earthweal weekly challnge: THE WILD DARK (NOIR FIRE)


Once again, thanks to all for such great contributions last week to the Wild Mind challenge. Since we’re finding green fire in so many fertile places of late, let’s peek under the rug to see what wilds may also be found there.

First though, a thought about the work we are about at earthweal. There are so many grievous instances of our changing world at Anthropocene speed, from vanishing birds to monsters of fire and storm to the feral disorder of our collective mind. What is wrong is all too clear; but finding ways out of this disjointed time into a better future is truly the wicked difficult part.

If the answers lie ahead, then imagining them and learning to see them unfolding from the present is the challenge. As Timothy Morton writes in The Ecological Thought,

We simply can’t unthink modernity. If there is any enchantment it lies in the future. The ecological “enchants the world,” if enchantment means exploring the profound and wonderful openness and intimacy of the mesh. What can we make of these new constellations? What art, literature, music, science and philosophy are suitable to it? Art can contain utopian energy.

We have to learn to see and partake in communions — those “new constellations” — we formerly tried to master, rejoining thought to nature as its conjoining and furthering element, both out of doors and in. It takes a village of poetries. Angela Hume and Gillian Osbornre put it in this way in their introduction to Ecopoetics: Essays in the Field (2018):

Ecopoetics can encompass experiments in community making, ranging from poetry and visual art, literary criticism, and performance to walking, foraging, farming, cooking, and being alongside each other, whether human or other than human, in space and place. The fullness of these practices reflects the Greek etymological roots of ecopoetics: “eco” from oikos, meaning “family,” “property,” and “house”, and “poetics” from poiesis, meaning “to make,” in a broad sense.

A house of making with no walls: this is the earthweal space the world is invited into to play, dream, and create. A sacred hearth for the fire that burns in all living things and echoes deeply in starlight.

Let us extend that welcome now to the dark to our wild homestead.

* * *

Night blooming Cereus


There is a God (some say),
A deep, but dazzling darkness.

—Henry Vaughan

To get back to the wild, we must dim the lanterns and trek out beyond the known.


Wendell Berry

Even love must pass through loneliness,
the husbandman become again
the long Hunter, and set out
not to the familiar woods of home
but to the forest of the night,
the true wilderness, where renewal
is found, the lay of the ground
a premonition of the unknown.
Blowing leaf and flying wren
lead him on. He can no longer be at home,
he cannot return, unless he begin
the circle that first will carry him away.

Setting out from the safe and the known, the way is unclear, the light uncertain. Strangeness and fear abide where dark truths roost and root. For Emily Dickinson, it is a well filled with lucent noir:

What mystery pervades a well!
That water lives so far –
A neighbor from another world
Residing in a jar

Whose limit none has ever seen,
But just his lid of glass –
Like looking every time you please
In an abyss’s face!

The grass does not appear afraid,
I often wonder he
Can stand so close and look so bold
At what is awe to me.

Related somehow they may be,
The sedge stands near the sea –
Where he is floorless
And does no timidity betray

But nature is a stranger yet:
The ones that cite her most
Have never passed her haunted house,
Nor simplified her ghost.

To pity those that know her not
Is helped by the regret
That those who know her, know her less
The nearer her they get.

That dark shape informs my poetry blog Oran’s Well, a ritual shaft through which poems go down and come back up. The “floorless” watery deep teems with “ghosts” whose nature I can never fully know though am enriched by the dive into darkness. Emerson wrote as much in his journal of 1842: “Wisdom consists in keeping the soul liquid. There must be the Abyss, Nyx, and Chaos, out of which all things come, and they must never be far off. Cut off the connection between any of your works and this dread origin, and the work is shallow and unsatisfying.” Liquid soul: our dark wild sense dissolves the boundaries swimming into the fluid whole.

Dark knowledge requires dark sight, as Wendell Berry writes in “To Know The Dark”:

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is travelled by dark feet and dark wings.

Dark feet and dark wing traverse a dark landscape where beauty is as enticing as forbidding:


David St. John

The definition of beauty is easy;
it is what leads to desperation.


I know the moon is troubling.

Its pale eloquence is always such a meddling,
Intrusive lie. I know the pearl sheen of the sheets
Remains the screen I’ll draw back against the night;

I know all of these silences invented for me approximate
Those real silences I cannot lose to daylight …
I know the orchid smell of your skin

The way I know the blackened path to the marina,
When gathering clouds obscure the summer moon —
Just as I know the chambered heart where I begin.

I know the lacquered jewel box, its obsidian,
The sexual trumpeting of the diving, sweeping loons …
I know the slow combinations of the night, & the glow

Of fireflies, deepening the shadows of all I do not know.

(from Merlin: New Poems)


The dark is the source of mantic inspiration, the dead are the carriers of deep tradition, and poetry is the green fire of dark knowledge. The procedure for gaining poetic inspiration was clearly a burial and a rebirth. Lawrence Eason writes in “Merlin’s last cry: ritual burial and rebirth of the poet in Celtic and Norse tradition,”

If we look first at early Celtic literature, a clear pattern may be identified in which the Celtic archetypal poet or prophet becomes inspired through interment in a tomb or some other dark, enclosed space. In this scenario, the novice poet-prophet undergoes an initiation into the secrets of his craft by means of a ritual death and rebirth that he experiences within a chthonic setting. The picture that emerges of the archetypal poet and prophet of Celtic as well as other Indo-European literatures is one of a mantically inspired figure who gains his phenomenal abilities directly from potent otherworldly forces, which are often, but not always, associated with spirits of the dead.

Old Irish poets learned the grand corpus of their oral literature by ensconsing themselves in darkened “singing huts,” where they lay and listened to the tales with the dark ear of memory and were not permitted to create any of their own poetry until they could repeat the entire body of oral tradition.

St. Oran’s chapel on Iona at night


Power is found in the weirdlight that hovers between darkness and light. Life is an arc whose zenith is noon, but it daunted by another light which is frozen and eternal, like a stare. Emily Dickinson again:

There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference –
Where the Meanings, are –

None may teach it – Any –
‘Tis the seal Despair –
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air –

When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, ‘tis like the Distance
On the look of Death –


“Internal meanings” have an eye for light which is subtle. Indeed, the truth of sunlight hurts, we must shade our eyes to read it properly: “The Truth must dazzle gradually / Or every man be blind.” (#1129) Sometimes we can only read the edges properly. Its luminosity is supple and suggestive of a swimming greatness beneath.

XL / Emily Dickinson

The thought beneath so slight a film
Is more distinctly seen, —
As laces just reveal the surge
Or mists the Apennine.

Underground are the connections, green light woven in dark fiber, the rhizomes. Heraclitus tells us, “Unapparent connection is better than apparent.” One needs a dowsing wand for the dark grail and a grammar to suit, as Charles Wright writes about in “Lost Language”:

… I have a thirst for the divine,
a long drink of forbidden water.
I have a hankering for the dust-light, for all things illegible.
I want to settle myself
where the river falls on hard rocks,
where no one can cross,
where the star-shadowed, star-colored city lies, just out of reach. …

…. The longed-for is tiny, and tenuous as a syllable.
In this it resembles us.
In this is resembles what we’ve passed or shucked off.
Interminable as black water,
irreparable as dirt,
it shadows our going forth and finds us,
and then finds us out. …

“Christ of the Abyss,” an underwater sculpture in the Florida Keys


We undertake these travels into the dark consciously and not, as when we dream or read tales of otherworld voyages and nekyias. Mercea Eliade, in “Mythologies of Death”:

The morphology of such fabulous realms is extremely rich and complex. No scholar can claim that he knows all the paradises, hells, underworlds and counterworlds (or antiworlds) of the dead. Neither can he assert that he knows all the roads to the wonderlands, though he may be certain that there will be a river and a bridge; a sea and a boat; a tree, a cave, or a precipice; and a dog and a demoniac or angelic psychopomp or door keeper — to mention only the most frequent features of the road to the land-of-no-return.

But what interests us is not the infinite variety of these lands but, as I said, the fact that they still nourish and stimulate our imagination. Moreover, new lands-of-no-return and new roads by which to reach them safely are continually being discovered in our dreams and fantasies or by children, poets, novelists, painters and filmmakers.

It matters little that the real meaning of such lands and landscapes, persons, figures and actions is not always clear to those who consider or imagine them. European and American children still play hopscotch, ignorant of the fact that they are reenacting an initiatory game, the goal of which is to penetrate and successfully return from the labyrinth; for in playing hopscotch they symbolically descend to the netherworld and come back to earth.

That’s one reason why it’s so important that we read each other’s poems; our own dark lights are more perceptible in another’s eyes. History in my sight reads as mystery in yours.

A witchy dark figure is often at work here.  Carl Jung named anima the female personification of the unconscious:

In elfin nature, wisdom and folly appear as one and the same; and they are one and the same as long as they are acted out in the anima. Life is crazy and meaningful at once. (CW9, i, 65)

… The anima emerges in exemplary fashion from the primordial slime, laden with all the pulpy and monstruous appendages of the deep. (Letter to Count Hermann Keyserling, August 13, 1931)

When such a fate (Nekyia) befalls a man … he usually encounters the unconscious in the form of the “Dark One,” a Kundry of horribly grotesque, primeval ugliness or else of infernal beauty. (CW 15, 211)

Everything the anima touches becomes numinous — unconditional, dangerous, taboo, magical … She affords the most convincing reasons for not prying into the unconscious, an occupation that would break down our moral inhibitions and unleash forces that had better been left unconscious and undisturbed. (CW 9, i, 59)

Dark, dark indeed. The Christian imagination is lurid with it. Stephen of Bourbon, Inquisitor in southern France from 1235, testifies to a story told by a woman under the darkest coercion:

“She had a mistress who frequently led her to an underground place (in loco subterraneo) where a crowd of men and women assembled with torches and candles. They gathered round a large vessel full of water into which a rod had been thrust (a fertility rite). The master then called upon Lucifer to come to them. Thereupon a cat of hideous appearance descending the rod into the room. Dipping his tail in the water, he brought it out wet and used it as an aspergill ((a brush used for sprinkling holy water)). Then all the lights were extinguished (lucerna extincta), and each person seized his neighbor in a promiscuous embrace.”

Eliade comments, “With few variants, this description of the Witches’ Sabbath is abundantly recorded in the following centuries.” (“Observations on European Witchcraft”) In loco subterraneo, lucerne extincta. Like Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones once said, nothing interesting happens where the light is too bright.


The sexual dark is an unconscious sprawl toward the Mother and dark origins. In another essay, Eliade traces the leys of mystery in what we called “Mazola parties” in my high school:

Ritual orgies — in some cases preceded by the extinction of lights — are attested to among populations as different as the Kurds, the Tibetans, the Eskimos, the Malgaches, the Ngadu Dyaks, and the Australians. The incentives are manifold,  but generally such ritual orgies are carried out to avert a cosmic or social crisis — draught, epidemic, strange meteorological phenomena (e.g., the aurora australis) — or in order to lend magico-religious support to some propitious event (a marriage, the birth of a child, etc.) by releasing and heightening the dormant power of sexuality.

Over against a dangerous crisis as well as an auspicious event, indiscriminate and excessive sexual intercourse plunges the collectivity into the fabulous epoch of beginnings. This is clearly evident by the practice of periodical orgies at the end of the year or at specific sacred intervals.

As a matter of fact, it is this type of ritual orgy, undoubtedly the most archaic, which discloses the original function of promiscuous collective intercourse. Such rituals reactualize the primordial moment of the Creation or the beatific stage of beginnings, when neither sexual taboos nor moral or social rules yet existed.

Imagination allows us to brood deeply and darkly. In Melville’s Moby-Dick, Ahab while pacing the deck one night, gazes on the head of a sperm whale that had been severed and chained alongside the Pequod; and looks upon it much as Hamlet does beholding Yorick’s skull:

It was a black and hooded head, and hanging there in the midst of so intense a calm, it seemed the sphynx’s in the desert. “Speak, thou vast and venerable head,” muttered Ahab, “which, though ungarnished with a beard, yet hear and there lookest hoary with mosses; speak, mighty head, and tell us the secret thing that is within thee. Of all divers, thou hast dived the deepest. The head upon which now the upper sun now gleams, has moved amid the world’s foundations, where unrecorded names and navies rust, and untold hopes and anchors rot, where in her murderous hold this frigate earth is ballasted with bones of millions of the drowned. There, in the awful water land, there was thy most familiar home. Thou hast been where bell or diver never went, hast slept by many a sailor’s side, where sleepless mothers would give their lives to lay them down. Thou saw’st the locked lovers leaping from their flaming ship; heart to heart they sank beneath the exulting wave; true to each other, when heaven seemed false to them. Thou saw’st the murdered mate when tossed by pirates from the midnight deck; for hours he fell into the deeper midnight of the insensate maw; and his murderers still sailed on unharmed — while swift lightnings shivered the neighboring ship that would have borne a righteous husband to outstretched, longing arms. O head! thou hast seen enough to make an infidel of Abraham, and no syllable is thine! (339-340)

The three-night’s journey to the otherworld and back is an ancient motif. Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale. Jesus was in the tomb for three days and three nights harrowing Hell. Gilgamesh, Osiris, Odysseus, Aeneas travel there and back. My St. Oran was buried for three days and three nights in the footers of the Iona Abbey in 563AD to appease an angry spirit. It is the dark night of the soul. The sun sets in the western sea, sinks under the Earth and then returns. The hero comes back with the treasure hard to attain. We finish the poem and post it still dripping at earthweal.

Ecopoetry carries in its teeth the message we bear here, but we have to go out to greet it beyond the circles we know too well.


Gary Snyder

It comes blundering over the
Boulders at night: it stays

Frightened outside the
Range of my campfire
I go out to meet it at the
Edge of the light.

What then is this wild dark?


“Station Island,” from section XI:

Seamus Heaney

… How well I know that fountain, filling, running,
although it is the night.

That eternal fountain, hidden away,
I know its haven and its secrecy
although it is the night.

But not its source because it does not have one,
which is all sources’ source and origin
although it is the night.

No other thing can be so beautiful.
Here the earth and heaven drink their fill
although it is the night.

So pellucid it can never be muddied,
and I know that all light radiates from it
although it is the night.

I know no sounding line can find its bottom,
nobody ford or plumb its deepest fathom
although it is the night

And its current so in flood it overspills
to water hell and heaven and all peoples
although it is the night.

And the current that is generated there,
as far as it wills to, it can flow that far
although it is the night.

And from these two a third current proceeds
which neither of these two, I know, precedes
although it is the night.

This eternal fountain hides and splashes
within this living bread that is life to us
although it is the night.

Hear it calling out to every creature.
And they drink these waters, although it is dark here
because it is the night.

I am repining for this living fountain.
Within this bread of life I see it plain
although it is the night.