Thoughts on the morning after

Woodland hound

Stay centred. Stay calm. It's going to be a long week. As the US thrashes out the election, and the UK prepares for another long lockdown, the wild world is still around us...and art...and beauty...and mystery. Kindness matters more than ever.

"To open our eyes, to see with our inner fire and light, is what saves us," says Chickasaw poet and novelist Linda Hogan. "Even if it makes us vulnerable. Opening the eyes is the job of storytellers, witnesses, and the keepers of accounts. The stories we know and tell are reservoirs of light and fire that brighten and illuminate the darkness of human night, the unseen."

Stay safe. Stay strong.

Woodland hound 2


In the eye of the storm

Fernworthy 1

If I had to chose a single quote to encapsulate my view of life and art, this line from Jeanette Winterson's essay "Art Objects" would be a strong contender: "I had better come clean now and say that I do not believe that art (all art) and beauty are ever separate, nor do I believe that either art or beauty are optional in a sane society."

Yes. That's it exactly.

Fernworthy 2

"Art is central to all our lives," Winterson insists, "not just the better-off and educated. I know that from my own story, and from the evidence of every child ever born -- they all want to hear and to tell stories, to sing, to make music, to act out little dramas, to paint pictures, to make sculptures. This is born in and we breed it out. And then, when we have bred it out, we say that art is elitist, and at the same time we either fetishize art -- the high prices, the jargon, the inaccessibility -- or we ignore it. The truth is, artist or not, we are all born on the creative continuum, and that is a heritage and a birthright of all of our lives."

Fernworthy 3

Reflecting on the nature and value of art, Nobel-Prize-winning novelist Saul Bellow once said: "I feel that art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos. A stillness which characterizes prayer, too, and the eye of the storm. I think that art has something to do with an arrest of attention in the midst of distraction."

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But there is just so much to distract us right now. Politics. Climate crisis. A world-wide pandemic. Keeping our loved ones safe and the wolf from the door. How do we find that "stillness in chaos" when the din of chaos is everywhere, and so many good people are tense, and angry, and frightened, and flailing?

Fernworthy 5

I turn again and again to these words by Italo Calvino, who knew a thing or two about surviving hard times: "Seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space."

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The books I read are not inferno. The stories I write are not inferno. The people and animals and places I love are not inferno. I am giving them space. I am finding the quiet eye of the storm.

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It is here. With you.

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Fernworthy 9

The first quote by Jeanette Winterson is from Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy & Effrontery (Jonathan Cape, 1996); the second quote is from "Up Front: Talking With Jeanette Winterson" (The New York Times, Dec. 19, 2008). The Saul Bellow quote is from Conversations With Saul Bellow, edited by Gloria Cronin (University of Mississippi Press, 1994). The Italo Calvino quote is from Invisible Cities (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974). The poem in the picture captions is from The Complete Poems of James Wright (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1992). All rights reserved by the authors or their estates.


Ask, what are my gifts?

Oak elder 6

From "The Shining, Reflective Sheild: An Interview with Kathleen Dean Moore" by Miranda Perrone:

Drawing by Helen StrattonKathleen Dean Moore: The morning after Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Accords, this old climate warrior climbed out of bed feeling better about the chances of the sizzling, souring world than I had for months. Not just feeling better, feeling positively energized. The worst climate policy news had broken, and suddenly the sense of possibility and power was overwhelming.

Why? The 17th century poet Mizuta Masahide had the answer: Barn’s burnt down -- now I can see the moon.

For years, everything about U.S. climate-change policy had been hidden and confused, just a mush. Oil companies painting themselves green. Deniers pretending they believed that hoax shit. Government agencies doing stuff, but not really, not soon enough. Dark money hiding in every knothole. Environmental organizations dancing around the C-word, leaving activists in inarticulate misery. Politicians lying, “jury’s still out,” and running for the door. Who could push against that murky pall? Frustrating as hell. And maybe we thought someone would do it for us in the end.

That’s over. We now know what we are up against.

In the absence of a meaningful federal government response, major U.S. actors in the struggle against climate change will have to be the long-standing civic and moral institutions -- states, cities, businesses, universities, churches, and community organizations. The anti-slavery campaigns, the women’s suffrage movement, the civil rights movement, so many more, have been led from the conscience of the streets -- people walking from a church, holding hands and singing -- not from sudden moral awakening in the federal government. Signs are that this now is how it shall be.

Oak elder 1b

MP: Does your work include direct action, or acts of civil disobedience? You’ve interviewed a number of people who have engaged in these acts.

KDM: Drawing on her Potawatami heritage, Robin Wall Kimmerer wisely said, if you want to know what is your work, ask, what are my gifts? Courage to risk sitting for years in a constricted space is not one of my strengths, alas. But especially in the face of vicious prosecution of protest, I think we should all support the courageous people on the radical fringes of climate action, asking where our skills make us most useful. This is broadly true. Whenever I consider taking on a project, I ask myself: 1) Is this something that only I can do? 2) Is this the most important thing I can think of to do right now? and 3) Is the project based in joy and love?

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MP: You write in “And Why You Must” in Great Tide Rising that all climate activists must “remember why you try so hard to protect this beloved world, and why you must.” How do you fulfill your own edict?

KDM: I believe that people, myself included, work so hard to protect the world because they love it. And what does that love mean? "To love -- a child, a meadow, a frog pond -- is to affirm the absolute worth of what you love and to pledge your life to its thriving, to protect it fiercely and faithfully, for all time." It follows that an activist can strengthen her motivation by immersing herself in that love.

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KDM: So go outside, everybody. Shut the door behind you. I don’t know what you’ll find. Maybe rain has fallen all evening, and the moon, when it emerges between the clouds, glows on a flooded street. Maybe starlings roost in a row on the rim of the supermarket, their wet backs blinking red and yellow as neon lights flash behind them. Whatever you find, let the reliable sights reassure you. Let the smells return memories of other streets and times. Walk and walk until your heart is full. Then you will remember why you try so hard to protect this beloved world, and why you must.

Oak elder 3

Acorns

Words: The text quoted above is from an interview with Kathleen Dean Moore published in Terrain magazine (April 15, 2018). You can read the full piece here. The poem in the picture captions is from A Responsibility to Awe by Rebecca Elson (Carcanet Press edition, 2018). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: A visit with our favourite oak. The fairy tale drawing is by British book artist Helen Stratton (1867-1961).


On Black Tuesday

Visiting the oak

As Devon swelters in early summer heat and America burns with righteous rage, I'm turning to Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde.

"I see protest as a genuine means of encouraging someone to feel the inconsistencies, the horror, of the lives we are living," she wrote. "Social protest is to say that we do not have to live this way. If we feel deeply, as we encourage ourselves and others to feel deeply, we will, within that feeling, once we recognize we can feel deeply, we can love deeply, we can feel joy, then we will demand that all parts of our lives produce that kind of joy. And when they do not, we will ask, 'Why don't they?' And it is the asking that will lead us inevitably toward change."

Visiting the oak 2

''You do not have to be me in order for us to fight alongside each other. I do not have to be you to recognize that our wars are the same. What we must do is commit ourselves to some future that can include each other and to work toward that future with the particular strengths of our individual identities. And in order for us to do this, we must allow each other our differences at the same time as we recognize our sameness.''

Moss fern and feather

The quotes above and in the picture captions are from Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lord (Penguin, 1984); all rights reserved by the author's estate. 


Storks in the spring

Hans Christian Andersen's The Storks illustrated by William Heath Robinson

As we end our second month in the UK lock-down, here's something to celebrate: wild white storks have hatched in southern England for the first time in six centuries. Isabella Tree, co-owner of the estate where the storks are nesting, says: "There’s something so magical and charismatic about white storks when you see them wheeling around in the sky, and I love their association with rebirth and regeneration. They’re the perfect emblem for rewilding. A symbol of hope. It’s going to be amazing to have them back in the British countryside, bill-clattering on their nests in spring -- perhaps even setting up nests on our rooftops like they do in Europe. When I hear that clattering sound now, coming from the tops of our oak trees where they’re currently nesting at Knepp, it feels like a sound from the Middle Ages has come back to life."

In Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit, poet and essayist Alison Hawthorne Deming tells us: 

Ba (the soul) bringing sustenance"Stork stories go back millenia, crossing the cultures that the birds have crossed in their flight along their pilgrimage through time. Stork is a hieroglyph that transcends death in ancient Egypt, where the bird is depicted as Ba, an untranslatable concept according to Egyptologist Louis V. Žabkar, who published the first extensive study of the Ba in 1947. Ba is not unlike the Judeo-Christian idea of the soul, a duality between the material and the spiritual. It is not a constituent part of the human, but 'one of various modes of existence in which the deceased continues to live.' Ba is considered to 'represent the man himself, the totality of his physical and psychic capabilities.' In gods, Ba is the embodiment of the divine powers; in kings, the  embodiment of kingly powers; and in citizens Ba is the embodiment of vital force.

"Ba has a quantum strangeness, interweaving the very notions of living and dead. It frees itself of the body at death but maintains contact. The Ba of the deceased man, depicted as a stork on the papyrus of Nebqed, flies down the shaft of the tomb to deliver food (a whole fish!) and drink to sustain his very own mummy. In this context 'living' and 'dead' conflate and confuse like 'particle' and 'wave' in the study of light. Elsewhere Bas are depicted as falcon-headed humans attending as servants or as a human-headed stork perched calmly on the arm of a scribe. But it is the image of the story as Ba flying down the shaft of the tomb to bring life-giving nourishment to the dead that owns me. The Ba flies on the papyrus on stairs that are flanked by rows of a scribes careful hieroglyphic inscriptions. I imagine the hand that inked that bird, the scribe who chose to make everything else on the page -- hieroglyphs, sarcophagus, cheetah pelt -- clear and heavily inked, while this Ba, performing the most important task of bringing the promise of the renewal to the realm of the dead, is inked with so delicate a hand that the image is barely perceptible. Such is the challenge of speaking of the 'soul.'

The Storks by Dugald Stewart Walker

"Stork is a fable of moral instruction in ancient Greece. Aristotle wrote that 'it is a common story of the stork that the old birds are fed by their grateful progency.' Stories tell that a stork will carry an aged parent on its back when it has finally lost its feathers and is unable to fly, a lesson in filial duty. Aesop, or the unnamed scribe who gathered the tales attributed to that name, tells the tale of the bird catcher and the stork. The bird catcher has set his nets for cranes, and he watches from a distance. A stork lands amid the cranes and the bird catcher captures her. She begs him to release her, saying that far from harming men, she is very useful, for she eats snakes and other reptiles. The bird catcher replies, 'If you are really harmless, then you deserve punishment anyway for landing among the wicked.' The moral: 'We, too, ought to flee from the company of wicked people so that no one takes us for the accomplice of their wrongdoing.' This particular fable had some legal backup. In ancient Thessaly, a law prohibited the killing of storks because of their usefulness in killing snakes.

The Storks by Harry Clarke and Aesop's The Fox & the Stork illustrated by Milo Winter

"In another Aesop fable, the fox and the stork are on visiting terms and seem to be very good friends. So the fox invites the stork to dinner. For a joke he serves her soup in a shallow dish from which the fox can easily lap but the stork can only wet the tip of her long bill. 'I am sorry,' says the fox, 'that the soup is not to your liking.'

The Fox and the Stork by Randolph Caldecott"'Pray do not apologize,' says the stork.

"She returns the dinner invitation. When the fox arrives, the meal is brought to the table contained in a long-necked jar with a narrow mouth, into which the fox cannot insert his snout. All he can do is lick the outside of the jar.

"'I will not apologize for the dinner,' says the stork. 'One bad turn deserves another.' It is a tale of skillful means.

The Fox and the Stork by Walter Crane

"Lessons in skillful means, or, in Sanskrit, upāya, come from Mahāyāna Buddhism, a school of Buddhism that originated in India. And it is no surprise to see the spirit of ancient India embodied in an ancient Greek fable, because Aesop gathered stories from the same sources as did The Panchatantra, India's age-old treasure trove of animal stories that came up through the oral tradition and were first recorded some fifteen hundred years ago. This tradition influenced Aesop's and La Fontaine's fables, the tales of the Arabian Nights, and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. They are stories of 'wise conduct' meant to 'awaken the intelligence.' Storks and stories share the same migratory urge. 

The Marsh King's Daughter by William Heath Robinson

Stork drawing by William Health Robinson"Storks in the great American marketplace carry forward one of the most pervasive associations with the bird: its relationship to the arrival of human babies. Baby announcements, greeting cards, wrapping paper, baby lawn ornaments and diaper services all boast the brand. Stork carries a newborn in a downy sling draped from its long bill. German folklore tells that storks find babies in caves or marshes then carry them in baskets on their backs or in their beaks into human houses. Sometimes the babies are dropped down the chimney. If a baby arrives disabled or stillborn, the stork may have dropped it on the way to the house. Households could leave sweets on the windowsill to give notice they wanted a child. Slavic folklore tells of storks bringing unborn souls from the old paradise of the pagan religion in spring. 

"In spring, white storks, flying from Africa and over Mecca, arrive in eastern Europe during the season when the old pagan fertility rituals of pole dancing and wreath strewing and forest coupling would be performed. Call it synchronicity that great and graceful white birds would arrive and join the joviality each each year, making it easy for imagination -- that great coupling force between inner and outer reality -- to fuse the bird with the love of life and promise of resilience that is what spring means and has meant in temperate climes for aeons."

William Heath Robinson

The Storks by William Heath Robinson

Zoologies by Alison Hawthorne Deming

Words: The passage above is from  Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit by Alison Hawthorn Deming, whose gorgeous work comes from the edgelands between the arts and sciences. Zoologies was published by Milkweed Editions (2014); all rights reserved by the author. 

Pictures: Hans Christian Andersen's "The Storks" illustrated by William Heath Robinson (1872-1944), Ba (the soul) bringing sustenance on an ancient Egyptian papyrus, "The Storks" illustrated by Dugald Stuart Walker (1883-1937), "The Storks" illustrated by Harry Clarke (1889-1931), Aesop's "The Fox and the Stork"  illustrated by Milo Winter (1888-1956), "The Fox and the Stork" illustrated by Walter Crane (1845-1915), two illustrations from Hans Christian Andersen's "The Marsh King's Daughter" and two other stork drawings by William Heath Robinson. 

Related posts: Swans Maidens & Crane Wives and The Folklore of Birds.