Writing from the center

Dawnlight through the trees

From an interview with Terry Tempest Williams in The Bloomsbury Review (1991):

"My writing comes out of my life. Every one of my books has come to me as a question. In the case of Pieces of White Shell, I asked, 'What stories do we tell that evoke a sense of place?' That book, of course, focused on traditional Navajo stories and beliefs. In a very real way, the Navajo inspired me to return home, to look within my own culture, my own stories. Coyote's Canyon was an experiement in weaving such stories together. And in Refuge, the question was simply, 'How does one find refuge in change?'

Sentinel

Oak elder

"The next question I would like to ask," she continues, "will have to do with an 'erotics of place,' as it relates to our love, or lack of love, towards the natural world. In other words, how does intimacy with each other, or lack of intimacy, affect our intimacy with the land? Like death, our sensuality is something we're afraid of and so we have avoided confronting it. I am interested in taboos, because I believe that's where the power of our culture lies. I love taking off their masks, so we can begin to face the world openly. I believe that will be our healing."

The animal guide

"The writers who touch me, who move me, are the writers who are generous not just with with what they know, but also with what they don't know....It's that kind of honesty, that generosity of spirit that I ask of writers. And it's difficult, because you have to be thoughtful, taking nothing for granted, and you have to be willing to risk everything, to write against your instincts."

Preparing to make the leap

Speedwell in shadow

"I believe there is an unspeakable joy in being fully present and responding totally to the moment. For me, that's where joy dwells and feeling lies; in fact, that's the well of all strength and wisdom -- knowing all we have, all we will ever have, is right now; that's the gift."

Into the river of skyThe passages quoted above are from A Voice in the Wilderness: Conversations with Terry Tempest Williams edited by Michael Austin (Utah State University Press, 2006) -- a book I often return to when the world seems heavy and my heart needs a lift. The interview was conducted by David Petersen in 1991. The poem in the picture captions is from Poetry (April 2016). All rights reserved by the authors.


Woodland interlude

P1320191

Thank you to everyone who came to the Artists' Coffee Morning at Green Hill yesterday, participating in a lively, wide-ranging conversation on art and nature, and the nature of friendship.

"The world is very old," writes American environmentalist Rick Bass, "and we are so new. I like the feeling of awe -- what the late writer Wallace Stegner called 'the birth of awe' -- in beholding wild country not reduced by man. I like to remember that it is wild country that gives rise to wild animals; and that the marvelous specificity of wild animals reminds us to wake up, to let our senses be inflamed by every scent and sound and sight and taste and touch of the world. I like to remember that we are not here forever, and not here alone, and that the respect with which we behold the wild world matters, if anything does."


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Ludovico Einaudi performs in the Arctic Ocean

Today, something breath-takingly beautiful:

In the video above, Italian pianist and composer Ludovico Einaudi performs "Elegy for the Arctic" on a platform floating in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, in support of the Greenpeace campaign for the region. Greenpeace has urged the OSPAR Commission not to miss the opportunity to protect international Arctic waters under its mandate at their meeting this month in Tenerife. In this piece, Einaudi has turned into music the voices of the eight million people asking for Arctic protection, accompanied by the sound of birds, wind, waves, and the crashing of icebergs.

"Being here has been a great experience,” says Einaudi. “I can see the purity and fragility of this area with my own eyes and interpret a song I wrote to be played upon the best stage in the world. It is important that we understand the importance of the Arctic, stop the process of destruction and protect it." More information on the Save the Arctic initiative can be found here.

Below: In the first short video, the director and musicians of the Seattle Symphony discuss "Become Ocean" by American composer John Luther Adams. In the second video, you can hear the piece itself. Adams, based in Alaska, often find his inspiration in the natural world. "Life on earth first emerged from the sea," he says. "And as the polar ice melts and sea level rises, we humans find ourself facing the prospect that, once again, we might literally become ocean."

"My composing is all to do with finding a way of being in the world that’s not separate from the world." - John Luther Adams

And to end with:

"This Place Was Shelter" by Ólafur Arnalds, a composer of neoclassical electronica from Mosfellsbær, Iceland, from his third album, For Now I am Winter. It's a beautiful video, but also incredibly sad, be warned. There's quite a lot of sadness in Arnalds' music, but also moments of lightness and redemption. "Life always goes on," he says. "There's always darkness after light and then after darkness there'll be light again -- it's a circle."

"How do people imagine the landscapes they find themselves in?" Barry Lopez mused in his classic book on the far north, Arctic Dreams. "How does the land shape the imaginations of the people who dwell in it? How does desire itself, the desire to comprehend, shape knowledge?''

These are all good questions to ask. I turn to art to find the answers.

Arctic Dreams


Art, activism, and the soil we grow in

Kristin Bjornerud

Following on from yesterday's post, here's another insightful passage from Writing the Sacred Into the Real by Alison Hawthorne Deming:

Kristin Bjornerud"In 1997, I was asked by the Orion Society to lead a conversation at the colloquium in honor of Gary Snyder when he received the John Hay Award for his writing and activism. My assignment was to address the question, Does activism compromise one's art? The question was very American, as Snyder pointed out. In [continental] Europe and Asia, an artist is a public person -- seeing the responsibility to use some of his or her skills on behalf of society. I answered the question by saying, Yes, of course compromise occurs. The work of activism exhausts us and makes us grieve; it takes us from our studios; it makes us scholars, negotiators, combatants, administrators, and business heads when we would prefer to be makers, dreamers, healers, and dancers. And if art is made to serve our activism, it can lose its elemental engagement with the unknown; its freedom to be outrageous, obscure, absurd, and wild; its need to speak the truth as it cannot be spoken in political discourse.

Kristin Bjornerud

Kristin Bjornerud

"Asking this question is like asking, Does culture compromise nature? Does love compromise solitude? Does eating compromise prayer? Does the mountain compromise the sky? All of these are relationships of complementarity, correspondence, call-and-response, the mutualistic whole of existence.

"Gathering in Snyder's home place, listening to stories of the Yuba Watershed Institute and the building of the Ring-of-Bone Zendo, and celebrating the poet's work provided a lesson in how radical an act it is in this culture to live a life devoted to something other than capitalism. Yes, we all participate in it. Yes, we are all complicit in environmental degradation and overconsumption simply because of our position in the global food chain. But we can make life choices that nuture more meaningful and sustainable relationships. To live a life devoted to art, to spiritual practice, to service to one's community and ecosystem, restores faith in our collective human enterprise. Work on the culture is work on the self.

Kristin Bjornerud

"Art can serve activism by teaching an attentiveness to existence and by enriching the culture in which our roots are set down. Culture is both the crop we grow and the soil in which we grow it. And human culture is the most powerful evolutionary force on Earth these days. The grief we feel at abuses of human power is the first positive step at transforming that power for the good. Legislation, information, and instruction cannot effect change at this emotional level -- though they play a significant role. Art is necessary because it gives us a new way of thinking and speaking, shows us what we are and what we have been blind to, and gives us new language and forms in which to see ourselves. To effect profound cultural change requires that we educate ourselves about our own interior wildness that has led us into such a hostile relationship with the forces that sustain us. Work on the self is work on the culture."

Kristin Bjornerud

The images in this post are by Canadian artist Kristin Bjornerud, who was born in Alberta, studied at the Universities of Lethbridge and Saskatchewan, and is now based in Montreal.

Kristin Bjornerud"My watercolour and gouache paintings," she writes, "explore contemporary political themes, ecological motifs, and personal narratives through the lens of folktales, dreams, and magical realism. In these delicately painted tableaus, a world is revealed wherein dream logic pervades, where women swim with narwhals and vivify hand-knit fauna. These eccentric landscapes are uncanny projections of a possible world where familiar activities are imbued with a mythic quality while, at the same time, extraordinary deeds are carried out with unruffled poise by proud, unconventional heroines.

"My aim is to create contemporary fairy tales that act as a medium through which we may consider our ethical obligations to the natural world and to each other. Retelling and reshaping stories helps us to understand how we are entangled, where we meet, and how our differences may be viewed as disguises of our sameness."

Kristin Bjornerud

Kristin BjornerudThe passage by Alison Hawthorne Deming above is from Writing the Sacred Into the Real (The Credo Series, Milkweed Editions, 20010. All rights to the text and imagery above reserved by the author and artist. A previous post on Writing the Sacred Into the Real: "Lines for Winter."


Giving voice to the voiceless

Stone wall, bluebells, & hound

Bluebells

For those of us who care about what's going on in the world politically and environmentally, it can be a struggle to understand how this relates to making art, particularly if we work in mythic, nonrealist forms far removed from the increasingly worrisome headlines of the day.

In her lovely little book Writing the Sacred Into the Real, American poet and essayist Alison Hawthorne Deming discusses the tension between art and activism in her work; and although she's speaking in terms of poetry here, her insights can be applied to the writing of fantasy as well...at least to the kind of poetic, deeply mythic fantasy that rarely appears on the bestsellers list, by writers like Alan Garner, Robert Holdstock, Patricia McKillip, Elizabeth Knox, and so many others (including some of you reading this now).

Writing poetry, says Deming, "is an act of dissent in at least three ways: economically, because the poet labors to make a thing that will never be worth money; temporally, because the poem is an argument with the erosive passage of time; and politically, because in an age that values aggregate data, poetry -- all true art -- insists on the passionate importance of the individual.

"The turning inwards to explore the world through the lens of subject does not necessarily mean a turning away from the world. Denise Levertov turned Wordsworth's lament inside out by writing 'the world is / not with us enough.' Her poetics insisted upon both the lyric impulse -- the song of the soul singing in the present moment -- and the political impulse -- the cry for social justice and peace."

Stone wall 2

Though Levertov's poetic spirit infuses Deming's, trying to honor these two opposing impulses, she says, "can cause a chronic psychic whiplash. Just when attention is focused on the inner excitement of consciousness, the world calls you a solipsist and demands your attention. Try to tell the world what you think of it, and consciousness will insist that it -- consciousness itself -- is the only thing you can know in its passing, so you had better take heed, right now. But Levertov found balance in the meditative mode, which asks for both introspection and realism -- or as Muriel Rukeyser suggested, the meeting of consciousness and the world -- and she wove a tenuous unity out of condradictions. I take that lesson to heart.

Stone wall 3

Stone wall 4

"For me," she explains, "the natural world in all its evolutionary splendor is a revelation of the divine -- the inviolable matrix of cause and effect that reveals itself to us in what we cannot control or manipulate no matter how pervasive our meddling. This is the reason that our technological mastery of nature will always remain flawed. The matrix is more complex than our intelligence. We may control a part, but the whole body of nature must incorporate the change, and we are not capable of anticipating how it will do so. We will always be humble before nature, even as we destroy it. And to diminish nature beyond its capacity to restore itself, as our culture seems perversely bent to do, is to desecrate the sacred force of Earth to which we owe a gentler hand. That the  diminishment has been caused by abuses of human power makes this issue political. Why should one species have the right to deprive so many others of their biological heritage and future? To write about nature, to record the magnificence, cruelty, and mysteriousness of it, is then an act both spiritual and political.

Stone wall 5

Bluebells and stitchwort

"Italo Calvino describes how literature's interior explorations can be put to political use:  'Literature is necessary to politics above all when it gives voice to whatever is without a voice, when it gives a name to what as yet has no name, especially to what the politics of language excludes or attempts to exclude. I mean aspects, situations, and languages both of the outer and of the inner world, the tendencies repressed both in individuals and in society. Literature is like an ear that can hear things beyond the understanding of the language of politics; it is like an eye that can see beyond the color spectrum perceived by politics. Simply because of the solitary individualism of his work, the writer may happen to explore areas that no one has explored before, within himself or outside, and to make discoveries that sooner or later turn out to be vital areas of collective awareness.'

Stone wall 6

Pink cranesbill

Deming continues: "My early interests as a poet were to understand the modernist and postmodernist traditions, and to locate myself within their trajectory. And these conditions set aesthetic concerns in opposition to social ones -- the artist as rebel, dissident, and iconoclast. But the wellspring for that inconoclastic energy was for me the belief that art can be a voice of moral and spiritual empathy, an antidote to the cold-hearted self-interest that drives so much of American culture. I have a hunger / for harmony that I feel with dissent.

Chagford signpost

"Realizing the importance of nature as a subject was a slow process of conversion for me. Way stations along the route: hearing Richard Nelson speak about writing his beautiful meditative book The Island Within after decades of working as a cultural anthropologist and his explaining that he had decided to write about what he loved; hearing Stanley Kunitz say to Fellows at the Work Center that originality in art could come only from what was unique in one's character and experience, not from manipulating the surface of one's technique; remembering that all my life I have hungered for wild places and all of my life wild places have fed me and that this is central to who I am and would have to inform my aesthetic decisions; sitting up in bed as a child, darkness surrounding me, and staring at the mystery of how I came to exist in the world in this body, and how it is an impossible fact that I will one day stop being here; assessing what I most love about being here and what I would like to understand and contribute before leaving..."

Signpost and stile

Tilly at the gate

"I write to make peace with the things I cannot control, " says fellow writer and activist Terry Tempest Williams. "I write to create red in a world that often appears black and white. I write to discover. I write to uncover. I write to meet my ghosts. I write to begin a dialogue. I write to imagine things differently and in imagining things differently perhaps the world will change. I write to honor beauty. I write to correspond with my friends. I write as a daily act of improvisation. I write because it creates my composure. I write against power and for democracy. I write myself out of my nightmares and into my dreams. I write in a solitude born out of community. I write to the questions that shatter my sleep. I write to the answers that keep me complacent. I write to remember. I write to forget.... I write as ritual. I write because I am not employable. I write out of my inconsistencies. I write because then I do not have to speak. I write with the colors of memory. I write as a witness to what I have seen. I write as a witness to what I imagine.... I write because it is dangerous, a bloody risk, like love, to form the words, to say the words, to touch the source, to be touched, to reveal how vulnerable we are, how transient we are. I write as though I am whispering in the ear of the one I love."

Illustration by Honore Appleton

Can we write fantasy and mythic fiction in this manner as well? Fantasy as ritual, fantasy as witness, fantasy that gives "voice to the voiceless" -- including the whispering more-than-human voices of the land we live on? I believe we can. Or at least I intend to try, and to see where it might take me....

Terry Tempest Williams & Alison Hawthorne Deming

Tilly on the rocksThe passage by Alison Hawthorne Deming above is from Writing the Sacred Into the Real (The Credo Series, Milkweed Editions, 2010). The passage by Terry Tempest Williams is from Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert (Pantheon, 2001). The poem by Denise Levetov in the picture captions is from O Taste and See (New Directions, 1964).  All rights reserved by the authors. The illustration is by Honore Appleton (1879-1951).


The art of hope

Flora McLachlan

Flora McLachlan

I'm still immersed in Conversations with Barry Lopez by William E. Tydeman, allowing myself only a few pages during my coffee break in the woods each day, drawing the book out and taking the time to really think about what I'm reading. Today, I'm struck by following passage on hope -- for "hope" and "goodness," it seems to me, are too often portrayed as banal, Pollyanna-ish qualities, when in fact it takes great courage and clarity of mind to reject despair, reach for the light and make something beautiful and whole out of lives and times so dark and fractured.

Flora McLachlanThe passage begins with Lopez noting his desire to explore the relationship between emotion and landscape in the context of nature writing (a publishing label, I should acknowledge, that he personally dislikes) -- and the single emotion that he's most interested in exploring this way is hope. I find that interest significant for Lopez can hardly be accused of naivity, having spent a lifetime on the frontlines of activism for social justice and our ailing planet, and having faced true evil in his early years.* Those who thoroughly understand despair have my attention when they speak of hope.

"I think you can evoke aspects of the land in prose in a way that makes people hopeful about their lives, " he says. "I think you can also describe landscapes that are not just physically but metaphysically dreary, and that those descriptions can make a readers lose a sense of hope about the subtle possibilities of their own lives. For me -- and maybe there is some mode of critical thinking about this -- the creation of story is a social act. It's driven by individual vision, of course, but in the end I think story is social, and part of what makes it social is this impact it can have on the psyche of the reader.

"My sense is that story developed in parrallel with the capacity to remember in Homo sapiens. I don't mean 'Where did we cache the food last spring?' but memory operating at a more esoteric level, recalling, say, the circumstances that induced loving behavior. Story, it seems to me, begins as a mnemonic device. It carries memory outside the brain and employs it in a social context. So you could say a person hears a story and feels better; a person hears the story and remembers who they are, or who they want to become, or what it is that they mean. I think story is rooted in the same little piece of historical ground out of which the capacity to remember and the penchant to forget come."

Flora McLachlan

The First Leaves by Flora McLachlan

After reading these words, I flip back to the book's introduction by William Tydeman and find this passage I'd marked last week:

"Most times when Lopez speaks of hope, I am reminded of the simple-minded approach so many critics and intellectuals take toward place-based writing and its expression of hope. Lopez and I agree with an analysis made by Christopher Lasch, who conveys a nuanced view of the multilayered meaning of hope. He argues that 'Hope asserts the goodness of life in the face of its limits.' Hope does not require a belief in progress or prevent us from expecting the worst but, rather, hope 'trusts life without denying its tragic character. Progressive optimism, often confused with hope, is based on a denial of the natural limits of human power and freedom -- a blind faith that things will somehow work out for the best. It is not an affective anecdote to despair.' Those who challenge the status quo and support the popular uprising  for social justice 'require hope, a tragic understanding of life, the disposition to see things through.' Hope is what we need."

It is indeed.

Flora McLachlan

Thistledown by Flora McLachlan

The art today is by Flora McLachlan, a printmaker born in Sussex and now based in Pembrokeshire, West Wales. "My pictures are records of things seen and imagined by twilight or moonglow," she writes. "I take inspiration from my studies of English literature, myth and legend. I try to express a sense of the enchantment I feel is embedded in our ancient landscape. I try to imagine the secret face of the land, when the light fades and the creatures come out to roam. I’m feeling for a lost or hidden magic, a glimpse through trees of the white hart.

"My preferred technique is etching. I love its atmosphere, the deep mysterious blacks and the glowing whites. During the long etching process, my original idea changes, and grows, with the working of the metal. The act of creation continues with the printing of the image; many of my etchings are underprinted with a painterly mono-collagraph plate, and most are complex and demand a concentrated and meditative approach to the inking and printing."

To see more of McLachlan's beautiful work visit the artist's website; and Foxnest, her Etsy shop.

Crossing the Water by Flora McLachlan

The White Hart by Flora McLachlan

Flora McLachlan

* I recommend Lopez' s  beautifully-crafted & wrenching autobiographical essay "Sliver of Sky,"  published in Harper's in 2013, with a trigger warning for abuse issues.

The passages quoted above are from Conversations with Barry Lopez: Walking the Path of Imagination by William E. Tydeman (University of Oklahoma Press, 2013). All rights to the words & images in this post reserved by the authors & artist. A related post from February: Alison Hawthorne Deming on art, culture, and radical hope.


The law of the living Earth

Kissed by a Fox by Priscilla Stuckey

Lasts week's posts on the "nature mysticism" to be found in the works of Elizabeth Goudge reminded me of the following passage from Priscilla Stuckey's fine book, Kissed by a Fox -- for although Goudge wrote from a distinctly Anglican perspective, while Stuckey draws on a very wide range of world religions and philosophies, both share a love of the earth, a delight in the numinous, and an unsentimental belief in the good in human nature.

The passage begins with a quote from the 13th century Persian poet Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi:

Fox drawing by Inga Moore   The speech of water, the speech of earth, and the speech of mud
   Are heard by those who listen with the heart.*

"Rumi," notes Stuckey, " is often taken to mean that only mystics can hear the earth speak -- and that mystics are a strange kind of bird. But to read him that way goes against what Rumi yearned for above all -- for every heart to be struck open by divine longing, for love to pierce every breast.

   What is needed, Rumi said, is to polish the heart like a mirror.
   Do you know why the mirror does not reflect?

   Because the rust is not removed from its surface.*

Ramble 1

"Sufis often call this surface tarnish the 'rust of otherness.' Clean your mirror of all that is not love, Rumi was saying. Remember the radiance that suffuses each heart, and polish your own mirror until you can reflect it clearly. Hearing the speech of Earth may be easy when one is overcome with awe in [pristine wilderness], but it is much harder in the hubbub of the mundane.

Ramble 2

"My friend Annette recently heard the poet Gary Snyder speak. At the end of his reading, she says, a member of the audience asked Snyder how people can be inspired to save the planet. Snyder thought for a moment and said, 'The planet doesn't need us to save it. The planet needs us to save ourselves. If we learned how to be better people, we would be doing good work.' The room full of activist sat in stunned silence, trying to absorb his words. Snyder went on to say, 'The planet, if we notice, takes care of itself. Watch a place for a while. Look at the seasons, the weather, the animals, our own inner rhythms. Walk trails and notice things. We don't have to do a thing.'

Ramble 3

"Becoming better people. It will involve remembering how to listen -- to the land as well as to one another. Relearning the rhythms of give-and-take, in our own bodies as well as our relationships with others. Remembering the radically communitarian nature of life on Earth, which means remembering how to share. 

Ramble 4

"For however great is the divide between the very rich and the rest of this country, the gap between the industrialized nations and the rest of the world is far, far greater. The statistic is well known: less than 20% of the world's people are now consuming more than 80% of the world's resources. Anishinaabe leader Winona LaDuke says we cannot continue to use more than our share and expect to be sustainable. 'You can't do that and live in accordance with natural law. That is simple logic. Most of our teachings say that.'

"We don't need to save the planet, but we are in desperate need of saving ourselves.

Ramble 5

"Will we learn to build an Earth-friendly culture before it is too late? Plenty of other people have done so, and their varied experiences offer some guidelines to what works. They value reciprocity and fairness, and they build interdependence into their systems of exchange. They teach their children to respect others, both human and other than human. They minimize inequality among themselves, for the alternative is costly in terms of damaged health and human relationships. They observe nature closely, seeking to pattern their relationships on those of the more-than-human world. They listen to the voices of the animals and plants, clouds, fish, soil, and wind, for these are relatives whose choices, along with those of humans, are in every moment creating the world.

Ramble 7

"They remind themselves continually that the only way to survive and live well is to fit into the processes of the place called home -- to dwell in symbiotic relationship with the land, using the gifts of Earth sparingly and taking only what is needed to live. They honor individuality among humans as part of the ongoing creative work of nature. They treasure the individuality of their place and work to preserve its unique personality, eating native foods and building homes with nearby materials. They use local resources, yes, but first of all they love those resources as relatives.

Ramble 6

"They consider themselves guests on the planet rather than owners, and so they value a mind-set of gratitude and wonder. They accept death as well as life. They shower children with love and support. They practice caring for one another and the wider land-community because love is the surest route to flourishing -- and the more enjoyable way to live. They reward giving as well as taking.

"For what is gathered in must be given out. What is at one time collected, another time must be dispersed. Breathed in, breathed out. This is the law of the ground, the law of the living Earth. "

Ramble 8

Ramble

* The first Rumi couplet was translated by Richard Holtz & Frederick Denny (quoted in Kissed by a Fox); the second Rumi translation is from Mohammed Ruston's "The Metaphysics of the Heart in the Sufi Doctrine of Rumi" (Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses, no. 3, 2008: 4). The  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 No Nature: New & Collected Poems by Gary Snyder (Pantheon, 1992). The little fox drawing is by Inga Moore. All rights reserved by the authors & artist.

 Pictures: The first photo is mine: "Coffeebreak by a stream, with wild daffodils."  The rest of the photographs were taken by husband Howard on one of his long "medicine walks" through the hills with Tilly.


From the archives: The Broader Conversation

Cows in the lane

On a witchy and misty Dartmoor day, winding through the narrow lanes near Hound Tor, Wendy Froud and I are stopped by three cows. "The Three Fates," Wendy says as she breaks the car. The cows approach with deliberate steps, as if with a message they mean to deliver. They are big, gentle, remarkably graceful; too large for the fairy cattle of Devon folklore but holding their own bovine enchantment. In the moments of silence that pass between us, the moor, perhaps all the world, stands still....

Cows in the lane, 2

Then they turn as one towards Manaton, leaving as purposefully as they'd come. We hold the silence until they are gone. Goodbye, lovely ladies, goodbye.

"All things have the capacity for speech," writes David Abram (in Becoming Animal), "all beings have the ability to communicate something of themselves to other beings. Indeed, what is perception if not the experience of this gregarious, communicative power of things, wherein even obstensibly 'inert' objects radiate out of themselves, conveying their shapes, hues, and rhythms to other beings and to us, influencing and informing our breathing bodies though we stand far apart from those things? Not just animals and plants, then, but tumbling waterfalls and dry riverbeds...

Cows in the lane, 4

"... gusts of wind, compost piles and cumulus clouds, freshly painted houses (as well as houses abandoned and sometimes haunted), rusting automobiles, feathers, granite cliffs and grains of sand, tax forms, dormant volcanoes, bays and bayous made wretched by pollutants, snowdrifts, shed antlers, diamonds, and daikon radishes, all are expressive, sometimes eloquent and hence participant in the mystery of language. Our own chatter erupts in response to the abundant articulations of the world: human speech is simply our part of a much broader conversation.

Cows in the lane, 3

"It follows that the myriad things are also listening, or attending, to various signs and gestures around them. Indeed, when we are at ease in our animal flesh, we will sometimes feel we are being listened to, or sensed, by the earthly surroundings. And so we take deeper care with our speaking, mindful that our sounds may carry more than a merely human meaning and resonance. This care -- this full-bodied alertness -- is the ancient, ancestral source of all word magic. It is the practice of attention to the uncanny power that lives in our spoken phrases to touch and sometimes transform the tenor of the world's unfolding."

Cows in the lane, 5The passage by David Abram is from Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology (Pantheon, 2010); the poem in the picture captions is from The Writer's Almanac (Oct. 7, 2005); all rights reserved by the authors. This post first appeared on Myth & Moor in 2012.


Relationship and reciprocity

The Fox's Curiosity by Ellen Jewett

Fox With Crows by Ellen Jewett

"When did human beings forget their cousins the creatures?" asks Priscilla Stuckey in Kissed by a Fox, which I found myself re-reading recently. "When did we fail to remember that the web of life is a delicate one, requiring attention and care?

"Some point to the rise of agriculture ten thousand years ago. Ecologist Paul Shepard suggests that domesticating plants and animals led us to turn 'from finding to making,' from taking our chances with nature to manipulating nature. Others say that when people gathered into cities and built urban centers we became increasingly separated from the natural world. Environmental historian J. Donald Hughes writes that the urban revolution meant 'the great divorce of culture and Ellen Jewettnature' wherever it took place on the planet. Still others say that literacy trained people away from intimate connections with the more-than-human world. Philosopher Eric Havelock observed that when people no longer had to 'story' their experiences, as they do in oral societies, telling tales of characters and relationships, they shifted to considering others as things rather than persons. Cultural ecologist David Abram emphasizes that relying on the printed word changes our ways of perceiving: instead of listening to breezes, watching clouds, or feeling our way along animal tracks -- all practices to cultivate intimacy -- we allow our senses to dim, except for one particular way of using our eyes.

"While there is truth in all these analyses, I want to point to something at once simpler and more sweeping. I think we forget our cousins the creatures when we forget each other. When we retreat from caring for the human community, we lose regard for the more-than-human one as well. And the opposite is just as true: when we fall out of relationship with the natural world, we lose interest in helping one another thrive.

"For this is the bottom line of survival: it depends on our relationships with others. Though the land-community survived for millions of years without humans, we cannot survive without the land community. We are dependent for our day-to-day survival, our very existence, on billions of nonhuman others. And we are dependent in equally complex ways on one another."

We are indeed.

The Curiosity of Lurices by Ellen Jewett

Corvids by Ellen Jewett

"Caught up in a mass of abstractions," writes David Abram, "our attention hypnotized by a host of human-made technologies that only reflect us back to ourselves, it is all too easy for us to forget our carnal inherence in a more-than-human matrix of sensations and sensibilities. Our bodies have formed themselves in delicate reciprocity with the manifold textures, sounds, and shapes of an animate earth -- our eyes have evolved in subtle interaction with other eyes, as our ears are attuned by their very structure to the howling of wolves and the honking of geese. To shut ourselves off from these other voices, to continue by our lifestyles to condemn these other sensibilities to the oblivion of extinction, is to rob our own senses of their integrity, and to rob our minds of their coherence. We are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human."

Hungry Enough to Devoir the World by Ellen Jewett

Shadow Foxes by Ellen Jewett

The White Stag by Ellen Jewett

The art today is by Canadian sculptor Ellen Jewett. Born in Ontario and "raised among newts and snails," she studied Anthropology and Fine Art at McMaster University, and now creates surrealistic, biophilic works in clay from her studio on Vancouver Island.

"Plants and animals have always been the surface on which humans have etched the foundations of culture, sustenance, and identity," she says. "For myself, natural forms are a continual source of fascination and deep aesthetic pleasure. At first glance my work explores the more modern prosaic concept of nature: a source of serene nostalgia balanced with the more visceral experience of 'wildness' as remarkably alien and indifferent. Upon closer inspection of each 'creature' the viewer may discover a frieze on which themes as familiar as domestication and as abrasive as domination fall into sharp relief.  These qualities are not only present in the final work but are fleshed out in the process of building. Each sculpture is constructed using an additive technique, layered from inside to out by an accumulation of innumerable tiny components. Many of these components are microcosmic representations of plants, animals and objects.  Some are beautiful, some are grotesque and some are fantastical. The singularity of each sculpture is the sum total of its small narrative structures.

"Over time I find my sculptures are evolving to be of greater emotional presence by using less physical substance: I subtract more and more to increase the negative space. The element of weight, which has always seemed so fundamentally tied to the medium of sculpture, is stripped away and the laws of gravity are no longer in full effect. In reading the stories contained in each piece we are forced to acknowledge their emotional gravity cloaked as it is in the light, the feminine, the fragile, and the unknowable."

Strange and Gentle by Ellen Jewett

The Compexity of Our Task is at Hand by Ellen JewettThe passage by Priscilla Stuckey is from Kissed by a Fox & Other Stories of Friendship in Nature (Counterpoint, 2012); the passage by David Abram is from The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception & Language in a More-Than-Human World (Vintage, 1997). Both are highly recommended. All rights to the text and art above reserved by the authors and artist.


Lines for winter

Snow 1

Snow 2

In quite a number of previous posts, I've quoted a range of writers on the value of rooting ourselves in the land on which we live -- of learning its flora, fauna, and folktales, and becoming part of a local community that encompasses human and animal neighbors alike. I mark these passages because they resonate with the life and art I am creating now, rooted on a quiet hillside in Devon. But there are, of course, other ways to experience a deep connection with magical world we live in, and so today I offer a passage presenting an alternative view.

Snow 3

In her beautiful little volume Writing the Sacred Into the Real, American poet and essayist Alison Hawthorne Deming notes that while geography is a touchstone for her imagination, this is not confined to geography of the state where she makes her home. Travel, she writes, is also a spur to keener attention and intimacy with place:

"Touchstone is a word used almost exclusively these days for its metaphoric meaning -- a thing which serves to test the genuiness or value of anything. The origin of this definition is mineral -- a smooth dark stone used for testing the quality of gold or silver alloys by rubbing them against it and noting the color of the mark made on the stone. I know one of the pieties of nature writing says that one can only have intimacy with nature and form community by staying in one place, answering to it and for it against the culture's assaults. But when I have tested my own experience for its genuineness and value, I find that I have consistently deepened  my understanding of the intricate weave between nature and culture by learning about them in different places.

Snow 4

"I consider it implausible that human culture will settle back into an agrarian way of life in which geographic mobility is shunned in the interest of staying put. Human beings are thrilled by the technological prowess that keeps them moving all over the planet and beyond. We are not going to stop these movements, unless, of course, disaster demands it of us.

"For those who wish to celebrate an agrarian way of life, I hold no antagonism. Indeed, there is much to admire in the long study of one place. But what interests me, and what feels useful at this time in history, is to transpose what can be learned from more settled lifeways to the change and velocity of contemporary life. How, in a culture that is in love with its freedom and mobility, can individuals learn to conserve and preserve not only their own backyards but what is likely to become someone else's backyard in a year or two or twenty? The essay, or poem, or story can become a paradigm for reestablishing the spiritual intimacy with nature that we have lost from physical intimacy.

Snow 5

Snow 6

"I know that mobility can install an ethic of impermanence, of leaving one's mistakes and failures behind, rather than fixing them and fostering healing. But America is no longer an unsettled land, and as it grows more crowded, its membranes more permeable to the rest of the world, one finds that pulling up stakes and moving on leads one to face the same mistakes and failures played out in a new setting. We live in the same old story of fallibility and over-reaching goals that has been the bane and boon of human existence from the start. It does us good to face up to that -- our stunning potential for messing things up -- for without such awareness, we don't feel the need for restraint. And we do need mechanisms -- morality and law, plans and paradigms -- to restrain us, because it is our nature to dominate, control, and succeed against competition. For all our goodness, we are not benign animals."

Snow 6

Snow 7

Later in the volume Deming speaks of the role of "literature of place"  in fomenting cultural change:

Language, she says, "makes us the speed-learners among species, and this power can be used to ill or good. All good literature helps to renew language -- to restore its capacity to link the inner life with outer experience and to sing the song of the soul on the stage of history. And environment literature, at least since Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, has had a remarkably tangible impact on both the ethics and the politics of conservation. This literature has created a common language with which to bear witness to, praise and lament our wounded relationship with nature. It has made more sensuous, and therefore more real, our increasingly abstracted relationship with flora and fauna. It has made invaluable discoveries of science accessible to readers untrained in scientific disciplines, discoveries essential both to understanding our predicament and finding remedies for it. It has served as a collective act of preservation for places lost, lifeways lost, species and cultures lost, forests and mountainsides and rivers lost, and faith in our own kind lost.

Snow 8

"I don't mean to say that when a forest is gone you can replace it with a poem.  When a forest is gone, you cannot replace it. But with written words, you can bear witness, you can hold a memory of the forest for others to experience and celebrate, you can grieve over the loss and rage against the forces that have leveled the forest -- and through grief you can fall in love with forests again, and through that falling you can believe again in the human capacity for love and in the faith that we might learn to protect what we love."

Yes, yes, yes.

Snow 9

Snow 10

The photographs here were taken early Sunday morning, when I woke to find the hills dusted with snow: the only snow we've had all this mild and soggy winter, and thus especially magical and welcome. I dressed hurriedly, whistled for Tilly, and slipped outdoors before it all disappeared, climbing our hill as the bells of the village church broke through the morning mist. We crested the hill on icy paths, came down again on ice turned to mud, then crossed a field leaving footprints that melted behind us as the morning warmed up.

By the time we passed beneath the old oak and turned onto our homeward trail, the snow had all but vanished. Back home, it was entirely gone. Howard was up now, making tea as Tilly burst through the door into the kitchen, paws muddy, eyes gleaming: It snowed! It snowed!

Snow 11

Snow 12

For one brief, enchanted moment we had tasted true winter. And now I am ready for spring.

Snow 13

Snow 14The passages above by Alison Hawthorne Deming are from Writing the Sacred Into the Real (Milkweed Editions, 2001). The poem in the picture captions is from Selected Poems by Mark Strand (Knopf, 1990). Both are highly recommended. All rights reserved by the authors.