earthweal weekly challenge: SLOWNESS

 

We live in a world too fast on the move; having ramped up this speeding furnace, we must somehow slow it down.

Bone-dry conditions, high heat and whipping winds are driving wildfires across the Western North America. The Glass Fire last year in California’s wine country grew at about an acre every five seconds. It’s not unusual for wildfires to now burn 15 miles in a single day. The Caldor Fire now approaching Lake Tahoe in Nevada is spreading so quickly that it burned an area roughly half the size of Chicago in a week.

As more moistures is trapped elsewhere in the atmosphere, rain is falling faster. In Tennessee, the small town of Waverly was pummeled by 17 inches of rain from stalled thunderstorms. Runoff from higher elevations outside the town created a wall of water that raced through like a tidal wave, destroying 125 homes and killing 21. The town beat the state’s previous one-day record of 13 inches and did so much faster, in about 8 to 12 hours.

The magnitude of what happened was summed by Humphreys County Sheriff Chris Davis.  “The perfect storm happened here,” he said. “Are we going to definitely look at it and learn from it? Absolutely. We’d be crazy not to.” But, he added, “we made the best decisions we could when we had to make them.”

Learning from the incomprehensible is a new problem we face, a labyrinth yet without a discernable pattern.  Examining the data from the summer’s first heatwave in the Pacific Northwest, environmental scientist Robert Rhode called the numbers “statistically impossible”:  so far beyond the observed experience that it exceeded even statistical models’ outmost potential extremes for the area. According to Rhode, this means that “events … are not just pushing the boundaries a little bit, but are really jumping out at us as something we did not expect based on what we had prepared for in the past.” (Ronald Brownstein, “The Unbearable Summer,” The Atlantic, August 26, 2021).

All this is due to accelerating and cascading effects of climate change. Extreme events are happening now at alarming speed, so much so that one disaster quickly erases memory of the last. Remember the town of Lytton in British Columbia, which burnt down the day after temperatures hit 121 degrees F? Or how about the embered town of Greenville, California? How  Talent and Phoenix, Oregon from last year? Or Paradise, California, the year before? What Kangaroo Island or the vast Siberian taiga? Or how about Hurricane Kartrina wheeling its massive saw into the Louisiana and Mississippi coast exactly where  Hurricane Ida now barrels in intensifying might, 16 years to the day? Remember Hurricane Harvey (2017, 60 inches of rain, Groves, TX) or Michael (2018), which intensified from tropical wave to Category 5 monster in just 36 hours? How can we, with the extreme weather wire jangling at every next moment?

Hurricane Ida rapidly intensified this weekend and hit the Louisiana coast at near-Cat 5 strength

Scientists said these events were going to start coming at us fast, but how much faster can we accommodate them? When you consider that we’re only at about 1.1 or 1.2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels, and with projections of about 3 degrees C total increase by the end of the century, this party has hardly begun …

BRIGHT BIRD FALLING

Speed, efficiency,
convenience—
so this bird is winged.

Not long ago we boarded up
and soon the sun grew large,
a gold future clear ahead.

Then too huge and hot,
a burning crown of dread—

and us too high for jumping down.

Time for one fast sigh
before we learn
that bird is dropping dead.

—Brendan (August 2018)

Counter to all this, of course, is slowness, this week’s challenge and the brake by which we must somehow absorb what’s happening and find some workable or functional vantage by which to escape the burning labyrinth we’ve created.

I take the name of this challenge from the title of Milan Kundera’s 1996 novel, where three tales intersect one night in one ancient chateau. There the novelist and his wife arrive from Paris to spend the night; an 18th century libertine games to extend a night of pleasure with a noble’s wife; and where the libertine’s modern counterpart races on a motorcycle for a drunken tryst ruined by its haste. “Our period is so obsessed by the desire to forget,” Kundera’s narrator reflects, “and it is to fulfill that desire that it gives over to the demon of speed; it picks up the pace to show us that it no longer wishes to be remembered that it is sick of itself; sick of itself; that it wants to blow out the tiny trembling flame of memory.” (135)

Kundera, a Czech exile who became a French citizen (Slowness was his first novel written in French), weaves this novella’s separate threads like a musical composition, layering and drawing out its single moment into a sustained classical meditation on “the pleasure of slowness” — something our modern world has lost at, what we now discover, is our greatest peril.

Kundera’s novelistic observations came just prior to Internet and its hyperspeed connectivity. Digital events are 24-7 and transpire in nanoseconds; the knowledge it accumulates spirals so fast that it will soon blossom into what futurist Ray Kurzweil calls The Singularity, when machine intelligence becomes omnipotent, saturating the universe with its device. And we thought TV was rushing us out the door!

Our culture’s thirst for meltingly-faster connections shows up in films like Speed, The Fast and the Furious and Mad Max Fury Roads; uperheroes like Superman, The Flash and Shazam; and the warp-drive blue contrails of Star Trek and Star Wars. The speedy pleasures of pornography is what drove the early spread of the Internet, and shiny things are the attentional fiber of social media’s fleeting intelligence.

All of this is in defiance of that fact of climate change and its very real threat to human civilization (and perhaps all life on Earth.). We can’t stop it now, but somehow we must slow it. Doing so requires deep political, social and cultural change: regulating fossil fuel extraction, radically changing consumption habits and somehow braking our racing imaginations. To stop the Minotaur at the center of our future from tearing us apart, we must slow down and consider changing course.

What is slowness, and how do we embrace, nurture and embody it? These questions I am asking you to help answer this week.

Here are a few ideas.

A. There is a slowness in growth, a low deep duration infinitely greater and grander than my fleeting attention. Watering and nurture is a daily process of taking seed to harvest over many months. The year cycles through seasons. Trees grow for decades. Surrounded by digital culture, I’ve grown accustomed to writing poems in a few days; but master poets put poems through dozens, sometimes hundreds of drafts. Jack Gilbert said once in an interview that he often worked on a poem for years. The mastery I find in his poems derives from the nurture of deep time.

This poem from his collection titled from Refusing Heaven (2005) (a book I am re-reading for perhaps the tenth time) offers some good thought on slowness:

Burning (Andante Non Troppo)*

We are all burning in time, but each is consumed
at his own speed. Each is the product
of his spirit’s refraction, or the inflection
of that mind. It is the pace of our living
that makes the world available. Regardless of
the body’s lion-wrath or forest waiting, despite
the mind’s splendid appetite or the sad power
in our soul’s separation from God and women,
it is always our gait of being that decides
how much is seen, what the mystery of us knows,
and what the heart will smell of the landscape
as the Mexican train continues at a dog-trot each
day going north. The grand Italian churches are
covered with detail which is visible at the pace
people walk by. the great modern buildings are
blank because there is no time to see from the car.
A thousand years ago when they build the gardens
at Kyoto, the stones were set in the streams askew.
Whoever went quickly would fall in. When we slow,
the garden can choose what we notice. Can change
our heart. On the wall of a toilet in Rock Springs
years ago there was a dispenser that sold tubes of
cream to numb a man’s genitals. Called Linger.

* In orchestral music, andante non troppo means “at a moderately slow tempo” or “walking pace.”

B. In archetypal psychology, the puer aeternus is the archetype of speedy spirituality – the flying young man whose feet can’t touch the ground. (Ever date or raise one of ‘em?) Figures ranging from Eros to Hermes and Icarus, the Trickster and Messiah all fold into this archetype. James Hillman wrote a definitive essay on the puer and its opposite, the senex, in his 1967 essay “Senex and Puer” (collected in Puer Papers, Spring Publications, 1979).

Six decades later, Hillman’s characterization of this figure is chillingly accurate for the problematic spirt of our age:

In him we see a mercurial range of (mythical) ‘personalities’ A mercurial figure, the puer is a bundle of contradictions –  narcissistic, inspired, effeminate, phallic, inquisitive, inventive, pensive, passive, fiery and capricious. (22) … The eternal spirit is sufficient unto itself and contains all possibilities. As the senex is perfected through time, the puer is primordially perfect. Therefore there is no development; development needs devolution, a loss and fall of restriction of possibilities. (23) …  The horizontal world, the space-time continuum which we call ‘reality,’ is not its world … Because of this vertical direct access to the spirit, this immediacy where vision of goal and goal are one, winged speed, haste —even the short cut — are imperative. The puer cannot do with direction, with timing and patience. It knows little of the seasons and of waiting. And when it must rest or withdraw from the scene, then it seems to be stuck in a timeless state, innocent of the passing years, out of tune with time. (24)

For Hillman, the only way to slow this figure is merge him with his opposite, the senex. (That figure has his own bucket of problems, but the wise old man figures into him along with the goaty old lecher). The path to such a two-faced archetype is found in the paradoxical Renaissance maxim of festina lente: “make haste slowly.” Such is maturity, where the puer finally enters time. Festina lente “is an ideal that may be achieved however only by remaining consequently true to the puer aspect. To be true to one’s puer nature means to admit one’s puer past — all it gambols and gestures and sun-struck aspirations. From this history we draw consequences. By standing for these consequences, we let history catch up with us and thus our haste slowed. Through our individual histories, puer merges with senex, the eternal comes back into time, the falcon returns to the falconer’s arm.” (35)

Festina lente is a great maxim for this moment we currently find ourselves in. We are caught in a speeding time, though we don’t have to pour gas on the fire by indulging its worst obsessions. Gilbert’s poem above is a great example of festina lente.

C.  It is said that in the Anthropocene, fleeting human activities are irrupting into deep time. In just a few centuries we have vastly changed the face of the planet in ways that normally take hundreds of millions of years. Instead of speeding up geological scales, how can we adapt to their slowness? If my life is but a nanosecond in the grand sweep that accumulated sediment from the eroding Appalachian mountains and formed the Florida platform—one grain of that sediment—then all my loves are one summer morning in that state, all my work an afternoon rainstorm in which formed and darkened and thundered and poured and was gone by dusk. No more; so any sense of accomplishment is the world’s, not mine.

D. One can witness slowness in old growth forests, those cathedrals of sustenance where all participate in an ecosystem of shared wealth and nurture. Robin Wall Kimmerer describes them in Braiding Sweetgrass:

… The ancient rainforests spread from Northern California to southeastern Alaska in a band between the mountains and the sea. Here is where the moisture-laden air from the Pacific rises against the mountains to produce upward of one hundred inches of rain a year, watering an ecosystem rivaled nowhere else on earth. The biggest trees in the world. Trees that were born before Columbus sailed.

And the trees were just the beginning. The numbers of species of mammals, birds, amphibians, wildflowers, ferns, mosses, lichens, fungi and insects are staggering. It’s hard to write without running out of superlatives, for these were the greatest forests on earth, forests peopled with centuries of past lives, enormous logs and snags that foster more life after their death than before. The canopy is a multilayered sculpture of vertical complexity from the lowest moss on the forest floor to the wisps of lichen hanging high in the treetops, raggedy and uneven from the gaps produced by centuries of windthow, disease and storms. This seeming chaos belies the tight web of interconnections between them all, stitched with filaments of fungi, silk of spiders, and silver threads of water. Alone is a word without meaning in this forest. (277-8)

We have cut down most of those old growth forests in our haste to raise cities which have been torn down and rebuilt many times: But can we be like old growth forests in our embrace of our communities, in the resources we share for the good of all? The forests may be gone but our songs can be part of their timbered choir.

For this challenge, write of SLOWNESS

— Brendan

 

A Poetry That Does Not Compromise (The Anthropocene Hymnal)

 

Ingrid Wilson, a regular earthweal contributor from her blog Experiments in Fiction, has just announced the July 24 publication of her poetry anthology The Anthropocene Hymnal. In it she has assembled 63 poems from 34 poets across the world in what she calls “a unique response to an unprecedented crisis.” Included in the lineup of poets are many earthweal participants (see below).

The book is available both in e-pub and print, and advance Kindle sales are now available at Amazon.  According to Ingrid, all profits from sales of the book will be donated to the World Wildlife Fund.

Lindi-Ann Hewitt-Coleman (a wonderful earthweal contributor from South Africa with her blog fresh poetry) wrote an advance review of The Anthropocene Hymnal, and it’s the perfect introduction to the work. “The Anthropocene Hymnal is both a voice of our time beautifully sung and a call to action,” she writes. You can read Lindi’s review in full here.

Ingrid consented to the following brief interview about her process with The Anthropocene Hymnal, and I reprint our email exchange in full.

Tell us something about yourself.

I’m a wandering soul. I’m from the north of England and have lived in Manchester, Newcastle, London, Barcelona, Malaga and both the north and south of Slovenia (where I live now). My head is a muddle of different languages and places. If nothing else, I think this helps my poetry. I also like to wander back in time and have studied ancient history and lost languages. There’s something inherently poetic about a language which is no longer spoken by anyone.

How did you come to create an anthology of Anthropocene-themed poems?

earthweal was my primary inspiration for the creation of this anthology. I’ve always been attracted to nature poetry, but recent circumstances have led me towards ‘what have we done to nature’ poetry, or eco-poetry, if you prefer. Writing for earthweal distilled my concerns for the planet into impassioned poetry, and I was moved by the work of other poets who I came to know through this forum. It occurred to me that such poetry deserved a book of its own.

Who are some of the folks who contributed?

I had an open call for submissions, and I also asked some of the earthweal contributors for permission to use specific poems. As a result, I have ended up with poetic voices from five continents, all with their own particular style and grace. Amongst the contributors are earthweal’s own Brendan {offline name David Cohea}, Sherry Marr and Sarah Connor. I have published the full contributor list on my blog, and you may well be familiar with many of them. I also wanted to leave a space for young voices in the anthology, as they will inherit the anthropocene future we create. The youngest contributors are Rishika Jain (aged 13) and Benji (My eldest son, aged 8).

Ingrid and son Benji enjoying earth’s garden.

What have you learned about the Anthropocene from your effort?
The first thing that strikes me every time I write the word is that my keyboard still doesn’t recognise it. I find this incredible. It recognises ‘twerking’ and ‘selfie’ but not the this man-made era into which we have slowly sleepwalked. The term was coined in the 1960s but gained popularity only recently, when denial that we are living in a new and dangerous era is all but impossible. I think by the time climate deniers start to change their minds, it will probably be to late, which may be a Catch-22 situation. Still, I refuse to go down without a fight.

Where did you get the cover artwork from? It’s incredible.
The cover artwork is a collage by New York based artist and poet Kerfe Roig. I think most visitors to earthweal will be familiar with her visually stunning and thought-provoking work. Kerfe also contributed four poems to the anthology.

How are you planning to sell the book?
I will sell the paperback and e-book via Amazon, and a PDF download via my website. I realise given the themes of the anthology that Amazon may not be the most appropriate outlet for the book, but I do not have the printing and distribution power that such a behemoth can offer. Love them or hate them, they will bring my book to a wider audience, which I think must be a good thing. I plan to donate all of my royalties to WWF, the charity selected by my readers.

What have you learned from the process?
For some reason, when I started the project, I thought an anthology would be easier than a collection of my own work, because I wouldn’t have to write all of the poems myself. I have learned the opposite to be true. There is so much to consider when compiling the work of others: permissions, rights, the order of the poems, layout of text, variations in punctuation and spelling, names and pseudonyms. I tried my best to make sure everyone who contributed will be happy with the result. I certainly am!

What poetry is needed for the challenges ahead?
Poetry which does not compromise. Poetry which looks Big Money in the eye and says, ‘you are to blame.’ Poetry which is not afraid to be shot down or burned. Poetry which can rise from the ashes of censorship and ignorance and be heard even louder because of the attempts to silence it. As soon as people start to listen, such attempts will be made. And these will be the clues that we are writing the right kind of poetry. Keep going!

Congrats to Ingrid on her accomplishment, and thanks from all of us at earthweal and global voices of Earth we represent. For this week’s challenge, let’s take up her call and write a poem of the Anthropocene which does not compromise.

It is indeed! Now tell us all about it!

The forum for this challenge will remain open until 4 PM EST Friday, when the next weekly open link weekend rolls out. Next week Sarah Connor takes us through the next cross-quarter Celtic holiday, the harvest festival of Lammas.

Happy linking!

— Brendan

Postscript: Kerfe Roig created the art used on the cover of The Anthropocene Hymnal. She posts frequently to earthweal, and her art is a constant companion to her poems.  I asked her in an email about how she came up with the cover. “It was inspired by the work of Redon,” she wrote back. “I often reference the works of artists I admire in my work.  And the images–the cosmos, the land and the sea and the sky, birds and winged creatures, fish and shells, sculptural figures, ancient architecture–all are prominent in my reference library, and in both my writing and art. …  The world is magic, and the magic is real.  We need to acknowledge and honor that with the way we live.  Which means being good caretakers of the earth and the life it sustains.  But I think that’s what all this art and writing is about, isn’t it?”

“New World” by Kerfe Roig

 

 

Jane Goodall: On Hope

by Sherry Marr

It will not surprise you to know Jane Goodall has long been one of my heroes. I have watched the documentary “Jane” more than once, with its stunning footage of her early years with the chimps in Gombe – footage that was thought to be lost, discovered just a few years ago. More recently, I watched “Jane Goodall: The Hope”, which follows Jane around the world. In normal times, she travels 300 days a year, encouraging young people to join Roots and Shoots, her program, now 30 years old, that inspires young people to plant trees and care for the areas in which they live.  There are now 700,000 active members of this worldwide movement in 50 countries.

Roots and Shoots asks us to look around us, see what projects we can begin in our own areas to make the world a better place, and to work in harmony with the natural world. Here on Vancouver Island, we have two areas of extreme concern: the relentless clearcutting of the very last of the old growth forest, and fish farms, which are hastening the disappearance of the Pacific wild salmon. Secondary impacts are loss of habitat and the displacement and starvation of wild creatures.

During covid, Jane has continued her work digitally. She feels the press of time. When people suggest she slow down, she replies that she feels the need to speed up, given the accelerating climate crisis, and the short window of time we have to turn things around. But she says she is inspired by the young, who will keep doing this work when she is gone.

A section of the documentary “On Hope” that moved me to tears was the chimps held in cages in medical labs, for experimental purposes. The look in their eyes, after spending year after year in small metal cages, looking out through the bars, unstimulated, uncomforted, never feeling grass or trees or sun, was so dismal. They held their hands out to Jane as she came through the labs, visiting each cage. Standing in front of one chimp who had lived like this for 15 years, thinking of the chimps of Gombe, on the soft grass with their families, tears started rolling down Jane’s cheeks (and mine). The chimp, compassionate even after 15 years of uncompassionate incarceration, reached through the bars and softly brushed her tears away.

This broke my heart. The greatest sorrow of my life is the suffering of the animal world at human hands. Who are the beasts? Who are the fiercest predators?

 

 

In this photo, a chimpanzee released from her cage embraces Jane, thanking her for her freedom. Jane calls this one of the most incredible moments of her life. A link to the video of this moving release is here.

A breakthrough in Jane’s study of the chimps of Gombe in the early years was electrifying. Before then, it was assumed that man was the only creature who could think and reason. Then Jane observed a chimp tool-making. He used a long grass stem to poke into places where there were insects. Drawing the stem out covered with insects, he then ate them. This changed everything, and solidified funding for Jane’s research for years to come.

“The way the chimps think and the way they feel is so similar to the way we think and feel,” Jane told a gathering of scientists in the film. “They share 99% of our DNA. They love and care for their young as we do.”

Instead of accusing the scientists, Jane showed them films of the chimps of Gombe. Some of the scientists were crying. One said, “She raised the consciousness of our consciences. We had to think about how ethical this was.” It was the start of change.

Because of Jane’s work, extensive testing of chimps was halted in that facility, and the lab chimps were retired to a sanctuary. The footage of them experiencing grass and freedom of movement for the first time is very moving.

“You have to reach peoples’ hearts to change their minds,” says Jane. “When our minds and hearts are connected, we live in harmony.”

It is because she saw what was happening to wild creatures on the planet because of mankind’s encroachment and their diminishing habitat, that Jane had to leave her beloved Gombe, traveling the world to inspire the young to save the earth.

This film revived my hope. Activism – especially when done with respect and dialogue – works. It is good to feel that, as individuals, the choices we make, how we live, our priorities – even the poems we write about the natural world – all put something good into the world. Everything helps. We do what we can, where we are. Some of us are driven to do more.

For your challenge: let’s contemplate the world around us, in our various places on the planet. Is there an area at risk or already damaged near you that you are especially concerned about? Tell us about it. Alternatively, are there people taking action to restore places of environmental degradation, or to protect areas at risk? We love those stories!  Hope and action together effect change. What I love most about Jane is that she is indefatigable in her belief that change is possible. I need that on days when I get discouraged. 

You might want to write about Jane, or the chimpanzees. That is fine, too. Let’s turn our pens loose, in whatever way this challenge speaks to you.

— Sherry

earthweal weekly challenge: A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAMTIME

 

Greetings all! It’s great to be back from my undersea fish-ride. Some people go a-maying, others a-whalin’: I’m grateful for the chance to ride bareback yeehawing beneath a darkling moon.

As Monday marks the summer solstice, and I’m opening up the forum for the Eve (when festivals in Celtic reckoning were celebrating) and titling this week’s challenge A Midsummer Night’s Dreamtime.

This challenge runs long (when I said “a-fishing,” I meant joyriding sources), so take it as a smorgasboard of approaches to the challenge, which rounds a compound theme – many things at once, like dreaming. Sink your hooks where you may.

Next week Sherry will take over the reins with a timely challenge she titles A PRAYER FOR HARD TIMES. Any of you who would also like to help with prompts, let me know.

Now on to our business: If you get to this post early, it’s the deep hour of Midsummer Eve, a great sun rises, and the moon will soon be full. Let us awake to merriments!

 

Midsummer festival at Columcille, 1978

 

I. Midsummer

At Midsummer the heat of the sun waxes toward fullness, with the primary growing season between now and August 1, the harvest festival of Lammas. It can be seen as a liminal midpoint between the two great festivals.

The Celts believed there were three “spirit nights” during the year — Halloween, May Eve and Midsummer Eve — when the “little folk” were most active, the gate to the Otherworld opened (where it is always summer), new souls come to Earth, the dead visit too and omens of the future can be read. Fairies roused by Beltane reach the height of their sport at Midsummer and then slowly recede until Samhain, when they retire and the goblins of winter come out, Puck turned coat into the spiteful Robin Goodfellow.

Forest spirits are potent too, with fairies called Oak-men protecting the sacred oak trees of druidic veneration. (They do not like humans much). They will offer food to passing humans but beware: poisonous toadstools have been given a Food Network sheen by pixie dust. They guard all forest animals and punish those who harm them. Rainwater collected from an oak hollow is considered holy.

As agriculture began replacing hunter-gatherer societies, the sun became the god of growth and sustaining light. The sun is the hero of Midsummer, warming, healing, revealing, fertilizing. In Bronze Age representation a cart pulled the sun across the sky. Likewise, Greek Helios rode the sun across the sky in a chariot drawn by flying horses. The Navaho call their sun god Jóhanaa’éi (‘Sun-bearer’); he is tasked with hauling the sun on his back. According to Australian aborigines, the sun goddess Wuriupranili lights a torch and travels from east to west, extinguishing the torch in the western ocean.  In lore across the world, the moon is the sun’s sibling, spouse or parent. In many Native American myths, the sun and moon become lovers before finding out they are brother and sister; the moon flees in shame whenever she hears that her brother is close. That is why the two are so rarely seen together. (The moon is waxing now and will be full June 24.)

Archaeologists now believe that Stonehenge was built in the fourth millennium BC and oriented to the summer solstice. The winter solstice was celebrated two miles to the northeast of the stone circle at Durrington Walls, a wooden henge enclosure. Stonehenge was a place for the dead, Woodhenge very much for the living. (One could say Stonehenge was for the everliving.) The Celts who eventually inherited these sites believed there was a summer sun and winter sun, the former born at the winter solstice and the latter at the summer solstice. The two wane and wax as the year cycles through light and darkness. (For the second year in a row, summer solstice celebrations at Stonehenge have been canceled duo to the coronavirus pandemic, but you can livestream the event at English Heritage.)

The other balancing parallel is hemispheric: summer solstice in the Northern hemisphere is simultaneous with the winter solstice in the South. So while my light in Florida may be greatest today, in South Africa and Australia it is when daylight is at its nadir.

Vestiges of the old Midsummer festival were still visible into the nineteenth century, with lighting of bonfires, torchlight processions, performing sun-dances, casting spells, rolling the sun wheel downhill and blessing of the animals. The ancient stone circles come alive to dance (some say they are pagan sun-dancers turned to stone for their sin.) It was customary to visit holy wells at sunrise, walk thrice around them sunwise and lower offerings into the waters. Flowers played a great part in the festivities as they represent the fertilized womb of the Goddess, woven into wreaths, cast into bonfires and thrown in holy wells. Roses gathered on Midsummer Eve are said to remain fresh until Christmas. St. John’s Eve (June 23) is traditionally the time for declaring love. Girls and boys wishing to become “Sweethearts of St. John” had to pass a stick through a bonfire to each other three times. Witches and druids were said to have collected herbs on Midsummer morning when they were their most potent. Herbs like vervain and St. John’s wort became magical on Midsummer Eve; in the tale of Tristan and Iseult, the love-potion was taken on Midsummer Eve.

In Gwent, a troupe of morris dancers would all dress in white, apart from the Fool and the Cadi, who carried the ‘summer branch’ decorated with silver ornaments such as watches and spoons borrowed from the whole village. Craft guilds, which had by the 14th century become largely responsible for theater production, worked the mysteries of their trade into stagecraft. Mummers were troops of commoners who visited the houses of the privileged and put on plays that were said to bring good luck, but there was always a note of mockery and foolishness to their revels.

Neo-pagans have revived many of these customs, and up to the pandemic Stonehenge was seeing large crowds at the summer solstice.

Christianity twisted the tale to suit its eternal whims. Instead of vibrating rhythm between light and darkness, St. George defeats the dragon and Christ defeats Lucifer and casts him into eternal Hell. St. John’s Day (the feast day of John The Baptist) is celebrated on June 24, three days after the summer solstice, the same way that Christmas is celebrated three days after the winter solstice.

Still, the Christian summer holidays are saturated with pagan influence.  It was customary to watch the sun go down on St. John’s Eve, stay awake for the entire night and watch the sun rise again. Families set up feasts through the night. In Wales it was said that anyone who spent that night on a certain mountain would come back down either a poet or mad. In the Shetlands it was said that selkies came ashore on St. John’s Eve, seal-people who come ashore one night of the year to dance all night on the seashore. If anyone disturbs them, they grab their grey skins and run back into the sea.

St. Peter’s Day (June 29) may have been appointed so to wrest pagan celebrations of stone toward The Rock of the church. Midsummer ceremonies at the stones of Callanish on the Isle of Lewis persisted into the 20th century despite the disapproval of the church. A figure known as “the shining one” was said to walk the stones that night. Women who slept on the club of the Cerne Giant at Midsummer were promised fertility, as did lovers who curled on the eye of the Uffington Horse, two great figures carved on chalk hillsides.

In the United States, almost all vestiges of Midsummer celebrations (as well as the cross quarter festivals and Michaelmas) have been lost. I never heard of any growing up other than to be told in grace school science classes that the sun waxed in the Northern Hemisphere on June 21. When I turned 18 I spent a summer at my father’s Columcille in Pennsylvania, and the first festival ever attempted there was on August 1— Lammas in sooth though we called it Midsummer. What did we know? We decked a tall tripod of limbs in the field with ribbons, danced round its, praised the elements with music (I had an acoustic guitar, my bass player a fiddle, a minstrel from New York City a zither) and got soundly drunk on May wine during the later party part of the festival. I woke the next morning in the bed of a crazy woman whose house straddled a river in nearby Delaware Water Gap.

Wisdom weaned future Columcille festivals from the grape. Nowadays a solstice fire is lit on Signal Hill.

I’ve been digging into the mythic background  ever since.

n

 

II. Shakespeare’s Dream

The literary text for the summer solstice is, of course, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The comedy was written in 1595 or 1596 though it may originally have been part of four-day festival staged in honor of Queen Elizabeth in 1591 in Elvetham.

Like a charm wound up, three tales come together in this magic moony forest. Theseus, Duke of Athens, is soon to wed the Amazon queen Hippolyta, but their concord is edgy — he won her hand by the sword — and is further disturbed by a love quarrel: Hermia loves Lysander but is promised to Demetrius;  Helena loves Demetrius but is spurned by him. The Duke tells Hermia she must obey her father’s wishes to marry Demetrius or face death; instead she elopes into the wood with Lysander, pursued by Helena and Demetrius.

While this is going on a comic band of rustic “mechanicals” — tinkers or a craft guild — plan a mummer’s play for Theseus’ wedding. They are, of course, a miniature of Shakespeare’s company, the antique version but familiar as actors shared low status with artisans in Elizabethan England. The playwright is Peter Quince, his play “The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe,” easily a satire of Romeo and Juliet. Their lead actor is Nick Bottom, a weaver and man of gentle wit whose buffoonish nature some see as a primitive Falstaff.

The artisans head for the same forest where they can practice in secret, and that’s where the fun begins. It’s Midsummer, and the fairies of the wood are at full wattage.  There’s a royal couple, Oberan and Titania, easily spirit-doubles for the Duke and his Amazon bride. Or the very spirits of sovereignty; Oberan means to bless the royal wedding, but he an Titania are at odds, not over sexual errancy (of that they are both guilty) quarreling for the possession of a changeling child Titania has stolen from mortals.

Their trouble has upset the balance of nature, as Titania says to Oberon, who has steadfastly spoiled Titania’s round dances which are keyed to the elements:

But with thy brawls thou hast disturb’d our sport.
Therefore the winds, piping to us in vain,
As in revenge, have suck’d up from the sea
Contagious fogs; which falling in the land
Have every pelting river made so proud
That they have overborne their continents:
The ox hath therefore stretch’d his yoke in vain,
The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn
Hath rotted ere his youth attain’d a beard;
The fold stands empty in the drowned field,
And crows are fatted with the murrion flock;
The nine men’s morris is fill’d up with mud,
And the quaint mazes in the wanton green
For lack of tread are undistinguishable:
The human mortals want their winter here;
No night is now with hymn or carol blest:
Therefore the moon, the governess of floods,
Pale in her anger, washes all the air,
That rheumatic diseases do abound:
And thorough this distemperature we see
The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts
Far in the fresh lap of the crimson rose,
And on old Hiems’ thin and icy crown
An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds
Is, as in mockery, set: the spring, the summer,
The childing autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world,
By their increase, now knows not which is which:
And this same progeny of evils comes
From our debate, from our dissension;
We are their parents and original. (II.i)

At the time, England amid a Little Ice Age lasting from 1560 to 1600, with cold wet summers plaguing crops especially from 1594 to 1597. The cooling could have been a result of vulcanism, cyclical lows in solar radiation or changes in ocean circulation. (The last is presently affecting Europe with colder weather as the Atlantic current has slowed some 15 percent since 1950.)

Such disturbance always routes back to the gods, and Shakespeare knew the myths relating how royal discord could upset nature. The problem may have been older than even he understood: Olympian gods and Celtic mother-goddesses could be at war, too; certainly a solar masculinity is tripped up by moonlight. The Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets would agree.

Oberon wants the child for his own revels among mortals, but Titania won’t give him up, and to punish her Oberan has his chief sprite Puck search the world for a magic flower and then stain the queen’s sleeping eyelids with some of its juice, knowing that when she awakes she will fall madly in love with whatever beast is strolling by. Observing Helena’s forest mistreatment of Demetrius as he chases after Hermia, he bids Puck also to drip some of the flower’s potion in Demetrius’ eye as he sleeps. Puck achieves the first but mistakes Lysander for Demetrius, and when Lysander awakes he falls madly in love with Helena, losing all interest in his true love Hermione.

Things really go amok from here. The Lovers moon and quarrel, the wires of true and false love crossed. The mechanicals arrive in the wood to practice their play, but Puck charms Bottom into — what else? — an ass. His transformation drives off his fellows in terror; Titania wakes to behold this thing of wonder to her. Besotted love works its fairy magic again, though Bottom strangely is easily comfited to his new role; taking in his new animal nature with ease.

Eventually though Oberan is dismayed to see good love so confused in the lovers and his own love turned so cruelly on his queen. He has Puck reverse all the charms and as dawn arrives, the strange sense of dream recedes into ordained festivity and three marriages—Tiberias and Hippolyta, Lysander and Hermia and Demetrius and Helean. Order is restored, history can now procede.

All’s well that ends well, and Shakespeare sends us off from A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the sense of pomp so memorable that Mendelssohn composed what became known as “The Wedding March” Mendelssohn in the second part of his orchestral music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It became the traditional music played at most weddings.

We get three readings of the imagination — the Dream in Shakespeare’s play — and they are positioned at varying ends of the rational – poetic spectrum. Theseus the Duke of Athens is most “awake” of the bunch, and his view of the imagination is dismissive:

… I never may believe
These antique fables, nor these fairy toys.
Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact:
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,
That is, the madman: the lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt:
The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy;
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear! (V,i)

Bottom, who in the dream has been transformed into half-man, half animal, is aware how far imagination can take one; for him, the dream “hath no bottom”:

I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was: man is but an ass, if he go about to expound this dream. Methought I was—there is no man can tell what. Methought I was,—and methought I had,—but man is but a patched fool, if he will offer to say what methought I had. The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was. I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of this dream: it shall be called Bottom’s Dream, because it hath no bottom; and I will sing it in the latter end of a play, before the duke: peradventure, to make it the more gracious, I shall sing it at her death. (IV, i)

Bottom is never given the chance to sing his finale: just before he begins, Theseus notes the midnight hour and clears the table, declaring, “’tis almost fairy time.” It is up to Puck to deliver the play’s epilogue and seal us deepest in dreamlike imagining:

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
if you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends. (V, i)

The dream, in Puck’s estimation, is the play itself; indeed, all in his voice — and the Bard’s — is but a dream inside a dream. Bottom’s Dream is bottomless.

 

III. Interlude: A Dream

My dream from the other night was marvelous strange.

I was back working at the daily newspaper I left in 1998, going to work in a function across the hall from my old job in Human Resources. I was cramped in a small office with two other guys, one about my age, the other ancient. The office contributed to some antique function of advertising by checking old ledgers for facts supporting advertising claims. The room was cluttered with obsolete equipment – telecopiers and word processors, vacuum tubes and inoperable stuff from long ago, piled on each other randomly and haphazardly.

Apparently I was chosen for the job because I said I was a gentleman scholar, dedicating odd hours to study; but on the first day I made a dumb mistake which called all of my qualifications into question. Troubling notes enter. I wonder about the newspaper operation, how many employees are in Advertising now? I’m told 125, a quarter of the department’s size when I worked there last but impressive since its all but gone now. Preparations for a Christmas event (the sort I used to plan when I worked there) are underway in the conference center; I want to join everyone, there but need to go out into the winter cold to check on some machine that cleans trucks with ash. No one understands the procedure, its another ghost tradition that is still routinely carried out. Everyone gets up at once to head for the holiday event. I want to go there but I see down at the end of the hall a cat jumping around – it’s Domino, one of the strays we feed. I have to go attend to him first. I wake up.

The first odd thing about the dream is that the entire bustling operation of a 24-7 daily newspaper is dust. The two huge buildings that housed Advertising, Editorial, Marketing, Circulation, Operations, Finance and Human Resources – 1,750 employees when I last worked there – are completely empty.  A couple dozen reporters work in a small office downtown, advertising reps work from home, page composition is done at a sister paper in Fort Lauderdale and the paper is published in a pressroom in Lakeland. Those buildings are a ghost town, with much of the equipment — desks, chairs, file cabinets, even computers and miles and miles of cabling – just sitting there in darkness. Eventually the buildings will be either repurposed or torn down; what is anyone going to do with the empty vault of a pressroom with a pad thick enough to sustain 100 tons of roaring presses?

Another thing: this dream has been repeating itself in numerous ways over the past few months. Sometimes I work in Human Resources, sometimes in earlier jobs I worked there. There is always a ghostly sense of purpose – about old duties – in quarters filled with old, broken and useless equipment, amid much grime and dirt. It’s as if old memories have been decanted.  People who have been gone or dead or both go about their usual business.

My imaginarium is full of this though I don’t know why.

*

  

IV. The Psyche of Dreams

According to Jung, “the dream is a fragment of involuntary psychic activity, just conscious enough to be reproducible in the waking state.” (“The Nature of Dreams, 1945) It’s the barely visible fin of the fish who swims deep within us.

Jung continues,

Of all psychic phenomena the dream presents perhaps the largest number of “irrational” factors. It seems to possess a minimum of that logical coherence and that hierarchy of values shown by the other contents of consciousness, and is therefore less transparent and understandable. Dreams that form logically, morally, or aesthetically satisfying wholes are exceptional. Usually a dream is a strange and disconcerting product distinguished by many “bad qualities,” such as a lack of logic, questionable morality, uncouth form, and apparent absurdity or nonsense. People are only too glad to dismiss it as stupid, meaningless, and worthless. (par. 532)

Jung’s his method of understanding someone’s dream begins with a simple statement: “I have no idea what this dream means.” Picking up on a finding by Freud that no interpretation can be undertaken without the dreamer, he requests the active participation of the dreamer by asking him/her to provide any associations related to the dream. From these Jung proceeds in a procedure he calls “taking up the context”:

This consists in making sure that every shade of meaning which each salient feature of the dream has for the dreamer is determined by the associations of the dreamer himself. I therefore proceed in the same way that I would in deciphering a difficult text. This method does not always produce and immediately understandable result; often the only thing that emerges, at first, is a hint that looks significant. (par. 542)

The way of the dream is not straight – no fish swims that way – but it does so to carry meaning which is dark to the conscious mind.

Even though dreams refer to a definite attitude of consciousness and definite pyschic situation, their roots lie deep in the unfathomably dark recess of the conscious mind. For want of a more descriptive term we call this unknown background the unconscious. … Because dreams are the most common and most normal expression of the unconscious psyche, they provide the bulk of the material for its investigation. (par. 544)

Dreams then, are voyages into the dark, masques and dances in fairy-land which can only be seen in shadows of moonlight. What is to be found there? Only the dreamer —you — can say.

 

“Koobor the Drought-Maker,” Ainslie Roberts

 

V. The Dreamtime

We don’t have that far to drift downstream from the Midsummer Night’s Dream and Jung to the aboriginal Dreamtime of Australia, that account of tribal beginnings some 50,000 to 200,000 years ago. However, the Dreamtime goes far beyond the individual’s journey into the unconscious. For aboriginal peoples, it is the collective dream how the world came into being.

Fred R. Myers characterizes the Dreamtime this way:

Frequently known as totemic ancestors in anthropological literature, the mythological personages of The Dreaming travelled from place to place, hunted, performed ceremony, fought and finally turned into stone or ”went into the ground”, where they remain. The actions of these powerful beings – animal, human and monster – created the world as it now exists. They gave it outward form, identity (a name), and internal structure. The desert is crisscrossed with their lines of travel, and, just as an animal tracks leave a record of what happened, the geography and special features of the land hills, creeks, salt lakes, trees are marks of the ancestors’ activities. Places where exceptionally significant events took place, where power was left behind, or where the ancestors went into the ground and still remain, are special sacred sites.

Time in The Dreaming is circular, an everywhen where past is prologue to an ancestral present. Animals and humans are undistinguished and the landscape is alive with ancestors who have “gone underground.” They are the landmarks, and by assembling them in songlines aborigines can travel vast distances across Australia. A spirit pervades all things and is both prior to and after life; when a child stirs in her mother’s womb, it is believed that it is the work of the land in which the mother was standing. When the child is born, she is considered a custodian of that part of the country and is taught songlines of that place.

Here is a Dreamtime tale, of Goolagaya and the White Dingo:

(There. was) a spiteful woman, Goolagaya, who, having no children of her own, was intensely jealous of other women who were more fortunate. Her tale-bearing and gossip had caused almost every quarrel in the camp, especially those between husbands and wives, or mothers and their grown-up daughters. In consequence, Goolagaya was so much shunned and disliked that her only companion was a savage white dingo, which followed its mistress everywhere. But in spite of her enmity towards grown-ups, Goolagaya was always kind to children, and often, when their parents were not watching, amused them with games, or gave them titbits of food.

One day, after a violent quarrel with a woman named Naluk, Goolagaya planned to take revenge by giving her a great fright. She waited until there was no one about, then picked up Naluk’s baby, and hid it under a low shrub at the edge of a distant lagoon, expecting that the infant would soon be found. But her plans miscarried, for the baby, on waking, crawled to the bank of the lagoon, fell over the edge into the water, and was drowned.

This accident so enraged the aborigines that they killed both Goolagaya and her dingo, burying them deeply in the mud of the lagoon so that never again would they cause any trouble. But though their bodies remained under the ground, their two spirits escaped and made their home in the trunk of a misshapen tree at the edge of the water. Every night, just as the sun is sinking below the horizon, the spirits of Goolagaya and her companion leave the tree, ready, when darkness comes, to roam the bush and steal any wandering child. But Goolagaya is seldom successful, for the children, warned of the dangers of the dark, fear to leave the light of their camp-fire.

— Charle Mountford, The Dreamtime: Australian Aboriginal Myths (pp. 35-36). ETT Imprint. Kindle Edition.

The European dreamtime had all but faded by Shakespeare’s time, but he does a noble job of resurrecting what he can. The song of the first fairy we meet in Act II of A Midsummer Night’s Dream has a reckoning of place akin to such songlines.

Over hill, over dale,
Thorough bush, thorough brier,
Over park, over pale,
Thorough flood, thorough fire,
I do wander everywhere,
Swifter than the moon’s sphere;
And I serve the fairy queen,
To dew her orbs upon the green.
The cowslips tall her pensioners be:
In their gold coats spots you see;
Those be rubies, fairy favours,
In those freckles live their savours:
I must go seek some dewdrops here
And hang a pearl in every cowslip’s ear.

I would have loved to be a Puck on the wall observing the staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by an all-aboriginal cast in Sydney in 1997. In it, the forest became an Aboriginal space, with Rainbow Serpent covering the forest floor as well as the costumes of Titania and Oberon. Titania’s bower was a giant waratah and spirits/fairies included Kangaroo and Lyrebird.

In that staging, there were greater lines of tension. The fairy aborigines mix with the European world at a peril which is greater than mere distraction. In European settings of the play, modernity is building up all around them, foresting them in a place which is only fantasy and fable. In the aboriginal world, petroglyphs blasted for railroads and valleys ruined by coal mining destroys the Dreamtime truth for an entire people.

A 1999 all-aboriginal staging of The Tempest was similarly fraught, with white first contact with Aboriginals playing out on Prospero’s island and his control of Ariel and Caliban, the former represent the spiritual life of the people and the latter its enslavement. (The play may have been in the very mindset of Australia’s white settlers, arriving at the continent 180 years after Shakespeare’s death.)

Aborigines used stone circles to mark the summer and winter solstices. One at Wurdi Youang in Victoria was noticed by European settlers two hundred years ago and was first charted by archaeologists in 1977. The Wadda Wurrung people are supposed to have built the circle though no one knows any more; early in the 20th century, traditional language and practices were banned. No one knows the age of the circle, either, though the deposition of them suggests they have been there for thousands of years. The circle may perhaps be older than Stonehenge.

 

“Goolagaya and the White Dingo,” Ainslie Roberts

 

VI. The Deeper End of Bottom’s Dream

Years ago, in a paper for a night class in Shakespeare, I delved into mythic parallels in The Tempest. Once I started digging, I could find no bottom to the play’s sources. Prospero and Ariel, Sycorax and Caliban were shapeshifting energies of a magic island tens of thousands of years old.

We have another enchanted hallow n Midsummer Night’s Dream — a wilderness thrice charmed dream and moon and fairy. It is outside Athens the way Avalon is offshore England, back and down history in the dreamy veld of the archaic unconscious.

The fairy Oberon is a lord as men had become in England; but the ruling deity of moon and night is Titania — a fading power but still undergirding the living, growing world. His power is effected by magic and smith-craft (in some productions, his fairy servants are dwarves); he is the magus Prospero and the shaman of the crannog and the madman Sweeney in the wild.

Titania is the moon-goddess Ioua once was revered at Iona, her fairies children, the purest extract of flowers that bloom at night. Her regency is inscribed on every Mesolithic altar and her agency astonished makers of the Paleolithic who carved fat goddesses out of mammoth ivory and laid them in cavernous cathedrals underground. Puck like Ariel sports our imaginarium, flying the airy heaven between us and God and flinging pixie-dust over us to make us dream; Bottom transformed is half-man, half-ass, as natural as the natural man might go on the precipice of dreamtime, the stag-headed Sorcerer of Trois Frères staring back with eyes whirling in prophetic wonder.

And the Midsummer Eve festival which Shakespeare fashioned into a stage yet dances all night round standing stone, wheeling the sun back beneath the ocean in which we sleep to rise, triumphant, to the rising sun’s patrimony of the day and the slow awakening of human consciousness. An agrarian festival perhaps but archaeologists now see a long period of adjustment from hunter-gathering to agriculture in Europe and the United Kingdom, a murky Mesolithic in which the rituals of one were enculturated in the next — just as paganism was absorbed by Christianity for centuries and now that faith is morphing into some latter expression of the Dream.

Not without disturbance, though. The weather was full of bad omens in Shakespeare’s time, and our skies are just as troubling. As I finish this post, the American southwest broils in triple-digit-heat — 118 F (or 47 C) on Thursday in Phoenix, 114 in Las Vegas on Friday; 123 degrees in Palm Springs (a June record) 107 in Salt Lake City, a record, 128 degrees in Death Valley. These records are being broken a month earlier than they might have be expected.

So celebrations of the sun’s zenith are marred by heat which has never been reckoned. It’s not the sun’s fault. Scientists at NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report that the amount of heat the Earth traps has doubled since 2005. Greenhouse gases, disappearance of reflective sea-ice and reduction in cloud cover are trapping solar energy in the atmosphere and the oceans. It explains the megadrought in the southwestern US. Extreme heat is extremely deadly for the disadvantaged; last year alone in Maricopa County, Arizona, some 320 elderly, poor and outside workers died from the heat. Hurricane season is whipping up here with Tropical Storm Debby now raking Tallahassee in Northern Florida. 54 tropical cyclones systems formed this year, 28 were named; the worst was Typhoon Surigae, packing sustained winds of 220 kmh.

Melting sea ice is slowing the Atlantic current, resulting in more storms battering the UK and bringing both extreme cold and heat to Europe. Telegram from Oberon and Titania: Farewell mild wet weather.

Maybe it’s not surprising then that conservative agencies worldwide are desperate to turn back the sunwheel. The wilder this gets, the harsher they get. U.S. bishops of the Catholic Church have just drafted a “teaching document” to rebuke Catholic politicians, including President Joe Biden, for their support for abortion by refusing them communion. Likewise, Republicans in the U.S. Congress have collapsed into their ultra-right wing and are taking drastic measures to the limit voting rights of a growing multicultural plurality, refusing gun legislation and supporting the false claims of their former President Donald Trump. A disturbing majority of Republicans and evangelical Christians believe the of perverted claims Q-Anon to be true. In Iran, the ultra-conservative judiciary chief Ebrahaim Raisi has been named president in an election where hardliners increasingly have say. And on Friday night, the first of the marches in Northern Ireland’s Protestant marching season was conducted under heavy police presence, as fears grow that this year the marches will descend into violence due to intense objections to Northern Ireland Protocol brought into effect by Brexit. A single drum beat was played as it passed St Patrick’s Catholic chapel on Donegall Street  while a police helicopter hovered overhead.

Hope and dream as we might, the way forward is terribly fraught. But can we really go back? Failing religions are tethered to the monster dragon of market capitalism: both must go down and its remains buried in the cathedral which will rise for centuries.

What to do? For all that’s being disrupted by change, sea level rise and regressive populists across the world – for all those losses, this losing: what can we do? Elizabeth Bishop could only say Write it!, eventually, after many revisions. Me, I usually end up at first light with my words not fleshed or winged or finned enough, too outré or vain or labored to have much appeal: And then put on my sneakers and head out for a walk down to the lake and back. I say my AA prayers now to the trees – God, I offer myself to you, to build with me and do with me what you will  — and pause. down at the lake and the point that is built crannog-style, with three sycamore trees at its head that I touch every day with gators swimming about just offshore. I stand there facing the waking waters repeating what my father heard at Iona decades ago: Your work is our work and our work is yours.

And on that note, that fragment of a dream, turn to complete walking circuit home. May their work show in mine.

 

All of these attempts at articulating this challenge have fallen short:  No mortal mind may fully understand fairyland, the ancient forest and the dream. As we are told, “The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what (that) dream was.”

Yet it comes together somehow, does it not? So Hippolyta says, considering what the lovers have told her and Theseus of their night in the wood:

But all the story of the night told over,
And all their minds transfigured so together,
More witnesseth than fancy’s images
And grows to something of great constancy;
But, howsoever, strange and admirable. (V,i)

Or will assemble — in the collective, hive, water temple and moony forest of our poems …

 

 

THE CHALLENGE

Let’s get to it! Write a poem about A Midsummer Night’s Dreamtime.

  • The time is awash in fairies — will o’ the wisps, pixes, pookas, selkies, pilwiz, oakmen, rusalka, elderfolk, merrows, banshees. Weave us a fairy ring and echo the music of trooping fairies in a dreamland.
     
  • Light a midsummer bonfire and dance around it: What builds it, what transpires in its flames, what is created and what is burned off? What tales of old are found there, what does it still mean in this terrible time of fire? How does the wheel of fire bear down on us?
     
  • Write a dream poem using its language and rhetoric and dark sense. What moony light does it cast on the day? If you care, add to the poem or a note with any associations from waking life that the dream seems to be commenting on. If the dream is your unconscious speaking to you, what is it trying to help your waking writing mind to see?
     
  • In the aboriginal sense of The Dreamtime, write a poem in the tense of everywhen. Sing a songline across the sacred terrain of your beginning and end.
     
  • What rituals help restore the balance of our elements and right the time? How can the dance resume and conflicted relations harmonized?
     
  • If you are responding from the Southern Hemisphere, what is the fairy magic in midwinter dreams? How does the land gather up the death of one year and turn toward the next??
     

So come dance!

— Brendan

 

 

VII. Epilogue

Another dream was sent bubbling up Friday night, as if to clarify the first:

I was participating in theater event of sorts packing in the audience where I am both witness and participant. Seems a co-worker at has arranged a televised confrontational theater where execs from my dead newspaper industry revel in their clout and wealth. I’m supposed to stand up and ask a tough question of the CEO sitting onstage, but I’m so outraged I want to tear him a new asshole, speak up for everyone who invested their working life to their cause and lost everything except a separation payout and a maybe a pension. I’m seething, can’t wait to get up and speak: But then the co-worker tells me he’s arranged for a late-night soiree with the execs / cast after the show. He wants me to participate, play on the lust of the CEO for young men (I guess I’m a young dude in the dream.) I hate the assignment, don’t know how I’ll be able to contain my rage and loathe having all this interrupt the deep work of my pre-day studies. Then as if to note that the irruption is not just by a job, I dream *next* of some huge project that’s been launched where the sympathies are close to mine — an excavation of sorts, same rhythm and load, say, of this earthweal post — but it’s not my project, begs time away from the work I must be about. My anger carries over.

Hmmm. Further into Jung’s essay on dreams he concludes that the unconscious is an independent mental function removed from conscious intents. The dream (of which the unconscious is matrix) then is compensation, a balancing of conscious intents with deeper darker perspectives which read things in dreamtime. When dreams are wildly weird, they suggest a wide gap; other more normative dreams seem like minor calibrations toward the dark attitude.  If we take the notion of compensation back to my dream, then the stage is the work of my life, my conscious view of it .

On to the amplifications: The person who had arranged the event in the dream is a guy who recently paired my magazine team with a true insider of horror movies, with the result that our October issue will be packed with so many features it will be a monster given our resources. Much of the writing will be done by freelancers, but the job of editing content and managing the production will be mine. Wasn’t my idea but I’m working it. Still, I sense a freight train coming.

It also surfaces simmering resentments I’ve nursed at a publishing industry which has so mismanaged a communications revolution it doesn’t understand (no one does), resulting in the of ghost-towning of careers seen in my earlier dream. And now that I’m just a few years from retirement, I’m coming to the end of my daily work life. The dust of four decades in the satanic mills seems to be littering my dream.

And as if to sharpen that point to the finest edge, the second part of the dream edges “Work” from corporate labors toward the vatic, someone’s labors in the alchemical lab with a project that has semblance to mine. (Is the dream-deep looking up at me who is writing this post with some irritation, saying look, I get it there’s lots of noble stuff going on, but is this really My work? (Bronx cheer).

It leaves me to wonder: What isn’t getting done because I’m writing this post?

Maybe Elizabeth Bishop was wrong …or not right enough.

Shamanic elucidation from the Bard of Dreams, or the effect of all those steroids injected yesterday into the epidural of my neck, in the hopes of further dimming back pain in my shoulder and neck from disordered neck vertebrae, the product of decades of day jobs at a desk cranking out corporate inspiration?

Why is the Dreamtime’s answer always Yes?

 

 

earthweal weekly challenge: SANCTUARY

Stone circle at Columcille

 

Greetings all –

My father spent decades building what he called a megalithic park in eastern Pennsylvania, raising stones in circles and dolmens, in stone buildings and stones standing by themselves across the 22-acre park. He’s been gone several years now and I haven’t been back: But my memory of Columcille resonates with this simple yet precious sense of sanctuary. In such hallowed places—and I hope we will find and name many in this challenge—the veil between I and Thou is the faintest.

My thought on sanctuary stems from a book I am brooding about my father and his work at Columcille. Writing it was his only dying request and I share enough of his vision to feel I can contribute to his legacy in a meaningful way for the Columcille community which now works forward. I’m in no hurry; I retire in another year or so and it will be a good project to fill those daily hours. It takes a while for founders to find their way into myth.  St. Columba’s tale wasn’t taken up until Adomnán became the seventh abbot of Iona. His Vita Columbae or “Life of Columba” was written around 697-700 AD and played a pivotal role in establishing the cult of St Columba. It is also the most important surviving work of medieval Scotland.

If the Columcille community can survive – there are financial and leadership challenges, and the park must find the right balance between work and festival — I believe it can serve as a model for human and nonhuman relations that can provide vision and possibility for a healing Earth. So allow me to indulge the Columcille metaphor in order to expand on a new sense of sanctuary.

Manannan and Lia Fail at the far end of Columcille

The stones which are Columcille’s consonants  – some bigger than houses, other pebbles in a palm — were grated off Blue Mountain as the glaciers heaved south, tumbling and collecting in Fox Valley where my father lived. (According to geologists, the rocks to heave forth when the Earth first crusted formed a line from the British Isles to the Appalachians.) There is a cold feel to those stones, mute as death and almost as old as starlight. The St. Oran bell tower in the field is circular and close, its roofless view tugged by the changeful sky overhead; the St. Columba chapel is plainchant, a primordial vowel which human voices singing together echo the ages. Mananann down at the far end of the field is three times human height and the three stones which form the dolmen called Thor’s Gate are twenty to forty tons each. Rest your cheek on such stone and you feel yourself sinking into the abyss of time, descending from Bucks County to Stonehenge into the deep end of Lascaux.

Hallowed, somewhat harrowing stuff: But the sense of sanctuary you get from walking Columcille’s grounds arises from something more, Om-vowels that are nearer and habitable with the sacred. In the old conception, there’s always a Woodhenge next to Stonehenge. Maybe it’s the way animate and inanimate worlds blend so sweetly there, a communion of living and dead, tree and stone, human votives and lunar candlelight merging in one expression. Back in 2007 the word I found for it was “Halycon”:

Here in the halcyon nothing intrudes,
not even when it does. The off-road
toy whining round the house next door
and the gun range a few miles down
filling the distance with random shot:

they try to mar but can’t, not on a day like this,
so perfect in early autumn, fair and
cool enough to bourne the heart red and gold,
a boule in the burnsoak of oak and ash leaves.

The halcyon pays no attention
to the dozens of visitors who wander
about the tall standing stones,
nor to their aged lifter back up in the house.
Not even to the Maker of all in this pen
dreaming of solstice from a womb of cold stone.

The halcyon blesses what releases
as if autumn day were sign,
its immensity belled in a thatch of
dying ferns’ airy curls.

Gnats and a jet overhead, people
coming and going through the
chapel behind me and the halcyon
weaves on those delicate stems,
souled to infinity as everything
slowly drowses and loosens
the God in us all
whose love graces our fall.

Everyone seems to sense the sanctuary nature of the land; an attitude of love and respect for the place pervades. In Columcille’s four decades of unfolding there has been almost no vandalism, no beer cans and tire tracks and rubbers in the deep wood, no graffiti on chapel walls. Some Westboro Baptist clones once demonstrated across the road during one of the community’s Beltane festivals, waving “God Hates Fags” signs and such, and journalists consistently get the narrative wrong digging up local color for newspapers and magazines: But whatever fret and angst of the falling-apart world vanishes after a few strides onto the field with its standing stones, another kind of time replacing profane with sacred.

The Glen of the Temple with Thor’s Gate at the crest

I’ve puzzled some over how that special sense of sanctuary came to Columcille. There were New Age influences; my father had visited Findhorn and Iona; he and I spent many hours drinking Scotch in the ‘70s and ‘80s yammering about Being and Becoming, spirits of the land and Guardian energies; we were trolling for Laws of Manifestation which would turn an idea about community into reality. But really, I think it was just decades of daily work on the land with a love and respect that would slowly harvest a beloved vibration in the land. You want sanctuary, sanctitude and the sacred? Treat something as such.

Religion has been practicing sanctuary for millennia, from the Hebrew cities of refuge described in the Book of Numbers, the temenos of Greek shrines, the sacred groves of the goddess or in the consecrated ground upon which Christian churches were believed to have been built, with an even more intense sanctum immediately around the altar, which in Catholic churches were often inlaid with sacred relics.

Door out from the St. Columba chapel

In all of these the sanctuary was between human and the divine. Fleeing slaves or those committing accidental manslaughter could find refuge in these sanctuaries, shelter from the chaos of the human storm. Today we also have animal sanctuaries, lands protected from the same predations of humanity. Last year a proposal by the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity called for national parks, marine sanctuaries and other protected areas to cover 30 percent of the planet in order to stop a sixth mass extinction event and slow global warming.

But what about sanctuary shared by all creation, human, animal, vegetal and mineral? Images of Eden speak to a primordial condition of unity. The songs of Orpheus were so sublime that all creation gathered around in harmony to listen. The Otherworld remembered by writers in medieval Ireland was sinless — without blame — no moral code to remind us of our great error.

What strikes me now about places like Columcille – and may be the essence of the book I may eventually write — is that at it envisions that sort of sanctuary. There were days—days of hauling stone for the bell tower, or cleaning trails, or working in the organic gardens or traipsing along with hundreds of others for May Day or Samhuin — graced with a halcyon fairness which felt like walking on sunshine. On those days, the veil between words and world and vanished into an effervescent sense of sanctuary for all — critters, stones, trees, sunlight, fungii, flies, starlight, wind, water and tiny humans — a unity in glory.

I am sad for the scarcity of such sanctuary yet hopeful for the earth because seeds like Columcille are there. Sanctuary is not lost and irretrievable; no literal voyages to the otherworld are required, there are no drugs to take or demons to be cast out. All you must do is protect and border and greet the world with all your heart in the locale where you live.

The fragrant hope and strength of sanctuary can be grounded in astonishing Anthropocene damage; as Wendell Berry said, its difficulty is its possibility.

I’ve been making my way slowly through the Eco-Poetry Anthology, a 600-page contribution to the poetry of earth which does a lot of footwork pacing off the green sanctum we inhabit when striving for our best sense. “Co-editing (it) has been a labor of love against despair,” Ann-Fisher Wirth writes in her introduction. “…We are living out a colossal failure of heart, will, and imagination.”

Yet Laura Gray Street, her partner in editing the collection, defined well what that labor means:

In a sense, poetry has always been ecopoetry, in that the origins of poetry are embedded in the natural world and poetry has traditionally foregrounded nature, in a way that drama and fiction have not. Ecopoetry isn’t just any poetry garnished with birds and trees; it is a paradigm shift. It is the apprehension of real biological selves (as opposed to fantasy selves) inhabiting the planet along with us, a mix of negative capability and empathy expressed with the cadence, imagery and wit to make it visceral, so that it lodges in our neural systems and cultivates the environmental imagination that is analgous to the crucial biodiversity of the rainforests in our intestines.

A paradigm shift: Nature’s voice in our own. When my father once visited Iona, he says he encountered the ancient energies of the island. “Our work is your work and your work is ours,” they said to some deep part of his listening. He took that as mandate to build what would become Columcille, perhaps he heard right. Ecopoetry can take up the same work, finding ways to greet and border and protect the world in front of us.

David Abram in The Spell of the Sensuous suggests how we can begin:

The human mind is not some otherworldly essence that comes to house itself inside our physiology. Rather, it is instilled and provoked by the sensorial field itself, induced by the tensions and participations between the human body and the animate earth. The invisible shapes of smells, rhythms of cricketsong, and the movement of shadows all, in a sense, provide the subtle body of our thoughts. Our own reflections, we might say, are part of the play of light and its reflections. “The inner — what is it, if not intensified sky?”

By acknowledging such links between the inner, psychological world and the perceptual terrain that surrounds us, we begin to turn inside-out, loosening the psyche from its confinement within a strictly human sphere, freeing sentience to return to the sensible world that contains us. Intelligence is no longer ours alone but is a property of the earth; we are in it, of it, immersed in its depths. And indeed each terrain, each ecology, seems to have its own particular intelligence, its unique vernacular of soil and leaf and sky.

Each places its own mind, its own psyche. Oak, madrone, Douglas fir, red-tailed hawk, serpentine in the sandstone, a certain scale to the topography , drenching rains in the winter, fog off-shore in the summer, salmon surging in the streams — all these together make up a particular state of mind, a place-specific intelligence shared by all the humans that dwell therein, but also by the coyotes yapping in those valleys, the bobcats and the ferns and the spiders, by all beings who live and make their way in that zone. Each place its own psyche. Each sky its own blue. (262)

Sanctuary takes a village. Its work is not easy. Seldom does Avalon clear the mist of first drafts. There are few mentors. The dream falters, turning moral or mortal. Conditions are not ripe. (At Columcille, the Anthropocene has seeped in; the oaks are besieged by gypsy moths and oak wilt, while beech bark disease afflicts the beeches; Superstorm Sandy leveled dozens more trees.) We need each other. The world inside each of our voices comprises the earthly choir of the forum. My faith is that a unique sanctuary is right in front of us if we can sing it forth.

For this challenge, write about Sanctuary. Where are those places near you in which you find the communion and forgiveness and renewal of sanctuary? How is it created and with whom is it shared? What can be done to ensure it grows into a deeper communion for generations to come?

I leave you with this poem by Mary Oliver from the Eco-Poetry Anthology as a ripe phrasing of sanctuary. May our poems work toward the same end.

— Brendan

 

Oaks in my neighborhood at dawn

 

WILD GEESE

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting‑
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.