earthweal weekly challenge: RADICAL HOPE

Well it’s Sunday and here I am again, scratching my chinny chin chin and wondering what might possibly suffice for an earthweal prompt.

If you what I’ve been posting recently at Oran’s Well, it’s not very cheerful stuff and far from the green forest.

We are all trying to process the events in our own way — just as we have with each next installment in post-Holocene Earth — monstrous wildfires in Australia and California, astonishing rainfall events around the world, walloping hurricanes and tornadoes, etc. With every trip of the scales.

Plenty of room for astonishment and grief. But hope? That’s a thinner and more measly ingredient — an essential portion ravaged, dessicated, half-drowned, windblown and now shelled into hellscape.

Next case in point. I’ve been trying to finish Rebecca Giggs’ Fathoms: The World of the Whale — it’s a magnificent sea-book, for me on the scale Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us — but to read of how these magnificent creatures have fallen exceptionally in the crosshairs of human progress, it’s devastating. (I find it hard to finish Moby Dick for the same reason.).

Back in my youth, we worried about nuclear winter. (Decades later, such thoughts return to mind as every armchair quarterback tries to figure Putin’s more desperate moves).

Now it’s heat we’re worried about. Recently there were heat waves simultaneously at both the North and South poles — temperature 50 degrees above average — doubly strange as seasons are supposed to be opposite in the hemispheres.

Then consider that fallout in our age may be waters churning with plastic. Giggs writes that in 2015, about 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic waste was created by people around the world, with about 80 percent of it escaping either recycling or incineration. She continues,

Seaborne plastic from the land, or fallen off boats, might eventually sink, it might be carried by the wind to be recaptured by a coastline, it might float, or else, it gets eaten. Over time, plastics in the ocean are shattered by wave friction and UV radiation, into a bleached and dainty shrapnel — tinier than krill or a limpet on a whale bone. Because most polymers remain impregnable to water and microbes, it may take hundreds of years, thousands even, for the particulate to disappear. If it ever does. One of plastic’s most pernicious qualities is that it doesn’t so much decay as divide into littler and littler pieces. Only a microscope would reveal the full extent of the plastic, though it’s a ubiquitous and global problem, occurring in every ocean, and in rivers and lakes, as well as, more diffusely, on land. Plastic is a component of dust; it granulates in the farmland soil of Shanghai and falls in rain over the Pyrenees. Plastic is in the weather. Current estimates hold that in one of the largest gyres found in subtropical Pacific waters between California and Hawaii, 94 percent of approximately 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic are microplastics. Within an area of more than six hundred thousand square miles, there are at least seventy-nine thousand tonnes of polymer debris. (217)

Two sperm whales stranded in 2008 in Northern California were observed to have these things in their stomachs:

Two hundred and thirteen (dry weight) pound of debris total, including one individual net of approximately 182 square feet. Branded cord and netting, bearing the trademarks of Indonesian fisheries. Types of net identified: bait nets, gill nets, shrimp and trawl nets, tallying 134 nets in total. Polyurethane and nylon. (225)

I don’t know about you, but plastic fallout sounds like a death knell for sea life, a doom concocted in the heating simmer of the ocean.

Where is the hope in that?

Yet it is in this very hopeless chapter that Giggs get to the heart of the question I’m asking:

I’ve lost count of how many times someone has asked me, on the subject of this book: Is there cause for optimism; is there cause for hope? How do you sit with this terrible, sad news from the ocean, day after day? So here, I want to clear some space to speak directly and plainly to those questions, as if you were sitting beside me.

There is hope.

A whale is a wonder not because it is the world’s biggest animal, but because it augments our moral capacity. A whale shows us it is impossible to care for that which lies outside our immediate sphere of action, but within our sphere of influence — we care deeply, you and I, about the whale because it is distant. Because it speaks to us of places we will not go. Because it magnifies the reach of our humanity, and reminds us of our collective ability to control ourselves, and of our part in a planetary ecology. Because a whale is a reserve of awe and humility. You might take hope from the movement around plastic pollution — the shopping bag bans, the campaigns against drinking straws — but this, to me, looks like low-hanging fruit. What I means to say is, there are many beings not proximate to ourselves that we will have cause to extend our compassion to in the decades to come: the future generations, the vulnerable people overseas, the creaturely life, and you might ask yourself, How should I care for that which I do not know, that which I have never met?

Do you care for the whale?

Could you act on behalf of the whale?

Being hopeful follows from being useful: this has been my experience, and to be useful, it matters that you identify a part of the problem that you might see change in, using the talents and resources that you possess. Hope is fellowship. Hope is in the doing. We may be the only species capable of imagining a future robbed of the wonder of encountering other species. This knowledge, in the end, gives us cause to start. (234-5)

Sometimes things come along that take our collective breath and strength and hope away — for many of us, that’s now. Yet if we take Giggs’ lead, that is precisely when hope is our strongest and most vital asset. It is now that we stay united in our support and celebration of the living world.

And since we’re staring World War III in the face, why not take a suggestion from Thomas Friedman on how to fight it on our home fronts?

In World War II, the U.S. government asked citizens to plant victory gardens to grow their own fruits and vegetables — and save canned goods for the troops. Some 20 million Americans responded by planting gardens everywhere from backyards to rooftops. Well, what victory gardens were to our war effort then, solar rooftops are to our generation’s struggle against petro-dictatorships.

If you want to lower gasoline prices today, the most surefire, climate-safe method would be to reduce the speed limit on highways to 60 miles per hour and ask every company in America that can do so to let its employees work at home and not commute every day. Those two things would immediately cut demand for gasoline and bring down the price.

Is that too much to ask to win the war against petro-dictators like Putin — a victory in which the byproduct is cleaner air, not burning tanks?

It takes a radical hope, as Jonathan Lear tells us, “directed toward a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is. Radical hope anticipates a good for which those who have the hope as yet lack the appropriate concepts with which to understand it.”  (Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation, 2008)

I’d say the time was ripe for hope of this kind.  For this challenge: let’s celebrate radical hope — that hope whose only basis is our faith in the wonder of life and our capacity to embrace it.



May Swenson

Bright sleep bathing breathing walking
snow ocean and fire
spinning white and flinching green
red-and-yellow-petaled sheen
color me with fresh desire

Vast sleep snow as deep
fresh the leap to green and steep flinching wave
pulsing red glowers flow on black below

In black sleep brightness keep
in colored day spin and play
fresh foam sharp snow the slime of time whirl away
Fire is air is breath and green
lakes of air I walking swim

Powers are of motion made
of color braided all desire
In red and yellow flowers bathe
in snow ocean and fire
in snowy sleep on curls of flame
on shingles of the sea I climb
Dim and gray whirl away and knotted thought and slime

Burning now spin me so with black sea
to braided be In green sleep eons leap
from gray slime past thought and time
to pith and power to bathe in the immortal hour
to breathe from another pulsing flower

Snow ocean white fire
color me with fresh desire

from Nature: Poems Old and New, 1994


Belle loves whale song.

earthweal weekly challenge: SILVER LININGS


As the human tribe moves en masse indoors—hoping and praying to flatten the deadly coronavirus infection curve—the world outside hasn’t changed much at all. It’s a refreshing precedent.

Where I live in Central Florida, the virus outbreak storm is still gathering; most of the cases are in South Florida where more of everyday life has been locked down. Our county north of Orlando has only seen three cases, and there’s a smatter of rural counties further to our north which have seen none. Still, our state governor Ron DeSantis is ramping up the shutdown, closing bars and restaurants and beaches and locking down all assisted care facilities.

Yesterday driving about (I was helping repair a deck at my in-laws’ house, torn out for a new septic field ), there was much less traffic on the roads—not gone, but nothing like normal—and many businesses I passed had empty parking lots. We aren’t on lockdown yet, but everyone is has been urged to stay home, and many are. (It remains to be seen how Floridians, itchy fellas who usually bust out for golf and art festivals and motorcycling and days at the beach, will follow the rules after hibernation is extended.)

The days was warm and dry, upper 80s already, the oaks a brilliant first green, scents of jasmine and orange bloom in the air. (Summer is going to be very hot.) Into a Lowe’s home and hardware store to complete a return and credit, many workers were wearing blue plastic gloves, and one or two shoppers wore masks.

On a day like yesterday, you could feel the spring tide fully approached, smashing through with heat and scent and certain blowsy brilliance: And not far behind, this other, far less visible yet far greater wave of viral infection, erasing much of our  human trace as we hunker down inside and wait for things to pass. One could sense an exaltation of the elements, as this spring was jubilant in to find humanity so diminished, its wave that much taller for how much it has made us ebb.

There is plenty to fear—commerce and finance come to a halt, unemployment, recession or depression, bills and commitments there may not be any money for, a father in law with dementia who may be moving in with us for a lack of caregivers. The grind and wear of relationships as all of this continues to scour the everyday peace. For who knows how long and whatever else may come, unanticipated and wholly unprepared for. (Spring rains continue to fall heavily, followed by an ever-more fierce hurricane season.)

Et cetera ad nauseum ad infinitum: All that drains into a bitter reservoir. But there is also this: Days are beautiful right now, are they not? Minted from a halcyon coin which spells the end of one human treasury for the resumption of greater one owned by the world. As industries shut down, carbon emissions ebb. Oil prices are depressed and gas is cheap, but traffic is thinning to a trickle. Smog clears over Los Angeles, Beijing and  London. The waters of Venice are running clear again. All of those are unexpected graces of this change in the human weather—only temporary and fraught with great economic uncertainty, but here for now.

This week’s earthweal challenge is Silver Linings. Write about the unexpected blessings of human lockdown. What are some of the mercies of our human defeat, temporary though they may only be? Time is reshaping, coming back to Earth. There are longer moments with the beloved beings and things, greater appreciation for the light and night, fuller apprehension of moments while they linger. Much of it may be imbued with deep sadness or fear or angst, but it is a deeply impressionable time and we ought to report it well and look carefully.

In the opening stanza of his Tenth Duino Elegy, Rilke reminds us that all spiritual growth has roots in suffering, and therefore pain is the great ground of transformation:

Someday, emerging at last from the violent insight,
let me sing out jubilation and praise to assenting angels.
Let not even one of the clearly-struck hammers of my heart
fail to sound because of a slack, a doubtful,
or a broken string. Let my joyfully streaming face
make me more radiant; let my hidden weeping arise
and blossom. How dear you will be to me then, you nights
of anguish. Why didn’t I kneel more deeply to accept you,
inconsolable sisters, and, surrendering, lose myself
in your loosened hair. How we squander our hours of pain.
How we gaze beyond them into the bitter duration
to see if they have an end. Though they are really
our winter-enduring foliage, our dark evergreen,
one season in our inner year–, not only a season
in time–, but are place and settlement, foundation and soil and home.

(Stephen Mitchell translation)

Let’s see if we can write a gratitude list of silver linings, and call that too our world.

— Brendan

weekly challenge: FINDING HOPE

By Sherry Marr

Seed Mother Rahibai Soma Papere (India)


Do not lose hope – we were made for these times. Look out over the prow; there are millions of righteous souls in the water with you. We have been training for a dark time such as this since the day we assented to come to earth.

When a great ship is moored and in the harbor, it is safe, there can be no doubt. But that is not what great ships are built for.

Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. It is not given to us to know which acts…will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good.

— Clarissa Pinkola Estes

I am glad to note that this sage still believes in the transformation of consciousness on the planet. Whether before or after cataclysm, I suppose mankind will be forced to re-learn the Old Ways of being with the natural world.

Pam Houston, in her book Deep Creek, ponders: “How to be with the incandescent beauty of the iceberg without grieving the loss of polar bear habitat? How to hang on to that full-body joy and still understand it as elegy?”

That is the dilemma I find myself in. Exactly. Beauty / Elegy.

Pam says it is the best time to write odes to nature, when she is critically wounded at our hands. “I wait to feel a glimmer, a vibration, that says, ‘Hey writer, look over here.’ [It is the way] I have written every single thing I have written. It is also the primary way I worship, the way I kneel down and kiss the earth.”

Me, too. I was happy to read both of these quotes this past week and, especially, Pam Houston’s book.

Clarissa and Pam have put it into words far better than I ever could. These days I feel I am living with the two sides of my heart – joy and gratitude at the incredible beauty of the landscape around me, at the same time feeling such grief and guilt at what our species is doing to Mother Earth in this Age of Extraction.

How do we stay hopeful, yet not in denial, fully here in the present moment?

I have been in love with the natural world all my life, walking with head tipped back, and grinning at the sky. It is a hard thing to see her suffering. A friend, a lifelong environmentalist, told me once, “Mother Earth feels your pain. Let her feel your joy too.” I have always remembered that.

I marvel at how faithfully Mother Earth moves through her cycles, no matter what imbalances are happening. There is so much life everywhere! Everything in the natural world is trying so hard to live. Everywhere there is a wound, I watch little green tendrils begin to grow, to repair and heal the area. One of the lushest places on earth is Chernobyl, which began to thrive once all the humans were gone.

Indigenous people live with strict protocols for how they live upon the land. If they strip bark from a tree for basket making, they leave that tree alone for 150 years to heal. If they take one tree for building a canoe, they leave the entire forest alone for 250 years – they view clearcutting with horror. There is a great learning curve for us in their teachings.

Each walk on the beach fills me with awe. From the tiniest velellas to the wildest winter tides, Mother Earth is alive, constantly in a state of growth, renewal and healing. She needs us to give her some help. And many are doing so, all over the world.

Joanna Macy says “You are alive now for a reason. Because the truth is speaking in the work, it unlocks the heart.”

An open heart means pain. But a closed heart that turns away doesn’t get anything done. Those of us who are strong enough are called to the work: of bearing witness, of sharing information, of protecting trees, of making conscious choices that help the earth. (In Tofino, we are boycotting buying the CoOp’s avocadoes, since they come from Mexico. Environmental activist Homero Gomez Gonzalez, who opposed destruction of habitat of the endangered Monarch butterfly for growing the green fruit, recently died, likely murdered, as have been 19 other environmental activists, killed by local cartels fighting over the avocado trade.)

One person can do a lot, as we see with Jadav Payeng of India, a poor farmer from a marginalized tribe, who spent thirty years planting trees, turning a barren area into a thriving forest, when he noted snakes were suffering and dying.  Or Seed Mother Rahibai Soma Papere of India, who protects and preserves India’s indigenous seeds, and encourages farmers to switch to local varieties.

Then, of course, there is Greta Thunberg, one small, humble girl, a clear-eyed truth-teller.

Each of these people gives me hope, showing how much one person, one voice, can do. I see our poems as part of that work – to celebrate and love the natural world, and, sometimes, to write poems that help others see what we see and begin to care, too. Our love of Mother Earth motivates us to do what we can to try to save her.

Perhaps the most hopeful thing of all is looking to the more spiritual side of life. Life is not just physical; when we remember we are Soul and Spirit, and that there has always been a spiritual dimension in all cultures since time began, perhaps therein lies our greatest hope. There is an energy at work in the world that we can align with and tap into. Through Spirit-Eyes, we can envision a more viable world: a world of sustainable practices, of social justice, of clean energy, of rebalancing the earth so all may live. This is how we were meant to live, in harmony with the natural world and other creatures. One way or the other, I believe we will re-learn how to do this. (The indigenous peoples of the world can teach us how.)  The transformation of consciousness is happening. The fact we are discussing this now, in a poetry forum, when five years ago this conversation would not be happening, tells me we are waking up. We are waking to difficult times, but we can clearly see what needs changing.

Today we’ll sing a hopeful song. Tomorrow maybe we will plant a tree! Or a garden that invites bees and butterflies to our yards. We might turn our front yard into a veggie garden, so we can eat local, without pesticides – and in case the system breaks down, as Tofino’s did the other week when the only road in through the mountains collapsed. (I plan to grow kale and scarlet runner beans on my tiny balcony this spring.)

The vastness and power of the sea, the cathedral of the old-growth forest, sunrises and sunsets beautiful enough to break your heart – so much to love! Let’s send our poems out like love songs. Love heals. And hope gives us strength for the days ahead.

How and where do you find hope? Write big picture, if you wish. Or find that tiny miracle that makes you catch your breath in awe. Let’s add our small push to the transformation of consciousness that is trying so hard to happen across the globe. I look forward to reading how you hold onto hope, and we invite you to join in the discussion in the comments section.

— Sherry


In earthweal weekly challenges, poets are asked to submit their perspective on global events in verse. Local flavor is especially welcome—include your state or country with your name in the link. The challenge launches first thing Monday (EST) and remains open until Friday afternoon. Feel free to contribute multiple times if it magnifies the theme.

Friday afternoons at 4 PM EST we launch an open link weekend where poets are invited to contribute more widely