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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"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).


Word magic

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In his fine book The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram discusses how being a sleight-of-hand magician gave him an entrée into the world of traditional healers and shamans:

Drawing by Arthur Rackham"I traveled to Indonesia on a research grant to study magic; more precisely, to study the relation between magic and medicine, first among the traditional sorcerers, or dukuns, of the Indonesian archipelago, and later among the djankris, the traditional shamans of Nepal. The grant had one unique aspect: I was to journey into rural Asia not outwardly as an anthropologist or academic researcher, but as an itinerant magician in my own right, in hopes of gaining a more direct access to the local sorcerers.

"I had been a professional sleight-of-hand magician for five years, helping to put myself through college by performing in clubs and restaurants throughout New England. I had, as well, taken a year off from my studies in the psychology of perception to travel as a street magician through Europe and, toward the end of that journey, had spent some months in London, working with R. D. Laing and his associates, exploring the potential of using sleight-of-hand magic in psycho-therapy as a means of engendering communication with distressed individuals largely unapproachable by clinical healers. As a result of this work I became interested in the relation, largely forgotten in the West, between folk medicine and magic.

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"This interest eventually led to the aforementioned grant, and to my sojourn as a magician in rural Asia. There, my sleight-of-hand skills proved invaluable as a means of stirring the curiosity of the local shamans. Magicians, whether modern entertainers or indigenous, tribal sorcerers, work with the malleable texture of perception. When the local sorcerers gleaned that I had at least some rudimentary skill in altering the common field of perception, I was invited into their homes, asked to share secrets with them, and eventually encouraged, even urged, to participate in various rituals and ceremonies.

"But the focus of my research gradually shifted from a concern with the application of magical techniques in medicine and ritual curing, toward a deeper pondering of the traditional relation between magic and the natural world."

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Scott London goes deeper into this aspect of  David's work in the following passages from his illuminating intervew, "The Ecology of Magic":

London: You have used the phrase "boundary keeper" to describe the magician. What do you mean by that?

Abram: I discovered that very few of the medicine people that I met considered their work as healers to be their primary role or function for their communities. So even though they were the healers, or the medicine people, for their villages, they saw their ability to heal as a by-product of their more primary work. This more primary work had to do with the fact that these magicians rarely live at the middle of their communities or in the heart of the village. They always live out at the edge or just outside of the village -- out among the rice paddies or in a cluster of wild boulders -- because their skills are not encompassed within the human modality. They are, as it were, the intermediaries between the human community and the more-than-human community -- the animals, the plants, the trees, even whole forests are considered to be living, intelligent forces. Even the winds and the weather patterns are seen as living beings. Everything is animate. Everything moves. It's just that some things move slower than other things, like the mountains or the ground itself. But everything has its movement, has its life. And the magicians were precisely those individuals who were most susceptible to the solicitations of these other-than-human shapes. It was the magicians who could most easily enter into some kind of rapport with another being, like an oak tree, or with a frog.

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London: What sort of rapport?

Abram: Every magician that I met had a number of animals or plants or forms of nature that were their close familiars. Just as we speak of the witch's black cat as her "familiar," so in these animistic societies the magician might have crows and frogs and perhaps a certain kind of rubber plant as his familiars. It might also be a certain kind of storm -- a thunder-storm -- a being that, when it appeared in the sky, would tell the magician that it was time to go outside and just gaze at those clouds and learn from them what they might have to teach.

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London: In the same way, perhaps, that horses can sense an impending earthquake.

Abram: Right. Other animals function for the magician as another set of senses, another angle from which he can see and hear and sense what's going on in the surrounding ecology, because we are limited by our human senses, our nervous-system, and our two arms and our two legs. Birds know so much more about what's going on in the air, in the invisible winds, than we humans can know. If we watch the birds closely, we can begin to learn about what's going on in the sky and in the air simply by watching their flight patterns.

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London: Where do they draw the boundary between magic and reality?

Abram: That boundary is not drawn in traditional cultures. In indigenous, tribal, or oral cultures, magic is the way of the world. There is nothing that is not in some way magic, because the fact that the world exists is already quite a wonder. That it stays existing, that it continually keeps holding itself in existence, this is the mystery of mysteries. Magic is the way of the world. It's that sense of being in contact with so many other shapes of awareness, most of which are so different from our own, that is the basic experience of magic from which all other forms of magic derive.

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London: What happens to a culture bereft of magic?

Abram: One thing is that its relation to the natural landscape is tremendously impoverished. In fact, by our obliviousness, by our forgetfulness of all of these other styles of awareness -- the other animals, the plants, the waters -- we have brought about a crisis in the natural world of unprecedented proportions -- not out of any meanness, but simply because we really don't recognize that nature is there. It seems to us, in our culture, to be a kind of passive backdrop against which all of our human events unfold, and it's human events that are meaningful and what happens in nature, well, we don't really notice it, it's not really there. It's not vital. How different that is from the awareness of a magical or animistic culture for whom everything we do as humans is so profoundly influenced by our interactions with the earth underfoot and the air that swirls around us and the other animals.

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London: You said that some field biologists are able to capture the essence of magic in their work. I can think of some nature writers who also serve that same function -- people like Peter Mathiessen, Terry Tempest Williams, and Barry Lopez.

Abram: Absolutely. I do think that some of the nature writers are doing an exquisitely important work of magic. They are doing what we might think of as "word magic" -- very carefully taking up the language and trying to use it in new ways, trying to work out how to speak without violating our kinship with the rest of the animate earth.

Drawing by Arthur Rackham

I agree with David on this, but I would add that there are fantasy writers, storytellers, and mythic artists who are doing the important work of "word magic" too.

Books by David Abram. Tilly approves.

Words: The first passage quoted above is from The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World (Vintage, 1997). Scott London's interview appears on London's website here, adapted from the public radio series "Insight & Outlook." All rights reserved by Abram and London.  I highly recommend David's two books, pictured above, if you haven't read them already. Both have been influential texts for me over the years.

Pictures: The two ink drawings are by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939). The photographs capture a Dartmoor pony encounter that Tilly and I had earlier this spring. We sat together on old stone wall watching them drift by, one by one. The last pony stopped in front of us, resting her head on my outstretched hand; then she turned and followed the others up the hill. It felt like a blessing.


The Tree Tribe

Borderlands by Celia de Serra

The thing you need to know, child, is that trees do speak, they do tell tales, they sing when the've a mind to, they are gigglers, gossips, grumblers, cataloguing every ache and pain, and yet they hold no grudges, claim no debts, speak ill of no creature. They have their tempers, yes, tantrums of branches lashed in gusts and gales, but then they come to rest in stillness, spent, humming contentedly. You've heard them, just yesterday. You thought it was only the wind.

River Valley by Celia de Serra

The thing you need to know is that each morning every tree stands tall and chants its name, its history, its kinship web and lineage. You've heard them, dear, but thought it was the dawn chorus of birds.

Summer Nights by Celia de Serra

The thing you need to know is that the trees tell stories older than the oldest tales of humankind. By dusk, by night, by starlight, you have marked their midnight murmuring -- you told me so, but thought it was just water rushing through the stream.

Toward This Place Lightly by Celia de Serra

The thing you need to know, child, is that trees do speak, in their own language. They mutter in the crackle autumn leaves; they sigh as snow settles at their feet; they utter exquisite arboreal poems as each tender young leaf unfurls; they laugh in shivers of green and gold when tickled by a summer's breeze.

Still There by Celia de Serra

The thing you need to know, child, is that trees do speak, in the tree language. And yes, you will understand their speech one day, root child, sweet sapling.

Still Here Too by Celia de Serra

West Borders by Celia de Serra

The beautiful drawings today are by British artist Celia de Serra, who was born in Canterbury in 1973, received a BA in Fine Art and English Literature from Exeter University in 1995, and now exhibits her work extensively throughout the UK. De Serra is a founding member of The Arborealists, a group of contemporary artists dedicated to the subject of trees. Her art has appeared in Under the Greenwood: Picturing the British Tree and other publications.

"I live in the Welsh borders in the hills near Offa’s Dyke," she writes. "I spend a lot of time out and about walking and cycling armed with a Ordinance Survey Map, sketchbook and camera. I look for inspiring places and images that have something about them and an emotional hook. Light is particularly important to me -- the way in which it can transform something small, or illuminate a place in a curious or dramatic way. Always a painter, I returned to drawing several years ago and this has become my primary medium at the moment; I love the directness of drawing, the marks, the tonal variations and the capacity to build up layers and depth without the confusion that colour can sometimes bring to form."

To see more of de Serra's work, visit her website, her Instagram page, and The Arborealists site.

Flux by Celia de Serra

Seven Little Tales from Hedgespoken Press

Words: "The Tree Tribe" is one of seven little pieces of mine published in Seven Little Tales (Hedgespoken Press, 2018). 

Pictures: The drawings above are: Borderlands,  River Valley, Summer Nights, Towards This Place Lightly, Still There,  Still Here Too, West Borders, and Flux by Celia de Serra. All rights reserved by the artist.


On language and mystery

Forest by Alexandra Dvornikova

From  "Learning the Grammar of Animacy"  by Potawatomi author, educator, and biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer:

Fungi by Alexandra Dvornikova"I come here to listen, to nestle in the curve of roots, in a soft hollow of pine needles. To lean my bones against the column of white pine, to turn off the voice in my head until I can hear the voices outside of it. The shhh of wind in the needles. Water trickling over rock, nuthatch tapping, chipmunks digging, beechnut falling, mosquito in my ear and something more, something that is not me, for which we have no language, the wordless being of others in which we are never alone. After the drumbeat of my mother's heart, this was my first language.

"I could spend a whole day listening. And a whole night. And in the morning, without my hearing it, there might be a mushroom that was not there the night before, creamy white, pushed up from the pine needle duff, out of darkness to light, still glistening with the fluid of its passage. Puhpowee

Mushroom pattern by Alexandra Dvornikova

"Listening in wild places, we witness conversation in a language that is not our own. I think now, that it was a longing to comprehend this language I hear in the woods that led me to science, to learn over the years to speak fluent Botany. Which should not, by the way, be mistaken for the language of plants. In science I did learn another language, of careful observation, an intimate vocabulary that names each little part. To name and describe you must first see, and science polishes the gift of seeing. Science is a beautiful language, rich in particulars, revealing the intricate mechanisms of the world. I honor the strength of that language which has become a second tongue to me. But, beneath the richness of its vocabulary, its descriptive power, something feels missing, the same something that swells around you and in you, when you listen to the world. The pattern of its surface hides an empty center, like a gorgeous tapestry over a scarred wall. Science is a language of distance which reduces a being to its working parts, the language of objects. The language we speak, however precise, is based on a profound error in grammar, which seems to me now, a grave loss in translation from the native languages of these shores. 

Lost Land by Alexandra Dvornikova"My first taste of the missing language was the word puhpowee, on my tongue. I stumbled upon it in a book by Anishnaabe ethnobotanist Keewaydinoquay, a treatise on the traditional uses of fungi by our people. Puhpowee, she explained, translates as 'the forces that causes mushrooms to to push up from the earth overnight.' As a biologist, I was stunned that such a word existed. In all its technical vocabulary, Western science has no such term, no words to hold this mystery. You'd think that biologists, of all people, would have words for life. But, I think in scientific language, our terminology is used to define the boundaries of our knowing. That which lies beyond our grasp remains unnamed. In the three syllables I could see an entire process of close observation in the damp morning woods, of the mystery of their coming, the formulation of a theory for which English has no equivalent. The makers of this word understood a world of being, full of unseen energies which animate the world. I've cherished that word for many years, a talisman, and longed for the people who gave a name to the life force of mushrooms. The language that holds puhpowee is one that I wanted to speak. The word for rising, for emergence, became a signpost for me, when I learned that it belonged to the language of my ancestors."

Forest Treasures by Alexandra Dvornikova

I recommend reading Kimmerer's essay in full, first published in The Leopold Outlook magazine (Winter 2012) and available online here. These ideas were developed further in her remarkable book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants (discussed on Myth & Moor here) -- and also in a number of talks and essays such as "Speaking of Nature" (discussed on Myth & Moor here.)

I believe Kimmerer's work has relevance to those of us working in fantasy and mythic arts, for we, too, must learn to speak a language suited to describing Mystery: a language woven from myth, folklore, symbolism, poetry and dream. The fantasist's world is an animate world, shimmering with unseen energies. The grammar and gramarye of its language is every mythic artist's birthright, for the world of Story welcomes us all. It's a tongue that any of us can learn. Enter the forest, or the tale, and listen....

Fire Fox by Alexandra Dvornikova

Mushroom Dress and Mushroom Hat by Alexandra Dvornikova

The imagery today is by Alexandra Dvornikova, a contemporary folk artist and illustrator from Saint Petersburg, Russia. She studied print-making, graphics, and art therapy at Saint Petersburg Stieglitz State Academy of Art and Design, and now creates bookscards and printsfabric designs, animations, and more.  She finds inspiration in the Russian fairy tales she heard as a child, as well as masks, music, ritual, nature and ecology, the folklore of animals, mosses and mushrooms, venomous plants, and lonely cabins deep in the woods. To see more of her art, please visit Dvornikova's website and  Instagram page. 

Mushroom Bed by Alexandra Dvornikova

Magic by Alexandra Dvornikova

Words: The passage quoted above is from "The Grammar of Animacy" by Robin Wall Kimmerer (The Leopold Outlook magazine, Winter 2012). all rights reserved by the author.

Related posts: For another look at the language of science contrasted to the language of Story, go here. Other posts on the interesection of science and art are archived here.

Pictures: The paintings by Alexandra Dvornikova are Forest, Fungi, Mushroom Pattern, Lost Land, Forest Treasures, Fire Fox, Mushroom Dress, Mushroom Hat, Mushroom Bed, and Magic. All rights reserved by the artist. Dvornikova's work also appeared in a previous Myth & Moor post: Stepping into story.


The magic of words

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In her essay "A Gift of Wings," Jeanette Winterson gets to the core of what makes Virginia Woolf's work so compelling, and in doing so she evokes the magic inherent in the arts of writing and reading themselves:

"Unlike many novelists, then and now, she loved words. That is she was devoted to words, faithful to words, romantically attached to words, desirous of words. She was territory and words occupied her. She was night-time and words were the dream.

"The dream quality, which is a poetic quality, is not vague. For the common man it is the dream, if at all, that binds together in a new rationale, disparate elements. The job of the poet is to let the binding happen in daylight, to happen to the conscious mind, to delight and disturb the reader when the habitual pieces are put together in a new way.

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"Above all, credulity is not strained. We should not come out of a book as we do from a dream, shaking our heads and rubbing our eyes and saying, 'It didn't really happen.' In poetry, in drama, in opera, in painting, in the best fiction, it really does happen, and is happening all the time, this other place where, as strong and compelling as our own daily world, as believable, and yet with a very strangeness that prompts us to recall that there are more things in heaven and earth and that those things are solider than dreams.

"They may prove solider than real life, as we fondly call the jumble of accidents, characters and indecisions that collect around us without our noticing. The novelist notices, tries to make us clearer to ourselves, tries to set the liquid day, and because of this we read novels. We do hope to see ourselves, as much out of vanity as for instruction. Nothing wrong with that but there is further to go and it is this further than only poetry can take us. Like the novelist, the poet notices, focuses, sharpens, but for the poet that is the beginning. The poet will not be satisfied with recording, the poet will have to transform. It is language, magic wand, cast of spells, that makes transformation possible."

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The poet does this, yes, and the poetic fiction writer, and especially, I believe, the poets and fiction writers working in fantasy and mythic arts. Casting spells with language and telling tales of transformation are, after all, the very point of this alchemical genre in which elements of poetry, prose, myth, fairy tale, and dream are carefully combined, turning lead, and straw, and language, and life itself into pure gold.

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As Ursula Le Guin said in her essay "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie" (in a passage I quote often, because it's just so true):

"Fantasy is a different approach to reality, an alternative technique for apprehending and coping with existence. It is not antirational, but pararational; not realistic but surrealistic, a heightening of reality. In Freud's terminology, it employs primary, not secondary process thinking. It employs archetypes, which, as Jung warned us, are dangerous things. Fantasy is nearer to poetry, to mysticism, and to insanity than naturalistic fiction is. It is a wilderness, and those who go there should not feel too safe. And their guides, the writers of fantasy, should take their responsibilities seriously....

"A fantasy is a journey. It is a journey into the subconscious mind, just as psychoanalysis is. Like pyschoanalysis, it can be dangerous; and it will change you."

Powerful word magic indeed.

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Returning to the essay "A Gift of Wings," Winterson describes Virginia Woolf as a writer who "is not afraid of beauty. She is as sensitive to the natural world as any poet and as physical in response as any lover. She is not afraid of pain. The dark places attract her as well as the light and she has the wisdom to know that not all dark places need light. She has the cardinal virtue of critical courage."

That, I believe, is what we, too, must strive for. The love of words shared by all good writers and all good readers is the magic that will show us how.

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Winterson's essay can be found in her collection Art Objects (Jonathan Cape, 1995), Le Guin's in her collection The Language of the Night (The Women's Press, 1979). All rights reserved by the authors. Photographs: Words in the wild.