earthweal weekly challenge: IN THE WAKE OF PROGRESS

by Sherry Marr

All images © Edward Burtynsky, All Rights Reserved
Used with permission

Since 1980, around the time I became aware of climate change, Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky began taking photos illustrating the impact humans are having on earth. In his 40-year study, his obvious takeaway is that “Human expansion has a casualty – the natural world.” This is not news to us. But I remember, in 1980, when I began studying with futurist Bill Floyd at Okanagan College, he had to close the classroom doors to teach us, because a lot of people considered him crazy, back then, an outlier. My family scoffed at anything I said about what I was learning. “Resources are endless. We will never run out. That’s ridiculous. There are millions of trees.” Etc.

Turns out everything he taught was true. The only difference is it didn’t happen as fast as he thought it would.

Pennsylvania USA 2008

At his website,, Burtynsky states, “Nature transformed by industry is the theme of my work. These images are meant as metaphors to the dilemma of our modern existence; they search for a dialogue between attraction and repulsion, seduction and fear. We are drawn by desire – a chance at good living, yet we are consciously or unconsciously aware that the world is suffering for our success … For me, these images function as reflecting pools for our times.”

Houston Texas 2004

Oxford tire pile #8 Westley California

Oxford tire pile #9 Westley California 1999

Burning tire pile Stockton, California 1999


The human population, within Floyd’s and Burtynsky’s lifetime (and mine), has risen from two to eight billion.

At, they report:

For real populations, doubling time is not constant. Humans reached 1 billion
around 1800
, a doubling time of about 300 years; 2 billion in 1927, a doubling
time of 127 years; and 4 billion in 1974, a doubling time of 47 years.

On the other hand, world numbers are projected to reach 8 billion around 2023,
a doubling time of 49 years, and barring the unforeseen, expected to 
level off
around 10 to 12 billion by 2100.

This anticipated leveling off signals a harsh biological reality: Human population is being curtailed by the Earth’s carrying capacity, the population at which premature death by starvation and disease balances the birth rate.

Santa Ana freeway, L.A. 2017


Imperial Valley, California USA 2009

Makoko, Lagos, Nigeria 2016

The greatest impact has been in the last hundred years of exponential growth, sparked by the Industrial Revolution, development of combustion engines, addiction to oil and a plethora of plastic, as well as technology and the change in agricultural methods. Extraction capitalism, which has made a handful of people very rich, comes at a cost to the rest of us, including the beyond-human realm. Payment is now coming due, everywhere.

What futurists and fantasy writers envisioned as happening in some comfortably distant future is happening here and now. The pace is accelerating exponentially. (An example: the entire B.C. town of Lytton burned down last summer. There is only rubble left on the ground. In Sydney, Australia, they are experiencing flooding for the third time this year. This is why target dates of 2050 for zero emissions leaves me in despair that there will even BE a livable world by then.)

Burtynsky has produced books and films featuring his work. His newest project is In the Wake of Progress, a scathing, immersive multimedia installation by which the viewer experiences, in photography and film, images which illustrate the impact human “growth and development” has had on the planet in the name of our great god, the Economy. It had its world premiere in Toronto in June this year.

Los Angeles freeway, 2003


Los Angeles freeway, 2009

Oil refineries, Houston, Texas, 2004

“I became an observer of the human condition at the scale of industry – building cities and transport systems, making clothes, all that stuff,” Burtynsky says. “There is a whole other world that exists that we don’t see. I thought the camera was the perfect tool to bring that world into our consciousness.”

Open pit coal mine, Sparwood, B.C., 1985

Nickel tailings, Sudbury, Ontario, 1996

Marble quarries, Carrara, Italy, 2016

Coal train, Wyoming, 2015

Tyrone Mine #3, New Mexico, 2012


Phosphor tailings, Lakeland, Florida, 2012

“I began to think about oil itself: as both the source of energy that makes everything possible, and as a source of dread, for its ongoing endangerment of our habitat,” Burtynsky states.

Alberta oil sands, 2007


Alberta oil sands, Fort McMurray, 2007


Bakersfield oil sands, CA, 2004

Oil spill, Gulf of Mexico, 2010

Oil spill, Mississippi delta, 2010


(These photos actually hurt to look at.)

When people ask Burtynsky why he takes such graphic and disturbing photos, he replies, “Art can say: ‘Look, here it is. This is what it looks like.’” And it isn’t pretty. Poetry can do that too. Our job as poets is to record the times we live in, and, sadly, we live in historic but terribly unenlightened times. Future generations, if such survive, will be appalled at how we choreographed our own demise and destruction. We are the only species that destroys its own habitat (and that of every other creature) without remorse or even the most basic awareness, blinded by lust for the false god of money.

Ivory tusk mound, Nairobi, Kenya, 2016

Dandora landfill #1, Nairobi, 2016

 Burtynsky’s work In the Wake of Progress challenges us to take a hard look at how human industry is impacting the planet, not just now, but also affecting the future of sustainable life on this planet – the world our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will live in, if human life is still possible then.

“The story is very much about what we’re doing to nature, how our success is pushing back the biodiversity,” Burtynsky says. “It’s changing the nature of the oceans – we’re watching coral die off; we’re watching fisheries collapse.”

Owens Lake, California, 2009

Salton Sea, eastern shore, California, 2009


Clearcut, Vancouver Island, 2017


Clearcut, palm oil plantation, Borneo, Malaysia, 2016

“We’re seeing all kinds of issues – deforestation, desertification, droughts, storms, heat domes. Thirty years ago, you could say climate change is something out there. Now, we can’t brush that off. It’s at our doorstep.”

It’s at our doorstep

Ontario, Canada, 2010

 Burtynsky attempts to present his work in a revelatory, not an accusatory, way. He says he hopes people will go away from his work thinking deeply about the impact humanity is having on the planet.

“The high price of gas, as much as it hurts, will be a great motivator for us to get off gas. These changes never come without some pain. Once we get the economics right on this, change happens fast.”

“I hope it facilitates a conversation,” he continues. “When you touch people emotionally, it gets their minds thinking a different way. It’s a universal story that starts with nature and ends with nature.”

Because, in the end, nature will always have the last word.

Avatar Grove, Vancouver Island, 2017
(As yet, still standing, to give us hope and beauty)

For your challenge: Express your thoughts and feelings about how humankind has brought Mother Earth to this critical point in time, and what you think and feel about where we go from here.

earthweal open link weekend #127


Hello to all, and welcome to earthweal open link weekend #127. Share a favorite poem and visit your fellow linkers to comment.

The link forum is open until midnight Sunday EST, when Sherry takes up the reins againfor a challenge she titles IN THE WAKE OF PROGRESS. Keep your pens warm!


earthweal weekly challenge: AN EAR FOR WILD LANGUAGE


It’s taken a couple of years, but in my morning walks my ear is slowly tuning to sound of what’s there. And I swear I’m learning to hear the world think.

But I first have to dial back all that septic me-speak—you know, that incessant whine of I Me Mine. If I can shut that yammering down, I become a creature walking in the fullness of creation: My ears and eyes have wings for the crows and hawks flying overhead, I nourish in nests woven in the arms of sycamore and cypress trees, I reflect the still morning sky in lake waters crested by flies, leaping bass and cruising gators.

Slowly, the poetry of the world emerges. All it takes is a languid ear and the time it takes to notate it right.

A master of the world’s song is Seamus Heaney. Take, for example, this fifth sonnet from his Glanmore series, published in Field Work (1976).

Soft corrugations in the boortree’s trunk,
Its green young shoots, its rods like freckled solder:
It was our bower as children, a greenish, dank
And snapping memory as I get older.
And elderberry I have learned to call it.
I love its blooms like saucers brimmed with meal,
Its berries a swart caviar of shot,
A buoyant spawn, a light bruised out of purple.
Elderberry? It is shires dreaming wine.
Boortree is bower tree, where I played ‘touching tongues’
And felt another’s texture quick on mine.
So, etymologist of roots and graftings,
I fall back to my tree-house and would crouch
Where small buds shoot and flourish in the hush.

(from Field Work, 1976)

What I love most about Heaney is his delicate craft getting the music right — something visceral, ancient and ever-present. It rises from “opened ground” in a poetry writ for the ear.

As David Abram writes in The Spell of the Sensuous (1996), such worldly language is available to anyone who’s listening to the living landscape:

We regularly talk of howling winds, and of chattering brooks. Yet these are more than metaphors. Our own languages are continually nourished by these other voices — by the roar of waterfalls and the thrumming of crickets. It is not by chance that, when hiking in the mountains, the English terms we spontaneously use to describe the surging waters of the nearby river are words like “rush,” “splash,” “gush,” “wash.” For the sound that unites all these words is that which the water itself chants as it flows between the banks. If language is not a purely mental phenomenon but a sensuous, bodily activity born of carnal reciprocity and participation, then our discourse has surely been influenced by many gestures, sounds, and rhythms besides those of our single species. Indeed, if human language arises from the perceptual interplay between the body and the world, then this language “belongs” to the animate landscape as much as it “belongs” to ourselves.  (82)

Is our human language really special? We have a much larger vocabulary than other species, but most of that is for abstract thought — words thinking about words. It is the patter of a society lost behind the walls it erected. That abstracted world has lost most of its natural connotations; it is sterile, dry, and easily wanders off through a maze of meanings lost.

Our living language, on the other hand, is a constant response to its environment. It carries gut meaning and is instantly recognized. Abram, again:

… All truly meaningful speech is inherently creative, using established words in ways that have never been used before, and thus altering, ever so slightly, the whole webwork of the language. Wild, living speech takes up from within, the interconnected matrix of a language and gestures with it, subjecting the whole structure to a “coherent deformation.”

At the heart of any language, then, is the poetic productivity of expressive speech. A living language is continually being made and remade, woven out of the silence by those who speak … And this silence is that of our wordless participations, of our perceptual immersion in the depths of an animate, expressive world. (84)

If you have been writing poems for any length of time, you may have noticed that something deep within is constantly calibrating its response to the world. The well of poetry is deep: there we discover the ten thousand things, each with its own plumage and song. I listen to the outside within and open my mouth: out comes wind round the stones at Carnac, the mewing of an eagle chick in its nest high over a landscape, the slick leap of a salmon in a rising edifice of gushing river-water.


Ultimately, then, it is not the human body alone but rather the whole of the sensuous world that provides the deep structure of language. As we ourselves dwell and move withing language, so, ultimately, do the other animals and animate things of the world; if we do not notice them there, it is only because language has forgotten its expressive depths. “Language is a life, is our life and the life of things …” (writes Richard Nelson in Make Prayers to the Raven: A Koyukon View of the Northern Forest, 1983). It is no more true that we speak than that the things, and the animate world itself, speak within us. (85)

What is this wild language in the deep forest back of our mouths? Let’s take a walk there and sing what we find!

— Brendan

(Note: The challenge is open until 4 PM EST Friday, July 15, when earthweal rolls out it open link weekend forum.)




Galway Kinnell

I love to go out in late September
among the fat, overripe, icy, black blackberries
to eat blackberries for breakfast,
the stalks very prickly, a penalty
they earn for knowing the black art
of blackberry-making; and as I stand among them
lifting the stalks to my mouth, the ripest berries
fall almost unbidden to my tongue,
as words sometimes do, certain peculiar words
like strengths or squinched,
many-lettered, one-syllabled lumps,
which I squeeze, squinch open, and splurge well
in the silent, startled, icy, black language
of blackberry-eating in late September.

From Mortal Acts, Mortal Words (1980)



May Swenson

Part otter, part snake, part bird the bird Ahinga,
jalousie wings, draped open, dry. When slack-
hinged, the wind flips them shut. Her cry,
a slatted clatter, inflates her chin-
pouch; it’s like a fish’s swim-
bladder. Ahinga’s body, otter-
furry, floats, under water-
mosses, neck a snake with white-
rimmed blue round roving eyes. Those long feet stilt-
paddle the only bird of the marsh that flies
submerged. Otter-
quick over bream that hover in water-
shade, she feeds, finds fillets among the water-
weeds. Her beak, ferrule of a folded black
umbrella, with neat thrust impales her prey.
She flaps up to dry on the crooked, look-
dead-limb of the Gumbo Limbo, her tan-
tipped wing fans spread, tail a shut fan dangled.

from Nature, 1990



George Bradley

It makes one all right, though you hadn’t thought of it,
A sound like the sound of the sky on fire, like Armageddon,
Whistling and crackling, the explosions of sunlight booming
As the huge mass of gas rages into the emptiness around it.
It isn’t a sound you are often aware of, though the light speeds
To us in seconds, each dawn leaping easily across a chasm
Of space that swallows the sound of that sphere, but
If you listen closely some morning, when the sun swells
Over the horizon and the world is still and still asleep,
You might hear it, a faint noise so far inside your mind
That it must come from somewhere, from light rushing to darkness,
Energy burning towards entropy, towards a peaceful solution,
Burning brilliantly, spontaneously, in the middle of nowhere,
And you, too, must make a sound that is somewhat like it,
Though that, of course, you have no way of hearing at all.

— from Terms to Be Met, 1986



Theodore Roethke


Over the low, barnacled, elephant-colored rocks
Come the first tide ripples, moving, almost without sound, toward me,
Running along the narrow furrows of the shore, the rows of dead clamshells;
Then a runnel behind me, creeping closer,
Alive with tiny striped fish, and young crabs climbing in and out of the water.

No sound from the bay. No violence.
Even the gulls quiet on the far rocks,
Silent, in the deepening light,
Their cat-mewing over,
Their child-whimpering.

At last one long undulant ripple,
Blue black from where I am sitting,
Makes almost a wave over a barrier of small stones,
Slapping lightly against a sunken log.
I dabble my toes in the brackish foam sliding forward,
Then retire to a rock higher up on the cliffside.

The wind slackens, light as a moth fanning a stone —
A twilight wind, light as a child’s breath,
Turning not a leaf, not a ripple.

The dew revives on the beach grass;
The salt-soaked wood of a fire crackles;
A fish raven turns on its perch (a dead tree in the river mouth),
Its wings catching a last glint of the reflected sunlight.


The self persists like a dying star,
In sleep, afraid. Death’s face rises afresh,
Among the shy beasts — the deer at the salt lick,
The doe, with its sloped shoulders, loping across the highway,
The young snake, poised in green leaves, waiting for its fly,
The hummingbird, whirring from quince blossom to morning-glory —
With these I would be.

And with water: the waves coming forward without cessation,
The waves, altered by sandbars, beds of kelp, miscellaneous driftwood,
Topped by cross-winds, tugged at by sinuous undercurrents,
The tide rustling in, sliding between the ridges of stone,
The tongues of water creeping in quietly.


In this hour,
In this first heaven of knowing,
The flesh takes on the pure poise of the spirit,
Acquires, for a time, the sandpiper’s insouciance,
The hummingbird’s surety, the kingfisher’s cunning.

I shift on my rock, and I think:
Of the first trembling of a Michigan brook in April.
Over a lip of stone, the tiny rivulet;
And the wrist-thick cascade tumbling from a cleft rock,
Its spray holding a double rainbow in the early morning,
Small enough to be taken in, embraced, by two arms;
Or the Tittabawasee, in the time between winter and spring,
When the ice melts along the edges in early afternoon
And the mid-channel begins cracking and heaving from the pressure beneath,
The ice piling high against the ironbound spiles,
Gleaming, freezing hard again, creaking at midnight,
And I long for the blast of dynamite,
The sudden sucking roar as the culvert loosens its debris of branches and sticks —
Welter of tin cans, pails, old birds’ nests, a child’s shoe riding a log—
As the piled ice breaks away from the battered spiles
And the whole river begins to move forward, its bridges shaking.


Now, in this waning of light,
I rock with the motion of morning;
In the cradle of all that is,
I’m lulled into half sleep
By the lapping of waves,
The cries of the sandpiper.

Water’s my will and my way,
And the spirit runs, intermittently,
In and out of the small waves,
Runs with the intrepid shore birds —
How graceful the small before danger!

In the first of the moon,
All’s a scattering,
A shining.

first published in The New Yorker, Nov. 19, 1960