Little gods of the field

The Haywain by Constable

In her essay "Crex-Crex," Scottish poet & essayist Kathleen Jamie reflects on a print of Constable's The Haywain hanging in her B&B on the island of Coll. When Constable packed up his easel after finishing the painting, she imagines:

"what he would have heard as he walked home through the fields  -- indeed, what we could hear if we could step into his painting -- would be the call of the corncrake. A corncrake is a brown bird, a kind of rail, not ten inches tall, which prefers to remain unseen in tall damp grass. It's call -- you'd hardly call it a song -- is two joined notes, like a rasping telephone. Crex Crex is the bird's Latin name, a perfect piece of onomatopoeia. Crex-crex, it goes, crex-crex.

"Perhaps, as he strolled home, Constable had a bit of fun trying to pinpoint the sound in the long grass. Perhaps he thought nothing of it, the corncrake being such a commonplace. 'Heard in every vale,' as John Clare said in his poem. The vales of Northamptonshire, the New Town of Edinburgh, in Robert Burn's Ayrshire, it was recorded in every county in the land from Cornwall to Shetland. In the last century, though, it has been utterly eliminated from the mainland, and if you'd like to hear or even see this skulking little bird of the meadow, you must set sail to the Hebrides."

Corncrake hidden in the meadow grasse

Ballyhaugh Coastline  Island of Coll; photograph by Allan McKechnie

Jamie does precisely this, traveling to Coll in the Inner Hebrides -- where she is met by Sarah Money, warden of the RSPB reserve on the island. One night, Money takes her to a distant field, which the two women quietly enter by torchlight:

"Hear them?" she whispers, and I nod.

What does is sound like? Like someone grating a nutmeg, perhaps. Or a prisoner working toward his escape with a nailfile. Crex-crex, crex-crex. We move forward a few paces at a time...it's almost impossible to tell where the sound is coming from. It's obviously on the ground -- you'd swear it was right under your feet, but it seems to jump and flit ahead. We walk on carefully, speaking in whispers until we've crossed the whole field, but the sound heard so clearly from the gate is still, somehow, ahead of us.

"It's unchancy. Fairy music is said to do this; to lead a man on in his confusion and drunkeness, to start, then stop, then begin again from another place, ever luring him on. This was not a beautiful music, it has to be said; hardly the art of the fairies. Mind you, it could be a goblin carpenter, sawing away at his little workbench, if you've had too many at the island disco and were of a fanciful mind."

Corncrake on the Isle of Coll

Explaining the corncrakes' demise, Jamie writes:

"The grim reaper came for the corncrake in the form of the mechanized mower. In the days of the scythe, when hay was long and cut later in the year, then heaped on slow-moving wains, the corncrake had long grasses to hide and breed in. The chicks would be fledged before the meadow was mown, and had plenty of time to escape the swinging blade. With mechanization, however, and a shift toward earlier cutting for silage, corncrakes, eggs, fledglings, and all have been slaughtered wholesale.

"The corncrake has long been in relationship with humans, its fortunes have waxed and waned as our own farm practices changed. When prehistoric people cleared woodland and developed agriculture, the bird's range extended: corncrake bones have been discovered in Stone Age middens. Indeed, Mrs. Beeton gives a recipe for roasted corncrake. You need four, and should serve them, if liked, with a nice bread sauce. But since Clare's 'mowers on the meadow lea' were likewise banished before the machine, the corncrakes' range has been reduced to a few boggy meadows on the islands. They are the same islands, ironically, whose human populations suffered such decline as ideas on farming changed. But old mowing practices lingered longer in the Hebrides, the fields being too small for machines, so this is where the bird is making it's last stand, and where conservation efforts are taking effect."

Corncrakes in the grass  RSPB photograph

The Isle of Coll

Jamie is determined to see, not merely hear, her bird, so she plants herself on an RSBP "corncrake viewing bench," with a view of two lush meadows, and waits.

"Corncrakes don't feature on Christmas cards, or sing after the rain. Their migration has none of the romance of swallows', though they cover the same distance. They arrive in spring, but we've forgotten that they are spring's heralds. They skulk in the grass like guilty things, hardly encouraging us to look to the skies. They offer us no metaphors about fidelity, or maternal dedication; they are just medium-sized brown birds. Nonetheless, I feel robbed -- denied one of the sounds of summer, which all our forebears would have known, that irksome little crex-crex. Why conserve them, other than it being our moral duty to another life form on this earth? If there is no 'clam'rin craik,' no 'noisy one of the rushes,' it betokens something out of kilter with the larger ecosystem on which ultimately, in as-yet-undiscovered ways, we all depend.

"That's what the ecologists and scientists will tell you. But there are things which cannot be said -- not by scientists, anyway. Another person arrives at the viewing bench...a man in young middle age, a holiday maker. We fall into conversation -- he obviously knows his stuff about birds. He has a young family with him on the island and, while they're on the beach, he has slunk off for an hour in the hope of spotting a corncrake. So here he is, an Englishman of higher education with a professional job, a family, a cagoule and good binoculars.

" 'Can I ask you why you like them? Corncrakes, I mean.'

" 'Well,' he said. 'They're like...little gods of the field, aren't they?'

"I could have punched the air. If corncrakes are rare, animism is rarer still. Anyone can clear his throat and talk about biodiversity, but 'Corncrakes...little gods of the field' will not get you published in ornithologists' journals. That's how I picture them now, however: standing chins up, open-beaked, like votive statues in the grass....

"There is talk of reintroducing corncrakes to England, so it might again crex through Constable's Dedham Vale. Till then the mainland's a diminished place; a thousand miles of country without one little god in the field."

Essays by Kathleen Jamie

Last photograph: Tilly snoozing on her fleece on the studio sofa, with Sightlines and Findings by Kathleen Jamie (Sort of Books/Peguin, 2012 & 2005). Both essay collections are highly recommended. The passages above are from Jamie's corncrake essay "Crex-Crex," from Findings. All rights reserved by the author.


Wild communion

Charlotte by Laurence Winram

In a post last week, I recommended Mozart's Starling by Lyanda Lynn Haupt -- a fascinating book about Mozart's bird companion (Star), the writer's own pet starling (Carmen), and reflections on this common bird, widely detested in North America for being nonnative and invasive. Today, I'd like to quote a beautiful passage from the latter chapters of the text looking at the nature of our wild relationships with the more-than-human world, a subject that often comes up in our discussions in the Mythic Arts field.

Haupt writes:

"When I set out to follow the story of Mozart and his starling, I saw in its center a shining, irresistible paradox: one of the greatest and most loved composers in all of history was inspired by a common, despised starling. Now I muse upon the many facets of this tale, and it is wonderful, yes, even more wonderful than I had imagined. But looking back at the trail that I have wandered with these kindred birds -- one in history and one in my home -- I see also that, as both humans and animals so often are, I have been tricked by my attraction to the shiny little object. For in the end, it is not the exceptionality of this story that is the true wonder. It is its ordinariness.

"In the creatures that intertwine with our lives, those we see daily and those that watch us from urban and wild places -- from between branches and beneath leaves and under eaves and stairwells and culverts and the sides of walks and pathways -- we share everything. We share breath, and biology, and blood. She share our needs for food and water and shelter. We share the imperative to mate and to give new life and to keep our young safe and warm and fed. We share susceptibility to disease and the potential to suffer and an inevitable frailty in the face of these things. We share a certain death. We share everything, constantly, every moment of the day and night, across eons. And in this shared earthly living, when we give our attention to it, we find the basis of our compassion, and our empathy for other creatures....

Each creature has its particular ways and wiles. Each being has its own presence, voice, silence, song, body, place. We are bound by our sameness and uniqueness in equal measure -- both spring from our shared being on a vital, conscious earth. This is wild communion. And it is in this recognition that we move beyond simple compassion to a more certain, more essential sense of relatedness, of kinship.

Mihaela 1 by Laurence Winram

"Mozart felt this, I know. Like me, he was drawn at first to the shiny thing -- in his case it was Star's singing back to him the song he himself had written. But in his elegy poem [written upon Star's death] we see that a different relationship evolved. The bird's mimicry is not once mentioned. This is a poem to a kindred creature whose presence brought play, sound, song, joy, and friendliness to the maestro's life. And in the work that Star inspired, this is what we see too. A shared sense of mischief, music, and delight. The word kinship comes from the Old English -- of the same kind, and therefore related. Kindly and kindness also grow from this root -- the bearing toward others that kinship inspires.

Nikita II by Laurence Winram

"I have always thought of all creatures -- all organisms really -- as relations. Whether wandering alone in deep wilderness or just leaning against a tree growing beside an urban sidewalk, I have no difficulty feeling, as if in a dreamtime, the roots of our relatedness -- ecologically, yes, but also with an overlay of the sacred, the holy. Starlings, though pretty, were a rift in this vision. They fluttered outside this wholeness. But my thinking has evolved. Ecologically, it is true -- starlings do not belong in this country, this city; but relationally, it is not true. We live together in a tangled complexity. I listen to the starlings mimic back to me my own profound ecological shortcomings. Carmen is a creature with a body, voice, and consciousness in the world. In this, we are sisters. And all these unwelcome starlings on the grassy parking strip? Yes, they are my relations too.

Charlotte 1 by Laurence Winram

"The Cartesian belief in the absolute separateness of lives, bodies, and brains maintains a foothold in the traditions of our modern culture. We see it in the ways we are pitted against one another in commerce, in education, and in the small, daily jealousies of our own minds. We see it in the ways that we continue to find it culturally acceptable to diminish animals in agriculture, in entertainment, and in scientific experimentation. And yes, when we are attentive, we find that we are not separate, not alone. We are not isolated little minds wandering on a large, indifferent earth. We are surrounded by our kin, by all of life, beings with whom we are wayfarers together. Instead of walking upon, we walk within, and this within-ness brings our imaginations to life. We are inspired -- literally "breathed upon" -- together.

"Our creativity and our connection to other beings is tangled in a beautiful etymology. The words creative and creature spring from the same Latin root, creare, "to produce, to grow, to bring into existence." It was Ged, Ursula Le Guin's beloved young wizard of Earthsea, who learned after the fall of his individual pride that the wise person is "one who never sets himself apart from other living things, whether they have speech or not, and in later years he strove long to learn what can be learned, in silence, from the eyes of animals, the flight of birds, the slow gestures of trees." Through such understanding we arrive at a new wholeness. We become more receptive and free in body and imagination, and our unique potential for creative magnificence is enlivened. We become the listening artists of our own lives and culture."

Yes, indeed.

Fiona I by Laurence Winram

The art today is by Scottish photographer Laurence Winram, whose work appears on Karine Polwart's Wind Resistance album (recommended last week). The imagery here is from his Shadow, Conemen, and Mythologos series. Visit Winram's website and blog to see more.

Coneman III by Laurence Winram

"The ancient Greeks made sense of their world not only by logic but by myth too," says the artist. "They saw it was necessary to view things in these opposite ways in order to have a balanced understanding of their lives. I feel we have moved out of that balance, unconsciously letting go of that mythic element to our lives. As a result we've lost touch with our own personal vision and creativity. We let a dogmatic scientific perspective rule everything, from our dreams to our notions of the spiritual.

"I try to reflect on this, creating images that sometimes imagine a world where logic has been sidelined by the mythic, or images that mock our need to analyse and break down those parts of our life that we should truly respond to more intuitively."

Hazel Flew by Laurence Winram

Otto's Flight II by Laurence Winram

The passages above is from Mozart's Starling by Lyanda Lynn Haupt (Little, Brown & Co., 2017); all rights reserved by the author. Thanks again to William Todd Jones (via composer Hillary Tann) for passing the book on to me; and to Steve Toase for recommending Laurence Winram's work. All rights to the photogaphy above reserved by the artist.


When we had wings

Metamorphosis by Christian Schloe

From When Women Were Birds: 54 Variations on Voice by Terry Tempest Williams:

"Once upon a time, when women were birds, there was the simple understanding that to sing at dawn and to sing at dusk was to heal the world through joy. The birds still remember what we have forgotten, that the world is meant to be celebrated."

Perhaps it's time to re-claim our wings and song, men and women alike.

The Jungle Book (detail) by Christian Schloe

The Gentleman by Christian Schloe

The magical imagery today is by Austrian digital artist Christian Schloe.

Fairy Tale Night by Christian Schloe

The quote above is from When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams (Picador, 2012). This thoroughly gorgeous "poetic memoir" is a sequel to Williams' Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place. All rights to the text and art in this post reserved by the author and artist.


Magpie Moon

Blodeuwedd Night by Jackie Morris

Magpie and Raven by Jackie Morris

From Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams:

"Flocks of magpies have descended on our yard. I cannot sleep for all their raucous behavior. Perched on weathered fences, their green-black tales, long as rulers, wave up and down, reprimanding me for all I have not done.

"I have done nothing for weeks. I have no work. I don't want to see anyone much less talk. All I want to do is sleep.

Drawing by Jackie Morris

"Monday, I hit rock-bottom, different from bedrock, which is solid, expansive, full of light and originality. Rock-bottom is the bottom of the rock, the underbelly that rarely gets turned over; but when it does, I am the spider that scurries from daylight to find another place to hide.

Owl Wore the Moon as a Halo by Jackie Morris

"Today I feel stronger, learning to live with the natural cycles of a day and to not expect so much from myself. As women, we hold the moon in our bellies. It is too much to ask to operate on full-moon energy three hundred and sixty-five days a year. I am in a crescent phase. And the energy we expend emotionally belong belongs to the hidden side of the moon."

This is something I constantly forget: that not every day can be a full-moon day, no matter how many plans and schedules I make. There are cycles in everything, including writing and art-making. I am trying to work with and not against my natural rhythms. To ebb and flow; breathe in, breathe out. My goal is not to push, push, push, but to gently stay in motion....

They Nested in a Porcelain Bowl by Jackie Morris

The art today, of course, is by Jackie Morris, who lives in a house full of books, animals, and nature's magic on the coast Wales. I highly, highly recommend her new book, The Lost Words: a breath-takingly beautiful collaboration with Robert Macfarlane.

The Lord Words

Solstice Badger by Jackie Morris

The passage above is from Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams (Random House, 1991) -- a wonderful book that weaves personal memoir with bird lore and natural history. All rights to the text and art in this post reserved by the author and artist.


Mozart, starlings, and the inspiration-wind

A Luminosity of Birds

From Mozart's Starling by Lyanda Lynn Haupt:

"People always ask how I get ideas for by books. I think all authors hear this question. And, at least for me, there is only one answer: You can't think up an idea. Instead, an idea flies into your brain -- unbidden, careening, and wild, like a bird out of the ether. And though Starlingthere is a measure of chance, luck, and grace involved, for the most part ideas don't arise from actual ether; instead they spring from the metaphoric opposite -- from the rich soil that has been prepared, with and without our knowledge, by the whole of our lives: what we do, what we know, what we see, what we dream, what we fear, what we love....

"And as a writer, of course, I live by inspiration. I watch it come and go; when it's missing, I pray for its reappearance. I light a candle and put it in my window hoping that this little ritual might help inspiration find its way back to me, like a lover lost in a snowstorm. The word itself is beautiful. Inspire is from the Latin, meaning 'to be breathed upon; to be breathed into.' Just as I ponder the migrations of birds, I ponder the migrations of inspiration's light breeze. If it's not with me, where has it been? Who has it breathed upon while it was away, and when, and how? Over and over again, I have come to terms with the sad truth that inspiration never visits at my convenience, nor in accordance with my sense of timing, nor at the behest of my will. Most of all, the inspiration-wind has no interest whatsoever in what I think I want to write about."

Haupt is an ecophilosopher and naturalist who has has studied birds for much of her life; she has also worked as a raptor rehabilitator, and once this history became known in her neighborhood, "it seemed that all the injured birds within a fifty-mile radius had a way of finding me." So it's no surprise that birds are the focus of several of her books, including Crow Planet, Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent, and Rare Encounters with Ordinary Birds. What did surprise her was when inspiration came in the form of a starling.

Bird Girls

In conservation circles, she explains, starlings are easily the most despised birds in all North America: a ubiquitous, nonnative species that has invaded sensitve habitats and outcompetes native birds for food and nest sites.  One day as she sat at her desk, she looked out the window and saw "a plague of starlings" on a strip of grass beyond the house. Other birds find starlings intimidating, so Haupt pounded on the window to make them leave. This had little effect. "So I rapped the window harder," she writes, "and again they lifted. But this time, they turned toward the light and I was dazzled by the glistening iridescence of their breasts. So shimmery, ink black and scattered with pearlescent spots, like snow in sun. Hated birds, lovely birds. In this moment of conflicted beauty, a story I'd heard many times came to mind.

"Mozart had kept a pet starling."

Bird Children from my sketchbooks 2

"Mozart discovered the starling in a Vienna pet shop," Haupt explains, "where the bird had somehow learned to sing the motif from his newest piano concerto. Enchanted, he bought the bird for a few kreuzer and kept it for three years before it died. Just how the starling learned Mozart's motif is a wonderful musico-ornithological mystery. But there is one thing we know for certain: Mozart loved his starling. Recent examinations of his work during and after the period he lived with the bird shows that the starling influenced his music and, I believe, at least one of the opera world's favorite characters. The starling in turn was his companion, distraction, consolation, and muse. When his father, Leopold, died, Wolfgang did not travel to Salzburg for the services. When his starling died, two months later, Mozart hosted a formal funeral in his garden and composed a whimsical elegy that proclaimed his affinity with the starling's mischievousness and his sorrow over the bird's loss."

Bird child and friendsWhile Haupt was was watching the starlings and thinking of Mozart, the Pandora station she was listening to began to play the composer's Prague Symphony -- and with this co-incidence she felt a new obsession take root. "I could not stop wondering over the tangled story of Mozart and his starling and felt I was being pulled through an unseen gateway as I began to follow the tale's trail, uncovering all I could from my 250-year remove.

"What did Mozart learn from his bird? The juxtaposition of the hated and sublime is fascinating enough. But how did they interact? What was the source of their affinity? And how did the starling come to know Mozart's tune? I dove into research, making detailed notes on the starlings in my neighborhood. But gaps in my understanding of starling behavior remained and niggled, and within a few weeks I reluctantly realized that to truly understand what it meant for Mozart to live with a starling, I would, like the maestro, have to live with a starling of my own."

And so she did.

The book and the starlingThe resulting book is Mozart's Starling, which I highly recommend: a skillful blend of musical history, natural science, and personal memoir, with meditations on creativity, migration, and so much more.

"Following Mozart's starling, and mine," Haupt relates in the Introduction, "I was led on a crooked, beautiful, and unexpected path  that would through Vienna and Salzburg, the symphony, the opera, ornithological labs, the depths of music theory, and the field of linguistics. It led me to outer space. It led me deep into the natural world and our constant wild animal companions. It led me to the understanding that there is more possibility in our relationships with animals -- with all the creatures of the earth, not just the traditionally beautiful, or endangered, or loved -- than I had ever imagined. And in this potential for relationship there lies our deepest source of creativity, of sustenance, of intelligence, and of inspiration."

Mozart's Starling by Lyanda Lynn Haupt

Words: The passages above are from Mozart's Starling by Lyanda Lynn Haupt (Little, Brown & Co., 2017); all rights reserved by the author. Many thanks to William Todd Jones (via composer Hillary Tann) for passing the book on to me.

Pictures: My collage "The Luminosity of Birds" and a various "bird children" from my sketchbooks. All rights reserved.


The world is a proliferation

Ponies 1

It's taken me a long while to be receptive to the work of Scottish novelist and playwright Ali Smith, almost as if I had to learn how to read her -- but Smith's Autumn is the book that taught me how to do so, and now I'm hooked on them all. (I blush to think that I felt the same about Virginia Woolf when I was young. Thank heavens that changed.)

Another favorite writer, Olivia Laing (author of To the River, The Lonely City, etc.), noted this in a profile for The Guardian:

"I’ve known Smith since I was 17 (her partner, the artist and film-maker Sarah Wood, is my cousin). In the 1990s we used to write each other letters. Recently I unearthed a blurry photograph she sent me 20 years ago of a cat’s tail dangling over a sofa. 'I have a long-term plan to write a novella for each season,' she’d written on the back. 'It seems to me the seasons are so gifted to us that it’s a kind of duty, a very nice one.'

"Though she jokes now that she sounds like Katherine Mansfield pretending to be charming, this talk of gifts and duties gets to something essential about Smith. She believes in unselfish communal values such as altruism and generosity and has an infectious faith in hospitality, be it to new ideas or strangers. In addition to writing eight novels and five collections of short stories, she has fought against the mass closure of public libraries ('libraries matter because we’re living in an age of disinformation') and the proposed scrapping of the Human Rights Act; is a patron of the charity Refugee Tales and a staunch advocate for young writers and writers who have fallen out of fashion. She’s not, in short, an artist who seeks to wall herself off from the world."

Even in the Mythic Fiction field, where we render life through myth and metaphor, many of us are likewise determined not to wall ourselves off from the world but to use our art to guide each other through the dark. Smith shows how to do so without slipping from storytelling into didactism.

Ponies 2

From Autumn, Smith's poetic and powerful "post-Brexit" novel, published last year:

"Her mother sits down on the churned-up ground near the fence. I’m tired, she says. It’s only two miles, Elisabeth says. That’s not what I mean, she says. I’m tired of the news. I’m tired of the way it makes things spectacular that aren’t, and deals so simplistically with what’s truly appalling. I’m tired of the vitriol. I’m tired of the anger. I’m tired of the meanness. I’m tired of the selfishness. I’m tired of how we’re doing nothing to stop it. I’m tired of how we’re encouraging it. I’m tired of the violence there is and I’m tired of the violence that’s on its way, that’s coming, that hasn’t happened yet. I’m tired of liars. I’m tired of sanctified liars. I’m tired of how those liars have let this happen. I’m tired of having to wonder whether they did it out of stupidity or did it on purpose. I’m tired of lying governments. I’m tired of people not caring whether they’re being lied to any more. I’m tired of being made to feel this fearful. I’m tired of animosity. I’m tired of pusillanimosity. I don’t think that’s actually a word, Elisabeth says. I’m tired of not knowing the right words, her mother says. "

Lord, yes.

Ponies 9

Horse 1

From Public Library & Other Stories:

"Elsewhere there are no mobile phones. Elsewhere sleep is deep and the mornings are wonderful. Elsewhere art is endless, exhibitions are free and galleries are open twenty-four hours a day. Elsewhere alcohol is a joke that everybody finds funny. Elsewhere everybody is as welcoming as they’d be if you’d come home after a very long time away and they’d really missed you. Elsewhere nobody stops you in the street and says, are you a Catholic or a Protestant, and when you say neither, I’m a Muslim, then says yeah but are you a Catholic Muslim or a Protestant Muslim? Elsewhere there are no religions. Elsewhere there are no borders. Elsewhere nobody is a refugee or an asylum seeker whose worth can be decided about by a government. Elsewhere nobody is something to be decided about by anybody. Elsewhere there are no preconceptions. Elsewhere all wrongs are righted. Elsewhere the supermarkets don’t own us. Elsewhere we use our hands for cups and the rivers are clean and drinkable. Elsewhere the words of the politicians are nourishing to the heart. Elsewhere charlatans are known for their wisdom. Elsewhere history has been kind. Elsewhere nobody would ever say the words bring back the death penalty. Elsewhere the graves of the dead are empty and their spirits fly above the cities in instinctual, shapeshifting formations that astound the eye. Elsewhere poems cancel imprisonment. Elsewhere we do time differently. Every time I travel, I head for it. Every time I come home, I look for it."

And so do I.

Ponies 8

 From Girl Meets Boy: The Myth of Iphis:

"And it was always the stories that needed the telling that gave us the rope we could cross any river with. They balanced us high above any crevasse. They made us be natural acrobats. They made us brave. They met us well. They changed us. It was in their nature to."

Ponies 4

From Autumn:

"It's a question of how we regard our situations, how we look and see where we are, and how we choose, if we can, when we are seeing undeceivedly, not to despair and, at the same time, how best to act. Hope is exactly that, that's all it is, a mater of how we deal with the negative acts towards human beings by other human beings in the world, remembering that they and we are all human, that nothing human is alien to us, the foul and the fair, and that most important of all we're here for a mere blink of the eyes, that's all."

Ponies 10

From Autumn

"There's always, there'll always be, more story. That's what story is."

Ponies a

And from a fine interview with Smith in 2014 by Alex Clark:

"Smith describes herself as 'a really uncool, geeky enthusiast.' Was she aware of the power of books from a young age? 'Oh, always!" she laughs. 'I was profoundly changed by Charlotte's Web. When you fall in love with a book something especially interesting and exciting is happening because of the way language works on us as human beings. And I love language. And I also love butterflies, and cloud-shapes, and types of train. What can I say? The world is a proliferation."

Ponies 13

Words: Follow the links above to read the full articles by Olivia Laing and Alex Clark. The poem in the picture captions is from the Food/Land issue of of the Canadian magazine Guts (Fall, 2015); all rights reserved by the author.

Pictures: Dartmoor ponies on Chagford Commons on a winter's day.


The dance of joy and grief

A young Mandrill (Equatorial Guinea) by Joel Sartore

This post first appeared on October 1, 2014:

Shaken by the news that the earth has lost 50% of its wildlife in the last forty years, I turn to the words of Terry Tempest Williams and the photographs of Joel Sartore. The following passage comes from a radio interview with Williams conducted by Justine Toms in 1994:

"I think about how, for all practical purpses, the Tahoe salmon are gone as we know them," Williams muses. "Less than a hundred years ago, according to the stories of native peoples [on the American west coast], you could walk across the backs of salmon to reach the other side of the river. Now we're lucky if we see one or two. What does that mean? What does that mean in terms of our idea of community? What does that mean in terms of the sustainability of our relations, deep relations?

Eurasian lynx by Joel Sartore

Kootenai River white sturgeon, Idaho, by Joel Sartore

Hawaiian geese by Joel Sartore

"So much more than ever before, I feel both the joy of wilderness and the absolute pain in terms of what we are losing. And I think we're afraid of inhabiting, of staying in, this landscape of grief. Yet if we don't acknowledge the losses, then I feel we won't be able to step forward with compassionate intelligence to make the changes necessary to maintain wildness on the planet."

Young female snowy owl by Joel Sartore

Warthogs by Joel Sartore

Toms responds: "You talk about the paradox of feeling the joy in what is still available and the pain of what we are losing. Let's stay with the paradox for the moment. How does it help us to stay there and feel both places?"

"I don't know," Williams answers frankly, "except that I believe it's a dance. And I believe that it makes us more human. I love Clarice Lispector when she writes in her book, An Apprenticeship, that 'what human beings want more than anything else is to become human beings.' If we don't allow ourselves to feel the full range of emotion -- deep joy and deep pain -- then I think we are less than who we can be."

Pygmy marmoset by Joel Sartore

How do we express, even use, this dance as writers, or as other kinds of creators? In "Last Days, Last Words" (Dark Mountain, Issue 3), John Rember advises:

"There's plenty to write about in this word, especially if you can keep existentially funny and honesty grief-stricken about it."

Nebraskan coyote pups by Joel Sartore

"You ask what gives me hope," says Terry Tempest Williams in a later interview. "Two words: forgiveness and restoration."

My heart beat faster when I read those words. They apply to so many things.

St. Andrews beach mouse by Joel Sartore

Pronghorn antelope by Joel Sartore

For further reading poised on that narrow ground between joy and grief, I recommend: The Rarest of the Rare: Vanishing Animals, Timeless Worlds by Diane Ackerman, Wild: An Elemental Journey by Jay Griffiths, An Unspoken Hunger: Stories from the Field by Terry Tempest Williams, Singing to the Sound: Visions of Nature, Animals, and Spirit by Brenda Peterson, Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living World by Linda Hogan, A Field Guide to Becoming Lost by Rebecca Solnit, Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology by David Abram, Feral: Rewilding the Land, Sea, & Human Life by George Monbiot, Wild Comfort by Kathleen Dean Moore, The Fish Ladder by Katherine Norbury, Trace by Lauret Savoy, Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane, The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane & Jackie Morris, and the books produced by The Dark Mountain Project. This isn't an exhaustive list by any means, just a good place to start.

The photographs here are from Joel Sartore's  Photo Ark project, sponsored by National Geographic. "For many of Earth’s creatures, time is running out,"  he explains. "Half of the world’s plant and animal species will soon be threatened with extinction. The goal of the Photo Ark is to document biodiversity, show what’s at stake and to get people to care while there’s still time.  More than 3,700 species have been photographed to date, with more to come."

I highly recommend Sartore's beautiful (and heart-breaking) book Rare: Portraits of America's Endangered Species, as well as his other works on endangered animals around the world. You can see more of his photographs, and buy prints of them (to support the Photo Ark project) on Sartore's website.

San Lucas marsupial frog by Joel Sartore

Coquerel's sifaka by Joel Sartore

Words & pictures: The interview passages above are from A Voice in the Wilderness: Conversations with Terry Tempest Williams, edited by Michael Austin (Utah State University Press, 2006). All rights to the text and photographs above reserved by the authors and artist. Though this post was written in 2014, I've added a few books published since then to the Recommended Reading list.


Hound foolery

Hat

Howard has gone off to London for a month, where he's teaching Commedia dell'Arte at the East 15 Acting School. We had the usual flurry of getting him packed and on the road, with one suitcase full of masks and another full of books. Afterwards, as I was tidying up, I found a pile of discarded costumes on a chair, including a couple of Jester caps. Then I had a wicked thought and whistled for Tilly....

It's a good thing she's such a good sport.

Hat 2

''You may make a great fool of yourself with a dog and not only will he not scold you, but he will make a great fool of himself too."  - Samuel Butler

Hat 3

For a fascinating piece on the mythic roots of comedy, clowning, and Commedia, I recommend "A Chorus of Clowns and Masked Comic Theater" by my friend Midori Snyder.

"Humor is an old response to fear of the unknown and contempt for the familiar," she writes. "For 3,000 years, somewhere a chorus of clowns has misbehaved, and in their audacity, called down gods, heroes, and legends for a face to face meeting with humanity, offering laughter as a form of reverence."

Hat 4

"You will do foolish things, but do them with enthusiasm."  - Colette

Hat 3

Disclaimer: no hounds were harmed in this portrait session. She was paid Equity rates in dog treats for her work.


The Peace of Wild Things

Tilly by the stream

Fridays are my day for re-visiting posts from the Myth & Moor archives. Since yesterday's offering included a passage from Priscilla Stuckey's Kissed by a Fox, here's another snippet from the same fine book. This post first appeared in October, 2014.

During my coffee break beside the stream yesterday, I was struck by the following words in Priscilla Stuckey's Kissed by a Fox (and Other Stories of Friendship in Nature):

"If mind belongs to humans alone," she writes, "then stones, trees, and streams become mere objects of human tinkering. We can plunder the earth's resources with impunity, treating creeks and mountaintops in Kentucky or rivers in India or forests in northwest America as if they existed only for economic development. Systems of land and river become inert chunks of lifeless mud or mechanical runs of H2O rather than the living, breathing bodies upon which we and all other creatures depend for our very lives.

Water and stone

"Not to mention what 'nature as machine' has done to our emotional and spiritual well-being. When we regard nature as churning its way forward mindlessly through time, we turn our backs on mystery, shunning the complexity as well as the delights of relationship. We isolate ourselves from the rest of the creatures with whom we share this world. We imagine ourselves the apex of creation -- a lonely spot indeed. Human minds become the measure of creation and human thoughts become the only ones that count. The result is a concept of mind shorn of its wild connections, in which feelings become irrelevant, daydreams are mere distractions, and nighttime dreams -- if we attend to them at all -- are but the cast-offs of yesterday's overactive brain. Mind is cut off from matter, untouched by exingencies of mud or leaf, shaped by whispers or gales of wind, as if we were not, like rocks, made of soil.

"And then we wonder at our sadness and depression, not realizing that our own view of reality has sunk us into an unbearable solipsism, an agony of separateness -- from loved ones, from other creatures, from rich but unruly emotions, in short, from our ability to connect, through senses and feeling and imagination, with the world that is our home."

Coffee break

Introspection

A little later in the same essay she writes:

"And here lies the crux of the matter: to say that nature is personal may mean not so much seeing the world differently as acting differently -- or, to state it another way, it may mean interacting with more-than-human others in nature as if those others had a life of their own and then coming to see, through experience, that these others are living, interactive beings.

"When nature is personal, the world is peopled by rocks, trees, rivers, and mountains, all of whom are actors and agents, protagonists of their own stories rather than just props in a human story. When Earth is truly alive, the world is full of persons, only some of whom are human."

Mushroom people

Acorn people

Oak elder

In an essay on animal consciousness published in Lapham's Quaterly, John Jeremiah Sullivan notes:

"If we put aside the self-awareness standard -- and really, how arbitrary and arrogant is that, to take the attribute of consciousness we happen to possess over all creatures and set it atop the hierarchy,  Drawing by Terri Windlingproclaiming it the very definition of consciousness (Georg Christoph Lichtenberg wrote something wise in his notebooks, to the effect of: only a man can draw a self-portrait, but only a man wants to) -- it becomes possible to say at least the following: the overwhelming tendency of all this scientific work, of its results, has been toward more consciousness. More species having it, and species having more of it than assumed. This was made boldly clear when the 'Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness' pointed out that those 'neurological substrates' necessary for consciousness (whatever 'consciousness' is) belong to 'all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses.' The animal kingdom is symphonic with mental activity, and of its millions of wavelengths, we’re born able to understand the minutest sliver. The least we can do is have a proper respect for our ignorance.

"The philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote an essay in 1974 titled, 'What Is It Like To Be a Bat?,' in which he put forward perhaps the least overweening, most useful definition of 'animal consciousness' ever written, one that channels Spinoza’s phrase about 'that nature belonging to him wherein he has his being.' Animal consciousness occurs, Nagel wrote, when 'there is something that it is to be that organism -- something it is like for the organism.' The strangeness of his syntax carries the genuine texture of the problem. We’ll probably never be able to step far enough outside of our species-reality to say much about what is going on with them, beyond saying how like or unlike us they are. Many things are conscious on the earth, and we are one, and our consciousness feels like this; one of the things it causes us to do is doubt the existence of the consciousness of the other millions of species. But it also allows us to imagine a time when we might stop doing that."

Amen.

In addition to Stuckey's book and Sullivan's essay, I recommend Brandon Kein's "Being a Sandpiper" (Aeon); Stephen M. Wise's "Nonhuman Rights to Personhood" (pdf); and Karen Joy Fowler's brilliant and devastating new novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. (Avoid reviews of the latter if you possibly can. The less you know about the story before you read it, the more wonderful it is.)

Drawing by Terri Windling

Tilly and the oak elderThe passage by Priscilla Stuckey above is from Kissed by a Fox & Other Stories of Friendship in Nature (Counterpoint, 2012). The poem in the picture captions is from The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry (Counterpoint, 1999). You can hear the author read it here. All rights to the text above reserved by the authors.


On Kindness

Nattadon 1

Living in these strange and troubling times, there's a mantra that I often repeat to myself (as I've mentioned here before): Be gentle, be gentle, be gentle. Stand your ground, know your truth, but be kind.

"Kindness" is a quality I value very highly although it's given little credence these days, dismissed as soft, simple, and sentimental in a culture that rewards the sharp, the hard, the self-reliant (or merely self-absorbed), lauding those who push to the front of the queue of success, wealth, and celebrity -- too often with little regard for the "losers" and "weaklings" thrust out of their way. Thus it was with great interest that I came across the little book On Kindness by two distinguished modern thinkers: historian Barbara Taylor and psychoanalyst Adam Phillips.

"Why do the pleasures of kindness astonish us?" they ask. "And why are stories of kindness often so corny or silly, so trivializing of the things that matter the most to most people?"

Why indeed?

Nattadon 2

Nattadon 3

Nattadon 4

"The pleasures of kindess were well known in the past," Phillips and Taylor point out. "Kindness was man's 'greatest delight,' the Roman philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius declared, and thinkers and writers have echoed him down through the centuries. But today many people find these pleasures literally incredible, or at least highly suspect. An image of the self has been created that is utterly lacking in natural generosity. Most people appear to believe that deep down they (and other people) are mad, bad and dangerous to know; that as a species -- apparently unlike other species of animal -- we are deeply and fundamentally antagonistic to each other, that our motives are utterly self-seeking and that our sympathies are forms of self-protectiveness."

Nattadon 5

Nattadon 6

On Kindness, say the authors, is an explanation of how this state of affairs has come about. Despite the devaluation (and feminization) of the ideal of kindness in the modern age, "people are leading secretly kind lives all the time, but without a language in which to express this, or cultural support for it. Living according to our sympathies, we imagine, will weaken or overwhelm us; kindness is the saboteur of the successful life.

Nattadon 7

"We need to know how we have come to believe that the best lives we can lead seem to involve sacrificing the best things about ourselves; and how we have come to believe that there are greater pleasures than kindness. Kindness -- not sexuality, not violence, not money -- has become our forbidden pleasure. What about our times has made kindness seem so dangerous?"

Nattadon 8

That's a question I very much want an answer to -- and this book, alas, did not fully provide it, simply because it's too short to go very deeply into such a complex subject. It makes for a good beginning, however: the chapters on the history and philosophy of kindness are both fascinating and illuminating. (The middle of the book, by contrast, is devoted to Freudian theories of kindness; they are well explicated, but can be skipped over if, like me, you're allergic to Freud.)

Despite these reservations, I recommend On Kindness because it starts a much-needed conversation on the subject. I hope that other writers will continue the conversation, going beyond Taylor & Phillips' classical focus to examine kindness in other societal traditions. We need new conceptual frameworks for re-building kindness as a cultural ideal: genderless, classless, diverse and inclusive. We need to lift the ideal of kindness above the cliche of sentimentality and see it for the brave, vital, necessary force it is. Let's make the Beautiful Resistance a movement rich in kindness.

Are you with me?

Nattadon 9

Nattadon 10

On Kindness by Phillips & TaylorThe passages above are from On Kindness by Adam Phillips & Barbara Taylor (Penguin Books, 2009). The poem in the picture captions is from Poetry magazine (March 2003). All rights reserved by the authors.