Earth's gifts

Autumn bench

I started writing a post this morning about my adventures during my week away from Chagford, and it seems to be turning into an essay on me, so it's going to be a few more days before its done. It's coming, I promise.

Pomona by Arthur RackhamI've returned home to a garden (or "yard," as we Americans say) that has turned decisively to autumn, dressed in rusty reds and golden yellows, the air smelling of wood smoke and apples. When the weather permits, I've been working outdoors, soaking in the sun before the winter is upon us. The Hound is glad to have me back, and is sticking even closer to my side than usual...as if I might slip away again if she lets me out of her sight.

One of the books I have on the go
at the moment is Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature, an essay collection by naturalist, educator, and philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore. I started reading Wild Comfort half a year ago, and for some reason, I didn't stick with it then -- I can't imagine why, because this time I can't put it down. Books are like that sometimes. They open to you when they're ready, and not before.

Wild Comfort by Kathleen Dean Moore

"The earth offers gift after gift," writes Moore, "life and the living of it, light and the return of it, the growing things, the roaring things, fire and nightmares, falling water and the wisdom of friends, forgiveness. My god, the forgiveness, time, and the scouring tides. How does one accept gifts as great as these and hold them in the mind?

Autumn in the garden

Crooked fence

"Failing to notice a gift dishonors it, and deflects the love of the giver. That's what's wrong with living a careless life, storing up sorrow, waking up regretful, walking unaware. But to turn the gift in your hand, to say, this is wonderful and beautiful, this is a great gift -- this honors the gift and the giver of it. Maybe this is what [my friend] Hank has been trying to make me understand: Notice the gift. Be astonished at it. Be glad for it, care about it. Keep it in mind. This is the greatest gift a person can give in return.

Contemplative Tilly

" 'This is your work,' my friend told me, 'which is a work of substance and prayer and mad attentiveness, which is the real deal, which is why we are here.' "

Meldon Hill

Autumn leaves

Apple harvestThe passage by Kathleen Dean Moore above is from "Burning Garbage on an Incoming Tide," published in Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature (Trumpeter Books/Shambhala, 2010). The poem in the picture captions is from Poetry magazine (January, 1985). All rights reserved by the authors. The illustration is "Pomona," the Roman goddess of fruit and nut trees, by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939). 


From the archives: Gracious Acceptance

White Tower by William Bailey

To continue yesterday's discussion on gift-exchange....

The other side of the coin from the art of gift-giving is the less heralded art of gift-receiving -- and to live a balanced, creatively fecund life we must learn to practice both with equal skill. But as Alexander McCall Smith points out (in Love Over Scotland), the act that he calls gracious acceptance is "an art which most never bother to cultivate. We think that we have to learn how to give, but we forget about accepting things, which can be much harder than giving."

"Until we can receive with an open heart," notes psychologist Brené Brown astutely, "we're never really giving with an open heart. When we attach judgment to receiving help, we knowingly or unknowingly attach judgment to giving help."

"Human life runs its course in the metamorphosis between receiving and giving," the German Romantic poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once wrote; and art-making, too, thrives in the space where giving and receiving dance in partnership. We take in the gifts of inspiration, shape them to our purposes, and then pass those gifts along through our stories, paintings, and other creative works.

Ceremony by William Bailey

To be skilled in the art of "gracious acceptance" is to be wide-open and receptive to the gifts the muses bring, and this skill, it seems to me, is helped or hindered by one's perception of the emotion of gratitude. There are those for whom gratitude is an uncomfortable, weakening, even shameful feeling; while others of us experience gratitude in a warm and positive manner, perceiving its ties as chords of connection, not heavy chains of obligation.

The narrator of Elizabeth Berg's novel Open House is clearly in the latter camp: "I made cranberry sauce," she tells us, "and when it was done put it into a dark blue bowl for the beautiful contrast. I was thinking, doing this, about the old ways of gratitude: Indians thanking the deer they'd slain, grace before supper, kneeling before bed. I was thinking that gratitude is too much absent in our lives now, and we need it back, even if it only takes the form of acknowledging the blue of a bowl against the red of cranberries."

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Mary Oliver, too, is a writer who seems to follow Meister Erkhart's dictum that "if the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough" -- for every poem she writes is a hymn of gratitude for the commonplace marvels of daily living. Take her 1992 poem "Morning," for example:

Salt shining behind its glass cylinder.
Milk in a blue bowl. The yellow linoleum.
The cat stretching her black body from the pillow.
The way she makes her curvaceous response to the small, kind gesture.
Then laps the bowl clean.
Then wants to go out into the world
where she leaps lightly and for no apparent reason across the lawn,
then sits, perfectly still, in the grass.
I watch her a little while, thinking:
what more could I do with wild words?
I stand in the cold kitchen, bowing down to her.
I stand in the cold kitchen, everything wonderful around me.

Still life by William Bailey

Art-making, like gift giving, requires two separate actions: giving and receiving, both of them equally important. We breathe in the world and push it out again: inhaling, exhaling; the cycle kept in motion; never resting for too long on one side and not the other. The perpetual giver, like the perpetual receiver, is an artist (and a person) out of balance, in danger of draining the creative well dry. It's hard work, and it's humbling work, to master both roles equally, including whichever one we find the hardest -- but that's precisely the task that art (and life) demands of us.

"The reality of all life is interdependence," notes cultural anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson. "We need to compose our lives in such a way that we both give and receive, learning to do both with grace, seeing both as parts of a single pattern rather than as antithetical alternatives."

"When we give cheerfully and accept gratefully," says Maya Angelou, "everyone is blessed."

Still Life by William Bailey

The quietly beautiful still life paintings here today are by the American artist William Bailey. Born in Iowa in 1930, educated at the University of Kansas, Bailey is now Professor Emeritus of Art at Yale University.

Still Life by William Bailey"Morning" by Mary Oliver is from New and Selected Poems (Beacon Press, 1992), which is highly recommended. All rights reserved by the author.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Blue Rose Code (Ross Wilson)

Here's music to get us going this morning from Scottish singer/songwriter Ross Wilson and his band Blue Rose Code. I think he's one of the most interesting songwriters working today, creating musical poetry in the interstices between folk, jazz, and rhythm & blues.

Above: "In The Morning - Parts 1, 2 & 3," a beautiful trio of inter-linked songs recorded at Gran's House Studio last month. (Make sure you let the video run long enough that you hear all three parts.) The back-up vocalist is Wrenne, a singer/songwriter from Utah.

Below: "Edina," performed with fellow Scottish songwriter Karine Polwart in Glasgow earlier this year, filmed for The Quay Sessions, BBC Scotland. This lovely song about growing up in Edinburgh is from Blue Rose Code's second album, The Ballads of Peckham Rye (2014).

Above: "Julie," an old favorite of mine from Blue Rose Code's first album, North Ten (2013).

Below: Wilson's latest song, with backing vocals from the McCrary Sisters from Nashville. Wilson asked fans to send in video clips of what the word "grateful" meant to them, and this is the result....

The last video was just what I needed this morning to bring a little light into the mass media's darkness. This is what people are grateful for: not money, not possessions, not celebrity, but family, friends (human and animal), music, health, and the everyday places where we make our lives.


Giving Thanks

My annual Thanksgiving poem, reminding me of all that I have to be grateful for. Health issues prevent me from making my usual climb to the top of Nattadon Hill this year, but in my imagination I am on those trails, Tilly bounding just ahead....

Our hill in the mist

I'm also thankful for you, dear Readers, and the whole mythic arts community.

To those of you in America: Have a warm and peaceful Thanksgiving weekend, full of good talk, good food, loud laughter, quiet moments, and of all of the ancient, mythic, magical, noncommercial things that matter the most. And to those of you in the rest of the world, I wish the very same.

I hope to be back to the studio (and Myth & Moor) sometime next week, if all goes well. Fingers crossed.

Tlly on Nattadon


In the quiet of the woods

Silence 1

Although I am not yet strong enough to manage long walks with Tilly, we're going out to the woods on rainless days nonetheless, where I choose a spot to sit while she rambles in the undergrowth nearby. Sometimes I read, sometimes I write, and sometimes I do nothing at all but absorb the quiet, attentive to the woods, as the woods absorbs me in turn.

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Tilly explores the terrain and then comes and sits close, ears cocked and alert, her nose twitching with every scent...and I love to watch her, to try to see as she sees and to hear as she hears. To remember that I am an animal too, made of water and wind and the dust of stars.

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The life of a freelance writer and editor is measured in hours of productivity, and it takes some effort to slough off guilt when time spent silent among the trees results in no tangible accomplishment: no pages written or manuscript read or email answered or paycheck earned. And yet I'm convinced that it's on such moments that every other part of my creative life rests. The land is muse, teacher, and mentor; it is doctor, pastor, and therapist. It is the place where I return to myself when the jangle of life, the demands of work, and the ceaseless clamour of the Internet lead me astray. In the quiet of the greenwood it all fades away. I can hear my own softer voice once again.

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But now I am justifying time spent outdoors by emphasizing the manner in which it supports my productivity back in the studio -- and while this is true, it is not the only truth. Quiet moments are worth much more than this. I will not measure their value in output, in books and paintings made and sold. I will not hang a price tag on my love for the natural world. I am not a consumer of the forest, obtaining my money's worth from the trees and grasses, the fungi and moss; I am just a woman sitting in the green arms of the Mother who made me. Just sitting. Just absorbing. Just being, for these precious moments, alive and present.

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I am not dismissing the importance of productivity for those of us working in the arts, or of enagagement with the media and marketplace which places our work in the hands of others, for I believe that art is important, even sacred, and is capable of no less than changing the world.

But then, so is this: these quiet hours in the dappled light of the greenwood, with my good dog beside me. It changes my world. It changes me. And that's all the value it needs.

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"I pin my hopes," said the Quaker writer Rufus Jones, "to quiet processes and small circles, in which vital and transforming events take place."

I pin my own hopes to the rustle of leaves, the murmur of water, the grace note of the birdsong overhead; to the ordinary, daily domestic act of rising in the morning and walking the dog. And to art, of course, but also to this. To the quiet of the woods.

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The Windigo

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I'd like to end the week with one last passage from Robin Wall Kimmerer's Braiding Sweetgrass -- this time dipping into the myth of the Windigo. I was planning to illustrate this post with Windigo illustrations, but I found them all too scary! So instead: the Devon hills, misty and mysterious in the early morning light, and a furry black protector to scare off any monsters in lurking in the bracken.

"The Windigo is the legendary monster of our Anishinaabe people," writes Kimmerer, "the villain of a tale told on freezing nights in the north woods. You can feel it lurking behind you, a being in the shape of an outsized man, ten feet tall, with frost-white hair hanging from its shaking body. With arms like tree trunks, feet as big as snow-shoes, it travels easily through the blizzards of the hungry time, stalking us. The hideous stench of its carrion breath poisons the clean scent of snow as it pants behind us. Yellow fangs hang from its mouth that is raw where it has chewed off its lips from hunger. Most telling of all, its heart is made of ice....This monster is no bear or howling wolf, no natural beast. Windigos are not born, they are made. The Windigo is a human being who has become a cannibal monster. Its bite will transform victims into cannibals too....It is said that the Windigo will never enter the spirit world but will suffer the eternal pain of need, its essence a hunger that will never be sated. The more a Windigo eats, the more ravenous it becomes. Consumed by consumption, it lays waste to humankind."

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"Traditional upbringing was designed to strengthen self-discipline, to build resistance against the insidious germ of taking too much. The old teachings recognized that Windigo nature is in each of us, so the monster was created in stories, that we might learn why we should recoil from the greedy part of ourselves. This is why Anishinaabe elders like Stewart King remind us always to acknowledge the two faces -- the light and the dark side of life -- in order to understand ourselves. See the dark, recognize its power, but do not feed it.

"The beast has been called an evil spirit that devours mankind. The very word, Windigo, according to Ojibwe scholar Basil Johnston, can be derived from roots meaning 'fat excess' or 'thinking only of oneself.' Writer Steve Pitt states 'a Windigo was a human whose selfishness has overpowered their self-control to the point where satisfaction is no longer possible.'

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"No matter what they call it, Johnston and many other scholars point to the current epidemic of self-destructive practices -- addiction to alcohol, drugs, gambling, technology, and more -- as a sign than Windigo is alive and well. In Ojibwe ethics, Pitt says, 'any overindulgent habit is self-destructive, and self-destruction is Windigo.' And just as Windigo's bite is infectious, we know all too well that self-destruction drags along many more victims -- in our human families as well as in the more-than-human world.

"The native habitat of the Windigo is the north woods, but the range has expanded in the last few centuries. As Johnston suggests, multinational corporations have spawned a new breed of Windigo that insatiably devours the earth's resources 'not for need but for greed.' The footprints are all around us if you know what to look for."

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"We are all complicit," notes Kimmerer. "We've allowed the 'market' to define what we value so that the redefined common good seems to depend on profligate lifestyles that enrich the sellers while impoverishing the soul and the earth. Cautionary Windigo tales arose in a commons-based society where sharing was essential to survival and greed in any individual a danger to the whole. In the old times, individuals who endangered the community by taking too much for themselves were first counseled, then ostracized, and if the greed continued, they were eventually banished. The Windigo myth may have arisen from the remembrance of the banished, doomed to wander hungry and alone, wreaking vengence on those who spurned them. It is a terrible punishment to be banished from the web of reciprocity, with no one to share with you and no one for you to care for.

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"I remember walking a street in Manhattan, where the warm light of a lavish home spilled out onto the sidewalk on a man picking through the garbage for his dinner. Maybe we've all been banished to lonely corners by our obsession with private property. We've accepted banishment even from ourselves when we spend our beautiful, singular lives on making more money, to buy more things that will feed but never satisfy. It is the Windigo way that tricks us into believing that belongings will fill our hunger, when it is belonging that we crave. On a grander scale, too, we seem to be living in an era of Windigo economics of fabricated demand and compulsive overconsumption. What Native peoples once sought to rein in, we are now asked to unleash in a systematic policy of sanctioned greed.

"The fear for me is far greater than just acknowledging the Windigo within. The fear for me is that the world has been turned inside out, the dark side made to seem light. Indulgent self-interest that our people once held to be monstrous is now celebrated as success. We are asked to admire what our people once viewed as unforgiveable. The consumption-driven mind-set masquerades as 'quality of life' but eats us from within. It is as if we've been invited to a feast, but the table is laid with food that nourishes only emptiness, the black hole of the stomach that never fills. We have unleashed a monster."

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Later in her book, Kimmerer discusses how to defeat the Windigo in our midst through the "economy of the commons, wherein resources fundamental to our well-being, like water and land and forests, are commonly held rather than commodified. Properly managed, the commons approach maintains abundance, not scarcity. These contemporary economic alternatives strongly echo the indigenous world view in which the earth exists not as private property, but as a commons to be tended with respect and reciprocity for the benefit of all.

"And yet, while creating an alternative to destructive economic structures is imperative, it is not enough. It is not just changes in policy that we need, but also changes to the heart. Scarcity and plenty are as much qualities of the mind and spirit as they are of the economy. Gratitude plants the seed for abundance.

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"Each of us comes from people who were once indigenous. We can reclaim our membership in the cultures of gratitude that formed our old relationship with the living earth. Gratitude is a powerful antidote to Windigo psychosis. A deep awareness of the gifts of the earth and of each other is medicine. The practice of gratitude lets us hear the badgering of marketers as the stomach grumblings of a Windigo. It celebrates cultures of regenerative reciprocity, where wealth is understood to be having enough to share and riches are counted in mutual beneficial relationships. Besides, it makes us happy."

Indeed.

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall KimmererThe text above is from Braiding Sweetgrass by Potawatomi author and biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer (Milkweed Editions, 2014), which I highly recommend reading in full. The poem in the picture captions is from Jacklight by Ojibwe poet & novelist Louise Erdrich (Flamingo, 1996), which I also recommend. All rights reserved by the authors.


A democracy of species

Julien Salaud

Here's another lovely passage from Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, weaving together several of the themes that we've been discussing these last few weeks: gift vs. market economies, inter-species relationships, living and working in gratitude, and how to "re-wild" our children in an increasingly urban world.

"Our old farm is within the ancestral homelands of the Onondaga Nation," Kimmerer writes, "and their reserve lies a few ridges to the west of my hilltop. There, just like on my side of the ridge, school buses discharge a herd of kids who run even after  the bus monitors bark 'Walk!' But at Onondaga, the flag flying outside the entrance [of the school] is purple and white, depicting the Hiawatha wampum belt, the symbol of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy....Here the school week begins and ends not with the Pledge of Allegiance, but with the Thanksgiving Address, a river of words as old as the people themselves, known more accurately in the Onondaga language as the Words That Come Before All Else. This ancient order of protocol sets gratitude as the highest priority. The gratitude is directed straight to the ones who share their gifts with the world.

"All classes stand together in the atrium, and one grade each week has responsibility for the oratory. Together, in a language older than English, they begin the recitation. It is said that the people were instructed to stand and offer these words whenever they gathered, no matter how many or how few, before anything else was done. In this ritual, their teachers remind them that every day, 'beginning with where our feet touch the earth, we send thanks and greetings to all members of the natural world.' "

The wording of the Thanksgiving Address varies with the speaker, but you can read well known version by John Stokes and Kanawahientun here.

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"The Address is, by its very nature of greeting to all who sustain us, long," Kimmerer continues. "But it can be done in abbreviated form or in long and loving detail. At the school, it is tailored to the language skills of the children speaking it.

"Part of its power surely rests in the length of time it takes to send greetings and thanks to so many. The listeners reciprocate the gift of the speaker's words with their attention, and by putting their minds into the place where gathered minds meet. You could be passive and just let the words flow by, but each call asks for the response: 'Now our minds are one.' You have to concentrate; you have to give yourself to the listening. It takes effort, especially in a time when we are accustomed to sound bites and immediate gratification."

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"Imagine raising children in a culture in which gratitude is the first priority. Freida Jacques works at the Onondaga Nation School. She is a clan-mother, the school-community liaison, and a generous teacher. She explains to me that the Thanksgiving Address embodies the Onondaga relationship to the world. Each part of Creation is thanked in turn for fulfilling its Creator-given duty to others. 'It reminds you every day that you have enough,' she says. 'More than enough. Everything needed to sustain life is already here. When we do this, every day, it leads us to an outlook of contentment and respect for all of Creation.'

"You can't listen to the Thanksgiving Address without feeling wealthy. And, while expressing gratitude seems innocent enough, it is a revolutionary idea. In a consumer society, contentment is a radical proposition. Recognizing abundance rather than scarcity undermines an economy that thrives by creating unmet desires. Gratitude cultivates an ethic of fullness, but the economy needs emptiness. The Thanksgiving Address reminds you that you already have everything you need. Gratitude doesn't send you out shopping to find satisfaction; it comes as a gift rather than a commodity, subverting the foundation of the whole economy. That's good medicine for land and people alike."

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"As Frieda says, 'The Thanksgiving Address is a reminder we cannot hear too often, that we human beings are not in charge of the world, but are subject to the same forces as the rest of life.'

"For me, the cumulative impact of the Pledge of Allegiance, from my time as a schoolgirl to my adulthood, was the cultivation of cynicism and a sense of the nation's hypocrisy -- not the pride it was mean to instill. As I grew to understand the gifts of the earth, I couldn't understand how 'love of country' could omit recognition of the actual country itself. The only promise it requires is to a flag. What of the promises to each other and to the land?

"What would it be like to be raised on gratitude, to speak to the natural world as a member of a democracy of species, to raise a pledge of interdependence? No declarations of political loyalty are required, just a response to a repeated question, 'Can we agree to be grateful for all that is given?' In the Thanksgiving Address, I hear respect toward all our nonhuman relatives, not one political entity, but all of life."

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"Cultures of gratitude must also be cultures of reciprocity. Each person, human or no, is bound to every other in a reciprocal relationship. Just as all beings have a duty to me, I have a duty to them. If an animal gives his life to feed me, I am in turn bound to support its life. If I receive a stream's gift of pure water, then I am responsible for returning the gift in kind. An integral part of a human's education is to know those duties and how to perform them.

"The Thanksgiving Address reminds us that duties and gifts are two sides of the same coin. Eagles were given the gift of far sight, so it is their duty to watch over us. Rain fulfills its duty as it falls, because it was given the gift of sustaining life. What is the duty of humans? If gifts and responsibilities are one, then asking, 'What is our responsibility?' is the same as asking 'What is our gift?' It is said that only humans have the capacity of gratitude. That is one of our gifts."

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The luminous works of art picture here are from the Stellar Cave series by Julien Salaud, an installation artist from Orléans, France. Each piece, explains Jenny Zhang (on My Modern Met), "is made of cotton thread that is coated in ultraviolet paint, woven into the shapes of stunning creatures, and held down with thousands of nails to form a glowing tapestry that transforms the room into an intergalactic grotto."

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JulienSalaud16Many thanks to Gwenda Bond and Ellen Kushner for introducing me to Julien Salaud's stunning work.


Homemade ceremonies

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In Braiding Sweetgrass, Native American author and biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer (of the Potowatomi people) explains how her family was severed from their traditional culture when her grandfather, like so many children of his generation, was taken from home by the U.S. government and sent to the Carlisle Indian School to be "civilized" (a truly shameful chapter of my country's history). It was not until many years later that his descendants reclaimed their language and heritage. Against this painful background, Kimmerer writes movingly of her father's morning ritual when the family camped on the slopes of Tahawus each summer (the Algonquin name for Mount Marcy in the Adirondaks):

"When he lifts the coffee pot from the stove the morning bustle stops; we know without being told that it's time to pay attention. He stands at the edge of camp with the coffeepot in his hands, holding the top in place with a folded pot holder. He pours coffee on the ground in a thick brown stream. The sunlight catches the flow, striping it amber and brown and black as it falls to the earth and steams in the cool morning air. With his face to the morning sun, he pours and speaks into the stillness, 'Here's to the gods of Tahawus.'"

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"I was pretty sure no other family I knew began their day like this," she continues, "but I never questioned the source of those words and my father never explained. They were just part of our life among the lakes. But their rhythm made me feel at home and the ceremony drew a circle around our family. By those words we said, 'Here we are,' and I imagined that the land heard us -- murmured to itself, 'Ohh, here are the ones who know how to say thank you.' "

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"Sometimes my father would name the gods of Forked Lake or South Pond or Brandy Brook Flow, wherever our tents were settled for the night. I came to know each place was inspirited, was home to others before we arrived and long after we left. As he called out the names and offered a gift, the first coffee, he quietly taught us the respect we owed these other beings and how to show our thanks for summer mornings.

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"I knew that in the long-ago our people raised their thanks in morning songs, in prayer, in the offering of sacred tobacco. But at that time in our family history we didn't have sacred tobacco and we didn't know the songs -- they'd been taken away from my grandfather at the doors of the boarding school. But history moves in a circle and here we were, the next generation, back to the loon-filled lakes of our ancestors, back to the canoes....

"In the same way that the flow of coffee down the rock opened the leaves of the moss, ceremony brought the quiescent back to life, opened my mind and heart to what I knew, but had forgotten. The words and the coffee called us to remember that these woods and lakes were a gift. Ceremonies large and small have the power to focus attention to a way of living awake in the world. The visible became invisible, merging with the soil. It may have been a secondhand ceremony, but...I recognized that the earth drank it up as if it were right. The land knows you, even when you are lost.

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"A people's story moves along like a canoe caught in the current, being carried closer and closer to where we had begun. As I grew up, my family found again the tribal connections that had been frayed, but never broken, by history. We found the people who knew our true names. And when I first heard in Oklahoma the sending of thanks to the four directions at the sunrise lodge -- the offering in the old language of the sacred tobacco -- I heard it as if in my father's voice. The language was different but the heart was the same.

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"Ours was a solitary ceremony, but fed from the same bond with the land, founded on respect and gratitude. Now the circle drawn around us is bigger, encompassing a whole people to which we again belong. But still the offering says, 'Here we are,' and still I hear at the end of the words the land murmuring to itself, 'Ohh, here are the ones who know how to say thank you.' Today my father can speak his prayers in our language. But it was 'Here's to the gods of Tahawus' that came first, in the voice I will always hear. It was in the presence of ancient ceremonies that I understood that our coffee offering was not secondhand, it was ours."

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Wildflowers

The power of ceremony, writes Kimmerer, is that "it marries the mundane to the sacred. The water turns to wine, the coffee to a prayer. The material and the spiritual mingle like grounds mixed with humus, transformed like steam rising from a mug into the morning mist. What else can you offer the earth, which has everything? What else can you give but something of yourself? A homemade ceremony, ceremony that makes a home."

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I've written before about my own morning rituals, which are solitary ones except for Tilly's presence, and also about how much I prefer that solitude to be undisturbed in the enchanted liminal space between waking up and creative work. We can draw parallels between the rituals of beginning / rituals of approach we employ to facilitate creative work and the morning ritual Kimmerer describes. Ceremony, meditation, creative routines and practices designed to ease us into work, these are all means of acknowledging the transition from one state into another: from sleep into a brand new day, from morning chores and mundane concerns to the focused state of creativity and inspiration.

But there's also an important difference here -- which, I fear, often gets lost when First Nation ceremonies are too-casually adapted by non-native peoples. While the coffee ritual may indeed have helped Kimmerer's father to feel more meditative, centered, and ready to start his day, this therapeutic aspect of the ceremony is not its purpose or focus. Rather, it is an act of gratitude, an acknowledgement of the larger world of which we humans are just one part. There is no ego in the ritual, no self-aggrandizing, no  "look at me, look how spiritual I am" -- just the simple, humble act of man offering a humble gift to creation.

Morning coffee

In my own morning rituals, gratitude to the land, to our animal neighbors, to the vast nonhuman world plays a crucial part. It is why I write and why I paint: sheer gratitude for being alive, even on -- perhaps especially on -- those mornings when, because of poor health or other difficulties, life feels most burdensome. I want to create not from a place of ego and self-aggrandizement but as a means of gifting stories to the beautiful land that feeds and clothes and houses and sustains me; and to give, as Pablo Neruda once said, "something resiny, earthlike and fragrant in exchange for the gift of human brotherhood."

Some days I succeed, and some days I don't. But each morning I wake up, climb the hill with Tilly, pour steaming coffee from a silver thermos as birdsong greets the sun, and I try again. And again. And again. On the hill, I remember that my place in the world is very small. And very precious. And I'm grateful for it all.

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer


Knowing the world as a gift

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I'm reading a book now that several of you here have recommended, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants by Native American author and biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer, which is especially interesting in light of our current conversation on art and the marketplace.

Kimmerer references Lewis Hyde's important work on the distinction between market and gift economies (The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World) -- but she comes to his ideas from an unusual direction, discussing the difference between these two ways of thinking from a botanical and ecological perspective rather than an artistic one. Strawberries are one example she gives of the gift economy operating in botanical form: the small, sweet wild strawberries she gathered freely from the fields when she was a child, a wild gift from the bounty of Mother Earth, as opposed to larger, less tasty strawberries farmed as monocrops, packaged in plastic, and shipped around the globe to be sold at supermarkets in every season.

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"It's funny," she notes, "how the nature of an object -- let's say a strawberry or a pair of socks -- is changed by the way it has come into your hands, as a gift or as a commodity. The pair of wool socks that I buy at the store, red and gray striped, are warm and cozy. I might feel grateful for the sheep that made the wool and the worker who ran the knitting machine. I hope so. But I have no inherent obligation to those socks as a commodity, as private property. There is no bond beyond the lightly exchanged 'thank yous' with the clerk. I have paid money for them and our reciprocity ended the minute I handed her the money. The exchange ends once parity has been established, an equal exchange. They become my property. I don't write a thank-you note to JCPenny.

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"But what if those very same socks, red and gray striped, were knitted by my grandmother and given to me as a gift? That changes everything. A gift creates ongoing relationship. I will write a thank-you note. I will take good care of them and if I am a very gracious granddaughter I'll wear them when she visits even if I don't like them. When it's her birthday, I will surely make her a gift in return. As Lewis Hyde notes, 'It is the cardinal difference between gift and commodity exchange that a gift establishes a feeling-bond between two people.' Wild strawberries fit the definition of a gift, but grocery store berries do not. It's the relationship between producer and consumer that changes everything."

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"I'm a plant scientist and I want to be clear," Kimmerer continues, "but I'm also a poet and the world speaks to me in metaphor. When I speak of the gift of berries, I do not mean that Fragaria virginiana has been up all night making a present just for me, strategizing to find out exactly what I'd like on a summer morning. So far as we know, that does not happen, but as a scientist I am well aware of how little we do know. The plant has in fact been up all night assembling little packets of sugar and seeds and fragrance and color, because when it does so its evolutionary fitness is increased. When it is successful in enticing an animal such as me to disperse its fruit, its genes for making yumminess are passed on to the ensuing generations with a higher frequency than those of the plant whose berries were inferior. The berries made by the plant shape the behaviors of the dispersers and have adaptive consequences.

"What I mean of course is that our human relationship with strawberries is transformed by our choice of perspective. It is human perception that makes the world a gift. When we view the world this way, strawberries and humans alike are transformed. The relationship of gratitude and reciprocity thus developed can increase the evolutionary fitness of both plant and animal. A species and a culture that treat the natural world with respect and reciprocity will surely pass on genes to ensuing generations with a higher frequency than the people who destroy it. The stories we choose to shape our behaviors have adaptive consequences.

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"In the old times, when people's lives were so directly tied to the land, it was easy to know the world as a gift.  When fall came, the skies would darken with flocks of geese, honking 'Here we are.' It reminds the people of the [Potowatomi] Creation story, when the geese came to save Skywoman [the first human]. The people are hungry, winter is coming, and the geese fill the marshes with food. It is a gift and the people receive it with thanksgiving, love and respect.

"But when food does not come from a flock in the sky, when you don't feel the warm feathers cool in your hand and know that a life has been given for yours, when there is no gratitude in return -- that food may not satisfy. It may leave the spirit hungry while the belly is full. Something is broken when the food comes on a Styrofoam tray wrapped in slippery plastic, a carcass of a being whose only chance at life was a cramped cage. That is not a gift of life; that is a theft.

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"How, in our modern world, can we find our way to understand the earth as a gift again, to make our relations with the world sacred again? I know we cannot all become hunter-gatherers -- the living world could not bear our weight -- but even in a market economy, can we behave 'as if' the living world were a gift?

"There are those who will try to sell the gifts...but refusal to participate is a moral choice. Water is a gift for all, not meant to be bought and sold. Don't buy it. When food has been wrenched from the earth, depleting the soil and poisoning our relatives in the name of higher yields, don't buy it.

"In material fact, wild strawberries belong only to themselves. The exchange relationships we choose determine whether we share them as a common gift or sell them as a private commodity. A great deal rests on that choice. For the greater part of human history, and in places in the world today, common resources were the rule. But some invented a different story, a social construct in which everything is a commodity to be bought and sold. The market economy story has spread like wildfire, with uneven results for human well-being and devastation for the natural world. But it is just one story we have told ourselves and we are free to tell another, to reclaim the old one.

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"One of these stories sustains the living systems on which we depend. One of these stories opens the way to living in gratitude and amazement at the richness and generosity of the world. One of these stories asks us to bestow our gifts in kind, to celebrate our kinship with the world. We can choose. If all the world is a commodity, how poor we grow. When all the world is a gift in motion, how wealthy we become."

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In the Mythic Arts field, we are all storytellers -- whether we work with words or paint or clay or sound or the movement of our bodies and the breath in our throats. And as storytellers, it behooves us think about the kinds of stories we're telling -- as well as about the ways we tell them, the ways we receive them, and the ways we pass them on to keep the gift in motion.  There is no simple means of exempting our art from the strictures of the market economy while we live in a market-centered world, not if we depend on our work to pay the rent and put food on the table. But, as Kimmerer notes, our relationship to things, whether strawberries or stories, is transformed by our choice of perspective. When we come to "know the world as a gift," then we also come to know art as a gift, moving from hand to hand to hand, creating relationships "of gratitude and reciprocity."

And that, as Kimmerer says so sweetly and succinctly, changes everything.

Clapper bridge 1

Clapper bridge 2The photographs here were taken at the Wallabrook, close to Scorhill stone circle. The large river stone with the hole in it, known as the Tolmen Stone, was believed to cure various ailments (arthritis and infertility in particular) in any who passed through it; it was also prescribed as a purification ritual for unfaithful wives. The single-slab clapper bridge nearby dates at least to the Elizabethan era (when we have the first record of it) and probably much earlier. The photograph of me, Howard, & Tilly is by Helen Mason; the rest are mine.


Finding stillness

Looking back to where we have come from.

Today, I woke with these words from Saul Bellow at the forefront of my thoughts:

"I feel that art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the middle of chaos. A stillness which characterizes prayer, too, and the eye of the storm. I think that art has something to do with an arrest of attention in the midst of distraction."

These are words that I live by....or, at least, that I try to.

Looking ahead at where we are going.

Standing still.

Graham Joyce has died. I want to write an appreciation of his life and his work...and I find that I can't just yet. He's been very ill for a while, but this came much too soon, and I'm devastated. My heart goes out to his wife and children, and all who loved him.

Today, there are no words. Just gratitude for all the wonderful books, short stories, blog posts, book recommendations, and memories that he's left us.

Three of Graham's fine books