earthweal weekly challenge: A SUFFICIENT POETRY

Summer flowers in the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust’s Rose End Meadows, Cromford UK, a series of meadows, which are never treated with artificial fertiliser or herbicide. They create a vivid picture of how Derbyshire’s limestone farmland looked about 100 years ago Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian


In an age of blossoming danger, bewilderment and uneven realities, novel news comes at us fast. 100 degree heat in the Arctic Circle. Astonishing new infection rates here in Florida. A protestor shot at a rally in Kentucky. A dream elevator falls to the bottom of the world.

How does one write encompassing poems of such things?

In a study published in the Archives of Pediatric Nursing, scholars at Purdue University surveyed some 372 registered nurses in Indiana before the pandemic. They were asked about their experiences, nurses revealed a host of traumatic experiences, including being assaulted by patients and watching patients die due to medical errors, and reported symptoms such as exhaustion, guilt, disturbed sleep, flashbacks and intrusive thoughts.

A common theme was lack of resources, and this led them to identify a new subset of PTSD which they named “insufficient resource trauma”— psychological trauma that occurs when nurses lack the knowledge, personnel or supplies needed to fulfill their ethical, professional and organizational responsibilities.

Has poetry lacked sufficient resources to accomplish its work?

Now comes the pandemic which health organizations were largely unprepared for. As new cases surge, resource issues for protective gear—masks, gowns and gloves—are still uneven and stretched. As new infections soar in Florida, only one in five nursing homes there have a one week’s supply of gowns and N95 masks, according to the US federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid. In Arizona where hospitals are now at full capacity dealing with a surge in dire COVID patients, there aren’t enough routine supplies like disinfecting wipes due to supply chain problems.

Why does poetry have such a difficult time grappling with this silent wave which has subsumed us?

In the United States, leadership continues to offer conflicting and deceptive responses to the crises. Vice President Mike Pence on Face The Nation continued to assert the fiction that the rise in cases is due to increased testing and not the result of early-opening strategies in Sunbelt states. He also falsely asserted that anyone who wanted to be tested could, where in several states citizens were being turned away from testing lines.

Where are poetry’s acknowledged legislators? Why is it so hard to lead from the academy any more? What is tradition if it has no authority?

Due to the overwhelming distraction of the Internet, modernity of this decade lacks common knowledge and assent. In the vicious global crisis presented by the pandemic, this makes sufficient response almost impossible. With hot spots like Brazil and the United States threatening to grow beyond control, nations better equipped and prepared are exceptionally vulnerable to spread. And with such widespread asymptomatic infection, it is only a matter of time before new hot spots take off.

If COVID is only the surface affect of a much more pervasive human virus; is there any mode of communication, poetry or otherwise, can evolve fast enough to grapple with our fundamental wrong-headedness?

Back to nurses: Imagine the disconnect between working shifts without sufficient preparation and contending with so many uphill losing battles (very few patients survive intubation, and those who do face months of ongoing cognitive and physical problems), only then to emerge into an outside world characterized by a vast indifference and almost insatiable desire to resume normal life. The divide between those two worlds must be traumatic in the extreme; now add to that a vicious opportunistic enemy knocking off co-workers and family because there aren’t enough face shields to go around.

I’ve always wondered if the PTSD suffered by so many Iran and Afghanistan veterans was only in part the result of battles over there. Then they came home where their brooding wounds were enflamed by a country gone insane with consumerist distractions.  (Essential book chasing this idea, Ben Fountain’s 2012 novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk).

I think a kindred specie of PTSD—where insufficient resource trauma has been trebled by unspeakable global events—now afflicts poets. How do we find adequate words for motions spiraling out of control before our eyes? What’s the proper name for big worlds blowing? How can a poem say? Does our poetry suffer from insufficient historic resources to speak truthfully about it? Is our verbal calibration geared to a time which no longer exists?

Yesterday at the grocery store I asked the cashier if they had started shooting customers who refuse to wear required masks. We laughed, but then the bagger said she saw one very angry and maskless patron throw a lemon at another customer who had admonished them for not wearing one. Across the store.  And down in Palm Beach County of my state (where President Trump has a winter resort named Mar-A-Lago), some residents were so furious about a new mask ordinance that they exploded at the mic with an astonishing array of irrational tirades—that masks are the Devil’s work, that individual freedoms were being destroyed, that George Soros and 5G technology were using masks to destroy their brains.

If I were a nurse and heard such profanity thrown against the simplest and most effective means for slowing the spread of COVID—just after a shift among the dire and dying, with only so much protection against what could kill them and their family members—the trauma seems even worse in contrast. It’s not enough that one has such an uphill battle every day at work, but then to have that effort so flagrantly assaulted by off-shift insanity is enough to … what? Drive one crazy?

We have to mask not only from the virus but mentally against viral thinking. Last night a man fired a dozen shots into a crowd that had gathered in its ongoing protest of the police killing of Breonna Taylor, killing one. Beachgoers flooded Bournemouth Beach in England recently, neglecting all social distancing guidelines and leaving some 12 tons of rubbish on the beach, including a burger box which had been defecated in.

Thanks to the damaged and heating climate we provoked and now condemn ourselves and future generations to, extreme climate events become the norm and pile on each other, dragon over dragon. After wildfires devoured a third of Australia earlier in the year, the summer shift north brought extreme heat to the Arctic and explosive wildfires. Permafrost is melting along with Greenland and Arctic sea ice, and scientists fear that methane released from the melt could create the “dragon event” of runaway climate change, leading to a planet-wide extinction event. I doubt we’re quite there yet, but how would we know? Could a poem tell us? We reckon deep time with hours spent staring at a computer screen; does poetry understand which is the more wicked dragon?

Well—some of our poetry will adapt, if the human species survives, if our capacity to sing finds larynx in the future. In that way, we’re like the rest of the planet living beings, trying to find sufficient nurture. Migratory patterns are shifting, ocean ecosystems are moving. Tawny owls in Finland are becoming deeper in hue (the paler coats are more adapted to snowy winters) and fruit flies in Southern Australia are beginning to take on characteristics of fruit flies found 4 degrees latitude higher.

Perhaps our poetry will become hotbrained, more sensitive to fast changes coming at us. Right now it seems we can either fight back or curl in a ball—it’s brawl or boil.  Maybe urgency will help us overcome latency. And with moments flying so fast at us, work is more temporary and conditional. How dated a poem outraged about climate change now seems. How halcyon our pre-pandemic condition.

For this week’s challenge, write about the challenges you face as a poet trying to write sufficiently to the moment. What is most difficult to capture about the time? What new tools or calibrations might be required? (Are we taking shells to a knife fight?  Trying to play 3D chess with “single vision and Newton’s sleep”?) Consider the relative backwater most poetry is relegated to (why do so many people find poetry difficult if not repugnant?). Feel free to stretch this challenge out in a variety of ways; maybe answers are to be found in language or form or off-beat meters. Perhaps if Dante had not stayed wrapped in Virgil’s meters, he would have found a different transit out of Hell. Remember, maps of the New World were neither faithful or adequate at first, but each draft brought things into clearer focus.

This can also be a personal statement; we all continue to evolve as poets, ever searching for a sufficient enough last draft. What is the thing you wish you could adequately say? And keep in mind the earthweal vibe we embrace here. What is the poetry of Earth with sufficient canopy and roots to see us through such wicked changeful weather?

I wish I knew—that’s why I am asking you!


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:


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: LOVE SONGS TO MOTHER EARTH

Protest at First Street dock, Tofino (Photo: Gisele Martin)


By Sherry Marr

Well, friends, it has been a time, hasn’t it? Each week more challenging, and concerning, than the week before. I have been glued to the tv, an admitted news junkie since my youthful days as a newspaper reporter. It has been heavy, watching it all unfold. We thought dealing with the pandemic was difficult enough. Then came George Floyd, “I can’t breathe”, and people marching in protest all around the world. George Floyd’s six year old daughter, saying, “My daddy changed the world” made me cry. Let’s hope, for all little girls and boys everywhere, that he has. I know Brendan ably covered racism last week, but as the fallout from these events are still being felt, I hope you will forgive me for continuing the conversation.

For this past week, in Tofino, the issue of police brutality to First Nations people hit close to home.


Chantel Moore with her daughter, Gracie ((Chantel Moore / facebook photo)


On June 4, a young Tla-o-qui-aht woman from Tofino named Chantel Moore was shot five times by a policeman in New Brunswick making a “wellness” check. She had just moved there to be near her daughter. She had told friends that someone was harassing her; she was afraid. One of them asked the police to make a wellness check. When she answered the door, she had a knife in her hand. Maybe she thought it was her harasser at the door? The policeman didn’t talk to her, didn’t try to de-escalate the situation, didn’t back out of her space and call for a woman officer. He shot her five times, killing her. She was 26. Her daughter, five years old, now motherless.

Last Monday, we marched. I don’t think there has ever been a bigger turnout in Tofino, a village of 2,000.  Hundreds turned out. “George Floyd!” “Chantel Moore!” “Indigenous Lives Matter!” “No justice, no peace!” rang out as we circled the village and passed the police station.


“No Justice, No Peace!” (Hashilthsa News photo)


We marched to the dock and lay down for nine minutes, the time it took for George Floyd to lose his life. Then we marched back to the village green where people spoke from their hearts, about racism, about the colonial system, about our need to come together to challenge the systemic racism which has kept a beautiful people, the original people of this land, oppressed for hundreds of years.

The Nuu chah nulth people have been caretakers of the land here for ten thousand years. They have strict protocols for how they tend the earth. If they take bark from a tree for basket-making, they then leave that part of the forest alone to heal for a hundred years or more. Each family is given an area to protect; there are protocols right down to the picking of berries. Every action is taken with consideration of the next seven generations. Every part of nature is respected and viewed as kin. Their beliefs speak to me; they understand, as do all indigenous people, that we are only one part of nature, not its masters.

At the rally, Tla-o-qui-aht Tribal Parks Manager Terry Dorward warned, “Hard times are coming. We have to learn to work together and help each other as a community. We’re going to sing a love song. Amongst all this hate in the world, we need a little bit of love.” The drums came out and spoke to me, as they always do. The women followed, with a warrior song, right fists raised in protest; the strength of women rising, all the mothers, the grandmothers, the maidens, the strong little bright-eyed children. My battered old heart gently weeps.

An amazing teen activist, Toby Theriault, spoke up for Mother Earth. She said, “We have to look after each other, and the first people of this land. But we also have to look after Mother Earth.” (Toby spent six weeks this past winter striking for climate justice at the corner of Third and Campbell.)

Toby spoke truth. Social justice and climate justice go hand in hand. If we don’t address the climate crisis, the issue of social justice will soon become moot.

I came away hoping maybe this time we will get it right.

During this time of pandemic and social unrest, voices have fallen silent about climate change. But it is still accelerating. If we are going to change things, we need to begin with how we live on Mother Earth. If the climate continues to heat, and air pollution to choke us, the whole planet, including us, will be saying “I can’t breathe.”

The Hopi have been issuing warnings for such a long time. Hopi shaman White Eagle recently released a statement to assist us through these times. “This moment humanity is going through now can be seen as a portal, or a hole. You can choose to fall down the hole, or go through the portal….Do not lose the spiritual dimension of this crisis; have eagle vision and see the whole, see more broadly. There is social demand in this crisis, but there is also a spiritual demand; the two go hand in hand.

“Learn about the resistance of the indigenous and African peoples,” he continued. “We continue to be exterminated, but we still keep singing, dancing, lighting a fire. You help if good things emanate into the universe now. When the storm passes, you will be important in the reconstruction of the world. What world do you want to build?  Sing, dance, resist through art, faith, joy and love.”

Art as resistance; I love it.

May we roar as loudly for Mother Earth as we do for justice. She needs our voices, our help, our marching feet, our votes. She also needs our love. A lifelong activist I know once told me, “Mother Earth feels your pain; let her feel your joy, too.” I have always remembered that.

We have ample cause for protest, but, as White Eagle has pointed out, it’s important that we not forget our love songs. The mama bear’s roar is a rage against threat, but also fierce love for what she is protecting. What is it that YOU love and how will you protect it?

This brings us, in a convoluted way, to our challenge. Following the example of the Tla-o-qui-aht elder with his drum, and White Eagle with his joyous resistance, let’s spread a little love around. To lift our spirits, and to remember why we write and care so much, let’s send Mother Earth some love.

Let’s write: Love Songs to Mother Earth

I can’t tell you how much I look forward to reading your responses.

— Sherry

earthweal weekly challenge: ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE


It may surprise you that the two groups of Americans most concerned about climate change are African-Americans and Hispanics. But when you consider that they also live closest to our sickened Earth and environmental hazards like air pollution, waste treatment facilities and coal-fired plants, then the parallels between racism and environmental degradation become clear.

It also makes a clear case for environmental justice—a means to address environmental damage and the populations who suffer the worst consequences of it And in the courts, civil rights prosecution has succeeded where environmental suits have failed. (Sadly, in our Earth cause a human face trumps a green vista every time.)

People working outside in a climate grown too hot for working outside bear the brunt of changes largely wrought for the benefit of those who live in segregated, air conditioned comfort. Market liberalism is the vanilla flavor of oilman’s glee, that extractionist greed which plunders resources, bodies and markets for the benefit of the few.

The environmental justice movement—a legal version of liberation theology—began taking shape in the 1980s. Back in 1979, a Houston waste company announced they were building landfill in a black middle-class neighborhood. A suit was filed by the homeowners, and Dr. Robert Bullard, then a sociologist at Texas Southern University, was hired to look into the move. He says,

When we looked at the data and analyzed it, we found that 5 out of 5 of the city-owned landfills were located in black neighborhoods. Six out of 8 of the city-owned incinerators were in black neighborhoods. And 3 out of 4 of the privately owned landfills were in predominantly black neighborhoods.

Even though blacks only made up 25 percent of the population from the 1930s to 1978 — the period that I looked at — 82 percent of all of the waste dumped in Houston was in black neighborhoods.

“Dr. Robert Bullard: Lessons From 40 Years of Documenting Environmental Racism” (Tara Lohan, The Revelator, April 17, 2019)

For the first time, a clear connection between racism and environmental degradation was drawn. The lawsuit became the first case in the United States to use civil rights law to challenge environmental discrimination. In the 40 years since, Dr. Bullard has written 18 books on the topic, documenting countless incidents of disadvantaged populations used as dumping grounds for the excess of a wealthy, consumerist nation.

Indigenous people in many other countries are equally challenged with the same. In Canada, oil pipelines and tar sand projects violate the heart of sacred homelands; in Australia corporate irrigation projects for cotton farms threaten the livelihood of Aboriginal tribes along the lower Darling River basin. Most black South Africans continue to live in the most polluted and contaminated conditions in the country. In Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia, plastic waste recycling plants poison crops and emit toxic air pollution into poor communities.

As I wrote for our last open link weekend, the suffocation of a black man beneath a policeman’s knee—captured in eight grueling and harrowing minutes of cellphone video—has sparked convulsive protest around the world. The immense scale of the demonstrations suggest that many things are at play—despair over continuing police violence against black men, economic disparities made worse by global pandemic, despair over an increasingly heating climate horizon and the devastation it is already delivering the most vulnerable populations.

The demonstrations may provide the impetus for an environmental justice movement which will remove anti-environment populists from power and begin to redress decades if not centuries of capitalist and extractionist oppression. Again, the human face of a martyred black man may help deliver a new political establishment capable of passing and enforcing the Green New Deal.

As I write this, a massive rallies are underway today all over my country, some of the biggest yet, in protest of police brutality. Rallies have grown more peaceful and are multi-racial in attendance; but you have to feel the keenness of the anger and despair of black participants to understand that theirs is an exhausted protest. Like the enormous volume of rain now being dumped by Tropical Storm Cristobal as it approaches New Orleans, theirs is a heavy, sad and fraught lament.

After this, rage may be the only alternative. The arc follows the same trajectory of our pending climate catastrophe; address now or deal with enraged elements.

I wondered about this as I attended a “Peace, Love and Unity Walk” this morning down the main avenue of my little Florida town. It was rainy—steady but not heavy, freighted with the angst of tropical storm Cristobal two hundred miles away. The city’s leadership of downtown merchants, city government, police chief and pastors from several churches cooked up the idea to have this “Walk” (instead of “march”) to celebrate (not protest) unity in the face of division. Our town is OK as Southern hamlets go, more progressive than most, with a good recent history of community policing and relatively calm relations with its black population, sequestered mainly on the city’s swampy and flood-prone northeast.

It was surprising how many turned out for the walk, and I’d say the composition was maybe two thirds white. Lots of couples, families with kids, older folks and neighbors amid the more vocal and sign-brazen young. (I didn’t see any septuagenarians holding up Black Lives Matter signs.) At 10 am the procession rolled down Donnelly Street blocked off by smiling policemen, turned left at the cop station and proceeded into the black area of town, stopping at a small park where there was a tent with a podium. Various members of the city leadership spoke, with impassioned appeals to unity and sensitivity and the largest rounds of applause in response to calling out the citizenry to vote in the fall.

Yay to all that, but even though the size of the turnout was impressive for our little town—I’d say around 500—it was a little laid back and too congenial. A white folks’ march for unity without the higher simmer of anger and exhaustion still has the ambience of whitewash. Something we’ll never be fully able to relinquish, I’m afraid, before it is taken from our hands.




Terrence Hayes

Rilke ends his sonnet “Archaic Torso of Apollo” saying
“You must change your life.” James Wright ends “Lying
In a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island,
Minnesota” saying “I have wasted my life.” Ruth Stone ends
“A Moment” saying “You do not want to repeat my life.”
A minute seed with a giant soul kicking inside it at the end
And beginning of life. After the opening scene where
A car bomb destroys the black detective’s family, there are
Several scenes of our hero at the edge of life. A shootout
In an African American Folk Museum, a shootout
In the middle of an interstate rest stop parking lot,
A barn shootout endangering the farm life. I live a life
That burns a hole through life, that leaves a scar for life,
That makes me weep for another life. Define life.

There is a cycle of energy in the current moment; protest leads to voting which enables future protests to provide an even greater volume of energy for the next election. I liken it to stepping incrementally back from nuclear annihilation or climate devastation: Tides are turned with signs and voting booths and regulations and signs and more voting booths and stronger, more effective regulations. I’ll venture that my country has a more progressive center than it did six months ago.

Without George Floyd’s brutal murder in plain sight of the world by a cop with too much brutality in his testosterone, where would we be now? Still forgiving the power ploys of a government which has renounced its first duty to serve all of its citizens? Getting back fast to our comfortable consumer privilege, heedless of the darkening climate horizon? We are paused at this moment and told—loudly, vociferously and with a keen edge of danger—that slumber is no longer permissible.

Soon it may be no longer possible.

James Baldwin got at this in a 1968 address to the World Council of Churches, later condensed into an essay titled “White Racism and World Community” published in Ecumenical Review, Oct. 1968:

We all know, no matter what we say, no matter how we may justify it or hide from this fact, every being knows, something in him knows, and this is what Christ was talking about; no one wants to be a slave. Black people have had to adjust to incredible vicissitudes and involve in fantastic identity against incredible odds. But those songs we sang, and sing, and our dances and the way we talk to each other, betray a terrifying pain, a pain so great that most Western people, most white Westerners, are simply babbled by it and paralyzed by it, because they do not dare imagine what it would be like to be a black father, and what a black father would have to tell a black son in order for the black son to live at all.

Now, this is not called morality, this is not called faith, this has nothing to do with Christ. It has to do with power, ad part of the dilemma of the Christian Church is the fact that it opted, in fact, for power and betrayed its own first principles which were a responsibility to every living soul, the assumption of which the Christian Church’s basis, as I understand it, is that all men are the sons of God and that all men are free in the eyes of God and are victims of the commandment given to the Christian Church, “Love one another as I have loved you.” And if that is so, the Church is in great danger not merely because the black people say it but because people are always in great danger when they know what they should do, and refuse to act on that knowledge.

Baldwin delivered that address in 1968, the most convulsive year of demonstrations previous to this one; and though some of the language may have evolved (women are, we know now, are similarly daughters of God), the tooth of the message is unchanged. And the environmental justice movement has merged the face of racial oppression with that of capitalist extractionism: injustice is equally doled out to humans and Earth, all of us being of the same essential tribe.

In an old Irish tale, a Christian holy man late in life finds his faith taking a radical when a fellow monk is sacrificed in the belly of an oak tree for refusing to renounce the green Earth for Heaven. Love breaks his wooden dogmatic heart, and he is flooded with the awareness of so much heaven all around him, in this life.  The monk, whose name was Molios, is changed.

Fiona MacLeod picks up the story in “Annir Choille” (second volume of his collected works)

That night Molios could not sleep. Hearing the loud wash of the sea, he went to the mouth of the cave. For a long while he watched the seals splashing in the silver radiance of the moonshine. Then he called them.

“O seals of the sea, come hither!”

At that all the furred swimmers drew near.

“Is it for the curse you give us every year of the years, O holy Molios?” moaned a great black seal.

“O Ròn dubh, it is no curse I have for thee or thine, but a blessing, and peace. I have learned a wonder of God, because of an Annir-Coille in the forest that is upon the hill. But now I will be telling you the white story of Christ.”

So there, in the moonshine, with the flowing tide stealing from his feet to his knees, the old saint preached the gospel of love. The seals crouched upon the rocks, with their great brown eyes filled with glad tears.

When Molios ceased, each slipped again into the shadowy sea. All that night, while he brooded upon the mystery of Cathal and the Annir-Coille, with deep knowledge of hidden things, and a heart filled with the wonder and mystery of the world, he heard them splashing to and fro in the moon-dazzle, and calling, one to the other, “We, too, are the sons of God.”

My blog’s patron saint is St. Oran, victim of another sacrifice so Christian walls might stand, his bones the mortar of mission, his ghost regent of the Iona abbey cemetery. He was also of the seal tribe, and his death also kept alive in the new faith a vital connection with the old—a greener sustainable existence which we are still trying to find our way to, freed from economic and racial bondage.

We, too, are sons and daughters of the mystery! Let that inform our work this week as we see what poetry has to say about environmental justice.

— Brendan

earthweal weekly challenge: WHAT COMES NEXT



Is it ironic that last week’s protest challenge would culminate massive uproar in dozens US cities following the slow torturous death of a black man beneath a white policeman’s knee?

Or was it fateful, as true to the time as all the voices who cried out at our forum?

Who knows. But summer comes to the Northern Hemisphere with pandemic’s toil and toll grown wearisome yet hardly done and a heating climate sweltering snarls of greater and worser magnitude.

One thing follows another. In the United States, these are added coils for a pot already aboil with political division and dissent. For all our wealth and clout, my country has shown astonishing weakness in the face of souring events.  With a death toll from COVID surpassing 100,000 and finding new strength in places like Wisconsin and Alabama which have reopened prematurely, our leadership has chosen to peeve  rather than grieve.

It is a tragic thing to watch and gives me little hope for any speedy and effective remedies.

Here we are however and must look at WHAT COMES NEXT.

* * *

In the state of Florida in the USA where I live, high summer has blossomed in the past week with the advent of the rainy season. One day it was warm and dry and gusty like it had been for much of the spring; then a day came where a crack of thunder transformed the time into soggy surly upwellings of heat and clouds and rain. Each next day it’s more humid than the last, the heat feels more intense and the certainty of storm grows. This pattern will ladder for weeks into a density of heat and moisture whose spiritual consequence is hurricane.  By July there will be an eeriness to the height of summer, a constant wet rapture and raptoring for which there is no escape, only enduring into August through September and even October as we await in the next week or the next some greater massing of stormclouds from the horizon.

It’s an archangelic season into which the mind which sustained me all year vanishes. It’s like an altitude, erasing certain depths of thought.

* * *

My wife and I drove out to Wildwood on Friday looking at storage sheds. We’re thinking of tearing down our decrepit garage and rehabbing a new shed into an air-conditioned sewing studio for my wife. For fifteen years she’s worked in crabbed conditions in our house, her linens stuffed in every corner, her sewing equipment occupying the desk space I once worked on. (For an equal length of time I’ve had to move my morning studies to a chair in the living room, hauling out all my books and journals and laptop, setting up camp there for my appointed hour and a half in heaven and then tucking everything back as the day wakes in the windows.) For a considerable amount of new debt, she gets her space and I get mine. We can’t really afford it, but next things are mired where we are. My days as a commuting office drone may be over, and may work the rest of my career from home.

The heat was empyrean that day, a beating brilliance as we drove and talked about the unrest in so many cities, the awful divisions of the time and the horrible leadership we suffer from. The sheds we saw were pregnant with possibility, opening with a creak and vastly empty and hot within with so much brilliance outside. Perhaps a future. We lunched in a restaurant in the middle of The Villages, that arch retirement mecca in Florida where so many come to play golf and party the rest of their living means. Only the serving staff wore masks and the stores around the eatery all seemed packed with eager buyers.

None of this plays much into the darkness of this time—not the commercial animus, the milk-white palette of comfort or the torpid brilliance of the afternoon. Yet you can read it in reverse, as preceding acts of an unfolding tragedy. I could, while reading Teju Cole’s essay “We Can’t Comprehend This Much Sorrow” in the May 24 New York Times Magazine:

Yesterday’s death toll from Covid-19 in New York State was 732 people. I can hardly concentrate in daytime. At night, I read Annie Ernaux’s ‘‘The Years.’’ You can feel the pulse and intelligence of Ernaux’s mind, her technical facility, the range of her assessments over several decades of French history. The book, which mixes history with memoir, is good writing. Eventually, there will be good writing about our moment as well. If journalism is the first rough draft of history, perhaps a journal is the first rough draft of literature. But grief makes me sour. I feel as though I’ve read the same piece of white writing 30 times in the past month.

Much of it is concerned with inconveniences, and some of it is jokey. I understand these collective attempts at lightness, but I quarrel with them, because I know that in the United States there is no ‘‘collective.’’ Levity in the midst of sorrow can be a consolation if the sorrow is shared to begin with. But here, where everything is divided, where the unscathed can’t quite believe the wounded, the levity sounds like anything but solidarity. Covid-19 was initially heralded as a great equalizer, and there was some evidence of this in some countries. But it arrived in America and immediately became American: classist, capitalist, complacent.

The words Samuel Beckett wrote to his friend Alan Schneider in 1963 feel like a lifeline: ‘‘I offer you only my deeply affectionate and compassionate thoughts and wish for you only that the strange thing may never fail you, whatever it is, that gives us the strength to live on and on with our wounds.’’

White writing: The memory of a Reuben sandwich slowly fading from my hands as my wife and I talked her father’s care and the help she’s not getting from her sister, and this next project in our house. No table next to us had patrons sitting at it but the room was still full and calmly devouring Jewish deli and muttering beneath an ambience of boomer hits on the sound system—Beach Boys, Candlebox, Duran Duran.

All that rings whitely and tritely against the curse of this American moment. As I write this afternoon Florida is convulsed by confrontations in Tampa and Orlando and Miami. Someone has driven a red pickup truck into a crowed of protestors in Jacksonville and the governor’s mansion in Tallahassee has been surrounded. Preparations are underway to call in the military in Minneapolis tonight. Protestors face off with the Secret Service in front of the White House.

A heat is already out of control.

Must we get to the grief this way? Is there no other?

* * *

The other day I found out that my favorite living jazz pianist has been dead for several months. Lyle Mays found fame as a member of Pat Metheny’s ensemble, co-writing much of the work. (He was also apparently a great pool player and even better mathematician.). Mays released a few solo efforts in the years since but retired from professional music in 2003 to work as a computer consultant. On Feb. 10, it was announced that Mays had passed at the age of 66 “after a long illness” of which I’ve never found further explanation. (My guess is that he committed suicide after years of depression.)

Lyle Mays had a lyricism unparalleled by any other jazz pianist other than Bill Evans, whom Mays revered and co-write with Metheny an utterly inspired elegy in “September Fifteenth.” (Evans died on that day in 1980.) His gifts were archly classical–in later life he composed deep responses to Stravinsky and Debussy—but his touch was gentler than any other musical artist. Angels were summoned in the infinitesimal arpeggios he glanced whisperingly from the keys. Spirits drifting. Soaring.

The beauty of Mays’ music is almost unbearable.  That surely helps explain his early departure. Lyle Mays lived longer than Bill Evans, who died at age 51 after what a girlfriend called “the longest suicide in history.” How could it be otherwise for the two, mounting a musical cross of yearning, emotional truth and heart-breaking gorgeousness?

I first heard “September Fifteenth” in 1981 when I was 24, a year into my new life in Florida and recently shattered from a breakup. That song touched depths in my broken heart that I didn’t know existed. Soon after that my younger brother was nearly killed in a car accident. He survived a massive head injury, but his musical ambitions were destroyed (he’d lost hearing in one ear) and he since suffered disorientation and double-vision. In 2008 he died of a heart attack; he was 44. My grief of him was deeper than anything I had experienced. I collected his ashes, his laptop and photographs and returned to Florida.

What a surprise to discover that the last song he played on his laptop iTunes the day he died was “September Fifteenth.”

It’s been a few days since I found out about Mays’s death and I’m still grieving hard. I know his music will always be there.  (I didn’t find out there was a Bill Evans until after he died.) I know too that the music we love resounds much deeper than the personal. Yet I can’t help feel a grief that is wrapped up in so many losses, the woman I lost long ago, my brother, my mother and father, Lyle Mays, my youth. What else? My pre-pandemic life. My humanity. My Earth. All going, soon gone.

We say there are chains of events. Men walk on the moon. The last white rhino vanishes. Victoria’s Secret models drink Ipecac and walk flawlessly in thongs with wings. Rising waters threaten Arctic tribes. There are riots in Ferguson Missouri.  A Republican president breaks the spine of decades of environmental regulation. Orangutans fade further away. Australia burns. A pangolin gives up a COVID ghost. Dairy farmers close to bankruptcy wonder if anyone is really sick of the disease. The world swelters. Rich people get wealthier in the stock market.  Police fan out with batons and pepper spray. Elon Musk shakes hands with Donald Trump as a Falcon 9 rocket lifts into the sweet hot blue Florida sky. Thunder rolls in where hope has vanished, replacing it with the drum of things unfolding.

Back to Cole:

Yesterday’s death toll from Covid-19 in New York State was 804 people. There’s consolation in the falling numbers, sure, but I mostly think about how, with better leadership, far fewer people would be bereaved right now. But leaders are nothing without their followers, and many Americans have decided to inhabit an alternate reality. What is newly shocking is realizing that their fanciful reality is impervious to everything, even a horrifying daily death toll.

… I want to weep. I can’t weep; I can’t write either. Is shock necessarily naïve? Can’t it also be evidence of taking in, and being affected by, new information?

I’m still thinking about ‘‘Zoom funerals.’’ There’s good reason the earliest surviving traces of many civilizations have to do with the burial of the dead: tombs, barrows, tumuli. In Sophocles’ ‘‘Antigone,’’ King Creon denies funeral rites to Polynices. Polynices is dead anyway and won’t know in what manner his body is disposed of — but Antigone knows, and we know, and it is what the living know that matters. Our need for proper ritual will never subside.

We are eager to find out what an old text can say to our new situation. But ‘‘Antigone’’ won’t tell you what to do in the time of Covid-19. The play is about individual conscience against the state, loyalty to family, funerary customs, the clash between two varieties of self-contradiction and, above all, the workings of tragedy. Tragedy is not simply that something bad happens; it’s that one thing leads to another: if this, then that, and if that, then the other thing. In Seamus Heaney’s version of ‘‘Antigone,’’ ‘‘The Burial at Thebes,’’ he has the chorus declare: ‘‘It starts like an undulation underwater,/A surge that hauls black sand up off the bottom,/Then turns itself into a tidal current. . . .’’

One thing leads to another. Polynices dies in battle, and Antigone, for defying the directive to leave him unburied, is sentenced to death. She hangs herself. Haemon, to whom she was engaged, kills himself with a sword. Eurydice, grieving her son, also commits suicide. Hubris, cruelty, and next thing you know, an entire generation is brought to grief. We can see the tidal current and the wreckage in its wake; but why has it happened? All we know is that different choices would have led to a different outcome.

We thought we still had time to respond to the climate emergency. But then pandemic happened, a global event almost no one saw coming. Now we are here. It is even hard to apprehend the Earth any more; the news is choked with protest and anger. Racial injustice has pre-empted the space we need to feel Earth injustice. Even fresh outbreaks of the virus (rampant now in India and Honduras) are just a murmur.

This afternoon a rocket pointed at heaven. It only will make it as far as the International Space Station, but it’s a milestone of sorts, the first time US astronauts have lifted off from US soil in 9 years. My father-in-law who suffers from advanced dementia had worked for years representing various manufacturers to NASA from the late ‘50s to the early ‘80s. Ten years ago he and I toured the Kennedy Space Center, with him struggling to remember and me marveling at the immensity of the technology and the worlds we might find out there. We walked through the vast Vehicular Assembly Building and beneath the length of a Saturn V rocket, like a massive whale mounted in the sky. Those thrusters like city-sized flukes, capable of swimming to the darkest depths of the night sky.

On Saturday a Space X rocket soared toward that infinity, leaving this vale behind. Leaving us here to witness what comes next.

Thunder coming closer. One of the last Amur Leopards tracks the vanishing snow of the Russian Far East. In Brazil, COVID infections hurl a dizzy spiral out of a president’s silent mouth. These events are synchronized in a broken sort of time, no more the result of hundreds of generations of relations between living things. Knots of time unfraying, releasing the conditions of functional extinction which precede the actual.

If time is breaking apart, how are we to read what comes next? What is sequence in an asynchronous time?

Consider, reflect, write. What do you see ahead? Protest? Love? Grief?

— Brendan