Letting Language Take Root
Monday, April 19, 2010
It's Digital Detox Week, an annual event sponsored by Adbusters – which for me, along with the unfolding signs of spring (the primroses thick on the hillside now and the daffodils running riot through the woods) reminds me each year to take a look at my online life and my outdoor life, and to make sure these two things are in hózhó, harmany, good balance. This year that's meant pruning back my online presence, limiting the number of emails I can reasonably expect myself to answer each day, and adhering to our household policy of keeping computers entirely off on Sundays.
Now, don't get me wrong: I'm not one of those people who believes that the Internet is the devil's tool, intent upon destroying face-to-face community and replacing real life with a virtual simulation. It can do those things, of course; and it can also do the opposite: enrich and facilitate community life and our experience of the physical world. Like any communication technology, it depends entirely on how we use it.
It's not surprising to me that so many of us in the Mythic Arts field have embraced the Internet so enthusiastically, for as a medium for the transmission of stories and ideas it's not only powerful and endlessly adaptable, but also remarkably accessible and democratic. I love the way that young artists (like Rima Staines and Danielle Barlow, for example) and young writers (like the folks at Goblin Fruit) can now find audiences for their work without being dependent (as we were in my generation) on the Gatekeepers of traditional media; I love the blogs (like In the Labyrinth, Grand Tour, and Seven Miles of Steel Thistles) that allow writers to communicate with their readers beyond the confines of a novel's pages; and I love watching mythic artists use modern mediums to keep ancient tales alive.
Overall, I love the Internet. And yet I also know that I have to put boundaries around my use of it. As a writer, I spend enough time as it is behind these plastic computer keys...and although I do so in order to weave tales of earth and sky and wind and rain and animals and spirits on the printed page, I want my tales to reflect my experience of the natural world, not replace that experience. As much as I love wandering the woods of myth, as much as I love conjuring those woods in stories of my own, the real woods lie beyond the front door and that's where I must always go first. For my soul's sake. And for my art's sake.
In his luminous book Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram discusses the many ways that moving from an oral culture to a print culture has impacted, and even impoverished, our experience of the world around us. (His thesis is a nuanced and persuasive one; I won't try to encapsulate it here, but recommend reading it in full.) As a folklorist, I'm fascinated by David's argument; while as a writer, I find it more challenging, for I dearly love books and the printed page. Yet David isn't attempting to suggest that we turn our backs on literacy now, but rather that we understand its cultural, spiritual, and environmental implications. Addressing his fellow writers, he says:
“For those of us who care for an earth not encompassed by machines, a world of textures, tastes, and sounds other than those that we have engineered, there can be no question of simply abandoning literacy, of turning away from all writing. Our task, rather, is that of taking up the written word, with all its potency, and patiently, carefully, writing language back into the land. Our craft is that of releasing the budded, earthly intelligence of our words, freeing them to respond to the speech of things themselves--the the green uttering-forth of leaves from the spring branches. It is the practice of spinning stories that have a rhythm and lilt of the local soundscape, tales for the tongue, tales that want to be told, again and again, sliding off the digital screen and slipping off the lettered page to inhabit the coastal forests, those desert canyons, those whispering grasslands and valley and swamps. Finding phrases that place us in contact with the trembling neck-muscles of a deer holding its antlers high as it swims toward the mainland, or with the ant dragging a scavenged rice-grain through the grasses. Planting words, like seeds, under rocks and fallen logs -- letting language take root, once again, in the earthen silence of shadow and bone and leaf.”
What does all this mean for me, personally? First, that I try to do as David Abram suggests when I sit to write or paint: to bring the physical world into my work, whether desert or moorland or city street. And second, that I strive to live in such a way that writing and art springs out of my life; it doesn't become my life. And that means turning off the computer every now and again, putting down my paint brushes and pens, lacing up my boots, whistling for the dog, and going out my front door. It means that I try to never forget that “community” begins at home: with my family, with my village, with the inter-species community of rooted and winged and four-legged beings among whom I live on this green hillside. And from this place, with my tap roots deep in the soil below, my “community” can then slowly spread: via books and paintings, via letters in the post, via pixels on the computer screen...to you, dear Reader. And to the land you live on, and the ones you share it with.
The poem I've chosen for today is, once again, by Mary Oliver – a poet who, above all others, reminds me to live in the body and not just in the mind; who pushes me out the front door. The poem is one I always keep pinned to my studio wall: Five A.M. in the Pinewoods.
The paintings above come from my Desert Spirits series. Follow the link if you'd like to know more about them.