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

earthweal weekly challenge: SHARK POETRY

“We have a bright future if we want it. But we have to do something about it. Now.” — Rob Stewart, Canadian filmmaker and conservationist

by Sherry Marr

Rob Stewart lived his life in love with the creatures of the deep, especially sharks, whom he swam with and found beautiful, mysterious and non-threatening. He made the films Sharkwater and Sharkwater Extinction in an effort to show their beauty to the world. He also wanted to expose the shark fin trade which kills 150 million sharks a year, along with catching 54 billion other species, whales, dolphins, and sea turtles who get caught in the nets and die.

I personally believe driftnetting should be banned. Such a cruel method of over-fishing, it is wasteful and inhumane, and will soon empty the sea.

Sharks have survived five global extinctions; they have been alive for 450 million years. But in just thirty years, we have decimated their populations by 90%. Think about that. These are living, sentient beings, being massacred in the most brutal of ways. Fishermen bring them aboard, beat them, slice off their fins, then throw the sharks back into the water to die. (This makes me feel as if animals are more sentient than we. For certain, they are more just.)

“People just don’t know,” said Rob. “If they knew, their moral compass would lead them to insist the government create legislation for a more just world.” Well, we hope so, at least.

Rob died at 32, during a dive off the coast of Florida, while shooting Sharkwater Extinction, which his teammates completed after his death. The movie includes footage of Rob and the sharks swimming in a beautiful blue duet. He lived and died following his passion, while exposing some harsh truths to the world. His too-short life had great impact.



He was stunned to discover one of the biggest shark fishing offenders was operating off the coast of Los Angeles. The footage of sharks trapped in the net, dying agonizing deaths, their expressions of pure misery, is hard to see. And necessary, if we are ever to wake up and demand that governments at every level address the injustices and inequities of this world. We can have that bright future Rob promises in the quote above. But we have to participate in demanding the changes that need to be made. Letters to every level of government do have impact. I have seen this in the village where I live, which is now, at our insistence, putting together a long overdue tree protection bylaw. We citizens had to demand what was important to us; government could not ignore us. They work for us!

While some countries have banned shark fin fishing, they haven’t banned importing them, so the industry continues to driftnet fish, taking so many lives in the process. Living sentient beings seen as resources – this is the capitalist formula, along with ‘take it all now, before it’s gone’, which is completely unsustainable. We are now facing the hard truth that the resources of the earth are finite.

Rob says the Hollywood story that sharks are dangerous and will attack us is not true. He swam with them for years and found them to be gentle, peaceful and mysterious. While I watched the film, and the barbaric way humans treat these gentle giants, I pondered how it is we humans can be so violent and without mercy, what people tell themselves to make what they are doing okay. We should have evolved more, by now. We are the most dangerous predator on earth.

Aside from the infamous shark fin soup, considered a delicacy by some, shark can be found in such unexpected places as beauty products, pet food, fast food and garden fertilizer. Jaws and teeth are sold as souvenirs.  Sharks are full of toxins from mercury and other ocean pollution. Consumers are ingesting more than fish these days.

“Be conscious about where you put your dollars, how you live your life,” Rob tells us towards the end of Sharkwater Extinction. “There’s nothing more important.”

Sharks are endangered. In 2019, Canada proposed a bill, backed by the UK, to regulate trade in shark fins. It was not even an outright ban (which I personally feel should be global.) The EU and the USA opposed it; no agreement was reached. One “sports” fishing charter, who takes customers out to catch sharks, told Rob, “If you put a trophy price on something, it’s gonna die. Show me the money.” Wow.

What he is not wanting to know is that if we remove one species, the entire ecosystem is affected as, ultimately, are we.

Forever, now, when I think of Rob, I will picture him swimming serenely and joyously with these gentle creatures he loved so much and tried so hard to save. He gave his heart to them. In the film he said, “I know how I will die”, and it seems he was right. He died swimming with the beings he loved most on earth, trying to bring their beauty to us, so we would carry on his work.

For our challenge, write about sharks, the ocean, shark fin soup, human predators, or whatever this information brings up in you.

I await your responses with anticipation.

— Sherry


earthweal open link weekend #48


Greetings fellow travelers and welcome to earthweal open link weekend #48. Can you believe this forum will soon be one year in the making?

Link a favorite poem and visit your fellow linkers and comment.

Thanks for all of your Advent meditations; I feel we have grounded in the moment together and made something of the time.

Sherry picks up the reins for the next challenge with an invitation to swim with the sharks. Should make for some wondrous finned ornaments to hang on our earthweal tree!


earthweal weekly challenge: ADVENT FOR EARTH


There’s a stillness to this late-year moment, a harmonic ebb draining down to one single low note: The finest line of last light at the horizon, suggesting an eye closing for good, perchance to sleep, or dream, or drift off completely in the dark.

We are come to Advent season—that’s the name we now use for it, though it’s been around for three billion years in the tide of light across the Earth. This time (for those of you living north of the planet’s Equator) marks the late and last moments of the solar year as it approaches the winter solstice on December 23. Like the symphonic awareness of a person near death, where all of one’s life parades before their eyes, these scant fleeting weeks bear the entire freight of the past year. And what a year that has been!

The Christian season of Advent began Nov. 29 on the fourth Sunday before the Christmas holiday. It’s a time of preparation and expectation — the Latin word adventus means “coming, arrival” from the Greek parousia,meaning “presence.” For Christians, Advent is the threefold celebration of the birth of the Christ, the conversion to Christ in the believer’s heart and Christ’s eventual second coming at the end of time. (Christian time, anyway.) The liturgical color of Advent is purple, except for the third Sunday of Advent, when rose is sometime used. (A rose-colored candle is seen as a symbol of joy.) Many churches hold special musical event featuring carols, Handel’s Messiah oratorio, daily antiphons for the Magnificat at Vespers, and Evensong. (O come, O come, Emmanuel …)

It is a time of penitence and fasting, for keeping Advent calendars, lighting Advent wreaths and praying a daily Advent devotional, for setting up Christmas trees and decorating for Christmas. (Our neighborhood isn’t tops for decorating, but lights twinkle in about every house.) A pregnant waiting, deep in the growing harrows of winter (for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, at least).

For many of us Advent recalls a mystical region of childhood, out beyond the capitalist frenzies of the Santa-mad, a brightness in darkness, the sense of something looming which we would later recognize as longing.

As sacred time, it is deeply earth-borne, still and cold (again, Northern Hemisphere) and slumbering under a blanket of snow. All creatures turn in to nest and hibernate. Stillness rules the land. And the canopy of stars in Heaven twinkle with fates we’ll never understand.

In the harrows of earth-time, there has been much wounding and wear. Wildfires burn again in the long California, handing the torch to fires start again in Australia. Millions of homeless refugees look back at their mud-drowned towns across Central America in the wake of two violent and late-season hurricanes. Somalia was just hit by its strongest cyclone ever, a storm which saw explosive intensification. The polar vortex is strong right now, which means that here in the eastern US we’ll see milder winter weather for a time, though it also means colder than average temps for the West. That said, a rapidly-strengthening nor’easter moving up the New England coast turned into a bomb cyclone, with northeast winds at 60 miles per hour, dumping more than a foot of snow and knocking out power to 200,000. A nervous instability increases is register around the world.

And in swath of this earth overwhelmed by human life, the pandemic is nearing its darkest winter hour just as a vaccine nears readiness. It is invisible to most but you will find a deathly stillness attending hospitals filling up with the suffering. Here in the United States, the toll is astonishing and unmerciful and largely ignored.

This year’s Advent season must carry all that, its silver bells ringing with expectation for the new while tolling for the lost.

* * *

Light turns most deeply inward at this final station of the solar year, inching down to nadir at the winter solstice when the new year is born. Though we mark the winter solstice at December 23, the Romans celebrated it on the 25th with a nod to the Sun god Sol Invictus. No date of Christ’s birth is recorded in the Gospels, in 200 AD Clement of Alexandria mentions debate by church authorities; some said April 20, other May 20. The first recorded Christmas celebration was in Rome on December 25, AD 336. The date gained greater prominence in 800 AD when Charlemagne was crowned emperor on Christmas Day. It wasn’t until the 19th century when the holiday would become associated with family, kind-heartedness, gift giving and Santa Claus.

Personally, I like the idea of Christmas coming three days after the winter solstice, just as my St. Oran was buried three days before Halloween. Something leaps in darkness and emerges on festival day.

When I bother to think about it (and I don’t much) I see myself as postchristian, the son of Presbyterian minister who went on to find deeper clearer and bluer things in the well hidden under the pulpit. Or does that make me prechristian? Or even better, preter-christian, a soul amplified by pagan foundations topped by a Christian edifice toppled by modernity for slowly-revealing mystery. Everything I write is a consequence of that experience: each year, Advent deepens in the resonance of that branching plainsong.

What this means is that personally I find the rites of Christmas to be comforting — like an old sweater — without much angst in its meanings. Like walking on the mound of Rath Cruachan in Ireland, once a vast ceremonial center and now just smooth green humps and then plain. Whatever armies warred here, and sacrifices burnt and gods were worshiped, all now is just smoothness. That’s the Christian empire, reduced to white lights on a Christmas tree in a suburban home. A smoothness.

Several centuries from now, the world may bear faint semblance to this one, largely absent human civilization. Maybe the Advent remembrance then will be for a charging, crashing sentience which only left wreckage behind.

On then to our theme of Advent for Earth! For this week’s challenge, go into whatever mood the Advent season inspires in you and write a poem of it. Light Advent candles, listen to plainsong. What winter landscapes come to you, present or past? And to keep some of this Advent on earth, what new doors are found in the calendar? Do they burn, flood, sicken, loom, appall? Are there Advent registers for our solastalgia and weary reiterations of loss? Is there holiness and healing even in the depths of our grief? What do the bells sound like this night?

I look forward to hearing them in you!


PS: Sarah Connor, who frequently shares here, has created an Advent calendar of daily poems from a diverse community. Treat yourself and make it part of your daily rounds. You’ll find it here.