Category Archives: nature

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.

Animals Make Us Human

Animals Make Us HumanTemple Grandin’s Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior occupies a special place among the animal books of the last few decades. Grandin’s autism gives her a special understanding of what animals, whether house cats or cattle, think, feel and — perhaps most important — desire. There is a revelation on almost every page, and Grandin’s prose (she wrote with Catherine Johnson) is ungainly in the best possible way: blunt, sweet, off-kilter and often quite funny.

Grandin’s new book, Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals, also written with Johnson, picks up where Animals in Translation left off. It has a slightly different focus: she concentrates this time on the emotional rather than the physical life of animals, although the two are clearly related.

Grandin bases many of her observations in Animals Make Us Human on the work of Washington State University neuroscientist, Jaak Panksepp, who identified a series of core emotion systems in animals: seeking, play, care and lust (on the positive side) and fear, panic and rage (on the negative).

“The rule is simple,” she writes. “Don’t stimulate rage, fear and panic if you can help it, and do stimulate seeking and also play.”

There are provocative chapters here on dogs (she quibbles with some of the alpha-male ideas of Cesar Millan, television’s “Dog Whisperer”) and cats. Grandin is at her best, however, when she is talking about animals like cows, pigs, horses and chickens, as well as wild animals and those in zoos.

Grandin has designed humane and stress-free slaughter systems that are used now to process about half of all the cattle in the United States and Canada. There is some cognitive dissonance here. She is often asked “How can you care about animals when you design slaughter plants?”

Her reply is that “some people think death is the most terrible thing that can happen to an animal.” She argues that “the most important thing for an animal is the quality of its life.”

She adds: “The more I observe and learn about how dogs are kept today, I am more convinced that many cattle have better lives than some of the pampered pets. Too many dogs are alone all day with no human or dog companions.”

She worries about the “totally adversarial” relationship between animal advocacy groups and the livestock industry. She has kind words for companies like McDonald’s and Wendy’s (she has consulted for both), which are forcing their suppliers to treat animals more humanely. But she also praises activists. “The big companies are like steel, and activists are like heat. Activists soften the steel, and then I can bend it into pretty grillwork and make reforms.”

One of the major points in Animals Make Us Human is the importance of hiring and training good people to work with livestock. Strong, caring managers are needed; bullying and sadistic employees should be fired; and because turnover in these industries is high, constant training and retraining are necessary, as well as constant auditing from the outside.

Grandin is in favor of almost total openness — she’s among the writers who believe that slaughterhouses should have glass walls. “No animal should spend its last conscious moments in a state of terror,” she writes, and any visitor should be able to observe that they do not.

She loves solid, declarative sentences: “Cattle hate being yelled at”; “Pigs are obsessed with straw”; “Cows like to learn new things.”

We’re lucky to have Temple Grandin.

She has already written one very fine memoir, Thinking in Pictures . Human beings can often be made to feel like cattle, especially in large cities. What would she have to say about subways, housing projects, stadiums, prisons, office cubicles, long-distance buses, shelters for the homeless, elevators or the security line at an airport? What are her thoughts about urban planning in general?

This blogger would love to know.

Full review by Dwight Garner at New York Times, January 20, 2009.

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

Changelings

Fox Mask

Fox masks, wolf masks, I try them on
as if I were a savage.
Long ago I realized
from scratchings traced
on cave walls
or from dim ethnologies,
from collections hidden
in musty storerooms or museum basements,
from phrenological attempts to see
the beast in man,
how much of beast persisted.
Here was I
cursed by these foxes and their kin the wolves
to see them everywhere.

If my one-time friend the artist showed me a picture painted
of a closed garden
there was sure to be a fox who peered
from among the flowers,
a fox even the artist had not seen.
I have been cursed
for that as well, the artist crying he had not
seen the fox, he had not painted it,
but there it was
among the innocent flowers hiding
or among trees
or hidden
in a wheat field’s tawny light.

Once seen, the artist
could not unsee it
though his brush was clean
of all intent;
the creature grew
just from my trembling fingertip until
by no subterfuge of the imagination could we
ignore it and forget.
For reasons plain my friend
chose to go elsewhere with his canvases.
Why blame him?
The faces sprang
from some
uncanny pleasurable perception.

I saw them in the boles of ancient trees,
in shadows dancing upon walls
I am at last aware
that there exists
changelings
born from a fourth dimension lurking
somewhere about
and I am one of these.

I see our blighted
formalized
pollution-filled
landscape of old cans,
bottles, and oil drums,
as if it held
ghostly potentials:
that the smiling fox
who was
lives in the shrubbery,
that the buffalo wolf still howls
upon the snowy hilltop
summoning
a nonexistent pack
for hunting lost
among old skulls
the prairie grasses cover.

My childhood was preoccupied with dreams
of how to free all animals immured
in shabby local zoos,
in boxes foul,
in crates from which
the heaven sweeping hawks
still scanned their wide dominions
helplessly.
So is it now. The fox, the wolf, the coyote
the last
contenders against traps and poison
hold with grim teeth
slowly retreating
into waste lands where only coyotes run.
I am born of these,

their changeling.
Who first rocked
my cradle
or what wild thing left me
upon my parents’ doorstep
is a mystery
although
through this means I can see
faces where faces are not
and I know
a nature still
as time is still
beyond the reach of man.

You may search scarp and butte,
read Indian pictographs
on up-reared mesas,
but you will not find
or trace
more of me than is found
in two poised ears
behind my mother’s picture
or
on some rain-lashed night
a voice that barks
brief syllables
may be
at last my own.

from Notes of an Alchemist by Loren Eiseley

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.

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