earthweal weekly challenge: STRANGE WORLD

 

Hot and sunny this Friday afternoon in Central Florida as I begin to write this week’s earthweal challenge—nothing unusual about that, it’s probably been this way here in July for the past 10,000 years. Nor is there anything much different about hurricane Isaias working its way up from the Bahamas right now just barely at Cat 1 strength. Forecast now is that it will brush Florida’s eastern coast but stay offshore and spiral slowly north, probably coming ashore in North Carolina.

All of that seems pretty normal for right about now, although other weirdness is leaking into the mix and changing the picture.  Saharan dust high in the atmosphere (blown this way thanks to mid-Saharan drought) along with wind shear is making Isaias’ spiral progress more labored.

Probably won’t be much, but then a heating ocean and more moisture in the air means more powerful storms, heavier rainfall events—and much more of the unexpected.  Noah Shannon writes in the Climate Issue of the July 22 New York Times Magazine,

Since 1989, the number of storms with winds topping 155 m.p.h.—the speed at which wind starts to tear walls from building—has tripled; over the last few years, parts of India and the American South have flooded, with anywhere from 275 to 500 percent more rain than usual. In the oceans, where there is now 5 percent more water aloft than there was in the middle of the last century, the odds of a storm spinning into a major hurricane have shot up substantially in the last 40 years.

Last year Hurricane Dorian came up much the same path toward Florida but parked next to the Bahamas at Cat 5 strength. The year before, Hurricane Michael barreled up the Gulf while intensifying from tropic wave to Cat 5 in just 36 hours. They are still rebuilding the Panhandle after taking a direct hit. The monsoon season this year has flooded a third of Bangladesh, and the Yangtze River in China is seeing its worst flooding in decades, threatening the Three Gorges Dam and livelihood of millions.

Storms are also breaking weather patterns by straying out of season and latitudes. Although the Atlantic hurricane season has been set between June and October, last year the first tropical system formed on May 20 and the last one on Nov. 24. (This year, Tropical Storm Arthur formed on May 16.) Cyclone Idai struck the Mozambique coast late in the Pacific cyclone season in March 2019, six weeks later when Cyclone Kenneth struck Mozambique, evacuation routes were still choked from the previous weirdly late storm. Some forecasters now believe Category 6 storms are now possible due to the changed climate.

Extreme weather is also more difficult to predict. Shannon writes,

The chaos wrought by climate change requires radically rethinking some of meteorology’s core concepts. As a disciple, meteorology is based on the idea that the climate is a constant; within each year, season or day, only a certain number and range of variable weather events are possible. But because that constant has become a variable, (severe weather expert Steve) Nesbitt thinks the field needs to take a big step back and begin again with the basics: close observations of how storms develop and behave. “We thought we knew how the climate and weather operated,” he told me. “But not we have to think more like astronomers—like we don’t know what’s out there.”

Strange new world. As coastlines submerge, maps are becoming fast outdated. The virus spreads, taking advantage of every doubt and equivocation and weariness expressed by leaders or the populace. A map of projected inundations by 2050 is curiously akin to a map of projected infection in the United State two months from now. Governments don’t seem to be able to respond sufficiently to either, nor do citizens of this century.

We have more advanced tools than ever but we’re less decided the tidings they bring. The weather darkens and threatens but we don’t know or can’t comprehend what’s coming. We should be prepared but we don’t seem to want to accept the reality that demands. Millions are on the move now due to climate change but there isn’t really any place for them to go. The rising tide of those faces is all but invisible to the commercial consumer world most of us inhabit. What do disconnects like these bode for us and the century now unfolding?

Our solid sense of reality has been disrupted, and what we’re left with doesn’t behave normally. The mind which assembled words for this post is more aged and dicey, less focused and reluctant to summon orders which used to come easy. Am I going mad or is the world?

And despite all these challenges, most hunker down into the safe and known, tried and true solutions which ceased being so some time ago. It may be more the 1950s now than ever as we repeat the ghostly patterns of assurance and solidity.

But who’s the ghost now in this strange new world?

STRANGE WORLD is the theme of this challenge. Take the opportunity to assess what’s become so strange in your world, be it climate or politics or culture or dreams. Are the tools of observation changing from the weather forecaster’s reliance on past data to the weirdness of astronomy—discovering new unknowns?

As I finish this challenge on Sunday, Isaias weakened overnight and now is a disorganized tropical storm brushing the Florida coast. The hot ocean which has witched up such wicked storms recently was countered by Saharan dust from hot dry weather elsewhere. We’ll feel some breezes later today, maybe a few rain bands: The opposite extreme of the extreme we were fearing. In a strange world, sometimes it goes that way, madly still instead of violently rending. They are both faces of the same time.

What’s strange in your world/country/city/home/backyard/forest/ocean/head/heart today?

—Brendan

earthweal open link weekend #30

 

Welcome to earthweal’s open link weekend #30.

Here’s a chance to share something from your wider repertoire, whether brand new or goldie oldie.

Be sure to include your location in your link and honor your fellow linkers with a comment.

Last call for open links is Sunday night round midnight EST, at which time we roll out the next weekly challenge. (Thanks to Sherry for a great job hosting the challenge this past week; and to all for so many great responses!)

—Brendan

earthweal open link weekend #29

 

Welcome to earthweal’s open link weekend #29.

Celebrate earth poetry with a link and a letter from your world to ours.

Be sure to include your location in your link and honor your fellow linkers with a comment.

Last call at the linkgarden is Sunday night round midnight EST and then we clear out for the next weekly challenge where Sherry takes up the reins again with a challenge she titles MESSAGES FROM THE WILD.

Happy linking!

—Brendan

earthweal weekly challenge: CULTURE AND NATURE

Wendell Berry

 

Happy summer solstice to you residents of the Northern Hemisphere. Thus commences your astronomical winter. And for you in austral Gaia—happy astronomical summer!

I’ve been slowly reading my way through Wendell Berry’s What I Stand On: Collected Essays 1969-2017, a two-volume set from the Library of America. Berry is the author of some 80 books of poems, essays and novels. A farmer for the past 40 years, he’s a leading voice for sustainable agriculture and  environmental activism. Most of us can repeat his poem “The Peace of Wild Things” by heart, and for me his essays are like cider—crisp, convincing and deeply satisfying..

In his 1985 essay “Preserving Wilderness,” Berry examines the interdependence of culture and nature with this: “The human and the natural are indivisible, and yet are different.”

Therein lies the rub. “We live,” he writes, “partly because we are domestic creatures—that is, we participate in our human economy to the extent that we ‘make a living’: we are able, with variable success, to discipline our appetites and instincts in order to produce this artifact, this human living. And yet it is equally true that we breathe and our hearts beat and we survive as a species because we are wild.”

Ditto human cultivation, which “branches upward out of the soul. The topsoil, to the extent that it is fertile, is wild; it is a dark wilderness, ultimately unknowable, teeming with wildlife. A forest or a crop, no matter how intentionally husbanded by human foresters or farmers, will be found to be healthy precisely to the extent that it is wild—able to collaborate with earth, air, light, and water in the way common to plants before humans walked the earth.”

Attempts to fully domesticate this wildness—to govern and control and maximize yield according to factory procedure—replacing harmony of relation with manufacturing process—are doomed to fail; all we are doing is “increasing the violence and the magnitude of expectable reactions.” “To be divided against nature, against wildness, then, is a human disaster because it is to be divided against ourselves. It confines our identity as creatures entirely within the bounds of our own understanding, which is invariably a mistake because it is invariably reductive. it reduces our largeness, our mystery, to a petty and sickly comprehensibility.”

Likewise, human culture is vital for a fertile relationship with nature; but culture is a product of domestication, and there are good and bad products.

To take a creature who is biologically a human and to make him or her fully human is a task that requires many years some of us sometimes fear that it requires more than a lifetime), and this long effort of human making is necessary, I think, because of our power. In the hierarchy of power among the earth’s creatures, we are at the top, and we have been growing stronger for a long time. We are now, to ourselves, incomprehensibly powerful, capable of doing more damage than floods, storms, volcanoes and earthquakes.

And so it is more important than ever that we should have cultures capable of making us into humans—creatures capable of prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance, and the other virtues. For our history reveals that, stripped of the restraints, disciplines, and ameliorations of culture, humans are not ‘natural,’ not ‘thinking animals,’ or ‘naked apes,’ but monsters, indiscriminate and insatiable killers and destroyers. We differ from other creatures, partly, in our susceptibility to monstrosity.

Without culture—the humane cultivation of wilderness—the Earth is in trouble. Without nature—without the soil and air of our wild environment—humanity is doomed. There must be common ground for both.

Berry sees that work quite possible. “In the recovery of culture and nature is the knowledge how to form well, how to preserve, harvest and replenish the forests, how make, build, and use, return and restore. In this double recovery is the hope that the domestic and the wild can exist together in lasting harmony.”

Central to this work is harmony, “the inescapable dialogue between culture and nature … (where) humans consciously and conscientiously ask of their work, is this good for us? Is this good for our place? And the questioning and answering  … is minutely particular: It can occur only with reference to particular artifacts, events, places, ecosystems and neighborhoods.”

Somehow I think poetry can enters into the dialogue here, for a poem is both question and answer of the particular, asking, is this good? Good enough? In the proper balance? Worthy of the further work of delving, exhumation, explicating, redress, burial, farewell and replanting?

Craft comes in with the work of cultivation,  for

The good maker understands that a badly made artifact is both an insult to its user and a danger to its source. We could say, then, that good forestry begins with the respectful husbandry of the forest we call stewardship and ends with well-made tables and chairs and houses, just as good agriculture begins with stewardship of the fields and ends with good meals.

Well-wrought urns are sustaining, both with the pleasure of a good thing and reminding us what is  what is worth striving for. A poem from Berry’s in The Country of Marriage (1973) reminds us the poet is cultured is by the poem one has harvested, the delight of nature found there and the essential bond between maker and made:

PRAYER AFTER EATING

I have taken in the light
that quickened eye and leaf.
May my brain be bright with praise
of what I eat, in the brief blaze
of motion and of thought.
May I be worthy of my meat.

(from The Country of Marriage, 1973)

May our poems be worthy of the paper sacrificed for them, the carbons released into the atmosphere by what powers our electronic forum.

What is equally important is that our poetry has a receiving source, a venue for expression and a community of readers. In recent decades that source has almost completely shifted to the incessant roar of digital media which places little lasting value on anything. (Almost, I say: This reader still enjoys books of poems in the morning.)

Berry’s analogue is apt:

Conservation is going to prove increasingly futile and meaningless if its prescriptions are not answered positively by an economy that rewards and enforces good use. I would call this a loving economy, for it would strive to place proper value on all the materials of the world, in all their metamorphoses from soil and water, air and light to the finished goods of our towns and households, and I would think that the only effective motive for this would be a particularizing love for local things, rising out of local knowledge and local allegiance.

What we do here at earthweal—try to, anyway—is celebrate what is local around the world. The complete human artifact is a choir of local voices. As made things go, we are learning about cultivation and harmony, the mix of strident concern and grief and celebration.

I like to think of poems as natural products, seeded by imagination and cultivated with care and craft. Songs of earth praise beauty, rhythm, seasons, death and resurrection: they are the wilderness of poetry, impenetrable and unknowable and of a trust we can only leap to gain, weave metaphors to explain.

But why am I trying to explain this? Here’s Wendell Berry from A Timbered Choir, a collection of poems written on the Sabbath—a day of rest and one in which the poet wanders from field into wood to celebrate the simple glory of what is. In this 1982 poem, Berry writes to his son Den, trying to impart some of what he has learned of culture and nature.

We have walked so many times, my boy,
over these old fields given up
to thicket, have thought
and spoken of their possibilities,
theirs and ours, ours and theirs the same,
so many times, that now when I walk here
alone, the thought of you goes with me;
my mind reaches toward yours
across the distance and through time.

No mortal mind’s complete within itself,
but minds must speak and answer,
as ours must, on the subject of this place,
our history here, summoned
as we are to the correction
of old wrong in this soil, thinned
and broken, and in our minds.

You have seen on these gullied slopes
the piles of stones mossy with age,
dragged out of furrows long ago
by men now names on stones,
who cleared and broke these fields,
saw them go to ruin, learned nothing
from the trees they saw return
to hold the ground again.

But here is a clearing we have made
at no cost to the world
and to our gain — a re-clearing
after forty years: the thicket
cut level with the ground,
grasses and clovers sown
into the last year’s fallen leaves,
new pasture coming to the sun
as the woods plants, lovers of shade,
give way: change made
without violence to the ground.

At evening birdcall
flares at the woods’ edge:
flight arcs into the opening
before nightfall.

Out of disordered history
a little coherence, a pattern
comes, like the steadying
of a rhythm a drum, melody
coming to it from time
to time, waking over it,
as from a bird at dawn
or nightfall, the long outline
emerging, through the momentary,
as the hill’s hard shoulder
shows through trees
when the leaves fall.

The field finds its source
in the old forest, in the thicket
that returned to cover it,
in the dark wilderness of its soil,
in the dispensation of the sky,
in our time, in our minds—
the righting of what was done wrong.

Wrong was easy: gravity helped it.
Right is difficult and long.
In choosing what is difficult
we are free, the mind too
making its little flight
out of the shadow into the clear
in time between work and sleep.

There are two healings: nature’s,
and ours and nature’s. Nature’s
will come in spite of us, after us,
over the graves of its wasters, as it comes
to the forsaken fields. The healing
that is ours and nature’s will come
if we are willing, if we are patient,
if we know the way, if we will do the work.

My father’s father, whose namesake
you are, told my father this, he told me,
and I am telling you: we make
this healing, the land’s and ours:
it is our possibility. We may keep
this place, and be kept by it.

There is a mind of such an artistry
that grass will follow it,
and heal and hold, feed beasts
who will feed us and feed the soil.

Though we invite, this healing comes
in answer to another voice than ours;
a strength not ours returns
out of death beginning in our work.

Though the spring is late and cold,
though uproar of greed
and malice shudders in the sky,
pond, stream, and treetop raise
their ancient songs;

the robin molds her mud nest
with her breast; the air
is bright with breath
and bloom, wise loveliness that asks
nothing of the season but to be.

For this challenge, write about the intersection of culture and nature. How does culture mediate both human and natural? How does it make us more natural and civilized? Where are we too civilized? How are we yet wild? How does nature need wise cultivation? How does cultivation slow the speed of civilization? How should we preserve what little of nature left? How to likewise preserve culture? How do you see yourself as a poet of culture and nature? If your life’s work were assembled in one silo, who would it feed? What is most nourishing? tasty? indigestible? How important is craft with culture? What is a well made thing? What is it to be cultured and wild? (I remember Robert Bly saying you should only put a dream in at the end of a poem since they hail from the darkest wilderness of our understanding.) These suggestions, but of course you can follow your own course into the theme. Local varieties count …

Creatures of culture and nature, let me hear you sing!

— Brendan

earthweal weekly challenge: THE PERILOUS CHAPEL

 

Our literature roots in fables and myths as old as hominid consciousness. We’ve been telling this story for a long time. Modernity has erased most of our conscious connection to this long history but we yet cannot free ourselves from it. We dream, we wild, we write strange poems, still feeling the chill of awe as if we had stepped through darkness into a vast torchlit cavern painted with horses and boars.

In the last challenge, we looked at the hero’s journey, asking if those old steps might be the next work of modernity. We do so because the King is wounded or dead. There is a fish-sized wound in the groin. Healing is called for, but what collective physic might there be.

Let’s turn the next challenge toward something more personal and individual. Let’s talk poetry. We have wandered into a s wood seeking the truest nature of our hearts. (Why else write poems?) Along the way there have been many encounters and trials. We write about our origins, our families, our nights of abandon and education in the old texts We write about love and work, about music and landscape and death.

Eventually we come to this place in the middle of the woods not on any mortal map:  An eerie ruined chapel surrounded by overgrowth. Or it’s a graveyard where ghosts lament unconsecrated ground. Hackles immediately raise on our flesh as there is the foreboding of immense mortal (perhaps immortal) peril.

Jesse Weston gives us this scene in From Ritual to Romance, a literate and mythical analysis of Grail legends from a century ago:

Such an adventure befalls Gawain on his way to the Grail Castle. He is overtaken by a terrible storm, and coming to a Chapel, standing at a crossways in the middle of a forest, enters for shelter. The altar is here, with no cloth or covering, nothing but a great golden candlestick with a tall taper burning within it. Behind the altar is a window, and as Gawain looks a Hand, black and hideous, comes through the window, and extinguishes the taper, while a voice makes lamentation loud and dire, beneath which the very building rocks. Gawain’s horse shies in terror, and the knight, making the sign of the Cross, rides out of the Chapel to find the storm abated, and the great wind was calm and clear.

Weston tells us “special stress is laid on this adventure, as being part of ‘the secret of the Grail,’ of which no man or woman may speak without grave danger. She went on to suggest that the tale was probably the survival of an ancient ritual in temple located somewhere in North Britain. (Some have pointed to Glastonbury, where the Perilous Throne is located; a black stone from Iona was placed under it, and it was said that it would cry out when only a true king sat down.)

Treasures hardest to attain are hidden in deep vaults, buried in the Earth, resting at the bottom of oceans or atop unsurpassable mountains: and the gates of wonder are guarded by penultimate peril, the seventh labor which no mere mortal has ever mastered. How deep the loam of bones of past heroes, former attempts to wrest crown from sleeping dragon. (It was written that a hundred knights had failed the Perilous Chapel before Gawain.)

And what a cry (or sigh) issues when our fumbling hands strike gold …

Getting through the perilous chapel is an essential harrow prior to wonder: there is not avoiding it or getting around it. We are told the Secret of the Grail is intimate with that chamber. The finished poem—the real one which parts the gates of wonder—must survive all its drafts.

For Joseph Campbell, the Grail romances marked a transition from medieval to modern consciousness, from the authority of the church to imperatives of the capitalist ego. Desire got us there. “Of all the modes of experience by which the individual might be carried away from the safety of well-trodden grounds to the danger of the unknown,” he writes in Creative Mythology, the mode of feeling, the erotic, was the first to awaken Gothic man from his childhood slumber in authority.”

Weston (and many other) consider the sources of the Grail romances to be pre-Christian, survivals of religions dating back to the Neolithic. They were certainly heretic; that they survived at all speaks much for the daring of these late medieval poets. That they were so embraced by the late Middle Ages says people were yearning for something more than the ossified practices of the Church.

We are at a moment when what sprang from that Grail Castle—a worldly, modern capitalist world—has become as old and sterile as the Church it once quested a way around. Remember, the Fisher King is wounded or dead and only acting as if mortally wounded; he was said to have been as old as Christ and lingered only for the physic of the one true Knight’s healing. (Gawain, the one perfect knight to attain the Grail, was a medicine man as well, the most learned in the ways of herb and physic.) Will this moment of pandemic – an enchantment as weird as what animates the Perilous Chapel—allow an old extractionist and gold-grabbing impulse to die and be properly buried?

Last week’s challenge looked at the hero’s quest out from modernity. If such a quest is still possible, then is there still a Perilous Chapel we must harrow through to get to the treasure?

This week’s challenge is about finding that Chapel and a way through it. Where have you found it, what perils did you endure, how is it linked to the Grail you seek?  What is that poetry? And what initiation is required to transform modernity into Earthdom?

I can think of many ways into this challenge:

  • What of peril and its boon? Was there a darkest episode in your story which was also most defining of renewed life?
  • Are we in a perilous chapel of 21st Century flame burning ever further out of control?
  • What happened to the men’s and women’s mysteries? Have they truly been lost, or is their grail just beneath the surface of our learned manias?
  • If Trumpism is a Saturnalia—a feast of monied fools—then what is the festival which marks the vigor and promise of purged New Year? Is it a pandemic’s witchy stillness and brute transformations?
  • Where are the crossroads of awe and awfulness in your work?

Anything else suggestive of that chapel and/or harrowing is welcome, too.

Some of you might know that my blog Oran’s Well takes its name from one such perilous chapel. That story:

Back in 563 AD when Saint Columba sailed from Ireland to the island of Iona (off the southwest coast of Scotland) to found his abbey of mission and learning, work on the abbey footers was disturbed each night by a vicious storm which tore down the days work. Columba decides to vigil by the site, and after midnight a half-woman, half fish comes up out of the sea and tells him that a primal being had been disturbed by the cutting of Iona’s sward. To appease this energy, a man must be buried alive and standing up in the chapel footers. St. Oran volunteers, steps down into a gaping hole and covered over. That night no storm arrives, and work on the abbey continues. Three days later, Columba wishes to look upon the face of his dead friend and brother and has his monks disinter Oran’s face.

Suddenly Oran’s eyes pop open and the mouth speaks terribly: Everything you say of heaven and earth and God and man is WRONG: In fact, the way you think it is isn’t the way it is at all!” Horrified, Columba bids his monks cover Oran posthaste, crying “Mud! Mud back over Oran’s mouth lest he blab no more!” The living dead monk was silenced and Iona abbey went on to become one of the jewels of the dark ages, copying manuscripts and carrying the message of the Church brought to pagan Scotland.

Perhaps oddly—and perhaps in recognition of the dire transit to truth—Columba made Oran the tutelary saint of the abbey’s graveyard, saying that no man could access the angels of Iona but through him.

Maybe that’s a lot to ponder, but all I write quests in the mantle of those words—for better or verse. Somehow it feels that work—a voyage to many themes and islands—is still earnestly in search of the secret to everlasting life.

I grow to suspect that magic island is the poem done well enough. I hate to keep going back to Rilke, but his poetry suffices a century after he died.  He was old and failing, living in a patron’s house, Castel Muzot in Switzerland, struggling to finish his Elegies when he was swept up by “a hurricane of the spirit” and found more than enough words for the ache which overarched all his work. The Sonnets to Orpheus came at him so fast he said they were not so much written as transcribed.

I’ve always loved Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the 13th Sonnet from the Second Book:

Be ahead of all parting, as though it already were
behind you, like the winter that has just gone by.
For among these winters there is one so endlessly winter
that only by wintering through it all will your heart survive.

Be forever dead in Eurydice-more gladly arise
into the seamless life proclaimed in your song.
Here, in the realm of decline, among momentary days,
be the crystal cup that shattered even as it rang.

Be-and yet know the great void where all things begin,
the infinite source of your own most intense vibration,
so that, this once, you may give it your perfect assent.

To all that is used-up, and to all the muffled and dumb
creatures in the world’s full reserve, the unsayable sums,
joyfully add yourself, and cancel the count.

Shall we quest then, and harrow the many faces and places of this Perilous Chapel?

Brendan

Inside the restored St. Oran chapel which welcomed the beginning of this post. The chapel sits in the center of the Iona abbey cemetery.