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(HOST) As we celebrate the Winter Solstice, commentator John Elder is thinking about the creative power of community in a time of global challenge.

(ELDER) We have entered the season of expectant hush that includes both Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, and Christmas, commemorating the Light in the Stable. The promise that days will soon begin to lengthen has long brought hope in a cold season. Thus it is that so many traditions around the world celebrate the turning of the year with candles or bonfires and by raising their voices together in song. All those flickers of light defy the darkness.

I’ve been thinking about the Solstice in a new way this year. Even the progression of the seasons can feel sadly blurred as we experience the mildest December in many years, culminating the warmest decade on record. We realize when they begin to disintegrate, how fundamental to our sense of well-being the old predictable patterns have been.

Last month my Vermont friend Gil Livingston and I attended a meeting hosted by a new shellfish cooperative in Plaquemines Parish, the marshy finger of land extending for 70 miles southeast of New Orleans. The fishing settlements there had received the full impact of a hurricane whose force had been greatly magnified by the warming waters of the Gulf. The inhabitants had watched their homes blow apart or implode, while their boats were stove in or swept away. Most of the people we met that evening were still living in temporary housing, a year and three months after the coming of the storm.

But in the midst of such devastation they had also undertaken a bold new collaboration. The inhabitants of Black, White, and Native American villages that for generations never had much to do with each other had banded together to build two docks of their own and to draw up a business plan for getting their boats back in operation.

Having their own docks will mean the cooperative can now avoid the middlemen who squeezed out so much of their profitability in the era before the storm. Because these fishing families have finally found partners in communities racially and culturally different from their own, a cluster of isolated villages in Plaquemines Parish have a much brighter prospect both for long-term economic viability and for perpetuation of their own distinctive traditions. Rosina Phillippe, a member of the Attakapa People and a spokesperson for the cooperative, remarked as we shared a delicious meal of seafood after the meeting, None of this would ever have been possible without Katrina.

This is a daunting moment in human history. But if we can be honest, brave, and creative about the challenges we face, if we can pay attention to the new possibilities that emerge when the ground of our assumptions is swept clear by catastrophe, and if we can remember to turn to each other in hope and trust, whether out under the stars or around a candle-lit table, we may also still find a brightening glow, in the East and in our hearts.

John Elder spoke from studios at Middlebury College, where he’s a writer and teacher of English and Environmental studies.

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