Artists are some of the most generous people, though most are far from wealthy.
Recently I responded to a call for artists to support a fundraising event in Nelson, BC on behalf of the residents of Johnson’s Landing, which was struck by a devastating mudslide on July 12. Four people lost their lives in that disaster and the tiny rural community is still without a functioning water system. Veteran Nelson actor/playwright Richard Rowberry put out the call for musicians, poets, storytellers and artists to either perform at Nelson’s City Hall Square on July 29 or donate their work for a silent auction. The response to Richard’s call was incredible—he found himself having to turn away performers. “I had to shut down my list, or it could have gone all night,” he says. The event ran from noon to 8 pm and featured among much fine local talent the internationally renowned folk musician Bill Bourne.
The response to the Johnson’s Landing disaster by poets, musicians, photographers and artists of all disciplines throughout the West Kootenay has been similarly generous. In Kaslo, a community just 53 kilometres south of Johnson’s Landing, artist Randy Morse organized a benefit event at the Kaslo Hotel the evening of July 24, also with a silent art auction. Between the Nelson and Kaslo events, a total of about $10,000 was raised. Most of these funds will be directed toward restoring the community’s water system. Regional District of Central Kootenay Director for Area D (including Kaslo and North Kootenay Lake) Andy Shadrack said at the Kaslo event that $14,000 had already been raised toward expenses incurred for the water supply. So once again we see community in action—when tragedy strikes, the innate human traits of cooperation and sharing leaps to the fore. And not least among the generous are our musicians, poets, storytellers, and artists of all disciplines.
I chose to perform three poems for the event. In looking over my work trying to decide what to read, I realized I’d written a poem called tsunami in my 2005 collection, The Charlatans of Paradise (New Orphic Publishers). The poem was written to commemorate the many lives lost in the Indonesian tsunami that occurred Boxing Day, 2004, in which a total of 227,898 people died as a result of the third largest earthquake ever recorded. As I explained to the ‘small but appreciative’ audience in City Hall Square, the poem is a reminder that we have been experiencing the effects of global climate change in freak weather events now for more than a decade. The poem’s closing lines are a reminder of how little governments have done to respond to this threat: “and crows circling the wreckage / for the TV cameras / warning / in their bureaucratic cackle / it’s habitual for nations / to break their promises.” As The Guardian reported in its June 15-21 issue on the eve of the Rio+20 Earth Summit, some 500 environment-related agreements have been signed over the past 50 years. Of those “some progress” has been made on 40 of them, with “little or no” progress in 24, “including climate change, fish stocks, desertification and drought;” and “further deterioration” on eight goals. It was heartening at least to see some news media acknowledge that climate change may have played a role in the Johnson’s Landing slide.
The second piece I chose to read was from my book-length narrative poem Dead Crow and the Spirit Engine, a poem entitled Dead Crow and the Flood, which takes us back even further, into the realm of ‘mythic’ history—the universally common theme of a global flood that occurs in world mythologies. The word ‘myth’ in modern culture has come to mean something false, but this is not what the original term meant. In Walter Skeat’s Concise Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, the word originally meant ‘a fable,’ and the Greek word from which we derive ‘mythology’ meant simply ‘a discourse,’ or, ‘to tell.’ A fable is basically a teaching allegory or a cautionary tale and is most certainly drawn from details of real life. In other words, it has basis in fact, in observable human relations and our interaction with Nature.
The great mythologist Joseph Campbell took it to another level when he said that “myths are clues to spiritual potentialities” within ourselves, clues along the path to self-realization. (The Power of Myth, with Bill Moyers, Anchor/Doubleday books, 1988) Not self-realization in the pop culture Narcissistic sense, but as a means of developing into a fully realized human being capable of giving back to society, of respecting our place within the universal family of being. Given that industrial capitalists exert a dominating influence over environmental policy, it’s no wonder then that there’s been a concerted effort to sever us from our mythic roots. In part this has been accomplished, ironically, by digital information technologies and ‘social’ media like Twitter and Facebook, that keep us focused on the miniscule, the banal. The universal picture is lost.
So although the tsunami of 2004 may seem like ages ago and far away in our second-by-second digital universe, and the mythological global flood a mere distraction, they both point to the universal picture: we are a species fast outstripping the ecosystems that support us. In the mythic tales arising from Mesopotamian and Greek literature, a family of cantankerous gods were seen as capable of sending extreme weather—thunderbolts, ocean storms—to punish humans. Yet as climate scientists remind us, the equation since then has flipped: humans are now the weather ‘gods’ driving changes in the environment. We have stolen more than fire from the gods—we have taken the thunderbolts from the hands of Zeus.
Dead Crow and the Flood ends with a hopeful scene, just as the original flood tale in the Epic of Gilgamesh does. (The Mesopotamian tale pre-dates the one found in Genesis by about 1,500 years.) A crow or raven is sent out from Ziusudra’s ark and discovers the waters have receded. I conclude with the hopeful perspective seen by Dead Crow: “Leaving the old man’s bony shoulder / for the last time took all my strength, / but that first sodden sprig / of green forgiveness rooted me / to Earth—moist black promise / whose leaves never let go / and never stop singing— / wind a deft pianist and every leaf another key.
But I wanted to write something specifically for the four individuals who lost their lives in Johnson’s Landing: Val Webber, his daughters Diana and Rachel, and Petra Frehse. Not having known them personally, I didn’t want to pretend to any emotions I didn’t feel, nor simulate them in writing that would thus ring false. The day before I was to perform at Richard Rowberry’s event in Nelson, it finally came to me: a brief little poem of 23 lines that once again examines our relationship with Nature, which, even without our meddling, can suddenly turn deadly. I hope I’ve done their spirits justice and I send it out to you now.
What Wakes This Mountain
—for Val, Diana, Rachel and Petra
This is not the call of the mountain
they had hoped to hear.
No stream-whispered invitation
to a bed of moss
beneath star-wild sky,
where so many times
they followed the forget-me-not trail
to peace. But the mountain
comes to us all, eventually.
A hundred years pass, a thousand,
the majesty of silence complete.
Then—an arm lashes out,
snapping beams and metal,
crumpling a roof that kept out the rain.
Matchboxes against the universe,
buttressed by love
and faith so magnificently blind.
Four souls now walk the path
of the ancestors. Only they know
what wakes this mountain,
what beats at its dark heart.
Only they know
whose spirits pass there.
©2012 Sean Arthur Joyce