Friday, February 20, 2009


Richard Cambridge, Fellow
The Black Earth Institute

Presented at the 2009 AWP panel “The Poet as Oracle”

Traditional societies considered poets as oracles, charged with mediating between human and greater-than-human worlds. Whether that “other world” is described as divinity, the ancestors, or the earth, poets have served as mouthpieces for forces greater than a single human personality. African griots, Native American orators, and Celtic bards put words and images at the service of their communities and their craft in the service of the transhuman. This panel presents diverse traditions of oracular poetry, both traditional and modern.

Poets, priests and priestesses, prophets, shamans, griots, and bards have been the traditional vehicles of Oracle, the ones consulted, and the response would often be in the form of a puzzle, riddle, or enigmatic statement. Saying and seeing sideways. Seeing through the glass darkly, a way of speaking directly to our unconscious perhaps because our consciousness was as yet not fully undeveloped.

Today, however, it is the hunters, trappers, and fisherman from the Artic rim who are on the front line of food and survival, and the scientists, mathematicians, and journalists, recording and reporting on the data, giving us the warnings and prophesies about climate change who are our oracles. It is the language of charts and graphs, and photographs we can see, such as the glaciers thawing southward and the line of trees marching northward. Simple math such as the plus few degrees rise in temperature in the Artic causing ice to break up before summer. Numbers and pictures everyone can understand.

You don’t need a weatherman
to know which way the wind blows.1

The new oracles are the project engineers in the Netherlands, in their far-seeing, giving land back to the sea in order to protect the cities in the near future; the climate scientists in Antarctica measuring the ice core, the mathematicians interpreting the data.

Oracle is a 42-year-old Artic hunter named Igor Macotrikas, who says, “The food is not easy to come by now that the weather has changed. The south wind is a bad wind. It moves the walrus to another place. The walrus is hard to find.” Maxim Agnagisyak, who pays close attention to the animals he hunts. “The meat of the grey whales is rancid; it smells like medicine. The sled dogs won’t eat it” Or Caleb Pungowiyi, “When this earth starts to be destroyed, we feel it.”2 Plain speaking. Simple declarative sentences. Almost like a child’s primer.

And it is the so called “dumb” animals who speak to us, especially the ones who have already checked out of existence, their no-more speaking, eloquent in their absence, their silence. At what point do you notice when someone is missing from the choir, the flute section from the orchestra, the bright threads faded from the tapestry?

Ursula K. LeGuin says, “There are areas of vast silence in any culture, and part of an artist’s job is to go into those areas and come back from the silence with something to say.”3 What if the “something to say” is the Silence itself? In the former generations governments “disappear” dissidents. What happens when the new “disappeared ones are the fauna and flora? When we must say as sacred gatherings: Polar Bear— Presente! Spotted Salamander— Presente!

Do we even need oracles anymore? Is it not plain seeing at this point? We have named recent “ages”— The Age of Enlightenment, The Age of Reason, The Age of Analysis. Did we just pass through the Age of Warning— when there was still time? Are we as a species about to be taken to the woodshed? Is Mother about to shake us off her lap? Is it the very Earth who is our Oracle?

Ask the one in Newtoc, southwest Alaska, who’s house just tipped over because the ground gave way.4 The permafrost, it seems, is no longer permanent. Why it’s been there for thousands of years. Where do you go when the ground goes? How far can you fall? Can you fall off the Earth? Is there a new word for it?

Perhaps Language itself is becoming a sort of meta-oracle. The Native peoples in the North are having to create new words to describe a change in the state of being: Native language with such precise words describing the condition of ice and snow are having to invent words such as “misullijug” for “rainy snow” and “uggiantqtuq” which is a new term for weather conditions that means “a familiar friend acting strangely.”5

Has the time for Oracles passed? There is no un-clarity to pass through, puzzles we don’t understand, riddles that make only non-sense. Perhaps we as people the world over are moving beyond the need for Oracles because the Oracles have already spoken.

“When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I though as a child, I understood as a child. Now that I am a man, I put away childish things.”6 Did not our new president say that? Have we grown up now to hear and understand on our own, unmediated by Oracle? Has human consciousness evolved so we see collectively the warnings, are all, with our many, beautiful and creative talents capable of letting go, in this case, rather than doing; not doing, doing less; using less. Letting there be a season, perhaps a century of rest. Now the Oracles are at rest. We know what to do. And we know what not to do. All of life is speaking to us.

Angaangak, an Inuk elder and shaman from Greenland whose name means “The Man Who Looks Like His Uncle” says, “The ice is melting in the north, but the hardest ice in the world to melt is the ice in the heart of man.”7

The Black Earth Institute is a progressive think-tank dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society.



“Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change” Elizabeth Kolbert, Bloomsbury, 2006

1. “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” Bob Dylan
2. “The Artic Meltdown: Quick Thaw Alarms Natives and Scientists” by Usha Lee McFarling. April 15, 2002, The Seattle Times
3. “Talking on the Water: Conversations about Nature and Creativity Dreams” by Jonathon White. Random House, 1994. Interview with Ursula K. LeGuin
4. “The Village at the Tip of the Iceberg,” by Ed Pilkington. The Observer, pg. 14, Sept. 28, 2008
5. “The Artic Meltdown…” See 2.
6. “The New Testament,” KJV. 1 Corinthians 13:11
7. “The Man Who Looks Like His Uncle,” by Joshua Singer, published in The Bridge, December 6, 2007

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