The Peace of Wild Things

Tilly by the stream

Fridays are my day for re-visiting posts from the Myth & Moor archives. Since yesterday's offering included a passage from Priscilla Stuckey's Kissed by a Fox, here's another snippet from the same fine book. This post first appeared in October, 2014.

During my coffee break beside the stream yesterday, I was struck by the following words in Priscilla Stuckey's Kissed by a Fox (and Other Stories of Friendship in Nature):

"If mind belongs to humans alone," she writes, "then stones, trees, and streams become mere objects of human tinkering. We can plunder the earth's resources with impunity, treating creeks and mountaintops in Kentucky or rivers in India or forests in northwest America as if they existed only for economic development. Systems of land and river become inert chunks of lifeless mud or mechanical runs of H2O rather than the living, breathing bodies upon which we and all other creatures depend for our very lives.

Water and stone

"Not to mention what 'nature as machine' has done to our emotional and spiritual well-being. When we regard nature as churning its way forward mindlessly through time, we turn our backs on mystery, shunning the complexity as well as the delights of relationship. We isolate ourselves from the rest of the creatures with whom we share this world. We imagine ourselves the apex of creation -- a lonely spot indeed. Human minds become the measure of creation and human thoughts become the only ones that count. The result is a concept of mind shorn of its wild connections, in which feelings become irrelevant, daydreams are mere distractions, and nighttime dreams -- if we attend to them at all -- are but the cast-offs of yesterday's overactive brain. Mind is cut off from matter, untouched by exingencies of mud or leaf, shaped by whispers or gales of wind, as if we were not, like rocks, made of soil.

"And then we wonder at our sadness and depression, not realizing that our own view of reality has sunk us into an unbearable solipsism, an agony of separateness -- from loved ones, from other creatures, from rich but unruly emotions, in short, from our ability to connect, through senses and feeling and imagination, with the world that is our home."

Coffee break

Introspection

A little later in the same essay she writes:

"And here lies the crux of the matter: to say that nature is personal may mean not so much seeing the world differently as acting differently -- or, to state it another way, it may mean interacting with more-than-human others in nature as if those others had a life of their own and then coming to see, through experience, that these others are living, interactive beings.

"When nature is personal, the world is peopled by rocks, trees, rivers, and mountains, all of whom are actors and agents, protagonists of their own stories rather than just props in a human story. When Earth is truly alive, the world is full of persons, only some of whom are human."

Mushroom people

Acorn people

Oak elder

In an essay on animal consciousness published in Lapham's Quaterly, John Jeremiah Sullivan notes:

"If we put aside the self-awareness standard -- and really, how arbitrary and arrogant is that, to take the attribute of consciousness we happen to possess over all creatures and set it atop the hierarchy,  Drawing by Terri Windlingproclaiming it the very definition of consciousness (Georg Christoph Lichtenberg wrote something wise in his notebooks, to the effect of: only a man can draw a self-portrait, but only a man wants to) -- it becomes possible to say at least the following: the overwhelming tendency of all this scientific work, of its results, has been toward more consciousness. More species having it, and species having more of it than assumed. This was made boldly clear when the 'Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness' pointed out that those 'neurological substrates' necessary for consciousness (whatever 'consciousness' is) belong to 'all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses.' The animal kingdom is symphonic with mental activity, and of its millions of wavelengths, we’re born able to understand the minutest sliver. The least we can do is have a proper respect for our ignorance.

"The philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote an essay in 1974 titled, 'What Is It Like To Be a Bat?,' in which he put forward perhaps the least overweening, most useful definition of 'animal consciousness' ever written, one that channels Spinoza’s phrase about 'that nature belonging to him wherein he has his being.' Animal consciousness occurs, Nagel wrote, when 'there is something that it is to be that organism -- something it is like for the organism.' The strangeness of his syntax carries the genuine texture of the problem. We’ll probably never be able to step far enough outside of our species-reality to say much about what is going on with them, beyond saying how like or unlike us they are. Many things are conscious on the earth, and we are one, and our consciousness feels like this; one of the things it causes us to do is doubt the existence of the consciousness of the other millions of species. But it also allows us to imagine a time when we might stop doing that."

Amen.

In addition to Stuckey's book and Sullivan's essay, I recommend Brandon Kein's "Being a Sandpiper" (Aeon); Stephen M. Wise's "Nonhuman Rights to Personhood" (pdf); and Karen Joy Fowler's brilliant and devastating new novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. (Avoid reviews of the latter if you possibly can. The less you know about the story before you read it, the more wonderful it is.)

Drawing by Terri Windling

Tilly and the oak elderThe passage by Priscilla Stuckey above is from Kissed by a Fox & Other Stories of Friendship in Nature (Counterpoint, 2012). The poem in the picture captions is from The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry (Counterpoint, 1999). You can hear the author read it here. All rights to the text above reserved by the authors.


The practice of kindness

Dartmoor pony

To continue our conversation on kindness:

One problem we have today is that many think of the word "kind" as a synonym for "nice," a quality with soft, even bland, connotations -- whereas true kindness is so much more than this. The practice of kindness requires empathy, compassion, and generosity aligned with keen perception, self knowledge, and clarity of purpose. It's not enough to be nice to live by a code of kindness, it requires fierce courage as well: The courage to be open-hearted. To be vulnerable. To rely on others, and be relied on in turn. To go against the grain of a culture devoted to self-aggrandizement and competitive individualism. To be misunderstood by that culture, or dismissed, and to remain kind nonetheless -- steadfast in purpose, focused on the practice of kindness, not its outcome. Kindess in this wider aspect is not limited to human relationships but extends to the way that we walk through the life, and engage with the nonhuman world around us. The code of kindness includes our relationship with the planet, and all who share it.

Tilly and the ponies

Scientist Barbara McClintock, for example, clearly lived by a code of kindness (even if she never defined it that way) -- and her open-hearted approach to research led to a revolution in our understanding of genetics. As Pricilla Stuckey explains:

"Looking at nature with compassion was a method of Barbara McClintock, the 1983 winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. McClintock was a geneticist working to decipher the maize genome at the same time in the 1950s that her peers Watson and Crick were discovering the double helix structure of DNA. Unlike most geneticists, however, who thought of genes as fixed units, like pearls on a string, McClintock watched, puzzled, as maize genes jumped from their supposedly fixed postitions to take up other spots on the strand. McClintock's discovery of 'transposable' genetic elements inaugurated what Stephen Jay Gould called a second revolution in genetics....

"McClintock often said that in order to understand any organism, you have to 'get a feel for it.' In her small maize field she walked meditatively every morning during the growing season, memorizing the smallest changes in each plant from the day before. 'I start with the seedling,' she said, 'and I don't want to leave it. I don't feel I really know the story if I don't watch the plant all the way along. So I know every plant in the field. I know them intimately, and I find it a great pleasure to know them.'

Tilly and the pony

"She regarded her stalks of maize, she said, with 'real affection,' watching each as if from the inside -- as if, a colleague remarked, she could write its autobiography. Gould observes that hers what the method of naturalists, who typically spend time watching and listening to -- and developing appreciation for -- the plants or animals or landscape they study, rather than, as most molecular biologists do, trying to isolate chemical chains of cause and effect. McClintock's genius lay in applying the method of naturalism to her work in the lab.

Tilly and the pony

"Both a naturalist and a contemplative -- don't the two often go together? -- McClintock in her deep gazing may seem very familiar to those who have practiced meditation or gone on a retreat in a monestary or ashram. I think of one of her breakthrough moments in the laboratory, when, after some days of feeling stymied, unable to make sense of the tangled chromosomes under her microscope, McClintock took a walk to sit under a eucalyptus tree. She returned to the lab feeling energized. When she looked again through the microscope at the chromesomes, she reported,

'I found that the more I worked with them, the bigger and bigger [they] got, and when I was really working with them I wasn't outside, I was down there. I was part of the system...and everything got big. I was even able to see the internal part of the chromosomes....It surprised me because I actually felt as if I were right down there and these were my friends.'

Dartmoor ponies

Bog 3

"The process of looking closely at the chromosomes led her into a feeling of unity with them," notes Stuckey, "which led in turn to a more accurate understanding of how they operated, seeing them as clearly as if she were moving among them.

"What is remarkable about her form of contemplation, and what makes it accessible to nonscientists, is that, as one biographer wrote, her 'most mystical sounding ideas stemmed from observation and scepticism, not occult visitations.' She merely looked in, and in looking, loved. ' "

Gate

She merely looked, and in looking loved. That's what I aim for every day.

GateThe passage above by Priscilla Stuckey is from Kissed by a Fox & Other Stories of Friendship in Nature (Counterpoint, 2012), which I highly recommend. All rights reserved by the author.


Talking to the moon

Hillside 1

After writing about kindness yesterday, I've been thinking about the ways in which the lack of kindness propels some of us into the arts: not only as way to retreat from pain, or to cope with it, or to attempt to understand it, but also as a means of creating (to quote Anais Nin) "a world in which one can live."

For example, here's a passage by British novelist Catherine Storr from her essay "Why Write? Why Write for Children?" (published in The Thorny Paradise). Storr describes her parents as loving ones who did not mean to be unkind, and yet her own open-hearted nature was viewed with deep suspicion:

"I am a compulsive writer," Storr begins. " I suppose that before I'd learn to write without too much difficulty, I was a compulsive talker. This is borne out by the memory of hearing my parents say, 'Catherine never stops talking.' I think I went on talking too much until the awkwardness of adolesence overcame the habit. But before that I'd discovered writing; and though it didn't immediately cure me of talking too much, it did provide an outlet for the need to communicate.

Hillside 2

"What I needed to communicate was feelings. We were a very buttoned up family as far as the emotions were concerned. I don't remember ever doubting that my parents loved us, but they never said so in so many words. They also weren't at all physically demonstrative; you had to be in considerable distress before you got picked up and hugged. Kissing was something you did before going to bed or saying goodbye for a longer period. This restraint didn't come naturally to me at all, and besides being told I talked too much, I was also frequently told I shouldn't ask for displays of affection. It was recognized in the family that Catherine was sentimental, and that this should be discouraged.

"Until I was ten, these reprehensible feelings had to be repressed, or carefully monitored so that they didn't offend my parents' austere standards. I can still remember attributing one particular enthusiasm to my doll, so that I wouldn't be held responsible for it. It was a marvelous day in the country and I was aching to say so to someone, but I knew if I did I'd be laughed at, so I said, 'Ruthy is feeling sentimental. She says, "How blue the sky! How green the grass!" But even this ruse didn't work. I was laughed at again.

Hillside 3

"What happened when I was ten was that the door suddenly opened. I was lying in bed with the curtains undrawn and I saw a huge white moon looking at me through the branches of the aspen poplar tree which stood about forty feet away in the garden opposite my window. It must have been spring, I think, because the branches were bare. I got out of bed and wrote a poem to the moon with a blunt pencil on a sheet of manuscript music paper, which was all I could find. It was blank verse and until that moment I'd had no idea that I could write anything more ambitious than rhyming couplets. It was a very exciting moment. Probably all the more exciting because it was forbidden to wander out of bed after eight o'clock. Then next morning I read the poem through and was rather impressed by it. It was a great deal better than I'd have expected."

That little girl grew up to become the author of over thirty books for children and adults (as well as a medical doctor and psychologist), writing right up to her death at age 87. Having raised three daughters, Storr was often asked if her childrens' books had been written for them. Well yes, to some degree, she said, but mostly she'd written them for herself:

"William Mayne, when asked for whom he wrote his books, said: For the child I once was. I'm sure this is true of many writers for children, but  I think it is also true that that one writes for the child one still is."

Hillside 4

The Thorny ParadiseThe passage above is from "Why Write? Why Write for Children" by Catherine Storr, published in The Thorny Paradise: Writers on Writing for Children, edited by Edward Blishen (Kestral Books, 1975). The poem in the picture captions is from Poetry magazine (October 2012). All rights reserved by the authors or their estates.


On Kindness

Nattadon 1

Living in these strange and troubling times, there's a mantra that I often repeat to myself (as I've mentioned here before): Be gentle, be gentle, be gentle. Stand your ground, know your truth, but be kind.

"Kindness" is a quality I value very highly although it's given little credence these days, dismissed as soft, simple, and sentimental in a culture that rewards the sharp, the hard, the self-reliant (or merely self-absorbed), lauding those who push to the front of the queue of success, wealth, and celebrity -- too often with little regard for the "losers" and "weakings" thrust out of their way. Thus it was with great interest that I came across the little book On Kindness by two distinguished modern thinkers: historian Barbara Taylor and psychoanalyst Adam Phillips.

"Why do the pleasures of kindness astonish us?" they ask. "And why are stories of kindness often so corny or silly, so trivializing of the things that matter the most to most people?"

Why indeed?

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"The pleasures of kindess were well known in the past," Phillips and Taylor point out. "Kindness was man's 'greatest delight,' the Roman philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius declared, and thinkers and writers have echoed him down through the centuries. But today many people find these pleasures literally incredible, or at least highly suspect. An image of the self has been created that is utterly lacking in natural generosity. Most people appear to believe that deep down they (and other people) are mad, bad and dangerous to know; that as a species -- apparently unlike other species of animal -- we are deeply and fundamentally antagonistic to each other, that our motives are utterly self-seeking and that our sympathies are forms of self-protectiveness."

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On Kindness, say the authors, is an explanation of how this state of affairs has come about. Despite the devaluation (and feminization) of the ideal of kindness in the modern age, "people are leading secretly kind lives all the time, but without a language in which to express this, or cultural support for it. Living according to our sympathies, we imagine, will weaken or overwhelm us; kindness is the saboteur of the successful life.

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"We need to know how we have come to believe that the best lives we can lead seem to involve sacrificing the best things about ourselves; and how we have come to believe that there are greater pleasures than kindness. Kindness -- not sexuality, not violence, not money -- has become our forbidden pleasure. What about our times has made kindness seem so dangerous?"

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That's a question I very much want an answer to -- and this book, alas, did not fully provide it, simply because it's too short to go very deeply into such a complex subject. It makes for a good beginning, however: the chapters on the history and philosophy of kindness are both fascinating and illuminating. (The middle of the book, by contrast, is devoted to Freudian theories of kindness; they are well explicated, but can be skipped over if, like me, you're allergic to Freud.)

Despite these reservations, I recommend On Kindness because it starts a much-needed conversation on the subject. I hope that other writers will continue the conversation, going beyond Taylor & Phillips' classical focus to examine kindness in other societal traditions. We need new conceptual frameworks for re-building kindness as a cultural ideal: genderless, classless, diverse and inclusive. We need to lift the ideal of kindness above the cliche of sentimentality and see it for the brave, vital, necessary force it is. Let's make the Beautiful Resistance a movement rich in kindness.

Are you with me?

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On Kindness by Phillips & TaylorThe passages above are from On Kindness by Adam Phillips & Barbara Taylor (Penguin Books, 2009). The poem in the picture captions is from Poetry magazine (March 2003). All rights reserved by the authors.