Listening to the Land

Pilgrimage for Nature

Listening to the Land is a "pilgrimage for nature" in which a core group of 30 people (artists, performers and storytellers among them) will be walking from London to Glasgow this autumn for the UN Conference on Climate Change.

Asset+3My husband, Howard, is one of those 30 pilgrims. He'll be setting off from London in early September, walking up the "spine of Albion," and arriving in Glasgow in early November -- an eight week journey covering roughly 500 miles. The group will be holding community meetings and giving creative workshops, talks, and performances in villages, towns, and cities along the way -- listening to the concerns of the people they meet, listening to the land itself, and weaving it all into a performance scheduled for presentation to the UN climate delegates on Monday, the 8th of November. 

Listening to the Land has received funding from Arts Council England, and backing from the National Trust, the British Pilgrimage Trust, the Wisdom Keepers, Seed Sisters and other organisations -- but it's a big project, and they need to raise an additional £4500 this summer. (It's heartening to see they are already half-way there.) If you can help with even a small donation, please visit their Crowdfunding page -- where you can also learn more about the project, and how to get involved in various ways.

Howard walking a labyrinth on Dartmoor

I'm delighted that Howard is doing this...and, I admit, a bit nervous too. It's a long, long journey, and England is in a dark place right now...but we need the light that collective art-making creates, and the subject could not be more urgent. Howard is no stranger to pilgrimage, having already traversed the Camino to Santiago de Compostela through the French and Spanish Pyrenees; and for many years he criss-crossed Europe with his Commedia troupe, so he's used to being on the road in one form or another. This time he'll be walking with colleagues from the Nomadic Academy of Fools, doing fooling practice and performance along the way. Nature, pilgrimage, foolery. How could he possibly miss it? 

I have a vested interest in seeing that the pilgrims are fed, so please chip in if you can. (No worries if you can't. It's been a hard year for many. Good wishes and prayers are equally welcome.) The fund-raiser runs for 16 more days.

And the walk itself begins dauntingly soon....

Howard and hound

Picture above: Howard and Tilly earlier this week. She's going to miss him so much this autumn, and so will I. But for such a good cause. 


The language of loss and love

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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

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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?"

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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.

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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: Rooted

Lost and Found in a Forgotten Land by Virginia Lee

American eco-philosopher Lyanda Lynn Haupt has written some of my favourite books exploring human relationships with our clawed and feathered neighbours (Mozart's Starling, Crow Planet, The Urban Bestiary, etc. ), so I've been eagerly awaiting her latest, Rooted: Life at the Crossroads of Science, Nature, and Spirit -- and what a lovely book it is. Haupt often weaves memoir into her nature writing, but Rooted is her most personal and poetic book yet: a paean to the more-than-human world and our intrinsic connection to it. 

In the Heart the Woodland Wakes by Virginia Lee

Rooted by Lyanda Lynn Haupt

Drawing on the work of botanist, biologists, artists, mystics, folklorists, and fellow nature writers (from Rachel Carson to Robin Wall Kimmerer, David Abram, and Sharon Blackie), she discusses issues of science, art, and faith to illuminate means of rooting ourselves in the land around us, whether we are native or immigrants, and whether our lives are urban, suburban, or rural. In a world with so many people on the move (likely to accelerate due to climate change), this is a discussion we need to be having. How do we root, and how do we re-root? What if we must re-root again and again? This book is a guide, full of good advice -- simple, practical, and effective. And for those who haven't yet read Carson, Kimmerer and the rest, Haupt provides an introduction that is warm, accessible, and inspiring.

She writes:

Miss Birch by Virginia Lee"In this time of planetary crisis, overwhelm is common. What to do? There is so much. Too much. No single human can work to save the orcas and protect the Amazon and organize anti-fracking protests and write poetry that inspires others to act and pray in a hermit's dwelling for transformation and get dinner on the table. How easy it is to feel paralyzed by obligations. How easy it is to feel lost and insignificant and unable to know what is best, to feel adrift while yearning for purpose. 

"Rootedness is a way of being in concert with the wilderness -- and wildness -- that sustains humans and all of life. The rooted pathways offered here are not meant as a definitive list but as waymarkers and fortifications for all of us seeking our unique, bewildering, awkward way through the essential question of how to live on our broken, imperiled, beloved earth. It is the question Thoreau asked. The one that Mary Oliver, who passed just before I wrote these words, has perhaps framed most beautifully: Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

"We all come to know our own lessons as they spring from the study of our households, our woodlands, our watching, our footprints, the trails of kindred wild ones that cross our paths. Our intelligent feet, our making hands, our listening ears. 

"The word rooted's own root is the Latin radix, the center from which all things germinate and rise. The radix is the radical -- the intrinsic, fervent heart of being and action. Rooted lives are radically intertwined with the vitality of the planet. In a time that evokes fear and paralaysis, rooted ways of being-in-nature assure us we are grounded in the natural world. Our bodies, our thoughts, our minds, our spirits are affected by the whole earthen community, and affect this whole in return. This is both a mystical sensibility and a scientific fact. It is an awareness that makes us tingle with its responsibility, its beauty, its poetry. It makes our lives our most foundational form of activism. It means everything we do matters, and matters wondrously.

"Amphibious, we wander at the singular, radical intersection of science, nature, and spirit. Here resides a multifaceted understanding of the interdependence of earthly life and the engaged activism that such an understanding inspires and requires. Here are the interwoven pathways of inward, wild stillness and outward, feral action. At this crossroads there is intelligence, and sacredness, and wildness, and grace."

All and all, I can report that this beautiful book was well worth the wait.

Detail from ''Once upon a tree, along a wandering path...'' by Virginia Lee

The art today is by my friend and neighbour Virginia Lee -- who is as deeply rooted in myth and the Dartmoor hills as any artist could be, and I couldn't admire her more.

"I use my own visual language," she says, "to explore themes of transformation and connection to nature, creating realms where deep aspects of the psyche are embodied in folkloric characters and revealed in the mythic landscape."

Nesting in Future Love's Embrace (sculpture) by Virginia Lee

Three Hares Tor by Virginia Lee

If you'd like to see more of her wondrous work, visit her website, Facebook page, or an article I wrote a while back: Mythic Landscapes: Virginia Lee. And please seek out her magical publications, including The Frog Bride, Persephone: A Journey from Winter to Spring, The Secret History of Mermaids, and The Enchanted Lenormand Oracle Deck.

Moor Maiden by Virginia Lee copy

Heart and Hearth by Hound Tor by Virginia Lee

The passage above is quoted from Rooted: Life at the Crossroads of Science, Nature, and Spirit by Lyanda Lynn Haupt (Little, Brown Spark, 2021); all rights reserved by the author. Posts on Haupt's previous book: Mozart, starlings, and the inspiration wind and Wild communion.

The paintings, drawings, and sculpture above are by Virginia Lee; all rights reserved by the artist. The titles are: Lost and Found in a Forgotten Land, In the Heart the Woodland Wakes, Miss Birch, a detail from "Once upon a tree, along a wandering path...", Nesting in Future Love's Embrace (sculpture), Three Hares Tor, Moor Maiden, and Heart & Hearth by Hound Tor.


Recommended reading: Why Rebel

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Jay Griffiths is one of a handful of writers that I more than admire, I am actively in awe of: writers whose work is so original and so damn good that I just don't know how they do it. Griffith's remarkable books (Wild, Kith, Pip Pip, and Tristimania especially) have stretched my mind, touched my heart, and taught me to perceive the world in new ways.  She's braver in her life and prose than I could ever be, and I love her for it.

Her latest publication, Why Rebel, is a small, slim volume of eleven essays published in the "Penguin Special" series. The essays are tied together by the central theme of love for the wild earth, with a clear-eyed look at the forces that undermine our ability to live soulfully and sustainably on this beautiful, ailing planet. I've had my copy for just two weeks and already it's dog-eared, coffee-stained, and scribbled with margin notes. (I carry it on my walks with Tilly, so it's speckled with rain, mud, and leaf-mulch too.)

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Griffith's essay "The Forests of the Mind" is one I keep returning to. Here, she discusses the poetic mindset of shamanism, its relationship to art, and the ways that the rise of literalism has eroded our understanding of metaphor, to our great cost. (This is something I've long been worried about too, and I'm glad I'm not the only one.) Shapeshifting, she says, is a metaphorical act performed by shamans and artists both:

Why Rebel by Jay Griffiths"It is part of the repertoire of the human mind, cousin to mimesis, empathy and Keats's 'negative capability,' known to poets and healers since the beginning of time, the beginning of mime. It did not have literal truth, quite obviously, but had 'slanted, metaphoric truth' -- the words I used, when the page was printed, to describe it.

"Shapeshifting is a transgressive experience, a crossing over: something flickers inside the psyche, a restless flame in a gust of wind, endlessly transformative. The mind moves from its literal pathways to its metaphoric flights. Art is made like this, from a volatile bewitchment of self-forgetting and an identification with something beyond. Out of this is born a conviviality with everything alive, the relationship acknowledged and the necessity of its protection vouchsafed....We are what we think, and we humans have a way to become other, in a necessary, wild and radical empathy.

"Shapeshifting involves a willingness to makes mimes in the mind, copying something else. Art, meanwhile, depends on mimesis furthering our desire to know and to understand. In a recent, Ovidian, dance piece, Swan, French dancers performed and danced with live swans, imitating the birds in a mime which alluded to the metamorphosis of all art, and to the artists' ability to lose themselves in order to mirror this something beyond.

" 'But we, when moved by deep feeling, evaporate; we breathe ourselves out and away,' wrote Rilke in his Second Elegy. In making art, the artist expires, breathing themselves out to allow the inspiring to happen, the breathing in of the glinting universal air, intelligent with many minds, electric and on the loose. Artist, shapeshifter, shaman or poet, all are lovers of metamorphosis, all are minded to vision, insight and dream. 

"Self-appointed shamanism can reek of cultural appropriation, but even in cultures that have temporarily misplaced their shamanism, the role survives, donning a deep disguise. Joseph Campbell and others believed that artists have taken up the role, and it seems to me that this is true for a particular reason, that both art and shamanism use the realm of metaphor, where emotion is expressed and healing happens. With the metaphoric vision, empathy flows, knowing no borders. Both artist and shaman create harmony within an individual and between the individual and the wider environment, a way of thinking essential for life; poetry works 'to renew life, to renew the poet's own life, and, by implication, renew the life of the people,' wrote Ted Hughes. But ours is an age of lethal literalism which viciously attacks metaphoric insight and all its value...."

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Bluebells

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Later in the essay she returns to the subject of metaphor:

Illustration by John D. Batten"If I were asked what is the greatest human gift, I would say it is metaphor. A little boat of metaphor chugs across the seas, carrying a cargo of meaning across the oceans that divide us. Metaphor is how we relate to each other and how our one species attempts to comprehend others. With this gift, humans listen and speak more intensely and the meanings of all things -- ocean or forest, snail or chaffinch -- grow outwards in concentric rings of concentrated word-poems. 'Each word was once a poem,' said Emerson, and 'language is fossil poetry.' So a tulip, for example, ultimately derives from the Turkish word for 'turban.'

"Metaphor works with the legerdemain of the psyche, the lightest of touched to shift the mindscape, transforming one thing into another, leading to new ways of seeing. Metaphor follows Emily Dickinson's injunction to 'tell the truth but tell it slant,' so, slantwise by Saturn-mind running rings around literalism, metaphor is canted incantation, it breathes fact into life, it enchants. And metaphor is the language of the shaman and the artist."

(You can read the full essay online here.)

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Pink stitchwort

In subsequent essays, Griffiths turns her gaze on animals, insects, the soil below and the sky above ... on the toxic ideas and forces that threaten them ... and on those courageous souls rebelling on their behalf.

Why Rebel is wise, and fierce, and heart-breaking, and well worth reading. It's good medicine.

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Why Rebel by Jay Griffiths

Words: The passages above are from Why Rebel by Jay Griffiths (Penguin/Random House, 2021). The poem in the picture captions is from The Woman Who Fell from the Sky by Joy Harjo (WW Norton, 1996). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Morning coffee break down by the leat. The little drawing is by John D. Batten, a fairy tale illustrator from Plymouth, Devon (1860-1932).

Posts discussing Jay Griffiths' previous books & essays include Finding the Way to the Green, The Enclosure of Childhood, Kissing the Lion's Nose, To the Rebel Soul in EveryoneDaily Grace, and Once upon a time.


The broader conversation

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Today, another passage from David Abram's Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology. Like Robin Wall Kimmerer (in last Thursday's post), David argues for a "language of animacy" to better reflect the interrelation between us and the natural world.  Our conception of language as a purely human gift is much too limited, he says:

Illustration by Honore Appleton"All things have the capacity for speech -- all beings have the ability to communicate something of themselves to other beings. Indeed, what is perception if not the experience of this gregarious, communicative power of things, wherein even ostensibly 'inert' objects radiate out of themselves, conveying their shapes, hues, and rhythms to other beings and to us, influencing and informing our breathing bodies though we stand far apart from those things? Not just animals and plants, then, but tumbling waterfalls and dry riverbeds, gusts of wind, compost piles and cumulous clouds....Our own chatter erupts in response to the abundant articulations of the world: human speech is simply our part of a much broader conversation.

"It follows that myriad things are also listening, or attending to various signs and gestures around them. Indeed, when we are at ease in our animal flesh, we will sometimes feel that we are being listened to, or sensed, by earthly surroundings. And so we take deeper care with our speaking, mindful that our sounds may carry more than a merely human meaning and resonance. This care -- this full-bodied alertness -- is the ancient ancestral source of all word magic. It is the practice of attention to the uncanny power that lives in our spoken phrases to touch and sometimes transform the tenor of the world's unfolding."

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The sense of inhabiting an articulate landscape, David notes,

What the Moon Saw by Helen Stratton"is common to indigenous, oral people on every continent. Like tribal people I've lived with elsewhere, most of my Pueblo friends here in the [American] Southwest are curiously taciturn and reserved when it comes to verbal speech. (When I'm with them I become painfully aware of how prolix I can be, prattling on about this and that for minutes on end.) Their reticence is not due to any lack of facility with English, for when they do speak their phrases have an uncommon precision and potency. It is a consequence, rather, of their habitual expectation that spoken words are heard, or sensed, by the other presences that surround. They talk, then, only when they have good reason to, choosing their words with great care so as not to offend, or insult, the other beings that might be listening....

"Few of us today feel any such constraints in our speaking. Human language, for us moderns, has swung in on itself, turning its back on the beings around us. Language is a human property, suitable only for communication with other persons. We talk to people; we do not talk to the ground underfoot. We've largely forgotten the incantatory and invocational use of speech as a way of bringing ourselves into deeper rapport with the beings around us, or of calling the living land into resonance with us. It is a power we still brush up against whenever we use our words to bless or to curse, or to charm someone we're drawn to. But we wield such eloquence only to sway other people, so we miss the greater magnetism, the gravitational power that lies within such speech. The beaver gliding across the pond, the fungus gripping a thick tree trunk, a boulder shattered by its tumble down a cliff or the rain splashing upon those granite fragments -- we talk about such beings, about the weather and the weathered stones, but we do not talk to them. Entranced by the denotive power of words to define, to order, to represent the things around us, we've overlooked the songful dimension of language so obvious to our oral ancestors. We've lost our ear for the music of language -- for the rhythmic, melodic layer of speech by which earthly things overhear us.

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Foal

"How monotonous our speaking becomes when we speak only to ourselves! And how insulting to other beings -- to foraging blackbears and twisted old cypresses -- that no longer sense us talking to them, but only about them, as though they were not present in our world. As though the clear-cut mountainside and the flooding creek had no sensations of their own -- as though they had no flesh by which to feel the vibrations of our speaking. Small wonder that rivers and forests no longer compel our focus or our fierce devotion. For we talk about such entities only behind their backs, as though they were not participant in our lives.

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"Yet if we no longer call out to the moon slipping between the clouds, or whisper to the spider setting the silken struts of her web, well, then the numerous powers of this world will no longer address us -- and if they still try, we will not likely hear them. They withdraw from our attentions, and soon refrain from encountering us when we're out wandering, or from visiting us in our dreams. We can no long avail ourselves of their perspectives or their guidance, and our human affairs suffer as a result. We become ever more forgetful in our relations with the rest of the biosphere, an obliviousness that cuts us off from ourselves, and from our deepest sources of sustenance."

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For further reading on this subject, see these previous posts: "The Language of the Animate Earth" and "The Logos of the Land (living, working, and writing fantasy while rooted in place)." I recommend both of David's books: The Spell of the Sensuous and Becoming Animal, his Alliance for Wild Ethics website, and Robin Wall Kimmerer's lovely essay The Language of Nature.

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Words: The passage quoted above is from Becoming Animal by David Abram (Pantheon Books, 2010). The poem in the picture captions is from Alive Together: New and Selected Poems by Lisel Mueller (Louisiana State University Press, 1996). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: The photographs are of Dartmoor ponies grazing at the bottom of our hill. They are semi-wild, coming down from the moor to give birth in our valley every spring. I counted six foals among the herd -- some of them bold and some of them shy -- plus plenty of pregnant mares, so there are still more foals to come. The ink drawings are by British book artists Honor Charlotte Appleton (1879-1951) and Helen Stratton (1867-1971).