We think we live and think in a free zone, unencumbered by the intrusions of instinct, culture, even the life around us (at least, my suburban home effects this): But we are never alone; our being is entangled with every strand of life, be it coiling in my gut, sprawling in the ground beneath this house or swarming with the buzzards over the treetops.
Migrating birds have been found to use the earth’s magnetic field to chart their courses by. Comes in handy when starlight or sunlight isn’t sufficient due to cloud cover and changing terrain. Apparently they alight with the field through a process of quantum entanglement: A protein their eyes reacts with the blue spectrum of light particles and causes a quantum entanglement sensitive to the location of the earth’s magnetic field.
(Radio waves can wreak havoc on this sensitive ability, much in the same way that sonar confuses the mating calls of whales and heating oceans are tripping vast ecosystems. Our entanglement is less quantum elegance than comic buffoonery—trip wires and banana peels …)
Thom van Dooren entangles us further into the world of birds—present and gone—in Flight Ways: Critical Perspectives on Animals: Theory, Culture, Science, and Law. “Life and death do not take place in isolation from others,” he writes, “they are thoroughly relational affairs for fleshy, mortal creatures.” He continues:
And so it is, in the worlds of birds—woven into relationships with a diverse array of other species, including humans. These are relationships of co-evolution and ecological dependency. But they are also about more than “biology” in any narrow sense. It is inside these multispecies entanglements that learning and development take place, that social practices and cultures are formed. In short, these relationships produce the possibility of both life and any given way of life. And so these relationships matter. This is true at the best of times, but in times like these when so many species are slipping out of the world, these entanglements take on a new significance. (Kindle Edition, p. 4)
A great extinction—some one million species of plant and animal life, a half to two thirds of all late-Holocene life—is massing all around us as greenhouse gases continue to overheat our world and human dominate resources and live large. But if we think we are going grandly into this far emptier future, like Moby-Dick, we are entangled with what we have vanquished. Watching whatever was on TV while I ate lunch yesterday, I caught the beginning of Dazed and Confused, that 1993 coming-of-age flick set in teen-mall America of the mid-70s I grew up through. Cool music, a little sexy as virgin souls in hot bodies lavished their attention on dating, jeans, dope, Led Zeppelin and cars: All of that indulgence taken for granted and without a single wisp of sulfur to belie a burning earth and our complicity burning everything at both ends.
What was extraordinary to me was to see how blithe we all were, culturally back then, about our clueless entanglement with a dying world, its physical disorder spinning in precise alignment to the negative arc of our spirits. How blind we were—and resolutely remain—overwriting the real world with a suburban fantasy which would eventually choke us and the world to death.
I finished my sandwich and turned off the TV.
Van Dooren continues,
Paying attention to avian entanglements unsettles human exceptionalist frameworks, prompting new kinds of questions about what extinction teaches us, how it remakes us, and what it requires of us. … What kinds of human–bird relationships are possible at the edge of extinction? What does it mean to care for a disappearing species? What obligations do we have to hold open space in the world for other living beings? (5)
Seems to me part of that work is learning to detach from the myth of my disentangled existence. Not a word I write is not burdened with the immense shadow of the civilization which enables it. Hard work indeed, but when some of that is dealt with — cleared — a different light, less human, more living, shines through.
Hard it is to get there, but great the reward, as Mary Oliver reports in her poem “Egrets”
Where the path closed
down and over,
through the scumbled leaves,
through the knotted catbrier,
I kept going. Finally
I could not
save my arms
from the thorns; soon
smelled me, hot
and wounded, and came
wheeling and wining.
And that’s how I came
to the edge of the pond:
black and empty
except for a spindle
of bleached reeds
at the far shore
which, as I looked,
into three egrets—
of white fire!
Even half-asleep they had
such faith in the world
that had made them—
tilting through the water,
by the laws
of their faith not logic,
they opened their wings
softly and stepped
over every dark thing.
(from American Primitive, 1983)
I’m sure that’s why we gaze upon the animal world with the yearning of the exile. Poetry I think can intensify that gaze, so that it becomes “a form of witnessing that is from the outset already seized, already claimed, by an obligation to those whose stories we are attempting to tell” (van Dooren, ibid. 9). Becoming entangled in the narrative—in rhyme and rhythm, with metaphor and myth—the solo enquiry can flower into “the complicate amassing harmony” which Wallace Stevens characterized the real world.
So: the beam is sighted, the branch alighted: Now that we may have a purchase on a view of the real world, what then? What news can our poems reconnoit? Van Dooren:
… at the same time as they may offer an account of existing relationships, stories can also connect us to others in new ways. Stories are always more than simply descriptive: we live by stories, and so they are inevitably powerful contributors to the shaping of our shared world. This is an understanding that works against any neat or straightforward division between the “real” and the “narrated” world (Kearney 2002:133–34).
Instead, I see storytelling as a dynamic act of “storying” the world, utterly inseparable from lived experience and a vital contributor to the emergence of “what is.” Stories arise from the world, and they are at home in the world. As (Donna) Haraway notes, “‘World’ is a verb,” and so stories are “of the world, not in the world. Worlds are not containers, they’re patternings, risky co-makings, speculative fabulations.” Even a story that aims to be purely mimetic can never simply be a passive mirror held up to “reality.” Stories are a part of the world, and so they participate in its becoming. As a result, telling stories has consequences: one of which is that we will inevitably be drawn into new connections, and with them new accountabilities and obligations. (10)
Sounds like a poetic for vibrant entanglement for me. Let’s put it to use.
For this challenge, explore the art and acts of entanglement in a poem. How does one life entangle another? How do the dead remain entangled with the living? Become the thing you see. Reflect on how that seeing changes the world (at least, your view of it). Then (or separately) ask yourself what existence would mean without that entanglement: how much less light and air and beauty. Flip the switch both ways to see how it works. Entangle yourself in the world. Let your witness be our testament.
Some exciting challenges in the coming weeks from Sherry and Sarah. Stay tuned!
We’ll leave via an entangled brake Galway Kinnell discovered for us:
I love to go out in late September
among the fat, overripe, icy, black blackberries
to eat blackberries for breakfast,
the stalks very prickly, a penalty
they earn for knowing the black art
of blackberry-making; and as I stand among them
lifting the stalks to my mouth, the ripest berries
fall almost unbidden to my tongue,
as words sometimes do, certain peculiar words
like strengths or squinched,
many-lettered, one-syllabled lumps,
which I squeeze, squinch open, and splurge well
in the silent, startled, icy, black language
of blackberry-eating in late September.
(from Mortal Acts, Mortal Words, 1980)
Thank you for the Dylan, Brendan – it’s one of my favourites!
I love the Mary Oliver poem. Egrets are beautiful birds.
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A great and intriguing challenge. I love the Dylan song from probably my favourite album of his.
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So interesting that the birds’ EYES react to the blue spectrum to align with the earth’s magnetic fields. Nature constantly amazes. A very intriguing prompt. I am in the thick of moving and am not feeling well. But will find a moment somewhere soon to contemplate this amazement.
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This complex prompt and the poem I wrote in respnse really bought it home to me that it is our grief over suffering animals and species loss that actually gives us the strength not to curl up in defeat but to focus our heart and mind and speak up for those who do not speak in words. Thank you.
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