Tasting the Good Light

Inyo National Forest, California, July 2019

Midday heat slaps our faces and shoulders and we pant for breath, oxygen slipping away as we make our way up the White Mountains, searching for Methuselah. It’s only 10,000 feet, but in the heat, the sky so blue, the view spilling out further than we’ve ever seen, it feels like climbing into the heavens. I read on a placard that the red rocks at our feet used to be part of a seabed. Here we are then, strange, soft, grounded creatures, lifted up, sweaty, breathless, and burned, to where the angels sit.

Methuselah, the tree, isn’t 900 years old, like its biblical counterpart. Methuselah the tree is far, far older, estimated to be around 4,850 years old. We don’t know which of the ancient trees is Methuselah – it is kept anonymous, as protection from potential arsonists. We know the trees around us are old, though. The oldest living things we’ve ever seen, twisted and white-gold, bleached and bare. In the brightness of the midday sun, they shine. There is an uprooted trunk lying by the path. The placards tell us that when it finally fell, it was around 3,200 years old. 3,200 years ago, this seed split, shooting into life; 3200 years ago, myths were alive – the Trojan war raged; Rameses III ruled Egypt; a solar eclipse heralded Odysseus’ return; the Phoenicians developed the alphabet. 3200 years ago, ‘Hannah prayed to the Lord, weeping bitterly. And she made a vow, saying, “Lord Almighty, if you will only look on your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life.”’ 3,200 years later, my parents read Hannah’s name in an ancient book, pluck it out, gift it to me, and I place my hand on the trunk of tree that’s as old as myths. It is warm, and smooth to touch.

I have spent the past week at the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE) Thirteenth Biennial Conference, ‘Paradise on Fire’, at the University of California, Davis. In November last year, California experienced the largest and deadliest fire in modern American history. The Camp Fire caused the deaths of 85 people, and the town of Paradise, in Butte County, was destroyed. The name of the conference had been coined prior to the Camp Fire as a general reference to climate change; in the wake of the fire it became something more – a real, tangible expression of the devastation climate change is causing. Consequently, the conference was haunted by fire; most panels referenced the loss, and there were special sessions dedicated to the wildfires and the firemen who tackled them. Alongside and underneath these overt expressions of grief, fear and loss, was a general sense of devastation, and a desperate awareness of the vast amount of political and social change needed even to begin to resolve things. 

Two days into the conference, in a low, wooden building, tucked into a pocket of plant-life in a quiet corner of the campus, I attend a panel session entitled ‘A Nature Poetry Reading for the Anthropocene: Grief and Hope’. Maya Khosla, biologist, poet, filmmaker, and current Poet Laureate of Sonoma County, moves her bag so as not to accidentally squash a small, brown spider, and reads from her collection, All the Fires of Wind and Light (Sixteen Rivers Press, 2019). Her voice is intense, and filled, unexpectedly, with joy. Khosla is a field-based biologist researching the relationship between fire and wildlife. In the introduction to her reading, she explains that naturally-occurring wildfires are not to be considered harmful – they are part of a natural cycle of growth and rebirth. It is the non-naturally-occurring wildfires (those sparked by guns, cigarettes, climate change) that are damaging and should be grieved. Khosla’s poems, while facing directly into the realities of climate change, loss, and human illness, are poems of hope. In ‘Now You Can Set Down Your Fears’, she writes,

A sweep of brightness raises the mountaintops from sleep.
As if on cue, a rush of breath answers the stuff of ages,
the essentials, lands and gurgling waters awakened
by silences rising once the flames have fallen.
Now you can set down your fears.
Read aloud in Khosla’s intense, joyous voice, that titular line resonates.

Throughout the collection, Khosla writes of life returning to burned landscapes, guided by ‘internal instructions’, ‘inner eyes drawing from the Pleistocene’, ‘the mule deer, the lions. / All along, they knew to arrive. To shift and settle into place, / in a vast machinery of rebirth – tasting the good light’. In Khosla’s poetry, ‘Faith alights / on the sooty drapes covering trees. The birds cling, flash. / Announce the sap, the squirming meats, the great bounty.’ In ‘Diablo Winds’, ‘just weeks after the flames […] the rise of suncup, / biscuitroot, toadflax and whispering bells […] petals upon ash, / songbirds upon branches of charcoal, / black bear upon berries of abundance, fresh juices / trickling down the corners of her mouth.’ Sitting in that small, hot room, watching that spider move, I was struck by the power of her poetry. As a creative PhD researcher working in environmental studies, I am sometimes caught up in doubt – how can my writing, my poems, possibly do anything at all? What, in fact, is the point? There is a demand for a PhD to have impact – something tangible. What difference can a poem make? Listening to Khosla perform, I am called to awareness – through love and celebration – through hope – rather than fear. 

Once I began to look for it, hope was everywhere. Plenary speaker Nnedi Okorafor, author of (among others) Who Fears Death, Lagoon, and more recently, several issues of Marvel’s Black Panther, is asked how she stays optimistic in today’s world. She answers with a laugh. ‘If you don’t have any optimism,’ she says, ‘you don’t have any hope, and if you don’t have any hope, you’re not going to get anywhere.’ Laughter, for Okorafor, is how we stay alive. I am reminded of Robert Macfarlane, speaking at the Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature Lecture earlier this year, and his discussion of living in a world ‘post-hope’, his plea to resist this malaise. Hope, for Macfarlane, is an act of resistance: our responsibility, and a defence against climate change and environmental degradation. In an interview with Rob Hopkins, Macfarlane says that ‘Action is a fabulous remedy. Language is action. Language is a world-making, world-shaping force. […] The discourse we use shapes, of course, everything that we encounter in the world and the ways we frame the world to ourselves. The metaphors we use deliver us hope.’[1] This is what I am struck by when Kholsa is reading, and this, I believe, is the point.

In Cherry Valley, site of the 2013 Rim Fire, tiny fir trees are growing; they reach up to my elbow and are a bright, grass green.

In Yosemite, a bear, lumbering and golden, forages at the base of a blossoming tree. 

Baby chipmunks the size of mice skitter over fallen branches in a grove of redwoods, rolling themselves in the duff.

The California hills are rolling golden, and I understand that they are not dry and dead and brown – they are just summering over, waiting. 

Up here with young, old, Methuselah, surrounded by white rocks, red stones, it suddenly doesn’t seem impossible that the planet will survive all this. Maybe we won’t – but the earth, with its magical, mystical, ‘machinery of rebirth’ will just keep going on, regardless.

Hannah Cooper-Smithson, NTU MA Creative Writing student 2015-17, and current M4C doctoral candidate

[1] Rob Hopkins, ‘Robert Macfarlane: “the metaphors we use deliver us hope, or they foreclose possibility”’ (2018) <https://www.robhopkins.net/2018/06/04/the-metaphors-we-use-deliver-us-hope-or-they-foreclose-possibility/> [accessed 18 July 2019]

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