R O U N D W E A T H E R
Climate Trauma and Long Passages
Written around 2020
Will erase February 1, 2023
A metaphor might make more trouble
when it tries to be…the grief of history…
- Brenda Hillman, “Metaphor and Simile: Day 15”
The similarities between trauma and the climate crisis deserve our meditation. I’m no expert on either, yet I have loved people whose lives circled around specific sufferings. You have too. My father at age ten was pulled without a pulse from his home on fire and endured skin grafts across his body and years of rehabilitation. My grandfather survived the bombing of the USS Pennsylvania at Pearl Harbor, he later brutalized my mother, and she and my sister were each other’s closest friend until she died of a heart attack in my sister’s arms when they both were far too young. Barry Lopez says, in an interview on Bill Moyers Journal, “Pick anyone out of a crowd, and they’ll tell you a story that can break your heart. Anybody. This happens to all of us.” Trauma is more than the broken heart, as Lopez knows, more than every life’s most painful experience. Traditionally understood, it is an experience so horrific—be it momentary, prolonged, or seemingly endless—that a person jarringly relives it through memories, sensations, dreams, and similarities. If trauma occurs when one’s existence gets trapped within an experience’s echoing, damaging ramifications, then we must come to terms with having traumatized the sky.
I’ll be using the term climate trauma differently than practitioners of environmental humanities who diagnose what ecological catastrophe does to human psychology. Here instead it refers to the torturous disorder we have inflicted on the environment itself.
Light enters the atmosphere like your life enters the world. Add traumatic amounts of carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, methane, and water vapor, and then light cannot sufficiently escape the chemical/biological/ethical compound of our lifestyles. That is, light reflects back from the earth in lengthened waves/infrared light/heat that greenhouse gasses hold within the atmosphere to an ecologically-contorting degree, raising the global temperature till the world as we know it dies in our arms. A memory fills me now: at Kmart with my mom, I wanted her to buy me REM’s Document on cassette tape, and when she saw the song title “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” she—no expert on irony—said, “No.” Our atmosphere also fills with memory, more heat begets more water vapor begets more heat, and adding CO2 to our air at this point in history extends and expands the trauma to the biotic earth. Arctic sea ice reduction, Greenland’s ice sheet loss, permafrost thawing, Boreal forest fires and pests, droughts in the Amazon, Atlantic circulation slowdown, mass coral reef death, East and West Antarctic ice loss acceleration: nine of the fifteen known regulators of the planet’s state that also serve as global toppling points: activated (T.M. Lenton et al., “Climate tipping points — too risky to bet against,” Nature, Nov. 27 2019; Graphic: Rosamund Pearce & Tom Prater).
How do we heal? I have no idea how trauma is healed, nor whether it can be, but I might know how it has been mitigated, which is the best we can now do for climate trauma. Before I scratch the surface of how two writers have managed devastating experiences enough to write necessary books about nature, let us wonder whether we are dying from a condition of thought and negligence of being—my favorite pastime. What can we expect to happen if we only use science, technology, and hard humanities like law and economics to solve a climate crisis that was generated by the same? What if men alone were allowed to fix patriarchal institutions? Audre Lorde’s renowned and resonant answer to similar questions is “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” Dismantle or mend, we must beware of all repair or revolution and their lacunas. For example, we have it in us to fuse ecology and economy in a way that would avoid the worst climate change has to offer while generating renewable moneymaking opportunity for the working class and the frontline communities of environmental degradation. But we are not yet looking at how to mitigate the immense human trauma that even a fair-to-middling climate crisis promises nor how to alleviate what E. Ann Kaplan in Climate Trauma calls our current Pretraumatic Stress Disorder. Even after the best of all possible scenarios, where will trauma go in the body politic? What unintended consequences might arise when everything everywhere requires electricity? Storing renewable energy requires extractive industry. Were the United States and international community to accomplish a Green New Deal, it would thrill the world’s vast majority. Yet what becomes of us if we only focus on the green stuff—economic and ecological—as they are conventionally defined? Don’t forget Leaves of Grass, Braiding Sweetgrass, Wonder’s Journey Through “The Secret Life of Plants.”
When you think about the climate crisis and what to do about it, I encourage you not to leave the arts, wide humanities, and wisdom strategies out of the equation. They broaden our meaning and agency and are vital to a thriving survival. Ecology can be utilized as the metaphor and model for a larger approach toward being than is used in a solely biological reading of ecology. Barry Lopez’s essay “A Presentation of Whales” describes whales beached in Oregon and how only police and scientists were permitted to approach the tragedy, so he writes, “As far as I know, no novelist, no moral philosopher, no scholar of Melville, no rabbi, no painter, no theologian had been on the beach. No one had thought to call them or to fly them in” (Crossing Open Ground 146). May we all keep seeking aspects of the material and seemingly immaterial worlds to consider through the lens of ecology. Meditate, exercise, read poetry, sing biology (whatever that means!), walk among trees, pick the locks of your childhood, listen to all the sounds around you now—and only then suppose our globe’s ultimate needs are knowable.
As a middle schooler, I thought it’d be a good idea to ask to interview my grandfather for my Social Studies report typed on the beloved typewriter I bought with lawn-mowing money, a report about his experience at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. My sister—a talented singer with the perplexingly high speaking voice of a bluejay—was born on December 8, 1980 within hours of John Lennon’s murder, a fact our parents never pointed out to us, but our grandpa would remind her every birthday on the phone (I’m not certain this is true—like 60% sure) that it was the day after the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Yet he never told us anything about what happened to him there (despite somehow mentioning he was “at Pearl Harbor” almost every time I saw him [now I’m at 99%]). Why did he only repete and never expand? He was open to my request for an interview. From San Diego I called him in the Imperial Valley of California with a cassette recorder because I’m a bad listener. I work on it though. My listening might derive from sitting through Southern Baptist sermons every Sunday, a good basic training in tuning people out. My mind dug tunnels beneath sermons and long prayers (and now, despite my will, burrows under movies, poetry readings, and my brilliant, kind life partner telling me about her day). I do remember hearing four things at church besides our singing. I heard God used to want us to stone homosexuals; the pastor as a child looked at his father’s stash of porn magazines every chance he got; a jazz version of a hymn he played on his trumpet in welcome to an African-American family, never to return; and, at a different Southern Baptist church we attended when I was elementary aged, how the man who baptized me one service in a big sloshing tub behind the swung-open stained glass window of the Holy Spirit dove, how he thought I was a perfect example of original sin because at his house with my mom I kept pretending sticks were guns despite being told to cut it out. My grandfather was also a Southern Baptist minister, starting churches in Washington, Oregon, and California, and once several church members stopped him while beating my mom. I didn’t know about the abuse at the time of our interview (25% sure). I had a dozen questions prepared, and it lasted a half hour. He lived the instantaneous death of several soldiers, his friends. That’s all I recall. When he finished answering me, I realized I had not successfully pressed record. The black tape remained rolled all to one side! Oh how I kicked myself and apologized…and then asked, “Can we do it again?”
Human trauma—for some—can be mitigated by nature, writing, and nature writing. Critiques of nature and wilderness as part of a binary code that programs exploitation hold true for me, but they’re beside the tipping point. In 2019 Pam Houston and Barry Lopez released bracing climate crisis-conscious books that can re-break hearts and tend to them. Hers is Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country; his is Horizon. I don’t know if these writers identify as traumatized, but I’m certain I would if I had lived their beginnings. Lopez was raped for years by his mother’s friend. Houston’s father broke her body (a three-quarter body cast at age four) and raped her; her mother often told the child she had wrecked her life. In Deep Creek a firestorm fueled by the climate crisis shows how the environmental shell shocks from global warming can register in a person’s psyche. Houston writes, “My father was in assisted living in 2002 when the Missionary Ridge Fire was running seven miles a day toward the ranch, but I still thought, as I always think when I am afraid, Here he is, finally coming for me. In June 2013, eight years after his death, I thought it again” (167). “My skin prickles and I get the same wash of cold through my veins I got whenever I could feel my father turning his rage in my direction. We are precisely down the prevailing winds from Baldy. [ . . . ] The ranch will soon be surrounded by fire on three sides” (180). I imagine anyone would feel some personal relief by reading how Houston works through a harrowing family with her animals and the elements and labor at a ranch she always can almost not afford.
Yet the idea of taking refuge in nature and nature writing has changed, melting around our minds, and we cannot yet make out what shapes and scars they will form. I used to take heart in Jack Spicer’s line from “Imaginary Elegies: IV,” “The birds are still in flight. Believe the birds.” Once I gave a postcard with this line to a traumatized friend with whom I taught creative writing, and she visibly loved it. The nine little words could grant me a bit of bodily elevation—not the touched notion I was actually physically floating, but something in my chest and brow could go along with the emotional uplift. That uplift can feel all but nothing compared to the downshift when the Audubon Society reports that the climate crisis places two-thirds of North American birds at risk of extinction and I watch how crows have already taken over my favorite forest but for the stray spectral heron inching across the understory (“Survival by Degrees: 389 Bird Species on the Brink,” Audubon Magazine, Fall 2019). This crow-and-heron image is an exaggeration of the loss of avian diversity at Oakland’s Redwood Regional Park, but I briefly remembered it as true. False memories are mental mirages refracting what’s real. Did church teach me to lie (to myself!)? Could Christian fundamentalism itself have abused me? My evangelical step-mother’s take on the climate crisis is that the world is going to end, so why push against God’s plan? Most in the evangelical tradition believe the magic blood of Christ does not only save them but also ensures the divine end-time murder of others and destruction of the earth. When “Asked What Is Changed” (the title poem of his latest collection), Ed Roberson responds,
Even staring out the window is changed,
the private peak above it all brought down
with the erosion of the poise between
the viewable and the mused unseen.
Dissolution so nearly changeless as not
to appear is shifting the sands inside
from what we watched, no more the steady stage
the self-dramatic days play out on outside.
The silent portent now allowed alert
to things changing the light
not the normal individual
mortality, but as if the epochal
heartbeat of larger elements, the seas
the air, had mutated, become chimera,
grown wing, and routed ancestral time
After such a Yeatsean encounter with a rough beast, high-contrast lighting, and vast damaged time, after Roberson’s lines in “Bird Population Up On Black Mountain” from 2000’s Atmosphere Conditions,
They warn they say while we’re experiencing
we can’t imagine what may be extinctions
half our life away
having to hurry to see before something
isn’t there to see anymore they say
we don’t know. I know
it’s a surprise to hear of his rosy view of the climate crisis. On YouTube, you’ll find a Paolo Javier-moderated Poets House reading and conversation between Roberson, Joan Naviyuk Kane, and Brian Teare. There Roberson believes
People look at this—things that come up with this climate change and this new focus on ecology—as a big problem, a big trouble. But it’s a great gift at this point to be able to see what we’ve been missing. And like Joan saying there she was in Alaska and she’s leaving it and she gets to see Portage Glacier,
and she’s right, that’ll go with you forever. You’ll carry that, and it will show up in a poem that somebody will read a century from now. And know that when you leave home and along the way you’re going past Anchorage, past the glacier, you stop and you take a look, and then you head for Tok Junction and then down the Alaska highway, and it’s all gone, but you got those things with you, you know, they’re there, and they’ll show up, and they’ll continue to show up, and that enlarging of yourself is what the enlarged person will put on the page and enlarge the world. That’s the way I look at it. This is not a bad moment. This is really a good moment. But we’ve got to see it.
In Horizon Lopez sees in the Antarctic how “At the head of the Koettlitz Glacier, where the ice of the polar ice cap crowns slightly as it flows over a shoulder of bedrock, the low light of the sun was passing through the glacier’s interior. For a few moments it seemed that this part of the glacier was lit from within. The sun burned there like a lightbulb shining through a parchment shade” (456).
In Arctic Dreams he sees how “A comparison with cathedrals has come to many Western minds in searching for a metaphor for icebergs, and I think the reasons for it are deeper than the obvious appropriateness of line and scale. It has to do with our passion for light” (248). He sees “In brilliant sunshine the icebergs now gleam as crisp a blinding white in the black water as storm-lit sails. After a while icebergs near the horizon break with the surface of the ocean to float low in the pale blue sky. Four or five of them, distant mirages, not seeming to take the moment seriously at all” (208).
Kane sees in “The Incident Light” from Black Milk Carbon that
I went for relief
of the mind, to move
into currents of worry.
I did not know
what the body held.
[ . . . ]
Those seas, increased
might scour and reflect—
those seas, increased,
It will be important to glue our attention to the metaphors we use for nature during the climate crisis. The lightbulb and shade simile in Horizon seems neutrally lovely, not the holy, dramatically endangered, or playful icebergs in Arctic Dreams. Lamps and other objects “lit from within” are beautiful occurrences we experience—if not recognize—all the time, beauty highlighted by the common phrase’s assonance in i’s. It took a long moment for the lightbulb metaphor to switch on for me and connect energy consumption to a glacier, and now we’re not feeling so neutral—what with the sun’s “burn” and glacier’s “parchment” waiting to combust! We read the results in Kane. Note not only how she makes a reflective sea of language by repeating the line “those seas, increased.” Note the climate trauma, how the light from rising seas raise them again, even more. Who doesn’t think we the people, we the species need to be rephrased? I hope alongside Kane that rising sea levels will “rephrase us,” will influence what we say of ourselves and our being of the sea—not something of our distant past, but of our recognizable future that can only be salvaged now. Alongside Roberson I’m projecting hope onto Kane’s imagery. I believe we shall be rephrased.
Images speak in a poem like “Dear Future” from Katherine Riegel’s Love Songs from the End of the World:
We live as much in dreams as in the made rooms
with tile floors and airplanes. We dream
of flying in so many ways: as if we were birds,
our fingers turned to feathers; as if we had no
bodies; as if we were the wind, touching
everything. In some of our dreams we watch
ourselves walking through blue night forests
and we are afraid but also proud and also free.
In the forests at night, bears walk upright
and speak to each other, though not to us.
Humans with antlers and horses that glow
promise to show us the way back to our
missing parts, the dense globes we know
were carved out of us some time in childhood.
Some of us—the more hopeful ones?—believe
some day we may find ways to fill the spaces.
Perhaps our minds will separate at last
from our cumbersome bodies and moonlight
will no longer include mosquitoes, or people
with guns, or fear at all. Perhaps we will invent
ways to talk to everything in the universe, and wise
ancient organisms will share their secrets at last.
Some of us believe blood is magic, the only door
that opens onto a world we might want.
We are the sadder ones. We are convinced
all good things are gone and gone, locked away
in the past. Once, perhaps, whole people
lived under the sky, vast with stars and silence.
Then the first words came.
Amid the climate crisis, ideas like “as if we were birds” and “as if we were wind;” metaphor across humankind and nature, which is of course foundational to poetry; and every child’s favorite poetic device that is not aural/oral (personification, like “bears walk upright”); all the above become literal. We now truly are the unlike thing, the ostensible other because we fundamentally alter it. The airplanes we fly here walk upright in Africa, pushing out the desert horizon as they move.
In Deep Creek, Houston
thought about the books that had shaped my sensibility as a young writer: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Silent Spring, A Sand County Almanac, Refuge, A River Runs Through It, In Patagonia, and Desert Solitaire. Now, amid the most sweeping legislative attack on our environment in history, a colleague wondered aloud to me whether it was feasible, or even sane anymore, to teach books that celebrate nature unironically. This planet hadn’t even been mapped properly a couple of hundred years ago, and now none of it, above or below ground, remains unsullied by our need for extraction. As we hurtle toward the cliff, foot heavy on the throttle, to write a poem about the loveliness of a newly leafed out aspen grove or a hot August wind sweeping across prairie grass or the smell of the air after a three-day rain in the maple forest might be at best so unconscionably naive, and at worst so much part of the problem, we might as well drive a Hummer and start voting Republican.
Maybe. But then again, maybe not. Maybe this is the best time there has ever been to write unironic odes to nature. (77)
Roberson reiterates, “This is really a good moment. This really should enlarge people’s idea about not just my identity but a lot of the identities that eventually come down to us—animals too.”
There is beauty in the ocean, even one that is on the rise.
And even if the jig is up, even if it really is game over, what better time to sing about the earth than when it is critically, even fatally wounded at our hands [ . . . ]
If we pretend not to see the tenuous beauty that is still all around us, will it keep our hearts from breaking as we watch another mountain be clear-cut, as we watch North Dakota, as beautiful a state as there ever was, be poisoned for all time by hydraulic fracturing? If we abandon all hope right now, does that in some way protect us from some bigger pain later? If we never go for a walk in the beetle-killed forest, if we don’t take a swim in the algae-choked ocean, if we lock grandmother in a room for the last ten years of her life so we can practice and somehow accomplish the survival of her loss in advance, in what ways does it make our lives easier? In what ways does it impoverish us?
We are all dying, and because of us, so is the earth. That’s the most terrible, the most painful in my entire repertoire of self-torturing thoughts. But it isn’t dead yet and neither are we. Are we going to drop the earth off at the vet, say goodbye at the door, and leave her to die in the hands of strangers? We can decide, even now, not to turn our backs on her in her illness. We can still decide not to let her die alone. (77-78)
The climate crisis is our world articulating with a howl how its people have injured it—and each other, who are the earth itself: this is the enlarged earthen identity Roberson champions. Houston’s passage begs the question of why now’s the best time to write odes, why there’s no better time to sing of nature than near its death. She suggests that not to sing means we’ve lost hope, impoverishing us. It’s not just ethical: if our nations and households don’t prepare for the crisis, there will be economic impoverishment surpassing that from COVID-19’s shutdowns. But why sing exactly? Can’t we hope and take action without writing odes? And why on earth did the absurd notion of singing biology come out of me earlier? The affect and intent behind the Deep Creek excerpt is brought into relief when Etel Adnan (translated by Sarah Riggs) writes point blank in Time,
love is the subversion of
death. our survival depends on
the capacity of the real to escape
the assault of language
(Echo of “Then the first words came.”)
How does song/poetry/nature memoir differentiate itself, if in fact it can, from the assault of language, which I read to mean ideology/convention/intellection as well as their attack on language’s other capacities, say imagination, say creation of a scaffolding from which one can look beyond where language can go?
I look to Lopez for an answer. His Horizon is a loving and soul-scouring cultivation of the earth and humanity, poisoned and poisonous. One of its most affecting early passages is when he bursts out swimming toward and above John V. House’s sculpture on the supposed spot where Columbus first dropped anchor in the Americas. Lopez recalls how
In the spring of 1989—I was forty-four at the time—I traveled to San Salvador with a friend, Tony Beasley. I wanted to dive the island’s reefs and also to see a monument honoring Columbus, erected on the bottom of Fernandez Bay. One very hot afternoon on a walk along the island’s shore, Tony and I found ourselves at Fernandez Bay but unprepared. We had no snorkeling equipment with us. On an impulse I stripped off my clothes and bolted, naked, for the water. [ . . . ] I swam furiously toward the place I anticipated the monument would be, swam until I was so winded I felt in danger of drowning. Anger had suddenly flooded my senses on the beach. Unresolved anger over the behavior of my stepfather’s ancestors, and of the other hidalgos—Pizarro, Gonzalo de Sandoval, Diego Velazquez, Andres de Tapia—the second-son conquistadores; anger about the loss of so many unchronicled cultures, the consequence of colonial genocide and exploitation; [ . . . ] fury over licentious behavior forcing its way into the hinterlands of every political empire, perpetrated by people imbued with a sense of divine right as they redesigned societies, burned out spiritual practices, and restructured economies to serve their own ends. At that particular time this was, for me, Shell Oil operating in Nigeria, Rio Tinto mining in Western Australia, the Chinese boot heel crushing Buddhist culture on the Tibetan Plateau.
[ . . . ] The Japanese use a word, hibakusha, to describe those who physically survived the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki but who subsequently lost their minds. These individuals are “explosion-affected people”—uncomprehending, disoriented, catatonic with grief. They’re everywhere now, from the Lakota Indian reservation at Pine Ridge, South Dakota, to IDP (Internally Displaced People) camps in Eritrea and South Sudan. They are people capable only of existence, not recovery. For them, the damage has gone too deep [ . . . ]
I burned my anger in the long, exhausting swim. Treading water, I could see below me the pale monument to Columbus rising distorted through a lens of clear tropical water. Voiceless. Adamant.
I swam back to shore, standing up when my toes finally touched bottom. Tony was watching from the beach, a hesitating, quizzical look on his face. Some moments passed while I stood in the shallows, catching my breath. As I waded toward the beach I began to speak aloud in disconnected sentences, enunciating the familiar principles of justice, proclaiming sorrow and regret, asking the pardon of every animate thing before me—the trees, the clouds, the broken shells washed up on the beach. Stepping clear of the water, I knelt on the beach and bent forward to rest on my palms, stupefied by the heat, squinting into glare off the sand, startled by my own outburst. Just in front of me, inches away, was a piece of chalk-white sandstone, exactly the shape and precisely the size of a human tongue.
I picked it up.
Tony and I walked together back to Cockburn Town, to our air-conditioned hotel room. He didn’t say anything about what I had declaimed, words I was too self-conscious to try to recall. I lay on my bed wondering if the fury I’d felt had actually been ignited not by history but by the reawakening of my own feelings of impotence. (43-44)
I wonder whether this ignition—this explosion of impotence—also transpired due to the power of art, even ethically suspect art. The words voiceless and adamant sink to the bottom of their short paragraph such that Lopez could be describing the sculpture—a kaleidoscopic smear of a circle—or himself. Voiceless + Adamant = a corrosive fusion where many of us live. Would Lopez, as he later understands in the passage, have felt so impotent/adamantly voiceless (as a writer who cannot save the world, as the abused child within) if the sculpture were not under the ocean? Is House’s choice of site how the sculpture gains its potency—besides the grief of history? Thank you, Barry, for swimming yourself into a breath-robbing sorrow and me into a voice-raising faith. We generally cannot sing and breathe at the same time. Thank you for inspiring me to believe we have in our species what it takes to rescue many of our habitats—if only we will listen and live according to the ecological wisdom of Indigenous peoples. Horizon is one of our ultimate reflections. A mirror is a nonbinary device where something is both itself and exactly other. In the above passage, a physical expression of trauma and voicelessness renders one a “human tongue,” which can be read as cut out and silenced, but my nature leans toward the reading of more voice, echo, voice’s return. In Horizon my imagination moved akin to an image in Adnan’s Time, how it bursts from far underwater to a surface that is best seen as luminous from far away or above:
I would like to reflect like a
buoy, thrown out from the depths
to the luminous mortal surface
of the sea
Gaston Bachelard—fertile metaphysician of the imagination—writes, “The horizon is an immense halo around the earth that is being contemplated by an elevated person” (Air and Dreams 55, translated by Edith & Frederick Farrell). Here’s hoping you also feel on guard around potentially hierarchical language of elevated and enlarged people. I assume approximately everyone has lived such bright moments on high and in large.
Yet Roberson adds (in “Asked What is Changed”),
Even staring out the window, the timeless
is gone. We see coming
in the daily migration of the local geese
to the lake at evening the cities pull up
and move in unlike consternation towards and
away from the water
that had been so calming to gaze out on,
to live by, easy to not live according to.
And now that seas are adding themselves
into the land, horizons look ominously larger,
the arrivant out of them, faster and clearer.
Now, you see the view is turned on us to frame
human agency become transparent,
light as air [ . . . ]
What we look out upon moves toward us (like the geese and rising seas [with their built-in twists away]) until we see outselves. I wrote and deleted a paragraph of analysis in deference to this typo of ourselves–outselves: a happy accident that says it all.
Such luminous and ominous horizontal perspectives as the passages above can also occur in close-up. Houston’s method is a crystallization of enlarged, elevated consciousness finding its shards. After “We can still decide not to let her die alone,” she continues,
I have always believed that if I pay strict attention while I am out in the physical world—and for me that often means the natural world—the physical world will give me everything I need to tell my stories. As I move through my day, I wait to feel something I call a glimmer, a vibration, a little charge of resonance that says, “Hey writer, look over here.” I feel it deep in my chest, this buzzing that lets me know the thing I am seeing/hearing/tasting on the outside is going to help me unlock some part of a story I have on the inside. I keep an ongoing record of theses glimmers, writing down not my interpretation of them, not my imagined connection to them, not an emotional contextualization of them, but just the thing itself. Get in, get it down, get out and move on to the next glimmer. Then, when I have some time to write, I read through the glimmer files on my computer and try to find a handful that seem like they will stick together, that when placed in proximity with one another will create a kind of electricity.
I try to keep my big analytical brain out of this process as much as possible, because I believe my analytical brain at best only knows part of the story and at worst is a big fat liar. I believe—like religion—that the glimmer, the metaphor, if you will, knows a great deal more than I do. And if I stay out of its way, it will reveal itself to me. I will become not so much its keeper as its conduit, and I will pass its wisdom on to the reader, without actually getting in its way.
In addition to being my method, the way I have written every single thing I have written, it is also the primary way I worship, the way I kneel down and kiss the earth. (78-79)
If only we could get the “electricity” from connecting metaphors into light bulbs and cars. Ultimately I am in effect saying we can. Steeping ourselves in the arts, wide humanities, and wisdom strategies like Houston’s can stir and whirl the unconscious, interdependent variable-winds in our engineers and middle managers and childcare workers that then drift or gust into new discoveries. I wish all eco-activists, politicians, shareholders, and CEOs kept glimmer files. Here’s how my favorite living artist Gabriel Orozco rephrases the method in his 2001 lecture at the Rufino Tamayo in Mexico City: “The object that arises in the world as a result of an unpredictable phenomenon and accident, but only when there is an act of consciousness—consciousness that is elicited by the reality of the body ready to receive it. [ . . . ] Not expecting anything, not being spectators, but realizers of accidents, in which reality, when nothing is expected of it, gives us its gifts” (translated by Eileen Brockbank in Textos sobre la obra de Gabriel Orozco).
How do we ready the reality of our bodies to elicit our consciousness to receive the expanding reality’s gifts? How do we tend to our being and not merely improve our thinking, allowing “the real to escape the assault of language”? Maybe one technique has to do with singing biology.
Most of us can’t go as far as Ed Roberson and realize the worst accident in human history as/is a gift. As: what is simile/metaphor? Is: what is being/existence? Metaphor is. Metaphor is empathy that crosses between the actual and mental worlds. The crossing is so easy in part because this binary is a mirage. How our minds pull beauty through the crisis will now mean the world to us. Metaphor is also ecology at work inside us, as when Lopez writes,
It is my habit when I travel to note resemblances, particularly of form and color. For example, that between the bones of a lemming and a strand of staghorn lichen next to it on the tundra. Or the sound of a native drum made from walrus intestine and its uncanny resemblance to the underwater voice of the walrus. Or between an object I have never seen before and objects I am familiar with— the head of an arctic hare’s rib and the rainspout gorgons of cathedrals. (Arctic Dreams 240)
and “It’s generally true that traditional people are mostly quiet while traveling, because the syntax and vocabulary of spoken language too often collapse the details of a place into meaning, precluding other interpretations. The conversation around indigenous campfires, however, is often metaphorical, or even allegorical. So it engages more than one type of mind. It provides for more than one level of intellection” (Horizon 414-5).
Lopez’s habit of noting resemblances is all but everyone’s, wouldn’t you say? Rather than this rejoinder diminishing his witness, it sees pattern-finding and metaphor as a universal and important aspect of being in place, one that artists often enjoy riffing on with each other, one at which many Indigenous communities reportedly excel, one we’d all gain from if it made regular appearances in how we communicate.
Let us revere resemblances. We should especially make room for those that occur between different corners of the world and its disciplines, connections we as of yet find to be untraceable. Currently unreal patterns may prove to be an inefficient articulation of what is. In The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin advances the idea that “What one is after when farfetching might be described as the intuitive perception of a moral entirety; and thus it tends to find expression not in rational symbols, but in metaphor” (154). Our earth is a moral entirety if I ever met one.
As for singing, consider another round of Horizon, where field biologists in Australia felt their efforts to restore mala (or rufous hare-wallaby) to the Tanami Desert “will eventually fail because they had no knowledge of the spiritual nature of the mala, of its place in the Tjukurrpa [Aboriginal Dreamtime narratives]. They asked Warlpiri elders to assist in the reintroduction by ‘singing the wallaby up,’ by ritually calling mala back into the country” (404). Here Lopez speaks with one of the Warlpiri men called in to sing up the mala:
He told me that the idea of an animal being “locally extinct,” as the biologists said, was a difficult concept for him to understand. It’s possible, he told me, that the body of an animal might not be visible to someone traveling through a certain country, but the animal was still there. In its corporeal form it might be “finished” in a particular place, but it wasn’t “gone,” the way white people use that word. If you couldn’t see it, I asked, couldn’t find its tracks or scat or signs of its feeding, wasn’t it “locally extinct?” No, he said. He waved his extended left hand quickly in a sweeping arc. “It’s all out there, everywhere.” After he and the other men sang the mala up, he said, the spirits of local mala who were present entered the bodies of the mala in enclosure.
Someone entirely wedded to a Western way of knowing might find this story fatuous, but in interviews with Western field biologists over the years, I’ve found that the issue of local extinction is, for many of them, not entirely clear. There are too many cases of animals being declared locally extinct only to have them turn up again. “Singing” an animal back into existence is a metaphorical expression for some as-yet-unplumbed biological process of restoration, quaint only in the minds of those who believe they already know, or can discover, precisely how the world is hinged. (406)
As the world comes unhinged with climate trauma, we can follow a path opposite to the powerful, self-righteous, and self-satisfied who ignore the patterns understood and cared for by peoples in home places.
Aboriginal people had practiced for millennia a sophisticated land-management technique called fire-stick farming on lands where mala lived. They used controlled burns—slow-moving grass fires—to remove dry spinifex brush and encourage new growth, thereby creating a mosaic of old and new spinifex vegetation which served their needs as hunter-gatherers. The practice also served mala well. They denned in the older patches of spinifex and fed in the new sections. (Horizon 405)
I had no recollection of the Warlpiri section when I suggested you sing biology, having read Horizon over a year ago and having a memory that’s even worse than my listening. It didn’t sear itself into conscious memory like the frantic swim. So I was delighted to happen upon it when cracking open the book’s 500 pages to a handful of spots in hopes of finding useful excerpts. Could I have been looking for this passage without knowing?
Warlpiri women sing, “I am the fire, the smoke caused, I am the fire, the smoke caused, I am the fire, the smoke caused, I am the fire, the smoke caused” in their “Rain Dreaming songs” video you can watch on Indigenous Community Television (ictv.com.au).
Another Atmosphere Condition is “Afraid of Fire I Don’t See,” human and climate trauma combined:
even in my dreams the long log of that entrance
almost as the nature of this world
and living is as if in aftermath
of dangerous conflagrant lives
which the small inner fires of our marches
meant to be a break to be their containment.
And afraid of what I could set
and walk away from without seeing
people come back in our
dreams to bring us their truth
that which our eyes refused
to see, and for which they
burned us, in burning themselves
I find I have regressed to putting you through a church service: hymns, testimonies, and a sermon delivered from secular scriptures—an apocalyptic one at that, warning of a hell on earth ahead. Hell is what my mother thought of life, once saying she couldn’t picture hell being any worse than life on earth. Perhaps traumatized minds devised the concept of eternal damnation. Presently “1% of the world is a barely livable hot zone” and climate models project that “by 2070 that portion could go up to 19%” (Abrahm Lustgarten, “The Great Climate Migration Has Begun,” New York Times, July 27, 2020).
My sermon even believes in redemption, God damn it! We can right now intervene in the depth and duration of the climate crisis and the traumas it will inflict. I imagine I dreamed (while I recall being enchanted as a teenager by the pining emotion within the cognitive layering in the line “I think I thought I saw you try” in REM’s “Losing My Religion”)—I imagine I dreamed that my mother found a hummingbird trapped in our back stairwell surrounded by three walls of plexiglass window, a two story greenhouse effect. She kept a potted plant on every step, and only one of the windows could open. During the day, the stairwell was always at least ten degrees warmer than the rest of the house. The hummingbird kept flying away from her and ramming into the windows. For half an hour, it flew, hit, and fell—flying again before it touched the ground, and as it lost vigor, my mother tried to guide it with a broom toward the open door or window. Eventually it relented and let her take hold of it. How its heart raced blindly between her soft palms! It didn’t stir a feather, yet its heart was the quickest thing she’d ever experienced, as though feeling the speed of light. She stepped down to the door where she lifted her arms and opened her hands, and the hummingbird jetted away.
Thank you, Mom, for bringing me to sing with others every single week. It’s the part of church I loved. I held out all those notes until happily light-headed. I treasured how wildly off-key you sang, the only time I saw you not self-conscious and nervous outside our home. Thank you, Reader, for listening for more chords in this essay’s passages than I noted or know. What are patterns—painful and beautiful and good—in your environment, and what is a suitable song? What decisions might be reached if our politicians, shareholders, and CEOs sang as often at their gatherings as the eco-activists in the Sunrise Movement? What happens to our bodies when we sing?
Trauma is being reframed. I haven’t read Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score, but it’s a perpetual best-seller with ideas that have vitally helped three friends of mine who do not know each other. My knowledge of the book doesn’t go deeper than quotes floating around the Internet. Van der Kolk radically contends that “the single most important issue for traumatized people is to find a sense of safety in their own bodies.” He also holds with the psychological convention that “the parent-child connection is the most powerful mental health intervention known to mankind.” It’s likely that most people felt safest as babies when a parent or guardian held them and sang. A soundness down to their cells. The work of Pam Houston and Barry Lopez suggest that many of those innocents ransacked of safe sense by their elders can especially replenish when their bodies are alone in nature. Now, Mother Earth—even the metaphor of her dying (at least in relation to many of her species dying off)—the metaphor of Mother Earth might indeed make more trouble: for parentally traumatized people, for logical positivists, for the unsentimental, through our blindspots revealed in the future. We’ll never know all the ways the earth bears and feeds our being. Perhaps the traumatized have an added chance—if they make it through their bodies—to circumvent their most destructive experience as an individual to find the earth-earthling connection is in fact the most powerful mental health intervention. I wrote this essay half a year before Lopez died Christmas Day 2020, and since his passing Houston has written that “like Barry, I was serially sexually abused as a child, and also like him, I understood, even at that tender age, that in as much as I could be healed from those brutalities, it was the natural world that would allow for that healing” (“Appreciation: What writers learned from Barry Lopez while moon-gazing at a Dairy Queen,” The Los Angeles Times, December 29, 2020). If we were to collectively transcend our scarred individuality—or at least act and vote that way—we would surely stop treating people and places as disposable, which would temper the greenhouse effect to a healthier way of life.
Yes, I’m suggesting we mitigate climate trauma by singing. Impossible. Yet it’s thinkable, a matter of scale. When everyone everywhere sings daily to the traumatized sky, sings the belief our Earth is our body, sings the largest us, then yes absolutely, partially yes, this will transform the ecology of our ways.
Let’s get to work seeing the earth
from the vantage of sunlight.
O Earth, be held,
not killed, be healed
by light, by light, by light.