Veriditas and the vegetable soul

Bean Longpod by Charles Jones

"The word vegetable comes from the root that means the very opposite of immobile, passive, dull, or uneventful. Vegere means to animate, enliven, invigorate, arouse. Vegete means to grow, to be refreshing, to vivify, animate. From these roots come words such as vigil, vigilant, and vigor, with all their connotations of being wide-awake, alert, of keeping watch. 'The understanding...was vagete, quick, and lively," observed one critic in 1662. Ben Jonson described what he saw as desirable characteristics in woman, 'faire, young, and vegetous.' Such respect for the vegetable soul was not confined merely to a robust sensual life, but extended into the religious dimension. 'Man is righteous in his Vegetated Spectre,' proclaimed Blake when commenting about the beliefs of the ancient Druids. Elsewhere it was insisted that 'A vegetous faith is able to say unto a mountain, Be moved into the sea.'

"The downward pull of vegetables, of the vegetable soul, has also provided exemplary images of being placed, of being grounded, of having roots. For example, Jung said, 'I am fully committed to the idea that human existence should be rooted in the earth.' He bemoaned modern culture's lack of earth-based ancestral connections. As Henry Corbin put it, the past is not behind us, but beneath our feet. What better way to touch the ground than through cabbages, which the poet Robert Bly says 'love the earth.' The word root comes from the Indo-European root ra, meaning to derive, to grow out of. To be 'radical' is get back to the roots. Radish stems from the same etymological roots."

- Peter Bishop (The Greening of Psychology: The Vegetable World in Myth, Dream, and Healing)

Cabbages (Larry's Perfection) by Charles Jones

Good People, most royal greening verdancy,
rooted in the sun, you shine with radiant light.

Hildegard of Bingen (''Original Blessing'')

Potatoes by Charles Jones

"A cornerstone of Hildegard of Bingen's spirituality was Viriditas, or greening power, her revelation of the animating life force manifest in the natural world that infuses all creation with moisture and vitality. To her, the divine was manifest in every leaf and blade of grass. Just as a ray of sunlight is the sun, Hildegard believed that a flower or a stone was God, though not the whole of God. Creation revealed the face of the invisible creator. Hildegard celebrated the sacred in nature, something highly relevant for us in this age of climate change and the destruction of natural habitats.''

- Mary Sharratt ("Eight Reasons Why Hildegard Matters Now")

Peas by Charles Jones

"I'm a champion of subtley. The subtler something is, the more you have to pay attention, and that's a good thing. Remember, it's not always the big, loud species that are the best teachers. Sometimes it's the little, quiet, humble ones.

"Plants have the ability to transmit energy. Plants draw in and transform earth and water and nutrients and light and make their bodies out of them. Plants are a manifestation of these forces being woven together, and we humans have relied on them to sustain us since the beginning of our evolution. In cultures that are close to the earth I see a recognition of the power of plants to hold and draw energy and to move it along, thereby changing in a healing way. The plant world is constantly whispering to us, if we can hear it."

- Kathleen Harrison ("Women, Plants, and Culture," Moonwise)

Turnips by Charles Jones

Onions by Charles Jones

" 'Eating is an agricultural act,' as Wendell Berry famously said. It is also an ecological act, and a political act, too. Though much has been done to obscure this simple fact, how and what we eat determines to a great extent the use we make of the world -- and what is to become of it."

- Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals)

Plums by Charles Jones

The photographs in this post are by Charles Jones, a Victorian gardener and photographer born in Wolverhampton, Staffordshire in 1866. His work was largely unknown (even to his family) until hundreds of his images were discovered in a suitcase at an antiques market in south London in 1982; since then his beautiful images of vegetables and flowers have appeared in major museum exhibitions and been published in a book, The Plant Kingdoms Of Charles Jones (1998).

More information on the artist can be found here, and additional photographs can be seen here.

McGreedy's Scarlet by Charles JonesA post related to the "roots" quotes in the picture captions: "Writing without roots" (Sept. 2014)


What places make of us

Tilly and the oak elder

After finishing Olivia Laing's To the River, in which the author walks the River Ouse from its source to the sea, my next re-reading project is to revisit two of my favorite books about walking -- Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit and The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane -- before moving on to another first-time read: A Philosophy of Walking by Frédéric Gros.

What better time of year could there be for walkers' tales of holloways, hedgerows, green roads, ghost roads, pilgrim ways and nights under the stars? Every time I ramble through the woods with Tilly my feet want to carry me on and further on, the flag of her tail waving jauntily ahead...until I catch myself succumbing to the "rapture of the pathway," stop, give a whistle, and turn for home; work must be done and life attended to, as the clocks tick tock, and the telephone rings, and nevermind how sweetly the sun filters through the trees, nevermind, nevermind. Come along, dear girl. We must away.

Woodland path

But in my imagination, we don't turn back, we keep on climbing through ash, old oak, thickets of holly, tall stands of pine, while the little woodland grows large around us, becoming a proper forest now, and the trail and the tale wind on and the tree tops shiver and the story begins:

Once upon a time....

Woodland path

"I have long been fascinated," writes Robert Macfarlane, "by how people understand themselves using landscape, by the topographies of self we carry within us and by the maps we make with which to navigate these interior terrains. We think in metaphors drawn from place, and sometimes those metaphors do not only adorn our thoughts, but actively produce it. Landscape, to borrow George Eliot's phrase, can 'enlarge the imagined range for self to move in.'

"As I envisage it, landscape projects into us not like a jetty or peninsula, finite and bounded by its volume and reach, but instead as a kind of sunlight, flickeringly unmappable in its plays yet often quickening and illuminating. We are adept, if occasionally embarrassed, at saying what we make of places -- but we are far less good at saying what places make of us.

"For some time now it has seemed to me that the two questions we should ask of any strong landscape are these: firstly, what do I know when I am in this place that I can know nowhere else? and then, vainly, what does this place know of me that I cannot know of myself?"

Old oak

Yes, those are, indeed, the right questions....but I'm troubled by Macfarlane's use of the word "vainly." What precisely can he mean by this? That the question is a narcissistic one, with its assumption that the land gives a toss about us? Or that it's a question asked in vain, to which we will never have an answer? 

It's my belief that the second question can be answered, for it is possible to have a conversation with the landscape and to hear (at least to the degree we are capable of hearing) what the land around us has to say. Art is one time-honored way to facilitate such a dialogue; another, used by animist cultures around the globe, is through sacred rituals specifically designed to mediate between the human and nonuman worlds. The conversation requires a relationship with the landscape...and patience, time, the ability to truly listen, and a certain humility...but there's nothing extraordinary or supernatural about it. Young children talk to the land instinctively. It's only as adults that we forget.

"Tell me the landscape in which you live," said the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset,  "and I'll tell you who you are."

His quote is written in gold on my studio wall, for it sums up everything I write and paint.

Hiding in plain sight


Embracing the bear

Photograph by Katerina Plotnikova

I've long used the term "embracing the bear" for those moments when I'm moving forward into something I fear, but don't want fear to stop me; thus I was intrigued to encounter the same phrase in Terry Tempest William's An Unspoken Hunger, where it has a slightly different, but related, meaning. In a gorgeous little essay on women and bears, Williams includes a description of Marian Engle 's Bear, a highly unsual, memorable novel which portrays a woman and a bear "in an erotics of place":

"It doesn't matter whether the bear is seen as male or female," says Williams. "The relationship between the two is sensual,Victorian illustration, artist unknown wild.

"The woman says, 'Bear, take me to the bottom of the ocean with you, Bear, swim with me, Bear, put your arms around me, enclose me, swim, down, down, down, with me.'

" 'Bear,' she says suddenly, 'come dance with me.'

"They make love. Afterwards, 'She felt pain, but it was a dear sweet pain that belonged not to mental suffering, but to the earth.'

William writes that she, too, "has felt the pain that arises from a recognition of beauty, pain we hold when we remember what we are connected to and the delicacy of our relations. It is this tenderness born out of connection to place that Black bear, artist unknown copyfuels my writing. Writing becomes an act of compassion toward life, the life we often refuse to see because if we look too closely or feel too deeply, there may be no end to our suffering. But words empower us, move us beyond our suffering, and set us free. This is the sorcery of literature. We are healed by our stories.

"By undressing, exposing, and embracing the bear, we undress, expose, and embrace our authentic selves. Stripped free from society's oughts and shoulds, we emerge as emancipated beings. The bear is free to roam."

Photograph by Katerina Plotnikova

"We are creatures of paradox, women and bears, two animals that are enormously unpredictable, hence our mystery," Williams continues. "Perhaps the fear of bears and the fear of women lies in our refusal to be tamed, the impulses we arouse and the forces we represent....As women connected to the earth, we are nurturing and we are fierce, we are wicked and we are sublime. The full range is ours. We hold the moon in our bellies and fire in our hearts. We bleed. We give milk. We are the mothers of first words. These words grow. They are our children. They are our stories and our poems."

Photograph by Katerina Plotnikova

The sublime images above are by the Russian surrealist photographer Katerina Plotnikova, based in Moscow. The pen-and-ink drawings are Victorian illustrations, artists unknown.

Other recommended bear fiction, in addition to Bear by Marion Engle: The Red Garden by Alice Hoffman (the woman-bear relationship in this book completely slays me), Her Frozen Wild by Kim Antieau, "Bear's Bride" by Johanna Sinisalo (in The Beastly Bride), "The Brown Bear of Norway" by Isobel Cole (in Black Thorn White Rose), Tender Morsals by Margo Lanagan, East by Edith Pattou,  Snow White and Rose Red by Patricia C. Wrede, and Ice by Sarah Beth Durst. There's also a magical story tucked into the stanzas of Theodora Goss's poem, "The Bear's Daughter," and a very beautiful children's book by Jackie Morris, The Ice Bear. Others?


In the lull between storms

Snowmelt 1

From "Chronicles of Ice" by Gretel Erlich (Orion Magazine, 2004):

"All over the world the life of rocks, ice, mountains, snow, oceans, islands, albatross, sooty gulls, whales, crabs, limpets, and guanaco once flowed up into the bodies of the people who lived in small hunting groups and villages, and out came killer-whale prayers, condor chants, crab feasts, and guanaco songs.

Snowmelt 2

"Life went where there was food. Food occurred in places of great beauty, and the act of living directly fueled people’s movements, thoughts, and lives.

Snowmelt 3

"Everything spoke. Everything made a sound—birds, ghosts, animals, oceans, bogs, rocks, humans, trees, flowers, and rivers—and when they passed each other a third sound occurred.

Snowmelt 4

"That’s why weather, mountains, and each passing season were so noisy. Song and dance, sex and gratitude, were the season-sensitive ceremonies linking the human psyche to the larger, wild, weather-ridden world....

"When did we begin thinking that weather was something to be rescued from?"

John Bauer copy

These photos were snapped a couple of mornings ago, as Tilly and I rambled through snow-melt in the higher part of the woods; but since then we've had a fresh storm and the land is the Snow Queen's Realm once again. It's very beautiful....and disruptive of schedules, inconvenient for modern life, but that has its value too. Sometimes we just have to stop.

Breathe.

Stand in awe of the world we live in.

The illustration by the Swedish artist John Baeur (1882-1918)


Listening to a deeper way

Be still, they say.

From "Walking" by Linda Hogan (from Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living World):

"John Hay, in The Immortal Wilderness, has written: 'There are occasions when you can hear the mysterious language of the Earth, in water, or coming through the trees, emanating from the mosses, seeping through the undercurrents of the soil, but you have to be willing to wait and receive.' Sometimes I hear it talking. The light of the sunflower was one language, but there are others more audible. Once, in the redwood forest, I heard a beat, something like a drum or a heart coming from the ground and trees and wind. That underground current stirred a kind of knowing inside me, a kinship and longing, a dream barely remembered that disappeared back to the body....

Watch.

"Tonight, I walk. I am watching the sky. I think of the people who came before me and how they knew the placement of the stars in the sky, watching the moving sun long and hard enough to witness how a certain angle of light touched a stone only once a year. Without written records, they knew the gods of every night, the small, fine details of the world around them and the immensity above them.

"Walking, I can almost hear the redwoods beating....It is a world of elemental attention, of all things working together, listening to what speaks in the blood. Whichever road I follow, I walk in the land of many gods, and they love and eat one another. Walking, I am listening to a deeper way. Suddenly all my ancestors are behind me. Be still, they say. Watch and listen. You are the result of the love of thousands."

And listen.

Aho mitakuye oysasin.


The secrets of trees

Tree shadows 1

From "A Different Yield" by Linda Hogan (from Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living World):

"A woman once described a friend of hers as being such a keen listener that even the trees leaned toward her, as if they were speaking their innermost secrets into her listening ears. Over the years I've envisioned that woman's silence, a hearing full and open enough that the world told her its stories. The green leaves turned toward her, whispering tales of soft breezes and the murmurs of leaf against leaf."

This is what I aspire to, a hearing just so open and full.

Tree shadows 2

"It is the last thing we learn, / listening to the creature world... "   - Jane Yolen

Tree shadows 3

"Listen, listen, listen..."  -  Phyllis Holliday

Tree shadows 4

The phtotographs above of the trees growing out of an old stone boundary wall dividing the hill we live on from woods. The Days of the Dead (Nov. 1 - 4) are a time when the boundaries between Worlds are easily crossed.... Quiet, now. Listen.


The dream of feathers...

From Ashs and Snow by Gregory Colbert

From "The Dream of Feathers" by Linda Hogan (of the Chickasaw Nation), published in her luminous book Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living World:

"Perhaps there are events and things that work as a doorway into a mythical world, the world of first people, all the way back to the creation of the universe and the small quickenings of earth, the first stirrings of human beings at the beginnings of time. Our elders believe this to be so, that it is possible to wind a way backwards to the start of things, and in doing so find a form of sacred reason, different from ordinary reason, that is linked to forces of nature. In this kind of mind, like in the feather, is the power of sky and thunder and sun, and many have had alliances and partnerships with it, a way of thought older than measured time, less primitive than the rational present. Others have tried for centuries to understand the world by science and intellect but have not yet done so, not yet understood animals, finite earth, or even their own minds and behavior. The more they seek to learn the world, the closer they come to the spiritual, the magical origins of creation.

"There is a still place, a gap between the worlds, spoken by the tribal knowings of thousands of years. In it are silent flyings that stand aside from human struggles and the designs of our own makings. At times, when we are silent enough, still enough, we take a step into such mystery, the place of spirit, and mystery, we must remember, by its very nature does not wish to be known."

The photograph above is from the Ashes and Snow series by Gregory Colbert.


Mist and myth

Mist on Nattadon 1

I have another small dish to add to the "Mother Tongue" Moveable Feast (on land, language, art, and storytelling).  In this short excerpt from A Branch from the Lightning Tree: Ecstatic Myth and the Grace in Wilderness, Martin Shaw discusses the four years he spent living outside on a mountain in Wales:

"With zero practical experience of living outside, I made endless mistakes....Gary Snyder I was not. Axes were blunt, jeans constantly caught on barbed wire fences, snares empty.

"Dreams came nightly like rowdy bears crashing into days where I struggled to cope with hand tools, tried to light wet wood, shivered between continual extremes of hot and cold. I was a righteous mess with no apparent skills. Somewhere in this process, the threads between the human community and where I found myself grew thin. I couldn't find the vocabulary to articulate the changes I was experiencing. I felt intensely vulnerable and very lonely. What I looked for was some archaic language that would expand words and frame images so beautifully that I felt connected to human folk as well as kestrals and mud. What I found was myth.

Mist on Nattadon 2

Mist on Nattadon 3

"Myth is promiscuous, not dogmatic. It moves like a lively river through swarthy packs of reindeer, great aristocratic families, and the wild gestures of an Iranian carpet seller. Myth is not much to do with the past, but a kind of magical present that can flood our lives when the conditions are just so. It is not just the neurosis of us humans trying to fathom our place on earth, but sometimes the earth actually speaking back to us. That's why some stories can be hard to approach, they are not necessarily formed from a human point of view."

Mist on Nattadon 4

Mist on Nattadon 5


Circles and cycles

Eric's old shed in summer

From A Branch from the Lightening Tree: Ecstatic Myth and the Grace in Wilderness
by Martin Shaw:

"A Culture of Wilderness...encourages longing, handling paradox, experiencing community in rowan trees and dark pools of water, carrying images of power back to the village, and flourishing in the process. A Culture of Wilderness is what initiation and myth offer.

"Our life is a house, with a roof of night-birds and muscled pillars of experience, its eaves containing a musky web of unique passions, its base holding a great fire that comes up from the very heart of the earth itself; around the house are hives of bees and orchards of apples. It is good to give some of the honey away and let in a few good-natured apple poachers. There is no short-cut to the building of such a house, but the garden is the legacy that instinctively arises through time and feeds others.

Eric's shed in autumn

Eric's old shed and beehives in autumn

"All storytellers know that two types of time exist: one is the twenty-four hours, the school run, the bill-paying, forever catching-up time of our everyday world; but behind that looms the energy of mythic time, the great cycles that pulse from generation to generation. These great wheels infuse the everyday with nourishment, 'eternity in a grain of sand.' The philosopher Plotinus suggested that while the body favors a straight line, the soul hankers for the circle.

The shed in winter

The beehives in winter

"This mythic, circular time (which is really no kind of time at all) laughs at the straight line and the alarm clock. Without it -- even with all the riches of the world -- we can enter the arena of the meaningless. As markets collapse and the world heats up, we would do well to see Coyote's claws opening holes between the two. We live in an era of tremendous possibility."

The beehives in spring

The shed in spring

Tilly behind the shed in the spring

Photos above: "The Turning of the Seasons" -- our friend Eric's old shed and beehives on the village Allotments (viewed from the edge of the woods) during summer, autumn, winter, and spring.