We are made for this

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Last month we discussed the divide between science and art, and the particular pleasure of  literary works inhabiting the edgelands between them -- such as nature writing, certain kinds of poetry, and fantasy fiction well-rooted in the magic of the natural world. (You can read that discussion running across three posts beginning here.)

Scott Russell Sanders is another writer, like Eva Saulitis and Alison Deming, who is equally at ease on both sides of the border. He came to his love of science after a church-and-bible childhood in rural Ohio, and both of these things have shaped his mind and his art. No longer Christian, he still finds value in the moral core of his religious upbringing, and plenty of scope for wonder and awe in the workings of the world around him.

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In his fine new collection The Way of the Imagination, Sanders writes:

"The study of science fosters a greatly expanded sense of kinship, one that stretches from the dirt under our feet to distant galaxies. Exploding supernovas produced the calcium in our bones and the iron in our blood, along with all the elements heavier than helium that make up our bodies, our built environment, and our rocky, watery globe. We are kin not merely to a tribe or nation, not merely to humankind, but through our genes and evolutionary history we are linked to all life on Earth, plants and fungi as well as animals. We are made for this planet, creatures among creatures....

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"What humans have learned about our world and ourselves is no doubt dwarfed by what we don't yet know, and may never know. Still, it's amazing that a short-lived creature on a dust-mote planet, circling an ordinary star near the edge of one among billions of galaxies, has managed to decipher so much about the workings of the universe. And the more we decipher, the more we realize that everything is connected to everything else, near and distant, living and nonliving, as mystics have long testified. The connectedness, this grand communion, is what I have come to think of as soul -- not my soul, as if I were a being apart, but the soul of Being itself, the whole of things.

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"I have abandoned the religious creed in which I first encountered words like soul, sacred, holy, reverence, divinity, and awe, but I refuse to abandon the words themselves. For they point to what is of ultimate value, what claims our deepest respect. As a writer, I wish to say that nature is sacred, deserving of reverence for its creativity, antiquity, majesty, and power. I wish to say that Earth is holy, precious, surpassingly beautiful and bountiful, deserving of our utmost care. Although our survival is at stake, an appeal to fear won't inspire such care, because fear is exhausting and selfish. Although we need wise environmental policies, laws alone will not elicit such care, nor will a sense of duty, shame, or guilt. Only love will. Only love will move us to act wisely and caringly, year upon year, our whole lives long."

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Any new book from Sanders is a cause for celebration, but The Way of the Imagination is especially wise (in its quiet, gentle way), and especially timely. I recommend it highly.

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The Way of the Imagination by Scott Russell Sanders

Words: The passage above is quoted from "A the Gates of Deep Darkness" by Scott Russell Sanders, published in The Way of the Imagination (Counterpoint, 2020). The poem in the picture captions is from Tin House (Winter, 2018). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: Down by the River Teign, early autumn.


Nature's gift to the walker

Dragonfly

Details from Unity by Marja Lee Kruyt

In To the River, Olivia Laing walks the River Ouse in Sussex from its source to the sea, mediating on its flora, fauna, history and literary associations along the way. This morning, as dragonflies hovered over the stream running past my studio, I re-read this passage from Laing's lovely book:

Unity by Marja Lee"It was a day of uplift. Everything was rising or poised to rise, the mating dragonflies crashing through the air, the meadow browns clipping sedately by....

"I was getting into one of those trances that come from walking far, when the feet and the blood seem to collide and harmonise. Funnily enough, Kenneth Grahame and Virginia Woolf both wrote in praise of these uncanny states, which they thought closely allied to the inspiration writing required. 'Nature's particular gift to the walker,' Grahame explained in a late essay, 'through the semi-mechanical act of walking -- a gift no other form of exercise seems to transmit in the same high degree -- is to set the mind jogging, to make it garrulous, exalted, a little mad maybe -- certainly creative and supra-sensitive, until at last it really seems to be outside you and as it were talking to you, while you are talking back to it.'

"As for Woolf, she wrote dreamily of chattering her books on the crest of the Downs, the words pouring from her as she strode, half-delirious, in the noon-day sun. She compared it to swimming or 'flying through the air; the current of sensations & ideas; & the slow, but fresh change of down, of road, of colour: all this is churned up into a fine sheet of perfect calm happiness. It's true I often painted the brightest of pictures on this sheet: & often talked out loud.' "

Chattering her prose. I do that too. Thank heavens there's only Tilly to hear me as we roam the hills on these bright summer days.

The beautiful artwork at the top of this post is by my dear friend and village neighbour Marja Lee. To learn more about her work, go here. The charming paintings below are illustrations for Kenneth Grahaeme's The Wind in the Willows and The Reluctant Dragon by Inga Moore, an Australian artist who now lives and works in England. To see more, go here.

To the River by Olivia Laing

Kenneth Grahaeme's The Wind in the Willows illustrated by Inga Moore

To the River by Olivia Laing

Kenneth Grahaeme's The Reluctant Dragon illustrated by Inga Moore

Chattering

The passages quoted above and in the picture captions are from To the River: A Journey Beneath the Surfaceby Olivia Laing (Canongate Books, 2011). All rights to the text and art in the post reserved by the author and artist.


Down by the river

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I've been out of the studio today for health reasons again -- not my own health this time, but Tilly's. She has an immune system condition that requires monthly injections, which is usually a simple affair -- but with our local vet centre closed during the Covid-19 lockdown, it requires a trip to another town and elaborate procedures to do it all safely. Our poor girl hates every minute of it, so her reward for being a Very Good Dog is a walk and swim in the River Teign. 

Tilly loves water in all of its forms: rivers, ponds, lakes, oceans, she plunges fearlessly into them all. And had the morning been just a little bit warmer, I would have been right behind her....

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"I am haunted by waters," writes Olivia Laing in her book To the River. "It may be that I’m too dry in myself, too English, or it may be simply that I’m susceptible to beauty, but I do not feel truly at ease on this earth unless there’s a river nearby. 'When it hurts,' wrote the Polish poet Czesław Miłosz, 'we return to the banks of certain rivers,' and I take comfort in his words, for there's a river I've returned to over and over again, in sickness and in health, in grief, in desolation and in joy."

For me, that river is the Teign, running from Dartmoor to the south Devon coast.

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"Everything in nature invites us to be constantly what we are," says American naturalist Gretel Ehrlich. "We are often like rivers: careless and forceful, timid and dangerous, lucid and muddied, eddying, gleaming, still. Lovers, farmers, and artists have one thing in common, at least -- a fear of 'dry spells,' dormant periods in which we do no blooming, internal droughts that only the waters of the imagination and psychic release can civilize. All such matters are delicate, of course. But a good irrigator knows this: too little water brings on the weeds while too much degrades the soil....In his journal Thoreau wrote, 'A man's life should be as fresh as a river. It should be the same channel but a new water every instant.' " 

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I'll be back in the studio tomorrow. Today, I am following the river...and a wet, happy hound.

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Erhlich & Laing

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The passages quoted above are from  To the River: A Journey Beneath the Surface by Olivia Laing (Canongate Books, 2011) and The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich (Penguin Books, 1985). The poem in the picture captions is from The Caged Owl: New & Selected Poems by Gregory Orr (Copper Canyon Press, 2002). All rights reserved by the authors.


Moving forward like water

Waterfall on Nattadon Hill

These words from Terry Tempest Williams' new book, Erosion, were written long before the global pandemic yet seem especially resonant right now:

"It is morning. I am mourning. And the river is before me. I am a writer without words who is struggling to find them. I am holding the balm of beauty, this river, this desert, so vulnerable, all of us. I am trying to shape my despair into some form of action, but for now, I am standing on the cold edge of grief."

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The wet, green landscape I live in now is a world away from the Utah desert where Williams makes her home, and yet these essays speak directly to my soul -- and not just because I'm a former desert-dweller. Erosion is a work of beauty, sorrow, joy, rage, and bottomless compassion. 

"Let us pause and listen and gather our strength with grace," she writes, "and move forward like water in all its manifestations: flat water, white water, rapids and eddies, and flood this country with an integrity of purpose and patience and persistence capable of cracking stone."

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Here on quiet hillside in Devon, as the springtime unfolds in all of its wonder and the pandemic rolls on in all of its horror, I've been finding strength in Williams' words, and also in the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. Plagued by poor health throughout his working life (eventually diagnosed as leukemia), Rilke knew a thing or two about living with the dark. He is a writer I keep returning to, at every stage of life, and he never fails me. Today it's this, from Sonnets to Orpheus, that is giving me courage:

Quiet friend who has come so far,

Helen Strattonfeel how your breathing makes more
  space around you.
Let this darkness be a bell tower
and you the bell. As you ring,

what batters you becomes your strength.
Move back and forth into the change.
What is it like, such intensity of pain?
If the drink is bitter, turn yourself to wine.

In this uncontainable night,
be the mystery at the crossroads of
  your senses,
the meaning discovered there.
And if the world has ceased to hear you,
say to the silent earth: I flow.
To the rushing water, speak: I am.

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Erosion

Water flow

Words: The Terry Tempest William quotes above and in the picture captions are from Erosion: Essays of Undoing (Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019). For a further taste of this exquisite book,  you can read one of William's essays online here. Please don't miss it. Rainer Maria Rilke's poem "Let This Darkness Be a Bell Tower" is from Sonnets to Orpheus: Book II, 29. This lovely translation is from In Praise of Mortality: Selections from Rilke's Duino Elegies & Sonnets, translated by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows (Echo Point Books, 2016). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: The drawing is by British illustrator Helen Stratton (1867-1961), who was born in India, trained in London, and spent much of her working life in London and Bath. The photographs are of the waterfall on our hill, swelled with rain.


'Lord, increase my bewilderment'

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From Jenn Ashworth's fascinating, challenging new book Notes Made While Falling (a memoir and cultural study of illness, trauma, and creativity):

"Zadie Smith, when writing about the work of her friend David Foster Wallace after his death, remarked on the way his writing was a gift -- not only in terms of a talent but one that he dispatched, like faith, into the void. She characterises the moment of giving -- of writing -- as 'the moment when the ego disappears and you're able to offer up your love as a gift without expectation of reward.' At the moment the gift hangs, like Federer's brilliant serve, between the one who sends and the one who receives, and reveals itself as belonging to neither. We have almost no words for this experience of giving. The one we do have is hopelessly degraded through misuse. The word is prayer.

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"The word prayer here very easily brings one towards precarity. 'Precarious' is related to the Latin adjective precaria, from precārius, 'obtained by prayer, given as a favour,' which relates to precari,  'to ask or beg for help.' It helps to remember that prayer is an entreaty, a request for both attention and care. If I understand anything about praying or writing, I have come to believe in a demythologised form of them both: a de-enchantment of prayer and a making magical of writing. Neither process is a way of conjuring or manipulating necessary care or favour from a separately existing power, but a practice which gently and gradually adjusts the self to the terrible truth of its own precarity -- to its own need of care."

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To do creative work in a failing body requires facing the precarity of ones life squarely, Ashworth argues:

"[and] to abandon the illusion that there's a future moment that can be striven to, or imagined, or drunk or eaten or earned or run or cut or dreamed towards. It means here. There's no cure for the chronic condition of human nature. These are the facts that I live with. I have always lived with them, but surrendering to them entirely is the thing that finally brings the fiction back: the will and capacity to imagine, the conditions of compassion and curiosity that are essential for inhabiting the mind of a sentence, a story, a fictional other. Still, I will always struggle, and I will probably always fail, to find a way to write fiction that honours these facts and does not attempt to decorate nor numb nor conceal them. Though now I've come to realise that writing itself unsticks me, when I let it.

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"It is a process that, when its hopeless difficulty is adequately surrendered to, dismantles all forms of expertise, specialism, and mastery. When I let the writing work, any carapace of teacherly or writerly authority swiftly dissolves into mere curiosity. It is a way of getting lost -- between disciplines and subject positions. It lets me do and be, make and consume, be alone and connected -- simultaneously. There is an ethical gentleness to writing: I get curious about what works, what's appropriate, and what helps, rather than what is right or wrong. When process and product, thinking and feeling, and making become entwined, I become more tolerant of ambiguity and confusion. At its best writing does not only allow me to try and report on what I have seen, experienced and felt of this confusing and painful world, but it expands my available range of seeing, experiencing and feeling.

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"It becomes something other than work, is what I'm saying. This type of not-work writing/praying -- a holidaying, a truancy, a way of loving -- is a move towards the type of implicated, uncontrolled seeking /paying -- that Fanny Howe identifies in her essay 'Bewilderment.' Not a technique of a method or a subject matter -- though all of these things too -- but mainly 'a way of entering the days as much as the work' -- a matter of ethics and politics as well as a matter of craft. There's a prayer in this too -- and Howe quotes it at the start of her essay, 'Lord, increase my bewilderment.'

"There's something reckless about this dislodging from certainty into fiction's possibility: a fall into love."

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Words: The passage above is from Notes Made While Falling by Jenn Ashworth (Goldsmiths Press, 2019). The poem in the picture captions is from Rose by Li-Young Lee (BOA Editions, 1986). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: The waterfall on our hill, swelled by autumn rain.