Category Archives: spirituality

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.

The Burning of the Leaves

Leaf BurningNow is the time for the burning of the leaves,
They go to the fire; the nostrils prick with smoke
Wandering slowly into the weeping mist.
Brittle and blotched, ragged and rotten sheaves!
A flame seizes the smouldering ruin, and bites
On stubborn stalks that crackle as they resist.
The last hollyhock’s fallen tower is dust:
All the spices of June are a bitter reek,
All the extravagant riches spent and mean.
All burns! the reddest rose is a ghost.
Spark whirl up, to expire in the mist: the wild
Fingers of fire are making corruption clean.
Now is the time for stripping the spirit bare,
Time for the burning of days ended and done,
Idle solace of things that have gone before,
Rootless hope and fruitless desire are there:
Let them go to the fire with never a look behind.
That world that was ours is a world that is ours no more.
They will come again, the leaf and the flower, to arise
From squalor of rottenness into the old splendour,
And magical scents to a wondering memory bring;
The same glory, to shine upon different eyes.
Earth cares for her own ruins, naught for ours.
Nothing is certain, only the certain spring.

~~ Laurence Binyon

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.

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.