Category Archives: culture

The Spell of the Sensuous

The Spell of the SensuousFor 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 – our task 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 the things themselves – to the green uttering-forth of leaves from the spring branches. It is the practice of spinning stories that have the 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 these coastal forests, those desert canyons, those whispering grasslands and valleys 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 onto 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.

The rain surrounded the cabin…with a whole world of meaning, of secrecy, of rumor. Think of it: all that speech pouring down, selling nothing, judging nobody, drenching the thick mulch of dead leaves, soaking the trees, filling the gullies and crannies of the wood with water, washing out the places where men have stripped the hillside…Nobody started it, nobody is going to stop it. It will talk as long as it wants, the rain. As long as it talks, I am going to listen.
~~ Thomas Merton

Our strictly human heavens and hells have only recently been abstracted from the sensuous world that surrounds us, from this more-than-human realm that abounds in its own winged intelligences and cloven-hoofed powers. For almost all oral cultures, the enveloping and sensuous earth remains the dwelling place of both the living and the dead. The “body” – whether human or otherwise – is not yet a mechanical object in such cultures, but is a magical entity, the mind’s own sensuous aspect, and at death the body’s decomposition into soil, worms and dust can only signify the gradual reintegration of one’s ancestors and elders into the living landscape, from which all, too, are born.

This cycling of the human back into the larger world ensures that the other forms of experience that we encounter – whether ants, or willow trees, or clouds – are never absolutely alien to ourselves. It is, paradoxically, this perceived kinship that renders the difference, or otherness, so eerily potent.

Gradually, then, our senses awaken to the world. We become aware of the thoughts that are thinking all around us – in the bushes, under the tumbled stones. As we watch the crows, our own limbs begin to feel the intelligence of feathered muscles adjusting to the wind. Our toes listen to roots sending capillaries in search of water, and our skin replies to the lichens radiating in slow waves across the surface of the upthrust bones of the hill. Walking along the pebbled beach, we notice the ground itself responding to our footfalls – the hermit crabs all diving for cover – and sense the many-voiced forest listening to us as we speak. And so we adjust our own speaking, taking new care with our gestures and actions…

Ah, not to be cut off,
not through the slightest partition
shut out from the law of the stars.
The inner – what is it?
if not intensified sky,
hurled through with birds and deep
with the winds of homecoming
~~ Rainer Maria Rilke

Excerpted from The Spell of the Sensuous, by David Abram.

A brief summary of animism at Anthropik.

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Voyage to the Spirit Mountains

Author and musician, Paul Quarrington, diagnosed with stage four lung cancer, eloquently describes his plans to live each day as though it is his last, connecting with singing and the Canadian landscape.

Torngat Mountains

“As we journeyed through the Torngat Mountains, I finally realized what this trip was all about, for me. First of all, let me get a little scientific on you. The Torngats-comprised of Precambrian gneisses-are amongst the oldest mountains in the world, almost four billions years old. They rise out of the water with enchanted austerity. Sitting well above the tree line, the Torngats are stark naked and make no apology about it. Torngat is an Inuktitut word meaning Place of Spirits, and it very clearly is. The mountaintops are usually shrouded in cloud, and it’s easy enough to imagine the Spirits assembling there, going through the itinerary for another year. In short, the Torngat Mountains took what little breath I have away from me. The thought occurred that I was on another planet, and that’s when I realized, no, I’m on this planet, I’m just none too clear on what it actually looks like. I realized that what I wanted to do was spend a little time getting to know the third stone from the sun; it has been my home for 56 years, but I have spent much of it confined in the settlements. I wanted to explore and examine, I wanted to interact – yes, in the broadest, most spiritual sense.”

“So there, basically, you have the two main components of my plan for (what remains of) my future: singing and (spiritual) mountain climbing. For example, I think I’ll go fishing this week, getting to know Mother Ship Earth a bit better. I think I’ll go stand in a river just a few degrees above freezing and toss a yarn-fly into the current, over and over again, in the hopes of convincing some chromium-silver steelhead that the thing is edible. Or, I may simply go walkabout, kicking stones and major rock formations. I will build inuksuit (did you know that was the plural? I learned a lot on my voyages…) and I will try to build them across as much of the landscape as I can. In the meantime, I will be singing, all manner of songs. I will sing in Porkbelly Futures, I will sing with fiddlers and button accordionists, I will sing in Gospel choirs and Glee Clubs.”

Torngat Mountains

Inuit mythology tells of the Torngait, the spirits that a Shaman or spiritual leader looks to for wisdom and power. Torngat comes from this Inuit name and the legends which hold that in this region the spirit world overlaps our own. White people have called this area the Ghost Coast and have commented how the sounds of the winds whistling through the rugged mountains bring forth the feeling that one is in another realm. If the earth is home to ancient spirits they would seek out this land where the rocks are among the oldest on the planet and the landforms hold an otherworldly appearance. Perhaps this truly is a place of spirits.

The Torngat Mountains National Park Reserve is the new name for this ancient place. It is the northern portion of the Inuit homeland of Nunatsiavut, located in northern Labrador. (Nunatsiavut means “Our beautiful land” in Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit.) The park reserve encompasses roughly 10,000 km2 and extends from the deep waters of Saglek Fjord in the south, to the very northern tip of Labrador; and from the boundary with Quebec in the west, to the waters of the Labrador Sea in the east.

The human history of the park is rich and ancient. Within the park there are hundreds of archaeological sites including tent rings, stone caribou fences, caches, and ancient graves, all of which tell the story of the peoples and cultures, particularly the Inuit, who have made this special landscape their home.

Ramah Chert

South of Nachvak Fjord is Ramah Bay, home to a unique translucent stone called Ramah chert. This mineral holds an edge that is sharper than surgical steel. It was so prized by the ancient peoples of Labrador that prior to contact with the Europeans, some used this mineral almost exclusively in their arrows and blades.

Paul Quarrington: Each Day Like It’s My Last at National Post.

More at Wanderbird Expedition Cruises.

Ramah Chert.

For Sydney, and for Linda Gordon who loves the landscape.

Raven Steals the Sun

Raven Steals The SunThis is an ancient story told on the Queen Charlotte Islands about how Raven helped to bring the Sun, Moon, Stars, Fresh Water and Fire to the world.

Long ago, near the beginning of the world, Gray Eagle was the
guardian of the Sun, Moon and Stars, of fresh water, and of fire.
Gray Eagle hated people so much that he kept these things hidden.
People lived in darkness, without fire and without fresh water.

Gray Eagle had a beautiful daughter, and Raven fell in love with her.
In the beginning, Raven was a snow-white bird, and as a such, he
pleased Gray Eagle’s daughter. She invited him to her father’s
longhouse.

When Raven saw the Sun, Moon and stars, and fresh water hanging on the sides of Eagle’s lodge, he knew what he should do. He watched for his chance to seize them when no one was looking. He stole all of them, and a brand of fire also, and flew out of the longhouse through the smoke hole. As soon as Raven got outside he hung the Sun up in the sky. It made so much light that he was able to fly far out to an island in the middle of the ocean. When the Sun set, he fastened the Moon up in the sky and hung the stars around in different places. By this new light he kept on flying, carrying with him the fresh water and the brand of fire he had stolen.

He flew back over the land. When he had reached the right place, he
dropped all the water he had stolen. It fell to the ground and there
became the source of all the fresh-water streams and lakes in the
world. Then Raven flew on, holding the brand of fire in his bill. The
smoke from the fire blew back over his white feathers and made them
black. When his bill began to burn, he had to drop the firebrand. It
struck rocks and hid itself within them. That is why, if you strike
two stones together, sparks of fire will drop out.

Raven’s feathers never became white again after they were blackened
by the smoke from the firebrand. That is why Raven is now a black bird.

Ravens symbolize many things in different cultures. Native American tradition honors the raven as a symbol of courage and of magical guidance. The Arab culture calls the raven Abu Zajir which means “Father of Omens.” They are seen as oracular birds, used in divination. They are seen as symbols of death, life, the sun, magic, shapeshifting, and tricksters.

Legend from Ella E. Clark: Indian Legends of the Pacific Northwest, University of California Press, 1953.

Image: Raven Stealing Sun, by Ken Mowatt.

The Man Who Saved Akitas

Dog ManThe first dog came into their lives in 1944. They were living in Hachimantai, an undeveloped and remote part of Akita, the north-westernmost prefecture of Japan, after which the dog breed was named, and a 22-hour train ride from Tokyo in those days. Kitako Sawatoishi was 23, raising their first two children, a toddler and an infant. Her husband, Morie, was 28 and an engineer for Mitsubishi, assigned to electrify the far north, a region that had struggled with poverty and harsh weather for centuries. Even in the best of times, it was a forbiddingly beautiful but neglected part of Japan. Only two cities in the region had power in those days – Odate and Akita City – and the rest of the large prefecture of Akita was without electricity, piped-in gas, or heat throughout the long winter.

After decades of wars and skirmishes in Asia, Japan was now fighting the West. Three years into the Second World War, millions of Japanese had died on the battlefront and millions more were starving at home. But every day on the radio, the news was always encouraging. ‘We were winning, they always said, and victory was just around the corner,’ Kitako says.

But the war dragged on, and food became almost impossible to come by. Proper winter clothes – coats and boots – weren’t available either. Kitako learnt to make sandals out of straw, the same shoes she had been horrified to see the locals wearing when she first arrived in Akita. The air strikes on the cities of Japan began, city after city turned to ash. It seemed relatively safe in the mountains, but nobody knew when things had been worse.

Morie was on his way to another snow-country village that winter when he met up with a doctor he knew, a man who had kept akitas before the war. Morie and the doctor discussed the war, swapping stories about how bad things had got. ‘You know how bad things are?’ the doctor asked Morie. ‘People are eating their dogs.’ Desperate for money, they were selling the pelts to the military, which used them to line winter coats.

In some snow-country villages it was illegal to have a dog at all. The police rounded them up and clubbed them. The doctor had been trying to keep track of how many akitas were left. It was widely acknowledged that they would soon be wiped out.

He thought of Hachiko, the most famous dog in Japan, a pale-yellow akita owned by a Tokyo University professor in 1920. The professor had taught his dog, as a puppy, to accompany him every morning to the Shibuya train station and then, at four o’clock in the afternoon, to return to meet his train. The two of them were a familiar sight at the station, and people marvelled at the dog’s loyalty and obedience. When Hachiko was two years old, though, the professor had a stroke at work and was taken to hospital where he eventually died, never seeing his dog again. Yet Hachiko continued to meet the four o’clock train at Shibuya every day for the next nine years.

Souvenirs and postcard pictures of Hachiko were sold at the station. A song was written – Loyal Hachiko – and taught to schoolchildren all over Japan. Morie was 11 years old in 1927 when he read in the newspaper that a bronze statue of the akita had been erected at Shibuya, on the spot where the dog liked to wait.

Morie knew the Japanese government had used the story of Hachiko as propaganda to promote loyalty to the emperor and it bothered him to have heard, not long before, that the bronze statue of the dog had been melted down. So many things of Morie’s childhood weren’t surviving the war. And so many things that he loved about his country didn’t seem important to most people any more. What had happened to Japan? Who would be as loyal as a dog if there were no dogs left?

Morie SawataishiAs he walked home in the snow, a thought occurred to Morie. What if he bought the best akita he could find and kept it alive until the war was over? Perhaps there were dogs available to save and a network could be assembled.

By the time Japan surrendered in the summer of 1945, there were said to be only 16 akitas left in the country. Morie owned two of them. The following spring, with a litter of puppies on the way, Morie hosted the first post-war dog show in the snow country, an informal gathering of all the men who had kept dogs hidden during the war – a backyard affair that sounds, from his descriptions, as much about sake as it was about dogs.

The restitution of the akita breed became Morie’s passion and the decisive factor of his life. He raised four children with Kitako, and continued to build power plants for Mitsubishi until he retired at 63, but every spare moment of his life Morie spent training or showing his dogs, or hunting in the mountains with them. Eventually, as the akita breed began to stabilize genetically and conform to a set of physical standards, Morie gravitated to dogs with kisho, or spirit – energy, shrewdness, intelligence, courage.

Over the years, he guesses that he has raised or trained 100 akitas – many of them superb show champions as well as hunters. There was Three Good Lucks, a beautiful red dog who was poisoned by a rival owner. There was One Hundred Tigers, a very promising puppy for the show ring, until he lost his tail in a fence. Victory Princess was a stray with a biting problem who was dropped off at Morie’s door.

In autumn 2007, when Morie’s beautiful champion akita Shiro died at 15 – an unimaginably old age for an akita – Morie wondered if it wasn’t time for him to go, too. He planned a big funeral for his great white champion. A priest and dozens of mourners came. Morie still had two younger akitas left, but he lacked the energy to show them or take them hunting.

In June 2008, an earthquake came – the largest earthquake in Japan for seven years. Its epicentre was in Kurikoma, not too far from the Sawataishis’ house. Windows were shattered, a landslide caused a boulder to roll into the kitchen. Morie and Kitako, as well as the dogs, were forced to evacuate to the suburbs of Tokyo where their daughter Ryoko, a university professor of veterinary medicine, has a house and small animal clinic. It was a very difficult transition for Morie. ‘From having unlimited space in the mountains to being in a crowded suburb – it was a big adjustment,’ Mamoru says.

Not long after the ministry of disaster declared the Sawataishis’ mountain house uninhabitable for the time being, Morie was taken to hospital for high blood pressure and various other ailments. He stubbornly refused life-saving drugs or treatments. On October 22 he died with Kitako at his side. He was 92.

‘I’ve over-lived,’ Morie used to joke. He lasted much longer than he had expected. And he wasn’t afraid to die. He had seemed quite happy as he talked about dying – almost joyful. ‘At least I know what my life has been about.’

Full story at Telegraph UK

Dog Man by Martha Sherrill on Amazon.

Nagareboshi Gin and other dangerous dogs

101 Dalmatians or Faux Fur?

101 Dalmatians First EditionPongo and Missis Pongo are a pair of Dalmatians. They live with the newly married Mr and Mrs Dearly (their “pets”).

Missis gives birth to a litter of 15 puppies. The Dearlys are concerned that Missis will not be able to feed them all and Mrs Dearly looks for another dog to act as a wet nurse. By chance, she finds an abandoned Dalmatian mother in the middle of the road in the pouring rain. She has the dog treated by a vet and gives her the name Perdita, from the Latin for “lost”. Later Perdita tells Pongo about her own lost Dalmatian love and the circumstances that led to her being abandoned in the middle of the road.

Mr and Mrs Dearly are invited to a dinner party hosted by Cruella de Vil, an intimidating and very wealthy woman with one side of her hair coloured white and the other side coloured black. They meet her furrier husband and her abused cat, and discover her fixation with furs.

101 Dalmatians Storyboard

Shortly after the dinner party the puppies disappear. The humans fail to trace them but through the Twilight Barking, a form of communication by which dogs can relay messages to each other across the country, the dogs manage to track them down to Hell Hall, in Suffolk.

We keep 7.5 million cats and 6.1 million dogs as pets but do we know where that fake-looking fur trim comes from? Today in China over two million cats and dogs are killed each year for their fur and for their skins. Among other things, these furs are used as linings in boots and gloves, jackets and coats, blankets and rugs.

Pongo and Missis try to explain to the Dearlys where the puppies are but fail. The dogs decide to run away and find them.

After a journey cross country, they are met by Lieutenant Pussy Willow, a tabby cat and the Colonel, an Old English Sheepdog who shows them Hell Hall, the ancestral home of the de Vil family. He tells them to rest overnight and that they will see their puppies the next day. They then discover there are 97 puppies including their own 15 and many others who later turn out to have been legally bought. They also discover that the puppies are being kept in Hell Hall by Saul and Jasper Baddun, two crooks who work for Cruella de Vil as caretakers of Hell Hall.

According to government estimates, 500,000 garments sold in the United States every year are trimmed with bobcat, fox, rabbit, or other animal fur, potentially with nothing on the label to indicate there is any fur on the garment. With the labeling loophole in place, consumers are left in the dark; they have no idea that their new clothes may contain fur from animals—even dogs and cats—whose treatment can include being skinned alive, anally electrocuted, or held struggling underwater to drown.

Cruella DeVilCruella de Vil appears in the middle of the night and tells the Baddun Brothers that the dogs must be slaughtered and skinned as soon as possible because of the publicity surrounding the theft of the Dearlys’ pups. Pongo and Missis devise an escape plan and agree that they must take all the puppies with them, not just their own 15. They escape on that same night, the day before Christmas Eve.

Pongo says that they need a miracle and find one when they are offered a lift in a removal van. The Dalmatians have rolled in soot to disguise their white hair, and they are able to hide in the darkness of the removal van with the help of a Staffordshire terrier whose pets are the movers.

The fur trade does not deny that it deals in dog and cat skins and it is quite legal for products made from this fur to be sold in Britain and Europe. Fur products do not have to be labeled by species. One cat fur coat alone requires the killing of up to 24 cats. 12 to 15 adult dogs are killed to manufacture each coat made from dog fur – and a horrific 40 or more if puppies or kittens are used.

Arriving back in London, they go to Cruella’s empty house. Her cat is still there and invites them in to destroy Cruella’s collection of animal skins, fur coats and mink bedsheets.

When the Dalmatians return to the Dearlys’ house where they are not recognized because of the soot. Once they are cleaned up, Mr Dearly sends out for steaks to feed them.

Presently, China is the second biggest commercial partner of Canada. According to Industry Canada, the Canadian fur and retail industry imported $5 million in animal pelts and $28 million in fur trimmed apparel from China in 2004. Despite the distinct possibility that many of these imported furs are from dogs and cats, the government has indicated that it has no intention of prohibiting these imports. By the year 2010, the Canadian government hopes to double commercial trade with China.

Later, the cat drops by to tell them Cruella has fled. The shock of discovering her furs have been destroyed has turned the black side of her hair white and the white side green. The Baddun Brothers have also been arrested. Hell Hall has been put up for sale and Mr Dearly buys it with a sum of money he has been given by the government for sorting out a tax problem. He renames it to Hill Hall and intends to use it to start a “dynasty of Dalmatians” (and a “dynasty of Dearlys” to take care of them). They adopt the cat, and promise her a white persian husband.

Finally, Perdita’s lost love, Prince (the one hundred and first Dalmatian) shows up. His “pets” can clearly see that the two wish to be together and allow him to stay with the Dearlys.

101 Dalmations was originally written in 1956 by Dodie Smith, and illustrated by Janet and Anne Grahame Johnstone.

Bill Peet and 101 Dalmatians

Bill Peet storyboards for 101 Dalmatians.

Ecological Fur

Faux fur or not?

Atlas of Dying Languages

Earlier we blogged about the efforts of Canadians to save their dying languages.

UNESCO has now introduced an atlas of 2,500 languages worldwide that are in danger of becoming extinct or which have recently disappeared. That is out of a total of 6,000 world languages.

UNESCO Atlas of Languages

In a presentation Thursday of a new world atlas of endangered languages, linguists stressed the list is not restricted to small or far-flung countries. They also sought to encourage immigrants to treasure their native languages.

“Language endangerment is a universal phenomenon,” said Christopher Moseley, an Australian linguist who edited the atlas’ third edition, which is to appear in digital and paper versions.

The atlas says 200 languages have become extinct in the last three generations, and another 199 languages have fewer than 10 speakers left.

More than a fourth of the 192 languages once spoken in the United States have disappeared. Another 71 are severely endangered, according to the atlas.

There is Gros Ventre, spoken by fewer than 10 people in north-central Montana. All are elderly, and none is fully fluent. The last fully fluent speaker died in 1981.

Or Menomonee, spoken in northeast Wisconsin, with just 35 speakers left.

The digital version of the atlas invites users to contribute with updates and allows them to search according to country, degree of endangerment, name of languages or by number of speakers.

Type in Russia, and color-coded flags appear ranging from white (unsafe) – denoting languages such as Lezgian, spoken in the Caucasus Mountains – to red (critically endangered), marking those such as the Tundra Enets, spoken in Arctic islands.

Not all is bleak, however. Some endangered languages like Livonian are being revived by young people and through poetry.

Marleen Habard, editor of the atlas’ Andean regions, said indigenous groups in South America have been at the forefront of preserving their regional tongues by pressuring governments to recognize indigenous rights.

Some languages have only recently been discovered. Andoan was not known until a journalist discovered a small group of its speakers on the border between Peru and Ecuador in 2000, Harbard said.

Francoise Riviere, deputy director of culture at UNESCO, said raising awareness of the importance of mother tongues is a crucial goal of the project.

“We are trying to teach people that the language of the country from where we come is important, and what counts is being proud of one’s own language,” she said.

A paper version of the 2009 atlas – which was funded by Norway and involved a team of over 30 linguists – will be launched in May.

Source: Toronto Star, February 20, 2009

Reality Check Haiku

Tatsumi Shimura

Image: Tatsumi Shimura, Portrait of a Lady (detail), 1930
Haiku: Reality Check Haiku, Nicky Kaa Walker