Recommended reading: A Still Life

Ponies on the Commons

Ponies 2

Following last week's post on creative inspiration born out of hard experience, I'd like to recommend a book I've recently read and loved: A Still Life by British author Josie George. In this beautiful, painful, deftly-crafted memoir, George brings us into the center of a writing life honed by illness and disability: circumscribed by physical limitations, yes, but rich in observation, reflection, and depth of feeling, alchemized into the making of art.

She begins the book like this, writing from her bed in the small house where she's lived for fifteen years:

A Sill Life by Josie George"Houses like mine exist all in a row along every street of my industrial West Midlands neighbourhood. They push themselves right up against the narrow pavement, rusty weeds marking the join. It's a land of scattered wheelie bins, patched grass, broken glass, dog shit and prowling cats. Cars ride the corners and the yellow lines because there is never anywhere to park. The neighbours shout behind closed doors and smile at you on the street, and for half the year the old people drag plastic garden chairs to sit outside their front doors and smoke in the sunshine, their heads tipped back to the sky. We're good to each other. We're so trodden together that we have to be. There is peace and reassurance in that and I like living here.

"I share the house with my nine-year-old son and no one else. Our days follow a repetitive, quiet rhythm. I take him to school, him dutifully shifting each bin that blocks our path so I can squeeze by on my mobility scooter. We make up phrases beginning with the letters on the car number plates we see, each as daft as we can manage. 'Bee, ee, ess!' I call. 'Bubbly...elephant...SNEEZES!' he returns. We are happy with each other. I watch him run to his friends in the playground and then I go home again.

"I write. I rest. Some days, when I'm well enough, I'll scoot to the community centre the next street over and write there for a while until I need to lie down again. I've spent the last few years trying to make a living with my words and thoughts. I don't really know what else to do. 

"I write the words, but often won't say a sound out loud until it's time to pick up my son from school again. I don't mind it. There have always been long years when I've struggled to leave my house for more than an hour or two at a time and so I am used to solitude.

"I am thirty-six years old."

Ponies 3

Ponies 4

George's text is not just about living with an illness (although her writing on the subject is gripping), it is also an unsentimental appraisal of the value of stillness, of slowing down, and of fully engaging with what we have -- right here, right now -- instead of measuring our days (and, by extension, our creative work) by what we lack.

Ponies 5

Ponies 6

Although my own experience of health disability is milder than George's, and more intermittent, I found enough similarity to be grateful for her insights on the subject; I also appreciated her raw honesty -- often expressed through a dry humour that does not disguise the courage beneath. This is, however, a book worth reading whether you've experienced chronic illness or not, for its primary theme -- how to maintain creativity, vitality, and a sense of self while dealing with life's trials -- is one we all must face, if not through illness then through age, through loss, or through some other hard life change ... such as long, world-wide pandemic, where even the able-bodied have had to learn to live with physical restrictions.

A "still life" imposed by circumstance (health, poverty, age, a cultural barrier, pandemic isolation, etc.) can be painful, frustrating, and burdensome...but also enlightening, tempering, liberating, and full of unexpected gifts. George's story encompasses all these things ... and it does so with a quiet beauty that our brash, angry, overly-fast-paced society could use a great deal more of.

Ponies 7

Ponies 8

Ponies 9

She writes:

"The miracle is, perhaps, that I am still here -- that I continue -- and that despite all that's come before, I believe my life to be good. That is the truth hidden under all of this: that I am deeply happy to be alive.

"Usually, when you are unwell, people expect one of two stories: either you get better -- you beat it -- or you get worse and die. Stories of everyday living and undramatic, sustained existence, stories that don't end up with cures or tragic climaxes but that are made up of slow, persistent continuation as you learn and change -- stories about what happens then -- they made be harder to tell, but I believe they're important too. I believe we need to tell more of them.

"That is why this year I decided to be brave. I decided I would try to find a way to tell my story, to pin it down and spread it out in front of other people -- in front of you -- so that we could look at it together. On the first of January, I made a resolution to try and write down my confused and searching past and the quiet days of my present, simply, honestly, and ignore the voice inside me that continues to tell me that it is a worthless, unimportant story to tell. I have barely told a soul of it before. It was always too much to explain. It was always too complicated and I have felt flawed and vulnerable in complexity's jumble. My life has made it easy to hide, and so I have, but I don't want to be something small and hidden any more. Mine is only one ordinary human life among countless, similar others, but it is a life that doesn't leave anything out: not grief, not pain, not delight, not failure, confusion, nor joy. It holds and embraces all of it equally, and that, I have learnt, is nothing ordinary at all."

Ponies 10

Ponies 11

Ponies 12

Words: The passage above is from A Still Life: A Memoir by Josie George (Bloomsbury, 2021). The poem in the picture captions is from Indigo by Ellen Bass (Copper Canyon Press, 2020). Both books are highly recommended. All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: Dartmoor ponies on the village Commons.


The broader conversation

P1190754

Today, another passage from David Abram's Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology. Like Robin Wall Kimmerer (in last Thursday's post), David argues for a "language of animacy" to better reflect the interrelation between us and the natural world.  Our conception of language as a purely human gift is much too limited, he says:

Illustration by Honore Appleton"All things have the capacity for speech -- 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 ostensibly '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, gusts of wind, compost piles and cumulous clouds....Our own chatter erupts in response to the abundant articulations of the world: human speech is simply our part of a much broader conversation.

"It follows that 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 that we are being listened to, or sensed, by 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."

P1190811

P1190895

The sense of inhabiting an articulate landscape, David notes,

What the Moon Saw by Helen Stratton"is common to indigenous, oral people on every continent. Like tribal people I've lived with elsewhere, most of my Pueblo friends here in the [American] Southwest are curiously taciturn and reserved when it comes to verbal speech. (When I'm with them I become painfully aware of how prolix I can be, prattling on about this and that for minutes on end.) Their reticence is not due to any lack of facility with English, for when they do speak their phrases have an uncommon precision and potency. It is a consequence, rather, of their habitual expectation that spoken words are heard, or sensed, by the other presences that surround. They talk, then, only when they have good reason to, choosing their words with great care so as not to offend, or insult, the other beings that might be listening....

"Few of us today feel any such constraints in our speaking. Human language, for us moderns, has swung in on itself, turning its back on the beings around us. Language is a human property, suitable only for communication with other persons. We talk to people; we do not talk to the ground underfoot. We've largely forgotten the incantatory and invocational use of speech as a way of bringing ourselves into deeper rapport with the beings around us, or of calling the living land into resonance with us. It is a power we still brush up against whenever we use our words to bless or to curse, or to charm someone we're drawn to. But we wield such eloquence only to sway other people, so we miss the greater magnetism, the gravitational power that lies within such speech. The beaver gliding across the pond, the fungus gripping a thick tree trunk, a boulder shattered by its tumble down a cliff or the rain splashing upon those granite fragments -- we talk about such beings, about the weather and the weathered stones, but we do not talk to them. Entranced by the denotive power of words to define, to order, to represent the things around us, we've overlooked the songful dimension of language so obvious to our oral ancestors. We've lost our ear for the music of language -- for the rhythmic, melodic layer of speech by which earthly things overhear us.

P1190792

P1190813

Foal

"How monotonous our speaking becomes when we speak only to ourselves! And how insulting to other beings -- to foraging blackbears and twisted old cypresses -- that no longer sense us talking to them, but only about them, as though they were not present in our world. As though the clear-cut mountainside and the flooding creek had no sensations of their own -- as though they had no flesh by which to feel the vibrations of our speaking. Small wonder that rivers and forests no longer compel our focus or our fierce devotion. For we talk about such entities only behind their backs, as though they were not participant in our lives.

P1190901b

P1190783

P1190782

"Yet if we no longer call out to the moon slipping between the clouds, or whisper to the spider setting the silken struts of her web, well, then the numerous powers of this world will no longer address us -- and if they still try, we will not likely hear them. They withdraw from our attentions, and soon refrain from encountering us when we're out wandering, or from visiting us in our dreams. We can no long avail ourselves of their perspectives or their guidance, and our human affairs suffer as a result. We become ever more forgetful in our relations with the rest of the biosphere, an obliviousness that cuts us off from ourselves, and from our deepest sources of sustenance."

P1190907

P1190906

For further reading on this subject, see these previous posts: "The Language of the Animate Earth" and "The Logos of the Land (living, working, and writing fantasy while rooted in place)." I recommend both of David's books: The Spell of the Sensuous and Becoming Animal, his Alliance for Wild Ethics website, and Robin Wall Kimmerer's lovely essay The Language of Nature.

P1190897

P1190898

P1190899

Words: The passage quoted above is from Becoming Animal by David Abram (Pantheon Books, 2010). The poem in the picture captions is from Alive Together: New and Selected Poems by Lisel Mueller (Louisiana State University Press, 1996). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: The photographs are of Dartmoor ponies grazing at the bottom of our hill. They are semi-wild, coming down from the moor to give birth in our valley every spring. I counted six foals among the herd -- some of them bold and some of them shy -- plus plenty of pregnant mares, so there are still more foals to come. The ink drawings are by British book artists Honor Charlotte Appleton (1879-1951) and Helen Stratton (1867-1971).


Time passing

Ponies

Ponies 2

Here in Chagford, one way to mark the passage of time is to watch the local pony herd, coming down from the moor each year to birth their foals on the village Commons.

The first of the foals was born just after the Corvid-19 lock-down began. There are nine foals now (the last time I counted), some of them still clinging to their mamas, others big and bold enough to prance across the grass together in play. My heart lifts every time I see them. There is too much death  and grief right now, yet there is also new life everywhere I look: foals, lambs, fledgling birds, a litter of puppies down our road, and a baby girl born to good friends. The Great Wheel continues to turn, nothing stays still, everything is change.  

Ponies 3

Ponies 4

Ponies 5

In his beautiful letter to the generations of the future, Scott Russell Sanders writes:

"When I think of all the wild pleasures I wish for you, the list grows long. I want you to be able to chase fireflies as they glimmer in long grass, watch tadpoles turn into frogs in muddy pools, hear loons calling on clear lakes, glimpse deer grazing and foxes ambling, lay your fingers in the paw prints of grizzlies and wolves. I want there to be rivers you can raft down without running into dams, the water pure and filled with the colors of sky. I want you to thrill in spring and fall to the ringing calls of geese and cranes as they fly overhead. I want you to see herds of caribou following the seasons to green pastures, turtles clambering onshore to lay their eggs, alewives and salmon fighting their way upstream to spawn. And I want you to feel in these movements Earth’s great age and distances, and to sense how the whole planet is bound together by a web of breath.

Ponies 6

Ponies 7

"As I sit here in this shaggy yard writing to you, I remember a favorite spot from the woods behind my childhood house in Ohio, a meadow encircled by trees and filled with long grass that turned the color of bright pennies in the fall. I loved to lie there and watch the clouds, as I’m watching the high, surly storm clouds rolling over me now. I want you to be able to lie in the grass without worrying that the kiss of the sun will poison your skin. I want you to be able to drink water from faucets and creeks, to eat fruits and vegetables straight from the soil. I want you to be safe from lightning and loneliness, from accidents and disease. I would spare you all harm if I could. But I also want you to know there are powers much older and grander than our own -- earthquakes, volcanoes, tornados, thunderstorms, glaciers, floods. I pray that you will never be hurt by any of these powers, but I also pray that you will never forget them. And remember that nature is a lot bigger than our planet: it’s the shaping energy that drives the whole universe, the wheeling galaxies as well as water striders, the shimmering pulsars as well as your beating heart.

Ponies 8

Ponies 9

Ponies 10

"Thoughts of you make me reflect soberly on how I lead my life. When I spend money, when I turn the key in my car, when I vote or refrain from voting, when I fill my head or belly with whatever’s for sale, when I teach students or write books, ripples from my actions spread into the future, and sooner or later they will reach you. So I bear you in mind. I try to imagine what sort of world you will inherit. And when I forget, when I serve only my own appetite, more often than not I do something wasteful. By using up more than I need -- of gas, food, wood, electricity, space -- I add to the flames that are burning up the blessings I wish to preserve for you....

Ponies 11

Ponies 12

Ponies 13

"If Earth remains a blessed place in the coming century, you’ll hear crickets and locusts chirring away on summer nights. You’ll hear owls hoot and whippoorwills lament. You’ll smell wet rock, lilacs, new-mown hay, peppermint, lemon balm, split cedar, piles of autumn leaves....If we take good care in our lifetime, you’ll be able to sit by the sea and watch the waves roll in, knowing that a seal or an otter may poke a sleek brown head out of the water and gaze back at you. The skies will be clear and dark enough for you to see the moon waxing and waning, the constellations gliding overhead, the Milky Way arching from horizon to horizon. The breeze will be sweet in your lungs and the rain will be innocent....

Ponies 14

"Thinking about you draws my heart into the future. I want you to look back on those of us who lived at the beginning of the 21st century and know that we bore you in mind, we cared for you, and we cared for our fellow tribes -- those cloaked in feathers or scales or chitin or fur, those covered in leaves and bark. One day it will be your turn to bear in mind the coming children, your turn to care for all the living tribes. The list of wild marvels I would save for you is endless. I want you to feel wonder and gratitude for the glories of Earth. I hope you’ll come to feel, as I do, that we’re already in paradise, right here and now."

Ponies 15

Ponies 16

Ponies 17

Words: The passage by Scott Russell Sanders above is from "We Bear You in Mind," first published in Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril (Trinity University Press, 2012), and reprinted in Orion Magazine. The poem in the picture captions, "Another Spring" by Denise Levertov (1923-1997), first appeared in Poetry Magazine, October/November, 1952. All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: Our local pony herd and some of their foals, spring 2020. For more information on Dartmoor's beloved ponies, go here.


Signs of spring

Foal 1

Here's the first foal to be born to our local herd of Dartmoor ponies this year. We're so lucky to be in lock-down in Devon, where sights like this lift my heart. I send it out in the hope it will lift yours too.

Foal 2

Foal 3

"They are the ones who never pass a secret place in the woods without a stare of curiosity for the mystery implied in all its mounds and hollow, who still turn corners with a lift of expectation at the heart. And to be a writer of fantasy, one must be among those few -- those fortunate few; for, to produce a work that answers all the demands of fantasy, is to suddenly turn the corner which does at last show something strange and wonderful waiting to be seen, and -- most gloriously -- to know that long-ago sense of yearning at last fulfilled."

- Mollie Hunter 

Foal 4

"Someone needs to tell those tales. When the battles are fought and won and lost, when the pirates find their treasures and the dragons eat their foes for breakfast with a nice cup of Lapsang souchong, someone needs to tell their bits of overlapping narrative. There's magic in that. It's in the listener, and for each and every ear it will be different, and it will affect them in ways they can never predict. From the mundane to the profound. You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone's soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows what they might do because of it, because of your words."

- Erin Morgenstern

Foal 5

Foal 6

''And I think that now, in our age, in the mid-ocean of our days, with certainties collapsing around us, and with no beliefs by which to steer our way through the dark descending nights ahead -- I think that now we need those fictional old bards and fearless storytellers, those seers. We need their magic, their courage, their love, and their fire more than ever before. It is precisely in a fractured, broken age that we need mystery and a reawoken sense of wonder. We need them to be whole again.''

- Ben Okri

Foal 7


The Onondaga Thanksgiving Address

Dartmoor ponies 1

From Braiding Sweetgrass by author, ethnobotanist, and biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer, of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation:

"Our old farm is within the ancestral homelands of the Onondaga Nation, and their reserve lies a few ridges to the west of my hilltop. There, just like on my side of the ridge, school buses discharge a herd of kids who run even after  the bus monitors bark 'Walk!' But at Onondaga, the flag flying outside the entrance [of the school] is purple and white, depicting the Hiawatha wampum belt, the symbol of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy....Here the school week begins and ends not with the Pledge of Allegiance, but with the Thanksgiving Address, a river of words as old as the people themselves, known more accurately in the Onondaga language as the Words That Come Before All Else. This ancient order of protocol sets gratitude as the highest priority. The gratitude is directed straight to the ones who share their gifts with the world.

"All classes stand together in the atrium, and one grade each week has responsibility for the oratory. Together, in a language older than English, they begin the recitation. It is said that the people were instructed to stand and offer these words whenever they gathered, no matter how many or how few, before anything else was done. In this ritual, their teachers remind them that every day, 'beginning with where our feet touch the earth, we send thanks and greetings to all members of the natural world.' "

Dartmoor ponies 2

Dartmoor ponies 3

"The Address is, by its very nature of greeting to all who sustain us, long. But it can be done in abbreviated form or in long and loving detail. At the school, it is tailored to the language skills of the children speaking it.

"Part of its power surely rests in the length of time it takes to send greetings and thanks to so many. The listeners reciprocate the gift of the speaker's words with their attention, and by putting their minds into the place where gathered minds meet. You could be passive and just let the words flow by, but each call asks for the response: 'Now our minds are one.' You have to concentrate; you have to give yourself to the listening. It takes effort, especially in a time when we are accustomed to sound bites and immediate gratification.

Dartmoor ponies 4

Dartmoor ponies 5

"Imagine raising children in a culture in which gratitude is the first priority. Freida Jacques works at the Onondaga Nation School. She is a clan-mother, the school-community liaison, and a generous teacher. She explains to me that the Thanksgiving Address embodies the Onondaga relationship to the world. Each part of Creation is thanked in turn for fulfilling its Creator-given duty to others. 'It reminds you every day that you have enough,' she says. 'More than enough. Everything needed to sustain life is already here. When we do this, every day, it leads us to an outlook of contentment and respect for all of Creation.'

"You can't listen to the Thanksgiving Address without feeling wealthy. And, while expressing gratitude seems innocent enough, it is a revolutionary idea. In a consumer society, contentment is a radical proposition. Recognizing abundance rather than scarcity undermines an economy that thrives by creating unmet desires. Gratitude cultivates an ethic of fullness, but the economy needs emptiness. The Thanksgiving Address reminds you that you already have everything you need. Gratitude doesn't send you out shopping to find satisfaction; it comes as a gift rather than a commodity, subverting the foundation of the whole economy. That's good medicine for land and people alike.

"As Frieda says, 'The Thanksgiving Address is a reminder we cannot hear too often, that we human beings are not in charge of the world, but are subject to the same forces as the rest of life.'

Dartmoor ponies 6

Dartmoor ponies 7

"For me, the cumulative impact of the Pledge of Allegiance, from my time as a schoolgirl to my adulthood, was the cultivation of cynicism and a sense of the nation's hypocrisy -- not the pride it was mean to instill. As I grew to understand the gifts of the earth, I couldn't understand how 'love of country' could omit recognition of the actual country itself. The only promise it requires is to a flag. What of the promises to each other and to the land?

"What would it be like to be raised on gratitude, to speak to the natural world as a member of a democracy of species, to raise a pledge of interdependence? No declarations of political loyalty are required, just a response to a repeated question, 'Can we agree to be grateful for all that is given?' In the Thanksgiving Address, I hear respect toward all our nonhuman relatives, not one political entity, but all of life.

Dartmoor ponies 8

"Cultures of gratitude must also be cultures of reciprocity. Each person, human or no, is bound to every other in a reciprocal relationship. Just as all beings have a duty to me, I have a duty to them. If an animal gives his life to feed me, I am in turn bound to support its life. If I receive a stream's gift of pure water, then I am responsible for returning the gift in kind. An integral part of a human's education is to know those duties and how to perform them.

Dartmoor ponies 9

Dartmoor ponies 10

"The Thanksgiving Address reminds us that duties and gifts are two sides of the same coin. Eagles were given the gift of far sight, so it is their duty to watch over us. Rain fulfills its duty as it falls, because it was given the gift of sustaining life. What is the duty of humans? If gifts and responsibilities are one, then asking, 'What is our responsibility?' is the same as asking 'What is our gift?' It is said that only humans have the capacity of gratitude. That is one of our gifts."

The wording of the Thanksgiving Address varies with the speaker, but you can read well-known version by John Stokes and Kanawahientun here.

Dartmoor ponies 11

Words: The passage above is from Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer (Milkweed Editions, 2013). The poem in the picture captions is from In Mad Love and War by U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, of the Mvskoke/Creek Nation (Wesleyan University Press, 1990). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Dartmoor ponies grazing on the village Commons after the rain.