earthweal weekly challenge: DEEP TIME


We live amid aeons. Beneath my house here in Florida is sand from seas a million years old, and sediments washed here as the Appalachian mountains eroded from Alps to rolling headless shoulders. Ninth Avenue was built from crushed limestone, the foundation of this state. The tap water used for the coffee I drink is siphoned from an aquifer of fresh water about 25 thousand years old. I was baptized in the Atlantic ocean at age 14, just when the Now was flooding through me in a torrent; the wave which rolled over me and somehow through me was composed of salt water 3 billion years old. The air I breathe was created 3.5 billion years ago and I have shared it with settlers and squanderers, gators and vultures, pine and camellia and dollarweed.

These hands on the keyboard are 63 years old in this incarnation, but they flourish from a 3- million-year legacy of homonid existence, bound to an apelike mammal existence 11 million years long and mammals dating back 200 million years. I have my mammal ancestors to thank for the womb in which my ideas are conceived, the generating heat of a thought, the convoluted sense of glyphs carved into white space.

And these hands are inheritors of articulation – wings, fins, claws, suckers — means of grasping water and air, love and prey.

And earthweal challenges …

Yes, the moment is all. A few of them ago I had no idea what I was going to write about, now I’m bouncing around in this huge echo chamber homo sapiens calls time. It’s the embryonic fluid washes through all life and reverberates in mineral and other orders of nonlife. And it’s present only for a moment’s notice and then gone into the immense background we take for granted as dailiness.

Like stars. Light from stars arrives from thousands, millions of years ago, even more. The star SMS J031300.670839.3 is 6,000 light-years away from Earth, meaning its flicker tonight is 6,000 years old. That star is also 13.8 billion years old, formed at the beginning of our known universe, so its light is also of the oldest vintage. Another star, Icarus, was discovered by the Hubble Space Telescope in a spiral galaxy so far from the Earth its light takes nine billion years to reach here. A walk in starlight is an eerie symphony of deep time. Who knew?

Stars also teach us about afterlife, the lingering of the gone in the present. Most visible starlight comes from active stars, though many stars in the most distant galaxies are long gone. And there’s no difference between living light and dead light. It’s all radiance.

Extinct species live on the vast diffusion of the life which evolved from them. In the human temporal bandwidth, there is a narrower resonance of the gone amid the living. We live in an era that witnesses the vanishing of most megafauna; in a few more, giraffes and hippos and whales will only be observable in zoos and videos preserved on eternal servers. Petroglyphs survive from early human history, often glorying in species that vanished thousands of years ago—cave bears and ibexes and woolly mammoths. The petroglyphs will probably outlive electronic media, which means the culture most aware of itself will probably be the most silent in the deep time to come.

In his book Underland, Robert MacFarlane describes the sweep of time in the ground beneath our feet and the crucial lessons we may learn there:

‘Deep time’ is the chronology of the underland. Deep time is the dizzying expanses of Earth history that stretch away from the present moment. Deep time is measured in units that humble the human instant: epochs and aeons, instead of minutes and years. Deep time is kept by stone, ice, stalactites, seabed sediments and the drift of tectonic plates. Deep time opens into the future as well as the past. The Earth will fall dark when the sun exhausts its fuel in around 5 billion years. We stand with our toes, as well as our heels, on a brink.

There is a dangerous comfort to be drawn from deep time. An ethical lotus-eating beckons. What will our behaviour matter, when Homo sapiens will have disappeared from the Earth in a blink of a geological eye? Viewed from the perspective of a desert or an ocean, human mortality looks absurd — crushed to irrelevance. Assertions of value seem futile. A flat ontology entices: all life is equally insignificant in the face of eventual ruin. The extinction of a species or an ecosystem scarcely matters in the context of the planet’s cycles of erosion and repair.

We should resist such intertial thinking; indeed, we should urge its opposite —deep time as a radical perspective, provoking us to action not apathy. For to think in deep time is a means not of escaping our troubled present, but rather of re-imagining it; countermanding its quick greeds and furies with older, slower stories of making and unmaking. At its best, a deep time awareness might help us see ourselves as part of a web of gift, inheritance and legacy stretching over millions of years past and millions to come, bringing us to consider what we are leaving behind for the epochs and beings that will follow us. (15)

Deep time as a digestor and coagulator of human time: the long view in which plates move, mountains form and erode, plateaus are shaped by rising and falling seas, resting for a moment in this pinprick awareness called human time before moving on: It does something, to posit our work and contributions as part of the starlight.

Let’s see what happens when we focus our poetic eyes on the presence of deep time:

  • What places have you experienced deep time —walking a beach or through a primeval forest, beholding a hawk’s eye or restful centuries in a cemetery?
  • How does the perpetual exist with the fleeting, the dead among the living, the first traces of existence weaving like smoke around our ruins of time?
  • Observe places in which time is inverted, a life becomes aeons and forever exhales in gasp. Irish heroes journeyed into the sidhe for three days and three night and returned centuries later. A psychologist once told me that deep work achieves much in a few moments. Dreams shake the glass so the grains flow in multiple timescales. A first kiss lasts forever. Describe a moment of deep time. (And there are many scales for deep time – geologic, glacial, human, poem.)
  • Why is poetry so apt for holding deep time in its tiny chalice?

Two poems for kickstarters:


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 aske the trees, my bones forest
framing me — what my long ago dead dreamed,
tossed in their short allowance of night?

originally published in The Adroit Journal
anthologized in The Best American Poetry 2020
edited by Paisley Redkal with series editor David Lehman


Louise Gluck

The world
was whole because
it shattered. When it shattered,
then we knew what it was.

It never healed itself.
But in the deep fissures, smaller worlds appeared:
it was a good thing that human beings made them;
human beings know what they need,
better than any god.

On Huron Avenue they became
a block of stores; they became
Fishmonger, Formaggio. Whatever
they were or sold, they were
alike in their function: they were
visions of safety. The salespeople
were like parents; they appeared
to live there. On the whole,
kinder than parents.

feeding into a large river: I had
many lives. In the provisional world,
I stood where the fruit was,
flats of cherries, clementines,
under Hallie’s flowers.

I had many lives. Feeding
into a river, the river
feeding into a great ocean. If the self
becomes invisible has it disappeared?

I thrived. I lived
not completely alone, alone
but not completely, strangers
surging around me.

That’s what the sea is:
we exist in secret.

I had lives before this, stems
of a spray of flowers: they became
one thing, held by a ribbon at the center, a ribbon
visible under the hand. Above the hand,
the branching future, stems
ending in flowers. And the gripped fist—
that would be the self in the present.

from Vita Nova (1999)

Links for this challenge until Friday afternoon at 5 PM EST, then its open link weekend.

Next Monday Sarah begins a series on calendar festivals with one on the lunar festival of Imbolc.

Let’s have some fun in ye olde sandbox!


earthweal open link weekend #52



Greetings all,

Welcome to earthweal open link weekend #52. Share something you’re working on and visit your fellow linkers and comment.

Open link lasts until midnight Sunday when our next weekly challenge rolls out.

Lots happening in the world! Tell us all about what’s going on in your corner.



earthweal weekly challenge: WHEN ANIMALS SPEAK


by Sherry Marr

I recently read a fascinating book titled Animalkind – Remarkable Discoveries About Animals and Revolutionary New Ways to Show Them Compassion, written by Ingrid Newkirk and Gene Stone.

It tells wonderful stories about all manner of creatures:  an albatross, the first living being to circumnavigate the globe; chimpanzees who defeat college students in computer games; a horse trained to choose among various symbols to indicate whether he would like his blanket off or on, or would like a snack. Trainers described the horse as being excited by now having the ability to communicate and express preferences.

The authors describe an Australian sheepdog trained to retrieve – by name – 200 objects. When told to retrieve an unknown object, he correctly deduced that the unknown toy he had not seen before must correspond to the unfamiliar name. Deductive reasoning. So smart. I was smitten, hearing about the tiny desert mouse, who places a stone outside her burrow in order to drink the early morning dew.

Animals are delightfully amazing. And they seem to have a sense of humour as well. I have seen this in dogs and horses I have known. They also exhibit pure compassion and devotion, beyond what humankind seems capable of. This is why it breaks my heart that so many millions of living sentient beings are treated so brutally by humans, who often tend to view them as resources, property, put there for our use, creatures without feelings, rather than part of an ecosystem in which each one has its place and purpose and right to exist.

People who work in abattoirs or vast factory “farms” must tell themselves they are “dumb beasts” who don’t feel pain. But all we have to do is look into their eyes to know they feel every emotion we feel: pain, grief, fear, sorrow, terror, as well as joy, happiness, contentment and love (those who are more gently treated.)

“An animal’s eyes have the power to speak a great language,” said Martin Buber, the German philosopher.  The authors of Animalkind pose the question: can animals love? We all know the answer to that.

I have seen a dog lie on an owner’s grave and sob with grief; a horse lay his head on his person’s casket, and weep.


Source: Thula Thula


While I was writing this, I read a wonderful book, The Elephant Whisperer, by Lawrence Anthony,  the story of how he accepted a herd of wild elephants at his vast wildlife reserve, Thula Thula, in Zululand, to save them from being killed. They arrived traumatized at being removed from their familiar territory, and, only 48 hours before, having seen their matriarch and her baby being shot. Mr. Anthony was determined to save them, hoping patience and stability would settle them down. They broke out right away, causing local rangers to allow him only a short time to turn things around, or they would be killed.

He set up camp beside the fence of their compound and stayed day and night, trying to gain their trust. At 4:45 every morning, the elephants would tense, facing the direction of their homeland, preparing to break out. Each time he pled with their new matriarch, Nana: “Don’t do it, girl. They will kill you if you get loose. This is your place now. It is a good place. Please stay.” This was repeated every morning, for some time. Each time, Nana seemed to reflect on his words, understand, and decide not to break out.

Then, one morning, she came right up to the fence. Intuitively, Mr. Anthony went to her, overcoming his nervousness. She looked at him with her wise, old eyes, and reached out her trunk to whuffle at him. Trust had forged its bond. He then decided he could let them out of the boma, (their early compound), into the wider expanse of the sanctuary, which has now grown to 4500 hectares. “Something happened between Nana and me,” he writes, “a moment of connection. It gave me a sliver of hope.”

Trust grew among the herd, which settled in and did not try to escape again.

We know elephants, like whales, can communicate across vast distances, sometimes at ultrasonic frequencies humans can’t hear. Their rumblings can be felt traveling underground by other herds for as much as six kilometres.  Mr. Anthony noted that they somehow intuited across vast distances when certain important events occurred, such as the birth of his sons, or his return from a trip abroad. They came to meet his babies, as they had come to present their calves to him. They always came to welcome him home.

Mr. Anthony writes, “In our noisy cities, we tend to forget the things that our ancestors knew at a gut level: that the wilderness is alive, that its whispers are there for us all to hear – and to respond to.” At the end of his book, he summarizes, “The most important lesson I learned is that there are no walls between humans and elephants except those we put up ourselves. Until we allow not only elephants, but all living creatures their place in the sun, we can never be whole ourselves.” I agree.

When he died suddenly of a heart attack in 2012 at the age of 61, twenty elephants walked for twelve hours to his house, where they stood for two days and two nights to pay their deep respects in his honour.

To make this even more uncanny, Mr. Anthony died away from home, in another country. Yet the elephants, many miles away across the reserve, somehow knew he was gone.  His wife, Francoise Malby-Anthony, in her book An Elephant in My Kitchen, wrote about this: “We hadn’t seen them in months. Why now? Why this exact weekend?….To me, it makes perfect sense. When my husband’s heart stopped, something stirred in theirs, and they crossed the miles of wilderness to mourn with us, to pay their respects, just as they do when one of their own has died.”

Even more astonishing, on the same day each subsequent year, they marched to the house again in his honour. This Knocks. Me. Out. Elephants never forget a kindness, and we know that elephants grieve. (To find out more about Thula Thula, click on this link:

There is a larger landscape
than the one we see.

—Sarah Ban Breathnach

We’ve all read stories of dogs traveling great distances to return home, or re-unite with a beloved companion. Howie was a Persian cat who traveled 1,000 miles across the Australian Outback to return home. Truly remarkable.

Dolphin skin is so sensitive, it can feel sound waves in the water; their echolocation and communication system is highly evolved, much of it, as with elephants, beyond the human auditory range. The noise of boat motors and propellers must be excruciating for them.

I found fascinating the authors of Animalkind’s explanation that the mystery of flight begins, not in wings or feathers, but in birds’ light, hollow bones that make it easier to lift. The bones are full of tiny air sacs that take in oxygen independent of the lungs, which allows the birds to sustain the energy needed to fly. I didn’t know that. Bird songs serve a practical purpose; they call mates, find their flock, scare intruders, warn about predators. They use distinct notes in correct order.

The authors explain that fish feel pain and are aware of themselves as individuals. I have a friend who tapes pictures to her fishbowl, and says her fish spends time looking at them; it shows interest when the pictures are changed for new ones. Wow.

My grandson, at the age of nine, turned vegan, saying, “I don’t want to eat anything that has a face.” He is a man now, still not eating anything that has a face.

We are sharing the world with feeling creatures. This is why it hurts my heart when I read about the excruciating lives so many animals live under human domination.

The words of Jenny Leading Cloud of the White River Sioux speak to me:

“The buffalo and the coyote are our brothers; the birds, our cousins. Even the tiniest ant, even a louse, even the smallest flower you can find – they are all relatives. We end our prayers with the words Mitakuye Oyasin – All Our Relations – and that includes everything that grows, crawls, creeps, hops and flies on this continent.”

I long for the day when enough of the population awakens to the plight of animals to demand legislation to protect these gentle beings. The beyond-human realm is vast and largely unregulated. We scroll past the horrors; we can’t bear to look. But once we know, we can’t not know that a world of sentient beings who cannot speak are telling us in every way they can that they need our help and protection.

For this week’s challenge, speak for animals, or let the animals speak. You can write about wildlife refuges, the need for them and the challenges. Or choose an animal and write a poem in its voice as a non-human being. What is its song, what does it love or fear or need? How does the climate crisis impact it? I am waiting with both fear and anticipation to find out!

— Sherry

earthweal weekly challenge: A FEAST OF EARTH FOOLS


As solstice and the Christmas holiday fade to the rear, we approach the New Year’s celebration. It’s not much of a holiday, really; for many of us, our spiritual calendars are aligned differently from the Julian reckoning appointed January 1 the New Year. Outside, there will be lots of fireworks, gold streamers, cork-popping and assorted drunken whoopie by those who don’t normally exceed their limits. (In AA, we call it Amateur Night.) As the holiday which marks the passing of the old year into the new, for many it is a time of reflection and resolution-making, clearing away the detritus of a difficult 2020 in the hopes that 2021 will be of a different order, ken and boon. Fingers crossed for all of us — all of Earth, too.

Our New Year’s k is usually modest at best; my wife and I wake briefly at midnight hearing all the local fireworks, kiss and wish each other a Happy New Year, and turn back to our Otherworld perambles. Black-eyed peas, short ribs in sauerkraut, collard greens and shortbread may be the order for dinner on New Year’s Day. The Christmas tree will probably come down, too, and head for the curb; the wreath on our front door, brown for weeks now, departed the morning after Christmas.

When the moon was closer to the earth, tides would wash hundreds of miles back and forth; every year the moon gets a little more distant, the insanity of moonlight diminishes, the tides grow more gentle. (Tides creep inland more now not because of the moon but because the oceans are overfilling with glacial melt.) Do our human festivals ebb too, or am I just getting old?

Certainly, Twelfth Night has faded to a dull, distant lustre: how much, I wonder, can its ghosts  yet bestir and betide us?

Let us see …

* * *

Human society is held up by strong rules of order, but the very nature of those bonds means we must be able to imagine beyond them, to experience how human society plays in reverse. Perhaps the only way to embrace the rules of order is to recall the chaos of disorder. Saturn may have ruled the Golden Age, but his Titan family were primordial gods, trapped in the chthonic underworld after the Olympians took to Heaven, and their passions (and cruelty) were primal.

There is a long sacred history of anointed misrule. In ancient Athens, the Anthesteria was one of four festivals of Dionysos through the year, usually at the January or February full moon. During a three-day feast wine stored at the previous vintage was uncasked and the social order was inverted, with people dressing up as figures from the god’s entourage, the dead walking among the living and slaves (and the dead) invited to the feast.

The Romans picked up the idea in their week-long Saturnalia festival from December 17 to 23. It was also a celebration of dead, resurrecting Saturn from Tartarus and bringing back the Golden Age for a week — a time out of time. Misrule was decreed, guilt-free revelry ensued. Priests offered sacrifices to Saturn with their heads uncovered (usually verboten), courts were disbanded, drunkenness and gambling were approved of and slaves were free to revile their masters. Gifts of tiny import were exchanged. A Lord of Misrule acted as master of ceremonies for the mayhem; chosen by lot, s/he would make all manner of capricious demands, bidding this one sing naked or that one get spanked. To mark the winter solstice and the rebirth of the sun god Sol Invictus, trees were decorated with ornaments. Groups of revelers went door to door singing “carols,” usually of a profane nature.

Pagan Germans celebrated Yuletide in the three days preceding the winter solstice. Like the harrows before Samhain on Halloween, the doors to the otherworld spring open. The god Odin led a Wild Hunt of the dead through the sky (on Dancer!), animals were sacrificed to the Mothers and great Yule logs were burnt (turning night into day).

In the Christian era, Christmastide or the Twelve Days of Christmas lasted from Christmas Day to the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6. The earlier Advent season was seen as sober and reflective preparation for this festival. Elements of Yuletide were adopted (the Yule log survived) as well as remnants of Saturnalia, with festivity and sport. The medieval romance Sir Gawain and The Green Knight is set at Twelvetide, and Shakespeare’s comedy Twelfth Night is named for the culminating event.

Part of the festivities was the Feast of the Fools, normally on Jan. 1 or the Feast of the Circumcision. In it roles were reversed, with the higher and lower clergy exchanging places and a Lord of Misrule a peasant or lower clergy put in charge of Christmastide festivities, which included all sorts of drunken mayhem. (In Scotland, he was called the Abbot of Unreason.)

Christmas folly stuck around for a long time. A 17th century Anglican priest complained, “men dishonor Christ more in the twelve days of Christmas than in all the 12 months besides.” Puritans in America banned Christmas altogether from 1659 to 1691. (So contrary to the way we hear of it today, the War on Christmas has its roots in religion’s right wing.)

Today, the festivals of foolery are mild, perhaps because there is much more permission for individual excess. There’s Carnival, Halloween, April Fool’s Day: The antics there seem childish, not of any adult substance or import. That doesn’t mean people aren’t crazy today with deadly seriousness. That’s the problem, I guess. there’s nothing sacred about foolery, just literal reiterations: farty frat-party pranks .

Why these celebrations of reversal? One idea is that ordered societies need a safety valve to vent repressed energies. A French cleric once wrote, “We do these in jest and not in earnest, as the ancient custom is, so that once a year the foolishness innate in us can come out and evaporate. Don’t wine skins and barrels burst open very often if the air-hole is not opened from time to time? We too are old barrels.”

However, it may be that all that repressed and dead and dark material lives in the vast unconscious substratum, and it’s perilous to get too far from it. Religion gets its deepest sources from there, and the priests know it. Consider how the Delphic sibyl became possessed by the god and ranted incoherently; the priests then “translated” that into the semblance of cryptic oracle.

Dark knowledge is topsy-turvy, infernal, diabolical: all that can’t abide in the light flourished in the dark. It is to see and think as my patron St. Oran, who said up from the grave to St. Columba, “There is no wonder in death, and hell is not as it is reported. In fact, the way you think it is is not the way it is at all.” Columba had Oran promptly re-buried, but he also made him the tutelary guardian of the Iona abbey graveyard, saying, “no one my access the angels of Iona but through Oran.” So order and disorder are faces of the same agency, and we had better pay attention to disruptive voices — the dead, fools, asses and imps.

Modernity recognized this. “Wisdom consists in keeping the soul liquid,” Emerson wrote in his journal of 1842. “There must be the Abyss, Nyx, and Chaos, out of which all things come, and they must never be far off. Cut off the connection between any of your works and this dread origin, and the work is shallow and unsatisfying.” But it’s hard to imagine Ralph Waldo out dancing with the dead.

It may also be that in the human heart, the dead never leave us. Festivals of reversal gave the dead our living due. Ancestors were invited to the Saturnalia feast, and at Celtic Samhain it was believed that dead ancestors came home for once a year and must be welcomed (or else). Stonehenge and New Grange, both megalithic monuments for the dead, were constructed to align precisely to the winter solstice, their doors open to eternal light. (And what are to do with all those ghosts in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol? Do they belong to the past, or our future?) While there are societal reversals such as slaves served the feast by their masters or the rabble partying down at the lord’s manor, the ultimate reversal is when the dead take the place of the living.

And let’s not forget the centerpiece of this seasonal freakshow, the fool—nature’s wiseguy, the king’s shadow, hallowing the night with witty utterance and Bronx cheer. Society’s spectre, the medieval mind’s trickster, the fool was the ultimate buffoon and critic, both dumber and brighter than the lot. Originally the poet was in this position in ancient Celtic Britain, both anointer and satirist, king-maker and -breaker: But as the power of words (and poets) began to recede, the fool stepped in. Everything about the fool’s costume was in jest —clothes cut short, in motley colors (yellow and green were colors of disorder), belt hung with bells and fool’s-head mounted on a stick, used as the straight man in their comic routines. Physical features of marginal ability— the hunchback and long nose, the ass ears and prominent bump on the forehead (called the “stone of folly”) — all were part of an ancient ritual invocation of disorder, nature turning upside down to bare its ass at polite society.

Shakespeare’s fools are the brightest bulbs in his plays — Feste, Falstaff, Touchstone, Lear’s Fool, the memory of Yorick now a skull in Hamlet’s hand —: The best wisecracks come from them, as well as the most sublime statements. They are the essence of life — mercurial, profane, to the point and endlessly robust. They were beaten mercilessly for sport, suffered miserably without patronage, and fooled without end at the living margins of the world.

As civilization allowed more private license, perhaps the need for collective release has waned. Order is like the gravity of the moon, its extremes wane the farther the two orbs are from each other. The dead stay dead, clowning has become stand-up where there isn’t all that much to laugh at. As a result, there is little to speak truth to power, not from the edges where they are most potent. I suspect too that the center has faded greatly, losing much of its centrifugal power. Some reversal is afoot. No one goes mad in moonlight, but kings are frequently insane. (America’s outgoing president is driving his country insane.) Maybe Columba must now go into the footers so that Oran may build his dark chapel.

It may also be that the human center is dissolving, opening up greater possibilities of trans-species and extra-human relations to muster. We need the brooding gaze vultures who know everyone’s time comes up, the smash of whaleflukes to right-size our vanitas for whale-watching and the microbial flourish at the bottom of every whalefall.

For this challenge, invite your dead to the feast. Stage your own masque. Appoint a Lord of Misrule—a climate migrant, say, one of society’s lowlies. Quest for a Green Chapel and exchange heads with a Green Knight. Visit Saturn (or Dionysos or Odin or Father Christmas) in his Otherworldly abode and describe the thing you have brought back — sword or cauldron, squashes from the garden of Priapus or fanny-pack of Aphrodite Kallipygos.

But let’s go further and make this a Feast of Earth Fools. That’s what this whole party is about, right? The “complicate amassing harmony” Wallace Stevens wrote about speaks to the inside of life. Our job, as Robert Bringhurst wrote in his poem “Occupation” “… is not / to change the world / nor even to keep it from changing.”; rather, our “only” task is “being changed.” We are already in the midst of a massive masque.

According to Thom van Dooren, this bids us write not from the outside looking in — a dead-end human trope on individual consciousness — but rather to embody and embrace

… a form of witnessing that is from the outset already seized, already claimed, by an obligation to those whose stories we are attempting to tell. This is particularly the case when our stories play the role of witness or testimony to the suffering and deaths of others … In the context of extinction, these kinds of stories are not an attempt to obscure the truth of the situation, but to insist on a truth that is not reducible to populations and data: a fleshier, more lively, truth that in its telling might draw us all into a greater sense of accountability (Flight Ways, Columbia University Press, pp 9-10)

So transform! Mix your human essence with another living entity, be it frog or palm or eel: Sing as frog-man, palm-woman, eel-king. Bring an extinct species back for a seat at the banquet. Make them “thick” with life.

I think that is something to celebrate, and why I’m calling this challenge A FEAST OF EARTH FOOLS. Humantide’s passing is upon us: the doors are opening for the extinct and the marginalized to enter our walled city and turn things upside down. For a poem, at least.


earthweal weekly challenge: A SOLSTICE BELL


Today is the winter solstice, shortest day of the year for those of us living North of the Earth’s equator, also the longest night. Thus begins (for us) astronomical summer, a six-month march of increasing light capping off at the summer solstice (the beginning of astronomical winter.)

For Christians, it’s a short march from the winter solstice to Christmas Eve on December 24 and celebrations of the Christ child on Christmas. This year, however, church-goings and vigils and gatherings will be muted due to the pandemic. Strange moment, with the pandemic at its greatest winter howl just as the long-awaited vaccine is reaching its first millions. (A sort of solstice, in that.)

For many it will be too late, as for the eight Catholic nuns who succumbed to COVID-19-related conditions within one week of each other earlier this month at Notre Dame at Elm Grove, a retirement home for Catholic sisters in Wisconsin. They were educators, music teachers and liturgists, living out their remaining years in the residential facility after lifetimes of service.

A freezing, dark moment. Most of the state of California is under lockdown as daily new cases exceed 50,000 and ICU hospital bed capacity reaches a critical threshold. London and most of England’s southeast are now on lockdown as more-transmissible mutation of the virus is fast afoot. France’s premier Emmanuel Macron is out with the disease. Black country music legend Charley Pride has died of it. A few days ago a man boarded a flight from Orlando to Los Angeles, and though he noted no COVID symptoms in a pre-flight checklist, he died of the disease in his seat high above the living world. Zenith and nadir: solstice bears both.

Neo-pagans would have gathered around Stonehenge today to celebrate the winter solstice in the old-school way: But due to the pandemic, festivities have been cancelled. (A live-stream of the solstice at the 5,200-year-old New Grange tumulus will be available here.) And at my father’s Columcille there would also have been some of that, lighting a fire at daybreak up on Signal Hill and later singing carols in the St. Columba chapel in the woods he and I used to love walking in. In keeping with our patron saint Oran, pagan and Christian co-abide there.

But nature alone this solstice will have abide, as human absence takes the place of presence.


The yule-tide season begins today, lasting from now until the New Year. The so-called Twelve Days of Christmas or Yuletide roots in older pagan Germanic festivities involving a Yule Log (a tree sacrificed to the flame), the Wild Hunt, worship of Odin and the Night of the Mothers. Twelfth Night celebrations echo with the rites of reversal from the Roman Saturnalia, so it’s a jolly weird time. (Next week’s challenge will jest that way in the name of Earth; who shall be crowned Fool King? Worm or fungus or butterfly?)

This year’s solstice is auspicious another way, astronomy-wise, at least from the perspective of life on Earth: for two hours after sunset today, Jupiter and Saturn will pair on the southwest horizon. It’s the closest the two have been in our night sky since the Renaissance (1623, seven years after Shakespeare passed into the bourne from which no traveler returns). Of course, the two planets will only be close to our eyes; the two remain millions of miles apart.

What can we truly see? Humans always envisioned death and rebirth at the winter solstice; the bears just hibernated on through. Awareness is a tricky thing, and the mind plays all sorts of tricks on itself. Especially when it fears.  In Norse myth, the goddess Frigga gives birth to her son “the young sun” Baldr. This post launches mid-course of Mother’s Night (Modranecht), with hope and trepidation that all will come to pass safe and sound. (Remember, the leading cause of death — bar none — is birth.)

And what if there is death? BJ Miller, a hospice physician, wrote yesterday in a New York Times op-ed,

Nowadays, being dead sounds like a lullaby compared with the process of dying. Given a steadily awful diet of stories about breathing machines and already-disenfranchised people dying alone, we’re told to imagine the worst, before cutting to commercial. Our choices seem to be either to picture a kind of hell — that could be Mom or me, breathless and alone — or to distance ourselves from the people living those stories, not just in body but in every way, to de-identify with our fellow human beings.

But this is how we make hard things harder. Maybe our fear of death has more to do with our perceptions of reality than with reality itself, and that is good news. Even if we can’t change what we’re looking at, we can change how we look at it.

Longest night or return of light? Depends on how you stare at the glass.

So much vanishes out of human sight and care because we won’t look. This past year, the Earth has taken some pretty hard hits. As temperatures steadily rise, wildfire has become an avenging angel, wreaking havoc on coastal Australia, in South America’s wetlands, in the Siberian Arctic and in California, where fires wiped out entire forests of the state’s oldest and most beloved trees—Joshua Trees to the south, giant sequoia and redwood to the north. It was record 125 degrees F in Baghdad in June, 100 degrees F in the Arctic Circle. Athens now suffers 120 heat days (when temps rise above 99 F). Heating oceans whip storms up with especial froth, as America’s Gulf Coast was hit by four tropical systems and Nicaragua was belted by two late-season monsters just two weeks apart. A quarter of Bangladesh was flooded in July, and 70 million Chinese were affected when more than 700 rivers flooded. Humans are on the move from vanquished homelands into uncertain futures and animal habitats are eroding from sight. The monarch butterfly has almost vanished, as has the wolverine and blue whale and the Sumatran orangutan. These signals of cataclysm must be part of this year’s winter solstice, indicating that the year’s rebirth is fraught and endangered.

Our pandemic suffering is a synecdoche of climate catastrophe, the way a star over a distant manger should have meant outpouring from the Earth’s golden womb rather than a door away from it. We can’t see the forest or the trees, and so we continue to get it wrong. There is a growing numbness or vacancy in the human imagination. Why is reality becoming so hard to accept? Times columnist Paul Krugman put it succinctly: “Republicans spent most of 2020 rejecting science in the face of a runaway pandemic; now they’re rejecting democracy in the face of a clear election loss. What do these rejections have in common? In each case, one of America’s two major parties simply refused to accept facts it didn’t like.”

I’ve deeply believed that humanity won’t adjust in time to the climate crisis simply because it derives too many of its comforts and conveniences from the fossil-fueled lifestyle; in my country, such an embrace of historic and increasingly cataclysmic selfishness drives us off the cliff of relevance. Slavery 101 devolves easily to Earth Rape 202. All you have to do is nothing.

Enough. The traditional moment is lush and quiet, a defining stillness. But this Yule carries an added, fraught resonance. This is a separate, solemn time for homo sapiens, stocked up for lockdown, distanced from the past and unsure where to go. The bells that ring in this silver darkness are both halcyon and icy.

Thus we come to this week’s challenge, which finds its essence in a poem by Canadian Robert Bringhurst. Sherry quoted from it in her poem posted to our open link weekend, and she shared it with me in its entirety. Here it is:

The Occupation

Robert Bringhurst

I will tell you how it was the world
changed, she said — and darkness
wrapped us round.
I heard her clearly, though I barely
heard the words. It was nearly — yes —
as if she were singing.
Our job, she was saying, is not
to change the world — nor even
to keep it from changing.
No, she was saying (the story
was over already): our only
job is being changed.

– from Selected Poems, Copper Canyon Press, 2012.

Being changed: That is the earthweal challenge for this week of Yuletide hallows. Ring a solstice bell for the change we are. (Be sure to take a look outside before using the word “we.”) What is the change revealed in this seasonal moment, and what does portend for the coming year? Out of darkness, what stirs and wakens?

And on that silver note— season’s greetings to all. And thanks for a great year of earth poems.

— Brendan


St. Columba chapel, Columcille