Tunes for a Monday Morning
Reading in the woods

The Peace of Wild Things

Tilly by the stream

During my coffee break beside the stream yesterday, I was struck by the following words in Priscilla Stuckey's lovely collections of essays, 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 elder

Comments

Hi Terri, I tried to post something earlier about living with Wild Things, but it disappeared into the electronic ether. It was about my hideous cats of course, and I'm sure I've said very similar things about them before, but as no one else has posted anything yet, I thought I'd have another go. Hopefully the original post won't suddenly turn up otherwise my offerings could get even more tedious.
Anyway, myself and Clare came back from the not-so-wild Malvern Hills on Sunday, and watching the beautiful countryside slowly peeling away from the approaching industrial heartlands of the Midlands was a sadness in itself. But when we finally arrived home and opened the front door we found that we'd brought a wilderness with us. The weather had been very wet over the weekend and every horizontal surface was covered in paw prints. many of the vertical surfaces were also decorated in a like manner, and in fact the cats responsible would've had to leap with incredible vigour to reach the heights of some of them. Not only that but all of my notebooks and sketch pads were covered in mud, leaves, dead slugs and what Clare delicately refers to as 'bottom-prints'
The bathroom too had received their attention, with long sliding streaks from the lip of the bath down to the plughole, and a similar motif could be found on a smaller scale in hand-basin and sink. Apart from that, most of the soft furnishings and upholstery looked like they had been designed by William Morris based on a drug-induced nightmare, and the carpets looked like a forest floor.
The culprits for this mayhem stretched luxuriously from the depths of what was once a clean and comfortable settee, raised their tails in greeting, purred at us thunderously, blinked at us lovingly and of course were immediately forgiven.
So I know Where the Wild Things Are, they live with myself and Clare. They're sentient and self-aware and are possessed of just enough malignant glee to make our lives continuously interesting.

Step outside

Step outside,
the wild awaits you,
Little tendrils
pull you forward
into the world beyond
your human door.
You who have been blinkered,
you who have lived deaf
to the chatter
of tree, river, leaf,
who have stayed
one short green step
from the wild
like a traveler new
to the silken enticements
of Samarkand,Manderlay,
cowering in the hotel
while the servants
laugh behind their hands
and call you names
that sound like compliments
but contain a swear.
Put out your hand,
the wild ones will sniff you,
mark you as theirs.
One step, then a another
and you will leave
the familiar gaol,
come home again
into what was once
your world.

©2013 Jane Yolen all rights reserved

I love this. Particularly:

Put out your hand,
the wild ones will sniff you,
mark you as theirs.

That's definitely what they've done to me.

"A mind shorn of its wild connections..." That rings true to me.

What a wonderful story!

Hi Terri

I adore this discussion on nature and how it influences our cognitive relationship with the landscape and its species. I grew up in provincial New York State with its farmlands, winding woods and hills. My own back yard extended into a forest that separated one section from the other with stone walls. I walked there and felt a certain kinship with both the plants and the animals residing within its leafy realm. When I made the move to California, the high desert area, the terrain and its climate took me by surprise. I found a heightened awareness of nature, beyond what I had known back east, and became attached to the creatures and things that lived in my garden and an arid field beyond populated with Joshua trees.

This quote from The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness really resonates with me personally.

"The animal kingdom is symphonic with mental activity, and of its millions of wavelengths, we’re born able to understand the minutest sliver"

I have found myself adopting the western fence lizard that suns himself on my porch step each day as a personal totem. He fascinates and intrigues. I can find attributes of my own behavior and emotions symbiotic with his. And recently, when discovering that he helps to keep the lime tick population down in Southern California, and yes we have that dreaded insect out here too, its not only indigenous to the Northeast, I was even more enamored of this lizard. So here was my small, poetic tribute to him:

To The Western Fence Lizard

You have found your place
in the sun, that niche
of intermittent light
beneath the looser weave
of a wicker bench.

Hidden from hawks
you lie there safe, elegantly sly
on a slab of concrete
like that of an ornament
on a Jaguar hood.

But you are not all show
and sleek seduction.

Your blood carries
a protein that cleanses
the lime tick of his bane
while your tongue
desacralizes a halo
of gnats.

You have learned ways
to temper heat and shade,
boost and guard
the yard’s eco system.

And though named
after the high place
where most of your species
will crawl, you prefer
our stoop to the wall. And with
such nimble feet, you could scale

or cling to the stones
but like me, you must fear
being cornered, pushed
up against yourself. The most
vulnerable part
that sheds poise, losing
its way of saving grace.

Hi Jane,

I love this poem and its invitation to step beyond the obvious, the familiar, and discover what lies outside in nature's world and spirit!

These opening lines express such truth with a wonderful
inviting tone!

Step outside,
the wild awaits you,
Little tendrils
pull you forward
into the world beyond
your human door.

Thank you so much for sharing this, a delight to ponder
this chilly afternoon in the high desert of California!

My best
Wendy

Oh this is so beautiful. As a farmer and lover of the land, I very much relate to this poem. Thank you.

Wendy, I've never been to a desert landscape, but this is lovely and makes me want to go.

Terri, after the numerous comments for the Poetry Challenge, I hope you don't feel that nature-based posts like this one aren't valued. I enjoyed the Poetry Challenge enormously, but this too is what I come to Myth & Moor for: thought-provoking gleanings from a wide range of texts and Tilly leading the way through the enchanting Devon landscape.

Thank you for these reading recommendations, which I will definitely check out.


' 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.

What a true statement. I think humanity underestimates and is ignorant of the web of wildness that supports and cradles us. This week we have been exploring these issues with the children in our school. Using Green (Patrick Rouxel's http://www.greenthefilm.com/
documentary), we have been trying to ignite the children's sense of their role here and its effect elsewhere.
They have amazed us with their sense of outrage, their understanding of the connections they have with a Sumatran rain forest. Some of them may well have ignited the spark of empathy and the need to belong to our world in the right way.

Forgive the rambling, it is the end of term and we are all exhausted. But still working hard to bring understanding and knowledge of the world to those who can change the world.

My cat Marlowe would be jealous of your Wild Things. He's stuck four stories up over Isadora Duncan Alley and has only papers, magazines and books to scatter; nothing
from the wild. The wildest thing we get here are shouts of glee from your tourists from
all around the world and sirens, alas., fire engine and police, not sea singers. I love
stories of your wildcats. And I think, at heart, Marlowe would love to be, well, feral.

By the way, in the avalanche of poetry, I did like yours but might not have commented.
It was like being in a carnival and turning around and around...what fun.

A lovely invitation. I have been there. I visit my own lone joys of animal, vegetable contact in my own forest in in dreams. now.

I have been to the high desert in Oregon and it is much the same. We are lucky who know
the secrets and hidden beauty of those regions. I especially like lizards, who do not blink
or move, until they whiz off. Excellent poem.

Oh, and the photos " noble Tillie sniffing the air, the mushroom close-up, green acorns like jewels...
I can almost sniff like Tillie, the wet and spicy air.

Thank you Terri and Phyllis both. Actually I've been thinking of writing the biography of the two cats and already have a working title. "The Beast with Two Heads."
What do you think?

I like it.

Ah, your poem brings the desert back to me on a damp Dartmoor morning. Thank you for that.

My own journey was similar, from growing up in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, then spending the early years of my adulthood in New York and Boston...but ending up, almost to my surprise, in the Arizona desert for many years. (My novel The Wood Wife was born out of that suprise.) Now I'm back in leafy green living here on Dartmoor, but the desert is still in my soul. It has a way of getting in there, doesn't it?

You're very welcome, Cynthia. Thanks for the kind words.

Charlotte, this isn't rambling at all; these are wise words and I completely agree with you. I don't know Rouxel's documentary -- thank you for the recommendation.

She'll like being called noble!

Please make sure you have a box of tissues as it will break your heart.

Thank you so much for this, Terri, these ideas and concerns are very close to my animal-loving heart. I'm excited to dig in to these links! I admire Wendell Berry enormously, and just watched a wonderful interview with him that those interested may wish to view: http://vimeo.com/76120469 Finally, maybe you are aware of last year's "Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness," in which a groups of neuroscientists rather belatedly signed on to the conclusion that animals and birds are conscious beings. Slow progress, but progress....

thanks Cynthia
so much for reading and responding to my thoughts and poem! The desert landscape is captivating. I hope you have a chance sometime to visit it.

Best regards,
Wendy

Oh sorry, you do mention the Cambridge Declaration above, missed it!

Hi Phyllis

Thank you so much for reading my poem and offering your insight on the high desert area. I agree, it is a place where we are privileged to discover the hidden secrets and
beauty that lies about and within.

My best
Wendy

Hi Terri

You are so right! The desert has its own way of penetrating the human soul. It is a sacred kind of haunting, something we almost crave and then cherish indefinitely. Thank you so much for sharing your personal experience and again for this wondrous blog entry. Those photos are breathtaking!

My best
Wendy

I consulted Marlowe and he said, "Mrow," which I think is positive.

The Wood Wife is so lovely; a novel I reread now and then as it is so close to my high
desert sense of magic. I have always hoped you'd write another novel.

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