The language of the animate earth

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From The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception & Language in a More-Than-Human World by David Abram:

"The sense of being immersed in a sentient world is preserved in the oral stories of indigenous peoples --in the belief that sensible phenomena are all alive and aware, in the assumption that all things have the capacity for speech. Language, for oral peoples, is not a human invention but a gift of the land itself.

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"I do not deny that human language has its uniqueness, that from a certain perspective human discourse has little in common with the sounds and signals of other animals, or with the rippling speech of the river. I wish simply to remember that this was not the perspective held by those who first acquired, for us, the gift of speech.

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"Human language evolved in a thoroughly animistic context; it necessarily functioned, for many millenia, not only as a means of communication between humans, but as a way of propitiating, praising, and appeasing the expressive powers of the surrounding terrain. Human language, that is, arose not only as a means of attunement between persons, but also between ourselves and the animate landscape.

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"The belief that meaningful speech is a purely human property was entirely alien to those oral communities that first evolves our various ways of speaking, and by holding to such a belief today we may well be inhibiting the spontaneous activity of language. By denying that birds and other animals have their own styles of speech, by insisting that the river has no real voice and that the ground itself is mute, we stifle our direct experience. We cut ourselves off from the deep meanings of many of our words, severing our language from that which supports and sustains it.

"We wonder then why we are so often unable to communicate even among ourselves."

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The pictures today are of our local Dartmoor pony herd and their newborn foals. (The last time I posted pony photos here, the mares were still pregnant.) These semi-wild ponies travel between the hills of Chagford (full of tender green grass for grazing) and the open moor; the sheltered slope of our village Commons is where they come to give birth each year. It's been a good season for the ponies: we've counted ten new foals in all. I watch the movement of the herd across the valley from the windows of my hillside studio, and the hound and I make daily visits to the Commons to check on the foals' progress. They are exquisite.

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Words: The passage above is from The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram (Vintage, 1996). The poem in the picture captions, "A Blessing" by James Wright, is from Above the River: The Complete Poems & Selected Prose (Wesleyan University Press, 1990). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Photographs of the new crop of foals on the village Commons, taken shortly after they were born, earlier this spring. More recent photos to follow. 

Related posts: Living in a storied world, Animalness, Relationship & reciprocity, and The speech of animals.


Myth & Moor update

Benji

There will not be a Myth & Moor post today, as I'm hard at work on two super-tight deadlines. My apologies.

Instead, I recommend reading the latest interview with always-inspiring Terry Tempest Williams: "My heart is very deep in these wild lands." Or Anne Boyer's beautifully written essay, "What Cancer Takes Away" (which some of us can relate to all too well). Or have a look at Mariano Rentería Garnica's video "Dance with the Devil," about the survival of a folkloric dance form in Mexico, filmed as part of his fine series on artisans in Michoacán.

Tilly I wish you a good, creatively productive, and quietly enchanting day...or outrageously enchanting, if you prefer.

Benji

Benji


Going to ground

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Here in Chagford, surrounded by woodland and moorland, by rain-soaked hills and fields full of ponies and sheep, we tend to live half-a-step removed from the pace and preoccupations of modern life.

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Time itself moves different. The lanes to the village are winding and narrow, slowing cars down as they make the approach, or stopping them altogether when sheep, cows or ponies drift onto the road. Village shops are small, service leisurely as neighbors chitchat over the counters (while city folk check their watches impatiently). Internet and mobile phone services don't always work here, and the rest of the world can seem very far away....

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But it's not, of course. The relentless stress of political turmoil reaches us here in Brigadoon too. And it has been relentless -- in Britian, in America, on the streets of France and Italy and Hungary and around the world. So many people shouting. So few people listening. The polar ice caps quietly melting away all the while.

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In response, I find myself "going to ground," and I mean that literally: going out to the hills to find solace and strength, to find calm and clarity. At such times, I believe, we need art more than ever. So I turn to nature, and I turn to stories, for guidance. For insight. For healing.

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"A people are as healthy and confident as the stories they tell themselves," says Ben Okri. "Sick storytellers can make nations sick. Without stories we would go mad. Life would lose its moorings or orientation....Stories can conquer fear, you know. They can make the heart larger."

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"Fiction and poetry are doses, medicines," Jeanette Winterson concurs. "What they heal is the rupture reality makes on the imagination."

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The late, great Lloyd Alexander also spoke about truths best conveyed through magical modes of storytelling. " 'True to life' may not always be true enough," he said. "The difficulty is perhaps in confusing truth with objectivity. By its very nature, art can never be objective. Try as we might, we can't 'tell it like it is.' We can only tell it the way it seems to us. And this, of course, is what we must do -- in realism or in fantasy -- if we hope to create anything of durable value. We have always needed good art to sustain us, to strengthen us, even to console us for being born human. Where better can we learn to see through the eyes of others, to gain compassion, to try to make sense of the world outside ourselves and the world within ourselves?"

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"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."

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If you, too, are struggling with your creative work during this unsettled time, this is what I advise:

First, do whatever you need to right now to find hózhó (balance), stillness, center ground. Once you've found it, or even a whisper of it, then take a deep breath. Let it out. And begin. No matter what medium you are using to weave new stories, remember that this is good work to be doing. The world needs more light, more beauty, more wonder. More compassion for the Other. More understanding of the darkness.

Together, we'll light a path for those coming after. Breathe deep. And again.

And begin.

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The text above is adapted from a piece posted in 2016, with new photographs and poetry. The poem in the picture captions is from Long Life: Essays & Other Writings by Mary Oliver (Da Capo Press, 2004); all rights reserved by the author.


Spinning straw into gold, pain into art

Morning on Nattadon Hill

As a writer, and as a woman with health problems, I have a particular interest in a genre of books sometimes referred to (affectionately or condescendingly) as "sick lit": reflections on living life with a serious illness or disability. I seek out such books not only to discover how other writers think about these issues, but also how they've managed the alchemical work of turning hard experience into art -- for this is something I strive to do myself, and fail at more often than I succeed.

Upper bench, Nattadon Hill

Disability literature is plenty, and increasing. The dog-earred volumes on my own shelves include The Cancer Journals by Audre Lorde, Illnesss as Metaphor by Susan Sontag, essay collections by Nancy Mairs and Floyd Skloot, The Anatomy of Illness by Kat Duff, Elegy for a Disease by Anne Finger, Eating the Underworld by Doris Brett, A Match to the Heart by Gretel Ehrlich, One Hundred Names for Love by Diane Ackerman, The Still Point of a Turning World by Emily Rapp, An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison, Hillbilly Gothic by Adrienne Martini, Tristomania by Jay Griffiths, The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison,  It's Just Nerves by Kelly Davio, Kissed by a Fox by Priscilla Stuckey, and The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey.

Each of these is well worth a read, but one volume I've only recently discovered is in a league of its own: Pain Woman Takes Your Keys & Other Essays from a Nervous System by Sonya Huber. It's simply the best account that I've yet read of living a writer's life in a body that does not function properly, told in language so exquisitely crafted that it took my breath away.

Painwoman Takes Your Keys by Sonya Huber

The collection begins with "What Pain Wants," a short piece in the interstice between poetry and prose, in which Huber personifies pain as an implacable yet poignant figure with "the inscrutable eyes and thin beak of an egret." Trapped in "a body that is ill-fitting for its unfolded shape," Pain communicates in symbols and signs -- then, faced with human incomprehension, puts its "beaked head in its long-fingered wing hands in frustration and loneliness." Huber's image of pain as tormentor and tormented, a Hib Sabin Trickster god come to life, has the ring of mythic truth about it, and is one I won't soon forget.

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She then goes on to explore the physical, emotional, political, sexual, and practical aspects of living, working, and raising a child while dealing with disability and navigating the maddening medical world. There is sorrow, frustration, and anger in these essays, of course, but also comedy, wisdom, and sharp, bright joy -- lifted from reportage to art by the poetic precision of Huber's writing.

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"Welcome to the Kingdom of the Sick," for example, begins like this:

"When I am ill, only the kingdom of the ill is a comfort. The image of laughing, limber-limbed bodies with shining hair is not bitter because I long for it. It is bitter because it does not have anything to teach me and because it makes me forget the solidity of my own ground. I cannot aim for that bright country of the well anymore. It is barred to me, and as I hold it in my mind's eye, there is no room for crushing nostalgia. The taste is bitter because it is the taste denied.

"What I learn is that the kingdom of the ill is a vast bedrock. We appear weak and reclined, yet we cannot be invaded or defeated. Look at us: We are unbreakable in our brokeness. We cannot be cured and are therefore invincible. We have dropped down the well. We reel in a slow-motion dance, treading where others fear to tread, continuing to breathe in the postnormal existence. We are the zombies, the undead. We are the good and bad witches, double-sighted.

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"The kingdom of the ill is mighty and legion, and it is the borderland all bodies must pass through. And we have set up tents, encampments, and homes. We wave at you from beyond the gates.

"When you have arrived, you have arrived. Welcome and blessings."

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Some of the essays in the volume are straight-foward in construction; others stray from linear narrative in order to conjure the experience of pain, describing the indescribable. I admit I'm often wary of experimental modes of writing, for in unskilled hands such forms can be affectations rather than necessary to the text. But here, the breaking of convention works. It is purposeful, controlled, sparingly applied, and thus powerfully effective.

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I found myself reading Pain Woman slowly...doling it out...savouring each essay, reluctant for the book to end. I turned the last page on a bright winter's day on the hill behind my studio -- exhilarated by Huber's prose, and sad that there was to be no more of it.

Shaking myself from under its spell, I looked up and found a herd of Dartmoor ponies drifting toward my bench.  They'd climbed up from the fields below, heading over the hill and out to the moor. Soon they surrounded me and Tilly, their breath steaming lightly in the cold air. The end of a book is a super-charged moment, particularly if the book has been good, and the presence of ponies felt like a benediction on the surge of emotions Pain Woman had raised.

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The hound and I watched quietly as the herd slowly drifted away again, disappearing over the crest of the hill. Then I packed up my things, whistled for Tilly, and headed back down to the studio. In that moment, I knew I would write this post: on language and ponies and life in a body that fails me, then heals again, time after time. I knew I needed to recommend Huber's book, both to those who know the sly/shy Trickster god of pain, and those who don't, at least not yet.

It's a searing, honest, beautiful read...

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...and now blessed by wild ponies too.

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The passage above is from Pain Woman Takes Your Keys & Other Essays from a Nervous System by Sonya Huber (The University of Nebraska Press, 2017). The poem in the picture captions is from New Ohio Review (Spring, 2011). All rights reserved by the authors.


Citizens of the land

Path to the Commons

"As a descendant of slaves and freeman, native inhabitants, and colonizers from Europe," writes Lauret Savoy, "I struggle to understand what it means for me -- or anyone -- to be an American and a human being. Frames of bondage, segregation, forced removal, and an ancient connection to homeland shaped how my ancestors experienced the world and who they knew themselves to be in that world. The legacies of those frames shape us still, their presence malignant to the degree they have been ignored, forgotten, or silenced and then repeated in institutions, and in people's attitudes and lives.

Hound on the path

Ponies on the Commons

"There may be many things about ourselves that my countrymen and -women do not wish to know, but ignorance of human diversity and human contradition only nourishes social injustice and ecological denial. Ideals of freedom, democracy, and independence ring hollow -- and false -- if they remain accessible to a privileged few, the rest of us meant to be kept silent, invisible....We fail ourselves and our children to live with less than the largest possible sense of community, and we fool ourselves to live as if the past is no longer part of us.

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"Musn't citizens of this or any nation go beyond myth, face hypocrisy and contradiction, terror as well as beauty, to understand the complex dynamics that have shaped the land and ourselves as people? Only then, I believe, can a larger sense of who we are and where we are as interconnected ecological, cultural, and historical beings begin to develop. If, as Aldo Leopold wrote, the health of a land is its capacity for self-renewal, then perhaps the health of the human family may be an intergenerational capacity for locating ourselves within many inheritances as citizens of the land, of nations, and of Earth, and thus within ever-widening communities."

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"We have been carrying on two parallel conversations," Scott Russell Sanders concurs, "one about respecting human diversity, the other about preserving natural diversity. Unless we merge those conversations, both will be futile. Our efforts to honor human differences cannot succeed apart from our effort to honor the buzzing, blooming, bewildering variety of life of earth. All life rises from the same source, and so does all fellow feeling, whether the fellow moves on two legs or four, on scaly bellies or feathered wings. If we care only for human needs, we betray the land; if we care only for the earth and its wild offspring, we betray our own kind. The profusion of creatures and cultures is the most remarkable fact about our planet, and the study and stewardship of that profusion seems to me our fundamental task."

I couldn't agree more.

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For a deeper dive into natural and cultural history by writers of diverse backgrounds, I recommend The Colors of Nature: Culture, Identity and the Natural Word, edited by Lauret Savoy and Alison Deming, along with Savoy's book Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape.

And perhaps you'll join me in supporting The Willowherb Review, a new journal dedicated to diversity in nature writing, publishing emerging and established writers of colour with a focus on place, environment, and nature.

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Pathway home

Trace by Lauret Savoy

Words: The passages above are from "Possibility Begins Here" by Lauret Savoy, published in A Voice for the Earth: American Writers Respond to the Earth Charter (University of Georgia Press, 2008), and "Voyageurs" by Scott Russell Sanders, published in Writing from the Center (Indiana University Press, 1997). The poem in the picture captions is from The River of History by Gloria Bird, of the Spokane Tribe of Washington State (Trask House Press, 1998). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Dartmoor ponies on the village Commons in the pause between winter and spring.


Returning to our senses

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Following yesterday's post on modern lives mediated by computers and phones, David Abram urges us to return to sensory experience:

"It seems to me that those of us who work to preserve wild nature must work as well for a return to our senses, and for a renewed respect for sensorial modes of knowing. For the senses are our most immediate access to the more-than-human natural world. The eyes, the ears, the nostrils catching faint whiffs of sea-salt on the breeze, the fingertips grazing the smooth bark of a madrone, this porous skin  rippling with chills at the felt presence of another animal -- our bodily senses bring us into relation with the breathing earth at every moment.

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"If humankind seems to have forgotten its thorough dependence upon the earthly community of beings, it can only be because we’ve forgotten (or dismissed as irrelevant) the sensory dimension of our lives. The senses are what is most wild in us -- capacities that we share, in some manner, not only with other primates but with most other entities in the living landscape, from earthworms to eagles.

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"Flowers responding to sunlight, tree roots extending rootlets in search of water, even the chemotaxis of a simple bacterium -- here, too, are sensation and sensitivity, distant variants of our own sentience. Apart from breathing and eating, the senses are our most intimate link with the living land, the primary way that the earth has of influencing our moods and of guiding our actions.

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"Think of a honey bee drawn by vision and a kind of olfaction into the heart of a wildflower -- sensory perception thus effecting the intimate coupling between this organism and its local world. Our own senses, too, have coevolved with the sensuous earth that enfolds us. The human eyes have evolved in subtle interaction with the oceans and the air, formed and informed by the shifting patterns of the visible world. Our ears are now tuned, by their very structure, to the howling of wolves and the honking of geese.

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"Sensory experience, we might say, is the way our body binds its life to the other lives that surround it, the way the earth couples itself to our thoughts and our dreams. Sensory perception is the glue that binds our separate nervous systems into the larger, encompassing ecosystem. As the bee’s compound eye draws it in to the wildflower, as a salmon dreams its way through gradients of scent toward its home stream, so our own senses have long tuned our awareness to particular aspects and shifts in the land, inducing particular moods, insights, and even actions that we mistakenly attribute solely to ourselves. If we ignore or devalue sensory experience, we lose our primary source of alignment with the larger ecology, imperilling both ourselves and the earth in the process.

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"I’m not saying that we should renounce abstract reason and simply abandon ourselves to our senses, or that we should halt our scientific questioning and the patient, careful analysis of evidence. Not at all: I’m saying that as thinkers and as scientists we should strive to let our insights be informed by our direct, sensory experience of the world around us; and further, that we should strive to express our experimental conclusions in a language accessible to direct experience, and so to gradually bring our science into accord with the animal intelligence of our breathing bodies."

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Words: The passage above is from "Waking Our Animal Senses: Language and the Ecology of Sensory Experience" by David Abram, an essay first published  in the Wild Earth Journal (1997). To read it in full, go here. The poem in the picture captions is by Scottish poet & translator Alastair Reid (1926-2014), a friend from my New York City days. The poem appeared in his beautiful collection Weathering (Dutton, 1978). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: An early morning encounter with ponies grazing on our village Commons.


The call

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From "The Miracle of the Mundane" by Heather Havrilesky:

An illustration from More Celtic Fairy Tales by John Batten"On a good day, humankind's creations make us feel like we're here for a reason. Our belief sounds like the fourth molto allegro movement of Mozart's Symphony no. 41, Jupiter: Our hearts seem to sing along to Mozart's climbing strings, telling us that if we're patient, if we work hard, if we believe, if we stay focused, we will continue to feel joy, to do meaningful work, to show up for each other, to grow closer to some sacred ground. We are thrillingly alive and connected to every other thing, in perfect, effortless accord with the natural world.

"But it's hard to sustain that feeling, even on the best of days -- to keep the faith, to stay focused on what matters most -- because the world continues to besiege us with messages that we're failing. You're feeding your baby a bottle and a voice on the TV tells you that your hair should be shinier. You're reading a book but someone on Twitter wants you to know about a hateful thing a politician said earlier this morning. You are bedraggled and inadequate and running late for something and it's always this way. You are busy and distracted. You are not here."

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"We are living in a time of extreme delusion, disorientation, and dishonesty," Havrilesky notes later in the essay. "At this unparalleled moment of self-consciousness and self-loathing, commercial messages have replaced real connection or faith as our guiding religion. These messages depend on convincing us that we don't have enough yet, and that everything valuable and extraordinary exists outside of ourselves.

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"It's not surprising that in a culture dominated by such messages, many people believe that humility will only lead to being crushed under the wheels of capitalism or subsumed by some malevolent force that abhors weakness. Our anxious age erodes our ability to be open and show our hearts to each other. It severs our ability to connect to the purity and magic that we carry around inside us already, without anything to buy, without anything new to become, without any way to conquer and win the shiny luxurious lives we're told we deserve. So instead of passionately embracing the things we love the most, and in doing so reveal our fragility and self-hatred and sweetness and darkness and fear and everything that makes us whole, we present a fractured, tough, protected self to the world. Our shiny robot soldiers do battle with other shiny robot soldiers, each side calling the other side 'terrible,' because in a world that can't see poetry or recognize the divinity of each living soul, fragility curdles into macho toughness and soulless rage. All nuance is lost in a fearful rush to turn every passing though or idea or belief into dogma.

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"Against this landscape, anything that celebrates the wildness and complexity of the human soul is worthy of celebration. This is true in a global sense, in communities, and it's true within a single human being. The antidote to a world that tells us sick stories about ourselves and and poisons us into thinking we're helpless is believing in our world and in our communities and in ourselves."

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Bog water

"We are called to resist viewing ourselves as consumers or as commodities," she concludes. "We are called to savor the process of our own slow, patient development, instead of suffering in an enervated, anxious state over our value and our popularity. We are called to view our actions as important, with or without consecration by forces beyond our control. We are called to plant these seeds in our world: to dare to tell every living soul that they already matter, that their seemingly mundane lives are a slowly unfolding mystery, that their small choices and acts of generosity are vitally important. "

I couldn't agree more.

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I highy recommend seeking out Havrilesky's inspiring essay to read in full -- which you'll find it in her new collection What If This Were Enough?, along with other treasures. (Her essay on the subject of "bravado" is another one I can't stop thinking about.)

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What if This Were Enough by Heather Havrikesky

Words: The passages above are from What if This Were Were Enough? by Heather Havrilesky (Doubleday, 2017). The poem in the picture captions is from The House of Belonging by David Whyte (Many Rivers Press, 1997). All rights reserved by the authors.
Pictures: Dartmoor ponies grazing in the bog-land by the village Commons on a wet and wild day. The drawing is by English illustrator John D. Batten (1860-1932), who was born just across the moor in Plymouth.

A few related posts: For a discussion of avoiding the tyrany of critical voices on the Internet (and inside on our own heads), see "On Fear of Judgement." For a variety of thoughts on living life deliberately and contemplatively, see the thread of writings under the topic In Praise of Slowness.


Chasing beauty

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From "Beauty" by Scott Russell Sanders:

vintage dragonfly drawing"As far back as I can remember, things seen or heard or smelled, things tasted or touched, have provoked in me an answering vibration. The stimulus might be the sheen of moonlight on the needles of a white pine, or the iridescent glimmer on a dragonfly's tail, or the lean silhouette of a ladder-back chair, or the glaze on a hand-thrown pot. It might be bird-song or a Bach sonata or the purl of water over stone. It might be a line of poetry, the outline of a cheek, the savor of bread, the sway of a bough or a bow. The provocation might be as grand as a mountain sunrise or as humble as an icicle's jeweled tip, yet in each case a familiar surge of gratitude and wonder swells up in me.

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"Now and again some voice raised on the stairs leading to my study, some passage of music, some noise from the street, will stir a sympathetic hum from the strings of the guitar that tilts against the wall behind my door. Just so, over and over again, impulses from the world stir a responsive chord in me -- not just any chord, but a particular one, combining notes of elegance, exhileration, simplicity, and awe. The feeling is as recognizable to me, as unmistakable, as the sound of my wife's voice or the beating of my own heart. A screech owl calls, a comet streaks the night sky, a story moves unerringly to a close, a child lays an arrowhead in the palm of my hand, my daughter smiles at me through her bridal veil, and I feel for a moment at peace, in place, content. I sense in those momentary encounters a harmony between myself and whatever I behold. The word that seems to fit most exactly this feeling of resonance, this sympathetic vibration between inside and outside, is beauty.

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"What am I to make of this resonant feeling? Do my sensory thrills tell me anything about the world? Does beauty reveal a kinship between my small self and the great cosmos, or does my desire for meaning only fool me into thinking so? Perhaps, as biologists maintain, in my response to patterns I am merely obeying the old habits of evolution. Perhaps, like my guitar, I am only a sounding box played on by random forces.

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"I must admit that two cautionary sayings keep echoing in my head. Beauty is only skin deep, I've heard repeatedly, and beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Appealing surfaces may hide ugliness, true enough, as many a handsome villain or femme fatale should remind us. The prettiest of butterflies and mushrooms and frogs include some of the most poisonous ones. It's equally true that our taste may be influenced by our upbringing, by training, by cultural fashion. One of my neighbors plants in his yard a pink flamingo made of translucent plastic and a concrete goose dressed in overalls, while I plant my yard in oxeye daisies and jack-in-the-pulpits and maidenhair ferns, and both of us, by our own lights, are chasing beauty.

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"Must beauty be shallow if it can be painted on? Musn't beauty be a delusion if it can blink on and off like a flickering bulb? I'll grant that we may be fooled by facades, led astray by our fickle eyes. But I've been married now for thirty years. I've watched my daughter grow for twenty-four years, my son for twenty, and these loved ones have taught me a more hopeful possibility. Season after season I've knealt over fiddleheads breaking ground, studied the wings of swallowtails nectaring on blooms, spied skeins of geese high in the sky. There are books I've read, pieces of music I've listened to, ideas I've revisited time and again with fresh delight. Having lived among people and places and works of imagination whose beauty runs all the way through, I feel certain that genuine beauty is more than skin deep, that real beauty dwells not in my eye alone but in the world.

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"While I can speak with confidence of what I feel in the presence of beauty, I must go out on a speculative limb if I'm to speak about the qualities of the world that call it forth. Far out on that limb, therefore, let me suggest that a creature, an action, a landscape, a line of poetry or music, a scientific formula, or anything else that might seem beautiful, seems so because it gives us a glimpse of the underlying order of things. The swirl of a galaxy and the swirl of a [human-made object of beauty] resemble each other not merely by accident, but because they follow the grain of the universe. The grain runs through our own depths. What we find beautiful accords with our most profound sense of how things ought to be.

"Ordinarily we live in a tension between our perceptions and our desires. When we encounter beauty, that tension vanishes, and outward and inward images agree....

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"As far back as we can trace our ancestors, we find evidence of a passion for design -- decorations on pots, beads on clothing, pigments on the ceilings of caves. Bone flutes have been found at human sites dating back more than 30,000 years. So we answer the breathing of the land with our own measured breath; we answer the beauty we find with the beauty we make. Our ears may be finely tuned for detecting the movements of predators or prey, but that does not explain why we should be so moved by listening to Gregorian chants or Delta blues. Our eyes may be those of a slightly reformed ape, trained for noticing whatever will keep skin and bones intact, but that scarely explains why we should be so enthralled by the lines of a Shaker chair or a Durer engraving, or by the photographs of Jupiter."

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"I am convined there's more to beauty than biology, more than cultural convention. It flows around and through us in such abundance, and in such myriad forms, as to exceed by a wide margin any mere evolutionary need. Which is not to say that beauty has nothing to do with survival; I think it has everything to do with survival. Beauty feeds us from the same source that created us. It reminds us of the shaping power that reaches through the flower stem and through our own hands. It restores our faith in the generosity of nature. By giving us a taste of the kindship between our small minds and the great mind of the Cosmos, beauty assures us that we are exactly and wonderfully made for life on this glorious planet, in this magnificent universe. I find in that affinity a profound source of meaning and hope. A universe so prodigal of beauty may actually need us to notice and respond, may need our sharp eyes and brimming hearts and teaming minds, in order to close the circuits of Creation."

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Words: The three passages above are from "Beauty," an essay by Scott Russell Sanders (Orion Magazine, 1998). The poem in the picture captions is from Thirst by Mary Oliver (Beacon Press, 2007). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: The beauty of wild ponies. encountered this morning on our hill.


A pony interlude

Foal 2018

Every spring, the local herd of Dartmoor ponies comes down from the moor to have their foals in the shelter of our village Commons. Today I counted four foals so far, with more on the way. Spring is truly here.

Dartmoor ponoes

"There's magic in the trees and the hills and the river and the rocks, in the sea and the stars and the wind, a deep, wild magic that's as old as the world itself. It's in you too, my darling girl, and in me, and in every living creature, be it ever so small."  - Kate Forsyth

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The world is a proliferation

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It's taken me a long while to be receptive to the work of Scottish novelist and playwright Ali Smith, almost as if I had to learn how to read her -- but Smith's Autumn is the book that taught me how to do so, and now I'm hooked on them all. (I blush to think that I felt the same about Virginia Woolf when I was young. Thank heavens that changed.)

Another favorite writer, Olivia Laing (author of To the River, The Lonely City, etc.), noted this in a profile for The Guardian:

"I’ve known Smith since I was 17 (her partner, the artist and film-maker Sarah Wood, is my cousin). In the 1990s we used to write each other letters. Recently I unearthed a blurry photograph she sent me 20 years ago of a cat’s tail dangling over a sofa. 'I have a long-term plan to write a novella for each season,' she’d written on the back. 'It seems to me the seasons are so gifted to us that it’s a kind of duty, a very nice one.'

"Though she jokes now that she sounds like Katherine Mansfield pretending to be charming, this talk of gifts and duties gets to something essential about Smith. She believes in unselfish communal values such as altruism and generosity and has an infectious faith in hospitality, be it to new ideas or strangers. In addition to writing eight novels and five collections of short stories, she has fought against the mass closure of public libraries ('libraries matter because we’re living in an age of disinformation') and the proposed scrapping of the Human Rights Act; is a patron of the charity Refugee Tales and a staunch advocate for young writers and writers who have fallen out of fashion. She’s not, in short, an artist who seeks to wall herself off from the world."

Even in the Mythic Fiction field, where we render life through myth and metaphor, many of us are likewise determined not to wall ourselves off from the world but to use our art to guide each other through the dark. Smith shows how to do so without slipping from storytelling into didactism.

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From Autumn, Smith's poetic and powerful "post-Brexit" novel, published last year:

"Her mother sits down on the churned-up ground near the fence. I’m tired, she says. It’s only two miles, Elisabeth says. That’s not what I mean, she says. I’m tired of the news. I’m tired of the way it makes things spectacular that aren’t, and deals so simplistically with what’s truly appalling. I’m tired of the vitriol. I’m tired of the anger. I’m tired of the meanness. I’m tired of the selfishness. I’m tired of how we’re doing nothing to stop it. I’m tired of how we’re encouraging it. I’m tired of the violence there is and I’m tired of the violence that’s on its way, that’s coming, that hasn’t happened yet. I’m tired of liars. I’m tired of sanctified liars. I’m tired of how those liars have let this happen. I’m tired of having to wonder whether they did it out of stupidity or did it on purpose. I’m tired of lying governments. I’m tired of people not caring whether they’re being lied to any more. I’m tired of being made to feel this fearful. I’m tired of animosity. I’m tired of pusillanimosity. I don’t think that’s actually a word, Elisabeth says. I’m tired of not knowing the right words, her mother says. "

Lord, yes.

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From Public Library & Other Stories:

"Elsewhere there are no mobile phones. Elsewhere sleep is deep and the mornings are wonderful. Elsewhere art is endless, exhibitions are free and galleries are open twenty-four hours a day. Elsewhere alcohol is a joke that everybody finds funny. Elsewhere everybody is as welcoming as they’d be if you’d come home after a very long time away and they’d really missed you. Elsewhere nobody stops you in the street and says, are you a Catholic or a Protestant, and when you say neither, I’m a Muslim, then says yeah but are you a Catholic Muslim or a Protestant Muslim? Elsewhere there are no religions. Elsewhere there are no borders. Elsewhere nobody is a refugee or an asylum seeker whose worth can be decided about by a government. Elsewhere nobody is something to be decided about by anybody. Elsewhere there are no preconceptions. Elsewhere all wrongs are righted. Elsewhere the supermarkets don’t own us. Elsewhere we use our hands for cups and the rivers are clean and drinkable. Elsewhere the words of the politicians are nourishing to the heart. Elsewhere charlatans are known for their wisdom. Elsewhere history has been kind. Elsewhere nobody would ever say the words bring back the death penalty. Elsewhere the graves of the dead are empty and their spirits fly above the cities in instinctual, shapeshifting formations that astound the eye. Elsewhere poems cancel imprisonment. Elsewhere we do time differently. Every time I travel, I head for it. Every time I come home, I look for it."

And so do I.

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 From Girl Meets Boy: The Myth of Iphis:

"And it was always the stories that needed the telling that gave us the rope we could cross any river with. They balanced us high above any crevasse. They made us be natural acrobats. They made us brave. They met us well. They changed us. It was in their nature to."

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From Autumn:

"It's a question of how we regard our situations, how we look and see where we are, and how we choose, if we can, when we are seeing undeceivedly, not to despair and, at the same time, how best to act. Hope is exactly that, that's all it is, a mater of how we deal with the negative acts towards human beings by other human beings in the world, remembering that they and we are all human, that nothing human is alien to us, the foul and the fair, and that most important of all we're here for a mere blink of the eyes, that's all."

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From Autumn

"There's always, there'll always be, more story. That's what story is."

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And from a fine interview with Smith in 2014 by Alex Clark:

"Smith describes herself as 'a really uncool, geeky enthusiast.' Was she aware of the power of books from a young age? 'Oh, always!" she laughs. 'I was profoundly changed by Charlotte's Web. When you fall in love with a book something especially interesting and exciting is happening because of the way language works on us as human beings. And I love language. And I also love butterflies, and cloud-shapes, and types of train. What can I say? The world is a proliferation."

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Words: Follow the links above to read the full articles by Olivia Laing and Alex Clark. The poem in the picture captions is from the Food/Land issue of of the Canadian magazine Guts (Fall, 2015); all rights reserved by the author.

Pictures: Dartmoor ponies on Chagford Commons on a winter's day.