Sunday Evening Contemplation: W. H. Auden

W. H. Auden
We are lived by powers we pretend to understand:
They arrange our loves; it is they who direct at the end
The enemy bullet, the sickness, or even our hand.

It is their tomorrow hangs over the earth of the living
And all that we wish for our friends: but existence is believing
We know for whom we mourn and who is grieving.

Wystan Hugh Auden (21 February 1907 – 29 September 1973), May 1939, originally published in Another Time (1940), excerpted from Collected Poems: W. H. Auden

To sit by the wounded and soothe them

What happens to hope when our chances of avoiding catastrophe fall away, and we begin to see there is no way out of the present climate crisis, no matter how many lights we turn off, no matter how many wind turbines we install? How does hope change as the earth’s climate becomes less and less hospitable and less and less controllable? Project us forward to the year 2030, when we will probably know for certain that the catastrophe is full upon us. What will our hope look like then?

In a haunting and beautifully written contribution to Dark Mountain, Issue #15, Ingrid M. Rieser discusses the work of researcher Vanessa Andreotti who says there are at least three paths open to us “if we decide the current system is not ‘fixable.’

First, we might try “hacking the system – using the system’s resources to create something which undermines or defies logic. But when attempting to play the system, you always run the risk of being played instead.” Second, we might “leave altogether and try to set up a new, separate alternative, simply walking out (think eco-villages). But in both cases, she says, “you will risk ‘reproducing modernity’s violence’. Inadvertently bringing with you the very evils you hoped to escape.” Put in Buddhist terms: “no matter where you go, there you are.” Our old habits, character traits, and personal problems will tag along with us. Though we may change our residence ninety-nine times, our inveterate tendencies and unwholesome mental formations will remain—warm as toast, and tight as a drum.

But, according to Andreotti, there is a third path – that of hospicing. Rieser says that we think of hospicing “as caring for the dying, and that is exactly how Andreotti and her colleagues intend it.” They see this kind of hospicing as: “sitting with a system in decline, learning from its history, offering palliative care, seeing oneself in that which is dying, attending to the integrity of the process, dealing with tantrums, incontinence, anger and hopelessness, ‘cleaning up’, and clearing the space for something new. This is unlikely to be a glamorous process; it will entail may frustrations, an uncertain timeline, and unforeseeable outcomes without guarantees.”

For many of us, hospicing will be an essential, perhaps primary, component of our response to the present climate and environmental crisis. And, the crucial first step in the process is to tell the truth. For the greatest gift one can give a dying person is to gently take their hand, look them straight in the eye, and, with radical tenderness and great compassion, say to them ‘Dear friend, you are dying.’ This is what a friend should do. One must not lie to them. One must not pretend it isn’t so. One must not give them false hopes. For hope can be an obstacle, it can allow us to persist in our present way of life entirely immersed in a soothing bath of wishful thinking and self-deception, blunting the immediacy and urgency of what lies at hand.

In all of this, I think of the following lines from Walt Whitman’s poem, ‘The Wound-Dresser’:

Arous’d and angry, I’d thought to beat the alarum, and urge relentless war,
But soon my fingers fail’d me, my face droop’d and I resign’d myself,
To sit by the wounded and soothe them, or silently watch the dead.

Grieving Today: The bees are gone from our gardens

I am undone. Normally, many bees buzz around me as I work in the gardens. But today, May 11, there were none. Not a one. That is not quite true, I did see three native bees in the strawberry patch—small bees, the size of flies—but no honey bees. I provide nesting blocks for native bees. These nesting blocks are often called bee hotels. I’ve made a large space for them, enough for 3-5000 eggs. (see image below.)

Native Bee Hotel

We live on a quarter acre of land, most of it is garden, herb garden, vegetable garden, perennial beds, and fruit trees, with many native flowers and flowering shrubs. We have some lawn but we’ve stopped mowing it. We’re slowly relinquishing it back to nature. It is already a foot deep in some areas and is teeming with dandelions, yarrow, violas, and other wild flowers. The rabbits love it. They sit for hours eating in our grassy ‘meadow’. During the day we often stop and smile and watch the rabbits, birds, and squirrels.

But the bees are gone. I searched every square inch of our property today, and there were no honey bees at all. Not a one. This is our fourteenth year caring for this small property, and this has never happened before. I used to see honey bees as early as February.

If you live in a big city, this is not something you would notice. But here is where we live:

Vegetable garden area, July 2018

We live on a relatively long, narrow, urban lot in the old part of town (with big trees and small houses). Over the years, we’ve turned it into a wildlife habitat. We use no pesticides or herbicides, and we are completely organic.

This loss hit me very hard. It feels like I’ve lost some very close friends and I don’t know what happened to them. Yes, I know it was probably caused by neonicotinoid pesticides. I grieve, and grieve very deeply, but I am not angry. Instead, I feel a kind of quiet compassion for the whole thing. And I feel a sense of tragedy. Too much has been lost already. Too many tipping points have been crossed. When you get to this point, a sense of calm floods over you, and you sit down beside Walt Whitman, and say with him:

 Arous’d and angry, I’d thought to beat the alarum, and urge relentless war,

But soon my fingers fail’d me, my face droop’d and I resign’d myself,

To sit by the wounded and soothe them, or silently watch the dead.

from "The Wound Dresser"
________________________

(Forgive them for they know not what they do.)

‘Erbarme dich, mein Gott’

From “The Book of Dust and Hope”

The following poem is from “The Book of Dust and Hope,” an “in progress” book of poems, observations, brief essays, images, and perennial questions on the theme of hope.

 What is Hope

what is hope but land
without water, fingers
without rings, claw-marks
in blue snow

what is hope but speech
without words, language
without fire, wistful
dreams and dust

what is hope but mind
without thoughts, thoughts
without songs, untrammeled
roads in a rich gray fog

what is hope but love
without masks, acceptance
without fear, daily heeding
a sad and tender heart

Rick Visser, May 10, 2019