earthweal weekly challenge: A KEEN EAR FOR A QUEER EARTH

 

I walked out this morning for my early walk into a gentle weeping of the trees.

Heavy fog had drifted in, a winter occurrence here in Florida when nights are warm. (For the past month we’ve been unseasonably so.) Condensation from the fog gathers in the limbs and leaves of trees drips with a slight, pale and distant sound. Its disconcerting at first because it isn’t actually raining though the trees are behaving as if it were.

A slow seeping of moisture, not rain but fertile. A grievous leaking of broken skies in the midst of a winter warm by Florida standards, cutting short whatever small reprieve we have before the next longer hotter summer season.

Whatever your reading (we are poets), the sound was a gentle and sad.

Grieving the year that has just ended, or the one to come? They merge here, one door closing, the next creaking open. Our breeding climate miasmas steel us (or should) to increase the threat by unknown factors. On Thursday a Colorado wildfire fueled by drought, unseasonably warm temperatures and 100 mph winds destroyed nearly 1,000 homes; by the weekend, winter weather had reversed the course with snow falling heavily over the same area. On Saturday a line of storms producing tornadoes marched through the same counties devastated by tornadoes two weeks ago — with a winter weather advisory in their wake. In the Philippines, residents are still plying the wreckage of Typhoon Rai, the island nation’s 15th cyclone of the year. More than 400 were killed and some 530,000 houses were damaged by the storm. And in the northeastern counties of Brazil, where drought has plagued the region for 5 years, the skies opened in December with the most rainfall in three decades, driving 50,000 from their homes. Natalie Untersell, president of a climate policy think tank in Brazil, urged the government to take climate change into account when rebuilding “Brazil is built to a climate that no longer exists,” she said.

The range in Celsius: -39.4 C – 37 C

Concurrent with this (always some equally worrisome concurrency in our new world), the Omicron variant runs rampant — 5 million new cases worldwide in the past week; in Florida alone, 77,848 new cases of COVID were reported on Thursday, almost double the previous one-day record set a day ago. And we can’t be sure these number are close to the accurate count since home testing became available and those infections are rarely reported. Florida’s Republican governor, who has warred on mask mandates and vaccine requirements, has been absent from public sight, and the state doesn’t plan to open new testing sites. I remember when 10,000 new cases was a jaw-dropping new reality. Twenty eight percent test positivity and few wear masks at my local grocery store.

Now I’m sure you are weary of these weekly body-counts as evidence of a dying Earth. If you are still looking for that evidence, you won’t be disappointed; if you’re hoping it will convince others to act, well, the dance has become almost meaningless. For the incessant patter of it is like moisture falling from fog-bound trees — here but already gone.

My body-sense of this death is ambiguous — so far and too near — and with no sense of linear progression. Change keeps coming in unpredictable ways.

New year, same old harrows, new and old at the same time.

A winter storm blew in within hours of a wildfire that burned down more than 1,000 houses near Boulder, Co, 1/1/21

As I said a few weeks ago, I’ve been reading Pauline Boss’s new book The Myth of Closure: Ambiguous Loss in a Time of Pandemic and Change. It seeks a larger riff on her life’s work studying how grief is endured and perpetuated in families, between generations and in society at large.

While some losses can be grieved in linear fashion — something that feels like a beginning, middle and end — many losses cannot, either because the fact of death was never quite confirmed or understood or the departed is has only been lost in one sense, like an alcoholic parent who is physically present but emotionally gone. Ambiguous losses like this are rarely acknowledged, which leads both the loss and grief of it to frozen. In such cases, people simply wait for things to go back to normal but they never quite do.

Other ambiguous losses range from the personal — breakups, separations, migration — financial (loss of job and financial security) to collective ambiguous losses due to slavery and racism (think of all the opportunities lost) and more widespread ambiguous losses due to catastrophe.

Piano in flooded living room after Hurricane Harvey, 2017.

Traditional models of grief recovery say that closure is needed — to finally put the thing behind us and go on — but with ambiguous loss, the timeline is all screwed up. When a spouse goes missing, when does one finally declare they are widowed? Also, shutting the door to old pain may be a way to force forward movement, but few really benefit from burying their losses. Rather, we live an absent ghostly host; to be rid of them would to lose the better half of our heart. Rilke famously refused psychotherapy, saying, if you rid me of my devils I will lose my angels, too.

In many cases of grief, closure is the wrong tack. There are no clear and absolute endings. As Mitch Abrom wrote, “Death ends a life, not a relationship.” Divorce ends a marriage, but not other elements of that relationship including friendship or co-parenting. What if the missing spouse should return, the alcoholic parent sober up? Both possibilities remain real; the reality is that one must live with that ambivalence. Likewise, while it important to form new relations and connections with life after a loss, memory of the departed becomes a part of one’s identity, and to lose it is to lose one’s own past. Our culture is hasty about getting over the hard parts, is too quick to erase cultural memory of its stains. Mastery and control create many ghosts.

People have suffered a wide range of ambiguous losses due to the pandemic. Here are some that Boss lists:

  • Loss of hopes, dreams, and plans for your future—the loss of a way of life that had promised fulfillment and satisfaction
  • Loss of certainty about safety and health for yourself and family
  • Loss of routines
  • Loss of playdates for young children and at-school learning for all students regardless of age
  • Loss of parental time and freedom to go to work due to the need for at-home schooling for their children
  • Loss of ability to be with a loved one who is hospitalized and/or dying
  • Loss of traditional rituals of mourning and burial, not knowing where the body of a loved one is
  • Loss of ability to celebrate or mourn major life events—births, graduations, marriages, deaths, etc., in community with others
  • Loss of support and comfort from your community at times of loss
  • Loss of ability to attend large events—concerts, sports, lectures, reunions, and so on
  • Loss of control of how much time is spent with partner and children (too much, too little)
  • Loss of trust in the world as a fair and just place
  • Loss of trust in leaders and authorities
  • Loss of freedom to move about as we please

Pandemic losses suggest the scope of the pandemic in ways we don’t see as fully looking at it straight on, taking in only the hard counts of infected and dead. Now heading into its third year, it’s hard to imagine some things ever coming back; we wonder if the faces behind all those masks have been erased.

In a very similar vein, climate change is creating myriad ambiguous losses. Many are losing their homes and livelihood due to rising seas, wildfire, drought and excessive rain. Millions are on the move, with a homeland vanishing behind and no welcoming place to go. The skies are emptying of birdsong, wildlife is vanishing, tree populations are dwindling to clear-cutting and pestilence introduced by exotic species. A hard dread forms at the beginning of hurricane and wildfire season. I don’t know how fast the coasts of Florida will inundate, but millions of residents will be on the move, inland and up-state exactly where I live. How soon? Will we have to move too if we are still living here, in what will probably be our advancing age?

Starting over after Typhoon Rai in the Philippines, Dec. 22, 2021

Making these things even worse, our language for addressing these changes feels lost. The experiences are so new we haven’t found words for them. The Australian environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht got on the map for formulating the word solastalgia, meaning grief for one’s homeland vanishing due to environmental damage; he went on to write Earth Emotions, a book that reaches for this new lexicon —like meteoranxiety, for dread of the weather to come, and meucide, the extinction of human emotion. (While these words are a helpful start, I don’t think they work in poetry since they have no collective legs to walk on.)

Our public dialogue too easily slips to extremes of denial and hysteria. The change is so big, so global, no regional language feels apt. How does one love in an age of global catastrophe, raise children, make enduring contributions? And the technologies which sped us here are speeding past — they may have already fled — rendering written language obsolete, leaving us with memes and emoticons to describe the ineffable. I have nieces in their late 20s; I can’t even imagine building a career in the wake of the transformative shimmer.

Boss suggests some strategies for living with ambiguous loss:

  • Develop resilience, “the ability to be flexible in the face of pressure without breaking down.”
  • Learn to live with ambiguity. Instead of mentally closing out the loss or denying the loss or its ambiguity, learn to live with tolerate the ambiguity and live well despite it. “Instead of neat and precise endings, the reality of loss comes in complicated shades of grey … Continuity and change, the ultimate contributors to paradox, must be recalibrated now and then and changed into something new.”
  • Embrace both/and thinking. Instead of seeking perfect solutions where none is possible, “use the ongoing tension of conflicting ideas to provide the momentum to move us forward toward adaptation and change—living life in a new way without the lost person.” Sometimes a loss is both present and gone; both/and thinking “is more fluid, less absolute, and thus closer to the truth of ambiguous loss.”
  • Find meaning. Make sense out of the loss, and when the loss is meaningless, accept that as its meaning.
  • Adjust mastery. “The more we try to control the pain of loss, clear or ambiguous, the more it dominates us. It is better to flow with the sorrow when it comes,”
  • Reconstruct identity. “Knowing who we are in relation to a lost loved one requires reconstructions in mind and emotions about who we are, what we do, and how we act …. Over a lifetime, loss and change accumulate, so we must be malleable enough to grow and shift who we are and what we do.”
  • Normalize ambivalence. “If we live in contexts of confusion and ambiguity, it helps to acknowledge our mixed emotions so that we can more likely manage our anxiety and guilt. It takes mental strength and resilience to manage such uncomfortable feelings.”

These newer approaches to grief recovery have resonated in the academic disciplines. One that you might not have thought is archaeology. In a Neolithic Near Eastern settlement, bodies that were buried were later retrieved as skeletons, the skulls removed and then fashioned into “faces” adding gypsum, lime or mud plaster. Why? Were these tribal elders or men of some other social or economic status? Traditional anthropologies have “read” these remains as such, but an elaboration of Boss’s work called Continuing Bonds theory say that societies need space and time to grieve its collective losses. Some archaeologists now argue that rather than putting the dead behind, the adorned skulls allowed them an ongoing place in tribal life, to the point of “reconstruction” to keep their memory alive for generations. Forensic analysis of the skulls also reveals that they were from a cross-section of the population, including women and children; that may mean that the entire community shared in the grief process.

Traditional archeology has also centered on and in the head, imaging bone that has lost all trace of life and focusing on precise dating and making a wide cultural inference from the data. There is a bias in our Western civilization placing importance on hierarchy and the self, where other cultures were far more collective and ambiguous about identity. Dating provides context, but can obscure the complexity of cultural change. The grand theory that hunter-gatherers lay down their spears and took up plowshares to become famers of the Neolithic is just not true; agricultural practices were slowly merged with hunting culture, with centuries, perhaps millennia, of co-existence. Likewise, there wasn’t a sudden change from paganism and oral culture to Christian and literate; the medieval clerics who wrote Baile Suibne were five hundred years removed from the historic events and yet were still able to capture the haunting forest melodies of Mad Sweeney.

“Queer” theory has led to important reassessments of reading history from bone. If identity is fluid, then seeing with the body instead of just from the head means bodies were more than skulls. How to bring all the senses into play, and not just the peering eye, staring at remains? What about the stench? The sounds of devouring birds? And now central was identity in the long haul of the centuries? Karina Croucher and Stuart Campbell write in “Dying for a change? Bringing New Senses to Near Eastern Neolithic Mortuary Practice,”

Within Near Eastern archaeology, mortuary practices, such as the high degree of intentional fragmentation of the body … often suggest that concepts of the bounded individual body were neither intended nor apparently relevant in certain mortuary contexts, where we witness a high fragmentation and de-individualisation of both the human body, as well the bodies of animals, and certain material objects. Such cases allow for an investigation of the themes of individuality and identity, often in relation to practices of fragmentation, circulation, manipulation and discard, in relation to human bodies, animal bodies, and material culture, and their conceptualisation in reference to the body. (In Que(e)rying Archaeology: Proceedings of the 37th Annual Chacmool Conference, University of Calgary, 2009)

This “queering” of the body also allows for a more fluid identification of the human body with the wider tribe of animals.. Chantal Conneller examined findings of the Mesolithic Starr Carr site dating back to the second half of the tenth millennium BP and focused on one partially submerged platform that for centuries  had ritual use in the production of animal beads and the deposition of bones in lake waters, particularly deer frontlets. Contrary to prior theories that the frontlets were used as a hunting disguise, Conneller proses the frontlets were a means to reveal, not conceal, the body:

At, or in the vicinity of, Star Carr, animal bodies were broken down and reassembled with other things and agents. Antlers were partitioned from red deer and transformed into the frontlets and also into barbed points. Elk antlers were made into mattock heads (Figure 4). Elk and aurochs bones were used for tools such as scrapers and awls. Red deer teeth and bird bones were used as beads. As noted above, use wear reveals that hide working was a major task at Star Carr (Dumont 1988; 1989), while the recovery of faunal remains indicates that flesh was also partitioned at the site. In all these ways, animal effects extended the human body. People wore animal skins and beads of animal teeth and bone, they ate animal flesh as food and used parts of animals to extend their capacities in various tasks. These animals were intrinsic parts of different human identities. So in this sense there is already, in mundane daily activity, ambiguity about where human bodies end and animal bodies start. Parts of humans transform animals, who in turn alter and extend human bodies. (47-8)

… This is not to say that the person following this recipe will literally become a dog. Becoming animal is not about moving between different bodies. Though the animal is not literal, the transformation is. Parts of human bodies connect with parts of animal bodies to produce a new assemblage of bodily effects, one that is something else entirely, not human, not dog, that relates to the world in a new way. Just as the animal part transforms the human body, so the conjunction with human parts transforms the animal. With these insights in mind, we can move beyond Clark’s ritual–functional impasse. We can stop seeing the frontlets as a disguise, but rather explore how humans and animal bodies were produced at Star Carr. As animal effects, the frontlets facilitated a bodily transformation. This was not a literal transformation into deer, but one that turned the human body into something else, by taking on the effects of the animal. Taking on the frontlets also enabled new ways of seeing. As Donna Haraway points out, viewpoints of the world are not simply related to biologically discrete organisms or individuals, but are materially mediated and are constructed and extended through the use of tools and instruments. In this way, she talks of the need to learn to see faithfully from others’ point of view ‘even if the other is our own machine’. (Haraway 1988, 583). By ‘machine’ she refers both to the human body and its organs and to the machines and tools through which perceptual translations are arrived at. Wearing the frontlets would be one such way of seeing from another’s point of view, since it would facilitate engagement with the world from a different perspective. (50)

(Chantal Conneller, “Becoming Deer: Corporeal Transformations at Starr Carr.” Archaeological Dialogues 11 (1) 37–56 ©2004 Cambridge University Press)

Antler frontlet from Starr Carr, ca 9500 BC.

I go to this at length (I know, typically, endemically) to get back to earthweal’s motto: “The grief is real. So is the hope.” Is it possible to grieve and hope at the same time? Such a question addresses I think our predicament as carrying on with poetry in the midst of such widespread environmental loss. What is our meaning? How can we proceed without becoming emptied by  despair? How does our individuality scale with global change? What of our human tribe that has caused this mess, is there any way to reintegrate it with the world? Is there hope?

Pauline Boss’s ideas about ambiguous loss and the grief-work it presents is vastly different from those of mastery and closure; a tech mogul launching a rocket to the stars with a few human survivors is not a healthy mythologem for grief.

Perhaps we can see the change better with our ambiguous, collective, animal eyes. For this challenge, try to sense the ambiguous losses due to climate change in your world. They may be personal (like stunted encounters with a failing environment) or societal (the body’s atrophy in the technological apotheosis of self) or natural (a tree’s observation from its height and age of fifty years of change adding to its half-a-billion-year rootstock).

We have the scientific analysis of this change with its almost 100 percent certainty of carbons heating the atmosphere, rising seas, crashing and violent weather extremes and grand species extinction: But how does the heart feel this, the body sense it, the symphony of organs breathe, circulate, digest and procreate it?

Sensed by our embodied poems, perhaps our climate catastrophe will ring bigger bells for us to act. “The lens of ambiguous loss can help us make sense of these contemporary losses so that interventions can take place at multiple levels—the personal, the familial, the societal, and the global,” Boss writes. (p28)

What is this weeping of the trees?

Brendan

 

THE DEAD TREE

Peter Meinke

Last spring you said
it’s an ancient mariner,
this white ash poised

like a spar among
the flat-footed maples,
bare arms upborne,

diver in perfect form.
Now it’s late June
and the mountain

swims in green
but the ash stands gray
and rigid against the wind

like driftwood
whipped by seaweed
in the eddying shoals.

Our neighbors say
Cut it down
for its straight grain

and pure line—but
we’re not finished yet:
nature includes its dead.

A wren’s nest, a squirrel’s
shortcut, brief rest
in a monarch’s long trek:

this ash is more
than timber—and
you, father, anchor

and keel, sing
in the rigging
as the ship sails on.

from Liquid Paper (1991)

earthweal weekly challenge: PRAISING IS WHAT MATTERS

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Greetings all —

Here up in the Northern Hemisphere, the year wanes speedily now with cold winds and lengthening nights. (Even in Florida, we get a sampling of it.) There are fortunate places and ones less so; recently British Columbia and Washington State have been rocked by torrential rains from an atmospheric river that have flooded infrastructure and caused landslides. Our heart and good wishes go out Sherry on Vancouver Island, where some of the hardest rains have fallen. We pray you stay safe and find a way to keep singing.

The twenty-first century continues to roll out in that wintry shade, even as elsewhere across the globe the seasons stroll toward summer. Much uncertainty and crisis in the second year of the pandemic, global supply chains snarled and governments increasingly unable to address the mounting climate crisis.

Here at earthweal, there is much to grieve—we have spent time recently with our extinct brethren —but we shouldn’t allow ourselves to freeze in the gathering shadows. Whatever the pent and fraught news of the day may be, step outside into the day and you’ll find there still is much to be grateful for. As they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, a grateful drunk will never drink again.

In the decade of the Great War, the Austrian poet Ranier Maria Rilke suffered deeply from a depression which kept him from writing. He had begun his great Duino Elegies, but the onset of the First World War and the turbulence in Europe had rendered him silent.

1921 he repaired to the 13th century Chateau Muzot in Switzerland (which belonged to a patron) and there began to source deep into his old roots. He attuned by translating works by Paul Valery and Michelangelo into German; and then, after learning of the death of young woman, a friend of his daughter Ruth, he suddenly found the frequency and in a brief creative burst which he termed “a hurricane of the spirit,” wrote in few days the first section of 26 sonnets for The Sonnets to Orpheus. He then turned his attention to the Elegies and finished them in five days; then returned to his Sonnets and completed the second section of 29 sonnets in two weeks. In a letter to a friend, he later called the burst “the most mysterious, most enigmatic dictation I have ever endured and achieved.”

Orpheus the ur-poet is the subject of Rilke’s sonnets, the Greek singer who (in Ovid’s telling) sang so beautifully he entranced beast and tree and even the stones; lost his beloved Eurydice on their wedding day and then failed to retrieve her from the land of death; and was in the end torn to pieces by the maenads of Dionysos, his soul finally joining his wife Eurydice in the afterlife. For Rilke, the master of poetry leads to a world entranced and alive — “the crystal cup that shattered even as it rang,” as he wrote in Sonnet 2.13.

Three of Rilke’s Sonnets I’d like to share here, for they resonate especially for me in this time of grieving and loss. In the United States we celebrate Thanksgiving this week, an American harvest festival with a dubious history. It is traditionally a time for a communal meal and offering thanks for the year’s blessings. Native Americans have a different take on this advent of white colonization, but let’s stay focused on the idea of giving thanks.

The first two sonnets are from early in the first sequence. In Sonnet 1.7, Rilke states that the very origin of song derives from the outward emotion of praise:

Praising is what matters!
He was summoned for that,
and came to us like the ore from a stone’s
silence. His mortal heart presses out
a deathless, inexhaustible wine.

Whenever he feels the god’s paradigm grip
his throat, the voice does not die in his mouth.
All becomes vineyard, all becomes grape,
ripened on the hills of his sensuous South.

Neither decay in the sepulchre of kings
nor any shadow that has fallen from the gods
can ever detract from his glorious praising.

For he is a herald who is with us always,
holding far into the doors of the dead
a bowl with ripe fruit worthy of praise.

(all translations by Stephen Mitchell, 1980)

 

As the embodiment of life, song is that very bowl of fruit, a passing mortal thing which is yet a deathless, inexhaustible wine. Can we praise this world, and by so doing, render it alive?

In the next sonnet (1.8), Rilke takes the song of praise toward its distant, darkest corners.

Only in the realm of Praising should Lament
walk, the naiad of the wept-for fountain,
watching over the stream of our complaint,
that it be clear upon the very stone

that bears the arch of triumph and the altar.—
Look: around her shoulders dawns the bright
sense that she may be the youngest sister
among the deities hidden in our heart.

Joy knows, and Longing has accepted,—
only Lament still learns; upon her beads,
night after night, she counts the ancient curse.

Yet awkward as she is, she suddenly
lifts a constellation of our voice,
glittering, into the pure nocturnal sky.

Our altars to grief: They are still learning what “Joy knows, and Longing has accepted.” A curious figure … They tend the purest water in the heart, and can weave a “glittering” “constellation of our voice.” But what of the leading line? “Only in the realm of Praising should Lament / walk …” Why is it essential that grief travel so?

The third sonnet is from the very end of the second series (2.29), and for me reads as a glorious benediction for our work to come:

Silent friend of many distances, feel
how your breath enlarges all of space.
Let your presence ring out like a bell
into the night. What feeds upon your

grows mighty from the nourishment thus offered.
Move through transformation, out and in.
What is the deepest loss that you have suffered?
If drinking is bitter, change yourself to wine.

In this immeasurable darkness, be the power
that rounds your senses in their magic ring,
the sense of their mysterious encounter.

And if the earthly no longer knows your name,
whisper to the silent earth: I’m flowing.
To the flashing water say: I am.

I first encounted Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus about a decade after Stephen Mitchell’s translation was first published in 1980, and they are probably my most frequently returned-to poems, read in sequence as if pouring out from an inexhaustible source. Different sonnets have resounded at different hours, but for me they sum the poet’s living-ness in praise of this world.

For this challenge, share a poem in praise of this Earth, this life, the heart and its deep love for the world around us. Let’s give thanks, earthweal style.

Brendan

 

 

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