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Eiren Caffall
Eiren Caffall is a musician and writer based in Chicago who plays the lap steel guitar and sings and writes about losing everything.

Sea Change: The Paper Boats of the People’s Climate March and the Case for Love


by: on September 20th, 2014 | 2 Comments »

copyright 2013 Eiren Caffall

There is a theory out there in nature education circles that preparing children for climate change means steering clear of scaring them until they are old enough to handle it. David Sobel, author of Children’s Special Places, is often credited with the mantra, “no disasters before fourth grade,” and he writes eloquently about the notion that you must first ask children to love nature before you ask them to save it.

There are lots of people who champion this view. Recently, Grist published a profile of Liam Hennegan, a professor of environmental science at DePaul University, who has strong opinions about what books should be on a children’s environmental curriculum. He lists classics like The Hobbit, Where the Wild Things Are, and Bridge to Terabithia, not one of them mentioning a word about rising carbon emissions. Instead, the books are gorgeous works that you and I might remember from our own childhoods, full of the pleasures of being in nature, the desire to know and change a special place, and to build story, history, and relationship with it.

I was obsessed with Bridge to Terabithia as a kid. And, I was lucky enough to have access to a stream in my back yard, one that was like the stream in the book. I had hours of time to explore it, with no adults supervising my play. This stream was in the back field that ran behind our house in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. We lived over a gas station during the gas crisis of the 1970′s. My mother was in training for her eventual career in hydrogeology, meaning that I grew up hearing about the oil crisis, waste water runoff, leach fields, and superfund clean-up sites.

I had access to plenty of information about disasters before fourth grade.


Lilacs That in the Dooryard Bloom Early


by: on April 18th, 2012 | Comments Off

copyright 2012 Eiren Caffall

There were lilacs blooming in my dooryard.

But they are browning now, and they are almost gone; they were very early lilacs.

It is strange to see them at the end of their lives now, since, usually, they are my markers of my birthday – late April, the time of spring coming back, the time of the thaw, the time when everything feels like home again, like live grass and new birds.

I’ve chosen houses based on whether there were lilacs there. I’ve stayed in this house, as I wrangle with the bank over possible foreclosure, sometimes only with the hope of seeing another bloom of those trees from the windows of my own office.

The lilacs in my backyard when I was little were taller than the ancient trees in my Chicago garden. They were so tall that they stood like a curvy wall of trunks topped with heart-shaped leaves. I could lie on the bare ground under them and pretend things, like forts and like towers and dragons, since that was what I would be pretending anyway, flowers or no.

In the Massachusetts of my childhood, I could have told you exactly the week they would bloom. In Chicago, I used to be content to know that they would bloom on my birthday if I was lucky, Mother’s Day if the year was cold.

This year they bloomed in March.

The winter and spring we had out here was far too warm far too early and, really, if you were paying any attention at all, terrifying.


I Would Plant My Apple Tree


by: on February 14th, 2012 | 5 Comments »

© 2011 Eiren Caffall all rights reserved

A few days ago the image of a green ribbon came across my facebook news feed.

The text went like this:

The pink ribbons have always bugged me…the idea of putting the energy and effort of well-meaning citizens behind “the search for a cure for cancer” just irritates me, because let’s face it, we know what causes cancer, and therefore we can do better than cure it, we can prevent it! Maybe not 100%, but we can take it back to the modest rates that previous generations of human beings enjoyed…If you really want to make a difference in the war against cancer, forget about those ridiculous pink ribbons. Use the power of your wallet and your ballot to insist that the government step up and do its job in regulating the industrial agriculture sector.

It makes sense that people are focusing on ribbons in the wake of all the controversy about the Komen Foundation and Planned Parenthood. The quote was linked back to the original post on Common Dreams, and reading it through I find a lot to agree with here.

I’m like any good environmentalist, and I will go to the barricades to support folks who want to fight the causes of pollution and find the crazy subtle links between the toxic chemicals we’re hourly pouring into our ecosystem and the unintended consequences of disease, species collapse, mutation and global climate change that result from our little uncontrolled environmental experiments.

I want people to have their awareness of environmental collapse raised, I surely do. No denying the importance of that green ribbon.

But then, that ribbon could mean a whole lot of things. According to Wikipedia, a green ribbon can signify traumatic brain injury awareness, organ transplantation awareness, kidney cancer awareness.

Like the author of that Common Dreams post, ribbons bug me sometimes, too. I wonder, like Susan Niebur, a blogger who we lost last week to breast cancer, about the impact of “awareness” when we need cash for more research and more activism.

And I wonder about all the things that effect my life. How can I pick just one cause, and find the ribbon I’m supposed to wear to support it?


Soup & Bread: The Church of The Hideout Cookbook


by: on November 14th, 2011 | 2 Comments »

Soup & Bread at the Hideout

Sometimes even an atheist needs a community soup kitchen.

This winter, I will probably need one, and so will many many of my fellow Americans. This winter, when the thin veil of November leaves has finally come down in Chicago, the sand is banked on the beaches against the lake shore wind and the dark comes early, I will be happy for a bowl of soup and a place to eat it where I feel welcome.

Like so many this year, for me the recession is grinding down hard, and the things that held me together are beginning to fray, just a little and at the edges, but still, the possibility of coming unraveled hangs over all endeavors while the nights get colder.

Like the people occupying parks the whole country over, I am running out of faith in governments and institutions to provide a little grace and shelter while we all wait out the economic troubles we’ve got to endure.


Battle for the Bats


by: on October 14th, 2011 | Comments Off

The trip to see the bats didn’t go exactly as I’d planned it.

To start, there was a bee sting at the first cave we went to, and my son and I sat in the parking lot with an ice pack on his arm until he was calm enough to go and join the tour. Then there was the fact that the place – a commercially run cave in Southern Indiana – wasn’t exactly what my son had in mind when I told him we’d be going spelunking, raised as he’d been on hours and hours of Planet Earth.

Even when he was four, a cave with electric lights and paved walkways was so much less exciting than the footage of secret underground passages, squeezes, and glowing rooms of crystal from those documentaries. There was no comparison and he knew it.

And, finally, and most crushingly, we only saw two bats: one at the entrance to the cave, and one tucked into a large, high-ceilinged room, looking lonely and sleepy and tired of the tourists.

When the tour guide asked us if anyone knew about how caves were made, the poor man was treated to my son’s long lecture on the nature of limestone. When we walked on, he whispered to me, “Mom, next time let’s find another cave, and a real expert to take us.”

Little did he know that I had tried to do just that.


Wangari Maathai, Hummingbird, Dead at 71


by: on September 26th, 2011 | 1 Comment »

Creative Commons/Dario Sanches

Yesterday the planet lost a great champion: Wangari Maathai, hummingbird and planter of trees.

The video clip below is what I think of when I hear her name.

I love the way she tells the story there, of the hummingbird fighting the forest fire while the rest of the forest creatures look on and do nothing. That hummingbird carries water, and won’t stop even though the odds aren’t in its favor. It is hope, it is the thing with feathers. And, it is a fitting fable for all of us hummingbirds.

When I first saw it I was sitting up with my son before bed as we watched the movie Dirt! on PBS. He was only four, but, ever the science fan, he begged to finish the whole thing before he went to sleep.

The movie – a big thoughtful survey of the damage that soil faces from our global environmental crisis – changed him. He still wakes up sometimes, crying about nitrogen runoff in the Gulf of Mexico (“We can’t be left with only comb jellies, Mom, what about all the other beautiful creatures?”), and he likes to sing the song “Break up the Concrete” from the film when we walk through the city. It is comforting to hear him sing it, and a little disheartening as well. There is so much work ahead in his lifetime, and it makes me tired for him some days.

But, it was Maathai’s portion of the movie that made me sit next to him crying.

Ms. Maathai died yesterday, at the age of 71. She had cancer. You can read here about her many accomplishments, her Nobel Peace Prize, her work to restore the green forests of Africa through her Green Belt Movement in her New York Times Obituary, or this post on her passing from the Being Blog (where you can hear her sing).

These writers do a better job than I can in summarizing the impact of her remarkable efforts on behalf of women, the poor, and the abused planet that needs our stewardship so desperately. What they capture is what I so often marveled at in my own awareness of her work: the holistic analysis she brought to understanding our global environmental crisis.

She understood in a deep, visceral way how poverty, women’s disempowerment, and the destruction of forests and soil were all of a piece: a kind of abuse that shows up when the sacred, the fragile and the generative are all cast aside in the name of profit, or expediency, or power for the few.


From Above, You Can See That it is Broken


by: on August 18th, 2011 | 1 Comment »

Attribution: Zephyris at en.wikipedia

When it is winter in Chicago – as it will be again after the long and perfect fall is finally over and gone – I know that I will crave that best of all Chicago winter moments:  when I pull back the heavy doors of the Garfield Park Conservatory’s main entrance, pay my donation, give my zip code to the desk clerk for her records, and open the interior doors that lead into the soaring space of the Palm House.

There, in a hot and sultry instant, my dried-out lungs fill with green, delicious green, and some part of my hibernating spirit picks up again where it left off, in a conversation with plants.

I will need that place.  I will be sitting in my radiator-heated apartment, I will be looking at my pretend, eco-friendly fire, I will be eating too much in the way of baked goods, and I will need to walk in the half-sunlight of a mid-winter, mid-western day, where the reflected light from the palm trees coats the sallow of my skin.  I will need to feel lit – not full of the vitamin D of a real summer sky, not able to pick fruit off the trees as if it were really the tropics, but soothed in some unaccountable way, and made better.

I am not wealthy, and so, finding the time and money and the costly leisure to make a trip out of the city during the winter as friends of mine do is not within my reach.

You have to leave town in February, they say, how else can you make it through?

How I can make it through is by going to Garfield Park.  I go to the greenhouse, I go to the green.

When my son was small we spent every Monday morning in the indoor children’s garden there, where they would program story hour, craft projects and unstructured time to dig in the dirt for babies and toddlers, in a space so warm we’d strip three layers by the time the staff educator packed up the trowels and went back to other duties.  Then we’d go and try to find hiding axolotls in the pond, or discuss the predilection towards prickly pear cactus of the gruff javelina while standing in the Cactus Room, baking in dry heat, listening to the pebbles under other feet.

But this year, we will not have that that winter feeling.  Not in the same way, not for a long time.

This year, much of the glass in the Conservatory was destroyed in a summer hail storm, in a summer of extreme storms here in the Midwest, and no one is sure when the public will again walk into the glory of the Fern Room, or the Cactus Room or the Show House.


A Visible Island in the Invisible Sea


by: on July 25th, 2011 | 1 Comment »

Eiren Caffall © 2010

I have just come home from an island.

It is small and magical, and set 12 nautical miles out into the Atlantic, and I have been returning there in the summers since I was a teenager. I have been drunk on its landscape since I first set foot there, seasick and naive, and trailed behind my parents through the cathedral woods and stumbled onto a marsh awash in wild iris that I followed to the shore.

I was hooked then. I was in sway to the place.


And Then the Twister Came


by: on June 3rd, 2011 | 3 Comments »

Credit: Creative Commons/gainesp2003

poemThis weekend I ate lunch with a woman who grew up in Joplin, Missouri.

It was not yet a week since the tornadoes, which we had not met to discuss. We wanted to talk about other things, and we spoke for two hours about what we’d meant to say to each other: about being our fathers’ daughters, navigating the tricky terrain of dating art-making men, the ways that we make things ourselves, stage fright and good music.

But the thing that we couldn’t avoid in our talk was her news of home.

Her sister had called crying the day before. She still lived in Joplin, and after days of driving through the battle zone of ruined buildings, trying to find ways to help, she was beaten by it, and called my new friend from the side of the road, weeping in exhaustion. My friend sat on the phone, impotent here in our big, momentarily safe city, and listened while her sister begged her not to come home.


Frog Spring


by: on May 11th, 2011 | 6 Comments »


Credit: Creative Commons/g_kovacs

poemIt is a cold spring here in Chicago, all rain and anticipation, and, like everyone in the city, I am still pretending that eventually things will change, that if we hope hard enough, and have enough faith, the world will warm up and bloom.

Our good intentions haven’t brought it yet.

But, I’ve lived here for sixteen years of cold springs. And, as you might notice from that history, I am happy here among my neighbors waiting for flowers — partly because I adore people of good intentions who believe fervently that they are capable of making the world a better place.

I love the Shakers, whom my father revered. I think of them stooped in their fields, cultivating seeds, and thinking always of how better to put their hands to work and hearts to god. I love the Unitarians I share the sanctuary with on Sunday mornings, the way they pledge to heal the world. I love the earnest, deliberate meditating of people all over the planet who send compassion into the wind to make sure that it exists, and that, hopefully, it lands somewhere and takes root.

And, among the pantheon of the earnest that has taken up residence in my heart, I love the scientists who have built an ark for frogs in the Panamanian rainforest.