earthweal weekly challenge: THE EVERYDAY EXTREME


It’s mid-May and Florida’s rainy season has begun, weeks earlier than the norm of ten or even five years ago. Surly storms rolled north across the state on Friday in waves, with brilliant flashes, startling loud thunder and downpours that drenched everything. At twilight as another band of storms strolled over, the power went off — not long, maybe 45 minutes — and my wife and I sat in the dimming silence listening to the cracks and booms of tomorrow’s weather tonight. And through the night there were more waking intrusions, leaving us with that “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas any more” feeling of a world changing so fast. Not doom, but nothing Aunt Em would recognize.

Last night the storms came again, not as loud but with the same thrashing fury of the unforgiven — an exclamation point added to the idea of normality increasingly defined by extremes.

In the pre-industrial world, last summer’s heat dome that brought Death-Valley like temperatures to temperate British Columbia, would have a been a once-in-an-8-million-year-event. It is now being described as one of the six most analmous heat waves in recorded history. Today, such events now have a one-in-a-thousand-year probability; and oonce we have reached two degrees of warming, 8-million-year events will happen once a decade.

“What used to be a very extreme event is now probably not a very extreme event but something that we expect in this warmer climate quite frequently,” says Dr. Frederike Otto, a senior lecturer at the Grantham Institute for Climate Change at the Imperial College of London. She’s also a leading expert in the growing field of climate attribution, which tries make better sense of the climatic anomalies we’re now experiencing.

In his inaugural New York Times newsletter, David Wallace-Wells wrote recently,

A U.N. report published in April suggested that by just 2030 the world would be experiencing more than 500 major disasters each year. And the quickening frequency of what were once called “generational disasters” or “500-year storms” or even “acts of God” disorients us, too, so that it becomes hard to distinguish once-a-decade events from once-a-century ones — our disaster depth of field blurred by climate disruption. “What used to be a very extreme event is now probably not a very extreme event but something that we expect in this warmer climate quite frequently,” Dr. Otto said. “We really are in a quite different world.”

A different world: we are increasingly fooled by what we recently remember. When my wife and I first moved to this small town 25 years ago, the month of May was so hot and dry that wildfire smoke would blow on the stiff breezes of blisteringly hot afternoons. Not the May I’m looking at today, muggy, overwarm and grey with more storms approaching. A warmer atmosphere means a hotter Gulf perspiring big rainfall events in Florida with the so-called “rainy season” starting up much earlier.

It also means bigger, more menacing hurricanes. The so-called Gulf “Loop Current” is a brewer of storms, and conditions this May are like those in 2005 that sent Hurricane Katrina barreling into Louisiana and Mississippi. The Loop Current had a role in the transformation of a tropical wave that entered the Gulf in 2018 into a Category 5 Hurricane Michael, the most powerful storm to brew up in the Gulf, creating the strongest maximum sustained wind speeds to make landfall in the contiguous United States since Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

Do you feel the same vertigo that I do? This early morning (as I continue to work on this week’s challenge) the darkness is archly saturated, almost cool, humming, and pregnant to bursting with full summer — in May. Why is it that the ground feels unsteady with change?

Wells again:

As recently as 2015, the 10-year average of global temperatures showed, according to the I.P.C.C., warming of 0.87 degrees Celsius above the preindustrial average. Just five years later, it had jumped to 1.09 — 25 percent higher in half a decade.

When sociologists talk about “shifting baseline syndrome,” they mean we tend to base expectations for the future on our memory of the recent past. But just five years ago, it was exceedingly rare for more than a million acres to burn in a California wildfire season; today the record is 4.3 million acres, and in four of the past five years more than 1.5 million acres burned in the state alone. Over the past decade, extreme heat events have grown 90 times more common, compared with a baseline of frequency between 1950 and 1980.

I’m not trying to ring the climate alarm bells here; most of us can already hear them. But I do wonder what’s happening to everyday life now that the Earth in its fast lane. And what happens to the language of memory, once a smooth continued Holocene-lenght narration, devolving fast in a daily clash of Anthropocene terms formulated by Glenn Albrecht like solastalgia (yearning for lost homelands), toponesia (forgetfulness of precious places), meteroanxiety (fear of coming weather) and mermerosity (a chronic state of anxiety over the changing climate). (From Earth Emotions: New Words for a New World, Cornell University Press, 2019)

We’ve all seen the “hockey-stick” projections of global warming — a long swath of slow incremental change followed by an abrupt lift toward killing temperatures — we’re in the fast-uptick now of the spike, still widely disoriented and with many making themselves and the world crazy pretending it isn’t happening (the way COVID isn’t real and there’s no war in Ukraine).

Most of us also see the weird parallel between global heating and technological innovation, the hockey stick of a fast-heating climate superimposed by the ghostly “reality” of innovations that have brought us so many mindless online pleasures to the detriment of personhood, civility, natural connection and a common basis of reality in truth. From Prometheus to the steam engine, not much of note, and then everything almost all at once.

(Note: algorhythms made Amazon the dominant retailer, but who can say their billion incremental improvements were advances in any true sense?)

Who are these shadow twins, separated at birth but living out the same fate?

And what are we to make of it, loving this Earth, sharing Her bounties, praising her wealth in our poems? How do we factor in these early storms, frightening heat events, disturbed-to-destroyed ecosystems and lingering nightmares not dispelled by the dawn’s light? The world is increasingly fragile; political systems are dark; healthcare sucks; inflation and recession loom. The conflict in Ukraine grinds amid the rubble and ruin of its farmland and forests, straying toward massive cyberattacks and nuclear conflict. Hunger stalks with emptying eyes.

This is our 21st century, home sweet savage home, and we must remain awake and vigilant for the things changing so rapidly all around us, like a massive summer storm summoned up on a hotter day than any in recent memory.

“Within our own lifetimes,” Wells writes, “we may find ourselves living on a planet warmed beyond a level scientists long characterized as ‘catastrophic,’ though well below the level casually described as ‘apocalyptic.’ The question is: how?” He continues,

How do we imagine our future, how do we expect to live in it, what do we count as success and what as failure in a world beset by ecological disarray and all the human messiness that shakes out from that?

For me there a fundamental reckoning is called for, personally and collectively: If human mastery is a peril the Earth cannot afford and we value our continued existence on this planet, then we had better find systematic ways to reject human mastery. Let’s banish controls heedless of consequence and re-calibrate our fear of the unknown as faith in humility. Fossil-fuel dependence is an addiction, digital mind’s an abomination: From those starting points we may eventually gestate something in the human spirit that will reverse the hockey stock before life is finished on Earth As they say with the Tao, to and fro goes the way — even, perhaps, with the perverse Tao of our maddening reality.

That Tao, I suspect, is our how.

For this challenge, write about the everyday extreme.



One yay for this reverse-engineering goes out today to Australians who voted out the conservative government of Scott Morrison and their gross reluctance to deal with climate change.

Another for reminders of who we are and where we live from our earth-poets. Here are a few poems for keeping one’s sight on the Way.


Denise Levertov

Come into animal presence
No man is so guileless as
the serpent. The lonely white
rabbit on the roof is a star
twitching its ears at the rain.
The llama intricately
folding its hind legs to be seated
not disdains but mildly
disregards human approval.
What joy when the insouciant
armadillo glances at us and doesn’t
quicken his trotting
across the track into the palm brush.

What is this joy? That no animal
falters, but knows what it must do?
That the snake has no blemish,
that the rabbit inspects his strange surroundings
in white star-silence? The llama
rests in dignity, the armadillo
has some intention to pursue in the palm-forest.
Those who were sacred have remained so,
holiness does not dissolve, it is a presence
of bronze, only the sight that saw it
faltered and turned from it.
An old joy returns in holy presence.

—in Poetry, Vol. 96 No. 1, January 1960



William Stafford

It is people at the edge who say
things at the edge: winter is toward knowing.

Sled runners before they meet have long talk apart.
There is a pup in every litter the wolves will have.
A knife that falls points at an enemy.
Rocks in the wind know their place: down low.
Over your shoulder is God; the dying deer sees Him.

At the mouth of the long sack we fall in forever
storms brighten the spikes of the stars.

Wind that buried bear skulls north of here
and beats moth wings for help outside the door
is bringing bear skull wisdom, but do not ask the skull
too large a question till summer.
Something too dark was held in that strong bone.

Better to end with a lucky saying:

Sled runners cannot decide to join or to part.
When they decide, it is a bad day.

— ­from West of Your City (1960)



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 asked the trees, my bones’ forest
framing me—what my long ago dead dreamed,
tossed in their short allowance of night?

The Adroit Journal; anthologized in The Best American Poetry 2020


earthweal weekly challenge: THE UNSAYABLE


So many die of COVID-19 these days, their passing is lost in the whir and blur. Some news outlets try to remember them. At night the PBS News hours tells a brief story about five victims. The New York Times has tried to kept a paddle in the water with obits of important people we’ve lost — opera bass-baritone Antoine Hodge, age 38; Raymond Cauchethier, New Wave photographer, age 101; Claudette White, innovative tribal judge for the Quechan tribe in California; Elizabeth Duff, Nashville’s first bus driver, age 72; Dr. David Katzenstein, virologist and AIDS researcher, age 69; Rosemary Collins, high school chorus teacher and church music director, age 51. How to measure each loss, how to sum the whole?

The global COVID pandemic grinds on into its second year with hopeful and distressing signs in its massive, complex and invisible works, the vaccine become slowly more available and troubling mutations threatening. A fourth wave is possible if humankind acts like it lives in Florida and ignores all warnings in its hurry to return to normal life, a hope as retro as Donald Trump in the Hall of Presidents at Disney World.

What is remarkable to me is that for all its deadly impact on human health and harsh effect on the world’s economies, we arrive at this moment largely blind and silent about the pandemic’s presence in our lives.

Historians have noted that the Spanish Flu epidemic was soon forgotten in the world’s hurry into the Gilded Age. 50 million died of the disease worldwide, and yet there are few public memorials. (The Great War killed about 20 million.) Here in the United States, 500,000 citizens have died of the disease in the past year with about 3,000 more succumbing every day in recent weeks. And yet there is little mention of it where I live, except in anticipation of when we’ll see a vaccine. The dead are out of sight, and long-term sufferers are sequestered. Out of sight, out of mind.

Visualizing an invisible plague remains problematic; we see it less for what it is than what it does, like some gravitational wave warping the galactic weave. Helen Lewis wondered about the lack. of defining COVID images in a recent Atlantic piece; if it has to do with “the essential weirdness of this pandemic”:

It is a novel event in which nothing truly new is happening: People are staying at home, people are dying in hospitals, people are socializing in small groups or not at all. How does a picture of a woman standing at her window convey that she doesn’t just happen to be there for a moment, but has been trapped inside for months, shielding her fragile immune system?

… The challenge of documenting the coronavirus is to show how our existence has been put on hold, how time has telescoped while our horizons have contracted …  I would love to see visuals that show our time-lapse lives: the steady degradation of a home that is now an office, playground, school, coffee shop, and bar all at once, day after repetitive day; the slow blooming of beards as shaving became a needless task; the monotony of another day in jeans and socks as a wardrobe full of clothes hangs idle, with no parties or conferences to attend.

One wonders if something so resistant to imagery is worth noticing at all. I mean, there are lots of fish to fry these days, or rather lots of fish frying. Western democracies are convulsed, digital media is driving us nuts, bad guys abound.  Modernity moves so fast. Lada Gaga’s dogs were stolen, native languages have vanished and McDonald’s is trying to figure out a chicken sandwich.

Climate change is another invisible monster, perhaps the shadow twin of pandemic. (Or its monster grandsire.) Hundreds, thousands, millions of animal species are going extinct because there are too many carbons in the atmosphere and humans can’t and won’t stop spewing them. A 60-million-year march since the last great extinction is fast coming to an end in the next one, and happening so fast that even those cosmic blip humans can hardly see the crash of geologic time.

Back to Helen Lewis’s article, she sees a dire point to being able to memorably see the pandemic:

… We need photographs of this pandemic because we need to remember it collectively. We need to fix the coronavirus crisis in our minds, so we can stand back and consider the upheaval of our lives. We must remember the scale of the challenge faced by politicians, epidemiologists, health-care workers, vaccine researchers, and the clunking bureaucracies that silently run our lives—and remind ourselves which of those groups rose to the occasion, and which did not.

In a decade’s time, we will need to stop the dead from slipping into the mist, along with the failures that helped send them there. We need to see what happened—so that, later, we can all agree that it did.

The pandemic is one of many great challenges for poets these days as we try to articulate the momentousness of what is happening all around us and in our very bodies. Are words sufficient? We must clearly try.

Poetry I think is valuable for this moment because it has descriptive gears for the unsayable.

Donald Hall writes about the secret rooms which poetry can explore, not so much that we may understand them as to detect the presence of the invisible:

Friends of ours bought an old house in the country, a warren of small rooms, and after they furnished it and settled down, they became aware that their floor plan made no sense.  Peeling off some wallpaper they found a door that pried open to reveal a tiny room, sealed off and hidden, goodness knows why: they found no corpses or stolen goods.

The unsayable builds a secret room, in the best poems, which shows in the excess of feeling over paraphrase. The room is not a Hidden Meaning to be paraphrased by the intellect; it conceals itself from reasonable explanation. The secret room is something to acknowledge, accept, and honor in a silence of assent; the secret room is where the unsayable gathers, and it is poetry’s uniqueness. (“Poetry: The Unsayable Unsaid,” Copper Canyon Press, 1993)

The unsayable unsaid gathers — briefly, for a song — in gossamer nets of words we little understand and fabricate without much understanding, meant but mostly accidental clusters of words and dreaming rhyme.

The unsayable begins with an ill-defined, unlocated, peripheral entity we usually call “it” which slowly defines itself as door then room then altar then chalice filled with an unsayable potency the words can yet calibrate as drunkenness or wonder or grief. Sherod Santos explores “it” in the title poem to his 2003 collection The Perishing:

It began as a sound in the nettle trees
that grew along the runoff ditches near the leak,
the whisper of a dry wind rattling the leaves,

the unsettling air adrift with ash.

It began
as a sound, though hushed and small,
that in no time at all became a constant
and upwelling thing, the soft chorale
of something unsayable slipping away,

thinning out like an inwardness
over the mineral waste, or like a memory lost
in the evanescence of remembering.

the burning lake it passed, this sound,
and even as the feelings it awakened in us
seemed gathered up into its passing,

tinged with the nothingness still to come,
it luffed and flared and coalesced
into shimmering planes of vanishing,

An immense, chimeric seepage
through some misweave in the weft of things,
for it was we eventually came to see

the sound

Of our own perishing,
the all-but-unthinkable erasure
that’s both part of and apart from us,

a supersession so absolute,

so attuned to the particulars of our lives,
that even though it’s there
in everything we’ve done, in every shadow
of the broadcast moon,

We barely think
to miss it now the time has come
to imagine ourselves all over again,
to imagine us as we’d been before

we heard that sound in the nettle trees
and recognized it for what it was.

Presence and absence are partners here: We see what isn’t and say it is, it ghosts us leaving a fading imprint on a windowpane.

For this challenge, write about the unsayable. Describe the unsayable nature of the pandemic we are still fighting our way through. Is it the event which is best known or seen by its shadows and ghosts? What tools in the poetic repertoire are there for describing and naming and calibrating it? How is it akin to the slow but tidally monstrous impunity of climate change? Where does it differ? Are there other invisibilities to which it is akin, from digital mayhem to grief to galactic waves? Are there songs for the dead? How has the future landscape changed?

Let’s find out!

— Brendan