From Barry Lopez's new book Horizon (which is breathtakingly good):
"I read daily about the many threats to human life -- chemical, political, biological, and economic. Much of this trouble, I believe, has been caused by the determination of some to define a human cultural world apart from the nonhuman world, or by people's attempts to overrun, streamline, or dismiss the world as simply a warehouse for materials, or mere scenery.
"It is here, with these attempts to separate the fate of the human world from that of the nonhuman world that we come face-to-face with a biological reality that halts us in our tracks: nature will be fine without us. Our question is no longer how to exploit the natural world for human comfort and gain, but how we can cooperate with one another to ensure we will someday have a fitting, not a dominating, place in it.
"What cataclysm, I often wonder, or better, what act of imagination will it finally require, for us to be able to speak meaningfully with one another about our cutural fate and about our shared biological fate?
"As time grows short, the necessity to listen attentively to foundational stories other than our own becomes imperative. As I've encountered other human cultures over time, especially those radically different from my own, each one has seemed to me both deep and difficult to comprehend, not 'exotic' or 'primitive.' Many cultures are still distinguished today by wisdoms not associated with modern technologies but grounded, instead, in an acute awareness of human foibles, of the traps people tend to set for themselves as the enter the ancient labyrinth of hubris or blindly pursue the appeasement of their appetities.
"It is nearly impossible for wise people in any culture to plumb the depths of their own metaphysical assumptions, out of which they have fashioned a world view. It is also difficult to listen closely while some other people's guiding stories unfold, or to separate successfully the literal from the figurative in those stories, the fact from the metaphor. And yet if we persist in believing that we alone, living in whatever culture we're from, are right, and that we therefore have no need to listen to anyone else's stories, stories that we often can't quite understand and so are unwilling to discuss, we endanger ourselves. If we remain fearful of human diversity, our potential to evolve into the very thing we most fear -- to become our own fatal nemisis -- only increases.
"The desire to known ourselves better, to understand especially the source and the nature of our dread, looms before us now like a specter in a half-lit world, a weird dawn breaking over a half-lit scene of carnage: unbreathable air, human diasporas, the Sixth Extinction, ungovernable political mobs.
"In the wisdom of the desert, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, considering the moral obtuseness of the conquistadores, writes, 'In subjugating primitive worlds they only imposed on them, with the force of cannons, their own confusion and their own alienation.' If this colonizing impulse in our heritage is still with us, a need to dominate, must we continue to support it? Must we go on to deferring to tyrants, oligarchs, and sociopathic narcissists? The French poet, diplomat, and Nobel laureate Alexis Léger, in his epic poem Anabase, asks where the troubled world is to find its real protectors, warriors so dedicated to protecting the welfare of their communities that they can be depended upon 'to watch the rivers for the approach of their enemies, even on their wedding nights.'
"Where, today, can the voices of such guardians be heard over the raucous din in support of economic growth?
"In her poem 'Kindness,' the Palestinian American poet Naomi Shihab Nye writes that to learn the kindness required to ameliorate cruelty and injustice the real world presents us with,
"In which national parliaments and legislatures today can we find deliberations characterized by such a measure of humility? In which congresses might questions of ethical responsibility be successfully raised for discussion? In which Western nations does a determination to address the mental, spiritual, and physical health of children override indifference to their fate? Or are these questions now thought to be anachronistic, questions no longer relevant to our situation?
"...Most anyone today can imagine the biblical horseman of the Apocalyse deployed on the horizon, pick out one and characterize him. Anyone, too, facing this frightening horizon, might opt to turn away, decide instead to become lost in beauty, or choose to remain walled off from the world in electronic distractions, or select catatonic isolation within the fortress of the self. But one can choose, as well, to step into the treacherous void between oneself and the confounding world, and there be staggered by the breadth, the intricacy, the possibilities of that world, accepting its requirement for death but working to lessen the degree of cruelty and to increase the reach of justice in every corner.
"For many years this kind of heroic effort -- essential to learn to cooperate with strangers -- has been calling to modern people. I've wondered, watching economically powerful nations scrambling in the world's remote corners for the last large deposits of copper, iron, bauxite, and other ores, or reading about the failure of the once-dependable ocean fisheries, or about cynical corporate maneuvering to secure the last reservoirs of potable water, whether an unprecedented openness to other ways of understanding this disaster is not, today, humanity's only lifeline. Whether cooperation with strangers is not now our Grail."
Words: The passages quoted above are from Horizon by Barry Lopez (Knopf and The Bodley Head, 2019). The poem in the picture captions, "Kindness" by Yusef Komunyakaa, is from Poetry 181, No. 5 (March 2003). All rights reserved by the authors. In addition to Horizon, which is a wonderful read, I recommend my friend Alan Weisman's fine book The World Without Us.
The Lost Words, a magnificent book created by Jackie Morris and Robert Macfarlane, began "as a response to the removal of everyday nature words from a widely used children’s dictionary, but then grew to become a much broader protest at the loss of the natural world around us." This beautiful volume contains twenty of Robert's poems/chants/spells entwined with Jackie's paintings of larks, acorns, otters and other wild things, conjuring the names of common animals and plants back into our language.
In the Waterstones interview above, Robert talks about the magical power of words, and of a collaborative process not only between writer and artist but also with the land itself.
Below, Jackie summons otters from a blank white page while reciting Robert's words. The video was filmed in her studio on the wild coast of Wales.
Spell Songs is a companion project in which eight fine folk musicians (Karine Polwart, Julie Fowlis, Seckou Keita, Kris Drever, Kerry Andrew, Rachel Newton, Beth Porter, and Jim Molyneux) were invited to create new songs inspired by The Lost Words. The project began with a residency in the Herefordshire countryside in January; the songs were taken on tour in February; and the music is now being released as an album, followed by more performances -- including the BBC Proms.
Above: The Snow Hare, from Spell Songs. "The mountain hare, or snow hare, the only truly Arctic animal of Scotland, is under threat due to rapid ecological shifts. A creature that has evolved winter camouflage becomes immensely vulnerable when the snows don’t come as they used to. This song, led by Julie Fowlis and Karine Polwart, speaks to that fragility."
Below: Selkie-Boy. "Tales of the seal people are a big part of Hebridean folklore, especially in North Uist, Julie Fowlis's home island. Her fascination with these stories, of Norse royalty, enchantment, separation and isolation, led Robert to gift her with a new spell, Grey Seal. 'I began the selkie song thinking it was a drowning song,' he says, 'but by the time I'd added the final verses realised it needed to be, like the selkies themselves, neither quite one thing or the other, neither drowning nor dreaming, seal or human, land or sea, elegy or eulogy, and how it was taken would depend on how it swam into the mind of the listener.' "
Above: Charm on, Goldfinch. Beth Porter, who composed this song, was inspired "by her walks in Wigtown along the Martyrs’ Stake, where she often saw goldfinches along the path and in the trees, and by the end to Robert's new Goldfinch Spell, which forms the chorus: Charm on Goldfinch, charm on Heaven help us when all your gold is gone."
Below: My favourite of the songs, The Lost Blessing. "Karine Polwart suggested the idea of a blessing borrowing images and phrases from many of the Lost Words spells (Bluebell, Dandelion, Fern, Heather, Heron, Kingfisher, Lark, Otter, Raven and Starling), as well as from new spells (Goldfinch and Grey Seal). The form is inspired by blessings in Scottish Gaelic, particularly from a beautiful collection of charms and incantations called Carmina Gadelica."
Related posts: Making friends with monsters & other advice for artists and The wild sky.
I've been following a thread over the last two weeks leading into the magical heart of story: the stories we tell, the stories we write, and the stories in the land around us. David Abram spoke on the relationship between story and place, Martin Shaw on stories for our time and stories that carry the tang of wild, Robin Wall Kimmerer on listening to the stories the land tells about itself, and David Whyte on finding poetry in close attention to the world around us. Now I'd like to give you one last passage from Martin Shaw's book Scatterlings, describing the path he followed to become the extraordinary storyteller, mythographer and cultural historian of Dartmoor that he is today:
"It was a labour born and rooted entirely in my openings in the wilds," Martin writes. "There were no courses to attend, no elocution lessons, no lines of ink to memorise till I could scattergun the first row with my literary recital of the oral tradition. It just wasn't going to come from there. At least not at first. It had to come from the source: the living world....
"So, as a young man I took myself out to a little stretch of old-growth wood, mostly oak and elder, and dug in. If myth really was the power of a place speaking, the I had to bend my head daily to its murmurs.
"The vast majority of time I spent over those years outdoors was not in full voice but in listening. A kind of tenderising of the heart. A shaggy equilibrium painfully wrought, where I felt and could maintain the sensation of being flooded by a place. Not an emptying but a filling. And as the weeks would unfold, this roving ecosystem gradually settled in shape somewhat; out of the ravenous floods cascading through my frame, things calmned, and the few same animals, birds, and insects as well as, occasionally, certain regal energies that stand alongside them, started to show up.
"The time for this work was usually dusk. I would wait for a frittering of delicate lights to lace the air; they would denote whether it was time to settle back on my goatskins or to cross the rickety bridge and make my way back up the hill to my tent. This kind of vagabond sit took place hundreds of times over those years. I was in the presence of mighty things, and, in their way, they presented me with the big thoughts, over and over.
"This is weft and the weave of story for me. The endless lyrical emerging of the earth's tremendous thinking and the humbling required to simply bear witness to it. And the extraordinary day, when for an hour or so you realise that you too are being witnessed. You are part of the big sound. You have pushed the coats aside and walked through the back of the wardrobe.
"When my mouth had chewed on enough silence and my body had located its fragility in the face of winter, when darkness and sorrow had bruised up against solitude, I began to taste, fully, the price of my labour, and slowly I began to speak. And what came was praise.
"Inventive speech appears to be a kind of catnip to the living world. Especially prized has been the capacity to name, abundently and gracefully, dozens or even hundreds of secret names for beings you had spent your whole life strutting past, and muttering: willow, holly, bat, dog-rose. They are not their names. Not really.
"So the first big move was not one of taking anything at all -- I'd done that quite successfully my whole life -- but of actually reorganising the detritus of my speech to formulate clear and subtle praise for the denizen I beheld in front of me. Not 'the Goddess of the River' but 'River Goddess.' The moment I squeezed 'of the' into the mix, thereby hovered an abstraction, and the fox-woman fled the hunter's hut.
Udder of the Silver Waters
The Hundred Glittering Teeth
Small Sister, Dawning Foam,
On the Old Lime Bank.
This wasn't even particularly imaginative. It wasn't flattery.
And most of all, it wasn't for me. I wasn't comparing myself. It was simply describing, acutely, what I witnessed in front of me. Some things I realised I was never going to behold clearly. I wouldn't have language for butterfly, birch, ivy, and clay. There it is; they remain indistinct. Admired, but indistinct. But, grindingly slowly, some beings made themselves known to me, became a lintel overhead, a den in which I could claim a degree of kinship. Not what I would choose, but what chose me.
"So the first part of my apprenticeship to story began in a tiny stretch of woodland glade -- a corral of about twenty feet -- tenderising my own nature until the beings that wished stepped forward, and gave me the slow and halting opportunity to name just a few of the hundred secret ways they have of being themselves. Maybe four thousand years ago they weren't so secret...
"If I'd believed the propoganda of our times, I would have seen England as too farmed, too crushed-tight with humans and their history, soil too poisoned, forest too hurt and impoverished for such an education -- better to turn to the vastness of Siberia or some other pristine wilderness. Thank God I didn't. The eye of the needle is everywhere, abiding patiently for you to quilt your life to the Otherworld, which is really our deep natural function anyway. Small pockets of absolute aliveness, greenness, riven-deep mystery are all over our strange and bullishly magnificent isle.
"So my first move towards story was to give one up, beginning the slow move from a society of taking to a culture of giving. The living world was not there for my temporary edification or a transitory backdrop for my 'healing'; it was home. A home that scared me, rattled me, soothed me, shaped me. Without the investment of time and focus, the words I longed to speak would simply be phony on my tongue. The worst aspect of storytelling is when you hear the words spoken but know the teller never took the journey to get them. The teller just squatted by the well and stole the words when one who had made the journey crawled out of the Underworld.
* * * * *
Once again, I have paired Martin's words with Simon Blackbourn's evocative Dartmoor imagery. Simon is a photographer and moorland wanderer who lives down the road from me here in Chagford. You'll find more of his work in this previous post, as well as on his Instagram page. The title of each photograph can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.)
Both words and pictures have caused me refect on my own long apprenticeship to story...which was different to Martin's in many ways, but oddly similar in others. It was not an easy path by any means, but it's brought to place I am now, to hill and hound and husband and family. It gave me the tales I hold, and carry gently, and then pass on.
The passage above is by Scatterlings: Getting Claimed in the Age of Amnesia by Martin Shaw (White Cloud Press, 2016), which I highly recommend. All rights to the text and art above reserved by the author and artist.
Gathering Moss: A Natural & Cultural History of Mosses is Robin Wall Kimmerer's first book, for which she won the John Burroughs Medal for Natural History Writing in 2005. As in her second, better-known book, Braiding Sweetgrass, this text is written from the liminal place between two ways of understanding the natural world: through Kimmerer's training as a botanist, biologist, and environmental scientist, and through her relationship with plants as an indigenous woman of the Potawatomi Nation.
In the introductory chapter of Gathering Moss, Kimmerer relates as uncanny experience at the Cranberry Lake Biological Station: a forested wilderness in the Adirondack Mountains of New York state. This remote region, accessible only by boat, was deeply familiar to her, for she had studied its mosses, lichens and other plants for many years -- first as a student, and then as a professor leading students there herself. On this particular day, however, she was stunned to discover something new:
"I've walked this path more times than I can tell you," she writes, "and yet it was only today I was able to see them: five stones, each the size of a school bus, lying together in a pile, their curves fitting together like an old married couple secure in each other's arms. The glacier [which formed the landscape] must have pushed them into this loving conformation and then moved on.
"I circle all around the pile, in silence, brushing my fingertips over its mosses.
"On the eastern side, there is an opening, a cave-like darkness between the rocks. Somehow I knew it would be there. This door which I have never seen before looks strangely familiar. My family comes from the Bear Clan of the Potawatomi. Bear is the holder of medicine knowledge for the people and has a special relationship with plants. He is the one who calls them by name, who knows their stories. We seek him for a vision, to find the task we were meant for. I think I'm following a Bear."
Kimmerer crawls into the darkness between two boulders, following the sandy floor downward and around a corner, where a green light shines ahead.
"I think I must have crawled through a passage leading from beneath this pile of rock and out the other side. I wriggle from the tunnel and find myself not in the woods at all. Instead, I emerge into a tiny, grass-filled meadow, a circle enclosed by the walls of the stone. It is a room, a light-filled room like a round eye looking into the blueness of the sky. Indian paintbrush is in bloom and hay-scented fern borders the ring of the standing stones. I am inside the circle. There are no openings save the way that I have come and I sense that entrance closing behind me. I look all around the ring but I can no longer see the opening in the rock. At first I'm afraid, but the grass smells warm in the sunshine and the walls drip with mosses. How odd to hear the redstarts calling in the trees outside, in a parallel universe that dissipates like a mirage as the mossy walls enclose me.
"Within the circle of the stones, I find myself unaccountably beyond thinking, beyond feeling. The rocks are full of intention, a deep presence attracting life. This is a place of power, vibrating with energy exchanged at a very long wavelength. Held in the gaze of the rocks, my presence is acknowledged.
"The rocks are beyond slow, beyond strong, and yet yielding to a soft green breath as powerful as a glacier, the mosses wearing away their surfaces, grain by grain bringing them back slowly to sand. There is an ancient conversation going on between mosses and rocks, poetry to be sure. About light and shadow and the drift of continents. This is what has been called the 'dialectic of moss on stone -- an interface of immensity and minuteness, of past and present, softness and hardness, stillness and vibrancy, yin and yang.' The material and the spiritual live here together.
"Moss communities may be mysteries to scientists, but they are known to one another. Intimate partners, the mosses know the contours of the rocks. They remember the route of rainwater down a crevice, the way I remember the path to my cabin. Standing inside the circle, I know that mosses have their own names, which were theirs long before Linnaeus, the Latinezed namer of plants. Time passes.
"I don't know how long I was gone, minutes or hours. For that interval, I had no sensation of my own existence. There was only rock and moss. Moss and rock. Like a hand laid gently on my shoulder, I come back to myself and look around. The trance is broken. I can hear the redstarts again, calling overhead. The encircling walls are radiant with mosses of every kind, and I see them again, as if for the first time. The green and the gray, the old and the new in this place and in this time, they rest together for this moment between glaciers. My ancestors knew that rocks hold the Earth's stories, and for a moment I could hear them.
"My thoughts feel noisy here, an annoying buzz disrupting the slow conversation among the stones. The door in the wall has reappeared and time starts to move again. An opening into this circle of stones was made, and a gift given. I see things differently, from the inside of the circle as well as from the outside. A gift comes with responsibility. I had no will at all to name all the mosses in this place, to assign their Linnean epithets. I think the task given to me is to carry out the message that mosses have their own names. Their way of being in the world cannot be told by data alone. They remind me to remember that there are mysteries for which a measuring tape has no meaning, questions and answers that have no place in the truth about rocks and mosses.
"The tunnel seems easier on the way out. This time I know where I am going. I look back over my shoulder at the stones and the set my feet to the familiar path for home. I know I am following the Bear."
Words: The passage above is from Gathering Moss by Robin Wall Kimmerer (Oregon State University Press, 20013). The quote within Kimmerer's text is from Moss Gardening by George Schenk (Timber Press, 1997). The poem in the picture captions is from Weaving the Boundary (Arizona Press, 2016). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Photographs of the mossy woods of Devon, and a vintage drawing of a black bear (artist unknown).
As must be evident from my last post, I've been re-reading Scatterlings by storyteller, writer, and mythographer Martin Shaw -- and finding it just as rich, insightful, and magical as I did the first time around. Martin, who grew up a stone's throw from Dartmoor, runs the West Country School of Myth on the other side of the moor from us, and is soaked in the mythic history of the West Country through and through. In the pages of Scatterlings, he rambles the moor, shares its lore, and describes an apprenticeship in storytelling that is earthy, tricksy, and rooted firmly in the land. His work is geared to storytellers working in the old oral tradition, but it has much to say to those of us writing land-based fiction and nonfiction too.
The passage from the book that I'd like to share today begins with a story:
"Once upon a time," he writes, "there was a lonely hunter. One evening, returning to his hut over the snow, he saw smoke coming from his chimney. When he entered the shack, he found a warm fire, a hot meal on the table, and his threadbare clothes washed and dried. There was no one to be found.
"The next day, he doubled back early from hunting. Sure enough, there was again smoke from the chimney, and he caught the scent of cooking. When he cautiously opened the door, he found a fox pelt hanging from a peg, and a woman with long red hair and green eyes adding herbs to a pot of meat. He knew in the way that hunters know that she was Fox-Woman-Dreaming, that she had walked clear out of the Otherworld. 'I am going to be the woman of this house,' she told him.
"The hunter's life changed. There was laughter in the hut, someone to share in the labour of crafting a life, and, in the warm dark when they made love, it seemed the edges of the hut dissolved in the vast green acres of the forest and the stars.
"Over time, the pelt started to give off its wild, pungent scent. A small price, you would think, but the hunter started to complain. The hunter could detect the scent on his pillow, his clothes, even his own skin. His complaints grew in number until one night the woman nodded, just once, her eyes glittering. In the morning she, and the pelt, and the scent were gone. It is said that to this day the hunter waits by the door of his hut, gazing over snow, lonely for even a glimpse of his old love.
"We are that hunter, socially and, most likely, personally. The smell of the pelt is the price of real relationship to wild nature: its sharp, regal, undomesticated scent. While that scent is in our hut there can be no Hadrian's Wall between us and the world.
"Somewhere back down the line, the West woke up to the Fox Woman gone. And when she left, she took many stories with her. And, when the day is dimming and our great successes have been bragged to exhaustion, the West sits, lonely in its whole body for her. For stories are more than just a dagger between our teeth. More than just a bellow of conquest. We have turned our face away from the pelt. Underneath our wealth, the West is a lonely hunter.
"Around halfway through the last century, something wonderful happened. Mythology and faerie tales regained a legitimacy amongst adults as a viable medium for understanding the workings of their own psychological lives. By use of metaphor, tales of sealskins and witches' huts became the most astonishing language for what seemed to lurk underneath people's everyday encounters. The use of metaphor granted greater dignity and heightened poetics to the shape of their years.
"What was the glitch that lurched alongside? A little too much emphasis on these stories as entirely interior dramas that, clumsily handled, became something that removed, rather than forged, relationship to the earth. The inner seemed more interesting than anything going on 'out there.' We and our feelings still squatted pretty happily at the center of the action. There was not always that sharp tang of fox.
"When the Grimms and others collected folktales, they effectively reported back the skeletons of stories; the local intonation of the teller and some regional sketching out was often missing. Ironically, this stripped-back form of telling has been adopted into the canon as a kind of traditional style that many imitate when telling stories -- a kind of 'everywhere and nowhere' style.
"Now, while it's certainly true that there are stories designed for travel, for thousands of years even a story arriving in an entirely new landscape would be swiftly curated into the landscape of its new home. It would shake down its feathers and shape-leap a little or grow silent and soon cease to be told. No teller worth his or her salt would just stumble through the outline and think it was enough; the vivid organs would be, in part, the mnemonic triggers of the valley or desert in which the story now abided. This process was a protracted courtship to the story itself. It was the business of manners.
"Oral culture has always been about local embedding, despite the big human dilemmas that cannot help but sweep up between cultures. This may seem an unimportant detail when you are seeking only to poke around your childhood memories in a therapist's office, but it falls woefully short when this older awareness is reignited -- the absence of wider nature becomes acute, the tale flat and self-centered.
"I don't think we have the stories; the stories have us. They charge vividly through our betrayals, illicit passions, triumphs, and generosities. Pysche is not neatly contained in our chest as we scuttle between appointments; we dwell within psyche: gregarious, up close, chaotic, astonishing, sometimes tragic, often magical.
"Well, something piratical is happening. It is time to rescue the stories, rehydrate the language, scatter dialectic inflection amongst the blunt lines of anthropological scribbles, and muck up the typewriter with the indigo surge of whale ink. We're singing over the snow to the fox-woman."
As, indeed, we are -- in hedgerow storytelling and nature writing; in mythic arts and land-based fantasy fiction; in paint, puppetry, music and other mediums; in creative forms of environmental activism; and in the stories we craft of our lives.
The very beautiful art today is by Simon Blackbourn, who lives and works here in Chagford. He has spent the last ten years immersing himself in Dartmoor, photographing its colours, shapes, textures and moods, its trees, rocks, bogs, rivers, wildlife, and weather. To me, this is the perfect pairing with Martin Shaw's words, for both of them illuminate the soul of the moor through the mediums of language and light.
To see more of Simon's photographs, please visit his Instagram page. The title of each piece here can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images.)
The passage above is by Scatterlings: Getting Claimed in the Age of Amnesia by Martin Shaw (White Cloud Press, 2016), which I highly recommend. All rights to the text and art above reserved by the author and artist.
From Scatterlings by Martin Shaw:
"We hear it everywhere these days: time for a new story -- some enthusiastic sweep of narrative that becomes, overnight, the myth of our times. A container for all this ecological trouble, this peak-oil business, this malaise of numbness that seems to shroud even the most privileged. A new story. Just the one. That simple. Painless. Everything solved. Lovely and neat.
"So, here's my first moment of rashness: I suggest that the stories we need turned up, right on time, about five thousand years ago. But they're not simple, neat, or painless. I also think this urge for a new story is the tourniquet for a less articulated desire: to behold the earth actually speaking through words again, more than through some shiny, new, never-considered thought. We won't get a story worth hearing until we witness a culture broken open by its own consequence.
"No matter how unique we think our own era, I believe that these old tales -- faerie tales, folktales, and myths -- contain much of the paradox we face in these storm-jagged times. And what's more, they have no distinct author, are not wiggled from the penned agenda of one brain-rattled individual, but have passed through the breath of countless number of oral storytellers.
"Second thought: The reason for the purchase of these tales is that the deepest of them contain not just -- as is widely reported -- the most succulent portions of the human imagination, but a moment when our innate capacity to consume (lovers, forests, oceans, animals, ideas) was drawn into the immense thinking of the earth itself, what aboriginal teachers call 'Wild Land Dreaming.'
"We met something mighty. We didn't just dream our carefully individuated thoughts: We. Got. Dreamt. We let go of the reins.
"Any old Gaelic storyteller would roll his eyes, stomp his boot, and vigourously jab a tobacco-browned finger toward the soil if there was a moment's question of a story's origin.
"In a time when the land and sea suffer by our very directive, could it not be that the stories we need contain not just a reflection on, but the dreaming of a sensual, powerful, reflective earth?
"It is an insult to archaic cultures to suggest that myth is a construct of humans shivering fearfully under a lightning storm or gazing at a copse and reasoning a supernatural narrative. To make such a suggestion implies a baseline of anxiety, not relationship. Or that anxiety is the primary relationship.
"It places full creative impetus on the human, not on the sensate energies that surround and move through them. It shuts down the notion of a dialogue worth happening; it shuts down that big old word animism.
"Maybe the ancient storyteller knew something we've forgotten."
Words: The passage above is by Scatterlings: Getting Claimed in the Age of Amnesia by Martin Shaw (White Cloud Press, 2016), which I highly recommend. The poem in the picture captions is from Secrets from the Center of the World by Joy Harjo of the Mvskoke/Creek Nation, the new U.S. Poet Laureate, with photographer Stephen Strom (University of Arizona Press, 1989). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: The Chagford stretch of the River Teign, as it runs from the heights of Dartmoor to the sea.
In most indigenous cultures (including those of pre-Christian Europe), stories were preserved and passed on via oral transmission, not the written word. Such stories, David Abram notes, were often bound to the places where they were told,
"attuned in countless subtle and complex ways to the specific topography, textures, tones, and rhythms of the local earth. Moreover, traditional oral tales commonly hold, in their layered adventures, specific information regarding local animals and plants (how best to hunt particular creatures and how to prepare their skins for clothing or shelter; which plants are good for treating particular ailments; how to prepare them in poultices, or as potions...), as well as particular instructions regarding the forms of ritual blessing necessary to ensure a liveable life in that region.
"And why is oral culture so deeply place-based? Well, because there's simply no way to remember many of the old stories of a nonwriting, oral culture without now and then encountered the sites -- the waterholes, forested mountainsides, clustered boulders, and tight river bends where those storied events once happened or are felt to have happened.
"For most of us today, born of a highly literate civilization, printed books are the primary mnemonic -- the primary memory-trigger -- for activating the accumulated knowledge that's been stored up by our ancestors over many generations. We turn to books when we wish to recall some of the old stories or to access the practical knowledge those stories hold. Yet for communities without any highly formulized system of writing -- for cultures without books -- the animate, expressive landscape itself carries the stories. Only by encountering over and over again those clustered boulders, the mouth of that deep cave, the cliff-edge vista or wooded peninsula or mist-covered swamp, are we continually brought to recall the storied events that happened there and the detailed ancestral knowledge stored in those stories.
"Similarly, when we hear the yip-yipping of coyotes or come on the tracks of a grizzly by the half-eaten carcass of a spawned-out salmon, we can't help but recall yet another tale in which that bushy-tailed trickster, or old Honey-Paws, or perhaps even the Salmon of Wisdom figures as a central character. For in the absence of books, the animate, expressive terrain itself is the mnemonic, or memory-trigger, for remembering the oral tales.
"For this reason, the old, oral-tradition stories tend to be deeply entangled with the phythm and pulse of particular places. Although its sometimes hard for highly literate folk to sense, there's an indissoluable rapport between an indigenous storyteller and the lilt of the local land; he may feel that, by intoning a tale, he is translating secret or sacred matters overheard from the speaking earth. That is how Sean Kane puts it, in his wonderful book Wisdom of the Myth-tellers: 'Myth, in its most ecologically discreet form, among people who live by hunting and fishing and gathering, seems to be the song of the place to itself, which humans overhear.'
"Or as Martin Shaw insightfully frames it [in Scatterlings]: a really fine storyteller, by the eloquent practice of her art, is carefully echoing signals emanating from the expressive terrain around her; the teller is participant in a subtle process of echolocation, by which the deep earth speaks, and listens, and returns to itself, nourished."
David is troubled by the way our digital and print-based culture has severed these kinds of stories from their natural settings:
"If the strongest tales are best understood as the place speaking through the teller, well, writing down those tales would seem to interrupt this direct transmission. For the written stories can now be carried elsewhere, and within a short time they can be read -- by mutiple others -- in distant cities and even on distant continents. Since the story no longer neatly matches the contour of the strange new terrain where its being read (since it cannot aptly echo, or invoke, the many-voiced landscape that surrounds the reader wherever she finds herself) the tale now seems to float free of the ground. Soon enough, all of the place-specific savvy contained in that tale, regarding the precise song for calling a particular creature or the precise technique for harvesting certain vision-inducing herbs, is forgotten." *
But other writers are exploring the ways written text might be crafted so as to echo the power of the old oral tales: through the rhythms of the language, integrity of intention, and a careful attention to place -- even when, as in fantasy fiction, that place is an imaginary one. Here in the fantasy field especially, full of novels and stories deeply rooted in folklore, magic, and the mythic landscape, I believe it is possible for writers, too, to participate in the "subtle process of echolocation" ... and not only possible, but timely and necessary for those concerned with our culture's fractured relationship to the natural world.
Ursula K. Le Guin once said:
"The proper, fitting shape of the novel might be that of a sack, a bag. A book holds words. Words hold things. They bear meanings. A novel is a medicine bundle, holding things in a particular, powerful relation to one another and to us."
Fantasy literature, like the old oral stories, can hold powerful "medicine," and speak across the liminal space between the human and more-than-humen world.
Patricia J. Williams writes (in The Rooster's Egg):
"From time to time, I try to imagine a culture ... in whose mythology words were conceived as vessels for communications from the heart; a society in which words are holy, and the challenge of life is based upon the quest for gentle words, holy words, gentle truths, holy truths. I try to imagine for myself a world in which the words one gives one's children are the shell into which they shall grow, so one chooses one's words carefully, like precious gifts, like magnificent gifts, like magnificent inheritances, for they convey an excess of what we have imagined, they bear gifts beyond imagination, they reveal and revisit the wealth of history.
"How carefully, how slowly, and how lovingly we might step into our expectations of each other in such a world."
I try to imagine such things too. And to turn these ideas into stories.
* For a more detailed discussion of this thesis, see David Abram's first book, The Spell of the Sensuous.
Words: The Abram quote is from his introduction to Scatterlings by Martin Shaw (White Cloud Press, 2016). The Le Guin quote is from her essay "The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction," published in Dancing at the Edge of the World (Tor Books, 1997). The Williams quote is from her book The Rooster's Egg: On the Persistence of Prejudice (Harvard University Press, 1997). The poem in the picture captions is from The Branch Will Not Break by James Wright (Wesleyan University Press, 1992). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Photographs of Dartmoor ponies and their foals on our village Commons, and a drawing by William Heath Robinson (1872-1944).
I followed my reading of Richard Powers' The Overstory (discussed yesterday) with Robert Macfarlane's new book, Underland: A Deep Time Journey -- which proved to be a perfect pairing. Underland is an absolutely brilliant exploration of the various underworlds to be found in nature, myth, and literature; and one section of the text is devoted to the complex understorey of forests.
In Chapter 4 of Underland (set in London's Epping Forest), Macfarlane writes:
"In the early 1990s a young Canadian forest ecologist called Susan Simard, studying the understory of logged temperate forests in north-west British Columbia, observed a curious correlation. When paper birch saplings were weeded out from clear-cut and reseeded plantations, their disappearance coincided with first the deterioration and then the premature deaths of the planted Douglas fir saplings among which they grew.
"Foresters had long assumed that such weeding was necessary to prevent young birches (the 'weeds') depriving the young firs (the 'crop') of valuable soul resources. But Simard began to wonder whether this simple model of competition was correct. It seemed to her plausible that the paper birches where somehow helping rather than hindering the firs: when they were removed, the health of the firs suffered. If this interspecies aid-giving did exist between trees, though, what was its nature -- and how could individual trees extend help to one another across the spaces of the forest?
"Simard decided to investigate the puzzle. Her first task was to establish some kind of structural basis for possible connections between the trees. Using microscopic and genetic tools, she and her colleagues peeled back the forest floor and peered below the understory, into the 'black box' of the soil -- a notoriously challenging realm of study for biologists. What they saw down there were the pale, super-fine threads known as 'hyphae' that fungi send out through the soil. These hyphae interconnected to create a network of astonishing complexity and extent. Every cubic metre of forest soil that Simard examined held dozens of miles of hyphae.
"For centuries, fungi had generally been considered harmful to plants: parasites that caused disease and dysfunction. As Simard began her research, however, it was increasingly thought that different kinds of common fungi might exist in subtle mutualism with plants. The hyphae of these so-called 'mycorrhizal' fungi were understood not only to infiltrate the soil, but to weave into the tips of plant roots at a cellular level -- thereby creating an interface through which molecular transmission might occur. By means of this weaving, too, the roots of the individual plants or trees were joined to one another by a maginificently intricate subterranean system.
"Simard's enquiries confirmed that beneath her forest floor there did indeed exist what she called an 'underground social network,' a 'bustling community of mycorrhizal fungal species' that linked sapling to sapling. She also discovered that the hyphae made connections between species: joining not only paper birch to paper birch and Douglas fir to Douglas fir, but also fir to birch and far beyond -- forming a non-hierarchical network between numerous kinds of plants.
"Simard had established a structure of connection between the saplings. But the hyphae provided only the means of mutualism. Its existance did not explain why the fir saplings faltered when the birch saplings were weeded out, or details as to what -- if anything -- might be transmitted via this collaborative system. So Simard and her team devised an experiment that could let them track possible biochemical movements along this invisible buried lattice. They decided to inject fir trees with radioactive carbon isotopes. Using mass spectrometers and scintillation counters, they were then able to track the flow of carbon isotopes from tree to tree.
"What this tracking revealed was astonishing. The carbon isotopes did not stay confined to the individual trees into which there were injected. Instead, they moved down the trees' vascular systems to their root tips, where they passed into the fungal hyphae that wove with those tips. Once in the hyphae they travelled along the network to the root tips of another tree, where they entered the vascular system of that new tree. Along the way, the fungi drew off and metabolized some of the photosynthesized resources that were moving along their hyphae; this was their benefit from mutualism.
"Here was proof that trees could move resources around between one another using the mycorrhizal network. The isotope tracking also demonstrated the unexpected intricacy of the interrelations. In a research plot thirty metres square, every single tree was connected to the fungal system, and some trees -- the oldest -- were connected to as many as forty-seven others. The results also solved the puzzle of the fir-birch mutualism: the Douglas firs were receiving more photosynthetic carbon from paper birches than they were transmitting. When paper birches were weeded out, the nutrient intake of the fir saplings was thus -- counter-intuitively -- reduced rather than increased, and so the firs weakened and died.
"The fungi and the trees had 'forged their duality into oneness, thereby making a forest,' wrote Simard in a bold summary of her findings. Instead of seeing trees as individual agents competing for resources, she proposed the forest as a 'co-operative system,' in which trees 'talk' to one another, producing a collaborative intelligence described as 'forest wisdom'. Some older trees even 'nuture' smaller trees that they recognize as their 'kin,' acting as 'mothers'. Seen in the light of Simard's research, the whole vision of a forest ecology shimmered and shifted -- from a fierce free market to something more like a community within a socialist system of resource redistribition."
A little later in the chapter, Macfarlane notes:
"Little of this thinking is new, however, when viewed from the perspective of animist traditions of indigenous peoples. The fungal forest that science had revealed...seemed merely to provide a materialist evidence-base for what the cultures of forest-dwelling peoples have known for thousands of years. Again and again within such societies, the jungle or woodland is figured as aware, conjoined and conversational. 'To dwellers in a wood almost every species of tree has its voice as well as its feature,' wrote Thomas Hardy in Under the Greenwood Tree. The anthropologist Richard Nelson describes how the Koyukon people of the forest interior of what we now call Alaska 'live in a world that watches, in a forest of eyes. A person moving through nature -- however wild, remote...is never truly alone. The surroundings are aware, sensate, personified. They feel.' In such a vibrant environment, loneliness is placed in solitary confinement.'
"There in the grove [of Epping Forest], I recall Kimmerer, Hardy and Nelson, and feel a sudden, angry impatience with modern science for presenting as revelation what indigenous societies take to be self-evident. I remember Ursula Le Guin's angrily political novel, set on a forest planet in which woodland beings known as the Athsheans are able to transmit messages remotely between one another, signalling through the medium of trees. On Athshe -- until the arrival of colonists committed to the planet's exploitation -- the realm of the mind is integrated into the community of trees, and 'the word for world is forest'. "
I highly recommend seeking out Underland and following the author's journey into the dark of the woods, into the mysteries underground, and into the depths of the human psyche.
The exquisite arboreal art today is by Howard Phipps: a painter, printmaker and illustrator who specializes in wood engravings. Phipps studied at the Cheltenham Art College and University of Sussex, worked in west Devon the late 1970s, then moved to Salisbury, Wiltshire, where he has been based ever since. A long-standing member of the Royal West of England Academy and The Society of Wood Engravers, his art is widely exhibited throughout the UK; he has also illustrated books for the Folio Society and numerous publishers. (I first came upon his work in the literary journal Slightly Foxed.)
To see more of Howard Phipp's beautiful place-based art, visit Messums Wiltshire, Bircham Gallery, The Society of Wood Engravers, or The Arborealists; or track down copies of his two books of engravings, Interiors and Further Interiors (Whittington Press, 1985 and 1992). I also recommend "A Short Walk With Howard Phipps" on the Frames of Reference blog, which examines the craft of wood engraving and the artist's process.
"Owl hoot. Dog bark. Back in the clearing the fire dims, songs fall silent. The canopy of the pollards spreads above me, whispering in the night breeze. There's something you need to hear....Seeking sleep, my mind follows leaf to branch, branch to trunk, trunk to root and from there down along the hyphnae that web the earth below." - Robert Macfarlane (from Underland)
Words & art: The passages above are from Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarlane (Hamish Hamilton/Penguin, 2019). All rights to the trext and art above reserved by the author and artist.
I've finally read Overstory by Richard Powers -- a sprawling novel composed of interlocked stories about people, trees, and the relationship between them -- and I highly recommend it to all who are interested in the intersection of nature, art and story.
"They compete for their livelihoods and take care of their families, sometimes making huge sacrifices for their children. They breathe, eat and have sex. They give gifts, communicate, learn, remember and record the important events of their lives. With relatives and non-kin alike they cooperate, forming neighborhood watch committees -- to name one example -- with rapid response networks to alert others to a threatening intruder. They manage their resources in bank accounts, using past market trends to predict future needs. They mine and farm the land, and sometimes move their families across great distances for better opportunities. Some of this might take centuries, but for a creature with a life span of hundreds or thousands of years, time must surely have a different feel about it.
"And for all that, trees are things to us, good for tables, floors and ceiling beams: As much as we might admire them, we’re still happy to walk on their hearts. It may register as a shock, then, that trees have lives so much like our own. All the behaviors described above have been studied and documented by scientists who carefully avoid the word 'behavior' and other anthropomorphic language, lest they be accused of having emotional attachments to their subjects.
"The novelist suffers no such injunction, but most of them don’t know beans about botany. Richard Powers is the exception, and his monumental novel The Overstory accomplishes what few living writers from either camp, art or science, could attempt. Using the tools of story, he pulls readers heart-first into a perspective so much longer-lived and more subtly developed than the human purview that we gain glimpses of a vast, primordial sensibility, while watching our own kind get whittled down to size."
"Some of our greatest novelists, from Thomas Hardy to Willa Cather and beyond, have so deeply invested their natural landscapes with the power of personality that nature becomes an active, even interactive, character in their work. Certainly, the trees in your novel similarly achieve an undeniable kind of selfhood, a soulful, communicative, and vital presence. They are families. Some of them are individuals with complicated lives....So, yes, Hardy, Cather, even J. R. R. Tolkien and others, have their ways of approaching nature as a character.
"What," he asks Powers, "is your trajectory here, philosophically, aesthetically, along other avenues, of making this come to life for you?"
"The choice to give these trees central roles in the plot and the cast of the novel," Powers answers, "is both elemental and elementary. At the core of the book (in the heartwood, if you will) is a rejection of human exceptionalism -- the idea that we are the only things on earth with agency, purpose, memory, flexible response to change, or community. Research has shown in countless marvelous ways that trees have all of these. Tree consciousness -- which we’ll need to recover in order to come back home to this planet and stop treating it like a bus station bathroom -- means understanding that trees, both singly and collectively, are central characters in our own stories.
"Related to this insight is the research of Patricia Westerford into the intensely collective nature of trees. Just as in the standard novel of psychological revelation that often plays social and group will against the individual, so, Westerford discovers, there is always a society of trees, sustaining and regulating the lives of its single stems:
'It will take years for the picture to emerge. There will be findings, unbelievable truths confirmed by a spreading worldwide web of researchers in Canada, Europe, Asia, all happily swapping data through faster and better channels. Her trees are far more social than even Patricia suspected. There are no individuals. There aren’t even separate species. Everything in the forest is the forest. Competition is not separable from endless flavors of cooperation. Trees fight no more than do the leaves on a single tree. It seems most of nature isn’t red in tooth and claw, after all. For one, those species at the base of the living pyramid have neither teeth nor talons. But if trees share their storehouses, then every drop of red must float on a sea of green.'
"Tolkien, by the way, was indeed an inspiration in some of this. His Ents must surely be among his most spectacular creations. Slow to anger, slow to act. But once they get going, you want them on your side."
"To live on this primarily nonhuman planet," says Powers later in the interview, "we must change how we think of nonhumans. They are not here merely to serve as our resources. They are intelligent agents, deserving of legal standing, creatures that want something from each other and from us. They, much more than we, have created this place. We are not their masters; our dependence on them should make us more like their resourceful servants. They are gifts, and all of us know how sparingly and reverently a gift is best used. As a friend puts it: How little we would need if we knew how much we have.
"The salvation of humanity -- for it’s us, not the world, who need to be saved -- and our continued lease on this planet depend on our development of tree consciousness. We are here by the grace of trees and forests. They make our atmosphere, clean our water, and sustain the cycles of life that permit us. Just begin to see them. See them up close and personal. See them from far away across great distances. Notice all the million complex beautiful behaviors and forms that have always slipped right past you. Simply see, and the rest will begin to follow. Every other act of preservation depends on that first step.
"For writers: ask yourself how many invisible nonhuman actors and agents are required to enable your tale of individual self-realization or domestic drama, then make those hidden sponsors visible.
"For readers: let the beauty of whatever book you’ve just read teach you to read the world beyond what we human beings call the real world. And for all of us, there is always Thoreau: 'Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, resign yourself to the influence of the earth.' "
Please don't miss this remarkable novel, which demonstrates one of the ways that artists today can use the tools of our various crafts -- language, paint, music, etc. -- to speak for the more-than-human world.
Words: The passages quoted above are from "The Heroes of This Novel are Centuries Old and 300 Feet Tall" by Barbara Kingsolver (The New York Times Book Review, April 9, 2018) and "Richard Powers: An Interview" by Bradford Morrow (Conjunctions: 70, Spring 2018). The poem in the picture captions is from Everything is Waiting for You by David Whyte (Many Rivers Press, 2003). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Visiting with the tree elders in the oak and beech woods on our hill, and the remarkable root systems of fallen giants.
Related posts: Children in the woods and In the forest, the child; in the child, the forest.