Old stones, old gods, and silence

Tintern Abbey, eastern columns

 From Keeping the Faith Without a Religion by Roger Housden:

"It seems to me that a materialist view of the universe is reductionist. It makes every kind of experience subservient to the laws of matter. It applies the tenets of the known to the mystery of why we are here at all.  It chases away not only the old gods and spirits and half heard whispers in the night; it chases away the mystery of life and being itself. For a materialist, there can be no mystery that will not eventually be made clear in the light of reason and critical intelligence.

"Ultimately, what is in danger of being excluded from the cultural conversation is not the old gods, but the quality of imagination that gave birth to them; an imagination that sees and feels humanity to be part of a living, breathing world with an intelligence that we will never fathom; full of Tintern Abbey by Chriss Gunnspresences and qualities that our ancestors gave names to, but that live on as always even as their names have fallen away. William Wordsworth gives voice to this imaginative faculty in this excerpt from his poem, 'Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey':

And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of the setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of thought,
And rolls through all things."

 

Tintern Abbey by Marion Haworth

Tintern Abbey by Wici Rhuthun

The beautiful bones of Tintern Abbey (pictured here) rise from the banks of the River Wye on Welsh side of the English-Welsh border. The abbey was founded in 1131 for the White Monks of the Cistercian Order, followers of the Rule of St. Benedict, whose silent and austere way of life was devoted to prayer, scholarship, agricultural labor and self-sufficiency.

"Why does the soul love silence?" asks Parker J. Palmer in A Hidden Wholeness. Palmer is a Quaker, a group for whom silence is also an important part of communal prayer. "The deepest answer I know invokes the mystery of where we came from and where we are headed. At birth, we emerged from the Great Silence into a world that constrains the soul; at death we return to the Great Silence where the soul is once again free.

Inside Tintern Abbey by Pam Brophy

"Our culture is so fearful of the silence of death," writes Parker, "that it worships noise nonstop. In the midst of all that noise, small silences can help us become more comfortable with the Great Silence toward which we are all headed. Small silences bring us 'little deaths,' which, to our surprise, turn out to be deeply fulfilling. For example, as we settle into silence, where our posturing and pushing must cease, we may experience a temporary death of the ego, of that separate sense of self we spend so much time cultivating. But this 'little death,' instead of frightening us, makes us feel more at peace and more at home.

Tintern Abbey by Saffron Blaze2

"The Rule of St. Benedict, that ancient guide to the monastic life, includes the admonition to 'keep death before one's eyes daily.' As a young man I found this advice a bit morbid. But the older I get, the more I understand how life-giving this practice can be. As I settle into silence, I draw closer to my own soul, touching a place within me that knows no fear of dying. And the little deaths I experience in silence deepen my appreciation for life -- for the light suffusing the room as I write, for the breeze coming in through the window.

"So silence brings not only little deaths but also little births -- small awakenings to beauty, to vitality, to hope, to life. In silence we may start to intuit that birth and death have much in common. We came from the Great Silence without fear into this world of noise. Perhaps we can return without fear as well, crossing back over knowing that the Great Silence is our first and final home."

Tintern Abbey by Pam Brophy

Words: The passages quoted above are from Keeping the Faith Without a Religion by Roger Housden (Sounds True Publishing, 2014) and A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life by Parker Palmer (Josey-Bass Publishing, 2009). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: The photographs are identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.)


Living and working in place

Leat 1

One of the books I carried with me during my travels over the last few weeks was How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell, an artist and writer based in northern California (the center of the American tech industry). I read it slowly, doling it out, because it presented so much food for thought -- and now that I've finished, I recommend Odell's book for anyone engaged in the deep, slow work of making art in the shallow, fast world that Silicon Valley is busy creating. 

Here's a passage from the book's introduction that will give you a taste of what's inside:

"We know that we live in complex times that demand complex thoughts and conversations -- and those, in turn, demand the very time and space that is nowhere to be found. The convenience of limitless connectivity has neatly paved over the the nuances of in-person conversation, cutting away so much information and context in the process. In the endless cycle where communication is stunted and time is money, there are few moments to slip away and fewer ways to find each other.

"Given how poorly art survives in a system that values only the bottom line, the stakes are cultural as well. What the tastes of neoliberal techno manifest-destiny and the culture of Trump have in common is impatience with anything nuanced, poetric, or less-than-obvious. Such 'nothings' cannot be tolerated because they cannot be used or appropriated, and provide no deliverables."

How to Do Nothing

Leat 2

Odell writes that her book is "a field guide to doing nothing as an act of political resistance to the attention economy": to social media, apps, and other technological tools that are increasing co-opting our time, our focus, and our lives.

"A simple refusal motivates my argument: refusal to believe that the present time and place, and the people who are here with us, are not enough. Platforms such as Facebook and Instagram act like dams that capitalize on our natural interest in others and an ageless need for community, hijacking and frustrating our most innate desires, and profiting from them. Solitude, observation, and simple conviviality should be recognized not only as an ends in and of themselves, but inalienable rights belonging to everyone lucky enough to be alive."

Leat 3

Leat 4

Odell is not suggesting that we banish the Internet from our lives altogether. Nor does she endorse the notion that merely taking periodic "offline Retreats" (which is one of my own practices) is an adequate means of addressing the myriad ways the attention economy is re-shaping societal norms. When "doing something," in a hyper-capitalist culture, means "doing something productive" (ie, making money) -- as opposed to the things we do in the private parts of our lives that cannot or should not be marketized -- then re-framing the idea of what "productivity" means is a radical act.

"The fact that the 'nothing' that I propose is only nothing from the point of view of capitalist productivity explains the irony that a book called How to Do Nothing is in some ways also a plan of action. I want to trace a series of movements: 1.) a dropping out, not dissimilar from the 'dropping out' of the 1960s; 2.) a lateral movement outward to things and people that are around us; and 3.) a movement downwards into place. Unless we are vigilant, the current design of much of our technology will block us every step of the way, deliberately creating false targets for self-reflection, curiousity, and a desire to belong to a community. When people long for some kind of escape, it's worth asking: What would 'back to the land' mean if we understood the land to be where we are right now? Could 'augmented reality' simply mean putting your phone down? And what (or who) is that sitting in front of you when you finally do so?"

Leat 5

Later in the Introduction she notes:

"The point of doing nothing, as I define it, isn't to return to work refreshed and ready to be more productive, but rather to question what we currently perceive as productive. My argument is obviously anticapitalist, especially concerning technologies that encourage a capitalist perception of time, place, self, and community. It is also environmental and historical: I propose the rerouting and deepening one's attention to place will likely lead to awareness of one's participation in history and in a more-than-human community. From either a social or ecological perspective, the ultimate goal of 'doing nothing' is to wrest our focus from the attention economy and replant it in the public, physical realm.

Leat 6

"I am not anti-technology. After all, there are forms of technology -- from tools that let us observe the natural world to decentralized, noncommercial social networks -- that might situation us more fully in the present. Rather, I'm opposed to the way that corporate platforms buy and sell our attention, as well as to designs and uses of technology that enshrine a narrow definition of productivity and ignore the local, the carnal, and the poetic. I am concerned about the effects of current social media on expression -- including the right not to express oneself -- and its deliberately addictive features. But the villain here is not necessarily the Internet, or even the idea of social media; it is the invasive logic of commercial social media and its financial incentive to keep us in a profitable state of anxiety, envy, and distraction. It is furthermore the cult of of individuality and personal branding that grow out of such platforms and the way we think about our onlines selves and the places where we actually live."

It's a fascinating book, yet not a prescriptive one. Each of us must determine for ourselves how phones and apps and Twitter and Facebook can best be used (or not used) in our lives. But what Odell has done -- for this reader, at least -- is to reframe the debate on the subject: widening its context and acknowledging its complexity. I'm still thinking about the questions she poses...and already my relationship to the attention economy is changing.

Leat 7

Words: The passages above are from How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell (Melville House, 2019). The poem in the picture captions first appeared inTin House (Winter, 2018). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Working by the leat on a bright spring morning.


Returning to our senses

Ponies 12

Hound 4

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.

Ponies 4

"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.

Ponies 1

"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.

Ponies 13

"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.

Ponies

Hound 2

"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.

Ponies 10

"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."

Ponies 9

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.


Rooted in life

Oak and hill

Oak, bracken, and hound

''I want so to live that I work with my hands and my feeling and my brain. I want a garden, a small house, grass, animals, books, pictures, music. And out of this, the expression of this, I want to be writing (Though I may write about cabmen. That’s no matter.) But warm, eager, living life -- to be rooted in life -- to learn, to desire, to feel, to think, to act. This is what I want. And nothing less.''

- Katherine Mansfield (Letters and Journals: A Selection)

Yes, that's it exactly.

Autumn dog


Morning on Nattadon Hill

Queen of the Hill

I set off on a walk with Tilly, my head crowded with thoughts and worries about all of the things I must get done today. I carry two notebooks, a thermos of coffee, a pen, reading glasses, a research book. I intend to be productive,  to "use my time wisely" by taking my work with me up the hill. By the time we have reached the summit, however, my thoughts have slowed, my words are drifting away like the clouds over the fields. I sit with my coffee, notebooks untouched. This, too, is part of the work process, I'm reminded. Sitting in silence, receptive, eyes wide, heart open. Imbibing the world.

"The whole culture is telling you to hurry," says novelist Juan Díaz, "while the art tells you to take your time."

The tension between these two different modes is a constant part of a writer's working life.

"Always listen to the art,"  he advises.

The wind rises. I'm listening.

From Irish Fairy Tales illustrated by Arthur RackhamIllustration by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939).