earthweal weekly challenge: PROTEST IN A TIME OF PANDEMIC


by Sherry Marr

I have taken part in many protests in my life: for civil rights, against the Viet Nam war, (Make Love, Not War, Give Peace a Chance), the women’s movement, justice for Aboriginals, the climate crisis. In 1993, I was on the blockades to save the old growth forest in Clayoquot Sound, at that time the greatest act of civil disobedience in Canada.

I have a strong sense of truth and social justice; I have expressed this in my poetry all my life. My spirit rises up against all that is unjust. But I was always hopeful that the transformation of consciousness on the planet would occur before all was lost. So I have been having a hard time since 2016, watching things play out for our neighbours south of the border, watching civil liberties roll back, racism become hostile and overt, civility, dignity, decency being over-powered by hatred and division. Blatant corruption is occurring at top levels, unchallenged; the good guys get fired; the snake-charmers get richer. All the smug grinning smiles of collusion,  the dead eyes, are an affront to my sensibilities.

Where to start: too many things to protest; it is a theatre of the absurd. We are so far down the rabbit hole, it makes me think of that old saying: “Been down so long, it looks like Up to me.” In Canada, newscasters have a hard time hiding their astonishment at the words they are reading on the teleprompters. Yikes.

Add the corona virus to this, and one can be forgiven for growing too discouraged for words. Yet somehow we must rally. (And for certain every person qualified to vote needs to exercise that right in November 2020.) Our job as poets is to reflect the world around us, throw light on difficult topics, bear witness, advocate for change, at the very least leave a historical record of the times we are living through, in case humanity somehow survives, and there are people alive in the future to read our words. At least we can say “we tried.” Future humans will see that, when it became a struggle between dark and light, we poets were the canaries in the cages, singing out.

My heart rose up with the water protectors at Standing Rock, whose peaceful and prayerful protest was met with militarized police, pressure hoses, rubber bullets and arrest.  trump (I will never use a capital T for him, my own small rejection of his political presence) proposed legislation that would brand these peaceful warriors – and other peaceful protesters –  “terrorists”. Yet check this out:

Protestors tried to enter the Michigan House of Representative chamber and were being kept out by the Michigan State Police at the State Capitol in Lansing, on April 30. The group was upset with Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s mandatory closure to curtail Covid-19. (Photo: Jeff Kowalky)


It was trump who incited these people to “Liberate your state; fight for your great Second Amendment.” He called these “protesters” of social distancing “good people.”

Join me in a moment of speechlessness.

“Give me liberty or give me death”, the placards say, of the directives to wear masks and practise social distancing to prevent the spread of the virus. This might quite literally come true. “Gun up,” people are saying south of the border. Methinks they have found a strange issue to protest.

I worry about the coming election. Will they “gun up” if they don’t like the outcome? I worry about a lot of things. The New York Times has projected the possibility of Ivanka trump as President in 2025, followed by the abolishment of term limits for President. Hopefully this will not happen; hopefully I won’t live to see a further slide from American democracy to power by the potentates.

Brendan suggested, since we can’t meet in the streets to voice our protests (and it probably would be scary, with all those enraged people running around with guns half-cocked), we can do an online protest. That appeals to me.

There is no shortage of things to protest: the armed militants on the state capital steps; the president himself; government corruption; assault weapons; the suffering and abuse of wild and domestic animals; the destruction of wild habitat; what we eat, how it’s treated and where it comes from. The need for social distancing and testing to save lives, the many lives being lost in all the political uproar, in a situation that should be anything but political. (Leaked statistics from the White House estimated covid deaths could reach 3,000 per day in the U.S. by June 1st. And the administration seems unworried about the loss of life). (Source: Business Insider)

Animal rights. Human rights. Immigration. Warming seas. Plastic. The climate crisis. The urgent need for a switch to clean energy.

Take your pick. Unfurl your banner. Tell us about what keeps you awake at night, what worries you most, what you feel needs to change. What is happening in your part of the world that concerns or appalls you? Give us your outrage or, if you can muster it, give us some hope, and a direction to head in.

Valerie Kaur has said this time can be viewed “not as the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb”; that we can emerge from this time of transition transformed, and begin to live on Mother Earth as one part of creation, rather than the unthinking, dominant species we have been. We live in hope.

Your challenge: Bring us your protest poem.  Let’s join our voices in this forum to speak of all that is wrong or, conversely, all that we can make right.

I look forward to reading your words.

— Sherry

earthweal weekly challenge: VAST PARTICULARS

Distant wings of Tropical Storm Arthur ruffle over the lake I walk by daily, May 16, 2020.


Stay with me folks, it will take a while to approach what might be called a grasp of the challenge …

Today (I began drafting this weekly challenge on Saturday) it’s warm toward hot as you’d expect late-spring in Florida, blustery as Invest 90 foments into Tropical Storm Arthur off the eastern coast. Not much effect from it here a hundred miles to the west—as the storm was frothing up, it raked south Florida with storms. But if there’s a truer, balder herald of summer in the Hot Years to Come, it’s not the arrival of the rainy season (due in a few weeks) but these early and earlier big and bigger storms. The oceans are heating faster than the land, and our annual columnar proof comes swirling, vast, and fraught with increasing peril.

Facts of life in the Change: Already tired from gardening efforts the day before, I did my weekly mowing small beneath that slowly heaving, more muscular sky, feeling mortal, diminished and vulnerable. It reminded me that my part of the collective story is just a tiny sensor or beacon upswirling into a vast dark mass.

So much for business as usual in a heating world turbocharging its lessons these days with pandemic. Or would it be more appropriate to say the pandemic is fast recalibrating what we call business as usual?

You could say this pandemic is a gas pedal flooring us faster into

the surging realities of a mastered world careening out of control. It has taken the focus off the greater change in the Earth’s climate, yet speeds in one of those weird timescales we explored here some time ago, the rapid unfoldment of the pandemic replicating a spike in months what the saturation of carbon in the Earth’s atmosphere will uptick over decades.  It’s an apt lens for humans to understand how fast all this is coming at us, how little time there is to prepare, and the vast particularities of that which we can explore in our poems.

Climate change has only faded in the news, filtering through more randomly during this pandemic and its primarily human shock. But it surfaces and echoes with fearsome volume. There’s record heat up in the Arctic for this early in the year, with scientists wondering if this will be the year the Arctic Ocean goes ice-free this summer and how much melt will accelerate in Greenland. In the Antarctic summer just passed there was record heat as well. Ninety percent of the Earth’s stable glacial ice is located there, which means that melting and calving of the ice steppes there means glub glub everywhere, a pandemic of rising waters.

Wildfires have started up in Florida’s panhandle and in the state’s southwest, fanned by high-pressure hot winds still thronged with ghosts from earlier great fires in New South Wales and Jakarta, the Amazon rainforest and California.  They came and they’re coming again, infected with the prior stain and rising degrees. One doesn’t have to wait for long for a new disaster to begin, much for less concurrent disasters to flare and rage.

And yet, this: Despite the ferocity of evidence now piling in—a rising tide of dire proof that action is desperately needed—the human response is weirdly less engaged and empathetic. It’s as if there is a secret corollary between ever-more dramatic spikes and duller, slower, more fiercely denialist inaction.

The pandemic could be blamed for this—who gives a shit about rising tides in Southeast Asia, when in the USA (for example) 40 percent of those making less than $40,000 a year are now unemployed? But again, our human response to the latter is a weird duplicate of the former: The greater the infection and death curve, the louder the hysterics about everything the pandemic is not, from Chinese military lab shenanagans to bleach cures to armed rightwing militias parading outside state capitals chanting Open ‘Er Up, a minor variation on the good ole Lock Her Up intonations at legacy Trump rallies.

I’ll get off purely USA difficulties in a minute, but the worst-case scenario for handling a major pandemic is in ample evidence in my native country. We ignored the news, didn’t prepare, didn’t isolate, don’t test, don’t contract trace, waited too long to lock down and open back up way too early. How could such wealthy and self-aggrandizing nation fuck up so miserably? It’s easy (and probably fit) to blame our current President and the will of his administration to gut the workings of government, but there’s a collective will behind his ways, and its main directive seems to be arm up, hunker down and blame something else.

A vastly bad particular: in our state of Wisconsin, the partisan Republican Supreme Court sided with the Republican legislature against the stay-in-place orders of Democratic governor Tony Evers. The court’s order threw communities into chaos, with bars opening en masse in some while other locales still struggled to contain the virus. Who knew that something so apolitical as a virus would become such a partisan wedge?

Most Western democracies are suffering the same to varying degree; it’s as if the 21st century consciousness they embody is woefully unprepared for the greatest challenges a civilization could face—a global human pandemic and the greater extinction of life on the planet due to human-induced climate change. Our mastery has been outstripped by primitive impulses of greed and fear; does one invoke the other?

Who knows. But today the wind is blowing, heaving the live oaks outside my living room window in a way that smirks at my air-conditioned, suburban stasis. Just like the teeny tiny COVID 19 virus, those big winds don’t care one whit about what I believe or think. Poke the Earth too hard and you get an angry mama bear of a future; sweep the virus under the rug and it glows and glowers all night, whispering our names, our loved one’s names, so many names we can never absorb the total from our solitary vantage.

Like climate change, this pandemic is a global phenomenon with myriad local and personal inflections. Some countries have their collective act in decent enough shape to be beneficial for most of its residents; South Korea has only suffered some 260 fatalities from the virus. Other countries are a mess—USA, 89,000 fatalities, a number which would be higher if state authorities weren’t locking down the count. Bangladesh is too poor and populous to do more than suffer COVID’s spread; New Zealand sits at the other end of that spectrum, and returns a wise normalcy having taken decisive, right and affordable action right from the start. Despots in Russia and Brazil and the Phillipines prevaricate and hide the truth of pandemic in their ruined worlds. In Moscow, several COVID wards have burned due to ventilators catching fire, and health care workers who have been forced to work and have few protections have been reported jumping from hospital windows in suicide attempts. But health care workers in the most well-furnished ERs in New York City are suffering into a mid-game with the pandemic, initial spike soothing, adrenaline fading, leaving a daily grind and toll which cannot be relieved in a hospital system going broke.

Very few have passed the time unaffected—scientists working in the Antarctic, astronauts in the International Space Station, a lone sea traveler who just came to shore after three months. So few that it shocks the awareness how globally unprepared and vulnerable the human population of Earth is in the age of COVID.

Two more lines work in opposite directions: an upwardly spike of deaths, the downward precipice of economies. In between, the casualties are too many and varied to properly count. Clothing factories at a standstill, daily workers starving, the tide of hunger rising. Locusts swarm in Africa, murder hornets behead bees in Washington State. Upwards to 40 million unemployed Americans face hunger and rent payments without healthcare, many in states which have lagged horribly in getting unemployment benefits out to them. State and local governments struggle to keep firemen and police officers on the payroll.

The vast particulars are local. A neighbor’s wife who had gone to visit her sick mother in Germany has been stuck there on lockdown for three months. Local mothers whose work and family lives have collapsed into each other walk their kids late in the day with distant eyes. I wonder how the black community in my town is faring, normally off the white radar and now even more impoverished and remote. Who knows what it’s like for undocumented workers cut off from work and government benefits. My wife is desperate to get her father into memory care at a nursing facility but the virus reaper treads heavily there. I attend Zoom AA meetings and worry about all the AAs I don’t see there, how many may have relapsed trapped in diminishing spaces. Who knows what it’s like for opioid addicts whose thread of sobriety is far more perilous, or compulsive hand-washers and schizophrenics cut off from supportive human contact. What new victims madness will claim, through nightmares, insecurity, lost connection, too much time. What a terrifying cavern the lonely human self, in this most indulged age of the individual …

The suburban everyday fabric is slow to dissolve, but this summer I fear there will be food riots in Miami which will spread here in the form of masked store employees getting beat up or shot by the outraged and unmaskable. Teeth grinding this way result in a long low simmering headache and botched dreams, like the one the other night where someone pounded dead animals—a giraffe, a dog, an alligator—against the pavement in a grotesque comedy routine I could feel the world cheering for.

This forum was founded in the hope of a collective forum for a changing medium—some number of local inputs on a global phenomenon. We are still about that work. We learn late and slowly that pandemic is one of that changing world’s apocalyptic horsemen, rare in that it preys mainly on the perpetrator where other events—rising seas, water scarcity, oppressive heat, wildfire—wage even harder war upon the victims, our companion animals and plants and their intermingled ecologies. A strange comeuppance in one view, humans leveled by the viral; in another, shifting the time’s focus in ways that both help and hinder the Earth.

On those thoughts, this weekly challenge of VAST PARTICULARS:

  • Illustrate the changing tenor of the time with a snapshot or observation or tale which is both vast and particular.
  • Do vast particulars – global yet local, earth-sensitive yet human-driven, pandemically reeling a decades-long unfolding—document the news of the moment?
  • What new tensions are revealing themselves? Stripped of our daily routines, shriven from assurance of a well-meaning (at least, promised) future and encroached by shadows of collapse, just who stares back in the mirror of this moment?
  • If pandemic is the astringent which is fast clearing away the niceties and collective givens we call human, what vast particulars reveal homo sapiens behind its peeling mask?

The mythic cycles we’ve employed – hero’s quest, perilous chapel—have been traversed and leave us (gifted or cursed) with this new world, one whose outlines are vaguely, slowly revealing themselves. Who are we now? What do we do with enforced solitude, which changing social norms and the omnipresent specter of a crusading disease? Who do we wear the mask for? We have sacrificed our own security in the name of collective good; what is the payoff?

Maybe it seems like pretty wide reconnaissance (my wife correctly accuses me of Big Picturism), but reportage of the moment requires vast particulars. That’s an odd phrase, but it contains the tension between two curves moving in opposite directions.

For example, this poem I read in the May 18 New Yorker offers such a vantage:


Rae Armantraut


In Chuck’s dream, a strange woman
is smoking in our kitchen.

She’s doing her best, she says,
exhaling into the oven.

Then three military men
burst in without knocking.

They say they’ve come
to establish order,

but their uniforms are strange.
Chuck suspects they’re really salesmen.

Their leader stands too close
as he begins his pitch—

close enough to spread a virus.


I take a photo of a house
painted half blue, half pink.

Why am I drawn
to things that make no sense?

Or is their sense excessive?

You need to decontextualize
an object
in order to see it,

I once said.

Last sloth
in a pocket of rain forest;

exquisite scent
of hyacinth

on the wingless breeze.

What particulars—daily iota of evolving knowns, raw data becoming the softest sursurration of changing weather—are vast with the news of what we really are and/or can be no more?

Weeks before the official start of the hurricane season, Tropical Storm Arthur looks to brush the coast of North Carolina before spiraling out into the colder waters of the mid-Atlantic. Good news for the East Coast of the USA, but another storm, Cyclone Vongfong, barreled last Friday straight into Luzon, the most populous island of the Philippines. The evacuation of a hundred thousand residents was complicated by efforts to maintain social distancing during the nation’s lockdown. Facing off with the West Pacific’s first named storm of the season, shelters were only allowed to fill halfway and evacuees expected to wear masks.

I went out to water the impatiens and gardenias we planted out back—slow curve of slight water from a hose, feeding what we have chosen to flourish—while the sky bucked and rolled and heaved—gently enough—with the distant swelling of Tropical Storm Arthur.  I don’t have a job, what else am I gonna do? Stay home and keep safe. I looked down at those pretty, tiny, frail blossoms weaving in the same wind and whispered the same to them before heading back inside to the air-conditioned shelter of this post.

Who wins, I wonder. Who knows.


earthweal weekly challenge: MODERNITY’S HERO QUEST

Empty streets into downtown, late April 2020


Beautiful weather here in Central Florida as cool fronts still make it down this way this late in what we here call spring. They bring rain and then clear days so crisp you can make out the angel’s smile up there in the cathedral. Temps in the low 80s, breezy with the skies so blue they savor an almost amniotic grace—so fine, so fine.

Of course this will pass into the primal season of summer, and with oceans getting so hot the forecast is for one of the busiest hurricane seasons ever—22 storms: Vicious summer stuff for these parts. That’s coming, as surely as more wreckage and division as American humanity struggles with pandemic, depression and Donald Trump. But for now, how sweet and fair the days, a lolling stroll in Paradise, akin to the summer of 1938, before the long guns of August began tolling …

Sweet indeed. My wife and worked all day Saturday planting blue daze ground cover plants in an island by our kitchen window. Projects like that have been the sane backbone of our stay-in-place out-of-work sequestering; we’ve painted and organized and planted our way to this moment where Florida begins its premature reopening and hurried fantasies of returned normalcy. You should have seen the garden center of our home improvement box store yesterday, busier than the week before Christmas, social distancing, masks and care for essential home improvement workers be damned.

It’s not really apparent here that the curve has flattened—spikes were always elsewhere, in nearby Orlando or South Florida—but the herd has decided so here in such surly, commercially-afflicted moods, everything shouting We’re Baaaaaaack.

Indeed. What do you do with a truth no one lives according to? In so many ways this pandemic behaves just like the impending climate disaster upon the world’s most conscious and reckless citizens—not a collective problem each individual is responsible for. Someone gave us permission to believe whatever we want to believe—blame the Internet, FOX News and Facebook—and now the avatar of our cultural We is Alfred E. Neumann, lost between asshole and hole in the ground.

Ed Yong of The Atlantic Monthly has been brilliant writing about the pandemic; in his latest, “Why The Pandemic Is So Confusing,” he takes a step back to look at science in real time and the difficulties it imposes on a world become everything and nothing at once. Solutions aren’t pulled out of a hat, and the distance between this moment and the one in which a vaccine is available to all is neither straight nor short. (The average wait time for vaccines is around 13 years.) We’re dealing with a tricky virus with a host of strange properties and complications; it carries well into the crowd because so many of the infected don’t show symptoms, but those who sicken quickly imperil a health system never meant to sustain waves so high.

Indeed, there is so much about our modernity which makes pandemic its perfect foil, Gawain and the Green Knight. Yong writes,

… The desire to name an antagonist, be it the Chinese Communist Party or Donald Trump, disregards the many aspects of 21st-century life that made the pandemic possible: humanity’s relentless expansion into wild spaces; soaring levels of air travel; chronic underfunding of public health; a just-in-time economy that runs on fragile supply chains; health-care systems that yoke medical care to employment; social networks that rapidly spread misinformation; the devaluation of expertise; the marginalization of the elderly; and centuries of structural racism that impoverished the health of minorities and indigenous groups. It may be easier to believe that the coronavirus was deliberately unleashed than to accept the harsher truth that we built a world that was prone to it, but not ready for it.

Prone to it but not ready for it: That’s the space where pandemic and climate change come at us in exactly the same way, of course for their imminent danger but moreso our inability to response to those threats, looking for other things to blame, complaining about the economic costs, ignoring victims on distant shores.

Perhaps the perfect example of this is my wife and I working hard Saturday in the full sun of the front yard, pulling weeds, laying landscape fabric, planting blue daze from 1-gallon pots, laying mulch and watering: A full day’s effort in upper-80s heat and blazing sun, kneeling, digging, lifting, moving, raking and watering; bitching too, and laughing and sweating with play-by-play meows from Domino, the stray male tuxedo cate who has adopted us with a passion and who sat mostly in shade watching us fools work in the sun.

What did we learn there, I wonder. What did we earn. We sure were exhausted at day’s end, and I have sore muscles today in calves and back and shoulders and neck. Moving slow. It feels good though to have done some hard work for the sake of the house my wife and I call home. Common ground and purpose in the face of unrelenting chaos is good. It’s also an suburban indulgence that turns separation intos something too sweet for torches and pitchforks and campaigns for change.

Maybe that’s why these earthweal challenges and open link weekends are spluttering out after four months: Of that real earth and its dire need for change there is just not that much to say, especially not now when difficulty and despair feels close, comes in the daily mail and weighs so heavily on dreams. Who wouldn’t work in the garden and sing of blue daze? Is that making the best of difficulty or whistling in a growing dark?

Yong, again:

In the classic hero’s journey—the archetypal plot structure of myths and movies—the protagonist reluctantly departs from normal life, enters the unknown, endures successive trials, and eventually returns home, having been transformed. If such a character exists in the coronavirus story, it is not an individual, but the entire modern world. The end of its journey and the nature of its final transformation will arise from our collective imagination and action. And they, like so much else about this moment, are still uncertain.

Hmm, how about that for a weekly challenge.  If you could speak for that global persona—modernity as hero—what would his/her task be in this changed new world, the travel and trials, the treasure and its rewards? Have pandemic and climate change turned the kingdom into a wasteland, if so, what is it that can heal the aging king/queen and restore the land to vitality?

A starting point could be to illustrate the change. Is pandemic the Fisher King’s wound or its cure? Frank Bruni had a great column in yesterday’s New York Times, speaking with Laurie Garrett, a journalist who had predicted both the HIV crisis as well as this pandemic. What she sees ahead, Bruni writes, is bleak if you’re all for small government and protect-the-rich tax policy. (Progressives, gimme a high-five.)

Bruni asked Garrett how much of the world had changed before our eyes:

I asked, is “back to normal,” a phrase that so many people cling to, a fantasy?

“This is history right in front of us,” Garrett said. “Did we go ‘back to normal’ after 9/11? No. We created a whole new normal. We securitized the United States. We turned into an antiterror state. And it affected everything. We couldn’t go into a building without showing ID and walking through a metal detector, and couldn’t get on airplanes the same way ever again. That’s what’s going to happen with this.”

Not the metal detectors, but a seismic shift in what we expect, in what we endure, in how we adapt.

Maybe in political engagement, too, Garrett said.

If America enters the next wave of coronavirus infections “with the wealthy having gotten somehow wealthier off this pandemic by hedging, by shorting, by doing all the nasty things that they do, and we come out of our rabbit holes and realize, ‘Oh, my God, it’s not just that everyone I love is unemployed or underemployed and can’t make their maintenance or their mortgage payments or their rent payments, but now all of a sudden those jerks that were flying around in private helicopters are now flying on private personal jets and they own an island that they go to and they don’t care whether or not our streets are safe,’ then I think we could have massive political disruption.”

“Just as we come out of our holes and see what 25 percent unemployment looks like,” she said, “we may also see what collective rage looks like.”

Imagine this moment as the beginning of a quest for humanity. A curtain lowered and then raised to a very different world. Has our world become a wasteland of former occupations and expectations? What is it that humanity needs so for its great wound—a vaccine or a Green New Deal? Guaranteed income or global health policy? A resurgent economy or a slowly rebuilt one? What’s the prize beyond measure, the treasure hard to attain? Be mythic or hard boiled. And what map takes us there?

Today is my brother Timm’s birthday. He would be 58 had he not died twelve years ago. If there was a letter I could write to him in oblivion, I wonder how much differently the world today I would describe to him—in the midst of this pandemic and peeling at the edges from a heating climate— would look from the day he departed on April 18, 2008. What do I tell him about his beloved Obama, who was then running for president? How could I describe the apotheosis of social media and the tyranny of Donald Trump, the rising tides and engulfing wildfires, the whirling maleficence of storm? Or the witchy stillness of this global pandemic …

Questions for oblivion. But what of the living? While we were slugging away planting a legion of blue daze on Saturday afternoon, my wife and I were distracted by the sound of car horns getting louder from some blocks away. Were protestors headed for City Hall in their gas-guzzling cars, assault rifles poking out of windows, drivers pointing a belligerent middle finger to quaintness and doing the right thing and being so muckety-muck mindful? (Another parallel between pandemic and climate change: Both outrage the libertarian sensibilities of the incorrect.)

But the horns veered off the main drag and headed up our street, and soon we discovered their source: A line of sensible Toyotas and Hyundais and Fords decked out with school colors and soaped windows proclaiming the Super Senior Class of ’20! and the like, fifteen or twenty cars with kids at the wheel pumping the horns and hollering with sprung joy. This is our new normal, and here were the carriers of the hero’s journey into the world.

We leaned on hoe and rake and wearily tried to wave at each car, giving these kids something while schools remained closed. The procession came and then went, headed, we could hear, from the locked high school toward downtown. So far so good, I thought; but then we are only in the early innings of a long game with this virus. A few more plantings, then black mulch to pour out from five large bags, then watering and cleanup and we could finally head back inside to salve our victorious wounds.

Domino the stray cat lay in the shade, fretting at fleas and sniffing the soft wind. Waiting of course for dinner but for something else also to come—love, a fresh pact, something.

My dreams have been tortures of late—lost in huge buildings late a night trying to find a class or a job seminar

Maybe we have a world—or a We—awakening to something greater than spring.

And maybe humanity is the wound and pandemic the knight errant who saves the world.

What’s your take? Challenge open till 4 PM Friday when we open the doors for weekend open links.


earthweal weekly challenge: A NEW MAP TO THE OLD WORLD

1550 map of the New World.


Stay-in-place time passes far from the hurly-burly clockface of Earlier 2020. It feels like we’re adrift in a stillness which echoes vastly down the abyss of geologic time, sails lagging, motion nil. Who knows when the world will resume, when jobs will be found and supply chains start up again, when restaurants re-open and concourses fill again with unmasked fellow travelers and celebrants and worshippers. When a vaccine is finally ready and offered, for sure: But how long that will be, no one really knows, and for now, we wait, lingering on in bewitched stillness praying for anything like a breeze.

Something I read yesterday in Robert Macfarlane’s Underland: A Deep Time Journey fluttered my sails:

A woman’s body is prepared for burial in Thessaly in the fourth century B.C. Her lips are closed by a coin bearing the head of a gorgon, there to pay the ferryman who will carry her over a dark-watered river towards the realm of death. Placed on her chest are two heart-shaped leaves of gold foil, into which metal words have been etched. Together the leaves form a Totenpass—a death pass or death map. The text they bear is for her to read in the underland; it gives her directions to the dominion of the dead, where she will be placed in the care of Persephone. The text warns her of mistakes made by others, who have not navigated their way to safety in the underland and are now condemned to haunt the mortal realm eternally as spectres. You will find on the right in Hades’ halls a spring, and by it stands a ghostly cypress-tree, where the dead souls descending wash away their lives. Do not even draw night this spring … (246-7)

In maps to the underworld, the precision is—was—all.  Great was the peril for taking even the wrong step left or right off the path. Remember the Tarot of The Fool, eyes dazzled by sunshine as he steps off a cliff? For such folly it’s hair, nose and eyeballs whistling all the way down to the eternally crashing shore, a sound which still chills us with the lament of the lost …

I wonder what happened to those death maps. Religions have offered life-sized versions of them, with careful instructions how to behave today for eternal payoff. Myth travels further back into the caves, setting up altars and reckonings deep in the Mother. But do those maps come close to the land of the dead? Somehow all our charts fall short of the far-westernmost island, Ultima Thule, Land of the Everliving …

And most of those maps have been overwritten by mortal, venal hands. Profaned. The imperial maps of capitalism are grand, trespassing far and wide and deep, laying some 50 million miles of borehole drilling down into the oil, shearing off mountains to claw out trainloads of coal.  Invade pristine wilderness in holy search for gold, for lost cities with gleaming vaults, room after room further below. The cranium of something deep and lost 15 thousand feet down the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, drilled and pumped for the knowledge of gilt things. Arctic glaciers melted and refined to pour into crystal glasses aboard yachts named Anubis and Unsinkable II.

In an interview with Dianne Ackerman about Underland, Macfarlane spoke about recovering our way to the underworld:

I have for a long time been interested in practices of “countermapping,” most particularly associated as a practice with indigenous or suppressed cultures who seek to disinter and reinscribe forgotten or overwritten topyonymies and modes of perceptions … Mapping is always partial, and for that reason is always an expression of priority—and often an expression of power. … In Underland that has meant making visible those aspects, psychological as well as geological, that we have sought to bury, suppress, hide, or render obscene. Such things have—in trauma theory as in geomorphology—a tendency to resurface. (Earth Elegies, Conjunctions: 73, p 74)

It makes me wonder about the modern maps we reckon by, insanely accurate in one sense—how easy it is to drive to any location navigating with Google Maps—yet profanely unreadable for reckoning a soul’s history or a nation’s fall. And we thought we were sailing to Byzantium, disrupting deep time with our progress.

The time allows us moment to wonder at the maps we have followed, asking where they have lead us. Gazing through their tatters, we sense or sight a truer lay of the land? Do our ruins inter a darker, deeper cartography? Are there leys of ancient power just behind the formal lines of our surveyed towns?

What might those maps look like? Or, to read things backward (we do have the time), are there cartographies of deep time and stillness which betray the known maps of the world which no longer apply? Does our very understanding of landscape shift and relocate in the shatter of this here and now? Chastened by something so infinitesimal as a virus—one-one thousandth the girth of a human hair—what does that tell us a three billion-year-old planet’s grief at the lousy 10 thousand years of homo sapiens mastery?

And what of spectral, monstrous landscapes—vast stretches of tar sand wretchedness in Alberta, or carved-off mountaintops in Appalachia, oil-sogged Gulf beaches or whales dead with plastics filling their guts, or vast stretches of coral reefs bleached or a third of a continent of blackened bush: What instructions did we fail in getting here? By what reckoning can we call ourselves a success?

Is there hope perhaps, in charting a Totenpass for a human world bewitched by virus?

I don’t know, but it’s worthy of a weekly challenge.

What’s your NEW MAP TO THE OLD WORLD?  What hidden perils and treasures does it reveal?

Contributions welcomed through Friday, May 1. Be sure to visit your fellow poets from around the world and comment on their map(s)

Anchors aweigh!




PS: Your map does not have to take us to dystopia or Eden; we may only have our damaged reckoning and an only faintly clearing view. (Who has much sense of the horizon ahead in the coming months?) Spiritual, political and aesthetic responses are all compromised. Let’s take that as par for this course and be encouraged to keep working for that reason, with nuance and guesswork. Heavens, we don’t even understand the virus we are contending with; how can we properly locate the changed geography?

Macfarlane again:

Donna Haraway’s justly famous phrase for the task that faces all of us is “staying with the trouble.” There is no prelapsarian state of nature to be returned to, or even briefly accessed. It is impossible to write without a context of damage, decline, and injustice. The trouble needs to be clearly seen, and organized against up and down the levels, from local to global. But—and—keeping hope, love, wonder and the belief in possible betterment in view; this too is part of the work of staying with the trouble. (Ackerman interview in Earth Elegies, 77)

earthweal weekly challenge: PANDEMIC AND CLIMATE CHANGE

Tom Toles / Washington Post

There has been a “clear” immediate effect of pandemic on climate change. With economic activity flattened worldwide, highways are emptied, factories are at a standstill, jet traffic lulls. In China alone, carbon emissions were down 25 percent in January—an amount equivalent to half the annual emissions of Britain.

The change is palpable. You can see blue skies in Los Angeles. The waters are clear in Venice. People are outside walking. One researcher at Stanford University estimated that the reduction of air pollution in China alone for two months was enough to save 50,000 people who would have otherwise died prematurely.

That’s a good deal, but it is short-term. The engines will rev up again once the epidemic is under control or a vaccine has been widely administered. The curtain of one crisis will fall, fading into another much more lasting. Meehan Crist writes,

To be clear, the coronavirus pandemic is a tragedy — a human nightmare unspooling in overloaded hospitals and unemployment offices with unnerving speed, barreling toward a horizon darkened by economic disaster and crowded with portents of suffering to come. But this global crisis is also an inflection point for that other global crisis, the slower one with even higher stakes, which remains the backdrop against which modernity now plays out. As the United Nations’ secretary general recently noted, the threat from coronavirus is temporary whereas the threat from heat waves, floods and extreme storms resulting in the loss of human life will remain with us for years.

There are eerie similarities between pandemic and climate change. Infection rates follow an upward spike similar to the upward curve of increasing carbon in the atmosphere. But the time scales are vastly different, one realized in weeks, the other in decades.

As Lawrence Torcello and Michael Mann write, both pandemic and climate change are wicked problems where acting smart is crucial .

As with climate change, understanding the difference between recommendations based on good science and reckless opining or misinforming is critical, and as with climate change, taking appropriate action now will pay future dividends. Likewise, the necessary disruptions to everyday life and the status-quo might not seem so indispensable to those who aren’t directly experiencing the worst impacts of COVID-19 or of climate change. In both cases, however, the reality is that the slower we are to react, the higher the cost will be in death as well as economic loss.

 “Flattening the curve” is the product of collective action in both cases, and the economic impact is equally drastic—plenty of pain up front to minimize long term impacts. And in both cases, doing to little will be far more costly.

Resistance to the actions necessary to resolve both crises are coming from the same quarter, amplified by right-wing media and blessed by leaders struggling for power. (Great clip by The Daily Show titled “Saluting The Heroes of the Pandumbic”) The response from these people to both climate change and now the pandemic is so identical, you have to wonder if the two crises bear a single a truth.  (Of course they do.) Climate scientist Katharine Hayhow tweeted, “The six stages of climate denial are: It’s not real. It’s not us. It’s not that bad. It’s too expensive to fix. Aha, here’s a great solution (that actually does nothing). And—oh no! Now it’s too late. You really should have warned us earlier.” Wait! Is she talking about climate change, or the pandemic?

The Trump administration is racing to roll back environmental regulations and privatize public lands ahead of the upcoming election. Taking advantage of scaled-back pollution enforcement due to the pandemic, the EPA and the Interior Department are racing though deregulation measures—like lifting migratory bird protections and holding oil and gas sales with little or no opportunity for public comment. And just a few days ago, the Trump administration rolled back Obama-era vehicle mileage standards, raising the ceiling on damaging fossil fuel emissions for years to come and gutting one of the United States’ biggest efforts against climate change.

Rebuilding our economic infrastructure is required by both and it will take great leadership and cooperation from every level of government—especially between the parties. (Hissing from the hard right isn’t helping, nor is the “we’ll give everything away for free” from the left.) Certainly the necessity weighs heavily enough to achieve something significant. In the U.S. ten million people filed for unemployment in just two weeks, overwhelming state unemployment offices. Once the big curve is flattened, no one know what jobs there will be to return to; now may be the time for significant investment in green-energy jobs. President Obama had promised them in the wake of the Great Recession, and the Green New Deal was proposed as a way forward into the age of climate change.

It is hoped that there may be habits learned in this short term which could be of great help in addressing the long-term challenges of climate change—reduced long-distance travel, say, or less dependence on automobiles (long-term unemployment will devastate the commute for many.)

The pandemic comes at an awful time for the oil and gas industry as oil prices have been depressed due to a price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia; the plunging demand for gas due to people staying at home has put the industry in survival mode. Rates of return for oil and gas projects have slumped from 20 percent to about 6, making sustainable energy projects much more attractive. Will the industry bounce back with the resumption of business, or will this finally push the industry into a retreat that will finally give the climate a chance to recover?

Let us not think climate change has been shelved in any significant way except for our awareness. What we experience in the climate this year is largely the product of increased carbon emissions twenty years ago. The Great Barrier Reef off Australia is being further devastated by the third major bleaching event in the past five years. The Gulf of Mexico is three degrees above normal, spelling intensified thunderstorm and hurricane activity for the region. And where the pandemic has kept people indoors and off the streets, clearing skies and waters, it has hurt climate change progress in other ways. And crucial UN climate talks scheduled in Glasgow for November have been delayed a year due to the coronavirus. We might be focused elsewhere, but the crisis has not at all.

Many things to think about.

For this challenge, write about pandemic and climate change together.

  • How are the two issues similar, how do they differ?
  • What if pandemic is an accelerated petri dish for understanding the arc of climate change?
  • What have you learned about self-sacrifice for a longer common good in the pandemic, and how has that changed your perspective on climate change?
  • Where do the two blossom, how do they bleed?
  • Has the public’s attention to the climate change crisis been enhanced or diminished by pandemic, or both?
  • Is pandemic a synecdoche of climate change, where a part represents the whole? Does it serve as a lens for seeing better the grander sweep?
  • Does the dramatic uptick of human mortality in pandemic help us understand the extinction cascade of so many species caused by climate change?
  • A recent challenge looked at the weird mosh-pit of timescales caused by climate change—where geologic ages have become entangled with human days—is this another example?
  • Does the accelerated drama of pandemic and the possibilities of human intervention for good show us how the same is possible with climate change?
  • What of a collective refusal of fossil-fuel living, learned by necessity during pandemic, continued in order to flatten the curve of carbon emissions?

Much to write about!