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Poetry of Nature Early Autumn 2021


Nov 20, 2021

Attunements: November Letter From Geoff Oelsner

Dear Poetry of Nature Friends, This will be the last and much the longest of my Attunements letters for the year. It’s in three parts. First, I want to share a few memories and some inspiring transcriptions I made from a journal I was given by the first and perhaps the most deeply Nature-attuned person I’ve ever known, my friend Robert Sudlow. In the second part of the letter, I’ll share the environmental good news found in a book called Burn, Using Fire to Cool the Earth, just as I shared a song lyric and some very positive information about Paul Hawken’s book Drawdown in my September letter. Finally, I’ll offer a poem-prompt made out of questions, and encourage you to continue to write and share your own poems and other creative expressions for our planet and for your place, your neck of the woods. I. Robert Sudlow was a landscape painter who lived in Lawrence, Kansas about an hour from where I grew up in Kansas City. He died in March, 2010 at age 90. I met him in 1964 when I was fifteen and he became the most important male mentor of my life. His artwork is ever suggestive of merging—the presence of earthsky as a fused “unity of two.” You can google “Robert Sudlow paintings” or “images of Robert Sudlow” to see a generous sampling of his magnificent oil paintings and lithographs. Bob’s art and some of his journal writings are also reproduced in two books, Landscapes in Kansas, Paintings by Robert Sudlow (1987) and Spiritual Journeys, The Art of Robert Sudlow (2002). Additionally, many of his journal-cum-sketch books are archived at the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas in Lawrence and can be viewed there. The entries in his journals reflect Bob’s bone-deep communion with the Earth. He made many of these notations outdoors while painting. Reading them, one sees that he got ambushed and eclipsed by the Sacred as he painted; that he saw the face of G-d as he painted. Here are some excerpts from an autumn journal Robert Sudlow kept from 1997-98. The pages pulse with his quivery script and sketches of his native Kansas landscape: September 25, 1997: Bright clarity. Gold-flecked, blue stained hills. A dream: honey-pitted, golden color that would cure mortality. Be very still and surrender this body to death--leave the temporary for the season of all seasons. Beneath all actions of men lies stillness: a lot of noise ending in silence. Keep that treasure. Radiance in the sunlight. Monarchs on the move, high gliding southward. We all seek dominance in this playground. All would be winners. The stars are mocking us. Remember me on gravestones. Beads of rain still glisten on tree stems. Intricate simplicity, a shining surface, facets of dreaming, plumage of glory. September 28, 1997: A world in constant movement. At night I hear the spheres turn. Today breezes play and monarchs sail. All is transparent and adrift. As new as Eden, the sunlight penetrates to our bones. The sky is open, smiling and carefree. Darkness is conquered. October 23, 1997: A quilted sky, lamb’s wool overhead. A vivid sparkling morning, promisingly pure. The dog is chewing on a stick. Few leaves falling. The valley humming with life, abundance, ripeness, and serene joy. I sense sounds beyond hearing, lights surpassing eyesight, and the scent of ineffable blooms. An infinitely detailed tapestry--my rug and yours. ...A deep breathing earth becomes my companion. A respiration shared when boundaries are down. Rooted trees move in a warm wind, a passing that tells of a common existence now whenever I pause. September 19, 1998: My introduction into waking becomes both a loss and a gain. Alone in dreams I participate across all boundaries (both as an actor and observer). Waking early, I become embodied in time. Possibilities abound, as in childhood. There freedom is sensed. Yet the day, by becoming measure, becomes time--a linear sequence beginning and ending with choices and erasures. Innocence settles into self-consciousness...The horizon becomes closer. Names replace dreams. September 21, 1998: The Kingdom of Heaven is spread across the earth-- Now. Not in some future tense, not in the golden past, but now, eternally now. Awake. Slow and in solemn majesty, thrones and dominions move in the morning rain clouds. ...We see consecutively, scene following scene, when actually the view is continuous, seamlessly present-- often all at once. November 16, 1998: [written when Bob was painting in the Flint Hills, near Matfield Green, Kansas]: ...The old Rogler house...wind blowing across flat prairie, sounding through grasses, pummeling my ears--carrying the music of distant crows. Long cloud strands unwind and are strewn beyond sight...Oaks prevail--thriving and heavy-armed guardians rooted deep, scarcely touched by the autumn wind. Joyous morning on the Cottonwood [Note: Cottonwood Creek runs through the old Rogler ranch. Bob painted there a lot.] ...Accidents happen. Set the stage and let them have their way. My canvas blooms by itself. ...Geoff departs and leaves gifts...We ran parallel for a little while, our effect on each other quite out of time. * * * The way Bob lived and worked inspired me to adore and honor Nature. For him painting was a sacramental act, partaking of a very similar spirit to that found in Jesuit priest and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s great text The Mass on the World, (written 1918-1923) in which, while traveling in the steppes of Asia without Communion wine or wafers, de Chardin makes the whole earth his altar and offers it up for divinization (in Greek, theosis), blessing the entire planet. All Blessings to All Beings. When I was with Bob as he painted outdoors, I could feel the way his loving attention saturated the landscape. His powerful joyful field lifted me “quite out of time. “ I tried to describe this eternalizing influence in these two poems: Kansas Browns For Robert Sudlow I know a quiet artist who likes to paint farmers’ fields late afternoons in autumn, then sit with evening colors and smoke a nicked old pipe. Kansas smells of goldenrod, walnuts, baled hay, rain, ploughed ground, soybeans, clay banks, limestone creek beds, “and something of the color brown,” he says. “Smells best in mid-fall...” Then, hedge apples are last to drop. They cluster pale green near the fence posts, filled with thick milk beneath their pulp. Mild cows stand stalled at gates, by troughs and ponds, heaving steady breaths. The artist holds a palette swirled with Kansas browns of shady forest deer-paths, furrows, umber gaps. At dusk he puts his brush and palette down. We sit in evening fields. ~Geoff Oelsner He Paints With Me I walk through one of Sudlow’s paintings, through the landscape as he paints it. I feel fineness, brushed by vast awareness. I walk as Bob works on a hill of golden prairie grasses grazed by wind. I feel inscape; invoked into the scene he’s working on and in, into the sphere where his spirit dilates. ~Geoff Oelsner * * * “Inscape” is a word coined by the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) to denote the unique nature or essence of a person, place, or thing. Hopkins saw and felt the beingness of each aspect of a given landscape. His poetry attests to his sense of inscape: “The world is charged with the Grandeur of God. It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.” (from the poem "God’s Grandeur”). Robert Sudlow was so intimate with the inscape of eastern Kansas that being in the field with him facilitated some remarkable confirmatory experiences and communions of my own. Let’s slide a few years back in time... Bob takes me to a hillside farm where he’s done a lot of outdoor painting in all kinds of weather. We’re walking through the center of a field which has recently been expanded by bulldozing some trees. I vaguely sense a disturbance here, and ask Bob, “Do you think that the Nature spirits get upset by things like this clearing that’s just been done?” Bob’s walking about eight feet in front of me. There are no trees; nothing above us or anywhere near us. Immediately after I ask him that question, a solid dirt clod falls out of thin air from directly above me and hits me smack on the chest right over my heart. I check with Bob that he hasn’t mischievously tossed it back over his shoulder, but no, he hasn’t. I’m inclined to take this as a direct answer from Nature to the question I asked Bob. I don’t think this would have happened without Bob’s connection with the living energies of this place he loved so much and painted so often. The point of the story is that love— and any form of artistic expression— can open us to our planet and place in unitive, numinous, healing ways. * * * II. Now I turn to Burn: Using Fire to Cool the Earth, a book about repurposing the carbon in plant biomass to help mitigate climate change and regenerate the earth. In so doing, I turn to you, affirming the power of your own attunements and prayers and poems and songs and proactive support for the Great Turning, for our Mother Earth. On Burn: Using Fire to Cool the Earth by Albert Bates and Kathleen Draper My friend Albert Bates started off as an environmental rights lawyer and went on to become a scientist, an author, a master permaculture teacher, and the co-founder of Global Village Institute for Appropriate Technology, a non-profit scientific research, development and demonstration organization with projects on six continents. He is one of the core founders of The Farm Ecovillage and was part of the leadership team of the Global Ecovillage Network during the first decade after its inception. Among his more than 24 books are Burn: Using Fire to Cool Earth, and Transforming Plastic: From Pollution to Evolution. A number of new books by Albert have come out since those two, all of them offering pioneering perspectives on planetary problems we must address. In Burn, we learn that for thousands of years, Amazonians living in large populations along South American river banks, planted trees and crops, terraformed the earth and dumped their plant biomass trash in acres of midden piles that slowly compressed down and smoldered for ages, gradually making deep black layers of incredibly fertile carbonaceous soil (aka terra preta), known today as biochar. Albert Bates and Kathleen Draper describe the growing cascade of regenerative uses for biochar, which is now being made in a rapid, virtually smokeless procedure called pyrolysis. I wrote this musical book review to help spread the word about the emerging benefits of the biochar breakthrough. The BIOCHAR Song How do we heal the earth of all the CO2 we’re spewing up polluting it? How do we break the fossil fuel spell and get down to cooling it? I sit by our window with these urgent questions churning ‘round my mind, reading a book called Burn: Using Fire to Cool the Earth. To help reverse the carbon cycle and the rise of greenhouse gases we can burn, and turn carbon from our enemy to ally by firing up plant biomass pyrolyzing it—that’s a smokeless way to bake that biomass to BIOCHAR —the carbon star Burn: Using Fire to Cool the Earth Plant biomass gets wasted every climate-changing day— there’s sewage sludge, crop residues, insistent invasives, cow patties, logs and wood chips, algae and beached seaweed— there’s biomass aplenty in the planetary pantry to supply us all the BIOCHAR we need BIOCHAR can help restore the coral and kelp forests in our oceans it can cook the meals and heat the huts of millions it can speed reforestation and regenerative farming and make better insulation for more livable green buildings And it can filter toxic wastes from our poisoned soil and water create nontoxic plastics, stronger concrete, chardboard paper… Good news whirls around the world as wave on wave of BIOCHAR breakthroughs cascade. If we want to heal the earth from the CO2 polluting it, and harness carbon while we‘re up to cooling it we’re going to need a lot of help from a lot of things like BIOCHAR the carbon star of Burn: Using Fire to Cool the Earth You can read all about it in Burn: Using Fire to Cool the Earth. ~Geoff Oelsner I invite you to listen to The BIOCHAR Song. This book can reorient us with relation to carbon math, helping us to reimagine new uses for carbon and repattern the carbon cycle. Greenhouse gases absorb and emit radiant energy within the thermal infrared range. They cause the greenhouse effect on planets. The primary greenhouse gases in Earth's atmosphere are water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone. The virtually smokeless process of pyrolyzing organic products separates the volatile greenhouse gas-producing by-products from the elemental carbon in plant biomass. It’s leading to the creation of more and more useful products, an innovative phenomenon which Albert and Kathleen refer to as “carbon cascades.” A chunk of biochar clinks when you drop it, like a charcoal briquette. The pure porous pyrolyzed carbon acts like a miniaturized coral reef. It’s composed of micro chambers that provide welcoming homes for beneficial bacteria to propagate when added to the soil. Because the porous carbon holds moisture, it reduces the need for water and artificial fertilizers. There are an accelerating number of demonstration projects, and very positive research into soil improvement and plant growth, going on at agricultural stations all over the world. Albert Bates has travelled extensively to train and exchange learnings with many top government and independent policy makers and researchers. Nuanced applications of biochar from specific kinds of biomass can capture ammonia and immobilize nitrogen, phosphates, and heavy metals, resulting in cleaner water and fewer pernicious algae blooms. Large scale livestock-raising operations that currently pollute waterways with hog, cattle and chicken manures can utilize biochar technologies to help clean up pollution and enhance production, though such production itself remains environmentally problematic in the extreme. Biochar can trap and immobilize salt, which threatens many areas of the world due to over-irrigation and sea level rise. It can be used to produce superior strength concrete with far less greenhouse gas pollution. New construction materials like more durable insulation outperform the existing ones, and sequester carbon that otherwise would pollute the atmosphere. Albert Bates has often been in touch with me with reports of Biochar breakthroughs. Here’s part of one promising report out of many I’ve gotten from him over the past eight years. From China: On Sep 17, 2018 Bates wrote: “I witnessed the power of China’s economic juggernaut brought to bear scaling up biochar fertilizer. From 5 fertilizer factories so far this year to 25 by January, then 60, then 200, then all over China, India and Africa. “Yesterday I met with the director and deputy of Architecture who are in charge of approving all China’s major construction and master plans, including whole new cities. They wanted to hear about biochar in building materials, green roofs, stormwater management, porous pavement etc. We spoke of a symposium next year. “ There are many descriptions of Biochar projects around the world recorded on the Cornell University website of the Crop and Soil Sciences Department, with which Kathleen Draper of the International Biochar Association, and co-authoress of Burn, has worked and consulted. * * * III. Ahoy, Bon Voyage and Godspeed How does all this sit with you? What’s your felt sense of this second part of my letter? I included it to offer further hope. I feel great faith in our human ingenuity and resilience. I’ve loved our Year of Poetic Medicine, our evolving community and all the sharing of poetry we’ve written. When we write or raise our voices freely we may feel an energy that can never be separated from the vast Reality of Nature. We can attune to this Reality and rest and bless in it. One may write to invite such attunement. I ask you: What is ready to be written or said? What is living in you? What is dead? What voices cry for freedom of speech? What words will meet their needs? What is worthy to inscribe in the Diary of Time? What can only be seen between the lines? As we conclude our group for 2021, please continue to find fun and meaningful ways to share what you write—friends, don’t hold back. Free your own freedom to johnnyappleseed your words and other works of love for Life. Every drop in the bucket, every loving little bit you offer helps. Our freely given expressions can help free up our future. I’ve loved being part of our Year of Poetic Medicine Poetry of Nature community this year. Thank you and Blessings to You All, Geoff

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