The Hand on the Clock of My Life

With Yeats and Heaney in Tallaght, Islington and Reinickendorf

Mount Seskin, StudentsThese were meetings that were more than warm-hearted. Over three weeks in February and March, I spoke with young people at three different schools about two poems that I believe have something important to say about the relationship between the individual and the respective climate in which he or she lives and thus also about the consequences of climate change. The poems in question here are “The Meditation of the Old Fisherman” by William Butler Yeats, which was published in the Crossways collection in 1889, and “A Postcard from Iceland” by Seamus Heaney, which was written 100 years later. Yeats received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923, while Heaney received it in 1995. Around fifty students told me the different thoughts and feelings the two Irishmen’s poems had provoked in them and I listened, frequently both moved and amazed. The schools where I presented the poems were the Mount Seskin Community College in Tallaght near Dublin, the Islington Arts and Media School in London and the Romain Rolland Gymnasium in Berlin.

The Meditation of the Old Fisherman

You waves, though you dance by my feet like children at play
Though you glow and you glance, though you purr and you dart;

In the Junes that were warmer than these are, the waves were more gay,

When I was a boy with never a crack in my heart.



The herring are not in the tides as they were of old;

My sorrow! for many a creak gave the creel in the cart

That carried the take to Sligo town to be sold,

When I was a boy with never a crack in my heart.



And ah, you proud maiden, you are not so fair when his oar
Is heard on the water, as they were, the proud and apart,

Who paced in the eve by the nets on the pebbly shore,

When I was a boy with never a crack in my heart.



Mount SeskinIn Tallaght, Islngton and Reinickendorf, three students each read out one of verses of the Yeats poem to the class. All three classes were particularly keen on the repeated line at the end of each verse, which to many students felt like waves breaking on the shore. Others were enchanted by the “back and forth” produced by the poetic foot, reminiscent of dunes or pulsations, while others were astonished about how an old fisherman at the end of his life thinks about the world and so many different things: everything may change over time, but love and yearning always remain the same. We spoke at length about the connection between the human disposition and the climate and weather. What is climate anyway and what is weather, what are the differences between them and how can these differences be described? The boys in particular asked what “crack in my heart” might actually mean – whether Yeats, as it may seem, was really only concerned about love and its transient nature. I remember a silent student sitting with us in the art room at Mount Seskin College, shaking his head even as he read the poem again and again, quietly and just for himself. It was only at the end of the lesson that he finally gathered his courage and started talking about the floods in 2014, whereby numerous Dublin suburbs were destroyed following heavy storms and weeks of rain. “Suddenly a river that had never been there before came down the hill and carried the houses away with it, my grandparents’ house too.”

Seamus Heaney talks about another similarly unusual, yet very different river at the start of his 1987 poetry collection The Haw Lantern, whose motto is: RoRo

The riverbed, dried-up, half-full of leaves.

Us, listening to a river in the trees.

Heaney’s poem “A Postcard from Iceland” delighted the students in Tallaght, London and Berlin in equal measure. Comparisons were immediately made to Yeats’ stanzas, while many immediately noticed that this poem too contains voices from real life talking about a lost connection, albeit in a different, more ironic tone:

As I dipped to test the stream some yards away
From a hot spring, I could hear nothing

But the whole mud-slick muttering and boiling.

And then my guide behind me saying,

”Lukewarm. And I think you’d want to know
That luk was an old Icelandic word for hand.“

And you would want to know (but you know already)
How usual that waft and pressure felt

When the inner palm of water found my palm.

IAMSThe longest discussions followed my question about whether the sense of a direct connection to the Earth represented by Heaney in the poem still holds if the hand in question is being bathed in artificially heated water. Independently of one another, all the students responded here with a resounding no. We were all in agreement that Seamus Heaneys’s poem is an account of two conversations, not just one held by a tour guide with a tourist visiting an island but also the conversation that nature, the Earth or creation has with anyone who is open and sensitive enough to join in. “We all ultimately know the language of lukewarm water”, said one student in Islington and another in Berlin. “When it comes down to it, everyone remembers what it was like to be in the womb – it’s just that it’s impossible to communicate that.” The climate in which each of us lives perhaps gives us a similar feeling of unconscious security: “(but you know already)”.


IAMS, EntryWhat language is capable of making this clear and what language can speak of the dangers that climate change brings with it? In these schools on the edge of three European capitals, not even a trace of helplessness was to be found, but rather lots of youthful vigour and curiosity, a lively interest for unfamiliar standpoints, a great deal of empathy and above all the willingness to finally make some changes to things according to one’s one ideas rather than the established ones. A fifteen-year-old student at IAMS, the Arts and Media School in the London district of Islington-Finsbury, found a fantastic impromptu image for how to overcome the mutually disavowing debates on climate change in science and literature: “On the clock of my life, the language of poetry is the minute hand and the language of science the hour hand.”

Photos: Students at Mount Seskin Community College (1), Oisín McGann in front of the Mount Seskin “Substation” (2), the Romain Rolland-Gymnasium, Berlin-Reinickendorf (3), Students of the IAMS (4), the entrance to the IAMS in Islington. John Keats went to school in nearby Finsbury. The four tenets of the school at its entrance: “Confidence Aspiration Reflection Respect” (5)

Plastic Sea

The thin ribbon of water that flows
down to Hamburg beneath
locusts and ash trees, but mainly
old birches, where ducks live and coots
that dart off mutely, smelling of the swamps
in the quiet old woods of Stormarn and Holstein,
is called the Alster, and is and always was
a river. It was made into two lakes in the middle
of the great Hanseatic city only when Adolf
III returned to the city from the crusade
in the Holy Land and ordered a miller
to dam the stream with mighty dikes
that would have stopped even the Elbe’s
flow. Then a northern sea spread out
amidst the wooden town; all the Holstein waters
of the Wöddelbek, Rönne, Wischbeck and Lankau,
the Sielbek and the Tangstedter Mühlenbach
flowed and could not drain; within weeks
the relentless element, flowing
on and on, grew vaster and
broader, grimly unstoppable,
until first the Outer, then the Inner
Alster (not cut off until much later), became
two lakes, turquoise green today and turquoise
blue tomorrow, and almost always roughened by
the west winds, hemmed by belts of dense reeds and
by now beloved for more than eight hundred years.

Die Alsterseen

So it winds its way, the darkly glittering water-
adder, past bushes and paths, through
the banks’ red-branched thickets. And
is utterly silent. A trickling, a softly purling
whisper is faintly heard when it has wood in its
mouth, stones in its bed, polystyrene panels washed
from a construction site somewhere or a spindly
bramble bush that got in its way and that it
drags along for a time as though
the winter-Alster claimed that
none need die as long as
they can play. It is black and half
a man’s height higher when it floods.
Over Christmas 2014, after weeks of heavy
rain over the Feldmark and the last scraps of
deciduous woods between Kaltenkirchen, Bad
Oldesloe and Duvenstedt, the Alster’s tributaries,
otherwise so idyllic, poured into the river with
unprecedented force and transformed it
within hours into an unpredictable
flood necessitating barricades
of sandbags to protect
the housing estates, and crowds of
rubberneckers were sluiced onto the shifted
shore of the Alster exactly like, as cynics said, flotsam.

Die schwarze Welt

Each black meter of water, rolling past ominously
mute, had the momentum of over three
hundred stacked-up fuel tankers,
by someone’s calculations.
Meadows, playgrounds, riparian
woodlands, the paths and many streets,
as well as bridges, lots, docks, a big shed at
the foot of the railway embankment holding God
knows what long-forgotten junk were
submerged and sank for days
and for weeks. Children
asked whether the water would
stay like this now, so high, so dark, and
so, so bad. Yes, I said to a little girl
with an eye patch, it looks like
it’ll stay like this from
now on. Ah well.
The world is
turning black.
And the neighbor,
arm in arm with his wife,
dog invisible, gazing at a bend in
the Alster where the river used to come
around the curve and fling its gold-brown
glitter at the bank, eyed the nightmarish
immensity of water and said hollowly
that never in his life, since he
sailed boats here as a
schoolboy, had he experienced
the like on the Alster, never had it
happened before, not even in a dream,
in which everything is possible, was it
possible. Too quickly for the darting pupils
to follow, the river rolled under the Fuhlsbütteler
railway bridge southward to the Free and
Hanseatic city. I saw three plastic
canisters and pictured a raft
you could build with them.
High water, said the stunned
neighbor. Floods. They’d always
happened, summer or winter,
in the fall or especially in the spring,
as soon as the snowmelt descended on Stormarn.
But this here, the black water masses, such
a draggled park, never, really, no.

Der Alsterlauf

Forced into stone embankments, the Alster
flows past the Rödingsmarkt and the Herrlichkeit
and joins the Elbe between Hamburger Neustadt and
the Portugiesenviertel. Six hours it takes for steamers,
freighters and tankers to reach the sea along the
deep-dredged channel. The three canisters,
a raft that will never be built, since I am
not Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn
and my favorite river is not the Mississippi, but
a stream by which I often linger to gaze at the water
and reflect on the meaning of poetry, these three
pathetic empty plastic containers drift for
weeks from the railway bridge into the
brackish Elbe between St. Pauli,
Finkenwerder and Glückstadt.
Their plastic, cast, molded,
punched and glued in a factory in,
let’s say, Hangzhou, before being shipped to
Hamburg along with millions of identical milky white
canisters, requires, unless it’s ground to bits,
around 850 years to decompose and
vanish from the earth, as long a span of time
as the two Alster lakes have existed in the middle
of Hamburg. Though no doubt what is true
of the soul is true of plastic. Never,
never does it vanish for good.

Plastikmeer5

In a poem in his collection Rare Earths,
Arne Rautenberg, from Kiel, transforms the
oceans’ infestation of plastic into art, into his art,
for which he expresses his thanks (to the tides, the
motion of the waves, and to the ultraviolet light, as well
as to the plankton and the great ocean gyres), his
thanks for being an artist who can play upon
all the continents. Long live art. Long live
the one and only, eternal joy that is
artistic freedom! This means, too,
that everything wants to be art, just as
everything that is at all alive wants to be free.
Plastic, in the year 1800, for Friedrich
von Hardenberg, who called him-
self Novalis, the one who clears
new land, was an aesthetic term,
when he wrote that music, plasticity
and poetry were inseparable elements,
existing together in every free art, just combined
in different proportions. Novalis thought these thoughts
in Burgenland, in Weissenfels on the Saale, which
together with the Mulde, the Müglitz and the
Vereinigte Weisseritz forms a river-land
that he loved, and where he spent
his whole life. All four rivers
flow into the Elbe,
and so, at Barby,
does the Saale, where
Novalis went swimming as a boy,
naked, and often long into the night.

Plastikmeer4

In his whole life Hardenberg never once
held a thing made of plastic. No wonder! There
were no synthetic materials, not even in the hair-
band of a tiny little doll, nowhere in the entire old
world filled with the murmur of the endless
forests, the stillness, the ringing of
bells and the stink of cloacas.
Yogurt cups; lids; clocks; cling wrap;
shopping bags; bags of all colors, sizes and
shapes; toys of all shapes, sizes and colors; cigarette
lighters; disc jackets; pens; car mats; disposable
razors; hub caps; combs; clips; ballpoint pen
cases and cases for cases; bottles; bottle
caps; automobile, tractor, truck and
harvester tires; bowls; plates;
eating utensils; bread bags
and card cases; cases for card
cases; cases for mirror frames; canisters;
disposable chairs; disposable bowls; disposable
tables; plugs; sockets; disposable socket boards; endless
lengths of wires, wires, in sacks and bags, stuffed into
disposable cases; nothing, nothing at all, not the
least little bit of it existed in the as-yet
undestroyed, unwired quiet world,
when Novalis swam in the Saale
without a thought for burning fat,
building muscles or steeling his
chest, but perhaps instead reflecting
whether the bosom is the breast elevated
to a state of mystery, and physics
nothing but the teachings
of the imagination.

Kupferstich Alsleben an der Saale

For the most part, the plastic
trash which the Elbe sweeps into
the North Sea vanishes there in the sea’s
dark abysses. The sediments of the long-since
ravaged sea floor contain inconceivable
quantities of tiny bits of microplastic
particles, mainly fibers, the sum
of which, according to the British Royal
Society’s trade journal Open Science, exceeds
by ten thousandfold the larger fragments of plastic
that drift in polluted water gyres, agglomerating
into veritable continents of trash, larger than
Central Europe. If each square kilometer
of the ocean floor were a lake, all
these lakes would be clogged,
one could almost say: shat full of
quadrillions of plastic fibers, all the way
up into the tallest treetops on their shores.

Plastikmeer2

Nowhere on this Earth, at the North Pole,
in the Black, Red or Dead Sea, the
Caribbean or the Antarctic, is there a
large body of water, a coast or a beach with-
out plastic residue, report London scientists
headed by Lucy Woodall from the Natural History
Museum, outside whose façade of noise-insulating
windows the Thames sloshes past, regulated and
polluted. Floating in the world’s seven seas,
according to calculations, there are nearly
two hundred and seventy thousand tons
of plastic trash, a horrendous number,
but well-nigh absurd, for it is mysteriously
small compared with the galactic quantities of
plastic trash that all of us actually dump into the sea,
namely an estimated six and a half million tons, for
who can calculate the true weight of the plug
with which we are stopping the world?
Where does it go, all the crap of
affluence, you have to ask. Only
a fraction of the trash, it seems, floats
on the surface in the form of visible particles.
Larger particles break up in the swells, are ground up,
shredded, in part by UV light, into microparticles
that can barely be seen. If algae or microbes
settle on them, they go under, sinking
like ships, airplanes or a corpse
down into the dark
at the bottom.

Plastikmeer1

Lucy Woodall’s team analyzed
twelve sediment samples from the ocean
floor collected over the course of twelve years,
up to 2012, in the southwestern Indian Ocean and
in the northeastern Atlantic. Four coral samples, too,
were studied under the microscope and in the
infrared spectrometer. All the sediment
samples contained microplastic
particles, mostly fibers, generally two to
three millimeters long, but often less than tenth
of a millimeter thick. The samples contained
an average of thirteen and a half particles
per fifty milliliters of liquid. More than
half of the particles were viscose,
which is not a plastic, but an
artificial fiber made from
cellulose and used in cigarette
filters, and increasingly in clothing.
Fish, skates, sharks, wales and turtles have
no use for the stuff; for them viscose is poison
from which they will perish, like anyone
who finds nothing left to eat but
plastic. The second most
common material found in all
marine creatures across the globe
was polyester; indeed, one could speak of
polyester fish, polyester water snakes,
polyester octopi. And perhaps,
once the particles are ground smaller
and smaller, until they condense
with the seawater vapors
and rise into the air, one will speak
of clouds of polyester or viscose: plastic clouds.
Due to the small number of samples, it was
impossible to compare the frequency and
composition of the sediments. But fibrous
microparticles seem to be found through-
out the deep sea, ten thousand times
more prevalent in sediments than
in the contaminated ocean gyres.
According to projections, just
one square kilometer of sediment
from the Indian Ocean’s deep-sea mountains
contains around four quadrillion plastic fibers. And
studies of the deep-sea valley, the sink for the whole
world’s plastic trash, have not yet been undertaken.
Darkest night reigns there. It is lightless and void
of stars. Nothing sparkles. And yet even there
breaths the vast world of the restless stars
that float in the sky’s blue ocean.

*

Photos: Inner and Outer Alster (lakes) in Hamburg (1), a black swan in a blinkered world, the Alster in Hamburg-Klein Borstel (3), the plastic pollution of the oceans and coasts (4, 5, 7, 8), copperplate of Alsleben an der Saale in the 18th century, as Novalis knew the town and river in his childhood (6).

(Translated by Isabel Fargo Cole)

Lima

For Uli Schreiber

The flooding of Passau, now unpreventable
– what’s its value at the Climate Summit,
what does it gain us?
Faster even than the Alpine
glaciers melt, we barter droughts
in Australia, California wildfires,
floods in Bangladesh
and the submersion of the isle of Tuvalu
and turn them to profit mass. Global warming,
global business. The sky is green
over Lima on the last day
of the conference, so luminous is the sea,
and the harbor of Ancon is crossed
by murmurations of starlings, at whose sight
one such as Auden would think: we each must love,
no matter whom, or all will die, though Auden,
thinking this too drastic, then wrote instead:
We must love one another and die.

*

(Translation: Isabel Fargo Cole)

The Incomprehensible Sky

Weather Observations

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken
John Keats

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April
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Apr
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A
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April 2
After a surprisingly cool day, first misty and damp, then dry and windy, the warmth has returned: this premature, blissful March-summer, now April-summer. A few, dark-blue-shaded clouds like slow fish in the sky’s pale blue aquarium. Still a wide-open field of vision; the trees are budding, but still leafless, hesitant, unable to believe in the warmth or keep pace with it so soon, so quickly. Pre-spring cold in the mornings, middays like May, June in the afternoon. And then the piercing cool of evening, bringing a shiver and chasing the birds into their hiding places. And so it lives on – the first mosquito, cheery, curious little lightning bolt.

*

April 3
A conversation on the bus, people in t-shirts, shirtsleeves, blouses, summer dresses: “What beautiful days. But I can’t really enjoy them, I always think: it’s the climate change. And sometimes…” the girl laughs, “… oh, such a nice climate change.” When I got out, the pungent smell of summery soil hit me like a blow. I walk home each day along lush green hedges, an eastern breeze in my face, beneath a cloudless sky. Rosy refulgence in the early evening. The inward Australia begins. In three weeks I’ll be in Melbourne. Words of encouragement from my friends, the light alone means I shouldn’t worry.

*

April 4
All at once, overnight, it’s what we’re used to in Hamburg: cool, grey April, the cruelest month, with spring already piercing you, suddenly fat drops, heavy rain, a Starnbergersee coming down, drumming for hours, and though unperturbed, with sun inside me after those sunny weeks, I got sunshine in my stomach, I am surprised, no, constantly unsettled, for the meteorologists predicted quite a different kind of weather that fails to come, that I would have liked to experience: a warm south wind, carrying fine sand from the Sahara and making the sky shimmer yellow. The weather forecast is a narrative, less speculative than it is fictitious, uncertain and unsupportable, for that very reason feigning certainty and seeking, groping for support. Support that does not exist.

*

April 5
Thirty hours of rain have made of the timid budding and splitting a universal, manifold teeming green. The birds, I always suspected it, are actually fishes, the titmice trout, the blackbirds bream, the sparrows sprats. They all want to act sensibly, but fortunately fail, darting through the damp air. And the dried-out ground sucks up the water noisily. How lovely. The sky sends cloud after cloud as I send word after word. “Thin land, holding its balance and / sustaining the sustaining water, the birds / are light, after all. / The levee leads into the rain hall”, writes Nicolas Born.

*

April 7
In the Oberallgäu grimy remnants of snow on the mountain slopes like stunted glaciers, and in the distance the white Alps gleam through a day without a cloud far and wide. – Buttercup, cowslip, dandelion meadows, a green that’s already much lusher, more luscious. In Augsburg, too, it’s apparently summer already, street life in full swing, but when and where wouldn’t that be the case? The crowns of the trees on the town moat are pale green, light, nearly transparent (Immenstadt, Augsburg)

*

April 8
The predicted cold snap – the temperature was supposed to fall by as much as ten degrees – has failed to come, or it has come in a milder form. Why were they unable to anticipate this? Are they working with data that no longer have any grounding? Grounding on what? No doubt they have some precise explanation for their near-miss-rate. The rain, at night, with a strong wind rising, shouldn’t even exist; from an overcast sky blows a bafflingly warm wind. “If the sky’s grey, it ought to rain,” says the taxi driver, “that doesn’t bother anyone”, and a passing child: “It’s so warm, I’m sweating my head off”. (Augsburg)

*

April 9
Wolken.8.April.1North wind over the Kinzig Valley, all day a great spectacle of clouds fills the sky. Bellied, jagged, hunchbacked sallow white clouds high above, and streaming along beneath them a deep black cloud mass, flat on the bottom, often looming like a tower into the blue. No doubt science has names to sort them, categorize them, render them identifiable and classify them as harmless, useful, whatever. Perhaps stratocumulus clouds. Unpredictable and fleeting like the essence of poetry, like every essence. Poems could be called clouds, “Stratocumulus Clouds” could be the title of each collection. Cloud horses. Toward evening the sun sends blazing light through all the holes and chinks in all the water vapor, all the nothingness. (Offenburg) Photo: Juliette Aubert

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April 11
“That’s the Burgundy Gate”, the beekeeper, a retired town schoolteacher, tells me, meaning the source of the warm day, the radiant light over the Markgräfler Land. “That narrow passage between the Swiss Jura and the Vosges – it lets the Spanish wind through.” With the light föhn wind blowing, I can see the peak of the Säntis in the distance. Two days of benign light sky blue. Cirrostratus clouds, fanned out to a striking width, joining together and growing broader and broader as the jet trails cross them. The beekeeper is telling me about the infestation of mites imported along with the Kamchatka bee used for experiments by a biological institute. He tells me of aphids and ants and how the bees heed them – the poetry of meanings in the beekeepers’ lingo. There are no wars, he says, between bee colonies, “but there are fierce raids with far-reaching consequences. This fantastic weather isn’t just good for us; the bees like it too.” (Jestetten)

*

April 13
It was summer deep in the southwest, 23 degrees Celsius as I headed back north, and hour by hour the clouds grew denser, the light murkier, and the temperature dropped. It was 12 degrees in Hamburg, with a drizzle and a cool west wind; the Elbe Valley is an Atlantic Gate, not a Burgundy Gate. A week later spring is far along, the bareness has vanished, blossoming replaced by sprouting leaves. Everything’s gone green. Massive cloud colossi still stream eastwards across the city and the river, clouds like crows, that look loud, but are strangely mute. The forecast speaks of changeable weather, keeping all its options open. That reflects the sky, at any rate; mid-April and everything seems possible. (Baden-Baden – Hamburg)

*

April 16
April’s richness! Sun, wind, the winter cold, the May warmth, buds, chills, wide stillness, chirping nearness. Cloudless nights bring you night frost, you cover the balcony plants back up again, and in the morning bumblebees perch trembling on the pots. In the thin coat of your confidence you walk up shivering into the village, children playing on the streets and fields, and while you wait at the counter in the post office, dark clouds halt above the intersection and burst. The day before yesterday four hailstorms, and a dark-blue and purple evening sky with scattered clouds. In the day time the children play on the monkey bars –and come home with icy hands. “Flux” is what Hopkins, “Zausflaum” what his translator Waterhouse calls these clouds fanned out far and wide. A jet trail crosses them out.

*

April 20
The lilacs are in bloom. The first fieldfare flits through the garden. After a few cooler days with damp, cold air and a piercing west wind, Easter presages a fine May. For the coming week, they predict summery 27 degrees Celsius – which I will no longer experience. Tomorrow I’ll fly via Abu Dhabi to Melbourne, into the South Australian early autumn. In the meadows, in Hamburg’s grass, there’s a green that’s ready for anything. People in the open – open people. The smell of wood smoke from Easter bonfires hangs in the air, and the color of the night wavers between deep blue and violet, almost purple. “Not a child left awake. Not a bird in the sky”, writes Peter Handke in “In a Dark Night I Left My Quiet House”. “But there was a cloud there, a great grey-white heap of cloud, its upper edge multiply humped, drifting slowly to the east, as on a pilgrimage; as though it were pilgrimaging. It could also have been the west, and it could also have been the morning.” What follows that “but” is what weather is in poetry. Onward, off to Australia, I don’t mind!

*

April 21
How many thousands of miles have I flown above the clouds, over Budapest, Bucharest, Ankara, Beirut, Baghdad, Kuwait and Bahrain to Abu Dhabi? I walked barely twenty yards in the open from the gangway to the shuttle bus. In darkness on the runway the jet fuel swam in the 30-degree-Celsius air. (Abu Dhabi)

*

Translation: Isabel Fargo Cole

The Obliteration of the Düsseldorf Hofgarten

As this spring changed into summer I celebrated my 49th birthday by going out for dinner on Pentecost Monday with friends, my son and my wife in Hamburg’s Portugiesenviertel neighborhood. It was early June, a warm evening on the Hamburg harbor; a storm was supposed to blow in from the southwest, but it failed to come, and we sat out on the sidewalk until late at night, drinking wine, laughing and listening to the distant rumble of the thunder as it drifted past.
 One morning soon after I traveled to Düsseldorf to give an hour-long reading from my novel Night No More on the terrace of the Theater Museum, at the edge of the Hofgarten. The organizer picked me up at the train station, and we drove through Düsseldorf in a taxi; I’d never been there before, but I was immediately struck, and profoundly disturbed, by the devastation I saw. We talked about the storm which, in its weakened state, had passed Hamburg by, but had clearly hit Düsseldorf with full force. The clean-up operation was in full swing, but I saw not a single street that wasn’t filled with branches and twigs, strewn with trash cans, bicycles or torn-down awnings and billboards. A boat lay stranded in the middle of an intersection.
Der Landtag in Düsseldorf am 10. Juni 2014 The closer we came to the Hofgarten, the more devastating seemed the destruction of the city’s urban nature. On what until a few days ago had been a narrow strip of woodland leading up to the park itself, not a single tree had been left standing. The evening of my birthday, the organizer told me, three separate storms had merged over Düsseldorf to form one berserker hurricane that bore down on the city. She showed me the terrace on which I had originally been supposed to read an hour from now; it no longer existed. Three or four centuries-old copper beeches and horse chestnuts had been torn from the ground like withered thistles, sunk, branches shredded, in their own canopy of leaves, mown down to lie on top of each other and every which way on the flagstones which were pressed crookedly down into the ground beneath their weight. A hundred, perhaps a hundred and twenty chairs, said the organizer, still pale, had been set up on the evening of the storm for a concert that was hastily adjourned – she could still picture the string players diving for cover to save their instruments – just before the chairs whirled away like flies, then by entire rows like swarms of flies, rising into the trees while the trees were still standing. 
Choked with emotion, I stood for a long while amidst the devastation. Down below, in a grassy hollow filled with tree stumps, I saw the ruin of a greenhouse, crushed and shattered by a fallen sycamore. An old man with a big dog came walking up through the drizzly grey June afternoon, making his way through the gaps in Düsseldorf’s devastation, marked off with red and white tape. “I was seven,” he called over to me. “I used to go walking here with my father!”

Translation: Isabel Fargo Cole
Photo: The Düsseldorfer State Parliament on June 10, 2014

Video: Posted by “Homeboykoree”, a clip that touchingly moves from wisecracks to consternation, spiked, for good reason, with completely appropriate “foul language” – I post the link quite deliberately. MB

Tell it to the bees

Image: Louise Docker

Image: Louise Docker

From the Australian journal

The lovely light over Melbourne that first morning: as though the whole south of the world would be nothing but pale blue. I hadn’t yet seen a bird, but all night long I’d heard the twitter of an air conditioner from the roof of the neighboring apartment tower, exactly like a flock of budgies were roosting there. A sudden loud swell of windmill sails, perhaps a dream, but then a fire siren came racing down the chasms of the streets. It took me a day and a half to fly halfway round the world, from Abu Dhabi on over Sri Lanka and the Indian Ocean, past Perth and Adelaide. To wake up in such light … to wake up just once like that from the unreality in your life. From spring I flew into fall. Where was the summer en route?

I observed vast cloud fields in Melbourne, mostly flooding in from the west over the Yarra River. They seem inconceivably swift, even when the wind barely stirs the treetops. Darkness falls quickly, dusk lasting barely twenty minutes, and the weather is just as quick to change. A cool rainy morning is followed by a radiant noon, an afternoon rent by gusts of wind and darkened by towering clouds, an evening in whose orange-red sky frigate birds circle.

Climate seems to me a much larger, more complex and sweeping story than the one which I follow, which I have read ever since I can remember. I am probably a hopeless empiricist, certainly an incorrigible altruist. I read the weather, following it daily, more or less happy with rain, rain, rain; in Hamburg, after all, three hundred days of rain at a stretch are no cause for despair. In my writing, in my characters’ thoughts, feelings and actions and in the images, allusions and music of my poetry, the weather plays at least as important a role as psychology, morals, doubt or imagination. Weather for me is a constitutive factor. Climate, to be perfectly honest, does not exist for me. I couldn’t even say what is meant by the word. For me, climate is to weather much as religion is to faith. The religious is beyond my knowledge, my comprehension, my interest. Faith is of existential significance for me, a dialogue, a test, a foothold, a framework for life.

Am I a climate sceptic, then? Yes. Yes and no. Or actually no, I think not, only that the climate-change-sceptic climate makes me skeptical. Doubts are barely permitted any more, and yet they are only appropriate. Doubts are necessary – not, however, doubts in the fact that the earth’s climates, the life in rivers and seas, the airs and the forests, the life of plants and animals, the lives of peoples in cities and in the countryside is at the brink of a sweeping and, it is to be feared, long-since unstoppable upheaval. Rather, I have my doubts in the way in which we have grown used to speaking of it, this so-called climate change. For no dialogue is taking place. All we hear and hold are monologues.

In this sense, for me talking about climate change means talking about the reasons for this absence of dialogue among the spheres of research, science, politics, art and society. Here is a situation in which people are incapable of communicating, though all of us face a common peril: losing the basis of our own existence and that of our children and their children. How can this be? I believe that talking about climate change means first of all talking about a climate of fear. It seems to me that only narratives, stories of individuals’ experiences and visions can enable us to achieve an understanding of something as all-encompassing, as unfathomable as this transformation of the world into an inhospitable and unreal place.

“Tell it to the bees” is an old Australian proverb. When you have something on your mind, and you try to share it with someone who has no inclination, no time, no patience for it, he’ll tell you to tell it to the bees, who seem to understand everything magically and fly off at once to make honey from your secret.

Don’t give up. Tell it to the bees.

Image: Todd Huffman

Image: Todd Huffman

One grey morning I travel to the Yarra Valley. The landscape is gentle and hilly, densely forested; I see more and more of the eucalyptus trees so typical of Victoria, among them the gigantic mountain ash, rearing up from the forest canopy like leafy towers. But abruptly – just as I begin to compare the landscape with the Black Forest, the Hudson Valley, the Vosges or Thuringia – the landscape opens up, the woodlands end and prairies stretch out between seemingly endless rows of vineyards.
In the Healesville Sanctuary I am shown mountain pygmy-possums, barely larger than mice. They are not disturbed in their beginning hibernation when the young biologist takes one and lays it in her cupped hand. It nestles in. The pygmy possum, says Jill, feeding the animal with a cannula, no longer exists, strictly speaking. It was thought to be extinct until skiers happened upon a tiny colony in the Victorian Alps.
She fills another cannula from a honey jar and leads me into an aviary; there among all the finches and parrots I feel like an emu. A little black and yellow bird with a long pointed beak and a vibrant yellow crest lands on Jill’s hand. It seems trusting, yet as though it lives at such a different speed than I that it does not even perceive me, its potential enemy. Several times I’m forced to dodge so that it doesn’t try to fly straight through me. Perched on Jill’s fist, it drinks honey from the cannula and gazes at me like a large hummingbird that has strayed into my perceptual grid, eyes dark as Emily Dickinson’s in the only two extant photos of her.
It whirs away, enough of the hand, enough of the honey from the plastic bill. In the whole world there are thirty-nine members of its species left, thirty-two of them in Healesville. Four of them sit on a branch in front of me, a tenth of the entire Helmeted Honeyeater population.
Jill tells me about projects to release the animals back into the wild with tracking devices, of futile endeavors to protect the Honeyeater, bereft of its habitat, from birds of prey. They do not recognize raptors as enemies, any more than they do me. She tells me of aviary experiments, of Honeyeaters and raptors in the same cage, of artificial raptor noise meant to frighten birds much too friendly for this world, of protective blankets beneath which they learn to be wary and hide; she tells of charts, analyses, new possibilities, serene, without a trace of sadness.

In the Australian I read that ten of every hundred North American bee colonies died off in the winter before last; last winter it was twenty three of every hundred. What causes the colony collapse? Is it accidentally-introduced mites, monocultures, forest and bush fires, deforestation and other forms of environmental destruction, or are extreme temperatures responsible?
“Fast ausgestorben” in German is a euphemism. The English expression “nearly extinct”, used over and over in the Healesville Sanctuary, is all the more apt for its cool reserve. German has nothing but martial expressions, commensurate to the subject, but too subjective and thus unhelpful, like “wiped out”, “eradicated”, “exterminated”; they ambush you with guilt, making you turn away to flee complicity.

The Black Saturday bushfires eradicated the towns of Kinglake and Marysville in Yarra Valley. A small museum in the neighboring town of Lilydale has a permanent exhibition, “The Art of Response”, recalling the fires of February 7, 2009. One hundred and seventy-three people died in the fires, thousands lost their homes, countless animals perished, and entire swaths of land, once abundant in vegetation – including often century-old mountain-ash trees, whose oils make them burn like tinder – were razed by a juggernaut of flames that rose hundreds of yards in the air, rumbling down into the primeval valley of the Yarra.
“The Art of Response” is an eloquent name for an exhibition which consciously foregrounds works by local artists and students. Such was the force of the fire, it seems, that those who survived the catastrophe of Kinglake and Marysville believed only they themselves and those closest to them could find words or images for it. Age, profession, education are irrelevant. The magnitude of the trauma, both individual and collective, is rendered imaginable by means of harrowing distillation. This trauma was and remains part of the fire, smoldering on within, blazing in the silence; the objects that survived the flames, displayed in Lilydale’s museum, are not only fraught with memories, they are the truest reflections of a spirit in which Black Saturday remains branded.
A garden gnome perches in a glass case like a Japanese teapot glazed with fly ash. Bottles slumped to half their size, glasses bent crooked in air in excess of 1300º, vases baked down to lumps are displayed. The case of a Canon camera, blown up like a metal balloon, is filled with ashy powder. I read that the camera belonged to a woman who sought refuge from the flames by climbing into the drinking water tank in her garden.
An amateur video recorded by Daryl Hall, who lived in Marysville until the town was destroyed, shows the fire consuming trees, houses, stables, cars, and everything else besides. There are images in that film that have changed my view of the world and its possibilities. They convey what it must have been like to be delivered up to a conflagration that seemed to have seized the very clouds.
Daryl Hall makes no comments on his video. Only in one brief sequence, recorded the day after the bushfire, does he breathlessly name familiar places in town, places which even he must struggle to recognize. His silence has great urgency; I find it forceful, defiant and comforting. And if you listen closely, you keep hearing a soft, perplexing singsong – it is unclear what in fact is producing it, the fiery wind or the man with the camera. In the words of the Melbourne poet Emma Lew: “Learn from a child’s panic: / Song means that you breathe.” Point by point, point by point, and so on and so on, singing all the while, softly, to yourself, for the image, the image of the land, drawing humming breath and placing point by point upon the image to make it an image in the first place, as the Aborigine clans do, down thousands of generations.

The wind is powerful in the Melbourne region. Within a week it altered my image of wind fundamentally. In early February 2009 southern Australia had gone through months of temperatures as high as 46º Celsius. Water shortage, drought, plus fierce, hot wind. Who wouldn’t panic? And then there is the proclivity of individuals to prey on a precarious situation, if only to forget their own existential fear or to counter it with some eruptive reality. A scenario full of fatal possibilities.
The fire complex of Kinglake and Marysville developed out of two earlier fires that merged when the wind changed. The area that burned was the size of a New Jersey surrounded by walls of flame and flattened by a flame juggernaut.
Investigators have concluded that the fire was caused by arson. But the bush fires that devastated Yarra Valley have also been blamed on environmental organizations and green politicians who supposedly prohibited prophylactic controlled burns which had been practiced for centuries, going back to the Aborigines. Instead of seeking the alleged arsonists, it was claimed, the true culprits should be pilloried. It seems impossible to conduct a debate about the climate, its changes and their consequences, without at the same time speaking of people’s evidently changeless fears. Rooted in greed, destructiveness and self-interest, they constitute just as unpredictable a factor in the climate debate as do envy, presumption and indifference.

It took seventeen minutes for the rainstorm of February 17, 1972 to sweep Melbourne and transform Elizabeth Street, a main artery that runs north-south to the city center and down to the Yarra River, back into the creek which in the early 19th century still wound its way down the northern slopes to empty into the river sacred to the Wurundjeri and Bunurong.
In the legends of the Kulin, the aborigines of what is now Victoria, it was the eagle Bunjil – creator of the mountains, waters, plants and animals, and of the laws by which humans are meant to live – who formed the river by flying across the hilly land and scoring the ground with one claw. That was the origin of Birrarung, as the Wurundjeri call the Yarra River.
In modern, commercial Melbourne, the Yarra is nothing but a waterway, regulated and diverted when necessary over the course of two hundred years, used to death, in many places little more than a fishless, polluted cloaca, at best with a romantic or idyllic veneer. Embedded in the concrete banks of the CBD, the “central business district”, it is monitored for its powerful current and watched for the numerous floods, which can swell the harmless-seeming stream to considerable breadth, making lakes spring up in the middle of the city.
The old Flinders Street Station still stands on the banks of the Yarra. Here the first British settlers arrived, not by train, for the train never crossed the Indian Ocean, but with sailing vessels that came up the Birrarung and cast anchor here. There was no harbor – the Kulin needed none, the whole valley was their harbor. Where Brunswick, Carlton and other suburbs now grow out into the countryside, the creek rushed down the hills to the river.
There was a lagoon.

Melbourne at dusk. Image: 2Careless

Melbourne at dusk. Image: 2Careless

At the Sydney Institute of Marine Science, researchers lecture on the decline of seaweed and kelp along the Eastern Australian coast, a phenomenon ascribed to the warming and acidification of the oceans and the rising water level, and connected with the extinction of the coral reefs.
“We lost the kelp forests.” The wording makes me wonder what “we” is meant here. Photos show the “forests” which grow, or once grew, to a height of sixty meters underwater. They harbored countless, often previously-unknown life forms, and were subject to currents that could be described as submarine storms. New designs for wave power plants are presented, seaweed cultivation on land in vast fields of containers. The fear is something I don’t want to pass over, the wave fear, the seaweed fear, the fear of straying into a kelp forest while swimming in the sea and losing yourself there forever.
“Do you see any grounds left for optimism?” The marine biologist smiled. “No”, she said soberly, “too much has been lost for that. But it would be awful if I’d stop seeing the meaning in my work, and lose my joy in it. You can’t just withdraw from the game.”
No, we won’t give up. We’ll tell it to the bees!

Meg, an environmental activist from Greenpeace Australia Pacific in Sydney, speaks of the gulf between facts and feeling. She is in her mid-fifties, radiating anger as much as sorry. She spent the past several days in prison following protests against the clearance of large parts of Leard State Forest, an attempt by the Whitehaven coal company to expedite the opening of the Maules Creek Mine. Maules Creek is Aborigine land; the Gomeroi have lived for thousands of years in the forested region that is home to around four hundred rare and endangered plant and animal species. The coal from Maules Creek will be exported to China.
Meg speaks openly of profit-driven crimes. But she also tells of the power of stories, the magic of poetry, and how both enable us to reach people of every culture.
Meg is first person in all these meetings, lectures, conversations and tours who does not hesitate to use the word “God”. She talks about the faith of the inhabitants of Kiribati, a Polynesian island nation. For scientists, the anticipated rise in sea level leaves no doubt that the islands, each of them rising just a few yards above the sea, will be flooded. However, the inhabitants refuse to leave their islands, appealing to traditional tales and the Bible to justify their decision. In Kiribati there is no doubt about God’s pronouncement: never again will a flood sweep the earth.
Meg tells of Bangladesh. She asked women there what relief supplies they needed the most, and the women of the coastal region requested mobile ovens which they could take with them when fleeing the next flood.
She tells of the sounds of Alaska. The Eskimos’ names for native birds imitate their cries or songs, and for a long time now the Inuit have been discussing what to do with the names when the birds no longer exist.
She tells of the Wurundjeri Aborigines, only around a thousand of whom have survived expulsions and massacres, half of them in reservations, cut off from animals, trees, rivers, their land, and thus from their legends and their culture, their dreaming. The Wurundjeri say: “We won’t die out. We refuse.”
We won’t give up. We’ll tell it to the bees.

Image: Vipin Baliga

Image: Vipin Baliga

Greed, selfishness and destructive frenzy, sanctimony, ignorance and malevolence, all the shades of fear seen in the disputes about the causes and consequences of climate change – none of it lets me forget the courage, the tenacity, the inventiveness and composure with which many bring to the challenging task of starting a conversation which no one can claim does not concern them. It is a conversation, I believe, that takes place not just among us humans. Seen poetically, climate change is a conversation demanded of us with great urgency by the world, nature, creation.
Naturally, that is poetry. How is this supposed to work – telling something to the bees? Recently I read about the tropical researcher Carlos de la Rosa, who on the Puerto Viejo River in Costa Rica managed to photograph a large orange-red butterfly and a wild bee drinking tears from the eyes of a crocodile. De la Rosa discovered that French researchers had observed something similar on the Amazon in Ecuador: there a solitary bee drank from the eyes of a river turtle. Headed by Hans Bänziger at Chiang Mai University in Thailand, researchers have recorded around three hundred such observations worldwide. The insects are seeking salt; that much seems clear. In a self-experiment, Hans Bänziger was able to prove that they drink from human eyes as well. As they drank his tears, he reported, the bees could barely be felt.

(Translation: Isabel Fargo Cole)