True names

Tilly on Nattadon

Continuing our discussion of the "language of place" with another passage from Robert Macfarlane's fine book Landmarks:

"The extraordinary language of the Outer Hebrides is currently being lost. Gaelic itself is in danger of withering on the tongue: the total number of those speaking or learning to speak Gaelic in Scotland is now around 58,000. Of those, many are understandably less interested in the intricacies of toponymy, or the exactitudes of what the language is capable of regarding landscape. Tim Robinson -- the great writer, mathematician and deep-mapper of the Irish Atlantic seaboard -- notes how with each generation in the west of Ireland 'some of the place-names are forgotten or becoming incomprehensible.' Often in the Outer Hebrides I have been told that younger generations are losing the literacy of the land....

Tilly and the pony

Dartmoor pony

"What is occurring in Gaelic is, broadly, occuring in English too -- and in scores of other languages and dialects. The nuances observed by specialized vocabularies are evaporating from common usage, burnt off by capital, apathay and urbanization. The terrain beyond the city fringe has become progressively more understood in terms of large generic units ('field,' 'hill,' valley,' 'wood'). It has become a blandscape. We are blasé about place, in the sense that Georg Simmel used the word in his 1903 essay 'The Metropolis and the Mental Life' -- meaning indifferent to the distinction between things.

"It is not, on the whole, that natural phenomena and entities themselves are disappearing; rather that there are fewer people to name them, and that once they go unnamed they go to some degree unseen. Language deficit leads to attention deficit. As we further deplete our ability to name, describe and figure particular aspects of our places, our competence for understanding and imagining possible relationships with non-human nature is correspondingly depleted. The enthno-linguist K. David Harrison bleakly declares that language death means the loss of 'long-cultivated knowledge that has guided human-environment interaction for millennia...accumulated wisdom and observations of generations of people about the natural world, plants, animals, weather, soil. The loss [is] incalculable, the knowledge almost unrecoverable.' Or as Tim Dee neatly puts it, 'Without a name in our mouths, an animal or a place struggles to find purchase in our minds or our hearts."

Dartmoor ponies

One question I've been pondering lately is: How can fantasy writers use the metaphorical language of our form to strengthen our relationship to place, and to ameliorate the "language deficit that leads to attention deficit"? How do we re-enchant the land, in art and actuality?

 More on that tomorrow.

More on that next week.

Dartmoor ponies

Dartmoor ponies

Dartmoor dog

Words: The passage by Robert Macfarlane is quoted f rom Landmarks  (Hamish Hamilton, 2015; Penguin Books, 2016). The poem in the picture captions is from The Cloud Collector: Poems & Tale in Scots & English by Sheena Blackhall (Lochlands, 2015). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Tilly encounters Dartmoor ponies on the hill behind our house.


The mnemonics of words

Scorhill

Following on from last week's discussion of the language of place, this week is devoted to Landmarks, Robert Macfarlane's extraordinary book on the subject:

"Ultra-fine description operates in Hebridean Gaelic place-names," writes Macfarlane, "as well as in descriptive nouns. In the 1990s an English linguist called Richard Cox moved to northern Lewis, taught himself Gaelic, and spent several years retrieving and recording place-names in the Carloway district of Lewis's west coast. Carloway contains thirteen townships and around five hundred people; it is fewer than sixty square miles in area. But Cox's magnificent resulting work, The Gaelic Place-Names of Carloway, Isle of Lewis: Their Structures and Significance (2002), runs to almost five hundred pages and details more than three thousand place-names. Its eleventh section, titled "The Onimasticon,' lists the hundreds of toponyms identifying 'natural features' of the landscape. Unsurprisingly for such a martime culture, there is a proliferation of names for coastal features -- narrows, currents, indentations, projections, ledges, reefs -- often of exceeptional specificity. Beirgh, for instance, a loanword from the Old Norse, refers to ' a promontory or point with a bare, usually vertical rock face and sometimes with a narrow neck to land,' while corran has the sense of 'rounded point,' derived from its common meaning of 'sickle.'

Dartmoor sheep

Scorhill

"There are more than twenty different terms for eminences and precipices," Macfarlane continues, "depending on the sharpness of the summit and the aspects of the slope. Sìthean, for example, deriving from sìth, 'a fairy hill or mound,' is a knoll or hillock possessing the qualities which were thought to Looking into the Faery Hill by Alan Leeconstitute desirable real estate for fairies -- being well-drained, for instance, with a distinctive rise, and crowned by green grass. Such qualities also fulfilled the requirements for a good sheiling site, and so almost all toponyms including the word sìthean indicates sheiling locations. Characterful personifications of place also abound: A' Ghùig, for instance, means 'the steep slope of a scowling expression.'

"Reading 'The Onomasticon,' you realize that Gaelic speakers of this landscape inhabit a terrain which is, in Proust's phrase, 'magnificently surcharged with names.' For centuries these place-names have spilled their poetry into everyday Hebridean life. They have anthologized local history, anecdote and myth, binding story to place. They have been functional -- operating as territory markers and ownership designators -- and they have also served as navigational aids. Until well into the 20th century, most inhabitants of the Western Isles did not use conventional paper maps, but relied instead on memory maps, learnt on the island and carried in the skull.

A tributary of the Teign

"These memory maps were facilitated by first-hand experience and were also -- as Finlay [MacLeod] put it -- 'lit by the mnemonics of words.' For their users, these place-names were necessary for getting from location to location, and for the purpose of guiding others to where they needed to go. It is for this reason that so many toponyms incorporate what is known in psychology and design as 'affordance' -- the quality of an environment or object that allows an individual to perform an action on, to or with it. So a bealach is a gap in a ridge or cliff which may be walked through, but the element beàrn or beul in a place-name suggests an opening that is unlikely to admit human passage, as in Am Beul Uisg, 'the gap from which the water gushes.'  Blàr a' Chalchain means 'the plain of stepping stones,' while Clach an Line means 'rock of the link,' indicating a place where boats can be safely tied up. To speak out a run of these names is therefore to create a story of travel-- an act of naming that is also an act of wayfinding.

Scorhill

"Angus MacMillan, a Lewisian, remembers being sent by his father seven miles across Brindled Moor to fetch a missing sheep spotted by someone the night before: 'Cùl Leac Ghlas ri taobh Sloc an Fhithich fos cionn Loch na Muilne.' 'Think of it,' writes MacMillan drily, 'as an early form of GPS: the Gaelic Positioning System.' "

Dartmoor sheep

Dartmoor cows

The history and significance of place-names in land-based societies is something that those of us writing mythic fiction would do well to bear in mind -- whether we're working with myth or folktales born from a specific landscape, or creating an imaginary one.

"Invented names are a quite good index of writers' interest in their instrument, language, and ability to place it," says Ursula Le Guin. "To make up a name of a person or place is to open the way to the world of the language the name belongs to. It's a gate to Elsewhere. How do they talk in Elsewhere? How do we find out how they talk?"

Perhaps by knowing the land they walk. Which begins with knowing our own.

Dartmoor sheep

Scorhill

Words: The passage by Robert Macfarlane is quoted f rom Landmarks  (Hamish Hamilton, 2015; Penguin Books, 2016). The passage by Ursula K. Le Guin is quoted from her essay "Inventing Languages," in Words Are My Matter (Small Beer Press, 2016). The poem in the picture captions is from The Bonniest Companie by Kathleen Jamie (Picador, 2015). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures:. There is a mismatch of words and photographs in this post, I'm afraid, for my own recent journey north took me only to the Isle of Skye and not to the Lewis moor. The photographs above are of our moor, Dartmoor, near Scorhill, a bronze age stone circle. The illustration is "Looking Into the Fairy Hill" by my friend & neighbor Alan Lee. It's from his now-classic book Faeries, with Brian Froud (Abrams, 1978); all rights reserved by the artist


The unwritten landscape

Loch Snizort on the Isle of Skye, south-east of Lewis in the Inner Eebrides

In her beautiful essay "Isabella's Crag," Alice Starmore describes the relationship between language and place on the Lewis moor in the Outer Hebrides, and how fragile that relationship is in a rapidly changing world:

"Although too insignificant to be named on any map, Creagan Iseabal Mhartainn [Isabella's Crag] is a towering feature of the 'unwritten landscape' -- a rich vocabulary of geographical co-ordinates known, loved and spoken of by generations of the families who spent their summers in the crag's vicinity. Today, I count only a half a dozen people, myself included, who could name that crag and guide you to it. The youngest of us is sixty, so the future of the unwritten language is far shorter than its past: the acumulation of knowledge and respect that engendered it is now de-valued and close to being forgotten, like Isabella herself, for not even the half-dozen knows who she was or when she lived. Yet her modest crag stands as a paradigm for the whole Lewis moor: for its past, present and possible future.

Trees in the ruins of a blackhouse.

"Over my whole career," writes Starmore, "my greatest and most consistent artistic inspiration has stemmed from the childhood summers I spent on the Lewis moor during the 1950s and 1960s. For six weeks of each year of my childhood, my family moved from our usual home to the àirigh of our ancestral geàrraidh (pasture) on the moor just south of Stornoway. I belong to the very last Hebridean generation to take part in this traditional form of transhumance, for the practice had died out by the end of the 1960s.

"For centuries, the custom of transhumance in Lewis was an essential part of life in crofting villages, as arable land was limited. In order to provide enough fodder for the cattle to survive the winter and early spring, it was necessary to take them away to moorland pastures for the summer months so the village pastures could be harvested for winter feed.

An old croft house on Skye

"This was especially necessary in the Eye Peninsula, also known as the Point, where my family comes from. Point was a well-populated crofting area with virtually no hill grazing in the immediate district due to its peninsular situation. The summer hill grazing was on the far side of Stornoway, which involved a long march with the cattle through the town and then over hill and burn to the àirigh.

"In my parents' youth, the men, women and children and animals walked the many miles to their summer pastures, carrying all their essential foodstuffs, clothing and utensils. This was known as An Iomraich (The Flitting).

Blackhouse door

Spinning wheel

Crofting tools

"By the time I was a child, only the cattle and herders came on foot while we loaded all our chattels, including all domestic pets, in a small lorry hired for the day. We children perched on the top of the load like latter-day dustbowl Okies and headed off to glorious freedom and the joyful company of our little summer community.

"Each village tended to have its own geàrraidh and quite often they were named after the crofting village, such as Geàrraidh Shiadair (Shulishader's Pasture). Others were named after the original long-gone owner of the first àirigh. For example, Àirigh an t-Sagairt (the Priest's Sheiling) was still known long after priests had departed these Presbyterian shores. Many more were named after a feature of the landscape, such as Àirigh a' Chreagain (the Sheilings at the Crag), or sometimes even a measure of distance such as Àirigh Fad As (the Faraway Sheiling).

Ladder to the orchard

 "Place names were of great importance to us; as well as having a romance all of their own, they were a means of communicating where we were going or where we had been on our wanderings. My father would describe the journeys of his 1920s boyhood from Bayble in Point to the very furthest grazing at Loch Dubh nan Stearnag (the Black Loch of the Terns) in the heart of the Lewis moor. After walking twelve miles, they stopped to rest overnight at Àirigh na Beiste (the Animal Sheiling) before going through Àirigh Leitir (the Sheilings on the Slope) and then on to their own pasture called Àirigh Sgridhe at the foot of the Beinn a' Sgridhe in the Barvas Hills.

"My father's journey was epic by Lewis standards, and the pastures he passed through to get there were equivalent to the main towns on a road map. But the unwritten landscape held a treasury of terms with which to describe our journeys. My father could name every little feature he stopped at or passed by. Likewise, we children could tell our parents exactly where we were going, or where we had been."

Cows above Loch Snizort

"Knowing the landscape gave us the freedom of it. Our parents could get on with their day and trust that we would not get lost or drown in the vast network of lochs, burns and bogs that were all ours to explore....

Thistle

"We lived on the border between micro and macro -- our detailed observations were balanced against the broad sweep of the open moor. Constant unsupervised exploration, with no time restrictions, allowed our imaginations to run free. We observed facts of nature, but it was also easy to believe in kelpies and shape-shifters when walking the moor in the late evening."

Sheep by the loch

A sheep trots after the herd

Outdoor life on the summer pasture contributed "to an intimate knowledge of the place, its  history, and all the life within it. Though as a small child I was free of the cares of adults, it was obvious that everyone was very happy on the moor, and as the time approached to return home it was difficult not to be sad. Latterly, there were just three families on our pasture and none of us wanted to be the first or last to leave. We therefore tried to co-ordinate our flitting so that we would all leave on the same day. Alexina, the sky reader, gave voice to all our feelings about the geàrraidh when she admitted one day, when we were packing up to go, that she was extremely sad at the thought of 'fágáil an geàrraidh na aonar' (leaving the pasture in loneliness).

"To us it had a spirit, a heart and soul, just as we had ourselves."

The long road home

Highland cow

Words: The passage above is from "Isabella's Crag: Language, Landscape and Life on the Lewis Moor" by Alice Starmore (EarthLines magazine, May 2012); highly recommended. All rights reserved by the author.

Pictures:  These photographs are from my recent journey to the Isle of Skye, which is south-east of Lewis in the Inner Hebrides. You can see Alice Starmore's photographs of the Lewis moor here, from her lovely exhibition "Mamba."

Related posts: "The Enclosure of Childhood" and "Finding the Way to the Green."


A language of land and sea

The Fairy Glen 1

While thinking about the stories and language of place, I was reminded of the following passage from Love of Country: A Hebridean Journey by Madeleine Bunting. I read Bunting's book on my recent journey from Devon to the Isle of Skye, where it proved a fine introduction to a landscape steeped in Gaelic history, culture, and folklore.

"Every nation," she writes, "has its lost histories of what was destroyed or ignored to shape its narrative of unity so that it has the appearance of inevitability. The British Isles with their complex island geography have known various configurations of political power. Gaelic is a reminder of some of them: the multinational empires of Scandinavia, the expansion of Ireland, and the medieval Gaelic kingdom, the Lordship of the Isles, which lost mainland Scotland, and was ultimately suppressed by Edinburgh. The British state imposed centralization, and insisted on English-language education. Only the complex geography of islands and mountains ensured that Gaelic survived into the 21st century.

"What would be lost if Gaelic disappeared in the next century, I asked, when I visited hospitable [Lewis] islanders who pressed me with cups of tea and cake. There is a Gaelic word, cianalas, and it means a deep sense of homesickness and melancholy, I was told. The language of Gaelic offers insight into a pre-industrial world view, suggested Malcolm Maclean, a window on another culture lost in the rest of Britain. As with any language, it offers a way of seeing the world, which makes it precious. Gaelic's survival is a matter of cultural diversity, just as important as ecological diversity, he insisted. It is the accumulation of thousands of years of human ingenuity and resilience living in these island landscapes. It is a heritage of human intelligence shaped by place, a language of the land and sea, with a richness and precision to describe the tasks of agriculture and fishing. It is a language of community, offering concepts and expressions to capture the tightly knit interdependence required in this subsistence economy.

The Fairy Glen 2

The Fairy Glen 3

"Gaelic scholar Michael Newton points out how particular words describe the power of these relationships intertwined with place and community. For example, dúthchas is sometimes translated as 'heritage' or 'birthright,' but conveys a much richer idea of a collective claim on the land, continually reinforced and lived out through the shared management of the land. Dúthchas grounds land rights in communal daily habits and uses of the land. It is at variance with British concepts of individual private property and these land rights received no legal recognition and were relegated to cultural attitudes (as in many colonial contexts). Elements of dúthchas persist in crofting communities, where the grazing committees of the townships still manage the rights to common land and the cutting of peat banks on the moor. Crofting has always been dependent on plentiful labor and required co-operation with neighbors for many of the routine tasks, like peasant cultures across Europe, born out of the day-to-day survival in a difficult environment.

The Fairy Glen 4

"The strong connection to land and community means that 'people belong to places rather than places belong to people,' sums up Newton. It is an understanding of belonging which emphasizes relationships, of responsibilities as well as rights, and in return offers the security of a clear place in the world."

The Fairy Glen 5

Bunting also notes that "Gaelic's attentiveness to place is reflected in its topographical precision. It has a plentiful vocabulary to describe different forms of hill, peak or slope (beinn, stob, dún, cnoc, sròn), for example, and particular words to describe each of the stages of a river's course from its earliest rising down to its widest point as it enters the sea. Much of the landscape is understood in anthropomorphic terms, so the names of topographical features are often the same as those for parts of the body. It draws a visceral sense of connection between sinew, muscle and bone and the land. Gaelic poetry often attributes character and agency to landforms, so mountains might speak or be praised as if they were a chieftain; the Psalms (held in particular reverence in Gaelic culture) talk of landscape in a similar way, with phrases such as the 'hills run like a deer.' In both, the land is recognized as alive.

"Gaelic has a different sense of time, purpose and achievement. The ideal is to maintain an equilibrium, as a saying from South Uist expresses it: Eat bread and weave grass, and then this year shall be as thou wast last year. It is close to Hannah Arendt's definition of wisdom as a loving concern for the continuity of the world."

And, I would add, to the Dineh (Navajo) concept of hózhó, or Walking in Beauty.

Howard in the Fairy Glen

Lamb nursing in the Fairy Glen

Words:  The poem in the picture captions is by Kathleen Jamie, from the Scottish Poetry Library.  I highly recommend her poetry volumes, and her two gorgeous essay collections: Findings and Sightlines. The passage above is from Love of Country by Madeleine Bunting (Granta, 2016), also recommended. All rights to the prose and poetry in this post is reserved by the authors. Pictures: Sheep in the Fairy Glen, near Uist on the Isle of Skye. 


The landscape of story

Riverside 1

From "The Dreaming of Place" by Hugh Lupton:

"The ground holds the memory of all that has happened to it. The landscapes we inhabit are rich in story. The lives of our ancestors have contributed to the shape and form of the land we know today -- whether we are treading the cracked cement of a deserted runaway, the boundary defined by a quickthorn hedge, the outline of a Roman road or the grassy hump of a Bronze Age tumulus. The creatures we share the landscape with have made their marks, too: their tracks, nesting places, slides and waterholes. And beyond the human and animal interactions are the huge, slow geological shapings that have given the land its form. Every bump, fold and crease, every hill and hollow is part of a narrative that is both human and prehuman. And as long as men and women have moved over the land these narratives have been spoken and sung.

Riverside 2

"This sense of story being held immanent in landscape," Lupton suggests, " is most clearly defined in the belief systems of the Aboriginal peoples of Australia. In Native Australian belief everything that is not 'here and now' is described as having gone 'into the dreaming.' The Aborigines believe that the tangled skein of remembered experience, history, legend and myth that constitutes the past -- that is invisible to the objective eye or the camera -- has not gone away. It is, rather, implicit in the place where it happened, a potentiality. It is a living memory that is held between a place and its people. It is always waiting to be woken by a voice.

Riverside 3

 "I remember the Irish storyteller Eamon Kelly once telling me that in the parish of County Clare where he grew up, every field had a name, and every field name was associated with a story. To walk from one end of the parish to the other was to walk through a landscape of story. It occurred to me that the same was probably once true for any parish in Britain.

"But today we are forgetting our stories. We have been forgetting them for a long time. Few of us live in the same landscape as our grandparents. The deep knowledge that comes from long familiarity has become a rarity. Places are glimpsed through the windows of cars and trains. Maybe, occasionally, we stride through them.

"What does it mean for a culture to have lost touch with its dreaming? What can we do about it?

Riverside 4

"It seems to me that as writers, artists, environmentalists, parents, teachers and talkers, one of our practices should be to enter the Dreaming, that invisible, parallel worl, and salvage our local stories. We need to re-charge the landscape with its forgotten narratives. Only then will it regain the sacred status it once possessed. This might involve research into local history, conversations with elders in the community, exploration of regional folktales, ballads and myths...

"And then an intuitive jump into Imagination."

Riverside 5

Riverside 6

Words: The passage by British storyteller, folklorist, and novelist Hugh Lupton is from EarthLines magazine (Issue 2, August 2012). The poem in the picture captions is by Scottish poet Judith Taylor, first published in The Interpreter's House (Issue 59, 2015). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Tilly in our local river (the Teign), and me (snapped by Howard) with a very wet dog. Related post: on place and the importance of local stories, "Wild Neighbors."

 


The Writer's God is Mercury

Skye 1

Skye 2

I was sad to learn that EarthLines magazine has come to an end after an excellent run of 17 issues -- although I understand the need of its editors (Sharon Blackie and David Knowles) to move on and make time for their own writing, as this is precisely what Midori Snyder and I did when we ended our Journal of Mythic Arts after a decade of publication.

I recently came across the very first issue Earthlines, published in March 2012 from a remote croft on the Isle of Lewis -- not far, as the crow flies, from where I was staying last week on the Isle of Skye. One of the issue's treasures is an interview with Jay Griffiths, whose brilliant work (Wild, Kith, Pip Pip, etc.) takes up a fair amount of space on the Favorite Books shelf in my studio. In an exchange that seems even more timely now (in our current political climate), Sharon asks the author:

"How can you bear to see what is happening to the wild places of the earth that you see so clearly and love so much? The places, the ways of life that you write about with such passion in Wild, and that are threatened -- do you feel powerless because of the nature of the threats; does it instead force you to action (and if so, what's the source of the energy needed in that action -- anger? Desperation? Love?) Put simply, how do you live with it?"

Skye 3

"It is an injured, limping world, yes," Griffith responds. "Its vitality is reduced, yes, as if the full spectrum of the rainbow is being painted out with grey. The extinctions of this era -- extinctions of culture and of species, extinctions of minds and philosophies and languages -- will haunt the future in bleached and muted reproach, yes. And yet, and yet, and yet -- I want to paint the rainbow, as far as I can, prismatically, through language. You cannot ultimately break a rainbow, you can only fail to see its myriad, shattered beauties. And I believe in beauty as I believe in goodness, that people are profoundly good in spite of it all, and that when people know about a situation they can care about it.

"That is where the role of the writer comes in. The writer's god is Mercury the messenger, speaking between worlds. We listen to the world we can hear and see, and we speak to the other side, to the world of the reader."

Skye 4

Trotternish Peninsula

"What do you make of the new growing interest in writing about nature, place, and the environment?" Sharon asks. "Do you see it as part of a process of change, a good thing, a vehicle for transformation -- or does it just refect a passive nostalgia for the things people have already given up on?"

Skye 5

Griffith answers: "When the tread is thinnest...when we sense the tragedy of endings...when life and grace is threatened by deafness and ugliness...when tenderness is bullied...when fences of enclosure overshadow the last scrap of commons...then, which is now, comes a ferocity on the side of life, to protect, to cherish and to envoice what cannot speak in human language."

It is my belief that this is a task that belongs to writers and other creators in the Mythic Arts field as well.

Skye 6

The first and last issues of EarthLines

Words: The passages above come from EarthLines: Nature, Place, and the Environment (Issue 1, May 2012); all rights reserved by Sharon Blackie and Jay Griffiths. Back issues of the magazine are available here, and well worth collecting. Pictures: The photographs were taken last week on the Isle of Skye. Descriptions can be found in the picture captions.


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 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

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"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.


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.


The things that unite us

Alexandra Dvornikova

It's Day 3 of my cold, and though it seems ridiculous that something as simple as a cold is keeping me out of the studio (especially since I regularly keep working despite more serious health issues), this one seems to have me in its tight grip for another day.

Alexandra Dvornikova

Here's a thought I'd like to leave you with today, from Kathryn Miles (author of a lovely book about dogs and nature, Adventures with Ari):

In an interview on Terrain.org, Miles is asked about her belief that environmental writers are charged with inspiring "an ethic of care" in their readers. What, the interviewer wonders, might an ethic of care look like?

"An ethic of care," Miles responds, "is based on ideas of interdependence, and the belief that the most vulnerable among us deserve the most consideration. Writers are uniquely suited to raise awareness about both: we can show what unites us, and we can remind people about narratives that have been forgotten or might otherwise become overlooked. There’s that poignant moment in Mary Oliver’s [poem] "Wild Geese," where she says, 'Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.' That’s what writing from an ethic of care looks like. And it broadens this behest even further: tell me about what you love and what you hate; tell me what frightens you and what you’re willing to fight for. Then, if you’re willing to listen, I’ll tell you about those things in my life. And maybe then we both will understand."

I'm thinking about what an ethic of care might look like in relation to fiction, fantasy, and Mythic Arts. And about how questions like this become more urgent during dark political times.

Your thoughts...?

Alexandra Dvornikova

Speaking of "urgent" art and literature, I stumbled across a lovely book blog the other day that I'd like to recommend to you, if you don't know it already: Books Can Save a Life by Valorie Grace Hallinan.

Alexandra Dvornikova

The magical art today is by Alexandra Dvornikova, a young Russian artist, designer, and printmaker. Dvornikova trained at the Saint Petersburg Stieglitz State Academy of Art and Design, and is now studying art-therapy, with a focus on autism. She lives with her husband, a red cat, and two jackdaws in St. Petersburg.

She says: "I think the most inspiring things for me are these: Forest, music, animals, wilderness, moss and lichens, mushrooms, Russian fairy tales that I’ve heard when i was a child, masks, rituals, night dreams, childhood experience, folklore, medieval art, archetypes, psychiatry, human’s brain, carnivorous plants, venomous or dangerous things, lonelyness, mori girls, vintage dresses. Also I inspired by Simona Kossak’s story, the woman who lived more than 30 years in a wooden hut in the Bialowieza Forest, without electricity or access to running water. A lynx slept in her bed, and a tamed boar lived under the same roof with her. She was able talk to wild animals."

Please go here to see more of her work, and here to read an interview with the artist.

Alexandra Dvornikova

Ritual