the gone in the present. Most visible starlight comes from active stars, though many stars in the most distant galaxies are long gone. And there’s no difference between living light and dead light. It’s all radiance.

Extinct species live on the vast diffusion of the life which evolved from them. In the human temporal bandwidth, there is a narrower resonance of the gone amid the living. We live in an era that witnesses the vanishing of most megafauna; in a few more, giraffes and hippos and whales will only be observable in zoos and videos preserved on eternal servers. Petroglyphs survive from early human history, often glorying in species that vanished thousands of years ago—cave bears and ibexes and woolly mammoths. The petroglyphs will probably outlive electronic media, which means the culture most aware of itself will probably be the most silent in the deep time to come.

In his book Underland, Robert MacFarlane describes the sweep of time in the ground beneath our feet and the crucial lessons we may learn there:

‘Deep time’ is the chronology of the underland. Deep time is the dizzying expanses of Earth history that stretch away from the present moment. Deep time is measured in units that humble the human instant: epochs and aeons, instead of minutes and years. Deep time is kept by stone, ice, stalactites, seabed sediments and the drift of tectonic plates. Deep time opens into the future as well as the past. The Earth will fall dark when the sun exhausts its fuel in around 5 billion years. We stand with our toes, as well as our heels, on a brink.

There is a dangerous comfort to be drawn from deep time. An ethical lotus-eating beckons. What will our behaviour matter, when Homo sapiens will have disappeared from the Earth in a blink of a geological eye? Viewed from the perspective of a desert or an ocean, human mortality looks absurd — crushed to irrelevance. Assertions of value seem futile. A flat ontology entices: all life is equally insignificant in the face of eventual ruin. The extinction of a species or an ecosystem scarcely matters in the context of the planet’s cycles of erosion and repair.

We should resist such intertial thinking; indeed, we should urge its opposite —deep time as a radical perspective, provoking us to action not apathy. For to think in deep time is a means not of escaping our troubled present, but rather of re-imagining it; countermanding its quick greeds and furies with older, slower stories of making and unmaking. At its best, a deep time awareness might help us see ourselves as part of a web of gift, inheritance and legacy stretching over millions of years past and millions to come, bringing us to consider what we are leaving behind for the epochs and beings that will follow us. (15)

Deep time as a digestor and coagulator of human time: the long view in which plates move, mountains form and erode, plateaus are shaped by rising and falling seas, resting for a moment in this pinprick awareness called human time before moving on: It does something, to posit our work and contributions as part of the starlight.

Let’s see what happens when we focus our poetic eyes on the presence of deep time:

  • What places have you experienced deep time —walking a beach or through a primeval forest, beholding a hawk’s eye or restful centuries in a cemetery?
  • How does the perpetual exist with the fleeting, the dead among the living, the first traces of existence weaving like smoke around our ruins of time?
  • Observe places in which time is inverted, a life becomes aeons and forever exhales in gasp. Irish heroes journeyed into the sidhe for three days and three night and returned centuries later. A psychologist once told me that deep work achieves much in a few moments. Dreams shake the glass so the grains flow in multiple timescales. A first kiss lasts forever. Describe a moment of deep time. (And there are many scales for deep time – geologic, glacial, human, poem.)
  • Why is poetry so apt for holding deep time in its tiny chalice?

Two poems for kickstarters:

BECOMING A FOREST

Ama Codjoe

Not to feel the grasses brush my knees, as if wading
for the first time into the ocean, but a different prayer —

this was after declaring, These trees are my bones,
and I could feel myself loosed from tendons, muscles,
and sinew, a skeleton knocking, as a chime
against nothing, and in my marrow
the blood of sap, the rungs of pinecones,
and myself, inside myself, telling me this —

to make an alphabet of stammering, a song
of a cry, to be anything buzzing with blood
or wings, anything alive, including grief, because
isn’t that — I aske the trees, my bones forest
framing me — what my long ago dead dreamed,
tossed in their short allowance of night?

originally published in The Adroit Journal
anthologized in The Best American Poetry 2020
edited by Paisley Redkal with series editor David Lehman

FORMAGGIO

Louise Gluck

The world
was whole because
it shattered. When it shattered,
then we knew what it was.

It never healed itself.
But in the deep fissures, smaller worlds appeared:
it was a good thing that human beings made them;
human beings know what they need,
better than any god.

On Huron Avenue they became
a block of stores; they became
Fishmonger, Formaggio. Whatever
they were or sold, they were
alike in their function: they were
visions of safety. The salespeople
were like parents; they appeared
to live there. On the whole,
kinder than parents.

Tributaries
feeding into a large river: I had
many lives. In the provisional world,
I stood where the fruit was,
flats of cherries, clementines,
under Hallie’s flowers.

I had many lives. Feeding
into a river, the river
feeding into a great ocean. If the self
becomes invisible has it disappeared?

I thrived. I lived
not completely alone, alone
but not completely, strangers
surging around me.

That’s what the sea is:
we exist in secret.

I had lives before this, stems
of a spray of flowers: they became
one thing, held by a ribbon at the center, a ribbon
visible under the hand. Above the hand,
the branching future, stems
ending in flowers. And the gripped fist—
that would be the self in the present.

from Vita Nova (1999)

Links for this challenge until Friday afternoon at 5 PM EST, then its open link weekend.

Next Monday Sarah begins a series on calendar festivals with one on the lunar festival of Imbolc.

Let’s have some fun in ye olde sandbox!

Brendan

earthweal weekly challenge: ENTANGLED UP IN YOU

 

We think we live and think in a free zone, unencumbered by the intrusions of instinct, culture, even the life around us (at least, my suburban home effects this): But we are never alone; our being is entangled with every strand of life, be it coiling in my gut, sprawling in the ground beneath this house or swarming with the buzzards over the treetops.

Migrating birds have been found to use the earth’s magnetic field to chart their courses by. Comes in handy when starlight or sunlight isn’t sufficient due to cloud cover and changing terrain. Apparently they alight with the field through a process of quantum entanglement: A protein their eyes reacts with the blue spectrum of light particles and causes a quantum entanglement sensitive to the location of the earth’s magnetic field.

(Radio waves can wreak havoc on this sensitive ability, much in the same way that sonar confuses the mating calls of whales and heating oceans are tripping vast ecosystems. Our entanglement is less quantum elegance than comic buffoonery—trip wires and banana peels …)

Thom van Dooren entangles us further into the world of birds—present and gone—in Flight Ways: Critical Perspectives on Animals: Theory, Culture, Science, and Law. “Life and death do not take place in isolation from others,” he writes, “they are thoroughly relational affairs for fleshy, mortal creatures.” He continues:

And so it is, in the worlds of birds—woven into relationships with a diverse array of other species, including humans. These are relationships of co-evolution and ecological dependency. But they are also about more than “biology” in any narrow sense. It is inside these multispecies entanglements that learning and development take place, that social practices and cultures are formed. In short, these relationships produce the possibility of both life and any given way of life. And so these relationships matter. This is true at the best of times, but in times like these when so many species are slipping out of the world, these entanglements take on a new significance. (Kindle Edition, p. 4)

A great extinction—some one million species of plant and animal life, a half to two thirds of all late-Holocene life—is massing all around us as greenhouse gases continue to overheat our world and human dominate resources and live large. But if we think we are going grandly into this far emptier future, like Moby-Dick, we are entangled with what we have vanquished. Watching whatever was on TV while I ate lunch yesterday, I caught the beginning of Dazed and Confused, that 1993 coming-of-age flick set in teen-mall America of the mid-70s I grew up through. Cool music, a little sexy as virgin souls in hot bodies lavished their attention on dating, jeans, dope, Led Zeppelin and cars: All of that indulgence taken for granted and without a single wisp of sulfur to belie a burning earth and our complicity burning everything at both ends.

What was extraordinary to me was to see how blithe we all were, culturally back then, about our clueless entanglement with a dying world, its physical disorder spinning in precise alignment to the negative arc of our spirits. How blind we were—and resolutely remain—overwriting the real world with a suburban fantasy which would eventually choke us and the world to death.

I finished my sandwich and turned off the TV.

Van Dooren continues,

Paying attention to avian entanglements unsettles human exceptionalist frameworks, prompting new kinds of questions about what extinction teaches us, how it remakes us, and what it requires of us. … What kinds of human–bird relationships are possible at the edge of extinction? What does it mean to care for a disappearing species? What obligations do we have to hold open space in the world for other living beings? (5)

Seems to me part of that work is learning to detach from the myth of my disentangled existence. Not a word I write is not burdened with the immense shadow of the civilization which enables it. Hard work indeed, but when some of that is dealt with — cleared — a different light, less human, more living, shines through.

Hard it is to get there, but great the reward, as Mary Oliver reports in her poem “Egrets”

Where the path closed
down and over,
through the scumbled leaves,
fallen branches,

through the knotted catbrier,
I kept going. Finally
I could not
save my arms
from the thorns; soon

the mosquitoes
smelled me, hot
and wounded, and came
wheeling and wining.
And that’s how I came

to the edge of the pond:
black and empty
except for a spindle
of bleached reeds

at the far shore
which, as I looked,
wrinkled suddenly
into three egrets—

a shower
of white fire!
Even half-asleep they had
such faith in the world

that had made them—
tilting through the water,
unruffled, sure,
by the laws

of their faith not logic,
they opened their wings
softly and stepped
over every dark thing.

(from American Primitive, 1983)

I’m sure that’s why we gaze upon the animal world with the yearning of the exile. Poetry I think can intensify that gaze, so that it becomes “a form of witnessing that is from the outset already seized, already claimed, by an obligation to those whose stories we are attempting to tell” (van Dooren, ibid. 9). Becoming entangled in the narrative—in rhyme and rhythm, with metaphor and myth—the solo enquiry can flower into “the complicate amassing harmony” which Wallace Stevens characterized the real world.

So: the beam is sighted, the branch alighted: Now that we may have a purchase on a view of the real world, what then? What news can our poems reconnoit? Van Dooren:

… at the same time as they may offer an account of existing relationships, stories can also connect us to others in new ways. Stories are always more than simply descriptive: we live by stories, and so they are inevitably powerful contributors to the shaping of our shared world. This is an understanding that works against any neat or straightforward division between the “real” and the “narrated” world (Kearney 2002:133–34).

Instead, I see storytelling as a dynamic act of “storying” the world, utterly inseparable from lived experience and a vital contributor to the emergence of “what is.” Stories arise from the world, and they are at home in the world. As (Donna) Haraway notes, “‘World’ is a verb,” and so stories are “of the world, not in the world. Worlds are not containers, they’re patternings, risky co-makings, speculative fabulations.” Even a story that aims to be purely mimetic can never simply be a passive mirror held up to “reality.” Stories are a part of the world, and so they participate in its becoming. As a result, telling stories has consequences: one of which is that we will inevitably be drawn into new connections, and with them new accountabilities and obligations. (10)

Sounds like a poetic for vibrant entanglement for me. Let’s put it to use.

For this challenge, explore the art and acts of entanglement in a poem. How does one life entangle another? How do the dead remain entangled with the living? Become the thing you see. Reflect on how that seeing changes the world (at least, your view of it). Then (or separately) ask yourself what existence would mean without that entanglement: how much less light and air and beauty. Flip the switch both ways to see how it works. Entangle yourself in the world. Let your witness be our testament.

Some exciting challenges in the coming weeks from Sherry and Sarah. Stay tuned!

We’ll leave via an entangled brake Galway Kinnell discovered for us:

BLACKBERRY PICKING

I love to go out in late September
among the fat, overripe, icy, black blackberries
to eat blackberries for breakfast,
the stalks very prickly, a penalty
they earn for knowing the black art
of blackberry-making; and as I stand among them
lifting the stalks to my mouth, the ripest berries
fall almost unbidden to my tongue,
as words sometimes do, certain peculiar words
like strengths or squinched,
many-lettered, one-syllabled lumps,
which I squeeze, squinch open, and splurge well
in the silent, startled, icy, black language
of blackberry-eating in late September.

(from Mortal Acts, Mortal Words, 1980)

— Brendan

  

earthweal open link weekend #53

Arboreal-like drainage channels in Lake Cakora, New South Wales.

 

Here we are again for earthweal’s 53d open link weekend. Link a rave fave and visit your fellow linkers and comment-rave.

Open link weekend lasts until midnight Sunday EST when the next weekly challenge rolls out. By then I should know what it is.

Happy linking!

— Brendan

 

earthweal weekly challenge: GIFTS

 

It’s been a rough week for democracy for United States. Lots to be angry at, resent, fear. I don’t know who to feel sadder for, the woman shot and killed breaching the House chamber or the Capital policeman battered with flagpoles and then clocked dead by a fire extinguisher, attendants who had to clean excrement off the marble floors or the guy trying to steal a portrait and tased himself in the balls and suffered a fatal heart attack.

Or all of us. My country sure is tasing itself with aplomb and verve. The world is astonished we don’t know it. So it goes where climate denialism is but a symptom of a collective reality disease.

Oh, and did I mention that 2020 tied 2016 as the hottest year ever? Global temperature is up 1.25 degrees C over pre-industrial level, which mean in just a few years we’ve gone halfway to the dropping-dead threshold of 1.5 C. Some parts of the Arctic were 6 C higher than the baseline. Some 10 million acres of the Western United States burned and 30 Atlantic storms brewed and hurled against the Americas, both worst-ever phenomena of the lower porches of whatever we’re striding into.

And COVID’s everywhere, lurid where we breathe.

Arrgh. All of that is like some stratospheric seethe in the mind, a Twitter vortex speeding in cycles of boiling rage and icy fear. (Some of you, I know, are suffering from spillage from the real polar vortex right now—did I hear that temps in England went down to -9C Saturday night?).

You have to wonder how it keeps it all together. Maybe it doesn’t; and then what are we to do?

Did I mention this challenge is about gifts?

I’ve been reading a wonderful book by Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and The Teaching of Plants (Milkweed Editions, 2015), and the best way to segue to my challenge is to turn it over to her in the chapter “The Gift of Strawberries.”

“In a way,” she writes,

I was raised by strawberries, fields of them. Not to exclude the maples, hemlocks, white pines, goldenrod, asters, violets and mosses of upstate New York, but it was the wild strawberries beneath the dewy leaves on an almost-summer morning, who gave me my sense of the world, my place in it.

… Even now, after more than fifty Strawberry Moons, finding a patch of wild strawberries still touches me with a sensation of surprise, a feeling of unworthiness and gratitude for the generosity and kindness that comes from an unexpected gift all wrapped in red and green. “Really? For me? Oh, you shouldn’t have.” After fifty years they still raise the question of how to respond to their generosity. Sometimes it feels like a silly question with a very simply answer: eat them.

But I know that someone else has wondered these same things. In our Creation stories the origin of strawberries is important. Skywoman’s beautiful daughter, whom she carried in her womb from Skyworld, grew on the good green earth, loving and loved by all other beings. But tragedy befell her when she died giving birth to her twins, Flint and Sapling. Heartbroken, Skywoman buried her beloved daughter in the earth. Her final gifts, our most revered plants, grew from her body. The strawberry arose from her heart. In Potawatomi, the strawberry is ode min, the heart berry. We recognize them as the leaders of the berries, the first to bear fruit. (22-23)

Did you ever come across something in this world which is both a surprise and a gift? I remember looking for wild strawberries at my father’s house in Pennsylvania those summers I worked on Columcille, helping him to build his New Age megalithic park. All the energy went toward raising those big stones, but the real sweetness of summer was in the wild strawberries. And though one summer we tended a massive garden inspired by Findhorn, ferrying bushels of squashes back to the house, there was still the magic of the given, the found. Tiny as it was, or because it was so.

More recently, often on my walks in this small Florida town, down by the lake which marks my turning point to the circuit back, I witness massive spirals of turkey buzzards and black vultures. They’re a cooperative species, with the vultures possessing far sight and the buzzards a keen sense of smell. No wonder their colony is so large. Some days I see hundreds of the spiraling in the air, deacons of some immense gospel service of a church two thousand feet in the sky. My head is hunched down as I walk, my thoughts intent on whatever (too often lost in the Trump Vortex): I glance up and … miracles! Exultation and rapture for the everyday eye.

All we have to do is notice. But to let Kimmerer continue:

Strawberries first shaped my view of a world full of gifts simply scattered at your feet. A gift comes to you through no action of your own, free, having moved toward you without your beckoning. It is not a reward; you cannot earn it, or call lit to you, or even deserve it. And yet it appears. Your only role is to be open-eyed and present. Gifts exist in a realm of humility and mystery — as with random acts of kindness, we do not know their source. (23-4)

Freely given, freely received: between the two, something forms.

Gifts from the earth or from each other establish a particular relationship, and obligation of sorts to give, to receive, to reciprocate. … When the berry season was done, the plants would send out tender red runners to make new plants. Because I was fascinated by the way they would travel over the ground looking for good places to take root, I would weed out little patches of bare ground where the runners touched down. Sure enough, tiny roots would emerge from the runner and by the end of the season there were even more plants, ready to bloom under the next Strawberry Moon. No person taught us this – the strawberries showed us. Because they had given us a gift, an ongoing relationship opened between us. (25)

It’s something I learned in AA: A gift freely given cannot be kept unless it is given fully away. It’s why service is one of the pillars of recovery.  Such service, I think, can also be given the world in a poem, as Emily Dickenson shows here. What is found is deeply a part of what is lost.

As imperceptibly as grief
The summer lapsed away, —
Too imperceptible, at last,
To seem like perfidy.

A quietness distilled,
As twilight long begun.,
Or Nature, spending with herself
Sequestered afternoon.

The dusk drew earlier in,
The morning foreign shone. —
A courteous, yet harrowing grace,
As guest who would be gone.

And thus, without a wing
Or service of a keel,
Our summer made her light escape
Into the beautiful.

(XLV)

Going further, Kimmerer says once something has been given, it can never be sold.

As the scholar and writer Lewis Hyde notes, “It is the cardinal difference between a gift and a commodity exchange that a gift establishes a feeling-bond between two people.”

Wild strawberries fit the definition of gift, but grocery store berries do not. As a gift-thinker, I would be deeply offended if I saw wild strawberries in the grocery store. I would want to kidnap them all. There were not meant to be sold, only to be given. Hyde reminds us that in a gift economy, only one’s freely given gifts cannot be made into someone else’s capital. (27)

From the viewpoint of a private property economy, the “gift” is deemed to be “free” because we obtain it free of charge, at no cost. But in the gift economy, gifts are not free. The essence of the gift is that it creates a set of relationships. The currency of a gift economy is, at its root, reciprocity. In Western thinking, private land is understood to be a “bundle of rights,” whereas in a gift economy property has a “bundle of responsibilities” attached. (28)

It is one thing to be grateful for the gift; another, to act like it. Since the US election — a victory, in one sense, a terrible fall in another — I have taken to the woods in a suburban way, walking early mornings (a great gift from my former employer, eliminating my job from a business located 20 miles away). I feel like Mad Sweeney, the 8th century king who went mad from human noise and fled to the woods to roost in trees. Fitted with the feathered tuion of the ancient filid, he sang so beautifully of wild nature that monks of the 12th century had to write those poems down because gothic arches weren’t a strong enough margin for the old druid culture. After a few months of daily attention to the beauty and glory of trees, I feel a kinship now which has been there all along.

The gift I’m trying to give back. If you’ve read any of the Sweeney poems on my blog, you might sense a change of perspective underway from the climate fatalist of some months prior. I felt dead-ended: if the world is truly screwed because humans won’t or can’t change in time, then what else is there to do, to say? It does take the air out of adventure and discovery.

How much changed in me when I shifted my gaze from the ruined human terrain (suburbanized to death, at least), up to the trees. Kimmerer again:

… our human relationship with strawberries is transformed by our choice of perspective. It is human perception that makes the world a gift. When we view the world this way, strawberries and humans alike are transformed. The relationship of gratitude and reciprocity thus developed can increase the evolutionary fitness of both plant and animal. A species and a culture that treat the natural world with respect and reciprocity will surely pass on genes to ensuing generations with a higher frequency than the people who destroy it. The stories we choose to shape our behaviors have adaptive consequences. (30)

So my challenge has been to choose gratitude over despair. It’s a slower route and much less certain — thorny,, too — but time and patience in the work of gratitude results in deeper roots and a wider canopy than I could ever have found writing as a solitary monk by the ruined sea.

Saturday as I drove to the grocery store (with a scribbled list in pocket including corporate strawberries, genetically-altered for redness and something akin to sweetness), some of my beloved vultures were gathered next to dead tabby cat on the side of the road, flopping their wings and leaping about. So sad to see a feline picked off by cars, and the work of nature is so much harder to look at than when it soars: But those great wings are flown for this purpose, as I was grown to be witness and have a heart full enough to grieve and give thanks at the same time.

Kimmerer concludes her essay about the gift of strawberries with this gift of her own:

In those childhood fields, waiting for strawberries to ripen, I used to eat the sour white ones, sometimes out of hunger but mostly from impatience. I knew the long-term results of my short-term greed, but I took them anyway. Fortunately, our capacity for self-restraint grows and develops like the berries beneath the leaves, so I learned to wait. A little. I remember lying on my back in the fields watching the clouds go by and rolling over to check the berries every few minutes. When I was young, I thought change might happen that fast. Now I am old and I know that transformation is slow. The commodity economy has been here on Turtle Island for four hundred years, eating up the white strawberries and everything else. But people have grown weary of the sour taste in their mouths. A great longing is upon us, to live again in a world made of gifts. I can scent it coming, like the fragrance of ripening strawberries rising on the breeze. (31-2)

What gifts have come our way, I wonder. What gifts does gratitude return. For this challenge, let’s write about gifts and find out.

I mean, what else are we going to do these days? Seethe?

I’ll end with this poem from Wendell Berry:

Slowly, slowly they return
To the small woodland let alone;
Great trees, outspreading and upright,
Apostles of the living light.

Patient as stars, they build in air
Tier after tier a timbered choir,
Stout beams upholding weightless grace
Of song, a blessing on this place.

They stand in waiting all around,
Uprisings of their native ground,
Downcomings of the distant light;
They are the advent they await.

Receiving sun and giving shade,
Their life’s a benediction made,
And is a benediction said
Over the living and the dead.

In fall their brightened leaves, released,
Fly down the wind, and we are pleased
Top walk on radiance, amazed.
O light come down to earth, be praised!

1986, collected in A Timbered Choir

— Brendan