Greetings, and welcome to open link weekend #141 at earthweal. Link a favorite poem and then visit your fellow linkers to comment.
The link forum is open until midnight Sunday EST when the next weekly challenge rolls out.
by Lindi-Ann Hewitt-Coleman
Wilderness, South Africa
SLEEPING IN THE FOREST
I thought the earth
remembered me, she
took me back so tenderly, arranging
her dark skirts, her pockets
full of lichens and seeds. I slept
as never before, a stone
on the riverbed, nothing
between me and the white fire of the stars
but my thoughts, and they floated
light as moths among the branches
of the perfect trees. All night
I heard the small kingdoms breathing
around me, the insects, and the birds
who do their work in the darkness. All night
I rose and fell, as if in water, grappling
with a luminous doom. By morning
I had vanished at least a dozen times
into something better.
It is hard some days not to be trammeled by the ways of the world. From unchecked neighbourhood clearing for new development, new fences, new houses, new supermarkets to unchecked profiteering. In a town as small and hemmed by forest and lake as ours – each project comes with its own shrugged shoulders at its particular collateral damage. Nest of a Southern Boubou here, a handful of Puffadders and Raucous Toads there, the grass verge here where the informal traders used to eke out a half living, a storm-water drain full of plastic to the sea.
And I know there are more of us, more mouths to feed, more places to go, more money to make. But the costs of our living this way are rising with the oceans.
News of the world is worse – a litany of fears realised. War, famine, flood, fire. It is the shrugged shoulders though – that could do us in in the end – our inability to find right action in the world. Our inability to act.
Perhaps the way forward is enacting itself right under our feet.
“Enactivism (according to Wikipedia) is a position in cognitive science that argues that cognition arises through a dynamic interaction between an acting organism and its environment. It claims that the environment of an organism is brought about, or enacted, by the active exercise of that organism’s sensorimotor processes.”
In his 2006 book Consciousness & Emotion, JT Burman asserted that the self arises as “part of the process of an embodied entity interacting with the environment in precise ways determined by its physiology. In this sense, individuals can be seen to ‘grow into’ or arise from their interactive role with the world.”
Enactivism speaks of an embodied understanding of our world where we (and all organisms) are shaped and shapers of our environment — not as a mind thinking the world into being, but rather a body, a community, a colony living the world into being. To paraphrase Edwin Hutchins, all beings are actors in the environment. What we experience is shaped by how we act.
This is both good news and bad.
It is the teeming micro-organisms. It is the seed on the riverbank becoming sapling, becoming tree, becoming a forest that makes the rain that fills the rivers where seeds send quiet roots becoming and becoming.
We were shaped by our environment and have been shaping it all along. Since at least the industrial revolution, and probably from the moment we first perceived ourselves as separate from the world, our actions have been shaping our environment to the detriment of ourselves, other species and the planet as a whole. We have actively created the threats we now face – climate crisis, over-consumerism, famine, isolation, violent nationalism, disconnection and more. First world comfort comes with a blood price.
In their essay “From Shared Enaction to Intrinsic Value: How Enactivism Contributes to Environmental Ethics” Magdalena Kielkowicz-Werner and Konrad Werner write,
There is no way back to the state of the world from the periods predating the separation. What we have done to planet Earth will persist. Enactivism provides the tools to apprehend, understand and in a sense accept this fact due to its inherent tendency to emphasize looped rather than linear processes. Man’s impact on the environment also creates a loop. The environment shaped us, we re-shaped the environment, and this in turn re-shaped us. The point is that we are now morally obliged not to try to find a way back, which would be in vain, but to bring forth one more loop, this time more beneficial instead of destructive and exploitative.
I do not see any easy answer here. What I do see is an endless stream of possibilities forming and reforming themselves from this point going forward. Each action as an individual, as a family, a community, as a collective, will shape our environment and shape us in turn while we reshape our environment again and again. Questions of how we live, how we connect, how we eat, how we grow our food, how we move, how we gather, are questions whose answers are actions that shape us, all beings, fundamentally.
And what does any of this have to do with poetry? The moon rises over a forested hill, plum blossoms drift silent to the earth below, cold mornings we strike a match, light a fire, watch our skin glow and we are shaped and shaped and shaped to this beauty.
Poetry has the power to change our relationship to place. When Mary Oliver wrote her world as sacred, we came to know it as such. And as much as the landscape she wrote was shaped by her witness, she too undoubtedly was shaped by her landscape. According to the 1983 Chronology of American Literature her poems, “refuse(s) to acknowledge boundaries between nature and the observing self.”
Reading and writing poetry is a participatory sense-making of our world. We shape and are shaped by it.
Our challenge this week is to explore our ability to act.
What does right action, right living look like in your world? What does it look like when the boundaries between nature and the observing self disappear?
Write yourself into your landscape, what shapes you there and what is shaped by you? Name the gods of your rivers and skies, tell us how you live by and through them and how they live through you — let the world know they are holy!
Or use this piece as a springboard for you own exploration, this is a poetry of revolution – feel free. Happy writing!
PS: Brendan has asked me to briefly introduce myself – so here goes. I live and write in Wilderness, South Africa – a small town in the narrow forested coastal belt between the Indian Ocean and the Outeniqua mountains. I am a mother of daughters. I was born in Cape Town, studied English and Drama (the drama is mostly a dark secret from a distant past) at the University of Cape Town and moved here with my family in my mid thirties. Here is quite far out the way by most South African standards – we sometimes get asked questions by city folk like do we have roads, electricity and internet? And yes we do have all of those – though sometimes intermittently. We also have night skies, some really wild wildlife, and a working towards being re-generative small forest farm. When I am not writing and growing things, I teach creative writing, run workshops on creativity and reconnection, spin wool from our Angora goats, teach spinning and dyeing and run(collaboratively) a community skills share project working towards resilience and food security as a community. At night, like now in the rain, frogs sing.
TO THE RAIN
Ursula K. Le Guin
Mother rain, manifold, measureless,
falling on fallow, on field and forest,
on house-roof, low hovel, high tower,
downwelling waters all-washing, wider
than cities, softer than sisterhood, vaster
than countrysides, calming, recalling:
return to us, teaching our troubled
souls in your ceaseless descent
to fall, to be fellow, to feel to the root,
to sink in, to heal, to sweeten the sea.
TO LEARN HOW TO SPEAK
To learn how to speak
With the voices of the land,
To parse the speech in its rivers,
To catch in the inarticulate grunt,
Stammer, call, cry, babble, tongue’s knot
A sense of the stoneness of these stones
From which all words are cut.
To trace with the tongue wagon-trails
Saying the suffix of their aches in -kuil, -pan, -fontein,
In watery names that confirm
The dryness of their ways.
To visit the places of occlusion, or the lick
In a vlei-bank dawn.
To bury my mouth in the pit of your arm,
In that planetarium,
Pectoral beginning to the nub of time
Down there close to the water-table, to feel
The full moon as it drums
At the back of my throat,
Its cow-skinned vowel.
To write a poem with words like:
I’m telling you,
Stompie, stickfast, golovan,
Songololo, just boombang, just
To understand the least inflections,
To voice without swallowing
Syllables born in tin shacks, or catch
The 5.15 ikwata bust fife
Chwannisberg train, to reach
The low chant of the mine gang’s
Mineral glow of our people’s unbreakable resolve.
To learn how to speak
With the voices of this land.
(Jeremy Cronin is a South African poet and activist)
One summer afternoon I heard
a looming, mysterious hum
high in the air; then came something
like a small planet flying past –
not at all interested in me but on its own
way somewhere, all anointed with excitement:
not to be held back.
Nothing could hold them back.
Black snake wrapped in a tree, our eyes
The grass singing
as it sipped up the summer rain.
The owl in the darkness, that good darkness
under the stars.
The child that was myself, that kept running away
to the also running creek,
to colt’s foot and trilliams,
to the effortless prattle of the birds.
3.SAID THE MOTHER
You are going to grow up
and in order for that to happen
I am going to have to grow old
and then I will die, and the blame
will be yours.
4. OF THE FATHER
He wanted a body
so he took mine.
Some wounds never vanish.
Yet little by little
I learned to love my life.
Though sometimes I had to run hard –
especially from melancholy –
not to be held back.
I think there ought to be
a little music here:
The resurrection of the morning.
The mystery of the night.
The hummingbird’s wings.
The excitement of thunder.
The rainbow in the waterfall.
Wild mustard, that rough blaze of the fields.
The mockingbird, replaying the songs of his neighbors.
The bluebird with its unambitious warble
simple yet sufficient.
The shining fish. The beak of the crow.
The new colt who came to me and leaned
against the fence
that I might put my hands upon his warm body
and know no fear.
Also the words of poets
a hundred or hundreds of years dead —
their words that would not be held back.
Oh the house of denial has thick walls
and very small windows
and whoever lives there, little by little,
will turn to stone.
In those years I did everything I could do
and I did it in the dark –
I mean, without understanding.
I ran away.
I ran away again.
Then, again, I ran away.
They were awfully little, those bees,
and maybe frightened,
yet unstoppably they flew on, somewhere,
to live their life.
Hum, hum, hum.
THIS PLACE THAT YOU BELONG TO
It is hard to have hope. It is harder as you grow old,
for hope must not depend on feeling good
and there is the dream of loneliness at absolute midnight.
You also have withdrawn belief in the present reality
of the future, which surely will surprise us,
and hope is harder when it cannot come by prediction
any more than by wishing. But stop dithering.
The young ask the old to hope. What will you tell them?
Tell them at least what you say to yourself.
Because we have not made our lives to fit
our places, the forests are ruined, the fields eroded,
the streams polluted, the mountains overturned. Hope
then to belong to your place by your own knowledge
of what it is that no other place is, and by
your caring for it as you care for no other place, this
place that you belong to though it is not yours,
for it was from the beginning and will be to the end.
Belong to your place by knowledge of the others who are
your neighbors in it: the old man, sick and poor,
who comes like a heron to fish in the creek,
and the fish in the creek, and the heron who manlike
fishes for the fish in the creek, and the birds who sing
in the trees in the silence of the fisherman
and the heron, and the trees that keep the land
they stand upon as we too must keep it, or die.
This knowledge cannot be taken from you by power
or by wealth. It will stop your ears to the powerful
when they ask for your faith, and to the wealthy
when they ask for your land and your work.
Answer with knowledge of the others who are here
and how to be here with them. By this knowledge
make the sense you need to make. By it stand
in the dignity of good sense, whatever may follow.
Speak to your fellow humans as your place
has taught you to speak, as it has spoken to you.
Speak its dialect as your old compatriots spoke it
before they had heard a radio. Speak
publicly what cannot be taught or learned in public.
Listen privately, silently to the voices that rise up
from the pages of books and from your own heart.
Be still and listen to the voices that belong
to the streambanks and the trees and the open fields.
There are songs and sayings that belong to this place,
by which it speaks for itself and no other.
Found your hope, then, on the ground under your feet.
Your hope of Heaven, let it rest on the ground
underfoot. Be it lighted by the light that falls
freely upon it after the darkness of the nights
and the darkness of our ignorance and madness.
Let it be lighted also by the light that is within you,
which is the light of imagination. By it you see
the likeness of people in other places to yourself
in your place. It lights invariably the need for care
toward other people, other creatures, in other places
as you would ask them for care toward your place and you.
No place at last is better than the world. The world
is no better than its places. Its places at last
are no better than their people while their people
continue in them. When the people make
dark the light within them, the world darkens.
by Sherry Marr
In the roar and cacophony of our cities and byways, it is easy to forget there are other beings — wild souls — in the beyond-human realm, living their parallel lives in the natural world, as best they can, near or far from our noisy existence. In miles of forest, in northern ice and tundra, at the South Pole, in wetlands, prairie grasslands, in the tropics and in the ocean, the song of the earth sings out, steady, thrumming – thrilling – alive, unheard, until we enter the forest’s peace, or pace along the shore to the song of the sea. In places as far as they can manage from humanity’s ever-encroaching roar, all the wild souls are living their unseen lives. Wolves pad elusively along forest trails, bears pluck fat blackberries in the meadow, deer stand on their hind legs reaching for low-hanging apples.
I am reading about these countless beings, whose lives matter as much to them as ours do to us, in Wild Souls ~ Freedom and Flourishing In the Non-Human World, by Emma Marris. It always amazes me, fills me with wonder, that in the midst of the devastation we have caused on this increasingly finite planet, life does continue to grow and flourish in spite of us.
In the early years of my career, I found myself questioning…Was there any true wilderness left?… I concluded that conservation must focus on protecting the ability of ecosystems to adapt and change in a changing world, rather than trying to stop or reverse all change.
…As a conservationist, the premise that we had no ethical obligation to the animals seemed hard to maintain…What about animals whose lives are shaped by us unintentionally by climate change, land development, and species we have moved around?…Could humans possibly have ethical obligations to all the untold millions of animals on Earth, to every sparrow and ground squirrel and city rat and white-tailed deer?
For me, the answer to that question is easy. Yes, we do. As the fox in The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupery said so perfectly, “You are responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.”
Our ethical obligations to wild animals, she continues, are often presented as being straightforward: we should simply leave them alone and protect their habitat. The thing is, there is no more ‘out there’. The whole earth is like a larger version of [endangered] Kaua’i, with its flora and fauna from all over the planet, legacies of human management going back hundreds of years, and rare animals barely hanging on to existence at the fringes, in ecosystems that are warmer and weirder than they once were. Humans have dramatically changed the entire world.
We’ve touched many animal species so deeply with our wholesale reshaping of planet Earth that we have likely altered their evolutionary trajectories…If we could better understand our ethical obligations to our non-human kin, it could significantly improve the way we make decisions in conservation and wildlife management and in urban planning, veterinary science, pest control or agriculture.
We can never know precisely what it is like to inhabit the consciousness of an animal of another species…but studies show non-human animals are smart, emotional and even kind. Their inner lives are rich…If they can suffer, if they can remember, if they can love, if they can choose, then surely we cannot justify treating them like mere things. No one seriously doubts any more that our fellow mammals are sentient.
I am unsure why it has taken the scientific community so long to “discover” what we who love animals have always known, through simple observation of animals we have loved, who have loved us. It is as frustrating to me as the delayed recognition of the escalating climate crisis has been, while hurricanes, floods and fires of biblical proportions are erupting wildly all around us. Ten years from now, someone will put out a report about it, no doubt, as the planet sizzles. (Now, now, try not to be bitter, I remind myself pointlessly.)
Climate change is altering the ranges, annual cycles, and behavior of untold numbers of species. Relationships between new and native species are knitting together novel ecosystems around the world. Animals are moving towards the poles and upward in elevation as the climate warms. Not all animals move, though. Researchers seem to be uncovering more ability to adapt in place than expected, which is encouraging.
As for the ‘wild’ animals in our cities and suburbs, they have thoroughly adapted to our world. Animals that communicate by sound, including birds, frogs and toads, have shifted the pitch of their calls to be heard above the noise of cities and traffic. Crows in Sendai, Japan, wait for traffic lights to turn red, put walnuts in front of the tires of idling cars, then pick the meat out of the nuts once the cars have cracked their shells. Rats, pigeons, house sparrows and other commensal organisms have so fully adapted to human beings that they now depend on humanity.
There is much we can do to assist them: planting nature gardens to attract wildlife, growing plants that feed bees and hummingbirds, putting out water in hot months (and frozen ones), leaving fallen leaves on the ground in fall to aid butterflies and garden insects, not mowing the wild grasses, dandelions and wildflowers along the roadway. And of course, putting out seed and suet for winter birds.
Our concepts of “nature” and “wilderness” sadly limit the solutions that we can imagine. Perhaps because of the bluntly extractive tendencies of their ancestors, it remains difficult for people with primarily European ancestry to wrap their minds around the idea of a positive, mutually beneficial relationship with other species. Thus they can see only two conceptual options: destruction of nature by humans or separation of humans from nature. To save nature, we must exile ourselves from it – like latter-day Adams and Eves leaving the garden after despoiling it.
As a collective, we humans have clearly taken more than our fair share of space, water and other resources. But we don’t fix that by exiling ourselves from the rest of Earth’s species and building a wall between us. We fix that through repairing the systems by which we make our living, by learning – or re-learning – better, positive relationships with the species with which we share Earth.
To love the “wild” is to love the non-human in all its many millions of forms, to love the ways that plants and animals live, the choices they make, the beautiful patterns they weave…To love “nature” is to love landscapes that remind us of our place as just one of the millions of species on the planet.
Marris travelled to Australia to explore a movement called Compassionate Conservation, dating back to a 2010 symposium hosted by the Born Free Foundation, the legacy of Elsa, the lion whose story is told in Born Free. She writes,
So far, the core work of compassionate conservationists has been to critique traditional conservation for being as domineering and human-centric as the rapacious exploitation it seeks to supplant. From [their] perspective, resource extraction and traditional conservation seek to control the non-human world to suit human values – no matter what the cost. This critique has included identifying alternative narratives, win-win approaches where species are saved but humans don’t do any killing.
Israeli ecologist Arian Wallach, working in Australia, believes killing in the name of conservation is never acceptable… “I encountered what I now call the dark side of conservation,” Wallach said. “I thought conservation was pure good.”
The dilemma seems to be that there are totally opposing outlooks among ecologists. One group believes in assisting the survival of native animals, and eliminating (by culling or poisoning) non-native species. The other, as above, doesn’t believe in killing at all, and feels various species can adapt to living together, and will work things out themselves. I agree with the latter view, as that is the way nature worked before humans began meddling with it.
Wallach asks: “What if there might be a third way. What if we could change animals to save them?”
And they lost me again. A group called Arid Recovery has a 30,000 acre reserve in southern Australia where they are trying to train native animals to run from predators, with the goal of preventing extinction. They hope that non-native predators will leave enough of the native species to survive. They expect this process will take a hundred years – and this is just one experiment in one relatively small compound. It still sounds like humans managing creatures, to me. And we don’t have a hundred years to curb extinctions. Nature’s current imbalance has been caused by humans – we are the ones who need to learn how to live in balance.
It seems to me the obvious help we can give the wild ones is to preserve, protect and restore what habitat they have left, and stop destroying it all. Marris asks, “Is this kind of manipulation of a wild animal acceptable when extinction looms?”
Some feel strongly that action and intervention is needed, and say if it works, animals in the future will no longer be conservation-reliant. We live in hope.
She sums up her observations and discoveries in a chapter titled “How to Be a Good Human to the Non-Human World”:
We need to do a better job sharing with non-human animals…Ultimately, we already know how to take up less space. What is lacking is the will. We can learn a lot from how Indigenous human societies on islands managed their environment before the global economy tied these places into mainland supply chains.
We must also tackle climate change…any person worried about living an ethical life should figure out an effective and sustainable way to fight for climate justice. Make room for other species and fight for climate justice. Doing those two things will do so much good in the world. And they will help not just people and other animals but trillions of other living things as well.
Make room for others; stop climate change; fight for justice; be compassionate; be humble; admit you don’t know everything. Make homes for snakes. Sit quietly in the light of the last hour before dusk, the shadows of the junipers long and the colors bent blue. Listen to the swallows call as they swoop above you snatching midges from the air, and know we are not alone on Earth.
And I would add to that: Voice your concerns about the climate crisis and the extinction of species – loudly – to all your elected officials, at every level, who should be much more alarmed than they seem to be about the accelerating climate breakdown and who are still stuck in the corporate mindset where oil is their favourite cash cow.
For your challenge: Let’s speak to the wild souls, let them know we hear their cries. You might wish to speak in their voice. Whatever arises from this prompt, I anticipate reading with pleasure. My heart is always with the critters.
For inspiration, I include a few poems from the book of poems titled Kind, by Gretchen Primack:
THE ABSENCE OF UNNECESSARY HURTING
This is the press of the earth. One star hanging
there, honking like a goose. The lake
a smudge of black juice, the hill a draped
pancake. Frogs singing, sharp
Night! Clean air, clear water, five
baby mink in a pile, snoring.
Overwhelm can be dug from sludge
below dock, on either side fruits slung
over branches, glued to their seeds.
Here in the slurry live the things
I consider, here in the hills. What do people
think of? What do they think of me
in my carings?
Ripples lunch on each other, heavenly
body lights flicker, too cool for moths.
I don’t want to hurt things.
The fine brown eye of an animal,
the broad slick leaf of a wing.
I’d like to be gentle here.
I want to be worthy of you, lovely
ground, bury my face in your tired
I was also a child.
And also had one.
And another a year after.
And could not touch
Had I been born
into a kind world,
my life would have been
mine, not a stranger’s,
as long as my body wanted life.
Had I been born
to a kind world,
child, this milk would have been
yours. No one would have filled
your lungs with loss.
Put your head where your kind
is born to be
but is never allowed: at my flank.
The great spill of me. Smell me
from your bent neck. Child.
POEM BEGINNING WITH A LINE
FROM CAM AWKWARD-RICH
I wake up & it breaks my heart.
Two rods of light by the blinds to trap
in my fists & keen for.
All these horses & fish & goats trap my broken
heart. Like you, I was born. Like horses and others I keen
for. Not the soul, which never was.
All these songs wind my heart like a cat’s
cradle. Each one mourns & howls
for every animal alive and hardly so.
Each one holds someone born for love
I wake up & find the light, the keening mares & lambs
& notes pinched along these hurt strings.
Like you, I tell everyone with a heart,
I was born.
Like you, the bloodless say,
I kill anyway.
I wake up, see, & it breaks my heart.
— © Gretchen Primack