The language of loss and love

Old Oak 1

In her splendid little book Why Rebel, Jay Griffiths despairs of the way we commonly tell the story of climate crisis, noting how it distances us from the urgency and enormity of the ecological devastation unfolding around us. She writes:

Night Owl in the Woods by HJ Ford"The language we use for this is itself deadly. The mass of ocean writing is a heap of broken plastic words: stock, fisheries, industry, off-shore, tonnage, commercial fleets, sea cages, fish farms, subsidies. Through the language it is hard to see the ocean's true nature, whose vitality needs to be rendered as beautiful as iridescence itself. We speak of an 'extinction event' or 'species decline' because of 'intensive agriculture.' These are lifeless phrases. How easily the eye bypasses them. They are words of tarmac and traffic, not the lovely writhy ivy words of the woods. 

"I cannot touch or taste terms like 'habitat loss' or 'pollution' because they are unbeloved words which carry within themselves the toxicity of lifelessness. Humans, we are told, need insects for 'the function and services they provide.' Cold language, cold as coins on corpse eyes, cold as the philosophy that put us here. Words of heart are needed.

The Lion Falls in Love by H.J. Ford"There is a new word in the air: defaunation: the loss of absolute animalness. Defaunation includes the loss of individuals and the loss of abundance. Defaunation, argue researchers in Science magazine, should be as familiar and influential as the word 'deforestation.' Another term for the loss of the world's wild fauna is 'biological annihilation.'

"Please tell me you understand the immensity of this. And if you don't, please think, alone and quietly perhaps, of the unfolding ending. Let me speak simply into the simplicity of your heart, then, and let me just ask you what you love, what makes you happy.

"Is it a child? Is it your partner? Do you love your friend or, Little Prince, do you love your rose? Do you love your dog, your cats, your church, your home, your garden? Your books, perhaps, or the poetry you make, or the music? The meaning you have made of your life, maybe, your health, status, honour or all of these? And this love, then, this happiness that you hold so dear, tell me how it will even exist without the tiniest of beings, the insects, against which we have been so pitiless? Without the insects for the food and the flowers and the soil?"

Why Rebel by Jay Griffiths

Old Oak 7

Red Campion

Barry Lopez is another writer who entwined the language of loss with the language of love in his remarkable and influential books, which changed the way that many of us viewed the world and our place within it. In his essay "Love in a Time of Terror," published shortly before he died (in January), he wrote:

Storks and Pelicans by Helen Stratton"Evidence of the failure to love is everywhere around us. To contemplate what it is to love today brings us up against reefs of darkness and walls of despair. If we are to manage the havoc -- ocean acidification, corporate malfeasance and government corruption, endless war -- we have to reimagine what it means to live lives that matter, or we will only continue to push on with the unwarranted hope that things will work out. We need to step into a deeper conversation about enchantment and agape, and to actively explore a greater capacity to love other humans. The old ideas -- the crushing immorality of maintaining the nation-state, the life-destroying belief that to care for others is to be weak, and that to be generous is to be foolish -- can have no future with us.

"It is more important now to be in love than to be in power. It is more important to bring E. O. Wilson’s biophilia into our daily conversations than it is to remain compliant in a time of extinction, ethnic cleansing, and rising seas. It is more important to live for the possibilities that lie ahead than to die in despair over what has been lost.

The Lion and the King by HJ Ford"Only an ignoramus can imagine now that pollinating insects, migratory birds, and pelagic fish can depart our company and that we will survive because we know how to make tools. Only the misled can insist that heaven awaits the righteous while they watch the fires on Earth consume the only heaven we have ever known....In this trembling moment, with light armor under several  flags rolling across northern Syria, with civilians beaten to death in the streets of Occupied Palestine, with fires roaring across the vineyards of California, and forests being felled to ensure more space for development, with student loans from profiteers breaking the backs of the young, and with Niagaras of water falling into the oceans from every sector of Greenland, in this moment, is it still possible to face the gathering darkness, and say to the physical Earth, and to all its creatures, including ourselves, fiercely and without embarrassment, I love you, and to embrace fearlessly the burning world?"

Old Oak 2

Griffiths and Lopez, of course, are not the only writers urging us to pay attention to the language we use when speaking of the more-than-human world. In previous posts, Robin Wall Kimmerer explained how the "grammar of animacy" can foster more respectful relationships with plants and animals; Lyanda Lynn Haupt reflected on the language of inter-species communion; David Abram argued that our conception of language itself as a purely human gift is much too limited; John O'Donohue spoke of animals and compassion from a Celtic point of view;  N. Scott Momaday reminded us that speech itself is an ancient form of magic ... and there are so many others (fiction writers, poets, mythologists and storytellers included) who are working to re-enchant our words, re-wild our stories, and re-imagine our place in the living world.

Barry Lopez asks: Is there still time, and is this still possible? I have to believe it is. The great work of loving, of rebelling, and of storytelling carries on. It has only just begun.

Old Oak 8

The piskie flower

Words: The passages quoted above are from Why Rebel by Jay Griffiths (Penguin/Random House, 2021) and "Love in a Time of Terror" by Barry Lopez (Literary Hub, August 7, 2020); all rights reserved by the authors. Lopez's last published book was Horizon (Vintage, 2019), which I highly recommend. You can read a post about it here.

Pictures: The fairy tale illustrations today are by H.J. Ford (1860-1941) and Helen Stratton (1867-1961).


Recommended reading: Why Rebel

Down by the leat

Jay Griffiths is one of a handful of writers that I more than admire, I am actively in awe of: writers whose work is so original and so damn good that I just don't know how they do it. Griffith's remarkable books (Wild, Kith, Pip Pip, and Tristimania especially) have stretched my mind, touched my heart, and taught me to perceive the world in new ways.  She's braver in her life and prose than I could ever be, and I love her for it.

Her latest publication, Why Rebel, is a small, slim volume of eleven essays published in the "Penguin Special" series. The essays are tied together by the central theme of love for the wild earth, with a clear-eyed look at the forces that undermine our ability to live soulfully and sustainably on this beautiful, ailing planet. I've had my copy for just two weeks and already it's dog-eared, coffee-stained, and scribbled with margin notes. (I carry it on my walks with Tilly, so it's speckled with rain, mud, and leaf-mulch too.)

Leat 2

Griffith's essay "The Forests of the Mind" is one I keep returning to. Here, she discusses the poetic mindset of shamanism, its relationship to art, and the ways that the rise of literalism has eroded our understanding of metaphor, to our great cost. (This is something I've long been worried about too, and I'm glad I'm not the only one.) Shapeshifting, she says, is a metaphorical act performed by shamans and artists both:

Why Rebel by Jay Griffiths"It is part of the repertoire of the human mind, cousin to mimesis, empathy and Keats's 'negative capability,' known to poets and healers since the beginning of time, the beginning of mime. It did not have literal truth, quite obviously, but had 'slanted, metaphoric truth' -- the words I used, when the page was printed, to describe it.

"Shapeshifting is a transgressive experience, a crossing over: something flickers inside the psyche, a restless flame in a gust of wind, endlessly transformative. The mind moves from its literal pathways to its metaphoric flights. Art is made like this, from a volatile bewitchment of self-forgetting and an identification with something beyond. Out of this is born a conviviality with everything alive, the relationship acknowledged and the necessity of its protection vouchsafed....We are what we think, and we humans have a way to become other, in a necessary, wild and radical empathy.

"Shapeshifting involves a willingness to makes mimes in the mind, copying something else. Art, meanwhile, depends on mimesis furthering our desire to know and to understand. In a recent, Ovidian, dance piece, Swan, French dancers performed and danced with live swans, imitating the birds in a mime which alluded to the metamorphosis of all art, and to the artists' ability to lose themselves in order to mirror this something beyond.

" 'But we, when moved by deep feeling, evaporate; we breathe ourselves out and away,' wrote Rilke in his Second Elegy. In making art, the artist expires, breathing themselves out to allow the inspiring to happen, the breathing in of the glinting universal air, intelligent with many minds, electric and on the loose. Artist, shapeshifter, shaman or poet, all are lovers of metamorphosis, all are minded to vision, insight and dream. 

"Self-appointed shamanism can reek of cultural appropriation, but even in cultures that have temporarily misplaced their shamanism, the role survives, donning a deep disguise. Joseph Campbell and others believed that artists have taken up the role, and it seems to me that this is true for a particular reason, that both art and shamanism use the realm of metaphor, where emotion is expressed and healing happens. With the metaphoric vision, empathy flows, knowing no borders. Both artist and shaman create harmony within an individual and between the individual and the wider environment, a way of thinking essential for life; poetry works 'to renew life, to renew the poet's own life, and, by implication, renew the life of the people,' wrote Ted Hughes. But ours is an age of lethal literalism which viciously attacks metaphoric insight and all its value...."

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Bluebells

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Later in the essay she returns to the subject of metaphor:

Illustration by John D. Batten"If I were asked what is the greatest human gift, I would say it is metaphor. A little boat of metaphor chugs across the seas, carrying a cargo of meaning across the oceans that divide us. Metaphor is how we relate to each other and how our one species attempts to comprehend others. With this gift, humans listen and speak more intensely and the meanings of all things -- ocean or forest, snail or chaffinch -- grow outwards in concentric rings of concentrated word-poems. 'Each word was once a poem,' said Emerson, and 'language is fossil poetry.' So a tulip, for example, ultimately derives from the Turkish word for 'turban.'

"Metaphor works with the legerdemain of the psyche, the lightest of touched to shift the mindscape, transforming one thing into another, leading to new ways of seeing. Metaphor follows Emily Dickinson's injunction to 'tell the truth but tell it slant,' so, slantwise by Saturn-mind running rings around literalism, metaphor is canted incantation, it breathes fact into life, it enchants. And metaphor is the language of the shaman and the artist."

(You can read the full essay online here.)

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Pink stitchwort

In subsequent essays, Griffiths turns her gaze on animals, insects, the soil below and the sky above ... on the toxic ideas and forces that threaten them ... and on those courageous souls rebelling on their behalf.

Why Rebel is wise, and fierce, and heart-breaking, and well worth reading. It's good medicine.

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Why Rebel by Jay Griffiths

Words: The passages above are from Why Rebel by Jay Griffiths (Penguin/Random House, 2021). The poem in the picture captions is from The Woman Who Fell from the Sky by Joy Harjo (WW Norton, 1996). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Morning coffee break down by the leat. The little drawing is by John D. Batten, a fairy tale illustrator from Plymouth, Devon (1860-1932).

Posts discussing Jay Griffiths' previous books & essays include Finding the Way to the Green, The Enclosure of Childhood, Kissing the Lion's Nose, To the Rebel Soul in EveryoneDaily Grace, and Once upon a time.


Into the woods once again

Woodland gate

From The Art of the Commonplace: Agrarian Essays by Wendell Berry:

Drawing by Helen Stratton"We have lived by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. And this has been based on the even flimsier assumption that we could know with any certainty what was good even for us. We have fulfilled the danger of this by making our personal pride and greed the standard of our behavior toward the world -- to the incalculable disadvantage of the world and every living thing in it. And now, perhaps very close to too late, our great error has become clear. It is not only our own creativity -- our own capacity for life -- that is stifled by our arrogant assumption; the creation itself is stifled.

"We have been wrong. We must change our lives, so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption that what is good for the world will be good for us. And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and to learn what is good for it. We must learn to cooperate in its processes, and to yield to its limits. But even more important, we must learn to acknowledge that the creation is full of mystery; we will never entirely understand it. We must abandon arrogance and stand in awe. We must recover the sense of the majesty of creation, and the ability to be worshipful in its presence. For I do not doubt that it is only on the condition of humility and reverence before the world that our species will be able to remain in it."

Woodland work

Every morning I leave my desk and my books to cross the stream into the woods, stepping into the mystery at the heart of this rain-soaked and myth-steeped landscape. When the wider world feels harsh and cacophonous, out here I find solace in simple things: the bite of the wind, the damp velvet of moss, the crackle of leaves beneath my boots and the steaming of Tilly's breath in the cold. Inside, news scrolls across digital screens...but the news that I really need is written in light and lichen and thistle and thorn. I am learning the old, slow language of trees, and the quicksilver poetry of water.

Woodland wall

''Let us keep courage," said Vincent van Gogh, "and try to be patient and gentle. And let us not mind being eccentric, and make distinction between good and evil.''  

To which I would add: Let us treat the land with respect. And ourselves. And each other. And go on from there.

Woodland roots

Woodland hound

The passage quoted above is from The Art of the Commonplace by Wendell Berry (Counterpoint, 2002). The poem in the picture captions is from his Collected Poems, 1957-1982 (North Point Press, 1985). All rights reserved by the author.


Walking. Dreaming. Breathing.

Tilly in the autumn woods

"What hope is there for individual reality or authenticity," asks novelist and essayist Ben Okri, "when the forces of violence and orthodoxy, the earthly powers of guns and bombs and manipulated public opinion make it impossible for us to be authentic and fulfilled human beings?

Light on the hill

"The only hope is in the creation of alternative values, alternative realities. The only hope is daring to redream one's place in the world -- a beautiful act of imagination, and a sustained act of self-becoming. Which is to say that in some way or another we breach and confound the accepted frontiers of things."

Autumn in the woods

"In a world like ours," he adds, "where death is increasingly drained of meaning, individual authenticity lies in what we can find that is worth living for. And the only thing worth living for is love.

"Love for one another. Love for ourselves. Love of our work. Love of our destiny, whatever it may be. Love for our difficulties. Love of life. The love that could free us from the mysterious cycles of suffering. The love that releases us from our self-imprisonment, from our bitterness, our greed, our madness-engendering competitiveness. The love that can make us breathe again."

Autumnal hound

The passage by Ben Okri above (and the quotes tucked into the picture captions) are from A Way of Being Free (Phoenix House, 1997); all rights reserved by the author.


Nurturing hope

Tilly and her friend Old Oak

The week that has passed since the American election has been exhilarating and alarming in equal measure. The world hasn't suddenly been put to rights by the Biden/Harris win (no single act can do that), and the months between now and Inauguration Day are certainly going to be anxious ones -- but despite the challenges ahead, I feel more hopeful than I have in a long while.

Hope, as Rebecca Solnit pointed out (in Hope in the Dark) is not a passive thing:

"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."

Mushrooms in the field 1

Mushrooms in the field 2

Later in the book, she reflects on the important differences between true and false hope:

"In The Principle of Hope, [Ernst] Bloch declares, 'Fraudulent hope is one of the greatest malefactors, even enervators, of the human race, concretely genuine hope is its most dedicated benefactor' and speaks of 'informed discontent which belongs to hope, because both arise out of the No of deprivation.' The hope that the Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes will come to you, that the American dream will come true, that electoral politics will reform itself, is hope that paralyzes people's ability to rebel, to reject, to critique, to demand, and to make change. False hope can be a Yes to deprivation, an acquiescence to a lie. Official hope can be the bullying that tells the marginalized to shut up because everything is fine or will be. In its dilute forms, false hope is not far from despair, for both can be paralyzing. But despair can also be liberating.

"Blind hope faces a blank wall waiting for a door in it to open. Doors might be nearby, but blind hope keeps you from locating them; in this geography, despair can be fruitful, can turn you away from the wall, saying No to deprivation. And this despair in one institution or one site can lead to the location of alternatives, to the quest for doors, or to their creation. The great liberation movements hacked doorways into walls, or the walls came tumbling down. In this way, hope and despair are linked."

Mushrooms in the field 3

But how do we maintain hope when the challenges ahead are so numerous, so seemingly intractable, so overwhelming? Solnit reminds us of this:

"After a rain mushrooms appear on the surface of the earth as if from nowhere. Many do so from a sometimes vast underground fungus that remains invisible and largely unknown. What we call mushrooms mycologists call the fruiting body of the larger, less visible fungus. Uprisings and revolutions are often considered to be spontaneous, but less visible long-term organizing and groundwork -- or underground work -- often laid the foundation. Changes in ideas and values also result from work done by writers, scholars, public intellectuals, social activists, and participants in social media. It seems insignificant or peripheral until very different outcomes emerge from transformed assumptions about who and what matters, who should be heard and believed, who has rights.

"Ideas at first considered outrageous or ridiculous or extreme gradually become what people think they’ve always believed. How the transformation happened is rarely remembered, in part because it’s compromising: it recalls the mainstream when the mainstream was, say, rabidly homophobic or racist in a way it no longer is; and it recalls that power comes from the shadows and the margins, that our hope is in the dark around the edges, not the limelight of center stage. Our hope, and often our power."

Indeed they are.

Hound and Oak

Words: The passage above is from Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities by Rebecca Solnit (Haymarket, 2004). The poem in the picture captions is from Indigo by Ellen Bass (Copper Canyon Press, 2020). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Tilly with her friend Old Oak. Her leg is still healing but she's feeling better, and the rustle of oak leaves is good medicine.