Issue Number 8, Spring 2010


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The Silence of the Mine Canaries

by W.S. Merwin

Mr. Merwin lives on a pineapple plantation on an island in the Pacific Ocean at approximately 20 degrees North latitude by 156 degrees West longitude.

The bats have not flowered
for years now in the crevice
of the tower wall when the long twilight
of spring has seeped across it
as the west light brought back
the colors of parting
the furred buds have not hung there
waking among their dark petals
before sailing out blind along their own echoes
whose high infallible cadenzas only
they could hear completely and could ride
to take over at that hour
from the swallows gliding
ever since daybreak over the garden
from their nests under the eaves
skimming above the house and the hillside pastures
their voices glittering in their exalted tongue
who knows how long now since they have been seen
and the robins have gone from the barn
where the cows spent the summer days
though they stayed long after the cows were gone
the flocks of five kinds of tits have not come again
the blue tits that nested each year
in the wall where their young
could be heard deep in the stones by the window
calling Here Here have not returned
the marks of their feet are still there on the stone
of their doorsill that does not know
what it is missing
the cuckoo has not been heard
again this May
nor for many a year the nightjar
nor the mistle thrush song thrush whitethroat
the blackcap that instructed Mendelssohn
I have seen them
I have stood and listened
I was young
they were singing of youth
not knowing that they were singing for us

“The Silence of the Mine Canaries” from W.S. Merwin’s The Shadow of Sirius (2009) is used by permission of Copper Canyon Press,

Bat Cataclysm

by Jan Steckel

Jan lives between Peralta Creek and Courtland Creek in the East Creek watershed, between the Hayward Fault and San Francisco Bay.

Amphibians disappear from Panama:
delicate frogs, insides visible
through green glass skin;
clawed toads whose eggs erupt
out of blisters on their backs.
Salamanders dance out of the century.

Bats die en masse in hibernaculae,
huge caverns where they’ve slept
fifty million winters
until now. Today, walk across
layers of dead bats on the cave floor.
Tiny bones crunch like black snow.

Avocados evolved to be gulped
by extinct herbivores huge enough
to swallow the pits whole.
The American pronghorn
races sixty miles per hour
from a predator no longer there.

Nobody on the continent
runs that fast anymore.
The mongoose is closer
to the walrus than the rat.
Who knows how we got
from that to this.

Like the dinosaur-killing meteor,
we’re the bat cataclysm,
the amphibian apocalypse.
We’re the four horsemen
galloping toward a future
that is no longer there.


by Barbara Joan Tiger Bass

Barbara Joan lives near the Hayward fault line and the Sausal Creek Watershed in Oakland, California.

the snow
is disappearing
someone turned
the volume up
on global melt
down while lately
the great fog
of death warranted

E-pocalypse? Not!

by J. David Bell

J. David Bell looks for toads near Nine Mile Run Stream, which feeds the Lower Monongahela Watershed in Southwestern Pennsylvania.

During a trip to DC to visit family friends, I watched the children’s film Battle for Terra on our host’s lavish home theater set-up (and on crystalline Blu-Ray, a first for me). For those who haven’t heard of it--and that’s probably most of you, since it flopped at the box office--Terra tells the story of a winsome race of aliens whose planet is invaded by the last human survivors of an Earth our species has laid waste. In a particularly insidious form of colonization, the earthlings plan to oxygenate the aliens’ atmosphere--certain death for the Terrans. But thanks to one human dissenter’s friendship with a waiflike Terran revolutionary, the evil scheme is averted, its masterminds slain, and a permanent human colony erected on Terra to house the dissenting pilot’s peace-minded disciples. If you read the reviews on Amazon, you’ll find much discussion, pro and con, of the film’s ostensibly subversive politics of radical environmentalism, anti-militarism, and civil disobedience. Dissenter that I am, however, I saw the film entirely differently.

Flash back several months. While rooming in Prescott, Arizona to attend a National Endowment for the Humanities summer institute on conservationist Aldo Leopold, I watched the smash Disney/Pixar hit Wall-E, another film lauded (as well as reviled) for its ostensibly progressive environmental values. In Wall-E, the human race, having literally trashed the planet, departs Earth for a life of interstellar leisure, growing fat and useless on a mammoth cruise-ship space station while wide-eyed robots stay behind to clean up our mess. Eventually, following the chance discovery of a single living plant on the globe’s wasteland surface, humanity returns home, vowing this time to love the land, get down in the dirt, and teach the children the virtues of community gardening. The robot probe that discovers the surviving plant is named, fittingly, Eve: the human race, the film implies, has been given a second chance to populate the planet as stewards, not despoilers, of God’s green bounty.

And that, in a nutshell, is my problem with both films: the second chance. In both, viewers receive not only the cautionary message, “Don’t screw up!” but the comforting rejoinder: “But if you do, there’s always a way out!” In other words: go ahead and trash the planet--you can always escape to another world with plenty of green space, convertible oxygen, and winsome welcoming party (or, in the case of Wall-E, you can leave, come back home, and find the world you’ve trashed every bit as resilient as Terra). In these apocalypse-lite visions, there are no real consequences to our actions; we get to eat our cake and have it too. That’s hardly a subversive message. On the contrary, it’s the message that got us into this mess in the first place, the message with which consumer culture bombards us hundreds of times daily (not least through the medium of the movies): everything is ours for the taking, no sacrifices need ever be made, our desires (and our resources) are limitless, chew up and spit out as much as possible and let someone else, somewhere in the far distant future, deal with the fallout.

This message isn’t just for the tots, of course. I’m thinking of a film ostensibly for adults, a film ostensibly a somber fable for our time: The Day after Tomorrow, where our wasty ways bring about instant Ice Age. Leaving aside the film’s patent preposterousness, its failure to imagine a true alternative to the problem it identifies is revealed in its conclusion: after the Big Freeze sets in, the chastened citizens of the developed world take refuge in the southern hemisphere, which, against all science and sense, is not only completely unaffected by global climate destabilization but spacious and gracious enough to accommodate the entire population of the North. Ah, those willing Argentines and Bolivians--so warm, so wise in the ways of the world, so, well, winsome! Always another place, another world awaiting us. Whether it’s Venus or Venezuela, we can safely trash the planet and move on.

None of this would be particularly consequential if it were confined to the silver screen. But nothing is ever confined to the silver screen, least of all fantasy. As I’ve argued in my book Framing Monsters, far from representing “escape” from daily reality, fantasy and sci-fi films are inextricably bound to that reality. And so with the trio of Battle for Terra, Wall-E, and The Day after Tomorrow: all capture the contemporary craving (it’s perhaps too early to call it a craze) for the colonization of outer space. The recent discovery of frozen lunar water has boosted the hopes of the moon children, but it’s Mars most space prospectors have their sights set on, I suppose because it seems the most feasible plot to start mining. Or perhaps, as in the movies, logic has nothing to do with it; perhaps the renewed popularity of our red neighbor reflects the fact that Mars has occupied such a resonant place in our cultural imagination for so long, a specially tantalizing place on which to project our deepest hopes and fears. (Remember, Mars seemed feasible to H. G. Wells as the home of interplanetary invaders in War of the Worlds. Why not return the favor now?) According to the website Red Colony, Mars is the perfect “backup plan for humanity” not only because there might be buckets of water there but because there’s definitely “a lot of money” to be made there, big-time spoils for “residential, commercial, and industrial use.” A whole new virgin soil for consumer civilization to conquer! More men, more machines, more movies, and of course more moola! We’d just better hope Wells was wrong, or we’re going to have to deal with a whole new race of Red Skins.

The reference is not spurious. Buried beneath all the garbage, we westerners have long harbored a desire to return to a world before the Fall--and in America, that desire has most often taken the form of imagining ourselves living like Indians, untainted, immaculate, cherishing an authentic relationship to a land unspoiled by western militarism and materialism. “Out there is the true world,” sighs Jake Sully, paraplegic vet deployed to the planet Pandora in James Cameron’s mega-blockbuster film Avatar; our own planet, whence Jake comes as a cog in the military-industrial machine bent on plundering this primeval paradise, he curses as a “dying world” where “nothing green” grows. And so, in a plot so utterly derivative I kept waiting for Kevin Costner to waltz onstage or for Jake’s willowy, blue-skinned girlfriend to start warbling “Colors of the Wind,” the alienated military man gains a brand-new, undamaged Pandoran body (the “avatar” of the title), joins a tribe of tree-living, tree-loving indigenes, and learns to make literal, neurological contact with a sentient primordial Gaia. Fenimore Cameron’s fantasy has been decried by the right wing for promoting environmental values or even, in one wild-eyed blog, eco-terrorism. But Avatar’s fundamental hypocrisy eclipses any putative environmentalist leanings: not only does Cameron’s film erase the historical fact that whites didn’t start to hanker for the Indians’ love of the land until they’d stolen and raped virtually all the land the Indians loved, but it reinforces the New Age belief that redemption from such historical sins can be earned through further consumption, the stockpiling of more commodified, otherworldly junk (faux dream catchers and sweat lodge ceremonies, Avatars on hi-def and Blu-Ray). Rather than calling for true reform here at home, which might actually cost something, Avatar turns once more outward, seeking salvation from another alien culture whose wisdom and whose world can be snapped up for a song.

In his groundbreaking essay “The Land Ethic,” published just over sixty years ago, Aldo Leopold writes of our half-assed attempts to conserve the land while preserving the prerogatives of consumer society: “Is not this formula too easy to accomplish anything worth-while? It defines no right or wrong, assigns no obligation, calls for no sacrifice, implies no change in the current philosophy of values.” And again: “No important change in ethics was ever accomplished without an internal change in our intellectual emphasis, loyalties, affections, and convictions. . . . In our attempt to make conservation easy, we have made it trivial.” Which is another way of saying that, short of a revolution in how we envision and live our lives on this planet, all our imaginative efforts to address the environment’s ills will amount to little more than trash.


by Irene Hays

Irene lives in the semi-arid shrub steppe near the confluence of the Columbia and Yakima Rivers in southeastern Washington State.

The way of being I know best
takes me to the edge

of the river where I kneel,
reach into the pure ripple,

let silver threads lace my fingers,
take from me only
what swells the river’s
coursing wildness

leaves me

Going Back

by Martin Hickel

Martin lives between the watersheds of San Pablo Bay and Tomales-Drake Bay near the Pacific Coast.

we wondered that summer
on our uncle’s ranch
if the revolver in the hallway
silver on its angled nail
was really loaded

he looked at us
with nothing like pity
and asked without asking
what is more useless
than an empty gun

while a friend who knew
said it's best to be ready
like a baited hook
once guns are drawn
there is no going back

but that day down the river
on a paddle long after
rowed with our daughter
in a ridiculous yellow raft
we were not ready

only happy and gentle
from the warm lap of summer
salmon eggs skewered
on simple light tackle
as she balanced the rod

at a bend in the current
under deep cool towers
alive and emerald
trees reaching down
massive brown paws

the line flicked in the water
jumped from her grasp
barely she caught it
startled we shouted...
hold on -- hold on

sharp flash from darkness
like a knife cut below
darted and turned
she braced with both knees
its pull from the shadows

leapt clear and splashed
stalled barely struggled
while the net of our hands
slipping quietly beneath
lifted its brilliance

twisting in thin air
barb swallowed deep
refused our release
we proved to her tears
there is no going back

oh -- brave trout
green beautiful fierce
what is more useless
a foolish hunger sated
an endless blind regret

Originally published in Blue Earth Review

Green Medicine Lake

by Brigit Truex

Brigit lives close to the South Fork of the American River, about 10 miles from where gold was first "discovered" by John Marshall in Coloma, California.

"It happens subtly, as when a pear
spoils from the inside out,
and you may not be aware
until things have gone too far."

        from The Pear by Jane Kenyon

Brown boundary between lake and June-lush greenery
lures despite the absolute stillness: you and all that is
before you, the space between each blade leaf, the wolf's hidden lair.
You're in a Turner painting, a figure on the winding road
where edges dissolve. Water shimmers sun into air.
        It happens subtly, as when a pear

begins to swell, green-tinged, takes shape
so it fits your palm, faintly warm, faintly speckled
like the flesh of the wilding, silver-sided trout
you hold until it goes slack, eyes clouded as sky.
Fragile life, unlike a thing sun-sered in drought,
        spoils from the inside out,

unnoticed, until the rot appears -- the curious
decline in redknots along the shore, the blue-
white floes dissolving around an invisible bear,
the mournful call of a whale sounding,
unanswered, like a prayer,
        so you may not be aware

of its language, those tonal inflections
meaningful to its own kind. Will these
creatures become mere memory, legendary objects d'art?
Far from this still lake, fates are debated while the moon
hangs dangerously close, like a scimitar,
        until things have gone too far.

Hells Angels

by Julie L. Moore

Julie lives in the Little Miami Watershed in southwestern Ohio.

Ablaze with buzz like the motors that drone
As cycles pass by,

Bumblebees, in their striped jackets,
Black helmets, and snug gloves,

Cruise through the coreopsis
While their pollen passengers hug them tight.

And when my water splashes the blooms,
They rev their engines and peel out—

The sun perfuming their necks,
The wind flying in their faces—

And they guzzle like Hells Angels
The nectar of an open road.

Originally published in Blue Earth Review


by Cherise Wyneken

Winds from the Pacific sweep through the Golden Gate Bridge, cross the Bay, and strew white plum blossoms, like falling snow, through Cherise?s backyard in the San Pablo Bay Watershed.

So still
I thought the world had stopped.
One brief moment
between horns and motor cars:
Silence turned
and glanced at me.

Morning Beijing

by Dan Bellm

Dan lives in the Mission Creek watershed of San Francisco.

Desert sand from the north
And fine coal-grit blow into our eyes;

They leave a fine layer
Over the market stalls and walks.

Gold-black rain of prosperity:
We take it into our lungs.

At the edge of the little park,
The mynahs hung in tight cages from low branches

Refrain from song.
I take a turn in the path to find shelter,

Step over a threshold the way one wards off
An unquiet ghost. No birds at all

In the upper air.
Even the Emperor’s garden,

The houses and cars of the bankers and party bosses,
Are covered in this dust.

Nene Goose (Branta sandvicensis)

by Amanda Sandos

Amanda lives on a hundred-acre farm nestled between the Blue Ridge Mountains Peaks of Otter and the James River in the Blackwater Creek watershed.

She builds their nest under sparse scrubs, lines bare rock
with down, guards her mate while he incubates, moos soft
warning calls. Together, they hatch three chicks, survive
mongoose, black rats, dogs, cats, tourists, scientists. Together,
they find ohelo berries or dry fruits on stiff
pukiawes, always feeding
their young first.

The guidebook says: “This endangered goose has evolved;
prefers land to water.” Such strength in this state
bird, frame stunted like a miniature Canada,
only partial webbing between short, black toes.
Today, she stands beneath her own silhouette
on the yellow sign,

here on barren lava flows, along Chain of Craters Road.
Here, at the top of Volcano National Park, Hawaii, land of paradise,
under pioneers, woody shrubs that first emerge from porous, black
rocks. Here, beside rerouted drives rebuilt each time lava seeps
out of fissures, buries asphalt. Here, where rain collects
in crevices heated by liquid rock, steams to scalding
clouds, miles above the sea.

Today, she guards his silent remains, hissing
with her three chicks in the middle of the desolate
road, under the Nene Crossing sign, goose
silhouette above, “Drive Slow”
in black letters below.

The Vanishing

by Kathe Palka

Kathe lives in the Raritan Basin on a small bluff overlooking the South Branch of the Raritan River, just west of the confluence, where she occasionally sees bald eagles.

"…light pollution causes us to lose sight
of our true place in the universe…"
—Verlyn Klinkenborg

The polar icecap together with its
bears, whole glaciers wasting away,
forests vanishing, so many species
told and untold, the glare
of our careless dominion
pales even the night’s darkness;
planets fade, Venus, Mars—
the full moon dims
above street lamps
as I wander lost in rooms
awash in ambient glow,
trying to reckon the dead
while counting my own
eerie vampire lights*
adding to the ungodly brightness
threatening now to snuff out
even the stars.

*vampire lights — the tiny lights that stay on even when electrical equipment is turned off

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