earthweal weekly challenge: ALL SOULS


Perhaps the most universal aspect of manticism is the derivation of inspiration and the gift of poetry from the dead … But manticism is also widely associated with birth, and with rebirth.

— Nora Chadwick, Poetry and Prophecy

Greetings all — as we all learned in Sarah Connor’s marvelous challenge last week, today is Samhain, the ancient Celtic festival of the dead. As she wrote so beautifully, Samhain is a festival of transformation:

The energy of Samhain is the energy of the dark. It’s the acceptance that death is necessary for renewal, that loss is necessary for gain. It’s the energy of change, of shedding old ideas, old ways of doing things. It’s the doorway to winter, to a time when the land lies fallow. Deep down in the dark, change is happening. Seeds are swelling preparing to put out tentative roots and shoots. Trees are dormant, waiting to burst into leaf. As creators, we all have fallow times. Samhain reminds us that these fallow times are a necessary part of creativity, that they need to be accepted. When we’re blocked, or empty, or wordless, maybe our inner creator is telling us it’s time to rest, to absorb, to let the deep work happen.

The Catholic church struggled for centuries to overwrite pagan practice, usually by Christianizing the old festivals — Saturnalia and Twelfth night became Christmas, the spring equinox turned into Easter, Beltane a month-long adoration of the Virgin Mary, the summer equinox St. Johns Day, the autumnal equinox sacred to Mananan become Michaelmas, sacred to the saint who rows souls to heaven.

For Samhain, Nov. 1 became All Saints Day, in recognition of all the saints and martyrs of the Christian past, followed by All Souls Day on Nov. 2 when all the dead still in Purgatory were prayed for. In Poland where Catholic tradition is still strong, souls of the departed are believed to come visiting; food is left on the table for them and the living go to bed early so as not to disturb their repast. The dead then attend a midnight mass conducted by a dead priest, and it is believed that a beloved soul might even be released from Purgatory should enough masses be attended by the bereaved on their behalf. In Portugal, soul-cakes are baked, in Austria and German godparents gift godchildren, and in most Christian countries it is a national holiday marked by graveside ceremonies, with offerings of candles, flowers and prayers and blessings of the departed.

In some countries like Mexico and Poland, All Saints Day is still vigorously celebrated; but as the Christian faith recedes elsewhere, concern for the dead has diminished too. There is far less worry about the eternal damnation of loved ones. (For most of us, life is Purgatory enough.) But death still scars the living, and grief still needs a ritual for healing.

Some countries like Denmark have begun non-religious celebrations called under names like “All Souls Day All Around” and featuring artistic interpretations. Their motto: “Rather than staying silent about the dead, let celebrate who they were and what they can convey.” Since burial practices have changed greatly – many are now cremated and their ashes thrown into sea or wood, or collectively composted — a central community grief-site was created, often extending into wooded areas or to shores. The area was then demarcated with light (in the form of paraffin lamps, candles or woodfires) and sound (drumming or piped in electronic music).

A variety of art installations ranging from sculpture to video art to performances then offered specific avenues for grief: a long clothesline holding white clothes with relationships written on the back (“sister,” “husband,” “friend” “pet”); a group of human-sized sculptures made of candle wax and with a candle burning in a hollow; a Chamber of the Afterworld with separate spaces titled “Chamber of Health In Which the Dew Drips,” “Chamber For Those Who Can Imitate the Singing of Birds” and “Chamber For Those Can Take Everything With A Pinch of Salt”; and so on. Participants say they could find their dead again, say things to them they hadn’t been able to before and experience a serene state that for them equated to a modern understanding of Heaven.

In folk tradition, Samhain means “summer’s end,” but the original etymology of Gaulish samonios means “assembly of the living and the dead.” The name appears on the Coligny Calendar as a six-day festival ushering in the dark half of the year. For three days before, the doors to the Otherworld were open and the living earth was haunted by the dead; if they were treated properly and offered a place at the table, things went well; shun or disrespect them, and all manner of chaos ensued. For Samahin and the two days after, assemblies were held with bonfires, dancing, sporting contests, oracles, feasting, coronations and further merriment—all in honor of the dead and the life to come.

Marking the beginning of darkness meant the beginning of life, a fertile chaos. Death is close where life begins. A witch ruled the birth-night before Samhain — our Halloween — a figure like the Morrigan or Calleach Bheare or sea-witch on Iona.  A giant Irish goddess named Cymidei Cymeinfoll mentioned in the Welsh Maginogion lives under a lake where the Cauldron of Regeneration receives the bodies of dead warriors; every six weeks she gives birth to a fully formed warrior. (A similar scene is shown on one of the panels of the Gundestrup Cauldron.)

As the COP26 climate summit now gets underway in Glasgow, the climate 8-ball we are behind is increasingly dire; the biggest carbon-polluters slow and slower in cutting emissions and raising needed funding. There aren’t many climate change saints to celebrate today. (The New York Times opinion section did a great animated piece on Greta Thurnberg’s exasperation with the powers who won’t act on the problem.) Regeneration is desperately needed.

Here at earthweal, we are a node of contact between poetry and the world. The festivals to come should not be limited to the only-human community. Assemblies are for the main, and all are invited, human, nonhuman, faunal, arboreal, lithic and stellar, living and dead. Imagine how bountiful such an assembly might be, for the living and all of its ghosts — ghost beast, ghost forest, ghost moon we once so loved to dance beneath.

Our modern world is too eager to be done with death. Technology creates ever-remote walls for the living so that death is rarely experienced or seen. Lives are prolonged, drugs help us ignore pain.  But what if the purpose of grief is not to heal our bereavement, but to help us accommodate the dead in our daily lives? As Tony Walter writes, “the purpose of grief is not to move on without those who have died, but to find a secure place for them?”

All Souls is about continuing bonds; deeper, Samhain is about ever-lasting relations with our ancestors: at earthweal we can connect the traditions.

I carry my dead: my mother and father are woven in my breast-bone and marrow the ancestral histories stretching far back of them, as are all the cats my wife and I have tended and then said farewell to. Conflicts, passions and yearnings of those whom I have loved and lost inhabit the back rooms of my working thought, reminding me of their work and the desire to carry it on. Simply put, I am who I am partly because of who they were. My attention to local intimacies is attenuated by the hearing of cats, the signaling of their tails and the infinite repose of their sleep. It’s no wonder that Siamese cats sit so erect on the tombs of Pharoahs and were mummified along with their dynastic servants.

There are many who find comfort and solace in Christian traditions of death and eternal life. But there many ways that people grieve, and singular paradigms don’t come close to  addressing the diverse needs and responses of the community. Who, what and how we grieve is not only a wide issue for humanity; non-humans grieve widely.

In the end, our grief helps us to accept death and our eventual entry into it. The deaths we have witnessed and grieved have become the tapestry of our history, and the fullness of it — our full hearts — contribute to the feeling that we have lived fully and can let it go when it is time. We join the ancestors and become part of the vibrant background.

Let’s invite the wide community of the lost — family members and their ancestors, Paleolithic kills and animals gone extinct, meteors which travelled from the remote universe to burn up in our atmosphere, sandy beaches composted of the shells of sea-life, ghostly coral savannahs, the life we consumed with last night’s dinner. Let’s see what an assembly we can summon, and by doing so, experience the incredible dimensions we share.

For this challenge, celebrate ALL SOULS.

Note to our cousins in the Southern Hemisphere: As you are now experiencing Beltane at the pole of the year opposite Samhain, add your songs of birth and flowering. Lend us a maypole to demonstrate how life dances with death.

— Brendan

earthweal weekly challenge: APPROACHING SAMHAIN

by Sarah Connor

Of all the cross-quarter festivals, Samhain is the only one that seems to have retained a hold on the popular imagination. The ancient festival was co-opted by the Church into All Hallows’ Eve, and then transformed and transmuted into the festival of pumpkins and witches and monsters we know today. It’s more enthusiastically celebrated than Easter, I think, and is second only to Christmas as a popular festival.

My Irish husband’s childhood Halloween was all about nuts and fruit — no candy! — and barmbrack, a fruit cake containing charms that foretold the future (if you found a wedding ring, you’d be the first to get married, if you found a coin you’d be rich). My northern English Halloween smelled of burnt turnip (no pumpkins!), and had a whiff of folk magic about it. If you could peel an apple in one go and then toss the peel over your shoulder it would show you the initial of the one you’d marry. We bobbed for apples in bowls of water, too. Apples are very much linked with the goddess, of course, with her five-pointed star right at the heart of the fruit.

If we look beyond the pumpkins and candy, what do we see? An old, old festival — the end of Autumn, the start of Winter; the festival that celebrates the dark of the year; the festival that celebrated the goddess in her crone aspect. The festival of the dead. A time when the living leave their doors open for their dead —  or join them in the graveyard with food, music and flowers.

Have we ever felt the presence of the dead more than we do this year? There is so much to mourn. Five million COVID deaths around the world. It’s an unfathomable number. It’s as if Sydney, or Cape Town, or Montreal have been wiped off the map.

We’ve not just lost people, we’ve lost time, opportunities, celebrations, holidays. We have a lot to mourn.

The energy of Samhain is the energy of the dark. It’s the acceptance that death is necessary for renewal, that loss is necessary for gain. It’s the energy of change, of shedding old ideas, old ways of doing things. It’s the doorway to winter, to a time when the land lies fallow. Deep down in the dark, change is happening. Seeds are swelling preparing to put out tentative roots and shoots. Trees are dormant, waiting to burst into leaf. As creators, we all have fallow times. Samhain reminds us that these fallow times are a necessary part of creativity, that they need to be accepted. When we’re blocked, or empty, or wordless, maybe our inner creator is telling us it’s time to rest, to absorb, to let the deep work happen.

I came across a beautiful notion when looking at Samhain/Halloween/Day of the Dead traditions. The word “guest” and the word “ghost” both come from the German word geist — a spirit invited to join the feasting on the Day of the Dead. That says to me that we can open our arms and our hearts to the uncomfortable and the uncanny. We can accept the dark gifts they bring — introspection, reflection, mourning, the discomfort of rebirth.

So for this Samhain, perhaps you could think about what you have lost—- willingly or unwillingly? Perhaps you could think about the empty time before we are renewed, your own fallow times? Perhaps you want to celebrate a loved one who has left us? Or perhaps you want to celebrate the dark power of the crone, the austere strength of winter. The veil between worlds is thin, the past and future are close enough to touch. It’s Samhain, and darkness lies before us. Let’s accept it. More than that: let’s celebrate.

earthweal open link weekend # 89


Greetings, and welcome to earthweal open llink weekend #89. Share a favorite poem and visit your fellow linkers to comment.

Links are open until midnight Sunday EST when the next weekly challenge rolls out. Sarah Connor takes up the reins with a challenge on the upcoming Samhain holiday.

Happy linking!



earthweal weekly challenge: A BIODIVERSE POETRY


Our thriving world Is that which affords the element without which there would be no words, no earthweal, no living poetry.

Biodiversity is “The fruit of billions of years of evolution, shaped by natural processes and, increasingly, by the influence of humans. It forms the web of life of which we are an integral part and upon which we so fully depend. It also encompasses the variety of ecosystems such as those that occur in deserts, forests, wetlands, mountains, lakes, rivers, and agricultural landscapes. In each ecosystem, living creatures, including humans, form a community, interacting with one another and with the air, water, and soil around them.” (The Convention on Biological Diversity, CBD (2020) 108.)

The loss of biodiversity is the shadow twin of climate change and a threat of equal magnitude.

In May 2019, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) published its landmark Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. It triggered headlines around the world when it reported that 1 million species of plants and animals are now threatened with extinction. It was a wake-up call to a crisis facing biodiversity and nature’s contributions to people.

Other key findings of the report:

  • More than 40% of amphibian species, almost 33% of reef forming corals and more than a third of all marine mammals are threatened.
  • At least 680 vertebrate species had been driven to extinction since the 16th century and more than 9% of all domesticated breeds of mammals used for food and agriculture had become extinct by 2016, with at least 1,000 more breeds still threatened.
  • Three-quarters of the land-based environment and about 66% of the marine environment have been significantly altered by human actions. On average these trends have been less severe or avoided in areas held or managed by Indigenous peoples and Local Communities.
  • More than a third of the world’s land surface and nearly 75% of freshwater resources are now devoted to crop or livestock production.
  • The value of agricultural crop production has increased by about 300% since 1970, raw timber harvest has risen by 45% and approximately 60 billion tons of renewable and nonrenewable resources are now extracted globally every year – having nearly doubled since 1980.
  • Land degradation has reduced the productivity of 23% of the global land surface, up to US$577 billion in annual global crops are at risk from pollinator loss and 100-300 million people are at increased risk of floods and hurricanes because of loss of coastal habitats and protection.
  • In 2015, 33% of marine fish stocks were being harvested at unsustainable levels; 60% were maximally sustainably fished, with just 7% harvested at levels lower than what can be sustainably fished.
  • Plastic pollution has increased tenfold since 1980, 300-400 million tons of heavy metals, solvents, toxic sludge and other wastes from industrial facilities are dumped annually into the world’s waters, and fertilizers entering coastal ecosystems have produced more than 400 ocean ‘dead zones’, totaling more than 245,000 square kilometers— a combined area greater than that of the United Kingdom.

“Ecosystems, species, wild populations, local varieties and breeds of domesticated plants and animals are shrinking, deteriorating or vanishing. The essential, interconnected web of life on Earth is getting smaller and increasingly frayed,” said Joseph Settele of the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research and an IPES conference presenter. “This loss is a direct result of human activity and constitutes a direct threat to human well-being in all regions of the world.”

We’ve talked a lot about climate change here but the crisis partnering with it is a plummeting decline in biodiversity.  Climate change is one driver of biodiversity loss, but right now the bigger factor is human destruction of habitat by farming, mining, fishing and logging, by pollution and introduction of alien species.

There are two global pacts addressing climate change and biodiversity loss, but until now the climate change agreement has received most of the limelight. The 2021 climate change conference in Glasgow kicks off later this month and will see thousands of climate scientists, activists, heads of state, and multinational corporations attending.  The 15th annual meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity was this week, with about 500 convening in Kunming, China, and another 1,500 participats online. Member countries pledged to increase funding for research into threats to the world’s plants, animals and ecosystems. The Convention is designed to protect global biodiversity and share its benefits equitably. This week it noted that member states had failed to meet 10-year goals of the 2010 framework and adopted more aggressive goals for conservation, ecological restoration and sustainable use.

(The United States is not a participant in Convention. For three decades, Republicans in the Senate have blocked ratification of the treaty because they say it would require that the United States bring its laws and regulations into conformity with global standards and infringe upon U.S. sovereignty. As an observer, the United States can send a delegation to the conference in Kunming and make statements, but it can’t vote on updates. The U.S. joins just three other countries who are also non-participants – Andorra, Iraq and Somalia.)

Many believe the time is overdue to begin tackling climate change and biodiversity loss in one effort. “When you have two concurrent existential crises, you don’t get to pick only one to focus on — you must address both no matter how challenging,” said Brian O’Donnell, director of the Campaign for Nature, an advocacy group. “This is the equivalent of having a flat tire and a dead battery in your car at the same time. You’re still stuck if you only fix one.”

Summing up at this week’s conference, Anne Larigauderie, ecologist and IPBES executive secretary, stressed the urgency of the moment. “We really don’t have a lot of time. Those 10 years are very crucial between now and 2030,” she urged, expressing her hope that the scientific basis offered by the IPBES reports could “enable governments to make an ambitious framework to preserve biodiversity moving forward.”

A copy of the IPBES assessment report is available here.

I’ve been puzzling how to make biodiversity the subject of an earthweal challenge. I’ve been reading Richard Powers’ new novel Bewilderment, the follow-up to his wildly acclaimed The Overstory. Powers says the writing of that book was transformative. He moved to the Great Smoky Mountains and become what a I would call biodiverse. He said in an interview with Ezra Klein,

I think what was happening to me at that time, as I was turning outward and starting to take the non-human world seriously, is my sense of meaning was shifting from something that was entirely about me and authored by me outward into this more collaborative, reciprocal, interdependent, exterior place that involved not just me but all of these other ways of being that I could make kinship with. And when you make kinship beyond yourself, your sense of meaning gravitates outwards into that reciprocal relationship, into that interdependence. And you know, it’s a little bit like scales falling off your eyes. When you do turn that corner, all of the sources of anxiety that are so present and so deeply internalized become much more identifiable. And my own sense of hope and fear gets a much larger frame of reference to operate in.

Bewilderment is a story of that attunement in a 9-year-old autistic boy as he is transformed by a yet-fanciful treatment using fMRI imaging— an “empathy machine,” if you will. (The technology is developing and could well be on a nearing horizon.) Basically, the boy receives a neural imprint an ecstatic state that had been recorded of his mother, an animal-rights activist who had been killed in a car wreck a few years before. As he attunes to that resonance, he becomes inquisitive, open, good-natured and infinitely empathic to the living world about. A fascinating book which I think demonstrates how we can shed the self-obsessed nonsensical determination of a human world driving the world off a cliff.

Surely that is a task we can take up ourselves. For this week’s challenge, write about biodiversity.  What is the sound of life that is complex, intermingling, evolving and sustaining? Shower your attention on the world at large, at critters tiny and great. Weave your awareness into the living web. What is the voice of a biodiverse poetics? Surely poetry has much to say about this, as it is one of nature’s greatest gifts to our species. Our kinship links are in poetry. Let’s try linking them to the world.