earthweal weekly challenge: THE EVERYDAY EXTREME

 

It’s mid-May and Florida’s rainy season has begun, weeks earlier than the norm of ten or even five years ago. Surly storms rolled north across the state on Friday in waves, with brilliant flashes, startling loud thunder and downpours that drenched everything. At twilight as another band of storms strolled over, the power went off — not long, maybe 45 minutes — and my wife and I sat in the dimming silence listening to the cracks and booms of tomorrow’s weather tonight. And through the night there were more waking intrusions, leaving us with that “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas any more” feeling of a world changing so fast. Not doom, but nothing Aunt Em would recognize.

Last night the storms came again, not as loud but with the same thrashing fury of the unforgiven — an exclamation point added to the idea of normality increasingly defined by extremes.

In the pre-industrial world, last summer’s heat dome that brought Death-Valley like temperatures to temperate British Columbia, would have a been a once-in-an-8-million-year-event. It is now being described as one of the six most analmous heat waves in recorded history. Today, such events now have a one-in-a-thousand-year probability; and oonce we have reached two degrees of warming, 8-million-year events will happen once a decade.

“What used to be a very extreme event is now probably not a very extreme event but something that we expect in this warmer climate quite frequently,” says Dr. Frederike Otto, a senior lecturer at the Grantham Institute for Climate Change at the Imperial College of London. She’s also a leading expert in the growing field of climate attribution, which tries make better sense of the climatic anomalies we’re now experiencing.

In his inaugural New York Times newsletter, David Wallace-Wells wrote recently,

A U.N. report published in April suggested that by just 2030 the world would be experiencing more than 500 major disasters each year. And the quickening frequency of what were once called “generational disasters” or “500-year storms” or even “acts of God” disorients us, too, so that it becomes hard to distinguish once-a-decade events from once-a-century ones — our disaster depth of field blurred by climate disruption. “What used to be a very extreme event is now probably not a very extreme event but something that we expect in this warmer climate quite frequently,” Dr. Otto said. “We really are in a quite different world.”

A different world: we are increasingly fooled by what we recently remember. When my wife and I first moved to this small town 25 years ago, the month of May was so hot and dry that wildfire smoke would blow on the stiff breezes of blisteringly hot afternoons. Not the May I’m looking at today, muggy, overwarm and grey with more storms approaching. A warmer atmosphere means a hotter Gulf perspiring big rainfall events in Florida with the so-called “rainy season” starting up much earlier.

It also means bigger, more menacing hurricanes. The so-called Gulf “Loop Current” is a brewer of storms, and conditions this May are like those in 2005 that sent Hurricane Katrina barreling into Louisiana and Mississippi. The Loop Current had a role in the transformation of a tropical wave that entered the Gulf in 2018 into a Category 5 Hurricane Michael, the most powerful storm to brew up in the Gulf, creating the strongest maximum sustained wind speeds to make landfall in the contiguous United States since Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

Do you feel the same vertigo that I do? This early morning (as I continue to work on this week’s challenge) the darkness is archly saturated, almost cool, humming, and pregnant to bursting with full summer — in May. Why is it that the ground feels unsteady with change?

Wells again:

As recently as 2015, the 10-year average of global temperatures showed, according to the I.P.C.C., warming of 0.87 degrees Celsius above the preindustrial average. Just five years later, it had jumped to 1.09 — 25 percent higher in half a decade.

When sociologists talk about “shifting baseline syndrome,” they mean we tend to base expectations for the future on our memory of the recent past. But just five years ago, it was exceedingly rare for more than a million acres to burn in a California wildfire season; today the record is 4.3 million acres, and in four of the past five years more than 1.5 million acres burned in the state alone. Over the past decade, extreme heat events have grown 90 times more common, compared with a baseline of frequency between 1950 and 1980.

I’m not trying to ring the climate alarm bells here; most of us can already hear them. But I do wonder what’s happening to everyday life now that the Earth in its fast lane. And what happens to the language of memory, once a smooth continued Holocene-lenght narration, devolving fast in a daily clash of Anthropocene terms formulated by Glenn Albrecht like solastalgia (yearning for lost homelands), toponesia (forgetfulness of precious places), meteroanxiety (fear of coming weather) and mermerosity (a chronic state of anxiety over the changing climate). (From Earth Emotions: New Words for a New World, Cornell University Press, 2019)

We’ve all seen the “hockey-stick” projections of global warming — a long swath of slow incremental change followed by an abrupt lift toward killing temperatures — we’re in the fast-uptick now of the spike, still widely disoriented and with many making themselves and the world crazy pretending it isn’t happening (the way COVID isn’t real and there’s no war in Ukraine).

Most of us also see the weird parallel between global heating and technological innovation, the hockey stick of a fast-heating climate superimposed by the ghostly “reality” of innovations that have brought us so many mindless online pleasures to the detriment of personhood, civility, natural connection and a common basis of reality in truth. From Prometheus to the steam engine, not much of note, and then everything almost all at once.

(Note: algorhythms made Amazon the dominant retailer, but who can say their billion incremental improvements were advances in any true sense?)

Who are these shadow twins, separated at birth but living out the same fate?

And what are we to make of it, loving this Earth, sharing Her bounties, praising her wealth in our poems? How do we factor in these early storms, frightening heat events, disturbed-to-destroyed ecosystems and lingering nightmares not dispelled by the dawn’s light? The world is increasingly fragile; political systems are dark; healthcare sucks; inflation and recession loom. The conflict in Ukraine grinds amid the rubble and ruin of its farmland and forests, straying toward massive cyberattacks and nuclear conflict. Hunger stalks with emptying eyes.

This is our 21st century, home sweet savage home, and we must remain awake and vigilant for the things changing so rapidly all around us, like a massive summer storm summoned up on a hotter day than any in recent memory.

“Within our own lifetimes,” Wells writes, “we may find ourselves living on a planet warmed beyond a level scientists long characterized as ‘catastrophic,’ though well below the level casually described as ‘apocalyptic.’ The question is: how?” He continues,

How do we imagine our future, how do we expect to live in it, what do we count as success and what as failure in a world beset by ecological disarray and all the human messiness that shakes out from that?

For me there a fundamental reckoning is called for, personally and collectively: If human mastery is a peril the Earth cannot afford and we value our continued existence on this planet, then we had better find systematic ways to reject human mastery. Let’s banish controls heedless of consequence and re-calibrate our fear of the unknown as faith in humility. Fossil-fuel dependence is an addiction, digital mind’s an abomination: From those starting points we may eventually gestate something in the human spirit that will reverse the hockey stock before life is finished on Earth As they say with the Tao, to and fro goes the way — even, perhaps, with the perverse Tao of our maddening reality.

That Tao, I suspect, is our how.

For this challenge, write about the everyday extreme.

—Brendan

Postscript

One yay for this reverse-engineering goes out today to Australians who voted out the conservative government of Scott Morrison and their gross reluctance to deal with climate change.

Another for reminders of who we are and where we live from our earth-poets. Here are a few poems for keeping one’s sight on the Way.

COME INTO ANIMAL PRESENCE

Denise Levertov

Come into animal presence
No man is so guileless as
the serpent. The lonely white
rabbit on the roof is a star
twitching its ears at the rain.
The llama intricately
folding its hind legs to be seated
not disdains but mildly
disregards human approval.
What joy when the insouciant
armadillo glances at us and doesn’t
quicken his trotting
across the track into the palm brush.

What is this joy? That no animal
falters, but knows what it must do?
That the snake has no blemish,
that the rabbit inspects his strange surroundings
in white star-silence? The llama
rests in dignity, the armadillo
has some intention to pursue in the palm-forest.
Those who were sacred have remained so,
holiness does not dissolve, it is a presence
of bronze, only the sight that saw it
faltered and turned from it.
An old joy returns in holy presence.

—in Poetry, Vol. 96 No. 1, January 1960

 

SAYINGS FROM THE NORTHERN ICE

William Stafford

It is people at the edge who say
things at the edge: winter is toward knowing.

Sled runners before they meet have long talk apart.
There is a pup in every litter the wolves will have.
A knife that falls points at an enemy.
Rocks in the wind know their place: down low.
Over your shoulder is God; the dying deer sees Him.

At the mouth of the long sack we fall in forever
storms brighten the spikes of the stars.

Wind that buried bear skulls north of here
and beats moth wings for help outside the door
is bringing bear skull wisdom, but do not ask the skull
too large a question till summer.
Something too dark was held in that strong bone.

Better to end with a lucky saying:

Sled runners cannot decide to join or to part.
When they decide, it is a bad day.

— ­from West of Your City (1960)

 

BECOMING A FOREST

Ama Codjoe

Not to feel the grasses brush my knees, as if wading
for the first time into the ocean, but a different prayer—

this was after declaring, These trees are my bones,
and I could feel myself loosed from tendons, muscles,
and sinew, a skeleton knocking, as a chime
against nothing, and in my marrow
the blood of sap, the rungs of pinecones,
and myself, inside myself, telling me this—

to make an alphabet of stammering, a song
of a cry, to be anything buzzing with blood
or wings, anything alive, including grief, because
isn’t that—I asked the trees, my bones’ forest
framing me—what my long ago dead dreamed,
tossed in their short allowance of night?

The Adroit Journal; anthologized in The Best American Poetry 2020

 

earthweal weekly challenge: WITNESS TO A MAGNITUDE

 

What happens when awe exceeds our capacity to behold it? Jack Gilbert struggles with this in “Measuring The Tyger”:

Barrels of chains. Sides of beef stacked in vans.
Water buffalo dragging logs of teak in the river mud
outside Mandalay. Pantocrater in the Byzantium dome.
The mammoth overhead crane bringing slabs of steel
through the dingy light and roar to the giant shear
that cuts the adamantine three-quarter-inch plates
and they flop down. The weight of the mind fractures
the girders and piers of the spirit, spilling out
the heart’s melt. Incandescent ingots big as cars
trundling out of titanic mills, red slag scaling off
the brighter metal in the dark. The Monongahela River
below, night’s sheen its belly. Silence except
for the machinery clanging deeper in us. You will
love again, people say. Give it time. Me with time
running out. Day after day of the everyday.
What they call real life, made of eighth-inch gauge.
Newness strutting around as if it were significant.
Irony, neatness and rhyme pretending to be poetry.
I want to go back to that time after Michiko’s death
when I cried every day among the trees. To the real.
To the magnitude of pain, of being that much alive.

— from The Great Fires (1995)

I’ll always remember what novelist E.L. Doctorow said in a lecture at a local university back in 1995: “It is the writer’s main task and only value to bear witness to a magnitude.”

For me, Doctorow’s novels are just that — a stunning witness to the human spirit at a specific crossroads in the past. The magnitude of what he captures looms heavily into the present moment, chilling us with the recognition that those who don’t learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them. (Favorite Doctorow novel: Billy Bathgate.)

His vision failed however to witness what was then coming monstrously to view, but maybe magnitude needs a moment of the past to triangulate itself. (Jack Gilbert understood magnitude but only at heart scale.) We can use the climate silence of our literature as such a referent. Silence in the face of this? Today it’s hard to imagine a setting not burning in from the edges.

Now climate-related disasters grow so great in magnitude that one wonders what comes to pass when awesomeness outstrips scale. What happens when fire is too great, when humans can’t live in such heat? We comfit to the steadily worse like the proverbial frog in the boil, but what occurs in the human spirit when rolling bubbles is all there is? For many, you either hunker down in the blind comfort of grievance or write one long poem of grief. Either approach suggests that we’ve run out of calibration.

A wildfire in New Mexico (US) has ballooned to 165,000 acres, threatening a traditional Hispanic culture that has lived in the area before the United States came into existence. Thousands of homes may be destroyed. On Friday the state’s governor warned of 100 consecutive hours of wind and extreme temperature to come starting Saturday. Six major fires across the state are escalating. So the long, long wildfire season in the Northern Hemisphere continues to grow.

India and Pakistan saw temperatures soar a month ago and they haven’t budged — daily high temperatures are 5 to 8 degrees C above normal (that 9-15 degrees F), and in New Delhi last week it hit 118 degrees F (47.7 C), and the maximum high temperature in April averaged more than 104 degrees (40 C). In areas of high humidity, temperatures in excess of 35C (95F) are considered at their “wet bulb” threshold, where the human body is at risk of cooking itself. Wheat harvests have been damaged, and electricity consumption is soaring (placing an even high demand for coal at coal-fired plants).

A cartographer with NASA Earth recently mapped the world’s largest cities, showing the ones most affected by temperature rise in shades of orange and red. India is pockmarked with the largest and darkest red circles:

 

 

About 99 million people live in India’s 10 hottest cities. And let’s remember that India has seen about 1 degree Celsius in warming since the Industrial Age, with a 3.5 C increase predicted for India by century’s end.

The question dawning on us now is this: Is it even possible to protect populations against a future riddled with extreme heat? The same question can be asked about wildfires in the Western United States and Canada, eastern Australia and Siberia. Or flooding in Queensland and the midwestern United States and South Africa.

Is human habitation no longer possible in forest areas? Are there enough sandbags to stack?

Behind those questions, an even more awful one: If we are asking wondering these things at 1 degree C warming from Industrial Age levels, what happens when we hit 2 and then 3 degrees C warming in the coming decades?

Does human life become a seasonal probability? And how will we then calibrate the human spirit?

It becomes harder and harder to behold magnitude without succumbing to terror, which for many means hunkering down and refusing to witness anything.

It certainly is understandable, but such denial dooms us to repeat what happens when populations go on blinding themselves. Imagine Pompei in 78 AD with Aetna billowing smoke or cafes in Warsaw Poland in 1938 as German armor revs up nearby. And how different Christmas in Ukraine in 2021 and then 2022 …

I’ve been reading Carolyn Forché’s 2019 memoir All That You Have Heard Here is True, about her awakening as a poet and human rights activist when she innocent American poet learning something fundamental about witness while visiting El Salvador at the outbreak of the bloody civil war that began in 1979. It’s about reading the signs of the future in the present moment, something that still was understood by the remnant natives descended from ancient Mayan culture:

The Mayans don’t distinguish between past, present, and future … They have one word to describe all instances of time, meaning something like “It comes to pass.” If you know the past, you know the cyclic forces that created the present, and by knowing the cyclic influences that created the present, you can foresee the future … If you can learn to read the present, without preconceptions, you will better know which of all possible futures will come to pass. There is nothing magical about this. It is a skill that can be acquired by anyone with the inclination and discipline. (207)

She is brought to that impoverished country by a Salvadoran man who asks her, “Are you going to write poetry about yourself for the rest of your life?” He shows her the vast suffering of the population contrasted by the incredible privilege of the elite. Her experience opened her eyes and led her to become one of the most outspoken poets on human rights in Central America. From it she began to write a “poetry of witness,” the “evidence of what occurred.”

Does magnitude allow us to see this present moment clearly in its awesome and awful unfolding, and vision what is wheeling slowly and to view? What must our eyes unlearn to see in order to bear witness to that magnitude?

A breezy hot afternoon here, the trees thrashing in gusts which now bear the menace of the normal. Wildfires are raging here in Florida too, down south near the Everglades. Spring is for burning, summer brings storm.

For this week’s challenge, What is your witness to the magnitude?

Brendan

 

WHAT KIND OF TIMES ARE THESE

Adrienne Rich

There’s a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows uphill
and the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows
near a meeting-house abandoned by the persecuted
who disappeared into those shadows.

I’ve walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don’t be fooled
this isn’t a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear.

I won’t tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods
meeting the unmarked strip of light—
ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise:
I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.

And I won’t tell you where it is, so why do I tell you
anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these
to have you listen at all, it’s necessary
to talk about trees.

 

MORNING ON THE ISLAND

Carolyn Forché

The lights across the water are the waking city.
The water shimmers with imaginary fish.
Not far from here lie the bones of conifers
washed from the sea and piled by wind.
Some mornings I walk upon them,
bone to bone, as far as the lighthouse.
A strange beetle has eaten most of the trees.
It may have come here on the ships playing
music in the harbor, or it was always here, a winged
jewel, but in the past was kept still by the cold
of a winter that no longer comes.
There is an owl living in the firs behind us but he is white,
meant to be mistaken for snow burdening a bough.
They say he is the only owl remaining. I hear him at night
listening for the last of the mice and asking who of no other owl.

 

  

THE BIG PICTURE

Ellen Bass

I try to look at the big picture.
The sun, ardent tongue
licking us like a mother besotted

with her new cub, will wear itself out.
Everything is transitory.
Think of the meteor

that annihilated the dinosaurs.
And before that, the volcanoes
of the Permian period — all those burnt ferns

and reptiles, sharks and bony fish —
that was extinction on a scale
that makes our losses look like a bad day at the slots.

And perhaps we’re slated to ascend
to some kind of intelligence
that doesn’t need bodies, or clean water, or even air.

But I can’t shake my longing
for the last six hundred
Iberian lynx with their tufted ears,

Brazilian guitarfish, the 4
percent of them still cruising
the seafloor, eyes staring straight up.

And all the newborn marsupials —
red kangaroos, joeys the size of honeybees —
steelhead trout, river dolphins,

so many species of frogs
breathing through their damp
permeable membranes.

Today on the bus, a woman
in a sweater the exact shade of cardinals,
and her cardinal-colored bra strap, exposed

on her pale shoulder, makes me ache
for those bright flashes in the snow.
And polar bears, the cream and amber

of their fur, the long, hollow
hairs through which sun slips,
swallowed into their dark skin. When I get home,

my son has a headache and, though he’s
almost grown, asks me to sing him a song.
We lie together on the lumpy couch

and I warble out the old show tunes, “Night and Day”. . .
“They Can’t Take That Away from Me.”. . . A cheap
silver chain shimmers across his throat,

rising and falling with his pulse. There never was
anything else. Only these excruciatingly
insignificant creatures we love.

 

earthweal weekly challenge: THE COMMONS

 

First, thanks to Sherry for last week’s thoughtful and heartfelt Everwild Challenge. Great work and the responses were wild!

It’s good to be back. The war in Ukraine has affected my mood and verse, but I hope renewed earthweal presence will help.

Earth is on fire in so many ways that is re-defining normal. A wildfire near Flagstaff, Arizona, continues to explode in windy dry weather, and much of the Southwest is similarly vulnerable. An even broader realm of fire engulfs western, central, southern and eastern Siberia, burning an area twice as large as when they raged this time last year. Russian attention is elsewhere, depriving locals of fire-fighting elsewhere. The burning in Ukraine is more directly man-made — fires roar and smoulder in ruined cities and villages across the country — all of it the signia of the politics of extraction and domination. As usual, the push for energy independence has been eclipsed by crises of oil. So we burn.

Here in my country, white ragers boil dark sentiment for our upcoming midterm elections, especially the Tweedledee and Tweedledumdum Republican governors of Texas and Florida, Greg “Yosemite Sam” Elliott and Ron “Swamp Thang” Desantis. Climate change denial is proving especially damaging on the human psyche, as monsters like these turn a smoldering animus against everything not white, Christian and obsolete. Republlican supermajorities rule both state legislatures.

Here in Florida, Desantis portrays Disney World as an agent of California woke, and the Florida Department of Education (whose commissioner is a longtime DeSantis crony) has rejected dozens of math books on the grounds they “contained prohibited topics” from social-emotional learning to critical race theory. And this week, a man in California was arrested for threatening to bomb and shoot the offices of the dictionary publisher Merriam-Webster for changing the definition of such gendered words as “boy, girl, and trans.” In the downward spiral of outraged dumb, a fiery contingent of my reality is headed straight down the Putin potty in ruscist (a cute new word merging “Russian” and “fascist”) and racist ire. Cinders of the burnt world.

Much may be beyond saving, but all we can do is continue to cultivate the region between human and wild that is earthweal. This is our commons.

Gary Snyder writes about the commons in The Practice of the Wild.

Between the extremes of deep wilderness and the private plots of farmstead lies a territory which is not suitable for crops. In earlier times, it was used jointly by the members of a given tribe or village. This area, embracing both the wild and semi-wild, is of critical importance. It is necessary for the health of the wilderness because it adds big habitat, overflow territory, and room for wildlife to fly and run. It is essential even to an agricultural village economy because its natural diversity provides the many necessities and amenities that the privately held plots cannot. It enriches the agrarian diet with game and fish. The shared land supplies firewood, poles and stone for building, clay for the kiln, herbs, dye, plants, and much else. Just as in a foraging economy it is especially important for seasonal and full-time open range for cattle, horses, goats, pigs and sheep. (32)

One trope here at earthweal is to explore, widen and celebrate the commons of animal and human, vegetable and mineral in a future sustainable for all. Sometimes it feels like a rote exercise, but in an age of diminishing choices, earthweal remains the productive alternative to despair. It is in that commons that we can turn climate grief into hope.

 

Snyder, again:

We have to make a world-scale “natural contract” with the oceans, air, the birds in the sky. The challenge is to bring the whole victimized world of “common pool resources” into the mind of the commons. As it stands now, any resource on Earth that is not nailed down will be seen as fair game to the timber buyers or petroleum geologists form Osaka, Rotterdam, or Boston. The pressures of growing populations and the powers of the entrenched (but fragile, confused and essentially leaderless) economic systems warp the likelihood of any of us seeing clearly our perception of how entrenched they are may also be an illusion.

Sometimes it seems unlike that a society as a whole can make wise choices. Yet there is not choice but to call for the “recovery of the commons” — and this in a modern world which doesn’t quite realize what it has lost. Take back, like the night, that which is shared by all of us, that which is our larger being. There will be no “tragedy of the commons” greater than this: if we do not recover the commons — regain personal, local, community and people’s direct involvement in sharing (in being) the web of the wide world — that world will keep slipping away. Eventually our complicated industrial capitalist/socialist mixes will bring down much of the living system that supports us. And it is clear, the loss of a local commons heralds the end of self-sufficiency and dooms the vernacular culture of the region…

… The commons is a curious and elegant social institution within which human beings once lived free political lives while weaving through natural systems. The commons is a level of organization of human society that involves the nonhuman. The level above the local commons is the bioregion. Understanding the commons and its role within the larger regional culture is one more step toward integrating ecology with economy. (39-40)

An ecologically-founded economy: that is good vision for this dim time. If it is possible to write an ecological poetry, then we here have the means to describe and embrace the commons in which future possibility can grow.

For this challenge, write about THE COMMONS. How would you describe that half-wild, half-human habitat of sharing and sustenance in your locale? Maybe it’s a park or an area just outside of town of diverse borders. Or maybe it’s a region of your imagination, fed and sustained by your greener thought.

Let reclaim our commons before it mined and lumbered and burnt!

— Brendan

 

AUTUMN IN THE SKERRIES

Thomas Tranströmer

Storm

Suddenly, out walking, he meets the giant
oak, like an ancient petrified elk, with
mile-wide crown in front of September’s sea,
the dusk-green fortress.

Storm from the north. When rowanberry
clusters ripen. Awake in the dark, he hears
constellations stamping in their stalls, high
over the oak tree.

Evening-Morning

The moon’s mast has rotted and the sail shriveled.
A gull soars drunkenly over the sea.
The jetty’s thick quadrangle is charred. Brush
            bends low in the dusk.

Out on the doorstep. Daybreak slams and slams in
the sea’s stone gateway, and the sun flashes
close to the world. Half-choked summer gods
           fumble in sea mist.

Ostinato

Under the buzzard’s circling dot of stillness
the waves race roaring into the light,
chewing on their bridles of seaweed, snorting
           froth across the shore.

The earth is blind in darkness where the bats
take bearings. The buzzard stops and becomes a star.
The waves race roaring forth and snort
          froth across the shore.

transl. May Swenson

 

JUST LYING ON THE GRASS AT BLACKWATER

Mary Oliver

I think sometimes of the possible glamour of death —
that it might be wonderful to be
lost and happy in the green grass —
or to be the green grass! —
or, maybe the pink rose, or the blue iris,
or the affable daisy, or the twirled vine
looping its way skyward — that it might be perfectly peaceful
to be the shining lake, or the hurrying, athletic river,
or the dark shoulders of the trees
where the thrush each evening weeps himself into an ecstasy.

I lie down in the fields of goldenrod, and everlasting.
Who could find me?
My thoughts simplify. I have not done a thousand things
or a hundred things, but, perhaps, a few.
As for wondering about answers that are not available except
in books, though all my childhood I was sent there
to find them, I have learned
to leave all that behind

as in summer I take off my shoes and my socks,
my jacket, my and, and go on
happier, through the fields. The little sparrow
with the pink beak
call out, over and over, so simply — not to me

but the whole world. All afternoon
I grow wiser, listening to him,
soft, small, nameless fellow at the top of some weed,
enjoying his life. If you can sing, do it. If not,

even silence can feel, to the world, like happiness,
like praise,
from the pool of shade you have found beneath the everlasting.

— from Blue Iris (2004)

earthweal weekly challenge: RADICAL HOPE

Well it’s Sunday and here I am again, scratching my chinny chin chin and wondering what might possibly suffice for an earthweal prompt.

If you what I’ve been posting recently at Oran’s Well, it’s not very cheerful stuff and far from the green forest.

We are all trying to process the events in our own way — just as we have with each next installment in post-Holocene Earth — monstrous wildfires in Australia and California, astonishing rainfall events around the world, walloping hurricanes and tornadoes, etc. With every trip of the scales.

Plenty of room for astonishment and grief. But hope? That’s a thinner and more measly ingredient — an essential portion ravaged, dessicated, half-drowned, windblown and now shelled into hellscape.

Next case in point. I’ve been trying to finish Rebecca Giggs’ Fathoms: The World of the Whale — it’s a magnificent sea-book, for me on the scale Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us — but to read of how these magnificent creatures have fallen exceptionally in the crosshairs of human progress, it’s devastating. (I find it hard to finish Moby Dick for the same reason.).

Back in my youth, we worried about nuclear winter. (Decades later, such thoughts return to mind as every armchair quarterback tries to figure Putin’s more desperate moves).

Now it’s heat we’re worried about. Recently there were heat waves simultaneously at both the North and South poles — temperature 50 degrees above average — doubly strange as seasons are supposed to be opposite in the hemispheres.

Then consider that fallout in our age may be waters churning with plastic. Giggs writes that in 2015, about 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic waste was created by people around the world, with about 80 percent of it escaping either recycling or incineration. She continues,

Seaborne plastic from the land, or fallen off boats, might eventually sink, it might be carried by the wind to be recaptured by a coastline, it might float, or else, it gets eaten. Over time, plastics in the ocean are shattered by wave friction and UV radiation, into a bleached and dainty shrapnel — tinier than krill or a limpet on a whale bone. Because most polymers remain impregnable to water and microbes, it may take hundreds of years, thousands even, for the particulate to disappear. If it ever does. One of plastic’s most pernicious qualities is that it doesn’t so much decay as divide into littler and littler pieces. Only a microscope would reveal the full extent of the plastic, though it’s a ubiquitous and global problem, occurring in every ocean, and in rivers and lakes, as well as, more diffusely, on land. Plastic is a component of dust; it granulates in the farmland soil of Shanghai and falls in rain over the Pyrenees. Plastic is in the weather. Current estimates hold that in one of the largest gyres found in subtropical Pacific waters between California and Hawaii, 94 percent of approximately 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic are microplastics. Within an area of more than six hundred thousand square miles, there are at least seventy-nine thousand tonnes of polymer debris. (217)

Two sperm whales stranded in 2008 in Northern California were observed to have these things in their stomachs:

Two hundred and thirteen (dry weight) pound of debris total, including one individual net of approximately 182 square feet. Branded cord and netting, bearing the trademarks of Indonesian fisheries. Types of net identified: bait nets, gill nets, shrimp and trawl nets, tallying 134 nets in total. Polyurethane and nylon. (225)

I don’t know about you, but plastic fallout sounds like a death knell for sea life, a doom concocted in the heating simmer of the ocean.

Where is the hope in that?

Yet it is in this very hopeless chapter that Giggs get to the heart of the question I’m asking:

I’ve lost count of how many times someone has asked me, on the subject of this book: Is there cause for optimism; is there cause for hope? How do you sit with this terrible, sad news from the ocean, day after day? So here, I want to clear some space to speak directly and plainly to those questions, as if you were sitting beside me.

There is hope.

A whale is a wonder not because it is the world’s biggest animal, but because it augments our moral capacity. A whale shows us it is impossible to care for that which lies outside our immediate sphere of action, but within our sphere of influence — we care deeply, you and I, about the whale because it is distant. Because it speaks to us of places we will not go. Because it magnifies the reach of our humanity, and reminds us of our collective ability to control ourselves, and of our part in a planetary ecology. Because a whale is a reserve of awe and humility. You might take hope from the movement around plastic pollution — the shopping bag bans, the campaigns against drinking straws — but this, to me, looks like low-hanging fruit. What I means to say is, there are many beings not proximate to ourselves that we will have cause to extend our compassion to in the decades to come: the future generations, the vulnerable people overseas, the creaturely life, and you might ask yourself, How should I care for that which I do not know, that which I have never met?

Do you care for the whale?

Could you act on behalf of the whale?

Being hopeful follows from being useful: this has been my experience, and to be useful, it matters that you identify a part of the problem that you might see change in, using the talents and resources that you possess. Hope is fellowship. Hope is in the doing. We may be the only species capable of imagining a future robbed of the wonder of encountering other species. This knowledge, in the end, gives us cause to start. (234-5)

Sometimes things come along that take our collective breath and strength and hope away — for many of us, that’s now. Yet if we take Giggs’ lead, that is precisely when hope is our strongest and most vital asset. It is now that we stay united in our support and celebration of the living world.

And since we’re staring World War III in the face, why not take a suggestion from Thomas Friedman on how to fight it on our home fronts?

In World War II, the U.S. government asked citizens to plant victory gardens to grow their own fruits and vegetables — and save canned goods for the troops. Some 20 million Americans responded by planting gardens everywhere from backyards to rooftops. Well, what victory gardens were to our war effort then, solar rooftops are to our generation’s struggle against petro-dictatorships.

If you want to lower gasoline prices today, the most surefire, climate-safe method would be to reduce the speed limit on highways to 60 miles per hour and ask every company in America that can do so to let its employees work at home and not commute every day. Those two things would immediately cut demand for gasoline and bring down the price.

Is that too much to ask to win the war against petro-dictators like Putin — a victory in which the byproduct is cleaner air, not burning tanks?

It takes a radical hope, as Jonathan Lear tells us, “directed toward a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is. Radical hope anticipates a good for which those who have the hope as yet lack the appropriate concepts with which to understand it.”  (Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation, 2008)

I’d say the time was ripe for hope of this kind.  For this challenge: let’s celebrate radical hope — that hope whose only basis is our faith in the wonder of life and our capacity to embrace it.

Brendan

INCANTATION

May Swenson

Bright sleep bathing breathing walking
snow ocean and fire
spinning white and flinching green
red-and-yellow-petaled sheen
color me with fresh desire

Vast sleep snow as deep
fresh the leap to green and steep flinching wave
pulsing red glowers flow on black below

In black sleep brightness keep
in colored day spin and play
fresh foam sharp snow the slime of time whirl away
Fire is air is breath and green
lakes of air I walking swim

Powers are of motion made
of color braided all desire
In red and yellow flowers bathe
in snow ocean and fire
in snowy sleep on curls of flame
on shingles of the sea I climb
Dim and gray whirl away and knotted thought and slime

Burning now spin me so with black sea
to braided be In green sleep eons leap
from gray slime past thought and time
to pith and power to bathe in the immortal hour
to breathe from another pulsing flower

Snow ocean white fire
color me with fresh desire

from Nature: Poems Old and New, 1994

 

Belle loves whale song.

earthweal weekly challenge: THE LANGUAGE OF THE WILD

 

Greetings all — it is becoming increasingly difficult to find wild shelter here, what with all the sound and fury coming at us now from Ukraine. Some of you find yourselves very close to it; all of you have responded with your best.

Hard to not be affected by the news, at levels disturbingly deep. I don’t know what else to say about that other than we must live at the border of two worlds, one wild, one all too human, and find a way to speak of both. For this forum, our work as I see it is to become citizens of the wild we share with the world.

“To be native to a place we must learn to speak its language,” Robin Wall Kimmerer writes In “Learning the Grammar of Animacy” (collected in Braiding Sweetgrass, Milkweed Editions, 2013). She continues,

I come here to listen to nestle in the curve of roots in a soft hollow of pine needles, to lean my bones against the column of white pines, to turn off the voice in my head until I can hear the voices outside it: the shhh of wind in needles, water trickling over rock, nuthatch tapping, chipmunks digging, beechnut falling, mosquito in my ear, and something more — something that is not me, for which we have no language, the wordless being of others in which we are never alone. After the drumbeat of my mother’s heart, this was my first language. (48)

How are we to write a poetry of earth if it we have difficulty speaking it? Our attempts to proximate that “first language” with our own is conditional and faulty at best. Science gives us precise names, but it can only characterize the object, not sing its soul.

Listening in wild places, we are audience to conversations in a language not our own. I think now that it was a longing to comprehend this language I hear in the woods that led me to science, to learn over the years to speak fluent botany. A tongue that should not, by way, be mistaken for the language of plants. I did learn another language in science, though, one of careful observation, an intimate vocabulary that names each little part. To name and describe you must first see, and science polished the gift of seeing. I honor the strength of the language that has become a second tongue to me. But beneath the richness of its vocabulary and its descriptive power, something is missing, the same something that swells around and in you when you listen to the world. (48-9)

When the world is alive, there is a wild animacy to language:

A bay is a noun only if water is dead. When bay is a noun, it is defined by humans, trapped between its shores and contained by the word. But the verb wiikwegamaa — to be a bay — releases the water from bondage and lets I live. “To be a bay” holds the wonder that, for this moment, the living water has decided to shelter itself between these shores, conversing with cedar roots and a flock of baby mergansers. Because it could do otherwise — become a strem or an ocean or a waterfall, and there are verbs for that, too. To be a hill, to be a sandy beach, to be a Saturday, are all possible verbs in the world where everything is alive. Water, land, and even a day, the language a mirror for seeing the animacy of the world, the life that pulses through all things, thorugh pines and nuthatches and muschrooms. This is the language I hear in the woods; this is the language that lets us speak of what wells up all around us. (55)

That animacy is also intimate: “in Potawatomi and most other indigenous languages, we use the same words to address the living world as we use for our family. Because they are our family.” (55). As Thomas Berry writes, “we must say of the universe that it is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.”

Intimacy is a homecoming. “To become native to this place, if we are to survive here, and our neighbors too, our work is to learn to speak the grammar of animacy, so that we might truly be at home.” (58)

It is the language of the heart, and that is where we hear it best. Kimmerer concludes,

I remember the words of Bill Tall Bull, a Cheyenne elder. As a young person, I spoke to him with a heavy heart, lamenting that I had no native language with which to speak to the plants and the places that I love. “They love to hear the old language,” he said, “it’s true.” “But,” he said, with fingers on his lips, “You don’t have to speak it here.” “If you speak it here,” he said, patting his chest, “They will hear you.” (59)

Here are some poems which feel writ in wild language.

THE WAKING

Theodore Roethke

I strolled across
An open field;
The sun was out;
Heat was happy.

This way! This way!
The wren’s throat shimmered,
Either to other,
The blossoms sang.

The stones sang,
The little ones did,
And the flowers jumped
Like small goats.

A ragged fringe
Of daisies waved;
I wasn’t alone
In a grove of apples.

Far in the wood
A nestling sighed;
The dew loosened
Its morning smells.

I came where the river
Ran over stones:
My ears knew
An early joy.

And all the waters
Of all the streams
Sang in my veins

That summer day.

(from The Lost Son and Other Poems, 1948)

 

THE LOON ON ONE-HEAD POND

Mary Oliver

cries for three days, in the gray mist.
cries for the north it hopes it can find.

plunges, and comes up with a slapping pickerel.
blinks its red eye.

cries again.

you come every afternoon, and wait to hear it.
you sit a long time, quiet, under the thick pines,

in the silence that follows.

as though it were your own twilight.
as though it were your own vanishing song.

(from House of Light, 1990)

 

ALL THE TIME

William Stafford

Evenings, after others go inside,
my glance quietly ascends through leaves,
through branches. The night wind sighs once
and bends over. Far beyond my glimpse of sky
those friends now gone begin their chorus.

There’s a reason for whatever comes,
their song says. Released into light one star
appears, another, and those patterns affirm
where they have been waiting dissolved in blue
but holding their place inside of time.

Every evening this happens, an arch and promise
renewed. Nobody has to notice: a breath
crosses the lawn, or outside the window
a spirit roams, as mysterious as any wander
ever was. And it was only the night wind.

(from Who Are You Really, Wanderer? 1993)

Let’s learn more about THE LANGUAGE OF THE WILD this week!

Brendan