The animals returning

A Deer by Jessica Roux

"Animals Are Entering Our Lives" by Liesel Mueller

“I will take care of you,” the girl said to her brother, who had been turned into a deer. She put her golden garter around his neck and
made him a bed of leaves and moss."  -  from an old tale

Deer by Jessica RouxEnchanted is what they were
in the old stories, or if not that,
they were guides and rescuers of the lost,
the lonely, the needy young men and women
in the forest we call the world.
That was back in a time
when we all had a common language.

Then something happened. Then the earth
became a place to trample and plunder.
Betrayed, they fled to the tallest trees,
the deepest burrows. The common language
became extinct. All we heard from them
were shrieks and growls and wails and whistles,
Taproot illustration by Jessica Rouxnothing we could understand.

Now they are coming back to us,
the latest homeless, driven by hunger.
I read that in the parks of Hong Kong
the squatter monkeys have learned to open
soft drink bottles and pop-top cans.
One monkey climbed an apartment building
and entered a third-floor bedroom.
He hovered over the baby’s crib
like a curious older brother.
Here in Illinois
Zaftig illustration by Jessica Rouxthe gulls swarm over the parking lots
miles from the inland sea,
and the Canada geese grow fat
on greasy leftover lunches
in the fastidious, landscaped ponds
of suburban corporations.

Their seasonal clocks have stopped.
They summer, they winter. Rarer now
is the long, black elegant V
in the emptying sky. It still touches us,
though we do not remember why.

But it’s the silent deer who come
and eat each night from our garden,
as if they had been invited.
The Deer and the Oats by Jessica RouxThey pick the tomatoes and the tender beans,
the succulent day-lily blossoms
and dewy geranium heads.
When you labored all spring,
planting our food and flowers,
you did not expect to feed
an advancing population
of the displaced. They come,
like refugees everywhere,
defying guns and fences
and risking death on the road
to reach us, their dispossessors,
who have become their last chance.
Shall we accept them again?
Shall we fit them with precious collars?
They scatter their tracks around the house,
closer and closer to the door,
like stray dogs circling their chosen home.

(from Alive Together: New and Selected Poems, 1996) 

Red Squirrel by Jessica Roux

German-American poet and translator Lisel Mueller left us in February, at the age of 96.  Learning of her death, I pulled her books down off the shelves and have been taking them with me on my walks with Tilly, stopping beneath a favourite tree, or by the stream, or at the crest of the hill to re-read her life's work...marvelling again at how fine it is, and how much of it has steeped into my dreams and language over the years.

The piece above is Mueller's folkloric response to Phillip Levine's "Animals Are Passing from Our Lives" (named for a line in an Isak Dinesen interview). The Levine poem was published in 1968, but still resonates in our own age of factory farming and ecological crisis; while Mueller's response, published in 1996, seems remarkably pertinent now, in the "great pause" of the global pandemic, as wildlife resurges and reclaims space usually dominated by humankind. 

(For a previously posted Mueller poem, "Why I Need the Birds," go here.)

Tricksters and Wild African Dog by Jessca Roux

The art today is by Jessica Roux, whose work (animal lover that I am) I just adore. Raised in the woodlands of North Carolina, Roux studied at the Savannah College of Art & Design in Georgia, and now works as a freelance illustrator and stationary designer based in Nashville.

"I can’t get enough of history," she says. "Old lithographs and studies by early naturalists are some of my favorite things. I love medieval bestiaries and the early Northern Renaissance. I’m also really inspired by nature. There are just so many strange plants and animals out there that I want to know more about."

You can see more of Roux's art in a previous post, Skunk Dreams, as well as on the artist's beautiful website

Sleeping Fox by Jessica Roux

"Animals Are Entering Our Lives" is from Alive Together: New and Selected Poems by Lisel Mueller (Louisiana State University Press, 1996). All rights to the art and text above reserved by the artist and the author's estate. 


Wild empathy

Walking with Tilly

In yesterday's post, Scott Russell Sanders discussed the act of empathy with animals, and others unlike ourselves, in relation to shamanic shape-shifting: as a means of "reaching out in imagination to a fellow creatures."  Reflecting on this has led me back to Jay Griffith's essay "Forests of the Mind" (2012), on the power of metaphor in shamanism and art. She writes:

"[Shape-shifting] is part of the repertoire of the human mind, cousin to mimesis, empathy and Keats’s 'negative capability,' known to poets and healers since the beginning of time. It did not hold literal truth, quite obviously, but had a 'slanted, metaphoric truth' ....

"Shape-shifting is a transgressive experience, a crossing over: something flickers inside the psyche, a restless flame in a gust of wind, endlessly transformative. The mind moves from its literal pathways to its metaphoric flights. Art is made like this, from a volatile bewitchment, of a self-forgetting and an identification with something beyond.

Walking 2

Walking 3

"Ted Hughes once said that the secret of writing poetry is to 'imagine what you are writing about. See it and live it ... Just look at it, touch it, smell it, listen to it, turn your self into it.' One writing exercise Hughes suggested for students was titled: 'I am the Amazon.' We are what we think, and we humans have a way to become other, in a necessary, wild and radical empathy.

Walking 4

Walking 5

"Shape-shifting involves a willingness to make mimes in the mind, copying something else. Art, meanwhile, depends on mimesis furthering our desire to know and to understand. In a recent, Ovidian, dance piece, 'Swan,' French dancers performed and swam with live swans, imitating the birds in a mime which alluded to the metamorphosis of all art, and to the artists’ ability to lose themselves in order to mirror something beyond.

Walking 6

Walking 7

Walking 8

"'But we, when moved by deep feeling, evaporate; we/breathe ourselves out and away,' wrote Rilke in 'The Second Elegy.'

"In making art, the artist expires, breathing herself out to allow the inspiring to happen, the breathing in of glinting universal air, intelligent with many minds, electric and on the loose. Artist, shape-shifter, shaman or poet, all are lovers of metamorphosis, all are minded to vision, insight and dream."

Walking 9

Meadow flowers

Walking 10

I recommend reading Griffith's essay in full, as well as her splendid book Wild: An Elemental Journey -- an exploration of "wildness" and "wilderness" in nature, culture, myth, and art.

Walking 11

Words: The quoted passage by Jay Griffiths above is from "Forests of the Mind" (Aeon Magazine, 12 October, 2012). The poem in the picture captions is from Dark Sweet: New & Selected Poems by Linda Hogan (Coffeehouse Press, 2014). All rights reserved by the authors. 

Pictures: An afternoon walk and a visit with some of our neighbours in the Devon hills.


For World Otter Day: the blessing of otters

Kickapoo by Rebecca Tobey

One of the mythic borderlands I'm especially drawn to (as evidenced by my writing and art over the decades) is the place where humans and animals meet: as neighbors, as cousins who speak each other's language, as shape-shifters in each other's skins.

"Long ago the trees thought they were people," says Tulalip storyteller Johnny Moses, recounting a traditional tale. "Long ago the mountains thought they were people. Long ago the animals thought they were people. Someday they will say, 'long ago the humans thought they were people.' "

River Shaman by Rebecca TobeyIn "Voyageur," a gorgeous essay by Scott Russell Sanders, the writer and his daughter watch otters during a camping trip in the borderlands between Minnesota and Ontario. What was it that kept him riveted to the spot, watching the animals with such intense fascination? What did the otters mean to him, and what did he want from them?

"Not their hides, as the native people of this territory, the Ojibwa, or the old French voyageurs might have wanted; not their souls or meat," he writes. "I did not even want their photograph, although I found them surpassingly beautiful. I wanted their company. I desired their instruction -- as if, by watching them, I might learn to belong somewhere as they so thoroughly belonged here. I yearned to slip out of my skin and into theirs, to feel the world for a spell through their senses, to think otter thoughts, and then to slide back into myself, a bit wiser for the journey.

"In tales of shamans the world over, men and women make just such leaps, into hawks or snakes or bears, and then back into human shape, their vision enlarged, their sympathy deepened. I am a poor sort of shaman. My shape never changes, except, year by year, to wrinkle and sag. I did not become an otter, Messenger of the Gods by Gene & Rebecca Tobeyeven for an instant. But the yearning to leap across the distance, the reaching out in imagination to a fellow creature, seems to me a worthy impulse, perhaps the most encouraging and distinctive one we have. It is the same impulse that moves us to reach out to one another across differences of race or gender, age or class. What I desired from the otters was also what I most wanted from my daughter and from the friends with whom we were canoeing, and it is what I have always desired from neighbors and strangers. I wanted their blessing. I wanted to dwell alongside them with understanding and grace. I wanted them to go about their lives in my presence as though I were kin to them, no matter how much I might differ from them outwardly."

Hawkeye by Rebecca Tobey

Later in essay, Sanders writes about two loons who wake him in the middle of the night, "wailing back and forth like two blues singers demented by love," and the bald eagle who watches their progress down the river from its perch on a dead tree's branch. What did the eagle see, he wonders?

Dancing With the Wind by Gene & Rebecca Tobey"Not food, surely, and not much of a threat, or it would have flown. Did it see us as fellow creatures? Or merely as drifting shapes, no more consequential than clouds? Exchanging
stares with this great bird, I dimly recalled a passage from Walden that I would look up after my return to the company of books:

"'What distant and different beings in the various mansions of the universe are contemplating the same one at the same moment! Nature and human life are as various as our several constitutions. Who shall say what prospect life offers to another? Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other's eyes for an instant?'

"Neuroscience may one day pull off that miracle, giving us access to other eyes, other minds. For the present, however, we must rely on our native sight, on patient observation, on hunches and empathy. By empathy, I do not mean the projecting of human films onto nature's screens, turning grizzly bears into teddy bears, crickets into choristers, grass into lawns; I mean the shaman's leap, a going out of oneself into the inwardness of other beings.

Big Horn Sheep Shaman by Gene & Rebecca Tobey"The longing I heard in the cries of the loons was not just a feathered version of mine, but neither was it wholly alien. It is risky to speak of courting birds as blues singers, of diving otters as children taking turns on a slide. But it is even riskier to pretend we have nothing in common with the rest of nature, as though we alone, the chosen species, were centers of feeling and thought. We cannot speak of that common ground without casting threads of metaphor outward from what we know and what we do not know.

"An eagle is other, but it is also alive, bright with sensation, attuned to the world, and we respond to that vitality wherever we find it, in bird or beetle, in moose or lowly moss. Edward O. Wilson has given this impulse a lovely name, biophilia, which he defines as the urge 'to explore and affiliate with life.' Of course, like the coupled dragonflies that skimmed past our canoes or like osprey hunting fish, we seek other creatures for survival. Yet even if biophilia is an evolutionary gift, like the kangaroo's leap or the peacock's tail, our fascination with living things carries us beyond the requirements of eating and mating. In that excess, that free curiosity, there may be a healing power. The urge to explore has scattered humans across the whole earth -- to the peril of many species, including our own; perhaps the other dimension of biophilia, the desire to affiliate with life, could lead us to honor the entire fabric and repair what has been torn."

Hawk Bear & Deer Dancers by Gene & Rebecca Tobey

In the conclusion of his essay, Sanders points out that the fellowship of all creatures "is more than a handsome metaphor. The appetite for discovering such connections is also entwined in our DNA. Science articulates in formal terms affinities that humans have sensed for ages in direct encounters with wildness. Even while we slight or slaughter members of our own species, and while we push other species toward extinction, we slowly, Keeper of the Trust by Gene & Rebecca Tobeypainstakingly acquire knowledge that could enable us and inspire us to change our ways. Only if that knowledge begins to exert a pressure in us, and we come to feel the fellowship of all beings as potently as we feel hunger and fear, will we have any hope of creating a truly just and tolerant society, one that cherishes the land and our wild companions along with our brothers and sisters.

"In America lately, we have been carrying on two parallel conversations: one about respecting human diversity, the other about preserving natural diversity. Unless we merge those conversations, both will be futile. Our efforts to honor human differences cannot succeed apart from our effort to honor the buzzing, blooming, bewildering variety of life of earth. All life rises from the same source, and so does all fellow feeling, whether the fellow moves on two legs or four, on scaly bellies or feathered wings. If we care only for human needs, we betray the land; if we care only for the earth and its wild offspring, we betray our own kind. The profusion of creatures and cultures is the most remarkable fact about our planet, and the study and stewardship of that profusion seems to me our fundamental task."

A shelf of small bear shaman sculptures by Gene & Rebecca Tobey

The sculptures pictured here are by the New Mexican artists Gene and Rebecca Tobey, who worked for years in a fertile partnership creating scuptures, paintings, and drawings inspired by nature and the mythic symbolism of the North American continent. (The titles of the pieces can be found in the picture captions.) Gene died of leukemia in 2006, but Rebecca carries on their beautiful work. Please visit her website to learn more.

The Gift by Gene & Rebecca Tobey

The essay quoted above is from Scott Russell Sander's Writing From the Center, which I highly recommend. My well-thumbed copy of the book is pictured below, alongside our own furry shape-shifter....

There are days when she's a wolf prowling through the woods, days when she's a grass owl nesting in the green, and days when she answers only to Little Bear. But at her core she remains her dear unique self. Just as we do, shape-shifters every one of us.

Writing From the Center by Scott Russell Sanders

Writing from the Center by Scott Russell Sanders was published by Indiana University Press, 1997. All rights to the text and art above reserved by the author and artists.


Nature and joy

Migrant Megamoths (convolvulas hawkmoths in the Apuan Alps) by Lorenzo Shoubridge

The Moth Snowstorm

Here's another absolutely beautiful passage from The Moth Snow Storm: Nature and Joy by Michael McCarthy:

"The way we might love the natural world, as opposed to being wary of it, or instinctively conscious of its utility, may be thought of as commonplace; but over the years it has increasingly seemed to me a remarkable phenomenon. For after all, it is only our background, our context, the milieu from which, like all other creatures, we have emerged. Why should it evoke in us any emotion beyond those, such as fear and hunger, that are needed for survival? Can an otter love its river? And yet it is the case that the natural world can offer us more than the means to survive, on the one hand, or mortal risks to be avoided, on the other: it can offer us joy.

"Although I feel strongly that this is one of the greatest things in our lives -- never more important than now -- it seems quite mysterious in its origins, and certainly in the force it can exercise. To be able to be swept up, to be swept away by an aspect of nature such as butterflies; tell me, is that something in nature itself, or is it something in us? Once, Christianity offered a ready explanation: our joy in the beauty and life of the earth was our joy in the divine work of its creator. But as Christianity fades, the undeniable fact that the natural world can spark love in us becomes more of an enigma.

Portrait of a Mother (wild pumas) by Ingo Arndt

Frozen Moment (two male Dall sheep in the Yukon, Canada) by Jérémie Villet

"You can see far more easily why it engenders some other powerful emotions, with, for example, the big beasts. The first big beast I ever saw in the wild was a black rhino, in Nambia. It was about a hundred yards away, a ton of double-horned power glaring straight at me with nothing but low scrub between us; and although I knew it had poor eyesight, it was twitching its ultra-sensitive ears like revolving radar antennae, trying to pick me up and draw a bead on me, and I was transfixed: my heart pounded, my mouth dried, I looked around for shelter. But if I was afraid, there was a stronger and stranger feeling coursing through me. I felt in every way more alive. I felt as alive as I had ever been.

"The next day I saw an African buffalo for the first time, a great black mass of menace which made me even more nervous than the rhino had, yet I experienced precisely the same sensation: mixed in with the anxiety, with the fear of being killed, and buffalos will kill you, was the feeling in the animal's proximity of living more intensely, of somehow living almost at another level. And when later that day in a dry riverbed I saw, close to, my first wild elephant, the most dangerous of them all, I felt again, intermingled with the wariness, something akin to passion.

A Taste of Peace (elephant in Mozambique) by Charlie Hamilton James

Canopy Hang-out (brown-throated three-toed sloth) by Carlos Pérez Naval

"They are surely very old, these feelings. They are lodged deep in our tissues and emerge to surprise us. For we forget our origins; in our towns and cities, staring into our screens, we need constant reminding that we have been operators of computers for a single generation and workers in neon-lit offices for three or four, but we were farmers for five hundred generations, and before that hunter-gatherers for perhaps fifty thousand or more, living with the natural world as part of it as we evolved, and the legacy cannot be done away with.

The Aquabatic Antelope (red lechwe, south central Africa) by Branson Meaker

"It is to those fifty thousand generations that our fascination with the big beasts harks back; their magnificence triggers an awe in us, the still surviving awe of our ancestors who pursued them, full of fear and hope, piously painting their images on the walls of caves. On the rock faces of Lascaux and Chauvet, where the fear and hope coalesce into worship, we have astonishing insights into a world of long-gone people whose lives revolved around dangerous animals and their slaughter, and who must therefore have lived, with mortality ever present, at that elevated and passionate level we still sense when we come up against the great beasts ourselves, in their natural surroundings.

"Yet a stray thought plays about my mind, haunts its corners, refuses to leave: it must also be the case that the hunter-gatherers saw butterflies. Were they indifferent? All of them? Even to swallowtails? Somehow I doubt it. I think the point must have arrived where such unlikely, brilliant beings could not but register with observers, even those obsessed with survival and violence and death -- for a moment must have come in prehistory when someone, for the first time, waited for a swallowtail to settle, to better look on it, and marvelled at what was there in front of them."

Meadow Beauty (pearl-bordered fritillary, Sweden) by Alfons Lilja

War Dance (desert toad-headed agamas) by Victor Tyakh

McCarthy argues that the joy and wonder that the natural world evokes in us should take a role in our defence of it, especially for those of us working in the arts in various forms:

"In a famous preface to one of his short novels, Joseph Conrad pointed out that the enterprise of the scientist or the intellectual may have a more immediate impact, but that of the artist is more enduring because it goes far deeper; the statement of fact, however powerful, does not take hold like the image does. I believe that in defending the natural world, the time has come to offer up the images.

"What I mean is, it is time for a different, formal defence of nature. We should offer up not just the notion of being sensible and responsible about it, which is sustainable development, nor the notion of its mammoth utilitarian and financial value, which is ecosystem services, but a third way, something different entirely: we should offer up what it means to our spirits; the love of it. We should offer up its joy.

Dinner Duty (great grey owls, Sweden) by Tommy Pedersen

"This has been celebrated, of course, for centuries. But it has never been put forward as a formalised defence of the natural world, for two reasons. Firstly, because the mortal threat itself is not centuries old, but has arisen merely in the space of my own lifetime; and secondly, because the joy that nature gives us cannot be quantified in a generalised way. We can generalise, or, indeed, monetise the value of nature's services in satisfying our corporal needs, since we have all broadly the same continuous requirement for food and shelter; but we have infinitely different longings for solace and understanding and delight. Their value is modulated, not through economic assessment, but through the personal experiences of individuals. So we cannot say -- alas that we cannot -- that birdsong, like coral reefs, is worth 375 billion dollars a year in economic terms, but we can say, each of us, that at this moment and at this place it was worth everything to me.

"Shelley did so with his skylark, and Keats with his nightingale, and Thomas Hardy with the skylark of Shelley, and Edward Thomas with his unknown bird, and Philip Larkin with his song thrush in a chilly spring garden, but we need to remake, remake, remake, not just rely on the poems of the past, we need to to it ourselves -- proclaim these worths through our own experiences in the coming century of destruction, and proclaim them loudly, as the reason why nature must not go down. 

"It is only through specific personal experience that the case can be made, which is why I will offer mine...and I will do so not just as a celebration of [nature], but as a conscious, engaged act of defence. Defence through joy, if you like. For nature, as human society takes a wrecking ball to the planet, has never needed more defending."

I couldn't agree more.

The Albatross Cave (Te Tara Koi Koia, New Zealand) by Thomas P Peschak

I urge you to read McCarthy's passionate, poignant, and beautifully written book. It is heart-rending, but also heart-mending, and as deeply moving as a book can be.

The Plumage Parade (penguins on Marion Island) by Thomas P Peschak

The gorgeous imagery today is from 2019 Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition at the Natural History Museum in London, which runs until May 2020. The titles and photographer credits can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.)

Early Riser (female gelada, Ethiopian highlands) by Riccardo Marchegiani

The Charm of Ruthy (female striped hyena) by Ariel Fields

The passages quoted above are from The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy by Michael McCarthy (New York Review of Books edition, 2015); all rights reserved by the author. Right to the photographs above are reserved by the photographers, and The Natural History Museum.

Two related posts: The Blessings of Otters and The Dance of Joy and Grief. I also recommend the recent interview with folk singer Sam Lee published in The Evening Standard (8 January, 2020).


Attention animal lovers

Arthur Rackham

My smart, talented, adventurous and big-hearted goddaughter Ely Todd-Jones is raising funds in order to go volunteer at the Elephant Nature Park in Thailand, which is one of the most respected animal rescue & rehabilitation centers in Southeast Asia. Would you consider lending your support -- either through a contribution (no matter how small), or by spreading the word of the campaign?

There's more information here on Ely's fund-raising page.

Elephants are magnificent creatures, and their numbers are diminishing due the stress of sharing the planet with us. Ely, who grew up here in Chagford, is pretty magnificent too. Next year she will head to university to study biology and animal communication -- but until then she is devoting her time to wildlife and re-wilding projects.

I am in awe of the work that young people are doing to save our world from environmental catastrophe, but they need our support...and so do the elephants.

Young elephant sleeping at the Elephant Nature Park  Thailand

Images: An illustration from Aesops Fables by Arthur Rackham, and a young elephant sleeping at the Elephant Nature Park.


A day out at Chagford Show

Chagford Show 1

Chagford Show 2

Chagford Show 11

Yesterday I went to our village's agricultural show, now in its 119th year, celebrating the skills, crafts, and lore of the local farming community, and its central place in life on the moor. Reflecting on the nature of community, I was reminded of this passage from "The Common Life" by essayist Scott Russell Sanders:

"The words community, communion, and communicate all derive from common, and the two syllables of common grow from separate roots, the first meaning 'together' or 'next to,' the second having to do with barter or exchange. Embodied in that word is a sense of our shared life as one of giving and receiving -- music, touch, ideas, recipes, stories, medicine, tools, the whole range of artifacts and talents.

"After twenty-five years with [my wife] Ruth, that is how I have come to understand marriage, as a constant exchange of labor and love. We do not calculate who gives how much; if we had to, the marriage would be in trouble. Looking outward from this community of two, I see my life embedded in ever-larger exchanges -- those of family and friendship, neighborhood and city, countryside and county -- and on every scale there is giving and receiving, calling and answering.

Chagford Show 4

Chagford Show 5

Chagford Show 3

"Many people shy away from community out of a fear that it may become suffocating, confining, even vicious; and of course it may, if it grows rigid or exclusive. A healthy community is dynamic, stirred up the energies of those who already belong, open to new members and fresh influences, kept in motion by the constant battering of gifts. It is fashionable just now to speak of this open quality as 'tolerance,' but that word sounds too grudging to me -- as though, to avoid strife, we must grit our teeth and ignore whatever is strange to us.

Chagford Show 6

Chagford Show 7

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"The community I desire is not grudging; it is exuberant, joyful, grounded in affection, pleasure, and mutual aid. Such a community arises not from duty or money but from the free interchange of people who share a place, share work and food, sorrows and hopes. Taking part in the common life means dwelling in a web of relationships, the many threads tugging at you while also holding you upright."

Chagford Show 9

Prize-winning sheep

In an interview in 2004, writer and activist Terry Tempest Williams also spoke of the value of putting down roots in an increasingly peripatetic world:

"It just may be that the most radical act we can commit is to stay home. What does that mean to finally commit to a place, to a people, to a community? It doesn't mean it's easy, but it does mean you can live with patience, because you're not going to go away.

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"It also means commitment to bear witness, and engaging in 'casserole diplomacy' by sharing food among neighbors, by playing with the children and mending feuds and caring for the sick. These kinds of commitment are real. They are tangible. They are not esoteric or idealistic, but rooted in the bedrock existence of where we choose to maintain our lives.

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"That way we begin to know the predictability of a place. We anticipate a species long before we see them. We can chart the changes, because we have a memory of cycles and seasons; we gain a capacity for both pleasure and pain, and we find the stregnth within ourselves and each other to hold these lines. That's my definition of family. And that's my definition of love."

Chagford Show 21

Chagford Show 21

Chagford Show 22

Words: The passage above is from "The Common Life" by Scott Russell Sanders,  published in his essay collection Writing from the Center (Indiana University Press, 1995). The passage by Terry Tempest Williams comes from an interview by Derrick Jensen in Listening to the Land: Conversations about Nature, Culture, and Ethos (Chelsea Green, 2004). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: Chagford Show, 2019. I've blurred the faces of the children displaying their sheep for privacy's sake.


The language of the animate earth

Ponies 1

From The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception & Language in a More-Than-Human World by David Abram:

"The sense of being immersed in a sentient world is preserved in the oral stories of indigenous peoples --in the belief that sensible phenomena are all alive and aware, in the assumption that all things have the capacity for speech. Language, for oral peoples, is not a human invention but a gift of the land itself.

Ponies 2

Ponies 3

"I do not deny that human language has its uniqueness, that from a certain perspective human discourse has little in common with the sounds and signals of other animals, or with the rippling speech of the river. I wish simply to remember that this was not the perspective held by those who first acquired, for us, the gift of speech.

Ponies 4

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Ponies 6

"Human language evolved in a thoroughly animistic context; it necessarily functioned, for many millenia, not only as a means of communication between humans, but as a way of propitiating, praising, and appeasing the expressive powers of the surrounding terrain. Human language, that is, arose not only as a means of attunement between persons, but also between ourselves and the animate landscape.

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"The belief that meaningful speech is a purely human property was entirely alien to those oral communities that first evolves our various ways of speaking, and by holding to such a belief today we may well be inhibiting the spontaneous activity of language. By denying that birds and other animals have their own styles of speech, by insisting that the river has no real voice and that the ground itself is mute, we stifle our direct experience. We cut ourselves off from the deep meanings of many of our words, severing our language from that which supports and sustains it.

"We wonder then why we are so often unable to communicate even among ourselves."

Ponies 10

Ponies 11

Ponies 12

Ponies 13

The pictures today are of our local Dartmoor pony herd and their newborn foals. (The last time I posted pony photos here, the mares were still pregnant.) These semi-wild ponies travel between the hills of Chagford (full of tender green grass for grazing) and the open moor; the sheltered slope of our village Commons is where they come to give birth each year. It's been a good season for the ponies: we've counted ten new foals in all. I watch the movement of the herd across the valley from the windows of my hillside studio, and the hound and I make daily visits to the Commons to check on the foals' progress. They are exquisite.

Ponies 14

Ponies 15

Words: The passage above is from The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram (Vintage, 1996). The poem in the picture captions, "A Blessing" by James Wright, is from Above the River: The Complete Poems & Selected Prose (Wesleyan University Press, 1990). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Photographs of the new crop of foals on the village Commons, taken shortly after they were born, earlier this spring. More recent photos to follow. 

Related posts: Living in a storied world, Animalness, Relationship & reciprocity, and The speech of animals.


Falling in love with a place

Sheep 1

Sheep 2

In yesterday's post, Sharon Blackie suggests that one way to feel at home wherever it is you find yourself planted is to "learn the ecology, history, language, culture, mythology of your place." Philip Marsden did exactly than when he moved into a tumbledown farmhouse in Cornwall. In his beautiful book Rising Ground: A Search for the Spirit of Place, he recounts the experience of renovating the house, puzzles out the history of the land that it sits on, then widens his scope to the mythic and social history of Cornwall , tramping the land to better understand the rugged, wild county he loves.

"We weren't looking to move house," he writes. "We were perfectly happy living in a Cornish seaside village. Our children had just started at the primary school. We had a little boat, and I thought that after the chaotic years of early parenthood, a degree of control was once again settling over our lives. But that May, Charlotte spotted in the local newspaper an old farmhouse for sale. We arranged to view it -- curiosity, nothing more. Yet as we drove down the grass-centered track, and saw the arena of rounded hills and the network of oak-fringed creeks and the first glimpse of the house, its chimneys and slate roof rising from beyond a field of barley, I had the sense that our cozy domestic world was about to be shattered....

Shaun the Sheep

"Built at a time before railways made their full impact on Cornwall, the farmhouse was designed for work. The garden was a narrow strip of grass before the proper business of pasture. Mains power only reached the house in the 1980s; its water was still pumped up from a hand-dug well. A field was attached, and it rose slightly -- sheltering the house from the worst of the wind -- before dropping on three sides to the creek. Standing in the field on our first visit, seeing the house with only the roof and top-floor windows visible, I convinced myself that it represented an ageless integrity with the land around it, and felt sure it would pour beneficence over anyone lucky enough to live there. Such delusions are only possible for the besotted. In the days and weeks that followed, I learned that 'falling in love with a place' meant exactly that -- with all its downsides, its yearnings and mood swings."

Sheep 4

But the progress of love was not smooth. Marsden and his wife put their seaside house on the market, but could find no buyer. A year passed, and the farmouse was withdrawn from sale. Then, just as suddenly, it was back on the market again.

"Now like a stalker, I began to take real walks down through the woods towards it," he relates. "I learnt to anticipate the exact point, just under a mile away, where the roof would appear through the trees (beside the pheasant pens, on the edge of the maize field). The path led down toward a side creek and the house was then lost from view -- but I could see the field across the corridor of mud flats and the sessile oaks that bordered it. Every tree and shrub I scrutinized. I knew it was unwise to dwell on something that might never happen -- but, well, I couldn't help myself.

Sheep 5

"Another year passed. Our house did not sell. Viewers came and went. Buyers turned out not to be buyers. The banks froze up. And then, suddenly, it was all resolved. A date was fixed. I scrambled to finish the manuscript of a book and sent it off to my publisher just days before the removal lorries arrived. Clearing out years of accumulated junk, burning papers, scooping up yards and yards of books, watching the dismantling of rooms I had known all my life, the stripping of a house I had once yearned for in the same way, I felt only reckless excitment about what was ahead. I kept expecting the leg-buckling coup of nostalgia, even the tiniest stab of sadness or regret -- but it never came."

Sheep 6

They move into the farmhouse at last, and begin the long, slow work of reclaiming a place neglected for many years -- recovering the farm's original features, its kitchen garden, its history. Marsden writes:

"Long before the farmhouse was built in the mid-nineteenth century, a substantial manor had stood on the site -- not exactly here, but eighty meters or so towards the creek. In the diocesan records, there remain a few scant references to the house, to its lands stretching many miles to the south, and to a Norman family, the Petits, who owned it all. A strategic position on the river -- as well as the ancient Cornish name [Ardevora] -- suggests long use of the site, and I imagined it as one of those hubs in the nation-of-sorts that once connected estuaries in Wales and Ireland and Brittany, Iberia and Scotland.

Sheep 7

"In 1420, an application was made by the Petits to build a chapel. But within a century, the estate was breaking up. A generation of daughters married away -- the eldest into the Killigrew family, whose lands at the mouth of the Fal were better suited to the new age. The upper reaches of the river, a conduit for Cornish tin since antiquity, were suffering a slow paralysis. Silt was clogging the riverbed, pushing the navigatable waters far back to the open sea.

Sheep 8

"One evening, working on a length of overgrown wall, I sliced through the stem of a cotoneaster, yanked it out and exposed what looked like part of a large stone basin. I cleared the roots and found it was a piece of black granite, dry-laid on the slate wall. I heaved it free. Upended on the grass, it was clear what it was: a piece of medieval tracery, the top half of a cinquefoil window. The chapel! I ran my fingers along the crescent edges of the rebate. I thought of sunlight falling through the glass, patterning the wood benches below and morning prayers, and the yards around the building busy with animals and work, and ships at anchor in the deep-water creek, and the mingle of Breton and Cornish, Welsh and Irish.

Sheep 9

"Knowing a little of the past brought with it the first sense of belonging. In 1954, Martin Heidegger wrote in an influential essay called 'Building Dwelling Thinking,' in which he explores the close connection of the three '-ings' of his title -- a connection emphasized by his mannered omission of commas. He takes as his example a two-hundred-year-old farmhouse in the Black Forest. Such a place -- with echoes of Ardevora -- combined religious belief, domestic life and local topography: 'Here the self-sufficiency of the power to let earth and heaven, divinities and mortals, enter in simple oneness into things, ordered the house. It placed the farm on the wind-sheltered mountain slope looking south, among the meadows close to the spring.'

Sheep 10

Sheep 11

" 'Dwelling' for Heidegger meant much more than just living in a house. It described a way of being in the world. In Old English and High German, he shows how the word buan -- meaning both 'building' and 'to dwell' -- is linked to the verb 'to be.' (The same is true of Cornish and Brittonic languages: bos in Cornish is a verbal noun meaning both 'to be' and a 'building' or 'dwelling.') So to be is 'to be in a place.' Only by knowing our surroundings, being aware of topography and the past, can we live what Heidegger deems an 'authentic' existence. Heidegger is pretty severe about what constitutes authenticity, but his 'dwelling' does highlight something we've lost in our hyper-connected world, something I found myself rediscovering that spring down the end of a long track: the ability to immerse ourselves in one place. Heidegger also wrote: 'Only if we are capable of dwelling, only then can we build' (his italics). I felt he was pointing his magisterial finger directly at me."

Sheep 12

Sheep 13

Sheep 14

If you'd like to know more about Marsden's Rising Ground, I wrote about it here, in 2015, after my first read of it. (I'm half-way through my second read now, and finding it even more interesting this time around.) You'll also find a good interview with the author on the Granta website.

The photographs today were taken on a sheep farm here in Devon. I'm afraid they don't relate to the text very well, but these sweet and gentle creatures are simply too lovely not to share. Perhaps the connection is that my love for the sheep-dotted hills of Devon is every bit as strong as Marsden's for coastal Cornwall.

Rising Ground by Philip Marsden

Words: The passage quoted above is from Rising Ground by Philip Marsden (Granta, 2014). The poem in the picture captions is about abstract painter Bryan Wynter (1915-1975), who lived in Zennor on the Cornish coast. It's from Selected Poems by W.S. Graham (Ecco Press, 1980). All rights reserved by the authors.


Living in a storied world

Raven and Calendula by Cally Conway

From "Storytelling and Wonder: On the Rejuvenation of Oral Culture" by David Abram:

Fox and Tree by Cally Conway"In the prosperous land where I live, a mysterious task is underway to invigorate the minds of the populace, and to vitalize the spirits of our children. For a decade, now, parents, politicians, and educators of all forms have been raising funds to bring computers into every household in the realm, and into every classroom from kindergarten on up through college. With the new technology, it is hoped, children will learn to read much more efficiently, and will exercise their intelligence in rich new ways. Interacting with the wealth of information available on-line, children’s minds will be able to develop and explore much more vigorously than was possible in earlier eras -- and so, it is hoped, they will be well prepared for the technological future.

"How can any child resist such a glad initiative? Indeed, few adults can resist the dazzle of the digital screen, with its instantaneous access to everywhere, its treasure-trove of virtual amusements, and its swift capacity to locate any piece of knowledge we desire. And why should we resist? Digital technology is transforming every field of human endeavor, and it promises to broaden the capabilities of the human intellect far beyond its current reach. Small wonder that we wish to open and extend this powerful dream to all our children.

"It is possible, however, that we are making a grave mistake in our rush to wire every classroom, and to bring our children online as soon as possible. Our excitement about the internet should not blind us to the fact that the astonishing linguistic and intellectual capacity of the human brain did not evolve in relation to the computer. Nor, of course, did it evolve in relation to the written word. Rather it evolved in relation to orally told stories. Indeed, we humans were telling each other stories for many, many millennia before we ever began writing our words down -- whether on the page or on the screen.

Brown Hare by Cally Conway

"Spoken stories were the living encyclopedias of our oral ancestors, dynamic and lyrical compendiums of practical knowledge. Oral tales told on special occasions carried the secrets of how to orient in the local cosmos. Hidden in the magic adventures of their characters were precise instructions for the hunting of various animals, and for enacting the appropriate rituals of respect and gratitude if the hunt was successful, as well as specific insights regarding which plants were good to eat and which were poisonous, and how to prepare certain herbs to heal cramps, or sleeplessness, or a fever. The stories carried instructions about how to construct a winter shelter, and what to do during a drought, and -- more generally -- how to live well in this land without destroying the land’s wild vitality.

Fallow Deer by Cally Conway

"Such practical intelligence, intimately related to a particular place, is the hallmark of any oral culture. Continually tested in interaction with the living land, altering in tandem with subtle changes in the local earth, even today such living knowledge resists the fixity and permanence of the printed page. Because it is specific to the way things happen here, in this high desert -- or coastal estuary, or mountain valley -- this kind of intimate intelligence loses its meaning when abstracted from its terrain, and from the particular persons and practices that are a part of its terrain. Such place-specific savvy, which deepens its value when honed and tempered over the course of several generations, forfeits much of its power when uprooted from the soil of its home and carried -- via the printed page or the glowing screen -- to other places. Such intelligence, properly speaking, is an attribute of the living land itself; it thrives only in the direct, face-to-face exchange between those who dwell and work in this place.

Spring Hare by Cally Conway

Wild Flowers and Welsh Poppies by Cally Conway

"So much earthly savvy was carried in the old tales! And since, for our indigenous ancestors, there was no written medium in which to record and preserve the stories -- since there were no written books -- the surrounding landscape, itself, functioned as the primary mnemonic, or memory trigger, for preserving the oral tales. To this end, diverse animals common to the local earth figured as prominent characters within the oral stories -- whether as teachers or tricksters, as buffoons or as bearers of wisdom. Hence, a chance encounter with a particular creature as a tribesperson went about his daily business (an encounter with a coyote, perhaps, or a magpie) would likely stir the memory of one or another story in which that animal played a decisive role. Moreover, crucial events in the stories were commonly associated with particular sites in the local terrain where those events were assumed to have happened, and whenever one noticed that place in the course of one’s daily wanderings -- when one came upon that particular cluster of boulders, or that sharp bend in the river -- the encounter would spark the memory of the storied events that had unfolded there....

Fox and Rowan by Cally Conway

"There is something about this storied way of speaking -- this acknowledgement of a world all alive, awake, and aware -- that brings us close to our senses, and to the palpable, sensuous world that materially surrounds us. Our animal senses know nothing of the objective, mechanical, quantifiable world to which most of our civilized discourse refers. Wild and gregarious organs, our senses spontaneously experience the world not as a conglomeration of inert objects but as a field of animate presences that actively call our attention, that grab our focus or capture our gaze. Whenever we slip beneath the abstract assumptions of the modern world, we find ourselves drawn into relationship with a diversity of beings as inscrutable and unfathomable as ourselves. Direct, sensory perception is inherently animistic, disclosing a world wherein every phenomenon has its own active agency and power.

Fox by Cally Conway

"When we speak of the earthly things around us as quantifiable objects or passive 'natural resources,' we contradict our spontaneous sensory experience of the world, and hence our senses begin to wither and grow dim. We find ourselves living more and more in our heads, adrift in a sea of abstractions, unable to feel at home in an objectified landscape that seems alien to our own dreams and emotions. But when we begin to tell stories, our imagination begins to flow out through our eyes and our ears to inhabit the breathing earth once again. Suddenly, the trees along the street are looking at us, and the clouds crouch low over the city as though they are trying to hatch something wondrous. We find ourselves back inside the same world that the squirrels and the spiders inhabit, along with the deer stealthily munching the last plants in our garden, and the wild geese honking overhead as they flap south for the winter. Linear time falls away, and we find ourselves held, once again, in the vast cycles of the cosmos -- the round dance of the seasons, the sun climbing out of the ground each morning and slipping down into the earth every evening, the opening and closing of the lunar eye whose full gaze attracts the tidal waters within and all around us.

Mouse by Cally Conway

"For we are born of this animate earth, and our sensitive flesh is simply our part of the dreaming body of the world. However much we may obscure this ancestral affinity, we cannot erase it, and the persistance of the old stories is the continuance of a way of speaking that blesses the sentience of things, binding our thoughts back into the depths of an imagination much vaster than our own. To live in a storied world is to know that intelligence is not an exclusively human faculty located somewhere inside our skulls, but is rather a power of the animate earth itself, in which we humans, along with the hawks and the thrumming frogs, all participate."

(You can read the full essay here.)

Aesop (fabric design) by Cally Conway

Yes, I'm aware of the irony inherent in using a digital space to discuss our culture's over-reliance on mediating life through phone and computer screens. The Internet is a wonderful tool -- but like all powerful magicks, as folklore tells us over and over, we must learn to use it wisely. In my own life, I prefer face-to-face conversation over texts and phones; printed books over words on a screen; storytelling and theatre unfolding in real time over drama slickly produced by the burghers of Hollywood. Don't get me wrong: I don't disdain modern media altogether; there is good to be found in almost all forms art. But my soul craves the touch of the wind and the rain, of stories that are sensory, intimate, and on a more human scale. As a writer and painter, my work is born from a hunger for life deeply rooted in nature, richly entwined with the more-than-human world. And as a blogger, if typing these words on a screen can prompt even one person to turn off their computer and go for a walk outside today, then my work here is done.

Cally Conway's printmaking tools

The exquisite art in this post is by Cally Conway, a British printmaker specializing in linocuts.

"For me, nature is not only beautiful and essential, but it continually inspires and sustains me," she says. "Being in nature makes me feel that everything is alright with the world, even if it’s not. And I think too many of us have lost touch with that. So I like to try and capture its beauty if I can, and maybe distill some of that. With my interest in folklore, sometimes it’s not that obvious, but I love finding out stories and meanings associated with plants or animals. When I’m creating a print I will research any folklore associated with what I want to include so that there might be a connection between the different elements. 

"Living in London you could say it would be hard to find any aspect of nature to work from, but in truth there’s actually lots in London if you know where to find it! I spend most of my time at Kew Gardens and Hampstead Heath. I’m lucky enough to live really near Hampstead Heath and just a short train ride from Kew. Since becoming a member of Kew Gardens a few years back I can honestly say it feels like a second home. "

To see more of her work, please visit her website and shop. You can also follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

King Peryton (fabric design) by Cally Conway

The passages above are from "Storytelling and Wonder" by David Abram, first published in Resurgence (Issue 222, Jan/Feb 2004). David's books, The Spell of the Sensuous and Becoming Animal, were influential texts for me (particularly Spell, when I was writing The Wood Wife), and I highly recommend them. The Cally Conway quotes are from an interview with the artist conducted by Claire Leach. All rights to text and art in this post are reserved by the authors and artist.


Honoring the wild

Great Raven Crosses the Divide by Hib Sabin

The Robe of Inner Silences & The Long Game by Hib Sabin

"I believe we need wilderness in order to be more complete human beings, to not be fearful of the animals that we are, an animal who bows to the incomparable power of natural forces when standing on the north rim of the Grand Canyon, an animal who understands a sense of humility when watching a grizzly overturn a stump with its front paw to forage for grubs in the lodgepole pines of the northern Rockies, an animal who weeps over the sheer beauty of migrating cranes above the Bosque del Apache in November, an animal who is not afraid to cry with delight in the middle of a midnight swim in a phospherescent tide, an animal who has not forgotten what it means to pray before the unfurled blossom of the sacred datura, remembering the source of all true visions.'' 

- Terry Tempest Williams ("A Prayer for a Wild Millennium," Red)

Guardians of Dreamtime by Hib Sabin

Voyage to the End of Time by Hib Sabin

"Caught up in a mass of abstractions, 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."

- David Abram (The Spell of the Sensuous)

Raven Sings His Journey by Hib Sabin

Owl Totem & Trickster by Hib Sabin

"What we need, all of us who go on two legs, is to reimagine our place in creation. We need to enlarge our conscience so as to bear, moment by moment, a regard for the integrity and bounty of the earth. There can be no sanctuaries unless we regain a deep sense of the sacred, no refuges unless we feel a reverence for the land, for soil and stone, water and air, and for all that lives. We must find the desire, the courage, the vision to live sanely, to live considerately, and we can only do that together, calling out and listening, listening and calling out."

- Scott Russell Sanders (Writing from the Center

Death of Totem by Hib Sabin

Raven Mask, Raven Singer, & The Storyteller by Hib Sabin

"The wild. I have drunk it, deep and raw, and heard it's primal, unforgettable roar. We know it in our dreams, when our mind is off the leash, running wild. 'Outwardly, the equivalent of the unconscious is the wilderness: both of these terms meet, one step even further on, as one,' wrote Gary Snyder. 'It is in vain to dream of a wildness distinct from ourselves. There is none such,' wrote Thoreau. 'It is the bog in our brains and bowls, the primitive vigor of Nature in us, that inspires the dream.'

"And as dreams are essential to the psyche, wildness is to life.

"We are animal in our blood and in our skin. We were not born for pavements and escalators but for thunder and mud. More. We are animal not only in body but in spirit. Our minds are the minds of wild animals. Artists, who remember their wildness better than most, are animal artists, lifting their heads to sniff a quick wild scent in the air, and they know it unmistakably, they know the tug of wildness to be followed through your life is buckled by that strange and absolute obedience. ('You must have chaos in your soul to give birth to a dancing star,' wrote Nietzsche.) Children know it as magic and timeless play. Shamans of all sorts and inveterate misbehavers know it; those who cannot trammel themselves into a sensible job and life in the suburbs know it.

"What is wild cannot be bought or sold, borrowed or copied. It is. Unmistakeable, unforgettable, unshamable, elemental as earth and ice, water, fire and air, a quitessence, pure spirit, resolving into no contituents. Don't waste your wildness: it is precious and necessary."

- Jay Griffiths (Wild)

Bowl of Becoming by Hib Sabin

Totemic Journey by Hib Sabin

The imagery today is by Hib Sabin, an American artist based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Born in 1935, Sabin received a BFA in Art and Art History from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, worked with peace groups in Russian and Uzbekistan, and studied shamanism with indigenous peoples in Mexico, Tanzinia, Australia, and the American West. Working primarily in juniper wood, he carves totemic sculptures, masks, spirit bowls, and canoes inspired by world-wide mythology expressing the depth of the interconnection between the human, animal, and spirit realms. The titles of the works presented here can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.)

"My goal," he says, "is not to recreate a mythology, but bring past and present together in a multi-dimensional form that speaks to its mystery.  What is the spirit of a bird and the power within it?  To convey this artistically is to bring the physical and spiritual together in a carving that has power.  What is the essence of this power and what does it mean to connect with it in the most primitive, archetypal sense?  For the answer to this I turn to the mythologies of the world, for it is they that have the potential to divulge the mystery of these immortal characters."

Go here to see the online catalog of his 2017 exhibition, The Long Game, as well as catalogs of previous shows.

The Journey by Hib Sabin

Spirit Ascending by Hib Sabin

Trickster Spirit Canoe (Coyote & Raven)

Coyote Hawk Fetish by Hib Sabin

The passages above are from Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert by Terry Tempest Williams (Vintage, 2002 ), The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception & Language in More-Than-Human World by David Abram (Vintage, 1997), Writing from the Center by Scott Russell Sanders (Indiana University Press, 1995), and Wild: An Elemental Journey by Jay Griffiths (Hamish Hamilton, 2007) -- all of which are highly recommended.  All rights to the text and art above are reserved by the authors and artist.

A few related posts: The Blessings of Otters, Keeping the World Alive, Making Sense of the More-Than-Human World, Wild Neighbors, The Speech of Animals, and On Animals & the Human Spirit,