A Poem for Earth Day: What might it mean, to live well on a dying Earth?

Yesterday was Earth Day, and, as I have before, I wanted to mark it. I’m a little late, but here is a poem that has been circling my mind, and troubling me, for a couple of weeks now. I heard this question – or something like it – on a podcast, and it rather took my breath away. I do spend time attempting to answer questions such as – What can I do to limit the harm I am doing? or, Is there anything regenerative that I could attempt?, or What can I do about all this plastic in my life?.

The more philosophical question, of what makes a good life, in this time when we are waking up to the way ecosystems are fraying and dying, is harder to attempt. Yet these phrases came to me, and I think there is power in the question. There is some liberation, too. It doesn’t focus on all the things I’m not doing, or are unable to do. Neither does it reassure me by looking at what everyone else isn’t doing either. So the poem is not a list of tasks, but something closer to a way of being, which will, naturally, lead to tasks, and to action.

In some ways the question is offensive. And in the places it rubs against you, there is something to be explored. And perhaps, in finding our own answers to the question, we may find the dying receeds, and the living has more hope and space. But that is not the point just for the moment, just as we approach this question. The point is, to face up to what we are doing, and then find a way of living within that knowledge. It’s quite a task. But I feel there is some merit in the attempt.

I was encouraged that yesterday the virtual Climate Conference that President Biden convened made some positive announcements. As we seek to move from goals to a change in the way we live, maybe this question helps.

The question arose on a Nomad podcast which centred around an interview with Gail Bradbrook, of Extinction Rebellion. It is well worth listening to. You can find a link to it here.

May we live well. May that wellness include all living things.

Consider the lilies of the field, Jesus said.

What might it mean, to live well on a dying Earth?

Who knows?
The worst kind of foolishness,
of absurdity
to even try.
And yet, something sparks,
something kindles,
at the question.
And so, knowing the absurdity,
these words come….

To be tenderhearted,
though afraid.

To know that each
small thing matters.
That even though
it is not enough,
such calculation
is not your task.

To tend the tender plants,
and see their flourishing.
To feed birds.
To stop on your way
and talk to friends,
and those you barely know,
to stand with them
in their griefs,
to laugh within their joys.

To be compassionate
to all, beginning with

To do those things
you have found within
your power to do.
To also do those things
your heart whispers.
And both, without
measuring outcomes.

To act as if you have
even if you do not.

To act boldly when you feel
the call to do so, but
with gentleness and grace.

To look for beauty, and joy,
and love.
To travel through despair
and let its darkness
dissolve about you,
having held you.

To grow food
for yourself, and for
all those you share
your place with.

To stand in awe under
the song of the songbird.
To be merciful to the
worms and the beetles
and the spiders,

To – again and again –
say yes to life, and to joy.

Say yes to all that is good,
while there is so much that
grieves you, and leaves
you despairing.

To know a more beautiful world
is already here,
and yet coming,
and still beyond our grasp,

And to live in it anyway.

Poem: The tenth plague – Exodus poems 11

I feel this is the ending of this sequence of poems, on how the Hebrew people escaped their slavery in Egypt. This poem is a dark sister to the opening one of the sequence, which you can read here. If you have been following this blog, you may see that this last has been a long time coming. It’s been hard, thinking of this last and terrible plague, when the oldest sons of the Egyptians died overnight. I’ll write a post telling the story, with links to the passages, another day.

We normally explore this story from the point of view of the Hebrew slaves, and how they shared the first passover meal, and escaped their slavery. For now, I felt drawn to continue my exploration of these ancient stories from a slightly different place – the place of the Egyptians. As we are beginning to wake up to the ways in which we have exploited the good Earth, and its good people, I have wondered whether we are more like the Egyptians in this story than we would care to admit. I wonder if, as climate disruption and pandemic unfold, we can find some resonance in this story of disasters rolling over the land, one after another.

And of course, this is the worst -the death of the children. It is hard to face up to the possibility that we are leaving a hard future for those who are young now, but that is what we are doing. And we have seen our young people rise up in school strikes, and action to protect their places, seeing that they will pay the price for much of the seemingly endless growth we have attempted. This taking and holding, building and amassing wealth now, seems to rob the future. These thoughts troubled me as I considered the death of the children in this final plague. Of course, there are other meanings, deep and true, but find that I need to consider this one.

There is also a clash of world views – the view of the Egyptians, of empire, wealth, might, and the view of the slaves, who seek freedom, community, worship of God, a different way. In the end, the slaves find their freedom, and the opportunity for living out a different way. As the story of Exodus shows us, there is much hard learning on that road. But, for those who despair of our current difficulties, thinking power and might are bound to win, they may find that power and might carry the seeds of their own destruction, and that hardness of heart will not triumph.

There is no triumph in the Exodus, but there is an exodus. There is an escape from a system that seemed invincible for 430 years. It was not. The world shifted for those slaves at least, and they had the chance of something better. When we, from our place at the beginning of the twenty first century, look back at the systems of thought, and money and power that have dominated for a similar length of time, it’s hard to imagine that they might shift. But I think they are. The shifting is painful, and, as we tend to resist, more painful than it might be. But, perhaps an exodus into a different type of common life is possible. Many of the books of law in the Hebrew scriptures explore what that may be, and they include some radical ideas, for example relating to debt, and land, and these seem radical even now. But that is for another day. For now, we have this hard story, and a costly freedom.

In traditional hedge-laying, the stems are cut and bent to the side, and then they grow vigourously.

The tenth plague – Exodus poems 11

Is this what it takes
for your hand to unclasp?
Your dearest thing,
your dearest one,
taken, even as you
chill your heart
to the warning?

The cold hand
of your son
now lies still.
Do you hold it,
and weep over it?

Your way ahead barred,
flooded by grief,
the future stolen
as the young lie

Lie still, bound by
your hardness of heart,
a fearful echo of
those slave-babes
cast in the Nile – lost
into bloodied waters.

Yet now, in this darkness,
when each hard drawn
breath is a shock,
even now, you cannot
let go,
you chase them still in
fear and rage and grief
with chariots and swords,
as if more death would
fill the chasm broken open
in your land.

And as the sea of reeds
rolls back,
rolls back and floods
over all your might,
your chariots and swords,
as those who were slaves
turn back and watch
from higher ground,
all your grandeur runs
through your clenched
hands like water.

For they stand now, on the
other side, out of your grasp
at last,
with a wild dance,
with song and tambourine,
in this hard and desperate
aftermath of horror,
life pulled up from the
swirling waters,
standing at last
in a new and
strange freedom.