Art, culture, and radical hope

Frost 1

In The Edge of the Civilized World: A Journey in Nature and Culture, poet and essayist Alison Hawthorne Deming asks:

"What is civilization? Where and how is it being formed? On what assumptions is it founded? What should we hope for the future of humanity and our world? To what extent can our ideas, hopes and will shape the future? What has civilization blurred and rejected that we might clarify and call back into our shepherding intelligence? What lessons did our ancestors learn that we should not forget? And what of their practices would we be better off in leaving behind?

Frost 2

At this point in modernity, Deming writes,

"one can do nothing without doubts and questions. We see everything from multiple perspectives: most of civilzation's gains have been earned at the expense of others, and for all its marvelous advances civilization has led the natural world to the edge of collapse. We can count, like the numbers on a doomsday clock, the species being driven out of existence. We can measure the hole we have made in the sky and the dirty pall that threatens to smother the Earth. We can predict the outcome of continuing to consume the world, but we cannot seem to stop ourselves from consuming it. The result seems to be that one either revels in consumption and forgets the future, or one retreats into solipsistic rage, lament and self-hatred. 'If humanity's the enemy,' writes the poet Chase Twichell, 'the enemy is me.'

Frost 3

"Knowing that civilization has been the royal standard under which conquest, genocide and enslavement have been committed throughout history, how can one justly consider civilization's spiritual aspect: the good progress of humanity as we struggle to transcend the qualities in ourselves that rob us of faith in our own nature and rob others of their future? What antidote can be found to counteract the poison of anticipating an apocalyptic future in which human power destroys not only its own best inventions, but the very conditions under which life is given? Can we restore faith in civilization as an expression of radical hope in the best of the collective human enterprise on Earth -- those acts and accomplishments that honor beauty, wisdom, understanding, inventiveness, love and moral connection with others?

"Perhaps such questions are not the province of art, which thrives on being present in the moment, attending to what's local, peculiar, off-kilter and half-seen. Or perhaps such questions are the only province of art -- the attempt to understand, as John Haines once put it, the terms of one's existence. Art is a materialization of the inner life, so when a question persists, no matter its unwieldy or hazy nature, one knows one is stuck with it -- it is the needle through which one must pass the thread."

Frost 4

In Letters to a Young Poet (1929), Rainer Maria Rilke advised:

"Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart, and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer."

Frost 5

Frost 6

Seven decades later, Terry Tempest Williams reflected on those words:

"I think about Rilke, who said that it's the questions that move us, not the answers. As a writer I believe it is our task, our responsibility, to hold the mirror up to social injustices that we see and to create a prayer of beauty."

Frost 7

Frost 8

Words: The passage by Alison Hawthorne Deming is from The Edges of the Civilized World (Picador, 1998). The passage by Rainer Maria Rilke comes from Letters to a Young Poet, a wonderful little volume published by the recipient of the letters in 1929, three years after Rilke's death from a long-undiagnosed illness that turned out to be leukemia. The quote by Terry Tempest Williams is from A Voice in the Wilderness: Conversations with Terry Tempest Williams, edited by Michael Austin (Utah State University Press, 2006). The splendid poem in the picture captions is from Out There Somewhere by Native American poet Simon J. Ortiz (University of Arizona Press, 2002). All right reserved by the authors.

Pictures: The path to the village Commons on a recent frosty morning.


Nature and beauty

In the tangled heart of a wet winter wood,

in the rustle of leaves,

Today, one last passage from The Moth Snow Storm: Nature and Joy by Michael McCarthy, accompanied by some photographic time-traveling: a journey through the woods behind my studio from winter to spring and back.

McCarthy writes:

"It is a peculiar property of the earth that it offers us beauty as well as the means to survive, but it is also a wondrous property, and it greatly moved us -- as behaviourally modern humans, anyway. Hence over about forty thousand years we have steadily formalised our appreciation and our celebration of it, in what we have come to call art, from Lascaux to Leonardo. Until, that is, the last century. In the last hundred years or so, with the advent of modernism, a new artistic philosophy for an industrial age (and also for a world whose optimism had been irreparably fractured by the First World War), many of our society's high cultural elites have consciously rejected the primacy of beauty, seeing its veneration as outmoded and complascent, and holding that the true purpose of art should be to challenge preconceptions; and they have largely forgotten all about, or simply ignored, where beauty comes from in the first place, which is the natural world. 

"In more recent decades the process has gone even further, and beauty has become suspect.

in the silence of moss,

in the damp and the dark

"[...] There is no denying that the veneration of the beauty of nature, which Wordsworth made the fount of his philosophy, has largely ceased to figure in high culture since modernism contemptuously swept it aside; and modernism's triumph was of course comprehensive, in painting and sculpture, in music and in poetry. In the early part of the 20th century, for example, there was a substantial group of English poets collectively known as the Georgians who wrote extensively about nature and were read by large audiences; some were quite good, some were not, but all except one were consigned to lasting oblivion by T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland in 1922 and the modernist revolution which followed (the exception, of course, being the wonderful Edward Thomas, who was anyway very much more than a 'Georgian nature poet'). We retain the legacy of those attitudes. So beauty in general and the natural beauty of the earth in particular have gone largely unsanctioned as objects of relevance by the cultural elites of the 20th and now of the 21st century, and we hear little of them from those quarters; and yet, of course, many ordinary people who do not feel they must be aligned with prevailing cultural modes of thought have been drawn to the beauty of nature as much as people ever were, and I am one of them.

in the cold and the clear,

"Let me tell you about a wood. Five times in one week, I went to this wood. Five separate trips, on five successive days. And each time, after the first time, I stopped at the gate, I paused before entering. I savoured the moment. It felt like the minute before sex, with a new lover who is making ready -- the elevated heartbeat, the skin-prickle, the certainty of impending pleasure -- but it was even more than that, it was the anticipation of a sort of ecstasy, at beholding what the woods contained, hidden in its depths, which was something truly exceptional, as exceptional as a crashed flying saucer, I found myself thinking....Each time I stopped at the gate I said to myself, I know what is in there....

A gate swings open. Enter, my dear.

BluebellsIt was a blue.

It was a blue that shocked you.

It was a blue that made you giddy. 

It was a blue that flowed like smoke over the woodland floor, so that the trees appeared to be rising out of it, which was not solid like a blue door might be but constantly morphing in tone with the light and shade, now lilac, now cobalt, a blue which was gentle but formidably strong, so intense as to be mesmerising: at some moments it was hard to believe it was composed of flowers. But that was the beauty and the joy of the bluebells, their floral richness and their profusion, a dozen blue bell-heads nodding on every stem, a hundred thousand stems pressing together in every glade until it ceased to be plants, it was just an overwhelming incredible blueness at the bottom of a wood....

Cross over the threshold, the bridge, the stile,

slip through that small secret door in the hill,

into the green, and into the blue,

"In that wood, in that spring not long ago, for five days in succession I was struck dumb by the beauty of the earth. For five days I went back purposely to look at that colour, that living colour, because when I accidentally came across it, it was at its peak, and I knew that soon it would fade. Day after day after day after day after day. And I told no one. I think I was...what? Ashamed? No, not at all; but I am influenced by prevailing cultural norms as much as the next person, and I suppose I felt that declaiming about five successive days of bluebell-peeping would be regarded as eccentric? Or something? Yet I was drawn back there ineluctably, to glut my senses on colour. Without telling a soul. It felt almost like being a part of the underground....

into Faerieland, clever child, foolish child.

Where magic lives,

and where you shall live too,

forgetting your world for a year and a day,

"For if the beauty of nature is not high in official cultural favour, as we set out into the 21st century, it still holds its magnetism for countless unpolemical minds, with a force that strongly suggests it is rooted in our underlying bond with the natural world, and that culture is being trumped by instinct. That is certainly the case with me.

and only then will you find your way home,

"I do not care a fig that modernism may have cast beauty aside, and that the legacy of that rejection may be with us today; to me, the beauty of the natural world retains its joy-giving power and its importance undiminished by artistic, cultural or philosophical fashion -- indeed, its importance is increased immeasurably by the fact that now it is mortally threatened."

pockets full of faery gold that has turned into leaves. And sorrow. And poems.

Pictures: Winter, spring, and winter again on our Devon hillside. Words: The passage quoted above is from The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy by Michael McCarthy (New York Review of Books edition, 2015), which I highly recommend. All rights reserved by the author. The little poem/tale in the picture captions today is mine. 


Bearing witness

Grazing

This quote from Terry Tempest Williams has particular resonance for me today, with the world on fire in so many different ways:

"I've been thinking about what it means to bear witness. The past ten years I've been bearing witness to death, bearing witness to women I love, and bearing witness to the [nuclear] testing going on in the Nevada desert. I've been bearing witness to bombing runs on the edge of the Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge, bearing witness to the burning of yew trees and their healing secrets in slash piles in the Pacific Northwest and thinking this is not so unlike the burning of witches, who also held knowledge of heading within their bones. I've been bearing witness to traplines of coyotes being poisoned by the Animal Damage Control. And I've been bearing witness to beauty, beauty that strikes a chord so deep you can't stop the tears from flowing. At places as astonishing as Mono Lake, where I've stood knee-deep in salt-water to watch the fresh water of Lee Vining Creek flow over the top like water on vinegar. It's the space of angels.... 

"Bearing witness to both the beauty and pain of our world is a task that I want to be part of. As a writer, this is my work. By bearing witness, the story that is told can provide a healing ground. Through the art of language, the art of story, alchemy can occur. And if we choose to turn our backs, we've walked away from what it means to be human."

Grazing 2

Grazing 3

In a later interview, Williams was asked how she found her voice as a writer. It was, she said,

"when I crossed the line at the Nevada Test Site in 1988. It was one year after my mother died. It was one year before my grandmother would die, and I found myself the matriarch of my family at thirty. With the death of my mother, grandmothers, and aunts -- nine women in my family have all had mastectomies, seven are dead -- you reach a point when you think, 'What do I have to lose?' and you become fearless. When I crossed that line at the Nevada Test Site as an act of protest because the United States government was still testing nuclear bombs in the desert -- it was a gesture on behalf of the Clan of the One-Breasted Women -- my mother, my grandmothers, my aunts. And I didn’t do it alone. I was with hundreds of other women who had suffered losses in Utah as a result of atomic testing, as a result of our nuclear legacy in the West. I crossed that line with Jesuit priests, with Shoshone elders, with native people who had also lost lives because of the radiation fallout in the Shivwits’ lands.

"It goes back to community. I first heard my voice when my friend David Quammen said, 'Tell me how you are.' And I looked at him and I said, 'David, I belong to a Clan of One-Breasted Women.' That was the first time I had uttered that phrase that ultimately changed my perception of the women in my family. Suddenly, I saw them as warriors, not victims. I think it’s in our conversations that we hear something come out of our mouths that we didn’t know we believed. I think in the name of community we find our voices when we take stands that we didn’t know we had the courage to take.

Grazing 4

"I have found my voice on the page repeatedly when a question seized my throat and would not allow me to sleep. But I have to tell you -- I have to re-find my voice every time I pick up my pencil. It’s usually out of love or loss or anger. And the question then becomes: how do we take our anger and turn it into sacred rage and find a language that opens hearts rather than closes them?"

That is the question indeed. 

Grazing 5

Grazing 6

Words: The first quote above is from Derrick Jensen's interview with Terry Tempest Williams in Listening to the Land: Conversations about Nature, Culture, and Eros (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2000). The second quote is from Devon Fredericksen's interview with Williams in Guernica Magazine ("Grounding Truth," August 1, 2013). The poem in the picture captions is from All of It Singing by Linda Gregg (Greywolf Press, 2008).  All rights reserved by the authors. Many thanks to my friend Susan Harley for reminding me of these passages today.

Pictures: Dartmoor ponies (and a certain black hound) grazing on the rain-soaked grass of our village Commons. 


Dark Beauty

Solitude by Andrea Kowch

Here's another post reprinted by request during a tense election week here in the UK, impeachment hearings in the US, strife and hardship around the world, and climate crisis roaring down the track at us all. I'll return to new posts tomorrow; but today, one last journey into the dark....

Having grown up amidst violence and ugliness, I have long dedicated my life to kindness, compassion and beauty: three old-fashioned ideals that I truly believe keep the globe spinning in its right orbit. William Morris, artist and socialist, considered beauty to be as essential as bread in everyone's life, rich and poor alike. It is one of the truths that I live by. Beauty in this context, of course, is not the shallow glamor peddled by the advertising industry; it's a quality of harmony, balance and interrelationship: physical, emotional, and spiritual all at once. The Diné (Navajo) called this quality hózhǫ́, embodied in this simple, powerful prayer: With beauty before me may I walk. With beauty behind me may I walk. With beauty below me may I walk. With beauty above me may I walk. With beauty all around me may I walk.

We are living through a time when dark, violent forces have been released, encouraged, and applified, on both sides of the Atlantic: by Trump in America, by the Johnson-Cummings team here, and too many others eager to extend its reach. I contend that in the face of such ugliness we need the beacon of light that is beauty more than ever -- and I hold this belief as someone who has not lead a sheltered life, nor is unaware of the true cost of violence on body and soul. It is because of the scars that I carry that I know that beauty, and art, and story, are not luxuries. They are bread. They are water. They sustain us.

Andrea Kowch

Soiree by Andrea Kowch

And yet, like many of the writers and artists I know, I too have been struggling with how to move forward: not because I question the value of the work that we're doing here in the Mythic Arts/Fantasy Literature field, but because public discussion, on Left and Right alike, has become so dogmatic, so scolding and contentious, and so mired in black-and-white thinking. In such an atmosphere, nuance and complexity sink like stones; and the idea that there are things that still matter in addition to our political and ecological crisis is damned in some quarters as trivial, escapist, or the realm of the privileged: labels which I do not accept.

47037752238356cced089bb59f5d9ae5Here on Myth & Moor, I advocate for the creation of lives rich in beauty, nature, art, and reflection -- but this is by no means a rejection of engagement, action, and fighting like hell against facism. Myth speaks in a language of paradox, and so all of us who work with myth are capable of holding seemingly opposite truths in balance: We'll fight and retreat. We'll cry loudly for justice (in our various ways) and we'll have times of soul-healing silence. We'll look ugliness directly in the face, unflinching, and we will walk in beauty.

"Beauty is not all brightness," wrote the late Irish poet/philosopher John O'Donohue. "In the shadowlands of pain and despair we find slow, dark beauty. The primeval conversation between darkness and beauty is not audible to the human ear and the threshold where they engage each other is not visible to the eye. Yet at the deepest core they seem to be at work with each other. The guiding intuition of our exploration suggests that beauty is never one-dimensional or one-sided. This is why even in awful circumstances we can still meet beauty. A simple instance of this is fire. Though it may be causing huge destruction, in itself, as dance and color of flame, fire can be beautiful. In human confusion and brokeness there is often a slow beauty present and at work.

Flame by Andrea Kowch

"The beauty that emerges from woundedness," O'Donohue noted, "is a beauty infused with feeling: a beauty different from the beauty of landscape and the cold beauty of perfect form. This is a beauty that has suffered its way through the ache of desolation until the words or music emerged to equal the hunger and desperation at its heart....

Runaway by Andrea Kowch

"The luminous beauty of great art so often issues from the deepest, darkest wounding. We always seem to visualize a wound as a sore, a tear on the skin's surface.  The protective outer layer is broken and the sensitive interior is invaded and torn. Perhaps there is another way to imagine a wound. It is the place where the sealed surface that keeps the interior hidden is broken. A wound is also, therefore, a breakage that lets in light and a sore place where much of the hidden pain of a body surfaces."

Light Keepers by Andrea Kowch

"Where woundedness can be refined into beauty," he adds, "a wonderful transfiguration takes place. For instance, compassion is one of the most beautiful presences a person can bring to the world and most compassion is born from one's own woundedness. When you have felt deep emotional pain and hurt, you are able to imagine what the pain of another is like; their suffering touches you. This is the most decisive and vital threshold in human experience and behavior. The greatest evil and destruction arises when people are unable to feel compassion. The beauty of compassion continues to shelter and save our world. If that beauty were quenched, there would be nothing between us and the end-darkness which would pour in torrents over us."

So please, fellow artists and art lovers, keep seeking out, spreading, and making beauty. Don't stop. We all need you. I need you.

Rural Sisters II by Andrea Kowch

Andrea Kowch

The art today is by Andrea Kowch, an award-winning American painter based in Michigan. Kowch finds inspiration in the emotions and experiences of daily life in the rural Midwest -- resulting, she says, in "narrative, allegorical imagery that illustrates the parallels between human experience and the mysteries of the natural world. The lonely, desolate American landscape encompassing the paintings’ subjects serves as an exploration of nature’s sacredness and a reflection of the human soul, symbolizing all things powerful, fragile, and eternal. Real yet dreamlike scenarios transform personal ideas into universal metaphors for the human condition, all retaining a sense of vagueness to encourage dialogue between art and viewer.”

Reunion by Andrea Kowch

Andrea Kowch

The passage above is from Beauty: The Invisible Embrace by John O'Donohue (HarperCollins, 2004), all rights reserved by the author's estate. All rights to the art reserved by Andrea Kowch.


Life as kintsugi

kintsugi

In her beautiful little book Broken Spaces & Outer Spaces: Finding Creativity in the Unexpected, Nnedi Okorafor writes about how she found her vocation as an author of African-based science fiction and fantasy. She'd gone to university intending to focus on science and athletics, until a shattering experience took her down another path completely:

"Ultimately, I lost my faith in science after an operation left me paralyzed from the waist down. It took years, but battling through my paralysis was the very thing that ignited my passion for storytelling and the transformative power of the imagination. And returning to Nigeria brought me back around to the sciences through science fiction, for those family trips to Nigeria were where and why I started wondering and then dreaming about the effects of technology and where it would take us in the future.

"This series of openings and awakenings led me to a profound realization: What we perceive as limitations have the power to become strengths greater than what we had when we were 'normal' or unbroken. In much of science fiction, when something breaks, something greater often emerges from the cracks. This is a philosophy that positions our toughest experiences not as barriers, but as doorways, and may be the key to us becoming our truest selves.

kintsugi

"In Japan there is an art form called kintsugi, which means 'golden joinery,' to repair something with gold. It treats breaks and repairs as part of an object's history. In kintsugi, you don't merely fix what's broken, you repair the total object. In doing so, you transform what you have fixed into something more beautiful than it previously was. This is the philosophy that I came to understand was central to my life. Because in order to really live life, you must live life. And that is rarely achieved without cracks along the way. There is often a sentiment that we must remain new, unscathed, unscarred, but in order to do this, you must never leave home, never experience, never risk or be harmed, and thus never grow."

kintsugi

This passage from Nnedi's brave, wise book spoke to me especially, for I have long believed in living my life as a form of kintsugi. I, too, carry numerous scars, both physical and psychological, but I think of them as ribbons of gold. To be broken and then to be repaired, or to repair ourselves, can be a very powerful source of art. Of beauty. Of strength. Even of joy.

kintsugi

To read more about kintsugi, here's a previous post: The beauty of brokeness.

In a similar vein I recommend The Jagged, Gilded Script of Scars by American essayist Alice Driver, and the late Irish poet John O'Donohue on The art of vulnerability.

kintsugi

kintsugi

The passage quoted above is from Broken Places & Outer Spaces by Nnedi Okorafor (TED Books/Simon & Schuster, 2019), which is highly recommended. Many thanks to Stephanie Burgis for recommending it. The poem in the picture captions is from Facts About the Moon by Dorianne Laux (W.W. Norton & Co, 2007). All rights reserved by the authors.