"When did human beings forget their cousins the creatures?" asks Priscilla Stuckey in Kissed by a Fox, which I found myself re-reading recently. "When did we fail to remember that the web of life is a delicate one, requiring attention and care?
"Some point to the rise of agriculture ten thousand years ago. Ecologist Paul Shepard suggests that domesticating plants and animals led us to turn 'from finding to making,' from taking our chances with nature to manipulating nature. Others say that when people gathered into cities and built urban centers we became increasingly separated from the natural world. Environmental historian J. Donald Hughes writes that the urban revolution meant 'the great divorce of culture and nature' wherever it took place on the planet. Still others say that literacy trained people away from intimate connections with the more-than-human world. Philosopher Eric Havelock observed that when people no longer had to 'story' their experiences, as they do in oral societies, telling tales of characters and relationships, they shifted to considering others as things rather than persons. Cultural ecologist David Abram emphasizes that relying on the printed word changes our ways of perceiving: instead of listening to breezes, watching clouds, or feeling our way along animal tracks -- all practices to cultivate intimacy -- we allow our senses to dim, except for one particular way of using our eyes.
"While there is truth in all these analyses, I want to point to something at once simpler and more sweeping. I think we forget our cousins the creatures when we forget each other. When we retreat from caring for the human community, we lose regard for the more-than-human one as well. And the opposite is just as true: when we fall out of relationship with the natural world, we lose interest in helping one another thrive.
"For this is the bottom line of survival: it depends on our relationships with others. Though the land-community survived for millions of years without humans, we cannot survive without the land community. We are dependent for our day-to-day survival, our very existence, on billions of nonhuman others. And we are dependent in equally complex ways on one another."
We are indeed.
"Caught up in a mass of abstractions," writes David Abram, "our attention hypnotized by a host of human-made technologies that only reflect us back to ourselves, it is all too easy for us to forget our carnal inherence in a more-than-human matrix of sensations and sensibilities. Our bodies have formed themselves in delicate reciprocity with the manifold textures, sounds, and shapes of an animate earth -- our eyes have evolved in subtle interaction with other eyes, as our ears are attuned by their very structure to the howling of wolves and the honking of geese. To shut ourselves off from these other voices, to continue by our lifestyles to condemn these other sensibilities to the oblivion of extinction, is to rob our own senses of their integrity, and to rob our minds of their coherence. We are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human."
The art today is by Canadian sculptor Ellen Jewett. Born in Ontario and "raised among newts and snails," she studied Anthropology and Fine Art at McMaster University, and now creates surrealistic, biophilic works in clay from her studio on Vancouver Island.
"Plants and animals have always been the surface on which humans have etched the foundations of culture, sustenance, and identity," she says. "For myself, natural forms are a continual source of fascination and deep aesthetic pleasure. At first glance my work explores the more modern prosaic concept of nature: a source of serene nostalgia balanced with the more visceral experience of 'wildness' as remarkably alien and indifferent. Upon closer inspection of each 'creature' the viewer may discover a frieze on which themes as familiar as domestication and as abrasive as domination fall into sharp relief. These qualities are not only present in the final work but are fleshed out in the process of building. Each sculpture is constructed using an additive technique, layered from inside to out by an accumulation of innumerable tiny components. Many of these components are microcosmic representations of plants, animals and objects. Some are beautiful, some are grotesque and some are fantastical. The singularity of each sculpture is the sum total of its small narrative structures.
"Over time I find my sculptures are evolving to be of greater emotional presence by using less physical substance: I subtract more and more to increase the negative space. The element of weight, which has always seemed so fundamentally tied to the medium of sculpture, is stripped away and the laws of gravity are no longer in full effect. In reading the stories contained in each piece we are forced to acknowledge their emotional gravity cloaked as it is in the light, the feminine, the fragile, and the unknowable."
The passage by Priscilla Stuckey is from Kissed by a Fox & Other Stories of Friendship in Nature (Counterpoint, 2012); the passage by David Abram is from The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception & Language in a More-Than-Human World (Vintage, 1997). Both are highly recommended. All rights to the text and art above reserved by the authors and artist.