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