Hope in hard times is ferocious. It is strong and razor-sharp. It is wild.
A long time ago, in a small house in Amherst, a young woman named Emily Dickinson sat at a table beside an open window. As filmy curtains blew over her page, she wrote her famous poem about hope.
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all.
Earth’s weary lovers are tired, perplexed, and battered from all directions. Their hearts have so often been broken. It’s hard to go on, but it is morally impossible to quit. How do Earth’s protectors find the heart to continue the struggle? To this question, environmental philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore and Canadian artist Bob Haverluck bring twenty-two life-affirming essays and drawings. Their entwined art offers pluck, stubborn resolve, and even some laughter to those who have for years been working for environmental sanity, social justice, and ecological thriving.
Long after, artists illustrated her poem with a bird that always seems to be a perky little thing, sort of a cross between a bluebird and a wren, with its flirty tail and open beak—a juvenile, to judge from its big head.
I protest on Emily’s behalf: that is the wrong bird.
This was 1861. White supremacists were gathering in armies and marching north. Loggers were advancing through the continent’s virgin forests. Black slaves, having fled rape and lynching, hid in her neighbors’ barns. Malaria, typhoid, and cholera ripped through families. “The Dyings have been too deep for me,” Emily wrote. “And before I could raise my Heart from one, another has come.” If hope was perching in her soul, it was something far fiercer than a bluebird.
I’m going to suggest a bald eagle, with its hooked beak and terrifying claws: an eagle, like the one I once saw come swooping over the inlet, swing out its awful yellow talons, and grab a pink salmon off the water. The eagle flapped to rise with her prize, but her wings caught in the waves and she fell back. Equally hopeful of escape, the eagle and the salmon raised a murderous ruckus of light and sea. Then, resigned, the eagle settled on the water and began to swim her prey toward shore.
The nearest rocky point was a half mile away and the tide was running hard. But the eagle judged her trajectory, hunched her elbows into scoops, pulled them through the water, and in this way paddled toward shore, dragging the struggling fish.
A fog bank blew in and blew out again. To the east, a cloud layer obscured the sun until up it rose, gilding the water. Through it all, the fog and the gold, the eagle paddled on. Finally, she reached the broken rocks and clawed onto shore, exhausted and bedraggled, dragging up a salmon, still flapping.
Gulls had been waiting on shore for the eagle, no doubt hoping that they could snatch some tasty scraps. This was not to be. As the eagle tore into the salmon’s belly with a beak like an axe, the gulls sidled closer and closer. But the eagle had only to turn her magnificent profile toward the gulls, fix them with one terrible golden eye, and the gulls flinched, hopped into the sky, and fled.
This is what hope is in hard times. Not a sweetly singing wren, anticipating good fortunes, nor a gull, passively waiting for someone to bring him what he hopes for, abdicating any responsibility to feed himself. Hope in hard times is ferocious. It is strong and razor-sharp. It is wild. It is stubborn. It is driven. It may choose its time, but it seizes its chance with open talons and drags it to shore, no matter how long that takes. Hope uses all its strength and wile and never gives up, knowing that if it stops trying, it will drown.
In hard times, hope doesn’t come to you. In hard times, you have to reach deep inside yourself for the courage and determination to keep on trying, as the climate expert Susi Moser told me. Hope is not an emotion. Hope is an act.
It’s not a bluebird that sits on Emily’s shoulder, tweeting comforting songs into her ear. Picture instead an eagle that pins her soul in its protective grasp. The eagle stands tall and straight on Emily’s shoulder, lowers its eyebrows over piercing gold eyes that sight along the deadly weapon of its beak, and calls a screeching call that sounds like rocks scraping against a metal hull. Emily is right: there are no words to this song. Hope is an animal cry of rage and will.
So call in all the feathered things that are perched somewhere in your weary soul—the harpy eagles and the sharp-shinned hawk. Call in the cassowaries and the shrikes. Call in whatever character traits velociraptor and the extravagantly feathered thing, Tyrannosaurus rex, have perched in your reptilian brain. What we need is strength—strength in numbers and strength in moral conviction. What we need is shrieking, roaring courage.
Read more work by and about Kathleen Dean Moore appearing in Terrain.org: “The Shining, Reflective Shield: Miranda Perrone Interviews Kathleen Dean Moore”, Soundscapes Episode 1: The Consciousness of the Streets, “Piano Tide: Two Excerpts”, Letter to America: “We Will Emerge Full-Throated from the Dark Shelter of Our Despair”, “Because the World is Wonderful”, and “To Re-imagine the Place of Humans in the Natural World”.
Bob Haverluck is an artist and storyteller who works with community groups using the arts to help engage issues of conflict and violence against the Earth and her creatures. His drawings have appeared in Harpers, New Statesman, and other publications. A former adjunct professor at the University of Winnipeg and a current mentor with the Pierre Elliot Trudeau Foundation in Montreal, Bob teaches with an eye to the role of comedy in social change. His most recent books are Take Heart: Encouragement for Earth’s Weary Lovers and When God Was Flesh and Wild: Stories in Defense of the Earth.
Header artwork by Bob Haverluck.