Through his songs, writer Peter Reason explores many rich themes: grief, rage and despair at our ecological catastrophe; beauty and wonder at the world; deep participation in life on Earth, and taking seriously the panpsychic and animist perspective that the world is alive, sentient and speaks to us, if only we will attend and listen.
How does one sing in the face of the ecological crisis — the disruption of the process of life itself, permanent loss of evolutionary complexity, permanent endings of patterns of being? Songs for Earth are my response: songs of grief and rage; of beauty and blessing; of belonging.
Peter Reason is a writer linking the tradition of nature writing with the ecological crisis of our times, drawing on scientific, ecological, philosophical and spiritual sources and participatory perspectives.
‘What can poetry say in a time of catastrophe?’ asks the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, referring to the catastrophe of Palestinian exile, the Nakba. When I quote this, I find people respond with Theodor Adorno’s assertion that it is “impossible to write poetry after Auschwitz”. Both inspire reflections on the place of all creative art at this time of ecological catastrophe: climate change, the destruction of ecosystems, the Sixth Extinction of living beings. I explored these questions with my artist niece Sarah Gillespie in two booklets, On Presence and On Sentience.
A little search on the internet suggested that Adorno did not say that it was impossible to write poetry after Auschwitz but that it was barbaric; and that later he withdrew his statement, saying “perennial suffering has as much right to expression as the tortured have to scream.” Or, as Brecht asked, “In dark times will there also be singing?”
When I started to sing and play guitar again a few years ago, I was confronted with the question of what kind of songs to sing. So many songs are about human relationships of love and loss, which don’t seem quite appropriate for a nearly eighty-year-old with fifty-five years of marriage (although one can learn a lot about song writing from classic love songs like ‘Berkeley Square’). Remembering Rilke’s injunction that “the more looked at world wants to be nourished by love”; and because so much of my attention is bound up with the plight of Earth and the unfolding ecological catastrophe, I realized that, with the poet Mary Oliver, I can say “my work is loving the world”. Most of my songs are poems I like that speak of and to Earth that I set to my own tune and accompaniment; increasingly, I am writing my own lyrics.
These songs seem to reach toward three themes: expressions of grief, rage, and despair; appreciations of beauty and wonder; expressions of deep participation in life on Earth.
The first theme, grief, rage, and despair, is maybe best explored through Berthold Brecht’s question, which lead me to write ‘In dark times’. Responding to the late Polly Higgins and Eradicating Ecocide’s invitation to compose a letter to Earth in the face of the Sixth Extinction, all I could write was ‘Dear Earth, I couldn’t live without you’, which later evolved into a song lyric. ‘Gods and Goddesses’, a setting of a poem by my friend Ama Bolton, takes a look at our predicament from Olympian heights – it is driving the gods to drink; while ‘Quiet Friend’, ‘The Unbroken’ and ‘Lay Down the Path’ remind us of our human capacity to find our way through the darkest of times. Of course, this dark theme is well expressed by Leonard Cohen in ‘The Future’, especially the lines “The blizzard, the blizzard of the world | Has crossed the threshold | And it has overturned | The order of the soul”. There are one or two Cohen songs I attempt (singing ‘Anthem’ can leave me in tears), but ‘The Future’ is not one of them.
However, many more songs are ones of praise and appreciation of the beauty of the wild world. One of my earliest is a setting of Wendell Berry’s much loved ‘The Peace of the Wild Things’, which I later arranged in four parts for Sasspafellas, the men’s choir I am part of (with much help from my teacher Marius Frank). ‘Rocks’ drew on my experience of encountering ancient geology sailing north on the west coast of Scotland. More recently, with some trepidation, I found a way to sing the beautiful ‘Lost Words Blessing’ by Spell Songs. Robert Bly’s translation of Goethe’s poem ‘Wanderer’s Nachtlied II’ drew me to write ‘Wanderer’s Nightsong’; Mary Oliver shows the wonder of ‘Sleeping in the Forest’; and so on.
Over the past four years I have been taking seriously the panpsychic and animist perspective that the world is alive; not just alive, the world is sentient and speaks to us, if only we will attend and listen. I have been involved in a series of co-operative inquiries with Human and River persons and am giving an account of this in Learning How Land Speaks. ‘Suzanne/River Song’ adapts Leonard Cohen’s ‘Suzanne’ to express my personal experience of how River speaks.
This leads on to the third theme: we are part of this world, not apart from it, as the dualism and anthropocentric assumptions of capitalist growth society teach us. I have written academically about participatory worldview, but it is maybe better expressed poetically. ‘When I Was The Forest’ is based on words by Meister Eckhart in Daniel Ladinsky’s rendering. The second verse is my own words, which I hope remains in the spirit of the original mystic vision of returning to full participation in the Earth and her creatures. ‘State of Grace’ was written by Elizabeth Krasknoff as coursework at California Institute for Integral Studies. Other songs are inspired by Taoist philosophy: ‘The Way’ was inspired by a poem by Wang Wei that features in Richard Powers’ ecological novel The Overstory; ‘The Uses of Not’ is adapted from Ursula LeGuin’s rendering of the Tao te Ching.
I acknowledge the essential influence of my teacher Marius Frank; and also Cindy Stratton, Helen Chadwick, and Ali Burns.
All of these songs can be found on Peter’s website or on SoundCloud.
You can find Peter’s two booklets with Sarah Gillespie here on his website: On Presence and On Sentience. Learning how Land Speaks is Peter’s Substack account of the series of co-operative inquiries he’s working on with Human and River persons. And How to write a love letter to the Earth is Peter’s short essay for EarthLines Issue 4.
Read Poetry After Auschwitz on what Adorno didn’t say… and Living in Dark Times on the poetry of Bertolt Brecht.
My Work is Loving the World is Mary Oliver’s poem (“Let me / keep my mind on what matters, / which is my work, / which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished.”). And The Peace of Wild Things is Wendell Berry’s poem (“I come into the presence of still water. / And I feel above me the day-blind stars /waiting with their light.”). You can find Robert Bly’s translation of Goethe’s ‘Wanderers Nachtlied II’ in The Slender Sadness and Other Truths, a blog post on Bly by poet Ken Craft.
You can listen to The Lost Words Blessing by Spell Songs, a musical evolution of both The Lost Words and The Lost Spells books by acclaimed author Robert Macfarlane and award-winning illustrator Jackie Morris that features Karine Polwart, Julie Fowlis, Seckou Keita, Kris Drever, Rachel Newton, Beth Porter and Jim Molyneux.
Everyone needs Leonard Cohen’s ‘Suzanne’, and here he is, singing it in London.