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Wildfire smoke among a forested mountainside

Relearning Earth’s Language:
Letters Toward Liberation

By Lisbeth White, Destiny Hemphill,
and Tamiko Beyer

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To be a serious student of this planet, we must be a danger to this world.
 

Introduction by Currents Editor Leonora Simonovis

How can we incorporate meaningful and transformative conversations into our lives that challenge and disrupt power structures, and at the same time allow each of us to reclaim our wholeness? How do we prompt ourselves into action while also prioritizing our wellbeing and that of our communities? These are some of the questions and reflections Tamiko Beyer, Destiny Hemphill, and Lisbeth White explore in these beautiful letters they write to each other as they weave different aspects of their lives in connection to place, health, politics, and the environment.

Beyer, Hemphill, and White are editors and collaborators of Poetry as Spellcasting: Poems, Essays, and Prompts for Manifesting Liberation and Reclaiming Power, an anthology of poems, essays, rituals, and prompts published in 2023.

Dear Destiny and Tamiko,

I’m writing this on one of the “smoke days” that now happen each summer in Washington State due to wildfires. It is hot and hazy. I am surrounded by living trees, evergreens whose branches take on the copper hue of the clogged air, and I wonder what it is like for them to breathe in other trees, burning.

Aptly, I just finished reading Poetry as Spellcasting contributor Alexis Pauline Gumbs’s essay Heat is Not a Metaphor, about the mass beaching of 100 long-finned pilot whales off the coast of western Australia. The photo of the whales accompanying the essay shows their sleek, dark bodies clustering up from turquoise ocean waters (meant to be so much cooler), huddled in the singular movement of each other toward a shore that will make their survival impossible—but perhaps they know already the inevitable suffering of hostile heat.

I have to tell you both: when I saw the photo, I thought, Igbo. I thought, They have surfaced from the depths. I thought, They are showing us again, with their very lives, how to claim the truth of what is happening

In a short talk Bayo Akomolafe offered late last year, he said that perhaps the Earth is becoming fugitive; trying to escape the capture and exploitation that racial capitalism has forced onto the planet. That all these fires and floods and extinctions are an expression of the Earth doing whatever it takes to get free within the climate catastrophe created not by all of us and not by many of us, but most definitely by humankind. I think, also, of the southern border of these United States. I think of the humans and black bears unable to access what have been homelands for generations of ancestry, of the lands themselves separated from countless beings they have loved and been loved by.

The Earth knows no borders. And so, if this is true, if the Earth is trying to get free from the same shackles of oppression as we, I want to learn what it means to be an abolitionist for the Earth. Let me do what our abolitionist ancestors did, putting whatever resources they had—life, privilege, words—on the line to move us all toward freedom. Let me learn what they learned about ushering the captive toward safety and liberation, even if it changes my life as I know it.

I wonder what sounds the whales made in their last moments together; what call bound them to the surface, to the shore. I wonder what calls the trees might make to each other through the fire, through the smoke. I want to ask you, as my peers in empowering words: What are the words, the codes, we might speak to usher the Earth toward liberation? Is there a chant, a poem, a prayer?

Is there a magic tongue to the Earth’s freedom?

I want it to be the only language I speak.

Love,

Lisbeth

Dear Lis and Tamiko,

We had some smoke days here in North Carolina this summer. I remember that the sky took on a putrid yellow color, and our breath was constricted. Today, I’m writing this on a cold day of a North Carolina winter, and my lungs tingle a bit from the cold.

I’ve been thinking of the headline that celebrated that the Earth is cooler because of the slaughter and exploitation of the people of Democratic Republic of the Congo. How easy it is to naturalize and functionalize Black death. The sky is clear here today, and I am thinking of the white phosphorous bombs piercing the skies of Palestine. How the Earth of Palestine now looks different from space. And how the United States and other neocolonial states extracting from Congo and buttressing Israel’s military regime consistently use language to not only make genocide expedient but imperative.

So, like you, Lisbeth, I am craving another language, another grammar. Rinsing compulsively from my mouth this world’s language that in its structure, syntax, inflections, regulations insist on genocide. Rinsing my mouth instead with rage, grief, love, and salt. I am relearning the Earth’s grammar. Even as a novice, still I know that it teaches that every genocide is ecocide and that the killing of Earth is the killing of Earth’s children. I know that the water will remember white phosphorus. I know that the Earth’s gutted bowels will remember the economy that exchanges cobalt for the blood of the DRC’s people. And I know the Earth and water and atmosphere will remember the horrifying attempts at “reconciliation,” which rely on the false equivalency that power is distributed laterally and evenly. The horrifying attempts at “reconciliation” that obscure what we need to do: reckon with and wreck empire and its occupations. The wind will remember when I honeyed my voice instead of making it corrosive, when I sought ways to be unthreatening in truth bearing. When I tightened my lips and forced a smile instead of snarling at and hissing at and biting the state and its agents that demand gratitude that they have not killed all of my co-conspirators, all of my loved ones, all of me—yet.

I am remolding my ligaments and tendons to meet this grammar. My autonomic functions have been hijacked and numbed and whittled away so that parts of me believe that it might be  easier, better to be in harmony, attunement, in regulation, in concert with the state, which is the death chorus of empire.

I am still relearning the language of the Earth—but I can discern Free the Democratic Republic of Congo. Free Palestine. Free Sudan. Free Haiti. Power and liberation to all oppressed life. Free the Earth. And that to be a serious student of this planet, we must be a danger to this world.

Much love,

Destiny

Dear Destiny and Lisbeth,

Here in the land colonized as Massachusetts, the winter sun is struggling to shine through gray. It reminds me of days last summer when smoke from wildfires drifted here, too. The light is diffuse, the sun an orange orb in a suddenly strange sky.

Your words are stirring some feeling in me—ancient, ancestral—about the Earth’s grammar. I feel an embodied invitation to embrace a vastness that I can’t come close to comprehending.  

I have been thinking about geologic time lately, and the long lineage of ancestors from whom I descend. Human, animal, yes, and also plants, microbes. I sense these ancestors singing songs in my bones that might be the language of freedom. Perhaps in a language that runs through the threads of mycelial networks. A language built on a grammar whose strictest, and perhaps only, rule is the interdependence and interconnection of everything.

Almost every time I chant or write “From the river to the sea, Palestine shall be free,” I have a sense that the land is already free, even as we organize in solidarity for a free Palestine.

Let me try to clarify. I keep learning the countless ways that the state of Israel seeks to destroy the Palestinian people, not only through the current genocidal attack on Gaza, but also by cutting them off from and destroying the land. I know the state of Israel has choked and polluted the Jordan River, resulting in the shrinking of the Dead Sea. I understand how the people, the land, the water are not free.

And yet. I sense a sovereignty that feels like it’s centered in the Earth’s fiery core. That reaches out from the depths of the ocean. That lives in every cell of every being and every molecule of stone and mineral.

Is this the heart of abolition? The truth that all of us are, by virtue of existence, sovereign, regardless of circumstance? So that if I am to stand fully in that truth, then I am compelled to fight, struggle, organize, spellcast, and write toward the material freedom of every person and being on this Earth—including the Earth themselves?

This is how I interpret what you mean, Destiny, to be a student of this planet and a danger to this world. And what I hear in your question, Lis, of what it means to be an abolitionist for the Earth.

I hear a call to be a part of breaking the gears of empire, destroying the systems that are crumbling yet refusing to die. A call to continually put my body and heart on the line in the service of organizing toward the sovereignty of all.

This is what I am learning from you both. How to listen and learn as best I can the grammar of owl calls and dolphin, the multilingual chants on the streets, prayers at the roots of mulberry trees, poems and spells for liberation cast with rage and grief, moss and seed, flint and bone.

Love,

Tamiko

 

 

Lisbeth WhiteLisbeth White is an eco-abolitionist writer and ritualist living on S’klallam and Chimacum lands near Port Townsend, Washington, whose creative ethos orients at the crossroads of healing justice, ancestral Earth technologies, and mythopoetics. She is the author of American Sycamore (Perugia Press, 2022), and co-editor of the anthology Poetry as Spellcasting: Poems, Essays, and Prompts for Manifesting Liberation and Reclaiming Power (North Atlantic Books, 2023). She has received support for her work from VONA, Tin House, and Bread Loaf Environmental Writers Conference writing workshops, as well as residencies with SeaSalted Honey and Blue Mountain Center. She offers support for PGM/BIPOC writers in rural Washington State as a founding member of the Red Thread Writers Collective. You can find her @earthmaven on Instagram.

 

Destiny HemphillDestiny Hemphill is a ritual worker and poet living with chronic pain on land of the Eno-Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation (Durham, North Carolina). A recipient of fellowships from Naropa University’s Summer Writing Program, Callaloo, Tin House, Open Mouth Retreat, and Kenyon’s Writers Workshop, she is the author of the poetry chapbook Oracle: A Cosmology (Honeysuckle Press, 2018) and motherworld: a devotional for the alter-life (Action Books, 2023). Her poetry has also appeared in POETRY, Carolina Quarterly, Frontier, and elsewhere.

 
 

Tamiko BeyerTamiko Beyer is a poet, writer, and spellmaker. Her books include Last Days (Alice James Books, 2021) and We Come Elemental (Alice James Books, 2013) and she is co-editor of Poetry As Spellcasting: Poems, Essays, and Prompts for Manifesting Liberation and Reclaiming Power (North Atlantic Books, 2023). With Franny Choi, she is a co-coordinator of Brew & Forge, an organization that brings poets and organizers together to alchemize dreaming and build capacity in movements for liberation, justice, and survival. A social justice communications writer and strategist, she spends her days writing truth to power. She is a recent transplant to Philadelphia.

Header photo by N. F. Photography, courtesy Shutterstock. Photo of Lisbeth White by Sarah Wright. Photo of Tamiko Beyer by Susi Franco.

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