Category Archives: environment

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.

Darwin and the Star Thrower

DarwinHumanity was suddenly entranced by light and fancied it reflected light. Progress was its watchword, and for a time the shadows seemed to recede. Only a few guessed that the retreat of darkness presaged the emergence of an entirely new and less tangible terror. Things, in the words of G.K. Chesterton, were to grow incalculable by being calculated. Man’s powers were finite; the forces he had released in nature recognized no such limitations. They were the irrevocable monsters conjured up by a completely amateur sorcerer.

What was the nature of the first discoveries that now threaten to induce disaster? Pre-eminent among them was…the discovery of the interlinked and evolving web of life. The great Victorian biologists saw, and yet refused to see, the war between form and formlessness, chaos and antichaos, which the poet Goethe had sensed contesting beneath the smiling surface of nature.

By contrast, Darwin, the prime student of the struggle for existence, sought to visualize in a tangled bank of leaves the silent and insatiable war of nature. Still, he could imply with a veiled complacency that man might “with some confidence” look forward to a secure future “of appreciable length.” This he could do upon the same page in the Origin of Species where he observes that “of the species now living, very few will transmit progeny to a far distant futurity.” The contradiction escaped him; he did not wish to see it. Darwin, in addition, saw life as a purely selfish struggle, in which nothing is modified for the good of another species without being directly advantageous to its associated form.

“But I do love the world,” I whispered to a waiting presence in the empty room. “I love its small ones, the things beaten in the strangling surf, the bird, singing, which flies and falls and is not seen again. I love the lost ones, the failures of the world.” It was like renunciation of my scientific heritage. It was a joining, the expression of love projected beyond the species boundary by a creature born of Darwinian struggle, in the silent war under the tangle bank. “There is no boon in nature,” one of the new philosophers had written harshly in the first years of the industrial cities. Nevertheless, through war and famine and death, a sparse mercy had persisted, like a mutation whose time had not yet come. I had seen the star thrower cross that rift and, in so doing, he had reasserted the human right to define his own frontier. He had moved to the utmost edge of natural being, if not across its boundaries. It was as though at some point the supernatural had touched hesitantly, for an instant, upon the natural.

Here, at last, was the rift that lay beyond Darwin’s tangled bank. For a creature, arisen from that bank and born of its contentions, had stretched out its hand in pity. Some ancient, inexhaustible and patient intelligence, lying dispersed in the planetary fields of force or amidst the inconceivable cold of interstellar space, had chosen to endow its desolation with an apparition as mysterious as itself.

I picked up a star whose tube feet ventured timidly among my fingers while, like a true star, it cried soundlessly for life. I saw it with an unaccustomed clarity and cast far out. With it, I flung myself as forfeit, for the first time, into some unknown dimension of existence. From Darwin’s tangled bank of unceasing struggle, selfishness and death had arisen, incomprehensibly, the thrower who loved not man, but life. It was the subtle cleft in nature before which biological thinking had faltered. We had reached the last shore of an invisible island – yet strangely, also a shore that the primitives had always known. They had sensed intuitively that man cannot exist spiritually without life, his brother. Somewhere, my thought persisted, there is a hurler of stars, and he walks, because he chooses, always in desolation, but not in defeat.

Excerpted from The Star Thrower, by Loren Eiseley.

The complete works of Charles Darwin.

Darwin: Metaphors and Myths

The Star Thrower

Every time we walk along a beach some ancient urge disturbs us so that we find ourselves shedding shoes and garments or scavenging among seaweed and whitened timbers like the homesick refugees of a long war. . . Mostly the animals understand their roles, but man, by comparison, seems troubled by a message that, it is often said, he cannot quite remember or has gotten wrong. . . Bereft of instinct, he must search continually for meanings. . .

starfishIn a pool of sand and silt a starfish had thrust its arms up stiffly and was holding its body away from the stifling mud.

“It’s still alive,” I ventured.

“Yes,” he said, and with a quick yet gentle movement he picked up the star and spun it over my head and far out into the sea. It sunk in a burst of spume, and the waters roared once more.

…”There are not many who come this far,” I said, groping in a sudden embarrassment for words. “Do you collect?”

“Only like this,” he said softly, gesturing amidst the wreckage of the shore. “And only for the living.”

He stooped again, oblivious of my curiosity, and skipped another star neatly across the water.

“The stars,” he said, “throw well. One can help them.”

The Star Thrower is part of a sixteen page essay of the same name by Loren Eiseley (1907–1977). It was published in 1969 in The Unexpected Universe. The Star Thrower is also the title of a 1978 anthology of Eiseley’s works (including the essay) which he completed shortly before his death.

Loren Eiseley has been described as the 20th century’s answer to Henry David Thoreau. He writes in a thought-provoking, almost mystical style. He is a naturalist, poet, realist, existentialist, haunted mystic, evolutionary anthropologist, environmental advocate, historian, and human being.

This book is an anthology of his best work, selected from several past publications including some of his poetry. His reflections on humankind, time, evolution, the Earth, the natural world, the unknown, and even the very nature of existence itself are more powerful than the most dense scientific formulae or the most sacred tomes of Scripture. He looks at our mysterious universe with the eyes of a human being, and he looks at his own soul in the process… This is not the work of a theologian or a secularist; these are the stories of a complex human being who admits that there is far more in heaven and earth than we dream.

Review excerpted from Amazon.

Revolutionary Type: Ecofont

ecofont

In the midst of all the printing companies offering recycled paper, vegetable-based inks and e-waste management, one firm in the Netherlands is backing up for a second and asking consumers to consider switching to a greener font.

Yes, we’re talking about the carbon footprint of Times New Roman, Helvetica and Gil Sans. But don’t roll your eyes just yet. Although it may seem silly, the new Ecofont, created by SPRANQ, could have major sustainable ripple effects and potentially kick-start a different approach to how we design typefaces, and why.

For instance, rather than ask a questions such as, “What makes a font look good?” this Dutch design team asked, “How much of a letter can be removed while maintaining readability?”

The answer, deduced after many trial runs and much coffee: 20%.

“We started off looking at Verdana, the most-used font in Holland,” says SPRANQ co-founder Gerjon Zomer of the creative process behind Ecofont. The Ecofont is based on the Vera Sans, an Open Source letter, and is available for Windows, Mac OSX and Linux.

The team then deleted thin vertical strips within each letter to produce as much negative space as possible – doing this saved about 50% of the ink but also left them with a font that was unreadable on most computer screens. They tried cutting out a series of square shapes and even stars, but in the end, circles proved most effective.

Finally, the designers switched from Verdana to Vera, and declared they had a winner. It’s now available for free downloading at Ecofont.eu.

“I think the power of Ecofont is its simplicity,” says Zomer. “There are a lot of complicated technical solutions out there to save ink, but they don’t usually appeal to people. We decided it was important to see the effect, right there in front of you.”

Some environmentalists argue that if renewable vegetable- or soy-based inks are used, it hardly matters how much is printed.

“But those still require cartridges,” Zomer says, “which need replacing, and each cartridge can require up to three and a half litres of oil to ­manufacture.”

Another advantage to the Ecofont is that it’s free.

“We found that most things to do with the environment right now are still very money-related,” Zomer says. “If a business is going green, it’s usually just for publicity’s sake and for customer reassurance. If the cost is too high, it won’t be successful.”

Reaction to the Ecofont, which unfortunately isn’t refined enough yet for book publishing or other high-end printing projects, has been mixed.

For whatever reason, North Americans tend to embrace it, but the European community has been more cynical, claiming it’s nothing but a cheeky marketing ploy.

Writers at Treehugger.com, for example, gave it a test-run and had mostly positive results, but they also point out that one could simply adjust the printer settings – think options such as low-resolution, fast draft mode or grey-scale.

Meanwhile, in a Jan. 2 National Public Radio broadcast in the United States, the host quipped, “We’re doing something similar here in our offices – our printers no longer use vowels.”

Still, despite all the criticism, there’s something to be said for green initiatives taking hold in unexpected places. The Ecofont proves that a seemingly inconsequential, small white dot on the stem of a 6-pt letter F can have a positive effect on the earth, one that’s hard to measure in quantitative terms but that perhaps signifies something greater.

And a small leap forward is always better than standing around doing nothing, so at the very least, the Dutch deserve a pat on the back for tackling the green movement in a unique way, choosing to think small in a world of big problems.

Source: National Post, January 15, 2009.

Thinking Like A Mountain

Thinking Like A MountainAldo Leopold (1887 – 1948) was an American ecologist, forester and environmentalist. He was influential in the development of modern environmental ethics and in the movement for wilderness preservation. He has been called an American prophet, the father of wildlife management, and one of most strongest advocates for conservation.

Thinking Like a Mountain , by Susan Flader, professor of environmental history and policy at the University of Missouri, was the first of a handful of efforts to capture the work and thought of America’s most significant environmental thinker, Aldo Leopold. This account of Leopold’s philosophical journey makes brings much-deserved attention to the continuing influence and importance of Leopold today.

Thinking Like a Mountain unfolds with Flader’s close analysis of Leopold’s essay of the same title, which explores issues of predation by studying the interrelationships between deer, wolves, and forests. Flader shows how his approach to wildlife management and species preservation evolved from his experiences restoring the deer population in the Southwestern United States, his study of the German system of forest and wildlife management, and his efforts to combat the overpopulation of deer in Wisconsin. His own intellectual development parallels the formation of the conservation movement, reflecting his struggle to understand the relationship between the land and its human and animal inhabitants.

Drawing from the entire corpus of Leopold’s works, including published and unpublished writing, correspondence, field notes, and journals, Flader places Leopold in his historical context. In addition, a biographical sketch draws on personal interviews with family, friends, and colleagues to illuminate his many roles as scientist, philosopher, citizen, policy maker, and teacher. Flader’s insight and profound appreciation of the issues make Thinking Like a Mountain a standard source for readers interested in Leopold scholarship and the development of ecology and conservation in the twentieth century.

“My own conviction on this score dates from the day I saw a wolf die. We were eating lunch on a high rimrock, at the foot of which a turbulent river elbowed its way. We saw what we thought was a doe fording the torrent, her breast awash in white water. When she climbed the bank toward us and shook out her tail, we realized our error: it was a wolf. A half-dozen others, evidently grown pups, sprang from the willows and all joined in a welcoming melee of wagging tails and playful maulings. What was literally a pile of wolves writhed and tumbled in the center of an open flat at the foot of our rimrock.

In those days we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf. In a second we were pumping lead into the pack, but with more excitement than accuracy: how to aim a steep downhill shot is always confusing. When our rifles were empty, the old wolf was down, and a pup was dragging a leg into impassable slide-rocks.

We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.

Since then I have lived to see state after state extirpate its wolves. I have watched the face of many a newly wolfless mountain, and seen the south-facing slopes wrinkle with a maze of new deer trails. I have seen every edible bush and seedling browsed, first to anaemic desuetude, and then to death. I have seen every edible tree defoliated to the height of a saddlehorn. Such a mountain looks as if someone had given God a new pruning shears, and forbidden Him all other exercise. In the end the starved bones of the hoped-for deer herd, dead of its own too-much, bleach with the bones of the dead sage, or molder under the high-lined junipers.

I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades. So also with cows. The cowman who cleans his range of wolves does not realize that he is taking over the wolf’s job of trimming the herd to fit the range. He has not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea.”

Aldo Leopold Archives

Wolf Eyes

All Our Wonder Unavenged

All Our Wonder UnavengedDon Domanski was born and raised on Cape Breton Island and now lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia. His latest work, All Our Wonder Unavenged (Brick Books) recently won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry.

He is a poet of the holiness of subtleties, a master of mindfulness and being. His writing is a form of osmosis, spirit seeping through the details of each poem, creating a marvel of metaphysics and language distilled to purest energy. Living in the moment here is synonymous with being the moment, a transformation that is stunning to inhabit.

The nature imagery is interlaced with references to Buddhism, Greek mythology, ancient civilizations and even witches. The poems don’t transcend the material world so much as find the spirit in what we can see, touch, and hear. Domanski asserts that the deity is in all things.

my mother believed God moved the sparrows around day after day
as a teenager I believed the sparrows moved God around
all the inexhaustible crutches He leaned upon
all the underweights of silence to find His way

now the only god I believe in are the sparrows themselves

Don Domanski was recently interviewed by CBC. Here are some excerpts.

CBC: Your work brings the inanimate to life. What draws you to blur the line between the animate and inanimate world?

It probably comes from childhood originally, children blur that line all the time, giving life to inanimate objects, to toys and dolls, because they can’t imagine it otherwise. What I’m doing is making my way to presence, and blurring that line helps to draw out the inherent presence in things. My definition of life is isness, its elementary stance and grace, therefore everything is alive, simply put being equals life. Now I know this isn’t the usual definition, but still it is an ancient one, not just among children, but among people from all cultures.

I’m an animist when it comes to how I interact with the physical world. Animism is the oldest religious/spiritual practice, the base experience out of which all the other ways of the sacred have grown. So I guess you could say I’m a traditionalist of a sort, a basic believer in first experiences, whether it’s cultural or ones from childhood. There’s a very deep truth there that strikes well below the thinking level, a connection richer than language, which can give words a more inclusive depth and reach.

CBC: What draws you to geology and palaeontology as subjects for your writing?

I’ve always been interested in the natural sciences, so it seems almost instinctive that geology and palaeontology should find their way into my work. I collected fossils for fourteen years, to try and get some sense of time, some understanding of the permutations of time on life. Of course in the end it’s time out of mind, it’s impossible to grasp what two hundred million years actually means. But there were moments in this hunt for time that shone forth with a particular light I wouldn’t have seen otherwise. For instance, finding the impressions of raindrops that were three hundred and fifty million years old. The rain falling on a completely different planet then we live on today. That gives a new perspective, a new appreciation of being.

I see no difference between poetry and spiritual practice

CBC Interview with Don Domanski

Brick Books

Prairie Fire Review of Books

The Fioretti of Saint Francis

Saint FrancisFioretti di San Francesco (The Little Flowers of Saint Francis) is a florilegium – a collection of excerpts – divided into 53 short chapters, on the life of the fabled saint, which was composed at the end of the 14th century.

The anonymous Italian text, almost certainly by a Tuscan author, is a version of the Latin Actus beati Francisci et sociorum eius, of which the earliest extant manuscript is one of 1390 A.D. The text has been ascribed to Fra. Ugolino da Santa Maria, whose name occurs three times in the Actus.

The text has been the most popular account of his life and relates many colorful anecdotes, miracles and pious examples from the lives of Francis and his followers.

It is said that one day while Francis was traveling with some companions they happened upon a place in the road where birds filled the trees on either side. Francis told his companions to “wait for me while I go to preach to my sisters the birds”. The birds surrounded him, drawn by the power of his voice, and not one of them flew away. Francis spoke to them:

My sister birds, you owe much to God, and you must always and in everyplace give praise to Him; for He has given you freedom to wing through the sky and He has clothed you…you neither sow nor reap, and God feeds you and gives you rivers and fountains for your thirst, and mountains and valleys for shelter, and tall trees for your nests. And although you neither know how to spin or weave, God dresses you and your children, for the Creator loves you greatly and He blesses you abundantly. Therefore… always seek to praise God.

Wolf of GubbioFioretti tells that in the city of Gubbio, where Francis lived for some time, was a wolf “terrifying and ferocious, who devoured men as well as animals”. Francis had compassion upon the townsfolk, and went up into the hills to find the wolf. Soon, fear of the animal had caused all his companions to flee, though the saint pressed on. When he found the wolf, he made the sign of the cross and commanded the wolf to come to him and hurt no one. Miraculously the wolf closed his jaws and lay down at the feet of St. Francis.

“Brother Wolf, thou doest much harm in these parts and thou hast done great evil…” said Francis. “All these people accuse you and curse you…But brother wolf, I would make peace between you and the people.”

“As thou art willing to make this peace, I promise thee that thou shalt be fed every day by the inhabitants of this land so long as thou shalt live among them; thou shalt no longer suffer hunger, as it is hunger which has made thee do so much evil; but if I obtain all this for thee, thou must promise, on thy side, never again to attack any animal or any human being; dost thou make this promise?”

In agreement the wolf placed one of its forepaws in Francis’ outstretched hand, and the oath was made. Francis then commanded the wolf to return with him to Gubbio.

Meanwhile the townsfolk, having heard of the miracle, gathered in the city marketplace to await Francis and his companion, and were shocked to see the ferocious wolf behaving as though his pet. When Francis reached the marketplace he offered the assembled crowd an impromptu sermon with the tame wolf at his feet. He is quoted as saying: “How much we ought to dread the jaws of hell, if the jaws of so small an animal as a wolf can make a whole city tremble through fear?”

Gubbio was freed from the menace of the predator. Francis, ever the lover of animals, even made a pact on behalf of the town dogs, that they would not bother the wolf again.

These legends exemplify the Franciscan mode of charity and poverty as well as the saint’s love of the natural world. Part of his appreciation of the environment is expressed in his Canticle of the Sun, a poem written by the saint in Umbrian Italian shortly before his death in 1226, which expresses a love and appreciation of Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Mother Earth, Brother Fire, and all of God’s creations personified in their fundamental forms. In Canticle of the Creatures, he wrote: “All praise to you, Oh Lord, for all these brother and sister creatures.” His Canticle is believed to be among the first works of literature, if not the first, written in the Italian language.

It is an affirmation of Francis’ personal theology as he often referred to animals as brothers and sisters to Mankind, and rejected material accumulation and sensual comforts in favour of “Lady Poverty”.

Image: Saint Francis instructs the Wolf, Carl Weidemeyer-Worpswede, 1911