All things shall perish from under the sky

One of the great gifts of my life is music, especially choral singing. My mother’s irrepressible little brother Pierce compares the experience of good choral singing to sex. The deep emotion of hearing great music is unparalleled. So many compositions feel like an adagio farewell to all that we hold dear: Haydn’s “Creation,” Elgar’s Nimrod Variations, Beethoven’s Ninth, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, Brahms’ Requiem. Or the folksongs which seem to come right out of the earth. A long swansong during the Long Emergency.

The Voyager Space capsule takes Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Stravinsky (as well as jazz, pop, world folk) into the far corners of the universe, but that music was created for ears attuned to a certain frequency, let alone sensibility. It is a touching gesture, but will probably remain only that. Oh, they could make music, those humans!

All things shall perish from under the sky. Music alone shall live, music alone shall live, music alone shall live – never to die. (traditional German round)


New Sap

We are home again, having greeted our new granddaughter Elora Wren in California last week. I tasted only sweetness, no regret or apprehension as I welcomed her to the family fold. She is new sap.

The following was written a full three months before the cold finally ended. El Nino now threatens, and it may be a very long time before we endure such a winter again.
February 20, 2014 After an extremely cold winter, it is really warm today. After a week without being able to drive up my road after a sizable snowfall, the last of it melted yesterday. Standing amongst the hardwoods, I can feel their sap rising, replenishing the hickory buds which swelled in December during the last warm spell. And I feel my sap rising. The old-timers call it garden fever.

I am aware of the vast extent of this forest, a target “renewable resource” for the desperate European power industry, which is where most of the beautiful, straight tulip poplar logs I see neatly lashed to logging trucks are headed – chipped, shipped and burned! Yet despite continued logging pressure, the Appalachian Forest remains one of the planet’s biggest carbon sinks. And though we are losing the battle of storing sufficient carbon to halt the onslaught of catastrophic global warming, the growth potential of that sap, my sap, God’s sap unites me deeply, completely, with the Creator’s power to create another earth, another universe after the inevitable decline and death of this one. It’s not about us, not even about this gloriously rich earthly web, but rather the power to create web upon web in world upon world. Forever.

Just a Little Rain

An early instance of climate disequilibrium…
Jan 22 2007 The smell of the ocean, thick and fishy this morning. Here in the mountains, four hundred miles away. Strange times. Fish from more southern seas are venturing into Arctic waters looking for the cooler waters that remind them of home. Our home is the entire earth, and by claiming it we have wrecked a stable equilibrium.

April 15, Celo Friends Meeting.
I minister with Joan Baez’ song, “Just a Little Rain” and speak of our moving from worries about rains seeded with Strontium 90 by atmospheric testing to a shift in the entire Earth climate: what have they done to the rain? And then I wonder aloud at the contradiction between what we have wrought and the statement in Genesis that we are made in G-d’s image.

At the end of meeting a young woman reads from Henri Nouwen: once we move into prayer mode, any thought becomes a prayer. Reflecting on my dark thought about our rapacious race, I realize that the infinite depths of compassion, the ability to suffer with the Earth, our fellow human beings, and all the critters and plants, is also in the image of God. We have become as gods, and must therefore be God-like in our compassion for what we have brought to pass, from the Garden to the neolithic sweat of our brows to the doomed global industrial machine. And then, as the Earth takes back her due, back to the garden again, farming the paved cracks in the ghosts of cities. The inner city will be one big vacant lot waiting to be redeemed. And the broken and wounded will be everywhere, desperate for healing. Redemption is mine, sayeth the Earth. May the wave of destruction seed a whole tribe of Mother Theresas, flinging them into those same failed cities.

Feb 25 How can we hold ourselves to our best selves, and continue to build nuclear bombs? How can we hold to our best selves and continue to grow a civilization on the scale we now mount it? How will we hold ourselves to our best while death and destruction rain all around us? When refugees swarm at our borders, our doors? When there’s not enough food for our fellow humans, let alone the creatures whose habitat we’ve robbed. I was hungry and you fed me. That will apply until the end, breaking the last crust of bread with the stranger. But what if it’s a group of fifty desperate starving people? What happens when you must measure out compassion so that one in every eight survives? How will we choose?

I remember my fury when I read a memo from Larry Summers, ex-president of Harvard, economic advisor to Presidents Clinton and Obama, stating cooly that Haiti should be left to collapse because it wasn’t worth the investment in a world with insufficient resources. But what would you or I do? Lester Brown has answers, and so do I; subsistence farming is key. Aran Island and its potato farmers will be gone, but we will farm the cement crannies of crumbling cities as they once did their deep rock crevices, buckets lowered into the darkening loam.

The Exquisite Joy and Terrible Challenge

Of having a baby in these times…

The exquisite pleasure of being with an infant: the softness, the suppleness the purity of the smile, the promise of life unfolding, with developmental sequences happening rapidly.. The cooing, the hand-to- mouth practice, the gurgling, the bodily processes without any hang-ups or excuse-me’s (Observing Aidan, my first grandchild, at five months).

November 19, 2013 My son Jesse’s wife Megan is pregnant – their child due in June. I couldn’t respond at first, but when I did, I broke into tears. I was not able to emotionally grasp the moment, blocked by fifteen years of following climate research and refusing to deny what is inexorably unfolding. I cried deeply for the heaviness of what should be the greatest joy, knowing that we are probably doomed as a species, this little baby arriving in the very teeth of it. It shadows everything, but particularly the newest generation, our freshest fruits.

April 6, when my biological fate, Jesse’s and his child’s, was ritually joined 72 years ago…But as I said once before, every mother, and many fathers, in the animal kingdom deeply bonds with her infant. Who are we to take this possibility from them, from ourselves? I know some young couples who stoically plan no children, saying they would only exacerbate the problem, and subject their own most precious creation to suffering. But we are an irrepressible, adventurous species, and Jesse and Megan represent the best of that spirit, come what may. And I will welcome this newest member of our family, and expect the next tears will be those of joy. As the great teachers say, happiness is our natural state. Come what may.

Leavers and Takers

The perfectly normal desire of each human being to be their best, and to pass on heirs: family traditions, genetic info, wealth. But now in order for this to happen, we each need to stop carbon emissions in their tracks, move to a local economy, and in terms of population, essentially bear only the kids who can live on that local economy, which is far less than “replacement.” As for the status of the local economy, try this exercise: trace the source and pathway to your door of everything you use. Try it for a week. Perhaps this could be a Lenten exercise for observant Christians. And when does this Lenten season end? Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.

Do we pass on, or just pass through? Be passersby, Jesus admonished his disciples in the Gospel of Thomas. Consider the lilies of the field… Is this not also true on a larger scale, at the level of Gaia? Dan Quinn speaks of Leavers and Takers in Ishmael. The Takers won – farmers over hunters, homo sapiens over homo neanderthalis, Wall Street over the shantytown. It has been a long time coming, but it looks like we won’t leave much at all. We would pass on: goods, house, money, as well as genetic info. But what if we are just like the bacteria in our gut, simply doing our thing as part of the larger flow? And if we obstruct that flow, the system will cleanse itself of us to keep the whole healthy. Passersby, not just as itinerants, but as a species, ultimately a universe. While we are busy piling up what we might pass on, Thomas reminds us of his brother’s words: heaven is spread out upon the earth, if we would only see it (Thomas 113:1-4).

Giants in the Earth

April 6, 2006 (my parents’ anniversary 1942)
I can’t take in this global ecocrisis. To take it in I must become earth. When the bulldozers came to cut a road into his local rainforest, the Australian John Seed, an awakened IBM functionary, joined his neighbors in a human blockade. Coming out of their solidarity circle, turning to face the machines, he recounts that in that moment he felt transformed into the rainforest protecting itself. He went on to found the Rainforest Information Centre. We must all become earth, each in their rooted corner of it, grounded in our watershed and local ecosystem. To do this, we must surrender a lot of habitual behavior. Since we are hesitating at this moment of decisive action, the fearsome wave of biospheric and population collapse may do it for us.

Hell, it’s been eight years since I wrote this. During that moment, suspended between the initial impulse and this post, 20% of all the carbon humans have added to the atmosphere has been emitted. See what I mean about trying to take it in? Back in the 80’s, Robert Bly said that we were once again in a world dominated by giants, where one treads carefully, like in fairy tales. My activist friends say the giants are the corporations and the governments. But maybe the Giants R Us.

We Are the Flood

Brian Swimme really nailed it when he called human beings a “planetary power.” It is now within our power to preserve the earth (for hundreds of millions of years and more) or to hasten its becoming another Venus. This is the fundamental spiritual and political issue of our time, and for Abrahamists, the responsibility rests upon the covenant Yahweh made with Noah after the Flood. It feels more like we are watching Noah’s Ark in reverse, counting the species as they disappear forever. Until we are no longer there to count.

Humble Creatures

The humble creatures that no man sees..
-John Rutter’s “Wildwood Carol”

Species death. It has happened millions of times, and at certain catastrophic eras, hundreds of thousands in a short time. Ironically, with explorations going on in remote rain forests and the ocean floor, scientists are still counting, discovering “new” species even as the tide of extinction is rolling. It is not the cutesy little animals on the National Wildlife Federation’s address labels that are the point. Nor is it us. It’s the whole web, which rests upon these humble creatures, from the unnamed insects of the Amazon to the bacteria in our gut without which we could not live.

The very basis of ocean life is threatened, for as the seas have taken up a huge portion of the extra CO2 we’ve emitted, that carbonization has turned the ocean more and more acid. At high enough concentrations, this carbonic acid prevents the formation of shells, which require lime. This is already occurring in some species. Phytoplankton, among the humblest of creatures, declined by 40% in the last century, a process which increases by 1% a year. Cold-water plankton in the North Atlantic now face extinction. The ocean’s phytoplankton produce half of the oxygen on the planet. Meanwhile, the coral reefs are the first entire biosystem facing extinction in the current die-off.

Species Death

Ah, Death, thou comest when I had thee least in mind…
That is, when our dream of progress is at its apogee, unaware that on it’s return, the arc becomes that sickle blade. For not only am I stalked by my personal death, Death stalks our entire species. It certainly threatens global civilization, whose herculean expenditures of energy and natural capital have created a towering, unsustainable potential for self-destruction. The inexorable logic of population dynamics shows that, like any species, we are limited by our food supply, and even though we have systematically stolen other species’ habitats, harvesting virtually the whole arable planet, we continue to reproduce as if the Earth had no limits.

Though most of us steadily and blissfully ignore it, this is elementary. Our species crossed the boundary of planetary sustainability in 1986, when we consumed 100% of the planet’s annual biotic output. So we have lived on her capital, as it were, for almost thirty years. Meanwhile, we have edged closer to another boundary, a thermodynamic one.

Like the Big Bang theory, where radio telescopes now eerily take us closer and closer to the origin point, proving several million light years at a time how brilliantly correct that theory is (at least for this cycle of a physical universe), climate scientists now regularly feed data from planet-wide observation stations into ever more elegant computer models of planetary weather, showing us that the probable course charted by scientific seers since the late sixties is not only unfolding, but doing so faster than expected. Like all good scientists, they amend the theory with new information. But the basics are as elementary as population dynamics. We are burning carbon dioxide stored long ago in fossilized life to fuel unsustainable population growth and resource use, overheating the planet through the consequent greenhouse effect.

Personal Death


Ah, Death, thou comest when I had thee least in mind.

For many years now, I have been periodically visited by Death. He wears a heavy dark cloak, hooding his face, and carries a big sickle. Though formidable, the scythe is not so unwieldy that he can’t nimbly move over obstacles. He has big hands, a farmer’s or blacksmith’s. I imagine his face as I write now – long thin, bony, intelligent, cunning – but I have never actually seen it in these visitations. He is crossing a boulder field. Nimbly. He only stops occasionally – to sharpen his sickle – then springs to his feet and moves steadily on towards me. He has me in his sights. Always has.