On fairy tales old and new

Honeycomb illustration by Charles Vess

"I shall never know which good fairy it was who, at my own christening, gave me the everlasting gift, spotless amid all spotted joys, of love for the fairy tale. It began in me quite early, before there was any separation between myself and the world. Eve's apple had not yet been eaten; every bird had an emperor to sing to and any passing beetle or ant might be a prince in disguise....Perhaps we are born knowing the tales, for our grandmothers and all their ancestral kin continually run about in our blood repeating them endlessly, and the shock they give us when we first hear them is not of surprise but of recognition. Things long unknowingly known have suddenly been remembered. Later, like streams, they run underground. For a while they disappear and we lose them. We are busy, instead, with our personal myth in which the real is turned to dream and the dream becomes the real. Sifting this is a long process. It may perhaps take a lifetime and the few who come around to the tales again are those who are in luck."

- P.L. Travers (About the Sleeping Beauty)

"The fairy tale, which to this day is the first tutor of children because it was once the first tutor of mankind, secretly lives on in the story. The first true storyteller is, and will continue to be, the teller of fairy tales. Whenever good counsel was at a premium, the fairy tale had it, and where the need was greatest, its aid was nearest. This need was created by myth. The fairy tale tells us of the earliest arrangements that mankind made to shake off the nightmare which myth had placed upon its chest."

Walter Benjamin ("The Storyteller," Illuminations)

Honeycomb illustrations by Charles Vess

"The great archetypal stories provide a framework or model for an individual's belief system. They are, in Isak Dinesen's marvelous expression, 'a serious statement of our existence.' The stories and tales handed down to us from the cultures that proceded us were the most serious, succinct expressions of the accumulated wisdom of those cultures. They were created in a symbolic, metaphoric story language and then honed by centuries of tongue-polishing to a crystalline perfection. And if we deny our children their cultural, historic heritage, their birthright to these stories, what then? Instead of creating men and women who have a grasp of literary allusion and symbolic language, and a metaphorical tool for dealing with the problems of life, we will be forming stunted boys and girls who speak only a barren language, a language that accurately reflects their equally barren minds. Language helps develop life as surely as it reflects life. It is the most important part of the human condition."

- Jane Yolen (Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie & Folklore in the Literature of Childhood)

"The reason why fairy tales last is because they allow us to gaze at ourselves through a glass that is at once transparent and reflective. They give us a double gaze to see ourselves from the inside out and the outside in, and they exaggerate our roles just enough to bring into focus the little pieces of monster that grow on our hearts."

- Sabrina Orah Mark ("The Evil Stepmother," Paris Review)

Honeycomb illustration by Charles Vess

"Raised as I was on the darkest, grimmest of Grimm’s fairy tales, I’ve always been very much aware of the dual nature of the world depicted in folklore and story. For every happy ending, there is an equally tragic one; children left to die in the woods; lovers parted forever; villains with their eyes pecked out by crows, or burnt alive; or hanged. Fairytale is a world away from the comfortable assurances of the Disney franchise -- and surely that was the purpose of those original fairy tales, devised as they were for an audience comprising mostly of adults; often very poor; people whose lives were cruel and harsh, and who would never -- even in fiction ---have accepted to believe in a world in which the shadows did not at least occasionally rival the light."

- Joanne Harris ("Fairy Tale Reflections #27," Seven Miles of Steel Thistles)

"If you read fairy tales carefully, you’ll notice they are mostly about people who aren’t heroes. They don’t have special powers, or gifts. Often they are despised as stupid. They are bullied, beaten up, robbed, starved. But they find they are stronger than their misfortunes."

- Amanda Craig (In a Dark Wood)

Honeycomb illustration by Charles Vess

"This is the thing about fairy tales: You have to live through them before you get to happily ever after. That ever after has to be earned, and not everyone makes it that far."

- Kat Howard (Roses and Rot)

"People who’ve never read fairy tales have a harder time coping in life than the people who have. They don’t have access to all the lessons that can be learned from the journeys through the dark woods and the kindness of strangers treated decently, the knowledge that can be gained from the company and example of Donkeyskins and cats wearing boots and steadfast tin soldiers. I’m not talking about in-your-face lessons, but more subtle ones. The kind that seep up from your sub-conscious and give you moral and humane structures for your life. That teach you how to prevail, and trust. And maybe even love."

- Charles de Lint (The Onion Girl)

Honeycomb illustration by Charles Vess

''It’s no coincidence that just at this point in our insight into our mysteriousness as human beings struggling towards compassion, we are also moving into an awakened interest in the language of myth and fairy tale. The language of logical arguments, of proofs, is the language of the limited self we know and can manipulate. But the language of parable and poetry, of storytelling, moves from the imprisoned language of the provable into the freed language of what I must, for lack of another word, continue to call faith.''

- Madeleine L’Engle (A Circle of Quiet)

"It is through beauty, poetry and visionary power that the world will be renewed."

- fairy tale scholar Maria Tatar

Honeycomb illustration by Charles Vess

The art today is from Honeycomb, an unusual and thoroughly enchanting "mosaic novel" by Joanne Harris, with gorgeous illustrations by Charles Vess. The book, Harris explains, began like this:

Honeycomb illustration by Charles Vess"Ten years ago, I started writing little stories on Twitter. I don't know why I did this, except that Twitter seemed to me to be the right places for stories, and because I felt those stories were for telling, not writing. Some stories take life from the fact that they have an audience right there, ready to comment and react, and Twitter gave me that audience. It also gave a context to some of my stories -- which seemed at first to be fairy tales, but which were also drawn from the world of current events and politics. And as time went by, people began to request more news of their favourite characters, and I began to realize that I was creating something like a new oral tradition: a new medium for folklore. And interlinked series of stories, all set in the same honeycomb universe as The Gospel of Loki and Orfeia, with an overarching storyline about love, magic, the power of story and the request for redemption."

It's a deeply magical honeycomb of stories, an exquisitely beautiful volume, and a fascinating evolution of the fairy tale form.

Honeycomb by Joanne Harris & Charles Vess

The art above, by Charles Vess, consists of full illustrations and painting details for Honeycomb by Joanne Harris (Gollancz UK, 2021). The title of each piece can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) All rights to art and text in this post reserved by the artist and authors.


Come into animal presence

Encounter with a Bear by Kristin Bjornerud

Ever since humans have lived upon earth, writes Lyanda Lynn Haupt,

"we have made our homes and conducted our movements in proximity to other animals. The more prominent our enclosed modern dwellings, encapsulated modes of transportation, indoor workplaces, and every-present technology become in everyday life, the more we are separated from the presence of other animals who have always been a part of human life-making. The beloved domestic dogs and cats who share our homes are a delight, but no substitution for time alert to the vivid intricacy of wild visitations and interactions. 

"We are experiencing now an isolation named species loneliness by Michael Vincent McGinnis in a 1993 paper for Environmental Ethics. In his book Our Wild Calling, Richard Louv describes this modern human condition as 'a desperate hunger for connection with other life....All of us are meant to live in a larger community, an extended family of other species.' Without this, a number of pathologies grow within us and 'the family of humans loses comfort, companionship, and perhaps even the sense of higher power, however one defines it.' Animals, too, have evolved with humans among them -- and this distant relationship in which we currently live may be an incalculable, unknowable loss to them as well."

Caterwauling by Kristin Bjornerud

Communication between animals and humans, notes Jay Griffiths,

"is a fixture of science and has led to curious discoveries: dolphins communicating with humans will modulate the pitch of their calls to stay within the realm of human hearing; orangutans will modify their gestural signals according to the comprehension of their human audience. 

"Such unfeigned communication, unbuyable and uncommandable, delights us as if they the unfallen were in that moment inviting us to step across, right through the curtain into the Dreaming. 'Everything has and tells a story. Everything communicates, through its own language and its own Law,' say Indigenous Australian Yolngu people from Bakawa in north-east Armhem Land. Indigenous cultures have kept faith with the animals as part of what it means to belong, and the world is larger and more vivid when animals and birds and insects are imbued with spirit and significance, when there is Mind of unknowable diversity, elastic and ecstatic, until the very air is electric with Message and there are more stories than stars.

Exile by by Kristin Bjornerud

Conjuration by An Oath by Kristin Bjornerud

"The communication between animals and humans is sometimes a terrible reproach. While elephants in captivity can speak human words, wild elephants have a word for 'human being' and, points out animal philosopher Eva Meijir, in Animal Languages, it indicates 'danger.' I have always wanted to hear a koala call. I have never wanted to hear one cry for help, its fur singed, its paws and nose burned, crying little bleats of bewilderment, and whimpering with pain in the arms of the Australian woman who rescued it from one of the bushfires caused by the climate crisis. Something in me died that day, and I am not alone. We need their well-being, their voice, their happiness, their life.

In Your Skin by Kristin Bjornerud

"When other creatures speak to us, a breach feels healed into wholeness, wellness. Worldwide, shamanic lore has included the art of shapeshifting; these animal transformations are often treated as fact without much analysis but the revelation to me is that healing, whether individual or social, is thought to come about through animal mind. Animals are the Healers, if we would but let them. This is physically true, as we know that, for example, heart surgery patients recover more quickly if they have a cat on their bed. Dogs can detect certain cancers through their heightened sense of smell and some dogs are now being trained to detect Covid-19. Emotionally, animals are the first-responders for the human heart, and eschewing the natural world is life-denying, refusing its most potent medicine: vitality.

"Vitality is at the heart of healing traditions: acupuncture or yoga, the concepts of Chinese Chi or Indian Prana, the life force in flow. It is among the five 'character strengths' most correlated with happiness, according to The Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, the others being curiosity, optimism, gratitude and the ability to love and be loved. Vitality means living in vividness, alert, the senses picking up everything. It is the embodiment of life, keener and more alive. It is a core strength and not necessarily correlated with age: an eighty-year-old can be elastic with vitality. It is zest, enthusiasm, energy: sheer sap-rising, the very quick of life....Vitality is the aspect of human happiness that is most keenly associated with natural connection, as natural environments improve emotional functioning and attention. To notice, to attend the world, to be alive to its co-vitalizing, amounts to biophilia, the term used by biologist and naturalist Edward O. Wilson to describe that lovely innate quality of life loving life, and the particular kind of energy it offers is that shining momentness that, in the Homeric world, surrounds the gods: energeia. It is intense presence, wildness incarnate. In this sense, wild animals are the gods still walking -- swimming, tumbling, climbing, pouncing -- in the world."

Tiger by Kristin Bjornerud

The passages above are from Lyanda Lynn Haupt's new book Roots: Life at the Crossroads of Science, Nature, and Spirit, and Jay Griffiths new book, Why Rebel. Both are highly recommended. The title of today's post is taken from Denise Levertov's classic poem "Come into animal presence," which you can read here. For animal and human relationships from a folklore point of view, see "The Speech of Animals" and "Married to Magic: Animal Brides and Bridegrooms." 

Breathing Space by Kristin Bjornerud

Beneath by Kristin Bjornerud

The images today are by Canadian artist Kristin Bjornerud, who was born in Alberta, studied at the Universities of Lethbridge and Saskatchewan, and is now based in Montreal. She's received grants from the Canada Council for the Arts, the Saskatchewan Arts Board, the Ontario Arts Council and the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec. Her work has been exhibited nationally and is represented in numerous public collections

"My watercolour and gouache paintings," Bjornerud writes, "explore contemporary political themes, ecological motifs, and personal narratives through the lens of folktales, dreams, and magical realism. In these delicately painted tableaus, a world is revealed wherein dream logic pervades, where women swim with narwhals and vivify hand-knit fauna. These eccentric landscapes are uncanny projections of a possible world where familiar activities are imbued with a mythic quality while, at the same time, extraordinary deeds are carried out with unruffled poise by proud, unconventional heroines.

"My aim is to create contemporary fairy tales that act as a medium through which we may consider our ethical obligations to the natural world and to each other. Retelling and reshaping stories helps us to understand how we are entangled, where we meet, and how our differences may be viewed as disguises of our sameness."

Please visit the artist's website to see more of her wonderful work.

When You Were Wild by Kristen Bjornerud

The titles of the artworks by Kristen Bjornerud above (top to bottom) are: Encounter With a Bear, Caterwauling, Exile, Conjuration, In Your Skin, Tiger, Breathing Space, Beneath, and When You Were Wild. All rights reserved by the artist. The text quoted above is from Roots by Lynanda Lynn Haupt (Little, Brown Spark, 2021) and Why Rebel by Jay Griffiths (Penguin/Random House, 2021). All rights reserved by the authors.

A few other posts on animal/human relationships: Kissing the lion's nose, Keeping the world alive, The blessing of otters, Liam Henegan's Beasts at Bedtime, The animal helpers of T.H. White, and Wild Neighbours.


The language of loss and love

Old Oak 1

In her splendid little book Why Rebel, Jay Griffiths despairs of the way we commonly tell the story of climate crisis, noting how it distances us from the urgency and enormity of the ecological devastation unfolding around us. She writes:

Night Owl in the Woods by HJ Ford"The language we use for this is itself deadly. The mass of ocean writing is a heap of broken plastic words: stock, fisheries, industry, off-shore, tonnage, commercial fleets, sea cages, fish farms, subsidies. Through the language it is hard to see the ocean's true nature, whose vitality needs to be rendered as beautiful as iridescence itself. We speak of an 'extinction event' or 'species decline' because of 'intensive agriculture.' These are lifeless phrases. How easily the eye bypasses them. They are words of tarmac and traffic, not the lovely writhy ivy words of the woods. 

"I cannot touch or taste terms like 'habitat loss' or 'pollution' because they are unbeloved words which carry within themselves the toxicity of lifelessness. Humans, we are told, need insects for 'the function and services they provide.' Cold language, cold as coins on corpse eyes, cold as the philosophy that put us here. Words of heart are needed.

The Lion Falls in Love by H.J. Ford"There is a new word in the air: defaunation: the loss of absolute animalness. Defaunation includes the loss of individuals and the loss of abundance. Defaunation, argue researchers in Science magazine, should be as familiar and influential as the word 'deforestation.' Another term for the loss of the world's wild fauna is 'biological annihilation.'

"Please tell me you understand the immensity of this. And if you don't, please think, alone and quietly perhaps, of the unfolding ending. Let me speak simply into the simplicity of your heart, then, and let me just ask you what you love, what makes you happy.

"Is it a child? Is it your partner? Do you love your friend or, Little Prince, do you love your rose? Do you love your dog, your cats, your church, your home, your garden? Your books, perhaps, or the poetry you make, or the music? The meaning you have made of your life, maybe, your health, status, honour or all of these? And this love, then, this happiness that you hold so dear, tell me how it will even exist without the tiniest of beings, the insects, against which we have been so pitiless? Without the insects for the food and the flowers and the soil?"

Why Rebel by Jay Griffiths

Old Oak 7

Red Campion

Barry Lopez is another writer who entwined the language of loss with the language of love in his remarkable and influential books, which changed the way that many of us viewed the world and our place within it. In his essay "Love in a Time of Terror," published shortly before he died (in January), he wrote:

Storks and Pelicans by Helen Stratton"Evidence of the failure to love is everywhere around us. To contemplate what it is to love today brings us up against reefs of darkness and walls of despair. If we are to manage the havoc -- ocean acidification, corporate malfeasance and government corruption, endless war -- we have to reimagine what it means to live lives that matter, or we will only continue to push on with the unwarranted hope that things will work out. We need to step into a deeper conversation about enchantment and agape, and to actively explore a greater capacity to love other humans. The old ideas -- the crushing immorality of maintaining the nation-state, the life-destroying belief that to care for others is to be weak, and that to be generous is to be foolish -- can have no future with us.

"It is more important now to be in love than to be in power. It is more important to bring E. O. Wilson’s biophilia into our daily conversations than it is to remain compliant in a time of extinction, ethnic cleansing, and rising seas. It is more important to live for the possibilities that lie ahead than to die in despair over what has been lost.

The Lion and the King by HJ Ford"Only an ignoramus can imagine now that pollinating insects, migratory birds, and pelagic fish can depart our company and that we will survive because we know how to make tools. Only the misled can insist that heaven awaits the righteous while they watch the fires on Earth consume the only heaven we have ever known....In this trembling moment, with light armor under several  flags rolling across northern Syria, with civilians beaten to death in the streets of Occupied Palestine, with fires roaring across the vineyards of California, and forests being felled to ensure more space for development, with student loans from profiteers breaking the backs of the young, and with Niagaras of water falling into the oceans from every sector of Greenland, in this moment, is it still possible to face the gathering darkness, and say to the physical Earth, and to all its creatures, including ourselves, fiercely and without embarrassment, I love you, and to embrace fearlessly the burning world?"

Old Oak 2

Griffiths and Lopez, of course, are not the only writers urging us to pay attention to the language we use when speaking of the more-than-human world. In previous posts, Robin Wall Kimmerer explained how the "grammar of animacy" can foster more respectful relationships with plants and animals; Lyanda Lynn Haupt reflected on the language of inter-species communion; David Abram argued that our conception of language itself as a purely human gift is much too limited; John O'Donohue spoke of animals and compassion from a Celtic point of view;  N. Scott Momaday reminded us that speech itself is an ancient form of magic ... and there are so many others (fiction writers, poets, mythologists and storytellers included) who are working to re-enchant our words, re-wild our stories, and re-imagine our place in the living world.

Barry Lopez asks: Is there still time, and is this still possible? I have to believe it is. The great work of loving, of rebelling, and of storytelling carries on. It has only just begun.

Old Oak 8

The piskie flower

Words: The passages quoted above are from Why Rebel by Jay Griffiths (Penguin/Random House, 2021) and "Love in a Time of Terror" by Barry Lopez (Literary Hub, August 7, 2020); all rights reserved by the authors. Lopez's last published book was Horizon (Vintage, 2019), which I highly recommend. You can read a post about it here.

Pictures: The fairy tale illustrations today are by H.J. Ford (1860-1941) and Helen Stratton (1867-1961).


Recommended Reading: Mary Oliver on the art of rooting

Bluebells and oak

After our discussion on "rooting" last week, I was reminded of "Home" by Mary Oliver, published in her wise and lovely collection Long Life: Essays and Other Writings. Here Oliver writes about the homely, undramatic landscapes that we come to know in an intimate way by living in them day after day, year after year, season after season -- a means of rooting that is slow, patient, and deep. I'm thinking now of my own patch of ground: the small woodland behind my studio and the rise of Nattadon Hill beyond, whose modest beauties are illuminated by my steady relationship with them.

I walk these paths nearly every day: I know the trees and the stones in all kinds of weather; I know where the sicklewort grows, and the Cuckoo Pints; I know where the badger setts are, where the owls come to roost. I grieve when storms damage the stalwart old oaks and celebrate when the bluebells return. All this makes the hillside dear to me, but one needn't live in the countryside to value the physical world we live in -- including the good green lungs of our cities, the raffish edgelands between country and town, and those blessed pockets of wilderness that break through in even the tamest of suburbs. We are all affected by the land that we live on (for good or for ill), if not always properly attentive to that soul-deep connection.

In the following passage from Oliver's essay, she speaks of the way her own familiar landscape, on the north-east coast of America, shaped her psyche and creative work:

Fairy tale ollustration by Helen Stratton"A certain lucent correspondence has served me, all my life, in the ongoing search for my deepest thoughts and feelings. It's the relationship of my own mind to landscape, to the physical world -- especially to the part of which, over the years, I have (and not casually) become intimate. It's no great piece of furniture in the universe -- no Niagara, or rainforest, or Sahara. Yet it is beautiful, and ripples in the weathers as lively as any outpouring from the Great Lakes.

"In its minor turns, and tinsels, and daily changes, this landscape seems actually intent on providing pleasures, as indeed it does; in its constancy, its inexorable obedience to laws I cannot begin to imagine much less understand, it is still a richer companion -- steady commentary against my own lesser moods -- my flightiness, my indifferences, my mind and heart absences.

"I mean, by such flightiness, something that feels unsatisfied at the center of my life -- that makes me shaky, fickle, inquisitive, and hungry. I could call it a longing for home and not be far wrong. Or I could call it a longing for whatever supercedes, if cannot pass through, understanding. Other words that come to mind: faith, grace, rest. In my outer appearance and life habits I hardly change -- there's never been a day that friends haven't been able to say, at a distance, 'There's Oliver, still standing around in the weeds. There she is, still scribbling in her notebook.' But at the center I am shaking, I am flashing like tinsel....

"Daily I walk out across my landscape, the same fields, the same woods, and the same pale beaches; I stand by the same blue and festive sea where the invisible winds, on late summer afternoons, are wound into huge, tense coils, and the waves put on their feathers and begin to leap shoreward, to their last screaming and throbbing landfall. Times beyond remembering I have seen such moments: summer falling to fall, to be followed by what will follow: winter again: count on it. Opulant and ornate world, because at its root, and its axis and its ocean bed, it swings through the universe quietly and certainly."

The Animal Guide

Bluebells and stitchwort

And on that land, she continues,

"I build a platform, and live upon it, and think my thoughts, and aim high. To rise, I must have a field to rise from. To deepen, I must have bedrock from which to descend. The constancy of the physical world, under its green and blue dyes, draws me toward a better, richer self, call it elevation (there is hardly an adequate word), where I might ascend a little -- where a gloss of spirit would mirror itself in worldly action. I don't mean just mild goodness. I mean feistiness too, the fires of human energy stoked; I mean a gladness vivacious enough to disarrange the sorrows of the world into something better....

"It is one of the great perils of our so-called civilized age that we do not acknowledge enough, or cherish enough, this connection between soul and landscape -- between our own best possibilities, and the view from our own windows. We need the world as much as it needs us, and we need it in privacy, intimacy, and surety."

The wildflower path

As I walk the paths of the hill and woods, over and over and over again, following after my bouncy black dog, I'm aware that I do need this place, this connection with something both older and larger than I am. My dreams are steeped in its spring wildflowers, its sheep covered hills and long days of rains; my art is shaped by rowan and oak, stitchwort and bluebells, bracken and birdsong. It's not the first or the only landscape I've loved. It will probably not be the last. But every day I walk on the hill...and look...and listen, paying attention.  I "stand around in the weeds" and scribble in a notebook. On good days, on bad days, I'm here. On the hill.

Rooted.

Fearing storms, but still standing.

bluebells

WPiskie flowers

Stories

The text quoted above is from Long Life: Essays and Other Writings by Mary Oliver (Da Capo Press, 2004). All rights reserved by the author's estate. The fairy tale illustration is by Helen Stratton (1867-1961).


Recommended Reading: The Art of Doing Nothing

Over Nattadon 1

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), is a book I found myself reading slowly, doling it out, because it presented so much food for thought. This is a very good read if you, like me, worry about the ways that life online, as valuable as it is in many respects, can erode our presence in the physical world, and our ability to concentrate. I should state straight out that Odell is not anti-technology, but believes in using it consciously and well. Her book is a useful text for all who are 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 Odell'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."

Over Nattadon 2

Over Nattadon 3

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.

Over Nattadon 4

She's 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?"

Over Nattadon 5

Bluebells in bracken

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.

"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."

Over Nattadon 6

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 my relationship to the attention economy has changed for the better since reading this provocative book.

Over Nattaton 7

How to Do Nothing

The passages above are from How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell (Melville House, 2019). The poem in the picture captions first appeared in Tin House (Winter, 2018). All rights reserved by the authors.