Monday, February 22, 2016

A Borrowed Poem

With his kind permission, please find below a poem written by Lee McCormack, a hermit living in the dank and moldy primal forests of Marthas Vineyard. Writing poetry for 55 years, he is the first ever Martha’s Vineyard Poet Laureate in the islands history, nominated from 162 members of the MV Poetry Society. He is also a member of the Cleaveland House Poets.

Late For the Dance?
Can you believe the sense of shame, the ash
falling over us from a discolored atmosphere,
all that's left of plants and animals, everything
we have begotten? Did it occur that somewhere
in the past this was foretold by the heads and skins
hanging in the halls of museums and other public
places, as if, turned inside out we hung ourselves out
to be dried on opaque walls of unconscious humanity?
Oh, there was no doubt we had missed the mark
and somehow failed to heed the warnings, our time
spent seeking, not recovery or truth from history,
but simple physical pleasure? And yet even weeks
in the country can not completely dispel or erase
the lingering bad taste of something beneath this
surface that is decayed. Perhaps a lapse of judgment
left us grudgingly avoiding the planetary shift
from life to its significant abbreviation,
for, like the body, all civilizations rise and fall.
It is all in motion, nothing is static, nothing ever still. . .
Even in our aberrations, we remain wholly unsure
of this Nature, its Earth, and the cycles rearranging
all matter it is made of, always believing human will
can mutate its deadly transformation and reverse the weather.
If you don't know where the dance originated, you cannot dance.
       ~ Lee McCormick, February 20, 2016

Please find more of his work at his Facebook Page, here

Friday, February 19, 2016

I think we're in real trouble

~ Mitch Brenner, from Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds, 1963

Following is the transcript for my contribution to this week's installment of Extinction Radio.

Thank you Gene, and welcome listeners, to the 24th Dispatch From the Endocene.

As winter is drawing to a close, I thought I would quote from Silent Spring, which Rachel Carson published in 1962.  She described the changes to a bucolic town…

“...a strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change. Some evil spell had settled on the community: mysterious maladies swept the flocks of chickens; the cattle and sheep sickened and died. Everywhere was a shadow of death”.

About the birds, she wonders: “where had they gone? Many people spoke of them, puzzled and disturbed. The feeding stations in the backyards were deserted. The few birds seen anywhere were moribund; they trembled violently and could not fly. It was a spring without voices.”

Carson was concerned about DDT pervading the environment, and the chapter titled “And No Birds Sing” describes the misguided attempt to save elm trees in Michigan by spraying the insecticide, resulting in “a lethal trap in which each wave of migrating robins would be eliminated in about a week.”

Ironically, now both birds and trees of all species face much more widespread and insidious multiple threats.  The entire ecosystem is collapsing from a miasma of anthropogenic insults.  Carson was only one of the more recent Cassandras warning humanity of hubris and excess.  There is a long tradition in Greek myths, including the stories of Pandora, Icarus and Prometheus.   Even further back in time, in the 6th Century BC, Lao Tzu wrote in Tao Te Ching:

When man interferes with the Tao
      the sky becomes filthy,
      the earth becomes depleted,
      the equilibrium crumbles,
      creatures become extinct.


One articulate contemporary Cassandra is Madeline Weld, who is President of Population Institute Canada.  She penned one of the most succinct summaries of our predicament recently for the Montreal Gazette and summoned up Malthus.  I’m going to read it, and I’ll post a link at my blog Wit’s End, because it will surely come in handy when you are talking to those troublesome deniers at the office or around the dinner table.

Saturday marked the 250th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Robert Malthus. I would like to wish him many happy returns. 
And he does keep on returning, doesn’t he, despite those who say he is wrong or passé.
His Essay on the Principle of Population argued that, if left unchecked, human population growth would encounter limits: “The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the Earth to produce subsistence for man.” He foresaw famine, disease and much suffering, especially among the poorest. But in addition to these “negative checks,” he also recognized “preventive checks” like limiting birthrates and later marriage. As a cleric, he advocated “the chaste postponement of marriage.” 
Some 218 years after the first edition of his controversial treatise was published, we are still arguing about it. In 1798, the world population was under one billion. Now it’s 7.4 billion and counting. For the last 40 years, it’s been increasing by one billion every 12 to 13 years. 
Some people say that’s no problem, that we’re better off than ever. The Green Revolution staved off the starvation in India predicted by Paul Ehrlich in The Population Bomb. Advances in agriculture, medicine and other technology have made us richer and healthier. The late Julian Simon even said that ever more people is a good thing, since humans are “the ultimate resource” and every mouth to feed comes with a pair of hands to work and a brain to solve problems. What could go wrong? 
But things are going seriously wrong. To provision our ever-growing population, we are, in Ehrlich’s words, turning the planet into a “feedlot for humanity.” We have taken over about one-third of its land surface and scoured its oceans, wiping out several major fisheries and depleting the rest. Our “solution” of farmed fish creates other problems. High-yield Green Revolution crops require pesticides, fertilizer and water; the first two are becoming more expensive, the last scarcer in many areas. 
Homo sapiens’ appetite is gargantuan. As we strive to get at dwindling resources for ever more people, we dig deeper into the Earth, blow the tops of mountains, divert rivers, cut down forests and pave over swaths of land. We fill the land, water, and air with our pollution. We’re driving record numbers of species to extinction and decimating others with activities from chemical poisoning to hunting for bushmeat, or simply by taking over their habitat. 
Greenhouse gases from our industry are changing the Earth’s climate, with such dangerous consequences as ocean acidification, rising sea levels and flooding, changes in rainfall patterns including in vital “breadbaskets,” and loss of forest cover.
While the word “sustainable” has become popular, growing human numbers and activities are anything but. Increasing awareness of our impact has led to developments in renewable energy, recycling, earth-friendly farming and more. There have also been spectacular advances in family planning. But powerful —notably religious — opposition has kept governments and international bodies from actively promoting small families and prevented hundreds of millions of women who would plan their families from having access to modern methods. 
Those who deny that overpopulation is a problem say the poor don’t consume much. Yet the poor want nothing more than to consume more, as proved by India and China. Who can blame them? And a burgeoning number of desperately poor people does have a major impact: they cut down forests to grow food, drain rivers, deplete aquifers, and overfish and over-hunt in their local area. But make these points and you’ll be accused of blaming the poor for the problems of the rich. 
We seem bound to learn the hard way that there really is a limit to how many people the Earth can support. 
We wish it weren’t so, but it really is starting to look as if Malthus was right.

To conclude this Dispatch I would like to mention, for those who haven’t heard of it, a website called the Apocalypsi Library at the End of the World.  It’s meant to be a repository of all things doom, in categories ranging from art and music to science and philosophy.  The internet address is doom for dummies dot blogspot dot com.  I set it up a while ago as a resource that might be useful to those who are just encountering the bewildering issues and nomenclature around collapse and extinction, whether they arrive via concerns about peak oil, climate change, or from an economic perspective.  I haven’t updated it lately because the amount of new information and articles and scientific reports has become a staggering avalanche, but if you take a look and want to nominate a book, a blog, a painting or a movie, please email me and I’ll include it.

Thanks so much for listening.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Always the Hell…And a Little Bit of Heaven

The title for this post is taken from a video about the artist Jheronimus Bosch, which can be seen in an article that will send you to a wonderful interactive site, created to enhance appreciation for the exquisite details in his triptych, Garden of Earthly Delights.  This masterpiece is unparalleled for its depiction of humanity's progression as it was seen in 1500, beginning with creation and original sin on the left,

through a voluptuous orgy of carnal decadence in the center panel,

 to the deeply dark horror and tortures of hell on the right.  Not at all unlike how reality is shaping up.

Following is the transcript for the 23rd Dispatch From the Endocene, which can be heard at the archives of Extinction Radio.

Thanks Gene, and welcome listeners.  Trying to incorporate love into this 23rd Dispatch From The Endocene in recognition of Valentine’s Day wasn’t an easy assignment for me.  Not in the midst of the Sixth Mass Extinction, which feels a lot more like loss than love, much of the time.  But in deference to our fearless producer Mr. Gibson, for this episode I will set aside the growing catalogue of existential threats in the ecopocalypse - the beached whales and rotting trees, the mercury in the rain, a world where it seems that everything (except pollution and human population) is dwindling, from phytoplankton to Arctic ice.

While thinking about love in the end times, a well known but eternally powerful quote from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem In Memoriam A.H.H. came to mind.  In this requiem for a lost friend, the poet explores his long journey of mourning over a 17 year period, completing the voluminous work in 1849.  He wrote:  

I hold it true, whate'er befall;
I feel it when I sorrow most;
'Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.

only slightly less well known is from Canto 56, where he referred to humanity:

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation's final law
Tho' Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek'd against his creed

While Tennyson retains his religious faith, he aptly describes the conflict between the emerging science of evolutionary biology, and faith in a creator:

Are God and Nature then at strife,
That Nature lends such evil dreams?
So careful of the type she seems,
So careless of the single life;

That I, considering everywhere
Her secret meaning in her deeds,
And finding that of fifty seeds
She often brings but one to bear,

I falter where I firmly trod,
And falling with my weight of cares
Upon the great world's altar-stairs
That slope thro' darkness up to God,

I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope,
And gather dust and chaff, and call
To what I feel is Lord of all,
And faintly trust the larger hope.

While Tennyson describes his trust as faint, he still retains the hope.  I can’t say I feel the same, but I do feel ’tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.  On a personal level, I wouldn’t trade the love I have known even for a place in eternity.  When I contemplate extinction and grieve for the loss of so much splendid flora and fauna on our precious planet earth, it helps to recall with gratitude how unlikely it is for any of us to have had a chance to live and love at all - and how marvelous, no matter how ephemeral it turns out to be.

In honor of Valentine’s Day I have also posted on my blog, Wit’s End, some other gifts.  One is a genuinely inspiring video essay about Wisdom, which describes the wise person as “…being alive to moments of calm and beauty, even extremely modest ones” and “…realizing that we are barely evolved apes and that half of life is irrational…”.  It tells us it is wise to “try to budget for madness” and “be slow to panic when it reliably rears its head”.  It reminds us to laugh at the “constant collisions between the noble way we’d like things to be and the demented way they in fact often turn out”.  It observes that the wise understand that most hurt is not from malice, but rather derives from “…the constant collision of blind competing egos in a world of scarce resources.”

I’ve also posted a few paintings in newly published, extraordinarily high resolution from Jheronimus Bosch.  I hope you visit and enjoy it all.

Happy Valentine’s Day, and thanks for listening.

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