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I’m writing at the burnt edge of Europe, right here in the glowing embers as the big heat dome from Africa moves grudgingly away from our little patch of vineyards and almond trees to the east, to Berlin, I believe, where the prospects of a dreadful beating by the sun awaits the innocent, fair-skinned pleasure seekers trying to relax after a long winter and uncertain spring worrying about Covid, inflation, the war in Ukraine, shortages at the local Spar shops, and rising rents. Not fair. But then, we have been crawling around on the blazing ground and scalding interiors of our own houses here in southern France. We kind of nudged the dome off its fat, incinerating bottom, just to catch a breath.
I can still remember in the late ‘60s the dire reports from Nasa’s space probes about worrisome particles of carbon accumulating in the upper atmosphere, and telling scientists to beware. The pols of the big pollution-belching economies plugged their ears and kept on voting for legislation to ease the rules around petroleum industry expansion. We all went blithely into the ‘70s, and hardly took notice of certain odd incidents in our weather patterns in the’80s, and when the ‘90s began to show us that we were headed into a strange new dystopian future full of wildfires and riots and social unrest around the world, we began to frown. A little. The new millennium was a Pandora’s box of nasty surprises, with fierce new hurricanes boiling up out of the sea, and wild windstorms felling ancient trees in England, and so on. Droughts came next, and began to desertize once fertile, well-watered plains where our corn and wheat were thriving. Don’t ask a California farmer how he feels now that his fields look like the bald heads in Congress. He won’t have anything nice to say, unless you beep his every other word.
The Colorado River, which sustains life for some 70 million souls, is drying up. Now I read where the Congo is auctioning its lush rainforests to oil companies, and the bids are flying everywhere to grab this sudden bonanza of nearly free drilling land. We have lost our minds; we have given up trying to save the ever-diminishing resources that remain to us after three centuries of using our skies as dumping grounds. It is hard not to stare up at the heavens and beg for mercy.
So, the talk here is still of sleepless nights, of turning in bed with the sheets stuck to our sweaty backs, with the fans all humming in the bedrooms and batting around the tepid, sticky air. One rumor spread quickly at the swimming pool that it had rained for a few minutes that morning. My wife came back from her “aqua-gym” session to tell me there had been some slight murmur of change in the air, but that was soon dismissed as the still lingering dampness merely heated up and became a rank steam.
The heat reaches under your shirt and grips you by the heart; it pinches the valves, and stifles the struggling arteries to keep blood moving around the body to cool it down. The only remedy is a tall glass of water and ice cubes to sip on, and then pad around in the kitchen on bare feet to get more cubes and load the tap water to the brim. Alcohol is no solace in such morbid weather. It only makes you feel logy and ill at ease. I listened as the phone rang on a bench nearby and couldn’t get up to answer it. I passed the time wondering who that might have been. Then the phone call vanished into the shadows and I went on folding and unfolding my legs as I tried to read. My water glass kept draining down as if it were leaking, but it was me slurping continuously and too weary to recharge the supply. If this is the future, let me thumb a ride to Mars. Maybe there’s some ice pack buried under the red sand to offer an underground igloo shelter where you could sit and pant and wonder why there’s more pollution now than ever before on poor old, battered and misused Earth.
I took out my old shoes from the back of the closet. They were worn down at the heels, and hadn’t been polished in many rough winters. I admired them. I had them on my lap as I took out a can of polish and began to rub the soft dark fat into the strangled leather. The polish disappeared into the pores; the smell rose from the rag. I was pushed back into the past, into the deep, quilted, satiny past of rainstorms and chill winds. I remember wearing these shoes to the neighbor’s house to borrow a cup of milk. I stood there with the ice dripping off the soles, waiting politely on the rubber mat at the front door. I apologized for the mess I was leaving, and the frail old woman said with a smile, “Don’t be sorry. It’s a message from the sky and it is telling us we have been good citizens down here. Here, take your milk and consider it another gift.” These were magical shoes; I was never disappointed when I went out wearing them. They were part of some ancient bond between my life and the forces that ruled over it from above. My shoes remembered the miracles of rain and wind and the coming of spring, when I put them back into the darkness of the closet and took out my loafers or my sandals and prepared for the warmth of April. How I miss those innocent reminders of my joy, the weather I took for granted all those many years of my life.
The task that awaits me now is to step down out of the house and plod through the village on my way to the little general store at the edge of town. I am still blessed with the plenty of the soil, with the hard work and patience of the farmers, with the man who tends this shop and sets out the ripe fruit and juicy tomatoes and makes sure there are little paper bags for me to use. The cabinet behind him has a few Cuban cigars and lots of cigarettes, some of them Turkish that smell of camel dung and Bedouin sweat. I buy some bread, a can of peas, a brick of dark chocolate, a bottle of white wine and head back into the cruel sunlight. Sweat breaks out; my palms are slick and my feet slide around in my worn-out sandals. It’s a different era, a troubling one I am moving through slowly, a kind of snail inching through this passage of eternity, looking for forgiveness for my errors and the reckless indifference of my fellow man. I am hoping one day the sky will make a rainbow glow over our rooftops and tell us that it may not rain any time soon, that we are not going to be punished for our vanity.
The rooms of the house are cool when I return; the stone has not heated up as much as it did yesterday. I can smell the ratatouille cooking in a skillet, being turned by a loving mother with her old spatula. Her fingers smell like freshly diced onion, and her apron is spotted with the tiny drops of olive oil that have risen out of the frying pan out of admiration.
We may not make it through this crisis. But no one can say for sure it is too late. The king is in the counting house counting out his money; the queen is in the parlour eating bread and honey. Her children play in the echoing courtyard below. A horse comes clopping down the cobbled street and stops at the castle gate. There is no rider. But a parchment scroll is tied to the saddle horn. An attendant brings it up to the king and who reads it carefully. He is touched by its words. He has never been so moved by such simple lyrics asking him to let his peasants return from the field and join him in a feast. He tells his servant to sound the bell in the tower and to summon everyone to his great hall.
When the workers gather under the heavy timbers, and take a sip of dark red wine, they look up at the gallery to the king’s daughter smiling at them. She is letting the rose petals in her fingers drift down onto their heads as if they were raindrops. Everyone is thankful for their lives. Everyone rejoices that there is no war at large, no knights storming the villages and burning down the barns. No one is cursing his neighbor. No one is angry. We are all kneeling in the dirt with our hands clasped together praising the sky for its mercy. We must forgive and be merciful, but that message will come slowly to us, through our suffering and humility.
Copyright 2022 Paul Christensen
Paul Christensen is a poet and writer who divides his time between Vermont and the south of France.