Fox Stories
A Hunger for Place

On art, culture, and radical hope

Winter wood 1

The Edge of the Civilized World: A Journey in Nature and Culture by Alison Hawthorne Deming has been on my Wish List for a while now, and I'm pleased to have finally gotten hold of a copy. The book begins with "a constellation of questions" about our place in the natural world, and as this is an issue often discussed here on Myth & Moor, I'll quote the passage in full:

"What is civilization?" Deming asks. "Where and how is it being formed? On what assumptions is it founded? What should we hope for the future of humanity and our world? To what extent can our ideas, hopes and will shape the future? What has civilization blurred and rejected that we might clarify and call back into our shepherding intelligence? What lessons did our ancestors learn that we should not forget? And what of their practices would we be better off in leaving behind?

Leaves 1

At this point in modernity, Deming continues, "one can do nothing without doubts and questions. We see everything from multiple perspectives: most of civilzation's gains have been earned at the expense of others, and for all its marvelous advances civilization has led the natural world to the edge of collapse. We can count, like the numbers on a doomsday clock, the species being driven out of existence. We can measure the hole we have made in the sky and the dirty pall that threatens to smother the Earth. We can predict the outcome of continuing to consume the world, but we cannot seem to stop ourselves from consuming it. The result seems to be that one either revels in consumption and forgets the future, or one retreats into solipsistic rage, lament and self-hatred. 'If humanity's the enemy,' writes the poet Chase Twichell, 'the enemy is me.'

Winter wood 2

Winter wood 3

"Knowing that civilization has been the royal standard under which conquest, genocide and enslavement have been committed throughout history, how can one justly consider civilization's spiritual aspect: the good progress of humanity as we struggle to transcend the qualities in ourselves that rob us of faith in our own nature and rob others of their future? What antidote can be found to counteract the poison of anticipating an apocalyptic future in which human power destroys not only its own best inventions, but the very conditions under which life is given? Can we restore faith in civilization as an expression of radical hope in the best of the collective human enterprise on Earth -- those acts and accomplishments that honor beauty, wisdom, understanding, inventiveness, love and moral connection with others?

Winter wood 5

"Perhaps such questions are not the province of art, which thrives on being present in the moment, attending to what's local, peculiar, off-kilter and half-seen. Or perhaps such questions are the only province of art -- the attempt to understand, as John Haines once put it, the terms of one's existence. Art is a materialization of the inner life, so when a question persists, no matter its unwieldy or hazy nature, one knows one is stuck with it -- it is the needle through which one must pass the thread."

Winter wood 6

Wild daffodil shoots

Wild daffodil shoots

In Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke advised:

"Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart, and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer."

Winter wood 1-a

Leaves 2

"I think about Rilke," mused Terry Tempest Williams, "who said that it's the questions that move us, not the answers. As a writer I believe it is our task, our responsibility, to hold the mirror up to social injustices that we see and to create a prayer of beauty."

Winter sun

Notebook in the leavesPictures: Rain and sun in the winter woods, and the first shoots of the wild daffodils. Words: The passage by Alison Hawthorne Deming is from The Edges of the Civilized World (Picador, 1998). The passage by Rainer Maria Rilke comes from Letters to a Young Poet, a wonderful little volume published by the recipient of the letters in 1929, three years after Rilke's death from a long-undiagnosed illness that turned out to be leukemia. The quote by Terry Tempest Williams is from A Voice in the Wilderness: Conversations with Terry Tempest Williams, edited by Michael Austin (Utah State University Press, 2006). The splendid poem in the picture captions is from Out There Somewhere by Native American poet Simon J. Ortiz (University of Arizona Press, 2002). All right reserved by the authors.


Such a wonderful post, full of things that speak to thoughts I have been holding uncertainly lately. I will come back and read again, and again - even just to witness this small thread of the Great Conversation shared between people through the ages.


As far as I can tell,
No 'Prayer of beauty'
Ever stopped genocide;
No unanswered question
with which we live
in the hope
of an answer,
ever stemmed
the flood of mass extinction.

This hairless bipedal ape
cannot see itself as one species,
but rather as a creature
specific to the land
in which it was born.
And as a result
it fights wars for territory,
exploits resources
for personal and national gain,
and allows dictators
to issue edicts
in the name of loyalty
to the piece of land on which they born,
rather than for the loyalty
to all the world
and all that lives within it.

All I can say in response is that I've devoted my entire life to making art as a prayer for beauty.

Thank you, dear.

Once I got started after languishing in horrible car factories for a good few years, I hope I have tried to make art as a prayer for beauty too. I may think that art as a means of stopping the atrocities that are perpetrated on this world and its species is a lost cause, but it doesn't stop me fighting for it. W.H. Auden I think had a similar opinion when he said that no poem ever saved a Jew from the ovens and yet he continued to write.

those beautiful leaves

Hi Terri

Such a thought provoking essay and poem by Simon J. Ortiz. This question by Denning stood out in my mind -

"What has civilization blurred and rejected that we might clarify and call back into our shepherding intelligence?"

And personally, I might say the radical belief that hope or optimism has tenacious staying power and strength. I see so much cynicism and disillusionment in my encounters on line, in person or wherever. And with all the injustice, greed and other atrocities occurring in the world, I can understand it and justify it. Yet, without some force to propel us forward, to wake us with a need to change things or define what must be changed, we stagnate, we drown in stasis and despair. Maybe, we have too much hyped news, opinions, flashed media etc. thrown at us through technology. This may cause us to lose our sense of expectation and with that, hope suffers, becomes lackluster. Hope is also a matter of believing in something beyond ourselves, an energy, a light that seeks us out as much as we seek it. Beauty arises even from the most drastic and raw circumstances; and it arises through hope.

My grandmother often felt that if you shut the door on hope, it still lingers outside waiting to come back in. The Slavic word for this was "doufám" or loosely translated into English, a kind of persistent optimism.

In Slavic lore, this kind of thing is like a guardian ; and when the physical dwelling as well as the individual's spiritual house becomes bare, lacking sustenance, furnishings, and sheer force of will to endure, optimism may be cast out. Yet, the spirit of it waits on the door step until it is asked back in. It haunts the owner never relinquishing its chance to resume its role in his or her life. It lingers like a burning light, a presence that can be ignored but not forgotten. And even though, people so disillusioned with life may swear at it, it remains both tolerant and merciful. But it is also stubborn and willful, intending to win out!


( From an old Slavic Folktale )

In the house
there were no furnishings
to seat her,

no ripe fruit or fresh milk
to feed her,

no dry kindling or coal
to heat her.

Only green sticks
that would not burn,

a shawl
unwoven by moths,

a pigeon cage
with two birds who bitched
and would not sing.

So in a scatter
of bitter words
I told her to leave
and unlocked the door.

Yet, after I closed it
light burned through the frame
on an overcast day;

and for some reason
with her back to the sky,
her hair falling in flame -

she lingered.
Thanks so much for today's
essay and photos -- they are both inspiring and beautiful!!

Take care

'If humanity's the enemy, the enemy is me.'

The recognition and acceptance of these words, I find a painful but oh so necessary process. It demands a kind of bifocal vision: holding at the same time the positive actions and messages and the unrelenting human destructiveness in the name of progress. The more I become aware of the vulnerability of our earth the more I experience my own vulnerability and vice versa. It's hard work, and it is necessary.
Your art, my art, are an antidote to despair. A conscious soothing, consoling our troubled feelings, 'a prayer of beauty'.

Thank you for writing this.

My eyes caught the ripples of muscle covered with Hound's dark fur as she perched. Beautiful Hound being.

I can't begin to tell you how much I love this -- both learning about this wonderful piece of Slavic folklore, and the use you've put it to in this poem. I agree that cynicism seems to be everywhere these days; and I'm so damn tired of irony too -- which can be lovely in humorous moderation, but becomes soul- and culture-destroying with over-use. (Lewis Hyde says: "Irony has only emergency use. Carried over time it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy their cage.")

Hope is the antidote. Not the simple, cheesy, naive, ignore-everything-that's-wrong kind of hope, which isn't hope at all, but real hope, which takes courage in dark times. Rebeccas Solnit says:

"To hope is to gamble. It's to bet on the future, on your desires, on the possibility that an open heart and uncertainty are better than gloom and safety. To hope is dangerous, and yet it is the opposite of fear, for to live is to risk. I say all this to you because hope is not like a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. I say this because hope is an ax you break down doors with in an emergency; because hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from annihilation of the earth's treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal. Hope just means another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed. Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope."

I love learning about "doufám," persistent optimism. Thank you for the new word and the new concept.

And thank you for your kind and beautiful words.

She thanks you!

As much as we've been cursing the rain (which has been extreme this winter), it certainly does make everything beautiful.

Hi Terri

I am so glad you enjoyed the poem and the concept. My Grandmother was an amazing woman with some psychic ability and wondrous insight. She brought the Slavic culture and its folklore with her when she came to America and handed it down orally to her children and her grandchildren. I was lucky enough to be a recipient of that gift, a gift I so deeply cherish. Your gracious comment and appreciation of this subject is deeply valued! Thank you!

And I love that quote by Rebecca Solmit --

"Hope just means another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed. Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope."

I totally agree with that and believe things are possible with hope and putting hope into deeds and action.

Again thank you so much!
My Best

Your posts have been so spot on and resonating lately, Terri. Thank you for the stirrings.

Have to catch up with all these wonderful prayers, poems and such enlightenment. I was on jury duty
waiting to be dismissed or to be one of the twelve who have to seek justice, sort of. Three days, had to get up early in the morning and get to the Hall of Justice by bus. Usually, I wake up between 10 AM to noon. So my head spun out of my usual get up, maybe write a poem if one comes.

I missed being here as if I was visiting somewhere peculiar, but sad and interesting. It was all about a fight of two homeless men, and I felt sorry for both of them. I think both the attorney and the lawyer saw this and I was released. I live close to the Tenderloin and buy Street Sheets from the poor who live there. That I have written poems for Street Sheet sat there along with all the trips and traps of law. Sometimes, we hide our feelings and so we must write instead, and see the core of myth sitting there waiting to be freed and helped or down into the sorrows.

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