Let’s begin with a May Swenson poem:
ANOTHER SPRING UNCOVERED
Colors take bodies,
become many birds.
Odors are born
as earliest buds.
Sounds are streams,
the pebbles bells.
the winds and the woods.
Hills of lambskin
stroke our feet.
We move in an amnion
and put our cheeks
and warm slate
sides of rocks.
Cardinal on a limb
gripped: if we
could take him
into our hand,
the whistling red
the velvet plum —
and seize those other
hues, hot, cool:
indigo bunting sky-piece,
in brown shadow,
towhee — alive!
If we could eat snowdrops,
be bows in our hair,
wade the tinkling streams
wear lambskin grass,
and suck but milk of air!
A dance commences between us and our earth, a holy round. As Thoreau wrote, “in wildness is the preservation of the world.” Not out there in a separate and distant wilderness, but in wildness, the heart we share with all creation.
The amnion of light surrounds and nourishes us. “For me, nature includes everything: the entire universe, the city, the country the human mind, human creatures, and the animal creatures,” Swenson said in an interview. “Nature is the big construct.”
Wildness enervates words with vibrant intensity. “I think of the poem as a mobile,” Swenson continues, “almost a construct, something you can look around, that moves, that is concrete … you can almost hold it in your hand.”
The aesthetic response to wildness is always one of surprise. The emotion is rooted in our limbic system, our animal senses, our carnal sympathies. James Hillman notes,
In the ancient world the organ of perception was the heart. The heart was immediately connected to things via the senses. The word for perception or sensation in Greek was aisthesis, which means at root a breathing in or taking in of the world, the gasp, “ah,” the “uh” of the breath in wonder, shock, amazement, an aesthetic response to the image (eidelon) presented. In ancient Greek physiology and in biblical psychology the heart was the organ of sensation, it was also the place of imagination … The heart’s function was aesthetic. (“Anima Mundi,” 107)
Surprise invokes a rapt attention; thus embraced, the world becomes sensible, A.R. Ammons writes in “Full”:
I retire from
the broad engagements,
leave the line
back into the woods
to openings of
hillslides and lakes:
I do not want
loud with emptiness
a hundred years
from now: the
suffices — complete —
lifts a single
“Suffices” is the critical word. It says that every pattern serves for the whole. And the whole disappears without the single thread.
… An aesthetic response to particulars would radically slow us down. To notice each event would limit our appetite for events, and the very slowing down of consumption would affect inflation, hypergrowth, the manic defenses and expansionism of the civilization. Perhaps, events speed up in proportion to their not being appreciated; perhaps events grow to cataclysmic size and intensity in proportion to their not being noticed. (Ibid 115)
At its most intense, the wild crosses over into the sacred. Intense in its particulars — what is wild is tactile, sensible, independent yet soaked in peripheral awareness and deeply rooted — it becomes all of creation in one shimmering example. The sacred exceeds our capability to comprehend and thus calls us to grow in deeper understanding.
The sacred is what makes wildness so necessary. We go to such places, live in them, dream of them, says Montana writer William Kittredge, “to renew our intimacy with a world that is natural and perhaps sacred. To me, sacred means necessary. We evolved in nature, with other animals … Isolate us from nature too long, as individuals, as societies, and we start getting nervous, crazy, unmoored, inhabited by diseases we cannot name, driven to thoughtless ambitions and easy cruelties.”
Douglas Burton-Christie writes in his essay “The Sacred and the Wild,” “It is in response to this rich, relational reality, in profound poetic response, through play, storytelling, song, and dance that we come to know who we are in the world, that we come to know the ground of our own being, the ground of the world, ultimate ground. Without this reality, without the fluid poetic process it calls forth from us, we will remain stunted, emotionally and spiritually impoverished. And we will end up imposing our own sense of impoverishment upon the physical world.”
The aesthetic response to wildness is poetry as prayer. Matthew Fox, whose creation spirituality has attempted to rescue Christianity from Heaven, writes that awareness is a radical response to our sacred wildness:
To respond radically to life’s mysteries, we must be aware of them or know them. Prayer is first of all a growing to awareness of life and its mysteries. It is growing into life, learning to feel and breathe and sense life. Sir William Osler observes that “half of us are blind, few of us feel, and we are all deaf.” Awareness is seeing buildings and teapots and not just thinking “shelter” and “drink” but form and shape and beauty and curvature. It is hearing a sparrow sing and identifying one’s own voice with another animal’s. Awareness is the capacity to be wholly where one is and to be alert to the possibilities of enjoyment and wonder, awe and beauty, goodness and peace exactly where one is. (On Becoming a Musical Mystical Bear, 1972, p. 78)
Pursuit of the sacred is a devotion and discipline; we revise our poems seeking to find the truest expression of our wild nature. In early Christian Ireland there were three ways to sacrifice oneself to be in total communion with God: the “red” martyrdom of sacrifice of one’s life; the “white” martyrdom of pilgrimage, which might mean committing oneself to the wave as St. Brendan and sailing the ocean of God; and the “green” martyrdom of forest hermitage, renouncing the pleasures of human community to live wide and open to nature. It is in the wild that the transformation of the poet occurs. Culdees of the 8th and 9th centuries were secular in nature yet devotional in the same vein, often living up in trees or other sanctuaries immersed in the wild. Suibne Geilt (Mad Sweeney) is a penitent of Culdee tradition, driven insane by the clamor of battle and retreating to the wood. There his poetry sang of the sacred wild.
The wild informs our literacy, as this ninth-century copyist observes:
A wall of forest looms above
and sweetly the blackbird sings:
All the birds make melody
over me and my books and things
There sings to me the cuckoo
from bush-citadels in grey hood.
God’s doom! May the Lord protect me
writing well, under the great wood.
(transl. James Carney
Wildness is a sacred trust we preserve with both ferocity and humility. Hallowed is “green fire,” as Aldo Leopold put it, that “a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants, and animals.” In the presence of the sacred we are humbled, right-sized.
Humility. From humus, ground or soil. It is a word, an idea, whose meaning we have hardly begun to understand. It suggests a kind of moral and spiritual disposition of lowliness, littleness. Not self-abnegation or self-loathing as some of our spiritual traditions have taken it to mean. Rather an honest acknowledgement of who we are, or who we might become: beings close to the earth, of the earth, aware of our kinship with other living beings, capable of looking out onto the world from below. (Burton-Christie, ibid.)
Wendell Berry takes his sabbath in the old forest, becoming a humble mote in a cathedral dancing light:
Slowly, slowly they return
To the small woodland let alone;
Great trees, outspreading and upright,
Apostles of the living light.
Patient as stars, they build in air
Tier after tier a timbered choir,
Stout beams upholding weightless grace
Of song, a blessing on this place.
They stand in waiting all around,
Uprisings of their native ground,
Downcomings of the distant light;
They are the advent they await.
Receiving sun and giving shade,
Their life’s a benediction made,
And is a benediction said
Over the living and the dead.
In fall their brightened leaves, released,
Fly down the wind, and we are pleased
Top walk on radiance, amazed.
O light come down to earth, be praised!
Sacred wildness is an ultimacy which finds a center in every location, as Scott Russell Sanders writes in Staying Put: Making A Home in A Restless World (1993):
The likeliest path to the ultimate ground leads through my local ground. I mean the land itself, with its creeks and rivers, its weather, seasons, stone outcroppings, and all the plants and animals that share it. I cannot have a spiritual center without having a geographical one … If our interior journeys are cut loose entirely from . . . place, then both we and the neighborhood will suffer.
In the center of what is local to us — tree, grove, garden, lake, hill, shore — a sacred ultimacy wells the green fire. It is what twelfth century mystic Hildegard of Bingen called viriditas, God’s fire incarnate. Viriditas enlivens the four elements, moistening stones and shimmering in waters, refreshing the breeze and glowing in fire. It is for us to locate those places, to sing of them and be humbled by them, to worship the sacred wildness of them and protect them for the generations to come. (The Celtic goddess Brgit, later Christianized as St. Brighid, is a reservoir of green fire and the patron of blacksmiths, midwives and poets. Her feast day of Feb. 2 is Imbolc – a quickening fire in Earth’s belly – and later Candlemas. Sarah Connor did a marvelous Imbolc challenge a year ago.)
This week, earthweal is a sanctum of green fire. Tells us about wildness in your world and what makes it sacred.
Here are some starting points of departure for your response, though you are free to go in any direction that feels true to challenge. (Feel welcome to post multiple responses!)
- How are wilderness and wildness different?
- Why is wildness so necessary?
- How does wildness play into your development as a poet?
- What does it mean to be wild and sacred? How does each affect our understanding of the other?
- Where are your wild and sacred places?
- How does one grow spiritually into wildness?
- How has your sense of the wild and the sacred evolved?
- Where do you find green fire? How does viriditas course through a life?
- About what things are you most fierce and yet humbled?
- Is poetry prayer?
- How does the sacred wild inform this time of radical climate change?
Here’s to poets going wild!
The poppies send up their
orange flares; swaying
in the wind, their congregations
are a levitation
of bright dust, of thin
and lacy leaves.
There isn’t a place
in this world that doesn’t
sooner or later drown
in the indigoes of darkness,
but now, for a while,
shines like a miracle
as it floats above everything
with its yellow hair.
Of course nothing stops the cold,
black, curved blade
from hooking forward —
loss is the great lesson.
But also I say this: that light
is an invitation to happiness,
and that happiness,
when it’s done right,
is a kind of holiness,
palpable and redemptive.
Inside the bright fields,
touched by their rough and spongy gold,
I am washed and washed
in the river
of earthly delight —
and what are you going to do —
what can you do
about it —
deep, blue night?
Since it’s Brigid’s Day today, I couldn’t not. Thanks!
Wild and wonderful, Brendan. I will send my spirit flying into the trees and see what I find.
I don’t often have something suitable for earthweal, but this challenge did indeed ‘inform my literacy.” Your choice of poems here enhance and clarify your topic exceptionally well, Brendan. Thanks for the inspiration.
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Wonderful essay Brendan and beautiful selection of poetry. Thank you.
Thank you for this luscious essay, full of the best poetry to illustrate your points! Gosh!