earthweal weekly challenge: THE ANIMAL GAZE

 

On my morning walk the other day I cut back through the downtown of my little Florida hamlet, a popular day trip destination for folks weary of the suburban megalopolis of Orlando. At 6 AM, all was lit in stillness, the shops and restaurants poised to spring into another chirpy day of commerce. Spring is here.

Beyond the defunct train station (rail cars use to load up a massive haul of local citrus bound for Northern markets), I came upon a row of dumpsters upon which black vultures had massed. They nest in a wild area just south of town along Lake Dora, and on windy afternoons you can watch hundreds of them spirals in the thermals. I wondered if their large population was partially due to all of these waste receptacles in a busy restaurant town. Vultures not going in and out of the dumpsters were arraigned on the nearby roof a real estate building, a row of ten or fifteen dark elders gazing at the growing light of dawn.

Are half-eaten burgers and fishwiches as nourishing as the dead? What does that make of vultures? And of us? Exploring the extinction of several vulture species, Thom van Dooren writes,

Death must be thought about not as a simple ending, but as completely central to the ongoing life of multispecies communities, in which we are all ultimately food for one another . As Heraclitus succinctly put it: “the one living the other’s death, and dying the other’s life.” In this context, vultures are at the heart of life and death’s transformative potential. But instead of taking life to produce their nourishment, they consume only that which is already dead, pulling dead flesh back into processes of nourishment and growth. I suspect that alongside the insects, bacteria, fungi, and other organisms that also make their living breaking down the dead, vultures have a special place in life’s heart. I cannot help but think here about Jean-Luc Nancy’s beautiful injunction not to separate life from death: “To isolate death from life—not leaving each one intimately woven into the other, with each one intruding upon the other’s core [coeur]—this is what one must never do” (Flight Ways: Critical Perspectives on Animals, p. 48)

Can death be domesticated? Did its deacons gaze upon me that morning foraging for mine, or were they like cows mooing for morning hay?

Then I saw the eagle, atop a nearby building, bulkier head and white crest differentiating her from the vultures. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one in my 25 years here . I was enthralled with the sight of it up there staring down on me. Even in the half-light, her yellow eyes glared. What a majestic bird! There was a great flapping of wings; then another eagle lowered down next to it. How narrowed and diminished I felt in their gaze. Too big for prey but way down here where I walked, incapable of communicating, part of the monstrous human weal which was fast erasing their habitat and meaning and glory. A diminishment which does something to their instinct as well as ours. (Ah, but we’re used to it …)

In 1986 Barry Lopez published Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape, an account of his 5-year stint as a biologist working in the Artic. Change was coming fast to that rough country, with oil exploration fast disrupting the fragile ecological balance of the wilderness. He writes of one day coming up out of a snooze laying on arctic tundra one summer with that creeping feeling of being watched: He looks around and sees a lemming staring at him from a few dozen feet away. “I lay there knowing something eerie ties us to the world of animals. Sometimes the animals pull you backward into it. You share hunger and fear with them like salt in blood.” But all that is most human in us sets up boundaries and walls to that connection:

Whenever I meet a collared lemming on a summer day and took its stare I would think: Here is a tough animal. Here is a valuable life. In a heedless moment years from now, will I remember more machinery here than mind? If it could tell me of its will to survive, would I think of biochemistry, or would I think of the analgous human desire? If it could speak of the time since the retreat of the ice, would I have the patience to listen?

Arctic Dreams won the National Book Award for nonfiction thanks to Lopez’ keen eye. in the decades since its publication, climate change has even more drastically affected that landscape in. How can we look arctic wildness in the eye now, with it melting virtually from sight?

Further on in my walk and now into residential neighborhoods, I came upon hawk in someone’s front yard, standing there perhaps on prey though I couldn’t see it: Just standing there, head turning slowly as I walked past maybe fifteen feet away. I could tell the bird was tensed to fly but instead it just stared at me. A hooded blackness, sharper than my unaided eyes could ever train. (The vision of humans is straight ahead; our eyes have central fovea which allow us a narrow distant focus. Hawks have both central and peripheral fovea in their eyes, allowing a more complex gaze, at once far and wide. Hawks can also see more colors than humans, diving deeper into the ultraviolet spectrum. Our gaze would be crippling to their task.)

 

The Giant Magellan Telescope is now being assembled and will eventually be installed in the Atacama Desert in Chile, a remote area 8,000 feet above sea level. With a 85-foot-wide mirror assembled from seven massive castings at the University of Arizona, the Magellan Telescope will have 10 times the resolution of the Hubble Space Telescope. As one scientist put it, someone in Washington DC will be able to distinguish the ball from the bat that hit it in San Francisco. Magellan will help astronomers gain deeper data into how galaxies form and grow, finding both the first sources of light and peer with greater clarity at planets much like our own (which are now difficult to see due to light from their nearby star). Humanity’s eye will become that of the universe staring at itself: How deep and penetrating our gaze will be: But the wisdom at both ends of our evolution tells us we must have the hawk’s gaze in understanding what see.

And how will we be held in that gaze? The telescope will be operational by the year 2030; will that be too late for us to see the wasteland grandeur of our error?

In her book Fathoms: The World In the Whale, Rebecca Giggs writes about encountering the look of the whale eye.

A sperm whale looked squarely at him, in the Azores, and the writer Philip Hoare said, “this was not the eye of a horse, or a cow. It absolutely was reading me.” A male grey whale returned his stare off Baja, and the journalist Charlie Siebert wrote in New York magazine, “I’d never felt so beheld in my life … (I)t felt to me as if he were taking one long and quizzical look in the mirror.” A killer whale trainee from Florida said to documentarians, “When you look into their eyes, you know someone is home. Someone is looking back. “A whale’s stare, according to marine biologist Ken Balcomb, is “much more powerful than a dog looking at you. A dog might want your attention. The whales, it’s a different feeling. It’s more like they’re searching inside you.”

 

 

I felt that gaze the other day in the raptors of life and death, both vitally affected and afflicted by my looking back. Reading the beastiary of my soul. Flying that far, diving that deep.

“Few things provoke like the presence of wild animals,” Lopez writes. “They pull at us like tidal currents with questions of volition, of ethical involvement, of ancestry.”

What are animals looking for? What are they seeing? That’s the essence of this week’s challenge, THE ANIMAL GAZE. Tell us of your encounters with that gaze. What do we share with that gaze, how do we differ? How can we understand it, considered in the marbled and congealed in masses of neurocortical fibers and dense clusters of culture and language and all-too-habitual mastery? And what does that gaze read in us?

I’ll leave you with my favorite animal gaze poem, written by (surprise surprise) Ranier Maria Rilke and translated by Stephen Mitchell.

The Eighth Duino Elegy

Ranier Maria Rilke

With all its eyes the natural world looks out
into the Open. Only our eyes are turned
backward, and surround plant, animal, child
like traps, as they emerge into their freedom.
We know what is really out there only from
the animal’s gaze; for we take the very young
child and force it around, so that it sees
objects — not the Open, which is so
deep in animals’ faces. Free from death.
We, only, can see death; the free animal
has its decline in back of it, forever,
and God in front, and when it moves, it moves
already in eternity, like a fountain.

Never, not for a single day, do we have
before us that pure space into which flowers
endlessly open. Always there is World
and never Nowhere without the No: that pure
unseparated element which one breathes
without desire and endlessly knows. A child
may wander there for hours, through the timeless
stillness, may get lost in it and be
shaken back. Or someone dies and is it.
For, nearing death, one doesn’t see death; but stares
beyond, perhaps with an animal’s vast gaze.
Lovers, if the beloved were not there
blocking the view, are close to it, and marvel…
As if by some mistake, it opens for them
behind each other… but neither can move past
the other, and it changes back to World.
Forever turned toward objects, we see in them
the mere reflection of the realm of freedom,
which we have dimmed. Or when some animal
mutely, serenely, looks us through and through.
That is what fate means: to be opposite,
to be opposite and nothing else, forever.

If the animal moving toward us so securely
in a different direction had our kind of
consciousness—, it would wrench us around and drag us
along its path. But it feels its life as boundless,
unfathomable, and without regard
to its own condition: pure, like its outward gaze.
And where we see the future, it sees all time
and itself within all time, forever healed.
Yet in the alert, warm animal there lies
the pain and burden of an enormous sadness.
For it too feels the presence of what often
overwhelms us: a memory, as if
the element we keep pressing toward was once
more intimate, more true, and our communion
infinitely tender. Here all is distance;
there it was breath. After that first home,
the second seems ambiguous and drafty.

Oh bliss of the tiny creature which
remains forever inside the womb that was its shelter;
joy of the gnat which, still within, leaps up
even at its marriage: for everything is womb.
And look at the half-assurance of the bird,
which knows both inner and outer, from its source,
as if it were the soul of an Etruscan,
flown out of a dead man received inside a space,
but with his reclining image as the lid.
And how bewildered is any womb-born creature
that has to fly. As if terrified and fleeing
from itself, it zigzags through the air, the way
a crack runs through a teacup. So the bat
quivers across the porcelain of evening.

And we: spectators, always, everywhere,
turned toward the world of objects, never outward.
It fills us. We arrange it. It breaks down.
We rearrange it, then break down ourselves.

Who has twisted us around like this, so that
no matter what we do, we are in the posture
of someone going away? Just as, upon
the farthest hill, which shows him his whole valley
one last time, he turns, stops, lingers—,
so we live here, forever taking leave.

 

— Brendan 

earthweal weekly challenge: NATURAL FORCES

 

When I was 13 my parents separated, with my father remaining in Chicago and the rest of us – mother, three boys, a girl and a dog — moved to Florida, into a split-level pool home in a development that had been carved out of an orange grove. My memories of that first summer hovers in the swimming pool back of that house and is thick with the pulpy sweetness of fresh-squeezed orange juice from the trees in our yard.

That summer puberty assaulted me in a wave, a drenching splash of pool water that drew up into a ziggurat of salty hormones. Everything was amplified — a girl in the pool became a siren, my first drag on a cigarette irreverent as a black-light poster, pop harmonies on poolside transistor radio becoming hymns in an immense cathedral — “Close to You” by the Carpenters crossed by Mountain’s “Mississippi Queen.” (It was 1970).

A time of powerful awakenings. Memory points to a girl visiting her grandparents next door who came over to swim. I delivered my first kiss in that pool. The next summer it was the burning pentacoastal faith my heartbroken mother fed us all into. I was baptized in the Atlantic Ocean on my birthday in 1971, and when the minister held me back into the wave I felt this immensity wash through all the way to my soul.

I point to those things as formative, but that’s a homo sapiens for you! So much of my hormonal initiation was naturally sourced. Florida back then still was wild, unkempt, savage, burning. Storms brewed up daily and marched across the state, dumping our neighborhood with thunder and germens at the same time every afternoon. Fresh squeezed orange juice was demoniacally sweet. At night the sounds of undeveloped monstrosity chattered and hissed and slithered on the other side of the tall wooden fence in our backyard. And the ocean — sheer heave and suck of Grendel’s mam, delirious and salty and dazzled.

After two years my parents decided to give their marriage another go, so we left that wild house in Florida for grey old Chicago, a sad, brutalized, freezing ghetto next to deep dead Lake Michigan. My parents didn’t stand a chance. In two years they split a second and final time , my father heading for gay New York City and my mother back to Florida with my kid brother and sister. I finished high school then fled West where I went dug into books, went mad, developed a terrible thirst for booze and abandonment in rock n roll bands.

My mother once sent me a care package of brownies and a couple of vials of shells and sand, writing in a noteThere’s as saying that if you get Florida sand in your shoes, you must always return. Within a few years I had crossed the continent was living again in Florida. I have remained there since.

Was it that Florida sand, or my mother’s voice next to it? I’ll never know, but natural forces were ever behind the yearnings and wild imaginings which eventually found voice in poetry. It makes me wonder if we are all naturally shaped, a nautilus of self defined by loud winds and great tides.

If I only weren’t blinded by my poor fool species, trapping my identity in self-awareness, a continuous narrative of I against World. Questing, adventuring, finding treasure. The voice in my head is of a hero at his height, a stature of strength grappling the day’s opponent. When I look in the mirror I expect to see a guy in his mid-30s (How disappointed I am nowadays!). It’s the musician at the end of his world tour, the poet I thought would make a name for himself.

The world is least visible behind him, even though he owes every breathing and thinking moment to that world.  Why is my vision so singulre? Why can’t I see and celebrate the 13 year old amazed and enthralled and horny and intoxicate on salvos of sun and storm, with tides from the Earth’s own adolescence washing hundreds of miles inland every day and the moon this enormous face you could virtually touch?

Does anyone master those natural forces? Or do we simply appropriate them, eating swords of sunlight until our image flashes day and night? Look at the places where nature is most mastered — I think of gated suburbs —houses there dominate the landscape, imperial accumulations of mortar and ego. Can anything intrude there? Moonlight in such places is fainter than starlight; an ironic echo at best.

Humanity has become the devouring dragon, eating world and dreaming of nothing much in deathless surfeit. That is mastery as we have come to know it. But at what peril? We come to know that too well. Here in Florida, my approaching old age is like Beowulf facing off with the dragon again very late in life. Florida is maleficent, her coasts flooding, her interior burning, and storms of Titan magnitude hurling something billions of years old at us, a fraught, interstellar abyss not meant for humans to survive. I think you know who will win this final battle, though the man in my mirror devoutly refuses to believe it.

In his 1996 book The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World, David Abram reminds us that shamans – the ancestors of poets — were not masters of nature but master mediators of humanity’s place in the world at large:

The traditional or tribal shaman … acts as an intermediary between the human community and the larger ecological field, ensuring that there is an appropriate flow of nourishment, not just from the landscape of the human inhabitants, but from the human community back to the local earth. By his constant rituals, trances, ecstasies and “journeys,” he ensures that the relation between human society and the larger society of beings is balanced and reciprocal, and that the village never takes more from the living land than it returns to it … The sorcerer derives her ability to cure ailments from her more continuous practice of “healing” or balancing the community’s relation to the surrounding land. (7)

Maybe we’re past reckoning—I fear so—but as poets we can only treat what we can, and after the terrible freeze this past week in Texas — a blast of Arctic air wound from Siberia to Canada and then, thanks to our damaged jet stream, blasted south into the American Midwest and Deep South — it’s clear we owe homage to the natural forces which have shaped us. (Well I remember too blasts of Canadian wind slicing through the concrete canyons of Chicago in January—an atheist absolute.)

For this challenge, write about natural forces as protagonist and hero, speaker and subject, beloved and lover. Tell us about sun-gods and wind-raptors, oceanic heart-sharks and  mastodons of freeze. Remember a time when nature was bigger than anything else. Personify, magnify, glorify nature into this magnificent, maleficent more-than-human tenacity which we foolishly attempt to appropriate. How have natural forces shaped you?

I leave you with the following poems as example.

The challenge remains up until 4 PM EST Friday, 2/26.

— Brendan

AUTUMN

John Clare (1829)

The thisteldown’s flying
Though the winds are all still,
On the green grass now lying,
Now mounting the hill,
The spring from the fountain
now boils like a pot,
Through stones past the counting,
It bubbles red hot.

The ground parched and cracked is
Like overbaked bread,
The greensward all wracked is,
Bents dried up and dead.
The fallow fields glitter
Like water indeed.
And gossamers twitter,
Flung from weed unto weed.

Hill-tops like hot iron
Glitter hot i’ the sun.
And the rivers we’re eyeing
Burn to gold as they run.
Burning hot is the ground,
Liquid gold is the air;
Whoever looks round
Sees Eternity there.

 

MILKWEED

James Wright

While I stood here, in the open, lost in myself,
I must have looked a long time
Down the corn rows, beyond grass,
The small house,
White walls, animals lumbering toward the barn.
I look down now. It is all changed.
Whatever it was I lost, whatever I wept for
Was a wild, gentle thing, the small dark eyes
Loving me in secret.
It is here. At the touch of my hand,
The air fills with the delicate creatures
From the other world.

from This Branch Will Not Break (1992)

 

THE DEPTHS

Denise Levertov

When the white fog burns off,
the abyss of everlasting light
is revealed. The last cobwebs
of fog in the
black firtrees are flakes
of white ash in the world’s hearth.

Cold of the sea is counterpart
to this great fire. Plunging
out of the burning cold of ocean
we enter an ocean of intense
noon. Sacred salt
sparkles on our bodies.

After mist has wrapped us again
in fine wool, may the taste of salt
recall to us the great depths about us.

from The Jacob’s Ladder (1961)

 

EXPRESSIONS OF SEA LEVEL

A.R. Ammons

Peripherally the ocean
marks itself
against the gauging land
it erodes and
builds:

it is hard to name
the changeless:
speech without words,
silence renders it:
and mid-ocean,

sky sealed unbroken to sea,
there is no way to know
the ocean’s speech,
intervolved and markless,
breaking against

no boulder-held fingerland:
broken, surf things are expressions:
the sea speaks far from its core,
far from its center relinquishes the
long-held roar:

of any mid-sea
speech, the yielding resistances
of wind and water, spray,
swells, whitecaps, moans,
it is a dream the sea makes,

an inner problem, a self-deep
dark and private anguish,
revealed in small,
by hints, to
keen watchers on the shore:

only with the staid land
is the level conversation really held:
only in the meeting of rock and sea is
hard relevance shattered into light:

upheld the clam shell
holds smooth dry sand,
remembrance of tide:
water can go at
least that high: in

the night, if you stay
to watch, or
if you come tomorrow at the right time,
you can see the shell caught
again in wash, the

sand turbulence changed,
new sand left smooth: if
the shell washes loose,
flops over,
buries its rim in flux,

it will not be silence for
a shell that spoke: the
half-buried back will
tell how the ocean dreamed
breakers against the land:

into the salt marshes the water comes fast with rising tide:
an inch of rise spreads by yards
through tidal creeks, round fingerways of land:
the marsh grasses stem-logged
combine wind and water motions,
slow from dry trembling
to heavier motions of wind translated through
cushioned stems; tide-held slant of grasses
bent into the wind:

is there a point of rest where
the tide turns: is there one
infinitely tiny higher tough
on the legs of egrets, the
skin of back, bay-eddy reeds:

is there an instant when fullness is,
without loss, complete: is there a
statement perfect in its speech:

how do you know the moon
is moving: see the dry
casting of the beach worm
dissolve at the
delicate rising touch:

that is the
expression of sea level,
the talk of giants,
of ocean, moon, sun, of everything,
spoken in a dampened grain of sand.

Title poem of Expressions of Sea Level, 1963

 

earthweal weekly challenge: ALREADY DEAD

 

After the second failed impeachment trial of Donald Trump, it is impossible not to see the Senate Republicans who refused to convict an inciteful, lying and corrupt party leader as anything other than already dead. Resolute in their denial of reality (that includes climate change and the pandemic), they are committed to maintaining an ever-shrinking power base by every means possible.

Together they are like a foot mashed to the gas pedal of a car that has already crashed into smithereens against a wall and like a ghost doesn’t know it yet. Not guilty resounds with the iron echo of already dead.

Those senators (two of whom represent my flooding Florida) are the day’s most evident and eloquent metaphor of humanity’s collusion in the extinction of life on this planet. Three and a half billion years of living evolution and much if not most of it is now endangered by the actions of just one species over an infinitesimal 10 thousand years, the most grievous toll of that in the past microscopic 250 years and the lion’s share of that in the present generational nanotide we occupy as game-ending berserkers bawling Not Guilty while hitting the gas pedal.

The bottle of Budweiser I threw out the window of my Datsun careening home one night 20 years ago will take a million years to biodegrade; the Styrofoam cup I drank coffee from at an AA meeting 10 years ago will last almost forever, far longer than it will take the Himalayas to grind down to nothing. Who says recovery is happy, joyous and free? The casual waste of my one big human life has joined a gyre in the Pacific so thick and poisonous that foraging albatrosses of our generation will probably be the last to feed on the ocean after 30 million years of continuous gliding loops across the main. That cup will be the only record of life after some tiny geologic blip to come, because there will no more life to become fossil record. Just Styrofoam cups, plastic bags and glass shards—the human eternity.  The Ancient Mariner has a long ways to go.

And we’re already dead. If you don’t know that yet after counting up the Nay votes in the US Senate, crank up the air conditioning (here in Florida the other day it hit 85 degrees F) or tally how much garbage WAS sent from your house to the landfill in the past year. Now multiply such woebegone self-interest by ten billion repeat offenders, and you’ll wonder just how far back it was that we smithereened the wall.

Hagakuri (meaning “hidden leaves”) is a guide for the samurai warrior drawn from commentaries by the clerk Yamamoto Tsunetomo, former retainer to Nabeshima Mitsushige (July 10, 1632 – July 2, 1700), the third ruler of what is now Saga Prefecture in Japan. It states that the warrior’s code of bushido is really the Way of Dying: “If by setting one’s heart right every morning and evening, one is able to live as though his body were already dead, he pains freedom in the Way. His whole life will be without blame, and he will succeed in his calling.” By living in constant awareness of one’s death, it is possible to attain a transcendent state of freedom. It is by being already dead that one finds true life.

While already dead is a handy motto for the Anthropocene, it does not permit us to do nothing. There is much we can do to reduce and save and sustain our world, alleviating somewhat the suffering of those not caught on the edges of change. It is our responsibility as the species who gets to decide the fate of the world. And yet we must never forget that we are already dead and vastly chained to the millions of animal, plant and sea life we have ended as casually as crumpling a Styrofoam cup and tossing it into the trash.

A paradox of this human moment is that for all our destruction, our species has never been more aware of its responsibility as a sentient species to care for all of life. One of the tiniest blooms in our onrushing Ragnarok is that whales have been saved, old-growth forests protected and attempts made to slow, perchance to one day cease, fossil fuel production. A tenderness which allows us to understand the enormity of the tragedy.

We are living in the Anthropocene, the crown of human ruin. But while doom is the easy word for it, and we destroyers may not wax too poetic in that penumbra. We are also living on in the Cenozoic Era as well, part of a 66 million year life experiment. As seers and sayers, we have to hold up the complex web of life we have entangled in fishing line and Senate denial and digital disruption of the mind and weigh the enormity of it, for both the tribe’s entire right to existence and the Cenozoic achievement of all life since that last great extinction event. We may be already dead, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have purpose.

Something in us has to die in order to link the organum Thom van Dooren describes in Flight Ways:

… Synchrony asks us to be attentive to the way in which the multiple and diverse flight ways that constitute Earth’s diversity are also delicately interwoven with one another. The Black-footed Albatross, like any other species, is not a flight way through an empty void, but an entangled way of life, bound up in and becoming as part of a specific multispecies community. In Rose’s (2012b) terms: sequence “involves flows from one generation to the next. Synchrony intersects with sequential time, and involves flows amongst individuals, often members of different species, as they seek to sustain their individual lives” (129). And so there is an important sense in which, in addition to being carried through time by the efforts of their own generations, species also carry one another, nourishing and being co-shaped as members of a particular entangled community of life.— (Critical Perspectives on Animals: Theory, Culture, Science, and Law) (p. 42). Columbia University Press. Kindle Edition.

Without the colossal burden and waste of self “we” can go back to our only real role as fleeting exempla of life. Already dead frees us from clutching at something that was never more than the mirage of modern comfort. Clutching for the suburban dreamscape we place the wall down the road just out of sight (at least we’ll be dead by then) instead of where it must be, already in tatters behind or above, while we, the silt of time, sink into the abyss.

For this challenge, write about Already Dead. What does Already Dead look and feel like, what echoes do you hear in the registers of extinction, what gifts and/or freedoms does it bestow?

You can, of course, go ronin and write whatever you please.

If all this sounds strange and off-key my apologies, I’m on new medication and it turns my thoughts strange. Better challenges surely to come.

—Brendan

Seasonal Changes 1: IMBOLC

 

earthweal weekly challenge

By Sarah Connor

Welcome to earthweal. This is the first of a series of seasonal posts that will be coming out through 2021, inviting you to respond to the changes in the seasons.

I believe that much of humanity has become disconnected from the earth. In a world of central heating and air conditioners we don’t need to experience the weather. With electric lighting we can ignore the short days of winter. Living in cities, we don’t see hedgerows coming into leaf, lambs appearing in the fields, starlings gathering in the winter. Seasonal changes are integral to how our planet works.

Over lockdown, we walked. We set off from our house and walked up the lane, reached the top, turned round. At first it was quite interesting. Then it became, frankly, a bit boring. And then it became interesting again. We noticed the primroses going over. We found the florets of leaves that would sprout wild orchids — and started to check them every day. We noticed leaves darkening as summer strengthened. We saw fledglings taking their first tentative flights.

We’ve carried on doing the same walk — not daily now, but still regularly — and have enjoyed watching autumn splash red and orange everywhere, flocks of fieldfare passing overhead, the honking of geese on the move, grass and leaves sparkling with frost. The changes in weather; plant, animal and birdlife; day length; cloud formations — we’ve become much more attuned to them, and much more aware of the abundance of life on this beautiful planet. We feel more connected.

If we can all re-connect with the planet, I believe we will become more powerfully aware of the damage the Anthropocene Age is doing. We will realise that damage done to the planet is damage done to all of us — plants, birds, insects, mammals — and we will become more passionate advocates for change.

The Wheel of the Year offers a traditional framework for acknowledging and celebrating seasonal change. It’s based on the traditional Celtic calendar. The Wheel has eight points of celebration — the four solar events (winter and summer solstice, spring and autumn equinox) — and the four Cross Quarter festivals (Imbolc, Beltane, Lammas and Samhain). These festivals were so powerful that the church adopted and adapted them. We still keep some of them: Yule/Christmas, Ostara/Easter, Samhain/Halloween; but others have slipped out of our collective consciousness.

Today, I want to think about Imbolc. Traditionally celebrated at the start of February, Imbolc is a festival of new life and new beginnings. The name derives from “in the belly” — the first stirrings of life, seeds starting to sprout. In Northern Europe the days are starting to lengthen. Lambs and calves are starting to be born. Snowdrops are appearing, and buds are swelling in the hedgerows. It’s a time when my stride starts to lengthen and my shoulders go back a little. The darkness of winter is starting to lift. Everything is trembling on the brink of  the explosion of life that is spring

In Celtic mythology, Imbolc was sacred to Brigid. Brigid is a maiden aspect of the traditional triple goddess, patron of midwives, blacksmiths and poets. Her name is said to derive from Breo Saighead or “fiery arrow”, and she brings fire literally (lighting candles) and metaphorically as inspiration.

The energy of Imbolc, then, is about new life and renewed life. It’s about creating light and the return of light. It’s about inspiration appearing and implanting. It’s about the start of new ideas, new projects, new creativity.

The Wheel of the Year reflects a Northern European experience of seasonal change, but I would argue that you can see Imbolc energy anywhere and everywhere. The first green shoots pushing through scorched soil — they are candles lighting for Imbolc. Fish appearing in Venice’s canals have Imbolc energy. Anywhere re—greened, renewed, rejuvenated — that’s Imbolc.

So this week, I invite you to celebrate Imbolc through your poems. After all, this is our festival as poets. Think about new life, and renewed life. Be inspired by Brigid’s fiery arrow, and write about birth and re—birth.

— Sarah

 

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