Songs for Earth

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.


Notes

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.

Stormy Weather

Ecological artist Laura Donkers shares Stormy Weather, a short film that conveys collective collusion in climate change through a combination of verbal message, moving film image, and soundscapes of storm, bird song and dance music that pulls the viewer into the personal and collective experience of Cyclone Gabrielle in Aotearoa New Zealand in February 2023.



Stormy Weather (MP4 4:07min) is a film poem conveying the domestic experience of an extreme weather event on 14th February 2023, as Cyclone Gabrielle tracked across North Island, New Zealand. A pause to reflect on human behaviour and our interactions with nature and weather at a time of climate change.

Laura Donkers is an ecological artist and researcher connecting people with ecology through community projects and outdoor art workshops to inform more creative and sustainable ways to live.

 

After enduring Cyclone Gabrielle in February 2023, which was classed as an extreme weather event in Aotearoa New Zealand, I wanted to create a short film that subtly conveys the theme of collective collusion on climate change. But rather than a climate-disaster thriller, my short film would offer a sensitive portrayal of the impact that an extreme weather event has on everyday lives by combining filming of the actual storm with recordings of public warnings by politicians and subsequent citizen testimony recounting the impact of landslides and flooding.

I created Stormy Weather to be a film [as] poem to express both my personal encounter with the cyclone and as collective experience via the harrowing public testimony that emerged in newsreels after the event. The film poem genre combines three main elements: a verbal message, the moving film image, and a soundscape of diegetic sounds, such as the storm, bird song and dance music, which pull the viewer into the world of the video. This approach presents a compelling illusion to trigger personal associations in the viewer towards their own thought processes and experiences. But rather than imagined, the imagery, sound and text relate to a real, recent happening that further resonates with the audience’s own lived experience.

In the opening scene we can hear the voice of the NZ Prime Minister responding to reporters’ questions about extreme weather events and climate change. A recording of the 1933 sentimental love song ‘Stormy Weather’ (written by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler) begins to play. Reflected in the darkening windows via shadowy rhythmic movements and silhouetted figures, we witness a couple dancing. At first, their swaying movements are matched by the fern trees outside. As the storm activity builds the trees’ animation becomes more extreme and acoustic tension rises in the audio recording. The dance sequence ends, and the music continues but gets drowned out by the storm’s growing intensity.

At the start, the closed windows shut out the weather, nature and climate change. Yet, the illuminated darkness forces us to observe the wildness taking place outside while the shadows and reflections of the interior action show in some way the bizarre continuation of everyday lives in the face of such powerful forces: a subtle dig at our lack of willingness to face up to climate reality (dancing while the land is sliding).

The sound makes the drama and violence of the storm hit home, which helps us consider the noises we ‘drown out’ with the ones we create for ourselves. By decreasing the volume of the news reports the usual anthropocentric hierarchy is reordered with human voices assigned the ambient sound role to subtly shift the focus onto nature’s sounds.

Eventually, the storm ends, and morning arrives. The sound track transitions into a cacophony of cicada and bird calls. We see that the house is still standing, and the sun is shining. The windows are open, causing the fern trees to occupy the liminal space between house and environment. Peace has returned. Yet in the background we hear a report that others have not been so fortunate: the reporter states that 35,000 residents have been displaced as a result of unprecedented rainfall causing widespread flooding and landslips.

With the windows open a threshold is created that accommodates our appreciation and desire for nature but only in certain conditions. Here the sounds and images provide space for reflection in contrast to the earlier dramatic scenes. Yet the gentleness of these lies in stark contrast to the horror expressed in the selected texts that appear randomly across the screen. The final extract stays with the viewer as the film ends.

Stormy Weather brings a different perspective to discussions around climate change towards a more truthful and helpful direction through its use of a domestic setting and domestic actions which contrast with the world ‘outside’. It reflects back to us some of our behaviours and interactions with nature and climate in a way that makes us pause, think and create space for conversation.

This film poem presents Cyclone Gabrielle as a transformative phenomenon that changes how the climate crisis is viewed by the people directly affected, as well as those looking on. Its domestic proximity evokes a state of suspense that develops into an awesome (and for some) life-changing experience, revealing a world where climate change is acknowledged as present and real, thus concentrating our attention and altering our perceptions towards behaviour change. A pivotal ‘happening’ that will alter the destiny of our current situation.


You can find Laura’s film here on her website, with more of her work. Laura has written two posts for ClimateCultures about her work with the embodied knowledge of communities: Eco-social Art — Engaging Climate Literacy and ‘What You Need Will Come to You’.

AHIMSA

Much of my music is composed as a means to encourage others to think about the possibility of world peace.” Stanley Grill‘s four-piece composition expresses the ancient Jain, Hindu and Buddhist concept of ‘ahimsa’ — ‘non-harm’ in our relationship with the rest of the natural world — in his learning not only from great historic figures but from the example of his own grandfather.


We cannot bring harm to other living beings without bringing harm to ourselves — and that makes ‘ahimsa’ not just a concept related to the peaceful resolution of conflict between humans, but a concept about our place in all of nature.

Stanley Grill is a composer of music that attempts to translate something about the nature of the physical world or promote world peace, sparking positive thoughts and inspiring change.

 

Much of my music is composed as a means to encourage others to think about the possibility of world peace. During the pandemic, undistracted at home, I wrote a large number of works, one of which included AHIMSA — music inspired by that ancient Indian principle of living in harmony with all living beings. The concept is broader than what I believe most people understand ‘ahimsa’ to mean — it is not just non-violence. It is an understanding that all living creatures on earth are connected. We cannot bring harm to other living beings without bringing harm to ourselves — and that makes ahimsa not just a concept related to the peaceful resolution of conflict between humans, but a concept about our place in all of nature.

The music is in four movements. It begins with music inspired by the principles I learned at home from my grandfather, who as a teenager, fled Poland by himself, to make his way to America. His basic philosophy of life was that every person should strive to become the best person they can be, to realize their potential, but without ever imposing themselves on or harming others. The music then progresses to the great guiding lights — Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and John Lennon — all of whom died while in the pursuit of holding up the candle of ahimsa for all to see. It is hard to think of any who are their match today, but those with their intensity are sorely needed.

AHIMSA extensively uses quodlibets,  a technique that’s been used by various composers since medieval times. I researched melodies that were known to Gandhi and Martin Luther King (and in Lennon’s case, several of his songs) and then wove fragments of the melodies into the counterpoint in their respective movements.


AHIMSA (2022) was recorded in the Czech Republic, with Marek Štilec leading the Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice. You can listen to AHIMSA at Stanley’s own site — where you can explore more of his Music for Peace and Music for the Earth and his many other compositions — as well as on You Tube Music, Spotify, Amazon Music, and Tidal

Stanley previously contributed Remember to our Creative Showcase; his collaboration with choreographer and dancer Mariko Endo serves as a reminder of who we are by nature — part and parcel of the earth and all of the life around us. You can find this here in our archive.