Monday, November 16, 2015

Wildfires in the Chapada Diamantina

Sad to see that Chapada National Park and surrounding towns in the Chapada Diamantina in Bahia, Brazil, are burning.

According to César Gonçalves, the acting director of Chapada National Park, the situation is “out of control.”

In this video in Portuguese (beware the 30 sec. ad), the park director on Nov. 16 reiterates that the fire is out of control, but then comes the Secretary of the Environment Eugenio Spengler who insists that, no, really, it’s under control. Except that the aerial views in this video look anything but.

I backpacked there in January 2013, and it was a gorgeous respite from the city. I immediately felt at home there, as if a sudden calm had overtaken me, quieting any anxieties. That first night, I slept a deep sleep, and awakened late to bird song, a kind of symphony the likes of which I'd never heard. I ceased all motion, laying only in the hammock in the yellow-green sea of grasses, listening for hours. After I finally budged to breakfast with a sleepwalker's motions, I went out to walk. Yellow butterflies glutted the air of the valley of Capão, as if it were enchanted. I know that I was –- enchanted, that is.

Gonçalves said that they have three separate fires, “one in Ibicioara, where Ibama [the federal environmental agency] is combating areas that lay outside the park; a big fire in the north region of the park, between the municipalities of Lençóis e Palmeiras; and one in Morro Branco, in the Valley of Capão.”

As of Nov. 14, the fourth day of the fires, there didn’t seem to be any improvement in containment. An initial fire began on Nov. 12, near to the Mucugezinho River, which separates the towns of Lençóis and Palmeiras. Dry air, lack of rain, and strong winds have spread the fires.

Residents of the region complain that the quantity of professionals and volunteers combating the fire is insufficient. Residents of Bahia who feel that the government is allocating insufficient resources to fight the fires are organizing around the hashtag #soschapadadiamantina

On Nov. 14, police detained a man suspected of lighting the fire in the park. Gildásio Miranda Silva, native of the nearby town of Mucugê, was arrested after being caught in the act of lighting the fire, according to the Jornal da Chapada.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Vale SA Mining Company Dam Fails, Brazil's Biggest Dam Break

On Nov. 5 in the district of Bento Rodrigues in the town of Marianas in Minas Gerais state, Brazil, the Samarco mining operation's tailings dam failed, pouring 60 million cubic tons of water and iron ore waste into the town. This amounted to a gargantuan wave of mud, which is still flowing at this writing, continuing to devastate the surrounding area. Authorities are unable to enter the area, with only drones providing area pictures of the wide, spreading swath of green land affected. Two people are confirmed killed, and 28 people are still missing. It looks to be Brazil's biggest dam break ever.

Samarco is a joint venture of BHP Billiton Ltd. and Vale SA, two of the world’s biggest mining companies.

The dam's alarm system did not sound, leaving the residents without warning besides impromptu help provided by good Samaritans who helped some to evacuate. They only knew a dam had broken when some noticed a big cloud of dust in the sky 4 miles away in the direction of the dam. One man jumped on a flatbed and drove around yelling for people to flee; he was able to get out 60 people, including some elders. Meanwhile, others missed this improvised rescue operation. 200 homes were destroyed, with 800 left homeless.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the residents of Bento Rodrigues reported that they had lived in fear of the dam put above their town, in their observation, without structural reinforcement. It appeared to be propped up with mounds of clay, and residents said that they were made nervous by seeing dam workers constantly patching parts of the dam. The residents had asked the company to improve safety--which met with no Vale actions to address residents' concerns.

According to Places of Minas's online commentary (Lugares de Minas), this break is not singular but points to a bigger pattern of greed and land exploitation in the region. They ask, "Até quando Brasil? Cadê os órgãos responsáveis, que deveriam fiscalizar? Quantas comunidades, cidades, não estão no mesmo risco?" or, "How long will this go on, Brazil? Where are the responsible government bodies which should be regulating this activity? How many communities and cities are in the same danger?"

I actually have some personal experience with Vale mining company. In 2010, when I visited Minas Gerais, driving between Belo Horizonte and Ouro Preto, the beautiful green rolling hills were often gashed with orange, dramatically cut away. Curious, and suspicious of the roadside billboards describing how eco-friendly Vale was (which we suspected was so much green washing), we pulled off to the side of the road. We followed our noses off the ramp and up to a guard station that served as checkpoint into the Vale mined area. The station house was stocked with fully militarized guards, in paramilitary gear. We innocently asked if we could tour the facilities. This met with no smile cracked in the faces whose eyes were hidden behind shaded glasses. We hurriedly made a U-turn and left the way we had come, our curiosity about Vale's operations unquenched, but with a strong instruction in Vale's security system. Security, that is, for the operations--less so for nearby residents.

A tailings dam is built to shore up mine waste and water produced in the milling process. Sometimes in tailing ponds, other minerals are mixed with the mining waste in order to slow its dispersal into the environment. According to Scott Dunbar, department head of the Norman B. Keevil Institute of Mining Engineering at the University of British Columbia, tailings dams usually fail from excess of water in the tailings ponds. The people in the town were not warned.

The destruction of the town of Bento Rodrigues is all the more sad given the town's women's cooperative that collaborated to grow and harvest local fruits and chili peppers in order to make local delicacies that they sold in jars. This artisanal collective of poor rural women who harvested the land traditionally to create their own business--is now destroyed, primarily because the land, and all their homes and cooking facilities, were destroyed in the giant wave of mud. Watch this video to see how the land looked prior to the Samargo mining company's dam fail. It is so peaceful and bucolic, it is truly heart breaking to think of these women entrepreneurs' efforts, and traditional lives, literally soiled and in ruins.

This is personally upsetting for me, knowing how people in country areas of Minas Gerais struggle to maintain a traditional lifestyle of tending the land--in the face of expanding mining operations.

Monday, October 12, 2015

from "Book of Hours" by Kevin Young

The light here leaves you
lonely, fading

as does the dusk
that takes too long

to arrive. By morning
the mountain moving

a bit closer to the sun.

This valley belongs
to no one—

except birds who name
themselves by their songs

in the dawn.
What good

are wishes, if they aren't
used up

The lamp of your arms.

The brightest
blue beneath the clouds—

We guess
at what's next

unlike the mountain

who knows it
in the bones, a music

too high
to scale.

* * *

The burnt,
blurred world

where does it end—

The wind
kicks up the scent

from the stables
where horseshoes hold

not just luck, but
beyond. But

weight. But a body

that itself burns,
begs to run.

The gondola quits just
past the clouds.

The telephone poles
tall crosses in the road.

Let us go
each, into the valley—

turn ourselves
& our hairshirts

inside out, let the world
itch—for once—

* * *

Black like an eye

bruised night brightens
by morning, yellow

then grey—
a memory.

What the light was like.

All day the heat a heavy,
colored coat.

I want to lie
down like the lamb—

down & down
till gone—

shorn of its wool.
The cool

of setting & rising
in this valley,

the canyon between us
shoulders our echoes.

Moan, & make way.

* * *

The sun's small fury
feeds me.

Wind dying down.

We delay, & dither
then are lifted

into it, brightness
all about—

O setting.
O the music

as we soar
is small, yet sating.

What you want—

Nobody, or nothing
fills our short journeying.

Above even the birds,
winging heavenward,

the world is hard
to leave behind

or land against—
must end.

I mean to make it.

Turning slow beneath
our feet,

finding sun, seen
from above,

this world looks
like us—mostly

salt, dark water.

* * *

It's death there
is no cure for

life the long

If we're lucky.

Otherwise, short
trip beyond.

And below.

growing shadow.

I chase the quiet
round the house.

Soon the sound—

wind wills
its way against

the panes. Welcome
the rain.

the moon's squinting

into space.
The trees

bow like priests.

The storm lifts
up the leaves.

Why not sing.

Source: Poetry (November 2007)

"Sleeping Trees" by Fady Joudah

Between what should and what should not be
Everything is liable to explode. Many times
I was told who has no land has no sea. My father
Learned to fly in a dream. This is the story
Of a sycamore tree he used to climb
When he was young to watch the rain.

Sometimes it rained so hard it hurt. Like being
Beaten with sticks. Then the mud would run red.

My brother believed bad dreams could kill
A man in his sleep, he insisted
We wake my father from his muffled screams
On the night of the day he took us to see his village.
No longer his village he found his tree amputated.
Between one falling and the next

There’s a weightless state. There was a woman
Who loved me. Asked me how to say tree
In Arabic. I didn’t tell her. She was sad. I didn’t understand.
When she left. I saw a man in my sleep three times. A man I knew
Could turn anyone into one-half reptile.
I was immune. I thought I was. I was terrified of being

The only one left. When we woke my father
He was running away from soldiers. Now
He doesn’t remember that night. He laughs
About another sleep, he raised his arms to strike a king
And tried not to stop. He flew
But mother woke him and held him for an hour,

Or half an hour, or as long as it takes a migration inward.
Maybe if I had just said it.
Shejerah, she would’ve remembered me longer. Maybe
I don’t know much about dreams
But my mother taught me the law of omen. The dead
Know about the dying and sometimes
Catch them in sleep like the sycamore tree
My father used to climb

When he was young to watch the rain stream,
And he would gently swing.

Fady Joudah, “Sleeping Trees” from The Earth in the Attic. Copyright © 2008 by Fady Joudah. Reprinted by permission of Yale University Press.

Source: The Earth in the Attic (Yale University Press, 2008)

Sunday, October 4, 2015

"Any fool can destroy trees; they cannot run away"

Through all the wonderful, eventful centuries since Christ's time--and long before that--God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand straining, leveling tempests and floods; but he cannot save them from fools--only Uncle Sam can do that.
--from "Our National Parks" by John Muir

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

"Thanks" by W. S. Merwin

with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
standing by the windows looking out
in our directions

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks we are saying thank you
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us
taking our feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
thank you we are saying and waving
dark though it is

Sunday, September 20, 2015

"My Job is Joy: Beatitude in B Flat / A Sharp" in Taos Journal of Poetry and Art

My poem "My Job is Joy: Beatitude in B Flat / A Sharp," which appears in the Taos Journal of Poetry and Art, begins:
In life, I thought my job to follow
the to do list, complete
items with maximum
efficiency. Log tasks.
Enter numbers. Earn bucks...
Geesh, that doesn't sound fun.

The poem pivots its way toward this realization:
Let us be lessoned how it is, finally,
to be without membrane: that bliss
those who worship—through hands pressed,
eyes upturned, with implorations—sought:

that joining
in the palms
of the infinite, who has
no hand.

Let all quarrels be lessened.
From the hovering cloud perspective:
those who seemed my nemeses
were but sucklers of my evolution.
Sudden inrush of forgiving.

God, they held me to their breast!
For them, a gratitude. Forgiveness.
In opposition, there can be no opposition.
(Why not earlier? Then:
forgiveness even of this.)

Let all rifts, upheld with victim
and the wronger, be as none.
Let me in this life begin this practice.

Let the goddess of chaos
descend, eager
vulture await on highest branch,
to tear all temporary form apart.
Let us be sundered from one another.

Let me be mere particulate, rattle,
become the stuff of matter:
cells, molecules. Immanent,
the spirit that moves in every
thing. At once tiny and grand.
Nanophoton, yet expansive.
Husked from identity.

Entered into the wide open that,
in those dreams, I always trekked
toward, repeated motif.
Let me be released from any motive
but pure being, humble, that pulse.

Thank the blessed circumstance
of shift. Pivot
into it.
Thanks to editor Veronica Golos for including the poem in the Taos journal.
Read the whole poem here