earthweal weekly challenge: THE EVERYDAY EXTREME

 

It’s mid-May and Florida’s rainy season has begun, weeks earlier than the norm of ten or even five years ago. Surly storms rolled north across the state on Friday in waves, with brilliant flashes, startling loud thunder and downpours that drenched everything. At twilight as another band of storms strolled over, the power went off — not long, maybe 45 minutes — and my wife and I sat in the dimming silence listening to the cracks and booms of tomorrow’s weather tonight. And through the night there were more waking intrusions, leaving us with that “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas any more” feeling of a world changing so fast. Not doom, but nothing Aunt Em would recognize.

Last night the storms came again, not as loud but with the same thrashing fury of the unforgiven — an exclamation point added to the idea of normality increasingly defined by extremes.

In the pre-industrial world, last summer’s heat dome that brought Death-Valley like temperatures to temperate British Columbia, would have a been a once-in-an-8-million-year-event. It is now being described as one of the six most analmous heat waves in recorded history. Today, such events now have a one-in-a-thousand-year probability; and oonce we have reached two degrees of warming, 8-million-year events will happen once a decade.

“What used to be a very extreme event is now probably not a very extreme event but something that we expect in this warmer climate quite frequently,” says Dr. Frederike Otto, a senior lecturer at the Grantham Institute for Climate Change at the Imperial College of London. She’s also a leading expert in the growing field of climate attribution, which tries make better sense of the climatic anomalies we’re now experiencing.

In his inaugural New York Times newsletter, David Wallace-Wells wrote recently,

A U.N. report published in April suggested that by just 2030 the world would be experiencing more than 500 major disasters each year. And the quickening frequency of what were once called “generational disasters” or “500-year storms” or even “acts of God” disorients us, too, so that it becomes hard to distinguish once-a-decade events from once-a-century ones — our disaster depth of field blurred by climate disruption. “What used to be a very extreme event is now probably not a very extreme event but something that we expect in this warmer climate quite frequently,” Dr. Otto said. “We really are in a quite different world.”

A different world: we are increasingly fooled by what we recently remember. When my wife and I first moved to this small town 25 years ago, the month of May was so hot and dry that wildfire smoke would blow on the stiff breezes of blisteringly hot afternoons. Not the May I’m looking at today, muggy, overwarm and grey with more storms approaching. A warmer atmosphere means a hotter Gulf perspiring big rainfall events in Florida with the so-called “rainy season” starting up much earlier.

It also means bigger, more menacing hurricanes. The so-called Gulf “Loop Current” is a brewer of storms, and conditions this May are like those in 2005 that sent Hurricane Katrina barreling into Louisiana and Mississippi. The Loop Current had a role in the transformation of a tropical wave that entered the Gulf in 2018 into a Category 5 Hurricane Michael, the most powerful storm to brew up in the Gulf, creating the strongest maximum sustained wind speeds to make landfall in the contiguous United States since Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

Do you feel the same vertigo that I do? This early morning (as I continue to work on this week’s challenge) the darkness is archly saturated, almost cool, humming, and pregnant to bursting with full summer — in May. Why is it that the ground feels unsteady with change?

Wells again:

As recently as 2015, the 10-year average of global temperatures showed, according to the I.P.C.C., warming of 0.87 degrees Celsius above the preindustrial average. Just five years later, it had jumped to 1.09 — 25 percent higher in half a decade.

When sociologists talk about “shifting baseline syndrome,” they mean we tend to base expectations for the future on our memory of the recent past. But just five years ago, it was exceedingly rare for more than a million acres to burn in a California wildfire season; today the record is 4.3 million acres, and in four of the past five years more than 1.5 million acres burned in the state alone. Over the past decade, extreme heat events have grown 90 times more common, compared with a baseline of frequency between 1950 and 1980.

I’m not trying to ring the climate alarm bells here; most of us can already hear them. But I do wonder what’s happening to everyday life now that the Earth in its fast lane. And what happens to the language of memory, once a smooth continued Holocene-lenght narration, devolving fast in a daily clash of Anthropocene terms formulated by Glenn Albrecht like solastalgia (yearning for lost homelands), toponesia (forgetfulness of precious places), meteroanxiety (fear of coming weather) and mermerosity (a chronic state of anxiety over the changing climate). (From Earth Emotions: New Words for a New World, Cornell University Press, 2019)

We’ve all seen the “hockey-stick” projections of global warming — a long swath of slow incremental change followed by an abrupt lift toward killing temperatures — we’re in the fast-uptick now of the spike, still widely disoriented and with many making themselves and the world crazy pretending it isn’t happening (the way COVID isn’t real and there’s no war in Ukraine).

Most of us also see the weird parallel between global heating and technological innovation, the hockey stick of a fast-heating climate superimposed by the ghostly “reality” of innovations that have brought us so many mindless online pleasures to the detriment of personhood, civility, natural connection and a common basis of reality in truth. From Prometheus to the steam engine, not much of note, and then everything almost all at once.

(Note: algorhythms made Amazon the dominant retailer, but who can say their billion incremental improvements were advances in any true sense?)

Who are these shadow twins, separated at birth but living out the same fate?

And what are we to make of it, loving this Earth, sharing Her bounties, praising her wealth in our poems? How do we factor in these early storms, frightening heat events, disturbed-to-destroyed ecosystems and lingering nightmares not dispelled by the dawn’s light? The world is increasingly fragile; political systems are dark; healthcare sucks; inflation and recession loom. The conflict in Ukraine grinds amid the rubble and ruin of its farmland and forests, straying toward massive cyberattacks and nuclear conflict. Hunger stalks with emptying eyes.

This is our 21st century, home sweet savage home, and we must remain awake and vigilant for the things changing so rapidly all around us, like a massive summer storm summoned up on a hotter day than any in recent memory.

“Within our own lifetimes,” Wells writes, “we may find ourselves living on a planet warmed beyond a level scientists long characterized as ‘catastrophic,’ though well below the level casually described as ‘apocalyptic.’ The question is: how?” He continues,

How do we imagine our future, how do we expect to live in it, what do we count as success and what as failure in a world beset by ecological disarray and all the human messiness that shakes out from that?

For me there a fundamental reckoning is called for, personally and collectively: If human mastery is a peril the Earth cannot afford and we value our continued existence on this planet, then we had better find systematic ways to reject human mastery. Let’s banish controls heedless of consequence and re-calibrate our fear of the unknown as faith in humility. Fossil-fuel dependence is an addiction, digital mind’s an abomination: From those starting points we may eventually gestate something in the human spirit that will reverse the hockey stock before life is finished on Earth As they say with the Tao, to and fro goes the way — even, perhaps, with the perverse Tao of our maddening reality.

That Tao, I suspect, is our how.

For this challenge, write about the everyday extreme.

—Brendan

Postscript

One yay for this reverse-engineering goes out today to Australians who voted out the conservative government of Scott Morrison and their gross reluctance to deal with climate change.

Another for reminders of who we are and where we live from our earth-poets. Here are a few poems for keeping one’s sight on the Way.

COME INTO ANIMAL PRESENCE

Denise Levertov

Come into animal presence
No man is so guileless as
the serpent. The lonely white
rabbit on the roof is a star
twitching its ears at the rain.
The llama intricately
folding its hind legs to be seated
not disdains but mildly
disregards human approval.
What joy when the insouciant
armadillo glances at us and doesn’t
quicken his trotting
across the track into the palm brush.

What is this joy? That no animal
falters, but knows what it must do?
That the snake has no blemish,
that the rabbit inspects his strange surroundings
in white star-silence? The llama
rests in dignity, the armadillo
has some intention to pursue in the palm-forest.
Those who were sacred have remained so,
holiness does not dissolve, it is a presence
of bronze, only the sight that saw it
faltered and turned from it.
An old joy returns in holy presence.

—in Poetry, Vol. 96 No. 1, January 1960

 

SAYINGS FROM THE NORTHERN ICE

William Stafford

It is people at the edge who say
things at the edge: winter is toward knowing.

Sled runners before they meet have long talk apart.
There is a pup in every litter the wolves will have.
A knife that falls points at an enemy.
Rocks in the wind know their place: down low.
Over your shoulder is God; the dying deer sees Him.

At the mouth of the long sack we fall in forever
storms brighten the spikes of the stars.

Wind that buried bear skulls north of here
and beats moth wings for help outside the door
is bringing bear skull wisdom, but do not ask the skull
too large a question till summer.
Something too dark was held in that strong bone.

Better to end with a lucky saying:

Sled runners cannot decide to join or to part.
When they decide, it is a bad day.

— ­from West of Your City (1960)

 

BECOMING A FOREST

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

The Adroit Journal; anthologized in The Best American Poetry 2020

 

earthweal weekly challenge: LESSONS FROM THE WILD

by Sherry Marr

 

Birds gathering nesting materials at the beach

 

Dear Mother, [a letter of apology to Mother Earth, by Eve Ensler]

It began with the article about the birds, the 2.9 billion missing North America birds, the 2.9 billion birds that disappeared and no one noticed. The sparrows, black birds, and swallows who didn’t make it, who weren’t ever born, who stopped flying or singing or making their most ingenious nests, who didn’t perch or peck their gentle beaks into moist black earth. It began with the birds. Hadn’t we even commented in June, James and I, that they were hardly here? A kind of eerie quiet had descended. But later they came back. The swarms of barn swallows and the huge ravens landing on the gravel one by one.

I know it was after hearing about the birds, that afternoon I crashed my bike. Suddenly falling, falling, unable to prevent the catastrophe ahead, unable to find the brakes or make them work, unable to stop the falling. I fell and spun and realized I had already been falling, that we have been falling, all of us, and crows and conifers and ice caps and expectations — falling and falling and I wanted to keep falling. I didn’t want to be here to witness everything falling, missing, bleaching, burning, drying, disappearing, choking, never blooming. I didn’t want to live without the birds or bees and sparkling flies that light the summer nights. I didn’t want to live with hunger that turned us feral or desperation that gave us claws. I wanted to fall and fall into the deepest, darkest ground and be finally still and buried there.

But Mother, you had other plans… Mother, I am the reason the birds are missing. I am the cause of salmon who cannot spawn and the butterflies unable to take their journey home. I am the coral reef bleached death white and the sea boiling with methane. I am the millions running from lands that have dried, forests that are burning or islands drowned in water.

I didn’t see you, Mother. You were nothing to me… I ignored all the ways we used and abused you. I pretended to believe the stories of the fathers who said you had to be tamed and controlled — that you were out to get us.

I press my bruised body down on your grassy belly, breathing me in and out. I have missed you, Mother. I have been away so long. I am sorry. I am so sorry.

I am made of dirt and grit and stars and river, skin, bone, leaf, whiskers and claws. I am a part of you, of this, nothing more or less. I am mycelium, petal pistil and stamen. I am branch and hive and trunk and stone. I am what has been here and what is coming. I am energy and I am dust. I am wave and I am wonder. I am an impulse and an order. I am perfumed peonies and the single parasol tree in the African savannah. I am lavender, dandelion, daisy, dahlia, cosmos, chrysanthemum, pansy, bleeding heart and rose. I am all that has been named and unnamed, all that has been gathered and all that has been left alone. I am all your missing creatures, all the sweet birds never born. I am daughter. I am caretaker. I am fierce defender. I am griever. I am bandit. I am baby. I am supplicant. I am here now, Mother. I am yours. I am yours. I am yours.

— by Eve Ensler: (full text here)

When I read Ms. Ensler’s apology to Mother Earth, (Losing the Birds, Finding the Words), it made me reflect on how intricately and perfectly interconnected is the web of life. Nature’s plan attends to every creature’s needs, amazingly supplied by the other beings and systems in which they find themselves. Even humans, though we have long forgotten our place in the scheme of things.

An example of interconnection that has always fascinated me is the trophic cascade. When wolves were re-introduced into Yellowstone, they impacted the deer and elk population, which trickled down to change the topography of the land. Vegetation increased, firming up riverbanks and, over time, actually changed the course of the river.

As I watch birds hopefully gathering nesting materials at the beach, to prepare their springtime nests, I reflect on the wonder of every species’ inborn instinct to move forward, to follow our life cycles, to procreate, to work towards a future. We humans are now feeling uncertain about that future. But even in the dark trenches underneath the steel plant in Mariupol, people shared food, and tears and song – the hope that one day they will emerge into the light.

The beyond-human realm constantly moves forward, building their nests, seeking a place in vanishing habitat, travelling farther and farther in search of diminishing food. The life force is strong; it continues no matter what, in basements in Mariupol, on melting icebergs in the Arctic, while fleeing wildfires burning across the U.S., and beginning now here in B.C. as well.

I just finished reading Bewilderment, by Richard Powers, author of The Overstory, his moving chronicle about activists trying to save trees, which was an amazing read.

In Bewilderment, through the nine-year-old autistic character, Robin, (named after the bird), Powers illustrates the grief and shock to our systems of living through times when species are disappearing at an unprecedented rate — creatures we thought would always be around. One stunning fact had me gob-smacked; he writes that wild creatures are now only TWO percent of the planet’s population. Humans and factory “farm” cows and chickens make up the rest. This is insane. When I mentioned this to Brendan, he said, of our species’ attitude: “Unless we eat it, it doesn’t exist”, and that seems to be the case. Oh, my goodness.

This sent me on a journey.  Eve Ensler’s apology led me to Rachel Carson, who, in her bittersweet farewell to the world, warned us about pesticides and topsoil depletion, identifying the cost of harmful growing practices as long ago as 1962.

 

Since Carson’s death, three billion birds have vanished. As animals and birds and species disappear, their names retreat into the past and we forget to name the missing. The Great Forgetting continues, and we remain too distracted – or too drained – to add up the losses.

We know that all species are interconnected. That salmon feed the bears and wolves, whose scat nourishes the old growth in the forest. We know that fish farms and their sea lice, antibiotics and chemicals are killing the wild salmon, which means bears and wolves are starving. We understand that if the bees disappear, much of our food production will suffer. In fact, some places are already feeling food insecurity.  Given wildfires, flooding, and topsoil degradation (with increasingly less land available to plant), even we in North America might soon begin to experience food shortages. We had a glimpse of that during the “Freedom convoys”, and people panicked. We are so used to abundance. But we can’t live in abundance any more. We have to live more simply and sustainably, at every level. (From my mouth to government ears, who sadly are decidedly not listening. The “Economy” is their deity; it keeps their bank balances fat and keeps them re-elected.)

There are only 336 right whales left in the world; once there were thousands.  The seal hunt is happening right now in northern lands, a scene too brutal to describe. Habitat loss, human activity and climate change are making it a struggle for species small and large to survive. Intellectually, we know this will impact us as well; but humanity seems unable to alter our behaviour significantly enough to slow the pace.

Monarch butterflies have been in decline for two decades, due to human-caused changing weather patterns and habitat loss. Experts are beginning to talk about their extinction. (They were declared endangered in 2016, and not much has improved since then.) Heavy insecticide use has led to a drastic decline in milkweed, the only thing monarch caterpillars eat.  (Sigh. Even CATERPILLARS are going hungry!) The Monarch’s epic migration plays an important role in the proliferation of fruits and vegetables.

The insect world is in trouble. In the last four decades, they have declined by 45%.

Bees, butterflies, moths and flies are critical to ecosystems and the production of food. Pollinating bees allow fruits and veggies to grow. We can’t do without them. Thankfully, there are organizations working to encourage bee and butterfly survival.

To help them, we might consider growing wildlife gardens, plants and flowers that attract pollinators. Bees love borage, for example.  Avoiding pesticides and herbicides is a given. We can put up birdfeeders, and plant berry bushes; include insect-loving blooms. Our seeds will plant hope for birds and insects who need our help. Some people, instead of cutting their lawns and keeping everything manicured, allow their yards to “go wild”, and grow freely. Wildflowers make yards beautiful.

In Tofino we have a community garden at the school. And we have a group that brings in Island-grown produce to keep our veggie carbon footprint low.

Nature has a plan and design, one that worked for thousands of years, until we became too many. The human population is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050 – if the planet is still habitable by then, which is in serious question at the moment. And corporations have gotten far too greedy and are not paying their fair share. If we don’t develop sustainable practices now, we never will.

It always takes my breath away, the intricacy of the web of life, how every small and big thing depends on every other, and how one small loss impacts the whole. A sky without birds is something I hope my descendants never experience.

But, the other side of this equation is, when humans learn to live with Mother Nature, she can return to balance. She can heal.

I am reminded of an activist friend of mine, Julie Draper, who is now in the spirit world. She said, “The animals live in harmony. They are waiting for us to join them there.”

For our challenge: Contemplate the web of life and see where it takes you. It might be the grand design. It might be the most miniscule yet important creature. Write about it, small or big. Let’s appreciate nature’s wonders, her intricate design,  so we can better assist Mother Earth on her healing journey, which is also ours.

“You are comprised of 84 minerals, 23 Elements, and 8 gallons of water spread across 38 trillion cells. You have been built up from nothing by the spare parts of the Earth you have consumed, according to a set of instructions hidden in a double helix and small enough to be carried by a sperm. You are recycled butterflies, plants, rocks, streams, firewood, wolf fur, and shark teeth, broken down to their smallest parts and rebuilt into our planet’s most complex living thing.

You are not living on Earth. You are Earth.”

— Aubrey Marcus

earthweal open link weekend #118

 

Greetings all and welcome to open link weekend at earthweal. 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. Sherry Marr takes the reins with a challenge she has titled, “Lessons From The Wild.”

Happy linking!

Brendan