earthweal guest weekly challenge: LOST WORDS

by Sarah Connor

I’m really good at recognising wildflowers.

That’s not because I’ve studied them, or been taught about them. It’s mainly because I loved the Cecily Mary Barker books when I was a child. Reading and re-reading those gorgeous little books gave me a real grounding in English wildflowers. It means that now, when I go for walks, I have something to look out for. It also means that I notice something different, I know that it’s different, I might go home and look it up (probably in a slightly more grown-up book). It’s given me a personal connection to nature. It’s given me a series of hooks to hang new learning on.

Here’s the lovely Blackthorn Fairy, from Pinterest. Note that the leaves aren’t out yet – one of the ways to spot that this is blackthorn, not hawthorn. Impressed?

Why am I telling you this? Well, we’re all poets. We know how important words are. How important it is to name things. We’re also here at earthweal, so we care about this planet. We see the danger Earth is in, and we want things to change.

In 2005, Robert Louv coined the term Nature-Deficit Disorder®. He was talking about the damage done to children when they don’t have access to nature, and linking it to a number of physical and mental health difficulties. The world was obviously ready for this idea, and there’s been lots of research since then looking at the damage to the individual, but also the damage done to the planet when humans don’t feel connected to nature. People don’t care about things they don’t feel connected to.

Roll on to 2007, and a new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary. This is a dictionary for children, which aims to “the current frequency of words in daily language of children”. The 2007 edition created a massive shockwave in the UK by including words like “broadband” and omitting words like “acorn”. At least 40 words from the natural world were left out. In response to this, Robert MacFarlane and Jackie Morris created a beautiful “spell-book” – The Lost Words.

Just to give you an idea of how shocking this was, here’s a selection of words omitted:

  • Dandelion
  • Bramble
  • Fern
  • Acorn
  • Heron
  • Kingfisher
  • Raven
  • Starling
  • Willow
  • Lavender
  • Sycamore
  • Poppy
  • Otter
  • Newt
  • Wren
  • Magpie

MacFarlane quotes a Cambridge study showing that children are better at identifying Pokemon characters than they are at identifying “organisms such as oak trees or badgers”.

Wittgenstein said “whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent”. If we don’t have words, names for things, how do we think about them? How do we feel connection?

That connection is vital for our planet. We don’t care about things we don’t feel connected to. Everyone knows this. Big brands try to make you feel part of a “family”. Politicians survey to find out what issues we care about. Football fans buy scarves and replica kits to feel part of something bigger than themselves. If we let our children be more connected to electronic creatures than to the natural world around them, how can they gain a sense of love and care for this wonderful planet of ours?

So, for this prompt, I’d like you to think about how you first felt connected to nature – maybe as a child, or as an adult. Some of those lost words may inspire you, or you may have your own lost word (or world?) that gave you a sense of wonder at the natural world around you. Maybe you collected caterpillars, or watched birds on a bird-table, or squatted down to watch beetles, or looked up to see squirrels in the treetops.

Let’s aim to connect humans with nature. Let’s inspire love and respect. Let’s write poems.

earthweal weekly challenge: STRANGE WORLD


Hot and sunny this Friday afternoon in Central Florida as I begin to write this week’s earthweal challenge—nothing unusual about that, it’s probably been this way here in July for the past 10,000 years. Nor is there anything much different about hurricane Isaias working its way up from the Bahamas right now just barely at Cat 1 strength. Forecast now is that it will brush Florida’s eastern coast but stay offshore and spiral slowly north, probably coming ashore in North Carolina.

All of that seems pretty normal for right about now, although other weirdness is leaking into the mix and changing the picture.  Saharan dust high in the atmosphere (blown this way thanks to mid-Saharan drought) along with wind shear is making Isaias’ spiral progress more labored.

Probably won’t be much, but then a heating ocean and more moisture in the air means more powerful storms, heavier rainfall events—and much more of the unexpected.  Noah Shannon writes in the Climate Issue of the July 22 New York Times Magazine,

Since 1989, the number of storms with winds topping 155 m.p.h.—the speed at which wind starts to tear walls from building—has tripled; over the last few years, parts of India and the American South have flooded, with anywhere from 275 to 500 percent more rain than usual. In the oceans, where there is now 5 percent more water aloft than there was in the middle of the last century, the odds of a storm spinning into a major hurricane have shot up substantially in the last 40 years.

Last year Hurricane Dorian came up much the same path toward Florida but parked next to the Bahamas at Cat 5 strength. The year before, Hurricane Michael barreled up the Gulf while intensifying from tropic wave to Cat 5 in just 36 hours. They are still rebuilding the Panhandle after taking a direct hit. The monsoon season this year has flooded a third of Bangladesh, and the Yangtze River in China is seeing its worst flooding in decades, threatening the Three Gorges Dam and livelihood of millions.

Storms are also breaking weather patterns by straying out of season and latitudes. Although the Atlantic hurricane season has been set between June and October, last year the first tropical system formed on May 20 and the last one on Nov. 24. (This year, Tropical Storm Arthur formed on May 16.) Cyclone Idai struck the Mozambique coast late in the Pacific cyclone season in March 2019, six weeks later when Cyclone Kenneth struck Mozambique, evacuation routes were still choked from the previous weirdly late storm. Some forecasters now believe Category 6 storms are now possible due to the changed climate.

Extreme weather is also more difficult to predict. Shannon writes,

The chaos wrought by climate change requires radically rethinking some of meteorology’s core concepts. As a disciple, meteorology is based on the idea that the climate is a constant; within each year, season or day, only a certain number and range of variable weather events are possible. But because that constant has become a variable, (severe weather expert Steve) Nesbitt thinks the field needs to take a big step back and begin again with the basics: close observations of how storms develop and behave. “We thought we knew how the climate and weather operated,” he told me. “But not we have to think more like astronomers—like we don’t know what’s out there.”

Strange new world. As coastlines submerge, maps are becoming fast outdated. The virus spreads, taking advantage of every doubt and equivocation and weariness expressed by leaders or the populace. A map of projected inundations by 2050 is curiously akin to a map of projected infection in the United State two months from now. Governments don’t seem to be able to respond sufficiently to either, nor do citizens of this century.

We have more advanced tools than ever but we’re less decided the tidings they bring. The weather darkens and threatens but we don’t know or can’t comprehend what’s coming. We should be prepared but we don’t seem to want to accept the reality that demands. Millions are on the move now due to climate change but there isn’t really any place for them to go. The rising tide of those faces is all but invisible to the commercial consumer world most of us inhabit. What do disconnects like these bode for us and the century now unfolding?

Our solid sense of reality has been disrupted, and what we’re left with doesn’t behave normally. The mind which assembled words for this post is more aged and dicey, less focused and reluctant to summon orders which used to come easy. Am I going mad or is the world?

And despite all these challenges, most hunker down into the safe and known, tried and true solutions which ceased being so some time ago. It may be more the 1950s now than ever as we repeat the ghostly patterns of assurance and solidity.

But who’s the ghost now in this strange new world?

STRANGE WORLD is the theme of this challenge. Take the opportunity to assess what’s become so strange in your world, be it climate or politics or culture or dreams. Are the tools of observation changing from the weather forecaster’s reliance on past data to the weirdness of astronomy—discovering new unknowns?

As I finish this challenge on Sunday, Isaias weakened overnight and now is a disorganized tropical storm brushing the Florida coast. The hot ocean which has witched up such wicked storms recently was countered by Saharan dust from hot dry weather elsewhere. We’ll feel some breezes later today, maybe a few rain bands: The opposite extreme of the extreme we were fearing. In a strange world, sometimes it goes that way, madly still instead of violently rending. They are both faces of the same time.

What’s strange in your world/country/city/home/backyard/forest/ocean/head/heart today?


earthweal weekly challenge: SACRED LANDSCAPES

dun i iona

Dun I at Iona, just off the southeastern coast of Scotland

Fiona MacLeod’s essay “Iona” is about an island the author lived on for a time in his youth, the lore of it he learned and the way it grew in his heart as he championed the Celtic Renaissance.

The introduction to that work provides the springboard I’m looking for this week’s challenge.

A few places in the world are to be held holy, because of the love which consecrates them and the faith which enshrines them. Their names are themselves talismans of spiritual beauty. Of these is Iona.

The Arabs speak of Mecca as a holy place before the time of the prophet, saying that Adam himself lies buried here: and, before Adam, that the Sons of Allah, who are called Angels, worshipped; and that when Allah Himself stood upon perfected Earth it was on this spot. And here, they add, when there is no man left upon earth, an angel shall gather up the dust of this world, and say to Allah, “There is nothing left of the whole earth but Mecca: and now Mecca is but the few grains of sand that I hold in the hollow of my palm, O Allah.”

In spiritual geography Iona is the Mecca of the Gael.

It is but a small isle, fashioned of a little sand, a few grasses salt with the spray of an ever-restless wave, a few rocks that wade in heather and upon whose brows the sea-wind weaves the yellow lichen. But since the remotest days sacrosanct men have bowed herein worship. In this little island a lamp was lit whose flame lighted pagan Europe, from the Saxon in his fens to the swarthy folk who came by Greek waters to trade the Orient.

Here Learning and Faith had their tranquil home, when the shadow of the sword lay upon all lands, from Syracuse by the Tyrrhene Sea to the rainy isles of Orcc. From age to age, lowly hearts have never ceased to bring their burthen here. Iona herself has given us for remembrance a fount of youth more wonderful than that which lies under her own boulders of Dûn-I. And here Hope waits.

To tell the story of Iona is to go back to God, and to end in God.

(Iona” first appeared in The Fortnightly Review in March and April 1900, was put into book form in the same name in 1905 and in 1911 was anthologized in volume 4 of MacLeod’s collected works.)

A simple, almost nondescript island in the Hebrides (there are more than 40 in all, most uninhabited), Iona also has been a magnet for spiritual expression for millennia. Iona was a druidic island before the arrival of St. Columba in 563 AD, and before that it was sacred to the moon-goddess Ioua. Once there were 360 standing stones around the island’s margin; an Iron Age fort once stood on Dun-I; a Christian monastery flourished for centuries, was destroyed several times by Vikings, sat fallow for centuries and then was rebuilt. Irish Catholics include it in their sacred pilgrimages along with St. Patrick’s Purgatory and Station Island. Tourists come from around the world to revel in its sacred landscape. My father visited there several times over his life, had a seminal encounter with something there in 1977 and used that to cultivate his own sacred landscape in Eastern Pennsylvania. Some of his ashes rest near Dun I.

I never visited the island, but it has been a permanent fixture in my spiritual geography for the past 40 years. (The name of my blog Oran’s Well derives from such a spring called Tobar Odhrain near Dun I, also called The Fountain of Youth, now lost; other similarly-named wells are found on nearby islands like Colonsay and back in Ireland.) Iona is a place where the veil is thin. It is located far away yet deep in me, of a past which is somehow wound in my fate; the work of resident energies became my father’s which are also mine as well as any who treasure and further thin places and resonant energies.

What makes a landscape sacred? From what do wells and mountains and rivers and islands inherit their power? Long habitation and use? Leys and magical rooks? Unconscious cultural material which has followed us for hundreds of thousands of years? Innate animal affinities which provide us with our native compass and speak our origin myths?

Redwood National Forest, California

I’m leaving that up to you to answer. For this week’s challenge, imagine a place that is important to you, perhaps magical or spiritual. What makes it so for you, and how have you kept a relation with that place over the years? Is it a real place or an imaginary one? Have you lived there or only dreamt of visiting it? How has it affected your poetry? And how might it be affected by climate change and a fast-evolving humanity? (Iona was stripped of much of its cultural magic when the Gaelic language was lost to modernity—some would argue that its Christian foundations have slipped away, too–sadly for many, it is empty buildings and eternal wind.)

Think of: vistas like the Grand Canyon; depths suggested by the keel of a boat far at sea; the vastness of stars above and beyond; old-growth forest canopies waterfalls and sweeping fields; Edens and primaveras; gods and goddesses of place; the language of a culture wound into particulars of place-names; the wonder-worlds of childhood and fable and storybooks; the heart which is intimate with such places and calls them home.

Is there a sacred landscape in this world for you? Gather round and help us weave those shrines into a sacred Earth!

— Brendan

weekly challenge: MESSAGES FROM THE WILD

Port Alberni owl


guest post by Sherry Marr

The heart that breaks open
can contain the whole universe.

—Joanna Macy

Mother Earth is sending us urgent messages in wildfire, floods, tornadoes, the CO2 index, and record-breaking temperatures. The wild ones, too, are speaking. I think of Tahlequah, the mother orca who carried her dead calf on her nose, in grief, for seventeen days and could not let her go. The Tla-o-quiaht people, here in Clayoquot Sound, teach that every creature is a being, as worthy of life and respect as we are. They tell of an orca who accompanied the boat carrying a dead chief all the way to his island home. They believed the orca was the chief’s brother, come to accompany him on his final passage.

One of our online poets had a three-day visitation from an owl, recently, who chose her yard in which to do her dying. I believed at the time the owl carried a message for her. The poet, sadly, was diagnosed with cancer soon after. It sounds like it has been caught in time, perhaps thanks to the owl, who gazed at her intently, soul to soul, for the days she visited.

Two weeks after my mother died, I was driving towards her farm when, (it felt like in slow motion), an owl flew across my windshield, so close I could see every feather. Her head was turned towards me and our eyes met as she made her passage into the forest, still looking back at me. It felt like time had slowed. Somehow the car was still moving and on the road, yet I can still feel the slow suspension of those moments, our eyes locked. I knew an oracle had been, with a message for me from my mother.

I have a poet friend who is visited often by wild creatures. She has dreams filled with the cries of the wild ones, who bring her messages because she is a seer, a woman of the drum, who can carry their voices to the rest of us.

I worked for many years at a First Nations healing centre where families came to heal from addiction issues. We had a ceremony called the Healing of Memories, where we gathered in circle around an outdoors fire, and people wept as they threw their written messages of pain into the fire, to lessen their burdens. Eagles never failed to show up and circle slowly overhead  till we were finished.

I lived with my own wild one for fourteen years. Pup was a wolf-dog, found at the healing centre, close to death, as a tiny puppy. I took him home and fed him and he grew. He was a wild one, and he led me a merry chase! He did not want to leave me when he died. The next morning, right around the time his body was going into the flames, I woke up feeling his snout on the edge of my mattress, and heard his gentle whuff, the way he had woken me for all those years. He had come one last time to say goodbye. This still makes me cry.

These days I am hearing of rivers being given the status of personhood, to protect their rights. Our opportunity now is to recognize what indigenous people have always known, that everything has consciousness: the sea, rivers, trees, animals. We need to save the wild, not just for ourselves, but for all the wild ones of every kind: animals, birds, sea creatures. All our relations.

We have seen the photos of starving polar bears in the melting north, sometimes only skin and bone by the time they expire. We heard the cries of the burning koalas and kangaroos of Australia. But then another crisis came, and another.  The pangolin and the barbecued monkeys and dogs from the wet markets of Wuhan have brought us a profoundly life-altering message in the corona virus. We did not heed earlier warnings, so the lessons are being repeated more strongly.

For today’s challenge, let’s contemplate messages from the wild.

Have you had an encounter with or a visitation from a wild creature? Do you have a totem animal with whom you identify? Or do you share life with a less-wild creature, and have a story to tell about communicating with another species? For we do communicate with them, and they with us, as any dog or cat or horse-lover understands very well.

Write whatever comes up for you. There is sadness in how the wild ones are suffering. But there is also such wonder and privilege in sharing this world with them; such gifts given us by the animals who honour us with their trust. Since their messages are non-verbal, we have the opportunity to speak for them. You might wish to relate an encounter. Or you might speak as a particular wild creature, as we do in the Council for All Beings, giving voice to what the animals wish and need us to understand.

The animals hold my heart, always, so, whatever you write, I will read your poems with such delight.

earthweal weekly challenge: A SONG FOR SHIFTING BASELINES

Nurse Damaris Silva plays the violin for coronavirus patients inside a Santiago, Chile, hospital on Thursday, July 2. Pablo Sanhueza/Reuters


The scroll of scary climate events continues apace—and why wouldn’t it? Pandemic may have temporarily flattened the carbon-spew curve, but there’s nothing in our eventual economic recovery to suggest there has been any real change in humanity’s infrastructure or appetite for oil.

Most scientists now find it highly unlikely we’ll be able to keep to 1.5 degrees C of warming by the end of the century; in fact, the consensus prediction is that we’ll pass that mark in a decade and be somewhere in the 4-6 degree C range by 2099.

Those are scary numbers, but does that budding knowledge make any difference? It’s not even clear that a significant immediate catastrophe will drive humanity toward decisive enough action. Six months after continent-consuming wildfires and the third bleaching event in the Great Barrier Reef in five years, Australia’s global warming woes seem almost forgotten Arctic fires are burning unabated, vicious rains fall on the far East and “unseasonable” heat (that’s a rich term nowadays) swelters the southern US. (God, it’s hot here today.)

Pandemic adds a double whammy for these problems; in places like Arizona where the infection rate is three times the national average, staying indoors to beat the heat just increases the chances for spreading. Here in Florida, disaster relief officials are scrambling to work out alternatives to group shelters in case of hurricane evacuation.

But double—or even triple—threats coming at us as the result of climate change don’t seem to stir much response from humanity; we just hunker down and get used to it. Nowhere is this as evident as in the US where its government turns a blind eye to the pandemic as it infects soaring numbers of citizens.

Maybe we got used to this head-in-the-sand tactic suffering through a Trump presidency. Someday he will get voted out, some day there will be a vaccine; til then it’s to the bunkers, mateys, where there’s streaming on Netflix.

Lord knows what the world will look like when we emerge …

David Roberts at Vox examined this bewildering lack of response to a crisis which will have lasting effect for thousands, perhaps millions of years.

Contrary to the notion which many climate activists have that when things get bad enough, people will change, Roberts wonders if such a change will ever come.

In July 9 post titled “The Scariest Thing About Global Warming (And Covid-19)”, he suggests a very scary alternate possibility:  “Humans often don’t remember what we’ve lost or demand that it be restored. Rather, we adjust to what we’ve got.”

No moment of reckoning arrives. The atmosphere becomes progressively more unstable, but it never does so fast enough, dramatically enough, to command the sustained attention of any particular generation of human beings. Instead, it is treated as rising background noise.

The youth climate movement continues agitating, some of the more progressive countries are roused to (inadequate) action, and eventually, all political parties are forced to at least acknowledge the problem — all outcomes that are foreseeable on our current trajectory — but the necessary global about-face never comes. We continue to take slow, inadequate steps to address the problem and suffer immeasurably as a result.

Roberts looks to conservation studies to back this up. In 1995 an ecologist studying depleting fisheries declared that fish were going extinct under the radar of observation due to what he called “shifting baselines.”

Consider a species of fish that is fished to extinction in a region over, say, 100 years. A given generation of fishers becomes conscious of the fish at a particular level of abundance. When those fishers retire, the level is lower. To the generation that enters after them, that diminished level is the new normal, the new baseline. They rarely know the baseline used by the previous generation; it holds little emotional salience relative to their personal experience.

… A given generation of fishers becomes conscious of the fish at a particular level of abundance. When those fishers retire, the level is lower. To the generation that enters after them, that diminished level is the new normal, the new baseline. They rarely know the baseline used by the previous generation; it holds little emotional salience relative to their personal experience.

In essence, a “generational amnesia” allows a fish to become smaller and rarer until it’s no longer known and then vanishes.

The same idea of shifting baselines applies to climate change. “Few people are aware, in a conscious way, of how many hot summer days were normal for their parents’ or grandparents’ generation. Recent research shows that “extremely hot summers” are 200 times more likely than they were 50 years ago. Did you know that? Do you feel it?”

Shifting baselines in the collective also repeat in the individual experience. There is a personal amnesia “where knowledge extinction occurs as individuals forget their own experience.”

“There is a tremendous amount of research showing that we tend to adapt to circumstances if they are constant over time, even if they are gradually worsening,” says George Loewenstein, a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon. He cites the London Blitz (during World War II, when bombs were falling on London for months on end) and the intifada (the Palestinian terror campaign in Israel), during which people slowly adjusted to unthinkable circumstances.

“Fear tends to diminish over time when a risk remains constant,” he says, “You can only respond for so long. After a while, it recedes to the background, seemingly no matter how bad it is.”

Roberts notes that big events, or “teachable moments,” can momentarily shock us into willingness to make big changes, but “a teachable moment is only a moment,” he says. “Once the fear is gone, the willingness to take measures is also gone.”

Is there anything we can do to prevent shifting baselines from allowing us to sleep through the climate emergency during its more dire and transformational decades? You would think so, as “the human propensity to rapidly adapt is part of our evolved cognitive and emotional machinery.” But we need a baseline, and for that we have to recall the past. We can’t rely on our innate memory; it only takes about two to ten years to erase our experiential reference points.

Traditional culture embodies memory in the land, language and the people. The wisdom of the tribe carried by the ancestors into the present. Much of that has been lost.

That kind of historical consciousness — a day-to-day awareness of the obligations that come with being a good ancestor — has faded. And modern consumer capitalism might as well be designed to erase it, to lock everyone into an eternal present wherein satisfying the next material desire is the only horizon.

In lieu of traditional culture, a nation’s leaders, their governance and laws can help regulate history and slow and perhaps reverse a rapid degradation of the baselines.

Studying and understanding the long arc of history, considering the experience of previous generations and the welfare of coming generations, making decisions with the long view — those are things leaders are supposed to do.

The most reliable way to stop baselines from shifting is to encode the public’s values and aspirations into law and practice, through politics. They can’t be held steady through acts of collective will. They have to be hardwired into social infrastructure.

Unfortunately, US politics has become almost completely unresponsive, which reinforces rather than ameliorates our slipping baselines. One crucial part of registering a crisis as a crisis is a sense of agency, and Americans increasingly feel that they have no ability to shape national policy.

One of the only places left where that can happen now is in the arts. (Roberts also says that journalism can play a role in this, but that’s for another tribe to address.) As sites of culture, our poems can preserve the view of history, the presence of elders among the living and the memory of an ensouled and enervated landscape.

Poetry can apply brakes to our acquiescence to loss, questioning the process of letting important things go without the disaster of grief, as in this classic by Elizabeth Bishop:


The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

—from The Complete Poems, 1926-1979

That’s the scope of this week’s challenge, anyway. Observe shifting baselines in your world, in climate change, your nation’s governance, the pandemic. How are we changing? What has been lost? Is there an experience which demonstrates the vanishing act between generation or in your own life story? Or write about the importance of poetry in a vanishing and increasingly silent world. What has the tradition of poetry lent to your life and the world about you? How have you passed it on to the young? How can poetry’s voice and authority be preserved?

We are fast losing the vestiges of our voice—this work is important! Else we join the rest of humanity frogging our boil.

— Brendan