by Lindi-Ann Hewitt-Coleman
Wilderness, South Africa
SLEEPING IN THE FOREST
I thought the earth
remembered me, she
took me back so tenderly, arranging
her dark skirts, her pockets
full of lichens and seeds. I slept
as never before, a stone
on the riverbed, nothing
between me and the white fire of the stars
but my thoughts, and they floated
light as moths among the branches
of the perfect trees. All night
I heard the small kingdoms breathing
around me, the insects, and the birds
who do their work in the darkness. All night
I rose and fell, as if in water, grappling
with a luminous doom. By morning
I had vanished at least a dozen times
into something better.
It is hard some days not to be trammeled by the ways of the world. From unchecked neighbourhood clearing for new development, new fences, new houses, new supermarkets to unchecked profiteering. In a town as small and hemmed by forest and lake as ours – each project comes with its own shrugged shoulders at its particular collateral damage. Nest of a Southern Boubou here, a handful of Puffadders and Raucous Toads there, the grass verge here where the informal traders used to eke out a half living, a storm-water drain full of plastic to the sea.
And I know there are more of us, more mouths to feed, more places to go, more money to make. But the costs of our living this way are rising with the oceans.
News of the world is worse – a litany of fears realised. War, famine, flood, fire. It is the shrugged shoulders though – that could do us in in the end – our inability to find right action in the world. Our inability to act.
Perhaps the way forward is enacting itself right under our feet.
“Enactivism (according to Wikipedia) is a position in cognitive science that argues that cognition arises through a dynamic interaction between an acting organism and its environment. It claims that the environment of an organism is brought about, or enacted, by the active exercise of that organism’s sensorimotor processes.”
In his 2006 book Consciousness & Emotion, JT Burman asserted that the self arises as “part of the process of an embodied entity interacting with the environment in precise ways determined by its physiology. In this sense, individuals can be seen to ‘grow into’ or arise from their interactive role with the world.”
Enactivism speaks of an embodied understanding of our world where we (and all organisms) are shaped and shapers of our environment — not as a mind thinking the world into being, but rather a body, a community, a colony living the world into being. To paraphrase Edwin Hutchins, all beings are actors in the environment. What we experience is shaped by how we act.
This is both good news and bad.
It is the teeming micro-organisms. It is the seed on the riverbank becoming sapling, becoming tree, becoming a forest that makes the rain that fills the rivers where seeds send quiet roots becoming and becoming.
We were shaped by our environment and have been shaping it all along. Since at least the industrial revolution, and probably from the moment we first perceived ourselves as separate from the world, our actions have been shaping our environment to the detriment of ourselves, other species and the planet as a whole. We have actively created the threats we now face – climate crisis, over-consumerism, famine, isolation, violent nationalism, disconnection and more. First world comfort comes with a blood price.
In their essay “From Shared Enaction to Intrinsic Value: How Enactivism Contributes to Environmental Ethics” Magdalena Kielkowicz-Werner and Konrad Werner write,
There is no way back to the state of the world from the periods predating the separation. What we have done to planet Earth will persist. Enactivism provides the tools to apprehend, understand and in a sense accept this fact due to its inherent tendency to emphasize looped rather than linear processes. Man’s impact on the environment also creates a loop. The environment shaped us, we re-shaped the environment, and this in turn re-shaped us. The point is that we are now morally obliged not to try to find a way back, which would be in vain, but to bring forth one more loop, this time more beneficial instead of destructive and exploitative.
I do not see any easy answer here. What I do see is an endless stream of possibilities forming and reforming themselves from this point going forward. Each action as an individual, as a family, a community, as a collective, will shape our environment and shape us in turn while we reshape our environment again and again. Questions of how we live, how we connect, how we eat, how we grow our food, how we move, how we gather, are questions whose answers are actions that shape us, all beings, fundamentally.
And what does any of this have to do with poetry? The moon rises over a forested hill, plum blossoms drift silent to the earth below, cold mornings we strike a match, light a fire, watch our skin glow and we are shaped and shaped and shaped to this beauty.
Poetry has the power to change our relationship to place. When Mary Oliver wrote her world as sacred, we came to know it as such. And as much as the landscape she wrote was shaped by her witness, she too undoubtedly was shaped by her landscape. According to the 1983 Chronology of American Literature her poems, “refuse(s) to acknowledge boundaries between nature and the observing self.”
Reading and writing poetry is a participatory sense-making of our world. We shape and are shaped by it.
Our challenge this week is to explore our ability to act.
What does right action, right living look like in your world? What does it look like when the boundaries between nature and the observing self disappear?
Write yourself into your landscape, what shapes you there and what is shaped by you? Name the gods of your rivers and skies, tell us how you live by and through them and how they live through you — let the world know they are holy!
Or use this piece as a springboard for you own exploration, this is a poetry of revolution – feel free. Happy writing!
PS: Brendan has asked me to briefly introduce myself – so here goes. I live and write in Wilderness, South Africa – a small town in the narrow forested coastal belt between the Indian Ocean and the Outeniqua mountains. I am a mother of daughters. I was born in Cape Town, studied English and Drama (the drama is mostly a dark secret from a distant past) at the University of Cape Town and moved here with my family in my mid thirties. Here is quite far out the way by most South African standards – we sometimes get asked questions by city folk like do we have roads, electricity and internet? And yes we do have all of those – though sometimes intermittently. We also have night skies, some really wild wildlife, and a working towards being re-generative small forest farm. When I am not writing and growing things, I teach creative writing, run workshops on creativity and reconnection, spin wool from our Angora goats, teach spinning and dyeing and run(collaboratively) a community skills share project working towards resilience and food security as a community. At night, like now in the rain, frogs sing.
TO THE RAIN
Ursula K. Le Guin
Mother rain, manifold, measureless,
falling on fallow, on field and forest,
on house-roof, low hovel, high tower,
downwelling waters all-washing, wider
than cities, softer than sisterhood, vaster
than countrysides, calming, recalling:
return to us, teaching our troubled
souls in your ceaseless descent
to fall, to be fellow, to feel to the root,
to sink in, to heal, to sweeten the sea.
TO LEARN HOW TO SPEAK
To learn how to speak
With the voices of the land,
To parse the speech in its rivers,
To catch in the inarticulate grunt,
Stammer, call, cry, babble, tongue’s knot
A sense of the stoneness of these stones
From which all words are cut.
To trace with the tongue wagon-trails
Saying the suffix of their aches in -kuil, -pan, -fontein,
In watery names that confirm
The dryness of their ways.
To visit the places of occlusion, or the lick
In a vlei-bank dawn.
To bury my mouth in the pit of your arm,
In that planetarium,
Pectoral beginning to the nub of time
Down there close to the water-table, to feel
The full moon as it drums
At the back of my throat,
Its cow-skinned vowel.
To write a poem with words like:
I’m telling you,
Stompie, stickfast, golovan,
Songololo, just boombang, just
To understand the least inflections,
To voice without swallowing
Syllables born in tin shacks, or catch
The 5.15 ikwata bust fife
Chwannisberg train, to reach
The low chant of the mine gang’s
Mineral glow of our people’s unbreakable resolve.
To learn how to speak
With the voices of this land.
(Jeremy Cronin is a South African poet and activist)
One summer afternoon I heard
a looming, mysterious hum
high in the air; then came something
like a small planet flying past –
not at all interested in me but on its own
way somewhere, all anointed with excitement:
not to be held back.
Nothing could hold them back.
Black snake wrapped in a tree, our eyes
The grass singing
as it sipped up the summer rain.
The owl in the darkness, that good darkness
under the stars.
The child that was myself, that kept running away
to the also running creek,
to colt’s foot and trilliams,
to the effortless prattle of the birds.
3.SAID THE MOTHER
You are going to grow up
and in order for that to happen
I am going to have to grow old
and then I will die, and the blame
will be yours.
4. OF THE FATHER
He wanted a body
so he took mine.
Some wounds never vanish.
Yet little by little
I learned to love my life.
Though sometimes I had to run hard –
especially from melancholy –
not to be held back.
I think there ought to be
a little music here:
The resurrection of the morning.
The mystery of the night.
The hummingbird’s wings.
The excitement of thunder.
The rainbow in the waterfall.
Wild mustard, that rough blaze of the fields.
The mockingbird, replaying the songs of his neighbors.
The bluebird with its unambitious warble
simple yet sufficient.
The shining fish. The beak of the crow.
The new colt who came to me and leaned
against the fence
that I might put my hands upon his warm body
and know no fear.
Also the words of poets
a hundred or hundreds of years dead —
their words that would not be held back.
Oh the house of denial has thick walls
and very small windows
and whoever lives there, little by little,
will turn to stone.
In those years I did everything I could do
and I did it in the dark –
I mean, without understanding.
I ran away.
I ran away again.
Then, again, I ran away.
They were awfully little, those bees,
and maybe frightened,
yet unstoppably they flew on, somewhere,
to live their life.
Hum, hum, hum.
THIS PLACE THAT YOU BELONG TO
It is hard to have hope. It is harder as you grow old,
for hope must not depend on feeling good
and there is the dream of loneliness at absolute midnight.
You also have withdrawn belief in the present reality
of the future, which surely will surprise us,
and hope is harder when it cannot come by prediction
any more than by wishing. But stop dithering.
The young ask the old to hope. What will you tell them?
Tell them at least what you say to yourself.
Because we have not made our lives to fit
our places, the forests are ruined, the fields eroded,
the streams polluted, the mountains overturned. Hope
then to belong to your place by your own knowledge
of what it is that no other place is, and by
your caring for it as you care for no other place, this
place that you belong to though it is not yours,
for it was from the beginning and will be to the end.
Belong to your place by knowledge of the others who are
your neighbors in it: the old man, sick and poor,
who comes like a heron to fish in the creek,
and the fish in the creek, and the heron who manlike
fishes for the fish in the creek, and the birds who sing
in the trees in the silence of the fisherman
and the heron, and the trees that keep the land
they stand upon as we too must keep it, or die.
This knowledge cannot be taken from you by power
or by wealth. It will stop your ears to the powerful
when they ask for your faith, and to the wealthy
when they ask for your land and your work.
Answer with knowledge of the others who are here
and how to be here with them. By this knowledge
make the sense you need to make. By it stand
in the dignity of good sense, whatever may follow.
Speak to your fellow humans as your place
has taught you to speak, as it has spoken to you.
Speak its dialect as your old compatriots spoke it
before they had heard a radio. Speak
publicly what cannot be taught or learned in public.
Listen privately, silently to the voices that rise up
from the pages of books and from your own heart.
Be still and listen to the voices that belong
to the streambanks and the trees and the open fields.
There are songs and sayings that belong to this place,
by which it speaks for itself and no other.
Found your hope, then, on the ground under your feet.
Your hope of Heaven, let it rest on the ground
underfoot. Be it lighted by the light that falls
freely upon it after the darkness of the nights
and the darkness of our ignorance and madness.
Let it be lighted also by the light that is within you,
which is the light of imagination. By it you see
the likeness of people in other places to yourself
in your place. It lights invariably the need for care
toward other people, other creatures, in other places
as you would ask them for care toward your place and you.
No place at last is better than the world. The world
is no better than its places. Its places at last
are no better than their people while their people
continue in them. When the people make
dark the light within them, the world darkens.