Greetings all — it is becoming increasingly difficult to find wild shelter here, what with all the sound and fury coming at us now from Ukraine. Some of you find yourselves very close to it; all of you have responded with your best.
Hard to not be affected by the news, at levels disturbingly deep. I don’t know what else to say about that other than we must live at the border of two worlds, one wild, one all too human, and find a way to speak of both. For this forum, our work as I see it is to become citizens of the wild we share with the world.
“To be native to a place we must learn to speak its language,” Robin Wall Kimmerer writes In “Learning the Grammar of Animacy” (collected in Braiding Sweetgrass, Milkweed Editions, 2013). She continues,
I come here to listen to nestle in the curve of roots in a soft hollow of pine needles, to lean my bones against the column of white pines, to turn off the voice in my head until I can hear the voices outside it: the shhh of wind in needles, water trickling over rock, nuthatch tapping, chipmunks digging, beechnut falling, mosquito in my ear, and something more — something that is not me, for which we have no language, the wordless being of others in which we are never alone. After the drumbeat of my mother’s heart, this was my first language. (48)
How are we to write a poetry of earth if it we have difficulty speaking it? Our attempts to proximate that “first language” with our own is conditional and faulty at best. Science gives us precise names, but it can only characterize the object, not sing its soul.
Listening in wild places, we are audience to conversations in a language not our own. I think now that it was a longing to comprehend this language I hear in the woods that led me to science, to learn over the years to speak fluent botany. A tongue that should not, by way, be mistaken for the language of plants. I did learn another language in science, though, one of careful observation, an intimate vocabulary that names each little part. To name and describe you must first see, and science polished the gift of seeing. I honor the strength of the language that has become a second tongue to me. But beneath the richness of its vocabulary and its descriptive power, something is missing, the same something that swells around and in you when you listen to the world. (48-9)
When the world is alive, there is a wild animacy to language:
A bay is a noun only if water is dead. When bay is a noun, it is defined by humans, trapped between its shores and contained by the word. But the verb wiikwegamaa — to be a bay — releases the water from bondage and lets I live. “To be a bay” holds the wonder that, for this moment, the living water has decided to shelter itself between these shores, conversing with cedar roots and a flock of baby mergansers. Because it could do otherwise — become a strem or an ocean or a waterfall, and there are verbs for that, too. To be a hill, to be a sandy beach, to be a Saturday, are all possible verbs in the world where everything is alive. Water, land, and even a day, the language a mirror for seeing the animacy of the world, the life that pulses through all things, thorugh pines and nuthatches and muschrooms. This is the language I hear in the woods; this is the language that lets us speak of what wells up all around us. (55)
That animacy is also intimate: “in Potawatomi and most other indigenous languages, we use the same words to address the living world as we use for our family. Because they are our family.” (55). As Thomas Berry writes, “we must say of the universe that it is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.”
Intimacy is a homecoming. “To become native to this place, if we are to survive here, and our neighbors too, our work is to learn to speak the grammar of animacy, so that we might truly be at home.” (58)
It is the language of the heart, and that is where we hear it best. Kimmerer concludes,
I remember the words of Bill Tall Bull, a Cheyenne elder. As a young person, I spoke to him with a heavy heart, lamenting that I had no native language with which to speak to the plants and the places that I love. “They love to hear the old language,” he said, “it’s true.” “But,” he said, with fingers on his lips, “You don’t have to speak it here.” “If you speak it here,” he said, patting his chest, “They will hear you.” (59)
Here are some poems which feel writ in wild language.
I strolled across
An open field;
The sun was out;
Heat was happy.
This way! This way!
The wren’s throat shimmered,
Either to other,
The blossoms sang.
The stones sang,
The little ones did,
And the flowers jumped
Like small goats.
A ragged fringe
Of daisies waved;
I wasn’t alone
In a grove of apples.
Far in the wood
A nestling sighed;
The dew loosened
Its morning smells.
I came where the river
Ran over stones:
My ears knew
An early joy.
And all the waters
Of all the streams
Sang in my veins
That summer day.
(from The Lost Son and Other Poems, 1948)
THE LOON ON ONE-HEAD POND
cries for three days, in the gray mist.
cries for the north it hopes it can find.
plunges, and comes up with a slapping pickerel.
blinks its red eye.
you come every afternoon, and wait to hear it.
you sit a long time, quiet, under the thick pines,
in the silence that follows.
as though it were your own twilight.
as though it were your own vanishing song.
(from House of Light, 1990)
ALL THE TIME
Evenings, after others go inside,
my glance quietly ascends through leaves,
through branches. The night wind sighs once
and bends over. Far beyond my glimpse of sky
those friends now gone begin their chorus.
There’s a reason for whatever comes,
their song says. Released into light one star
appears, another, and those patterns affirm
where they have been waiting dissolved in blue
but holding their place inside of time.
Every evening this happens, an arch and promise
renewed. Nobody has to notice: a breath
crosses the lawn, or outside the window
a spirit roams, as mysterious as any wander
ever was. And it was only the night wind.
(from Who Are You Really, Wanderer? 1993)
Let’s learn more about THE LANGUAGE OF THE WILD this week!
Once again, thanks to all for such great contributions last week to the Wild Mind challenge. Since we’re finding green fire in so many fertile places of late, let’s peek under the rug to see what wilds may also be found there.
First though, a thought about the work we are about at earthweal. There are so many grievous instances of our changing world at Anthropocene speed, from vanishing birds to monsters of fire and storm to the feral disorder of our collective mind. What is wrong is all too clear; but finding ways out of this disjointed time into a better future is truly the wicked difficult part.
If the answers lie ahead, then imagining them and learning to see them unfolding from the present is the challenge. As Timothy Morton writes in The Ecological Thought,
We simply can’t unthink modernity. If there is any enchantment it lies in the future. The ecological “enchants the world,” if enchantment means exploring the profound and wonderful openness and intimacy of the mesh. What can we make of these new constellations? What art, literature, music, science and philosophy are suitable to it? Art can contain utopian energy.
We have to learn to see and partake in communions — those “new constellations” — we formerly tried to master, rejoining thought to nature as its conjoining and furthering element, both out of doors and in. It takes a village of poetries. Angela Hume and Gillian Osbornre put it in this way in their introduction to Ecopoetics: Essays in the Field (2018):
Ecopoetics can encompass experiments in community making, ranging from poetry and visual art, literary criticism, and performance to walking, foraging, farming, cooking, and being alongside each other, whether human or other than human, in space and place. The fullness of these practices reflects the Greek etymological roots of ecopoetics: “eco” from oikos, meaning “family,” “property,” and “house”, and “poetics” from poiesis, meaning “to make,” in a broad sense.
A house of making with no walls: this is the earthweal space the world is invited into to play, dream, and create. A sacred hearth for the fire that burns in all living things and echoes deeply in starlight.
Let us extend that welcome now to the dark to our wild homestead.
* * *
Night blooming Cereus
There is a God (some say),
A deep, but dazzling darkness.
To get back to the wild, we must dim the lanterns and trek out beyond the known.
Even love must pass through loneliness,
the husbandman become again
the long Hunter, and set out
not to the familiar woods of home
but to the forest of the night,
the true wilderness, where renewal
is found, the lay of the ground
a premonition of the unknown.
Blowing leaf and flying wren
lead him on. He can no longer be at home,
he cannot return, unless he begin
the circle that first will carry him away.
Setting out from the safe and the known, the way is unclear, the light uncertain. Strangeness and fear abide where dark truths roost and root. For Emily Dickinson, it is a well filled with lucent noir:
What mystery pervades a well!
That water lives so far –
A neighbor from another world
Residing in a jar
Whose limit none has ever seen,
But just his lid of glass –
Like looking every time you please
In an abyss’s face!
The grass does not appear afraid,
I often wonder he
Can stand so close and look so bold
At what is awe to me.
Related somehow they may be,
The sedge stands near the sea –
Where he is floorless
And does no timidity betray
But nature is a stranger yet:
The ones that cite her most
Have never passed her haunted house,
Nor simplified her ghost.
To pity those that know her not
Is helped by the regret
That those who know her, know her less
The nearer her they get.
That dark shape informs my poetry blog Oran’s Well, a ritual shaft through which poems go down and come back up. The “floorless” watery deep teems with “ghosts” whose nature I can never fully know though am enriched by the dive into darkness. Emerson wrote as much in his journal of 1842: “Wisdom consists in keeping the soul liquid. There must be the Abyss, Nyx, and Chaos, out of which all things come, and they must never be far off. Cut off the connection between any of your works and this dread origin, and the work is shallow and unsatisfying.” Liquid soul: our dark wild sense dissolves the boundaries swimming into the fluid whole.
Dark knowledge requires dark sight, as Wendell Berry writes in “To Know The Dark”:
To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is travelled by dark feet and dark wings.
Dark feet and dark wing traverse a dark landscape where beauty is as enticing as forbidding:
David St. John
The definition of beauty is easy;
it is what leads to desperation.
I know the moon is troubling.
Its pale eloquence is always such a meddling,
Intrusive lie. I know the pearl sheen of the sheets
Remains the screen I’ll draw back against the night;
I know all of these silences invented for me approximate
Those real silences I cannot lose to daylight …
I know the orchid smell of your skin
The way I know the blackened path to the marina,
When gathering clouds obscure the summer moon —
Just as I know the chambered heart where I begin.
I know the lacquered jewel box, its obsidian,
The sexual trumpeting of the diving, sweeping loons …
I know the slow combinations of the night, & the glow
Of fireflies, deepening the shadows of all I do not know.
(from Merlin: New Poems)
The dark is the source of mantic inspiration, the dead are the carriers of deep tradition, and poetry is the green fire of dark knowledge. The procedure for gaining poetic inspiration was clearly a burial and a rebirth. Lawrence Eason writes in “Merlin’s last cry: ritual burial and rebirth of the poet in Celtic and Norse tradition,”
If we look first at early Celtic literature, a clear pattern may be identified in which the Celtic archetypal poet or prophet becomes inspired through interment in a tomb or some other dark, enclosed space. In this scenario, the novice poet-prophet undergoes an initiation into the secrets of his craft by means of a ritual death and rebirth that he experiences within a chthonic setting. The picture that emerges of the archetypal poet and prophet of Celtic as well as other Indo-European literatures is one of a mantically inspired figure who gains his phenomenal abilities directly from potent otherworldly forces, which are often, but not always, associated with spirits of the dead.
Old Irish poets learned the grand corpus of their oral literature by ensconsing themselves in darkened “singing huts,” where they lay and listened to the tales with the dark ear of memory and were not permitted to create any of their own poetry until they could repeat the entire body of oral tradition.
St. Oran’s chapel on Iona at night
Power is found in the weirdlight that hovers between darkness and light. Life is an arc whose zenith is noon, but it daunted by another light which is frozen and eternal, like a stare. Emily Dickinson again:
There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –
Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference –
Where the Meanings, are –
None may teach it – Any –
‘Tis the seal Despair –
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air –
When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, ‘tis like the Distance
On the look of Death –
“Internal meanings” have an eye for light which is subtle. Indeed, the truth of sunlight hurts, we must shade our eyes to read it properly: “The Truth must dazzle gradually / Or every man be blind.” (#1129) Sometimes we can only read the edges properly. Its luminosity is supple and suggestive of a swimming greatness beneath.
XL / Emily Dickinson
The thought beneath so slight a film
Is more distinctly seen, —
As laces just reveal the surge
Or mists the Apennine.
Underground are the connections, green light woven in dark fiber, the rhizomes. Heraclitus tells us, “Unapparent connection is better than apparent.” One needs a dowsing wand for the dark grail and a grammar to suit, as Charles Wright writes about in “Lost Language”:
… I have a thirst for the divine,
a long drink of forbidden water.
I have a hankering for the dust-light, for all things illegible.
I want to settle myself
where the river falls on hard rocks,
where no one can cross,
where the star-shadowed, star-colored city lies, just out of reach. …
…. The longed-for is tiny, and tenuous as a syllable.
In this it resembles us.
In this is resembles what we’ve passed or shucked off.
Interminable as black water,
irreparable as dirt,
it shadows our going forth and finds us,
and then finds us out. …
“Christ of the Abyss,” an underwater sculpture in the Florida Keys
We undertake these travels into the dark consciously and not, as when we dream or read tales of otherworld voyages and nekyias. Mercea Eliade, in “Mythologies of Death”:
The morphology of such fabulous realms is extremely rich and complex. No scholar can claim that he knows all the paradises, hells, underworlds and counterworlds (or antiworlds) of the dead. Neither can he assert that he knows all the roads to the wonderlands, though he may be certain that there will be a river and a bridge; a sea and a boat; a tree, a cave, or a precipice; and a dog and a demoniac or angelic psychopomp or door keeper — to mention only the most frequent features of the road to the land-of-no-return.
But what interests us is not the infinite variety of these lands but, as I said, the fact that they still nourish and stimulate our imagination. Moreover, new lands-of-no-return and new roads by which to reach them safely are continually being discovered in our dreams and fantasies or by children, poets, novelists, painters and filmmakers.
It matters little that the real meaning of such lands and landscapes, persons, figures and actions is not always clear to those who consider or imagine them. European and American children still play hopscotch, ignorant of the fact that they are reenacting an initiatory game, the goal of which is to penetrate and successfully return from the labyrinth; for in playing hopscotch they symbolically descend to the netherworld and come back to earth.
That’s one reason why it’s so important that we read each other’s poems; our own dark lights are more perceptible in another’s eyes. History in my sight reads as mystery in yours.
A witchy dark figure is often at work here. Carl Jung named anima the female personification of the unconscious:
In elfin nature, wisdom and folly appear as one and the same; and they are one and the same as long as they are acted out in the anima. Life is crazy and meaningful at once. (CW9, i, 65)
… The anima emerges in exemplary fashion from the primordial slime, laden with all the pulpy and monstruous appendages of the deep. (Letter to Count Hermann Keyserling, August 13, 1931)
When such a fate (Nekyia) befalls a man … he usually encounters the unconscious in the form of the “Dark One,” a Kundry of horribly grotesque, primeval ugliness or else of infernal beauty. (CW 15, 211)
Everything the anima touches becomes numinous — unconditional, dangerous, taboo, magical … She affords the most convincing reasons for not prying into the unconscious, an occupation that would break down our moral inhibitions and unleash forces that had better been left unconscious and undisturbed. (CW 9, i, 59)
Dark, dark indeed. The Christian imagination is lurid with it. Stephen of Bourbon, Inquisitor in southern France from 1235, testifies to a story told by a woman under the darkest coercion:
“She had a mistress who frequently led her to an underground place (in loco subterraneo) where a crowd of men and women assembled with torches and candles. They gathered round a large vessel full of water into which a rod had been thrust (a fertility rite). The master then called upon Lucifer to come to them. Thereupon a cat of hideous appearance descending the rod into the room. Dipping his tail in the water, he brought it out wet and used it as an aspergill ((a brush used for sprinkling holy water)). Then all the lights were extinguished (lucerna extincta), and each person seized his neighbor in a promiscuous embrace.”
Eliade comments, “With few variants, this description of the Witches’ Sabbath is abundantly recorded in the following centuries.” (“Observations on European Witchcraft”) In loco subterraneo, lucerne extincta. Like Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones once said, nothing interesting happens where the light is too bright.
The sexual dark is an unconscious sprawl toward the Mother and dark origins. In another essay, Eliade traces the leys of mystery in what we called “Mazola parties” in my high school:
Ritual orgies — in some cases preceded by the extinction of lights — are attested to among populations as different as the Kurds, the Tibetans, the Eskimos, the Malgaches, the Ngadu Dyaks, and the Australians. The incentives are manifold, but generally such ritual orgies are carried out to avert a cosmic or social crisis — draught, epidemic, strange meteorological phenomena (e.g., the aurora australis) — or in order to lend magico-religious support to some propitious event (a marriage, the birth of a child, etc.) by releasing and heightening the dormant power of sexuality.
Over against a dangerous crisis as well as an auspicious event, indiscriminate and excessive sexual intercourse plunges the collectivity into the fabulous epoch of beginnings. This is clearly evident by the practice of periodical orgies at the end of the year or at specific sacred intervals.
As a matter of fact, it is this type of ritual orgy, undoubtedly the most archaic, which discloses the original function of promiscuous collective intercourse. Such rituals reactualize the primordial moment of the Creation or the beatific stage of beginnings, when neither sexual taboos nor moral or social rules yet existed.
Imagination allows us to brood deeply and darkly. In Melville’s Moby-Dick, Ahab while pacing the deck one night, gazes on the head of a sperm whale that had been severed and chained alongside the Pequod; and looks upon it much as Hamlet does beholding Yorick’s skull:
It was a black and hooded head, and hanging there in the midst of so intense a calm, it seemed the sphynx’s in the desert. “Speak, thou vast and venerable head,” muttered Ahab, “which, though ungarnished with a beard, yet hear and there lookest hoary with mosses; speak, mighty head, and tell us the secret thing that is within thee. Of all divers, thou hast dived the deepest. The head upon which now the upper sun now gleams, has moved amid the world’s foundations, where unrecorded names and navies rust, and untold hopes and anchors rot, where in her murderous hold this frigate earth is ballasted with bones of millions of the drowned. There, in the awful water land, there was thy most familiar home. Thou hast been where bell or diver never went, hast slept by many a sailor’s side, where sleepless mothers would give their lives to lay them down. Thou saw’st the locked lovers leaping from their flaming ship; heart to heart they sank beneath the exulting wave; true to each other, when heaven seemed false to them. Thou saw’st the murdered mate when tossed by pirates from the midnight deck; for hours he fell into the deeper midnight of the insensate maw; and his murderers still sailed on unharmed — while swift lightnings shivered the neighboring ship that would have borne a righteous husband to outstretched, longing arms. O head! thou hast seen enough to make an infidel of Abraham, and no syllable is thine! (339-340)
The three-night’s journey to the otherworld and back is an ancient motif. Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale. Jesus was in the tomb for three days and three nights harrowing Hell. Gilgamesh, Osiris, Odysseus, Aeneas travel there and back. My St. Oran was buried for three days and three nights in the footers of the Iona Abbey in 563AD to appease an angry spirit. It is the dark night of the soul. The sun sets in the western sea, sinks under the Earth and then returns. The hero comes back with the treasure hard to attain. We finish the poem and post it still dripping at earthweal.
Ecopoetry carries in its teeth the message we bear here, but we have to go out to greet it beyond the circles we know too well.
HOW POETRY COMES TO ME
It comes blundering over the
Boulders at night: it stays
Frightened outside the
Range of my campfire
I go out to meet it at the
Edge of the light.
What then is this wild dark?
“Station Island,” from section XI:
… How well I know that fountain, filling, running,
although it is the night.
That eternal fountain, hidden away,
I know its haven and its secrecy
although it is the night.
But not its source because it does not have one,
which is all sources’ source and origin
although it is the night.
No other thing can be so beautiful.
Here the earth and heaven drink their fill
although it is the night.
So pellucid it can never be muddied,
and I know that all light radiates from it
although it is the night.
I know no sounding line can find its bottom,
nobody ford or plumb its deepest fathom
although it is the night
And its current so in flood it overspills
to water hell and heaven and all peoples
although it is the night.
And the current that is generated there,
as far as it wills to, it can flow that far
although it is the night.
And from these two a third current proceeds
which neither of these two, I know, precedes
although it is the night.
This eternal fountain hides and splashes
within this living bread that is life to us
although it is the night.
Hear it calling out to every creature.
And they drink these waters, although it is dark here
because it is the night.
I am repining for this living fountain.
Within this bread of life I see it plain
although it is the night.
Half-wild, I hear a wolf,
half-tame, I bark. Then
in the dark I feel my master’s
hand, and lick, then bite.
I envy leaves, their touch: miles
by the million, tongues everywhere
saying yea, for the forest,
and in the night, for us.
At caves in the desert, close
to rocks, I wait. I live
by grace of shadows. In moonlight
I hear a room open behind me.
At the last when you come
I am a track in the dust.
There’s a saying in Alcoholics Anonymous about the need for recovering drunks to continue to grow spiritually: “I get filled with the spirit — but I leak.”
No matter how invigorated and refreshed I may feel about earthweal after a weekly challenge (and your contributions this past week were exceptional), eventually it’s time to break ground on something that will hopefully be as fruitful. What to write next. It’s the evergreen challenge of all writing endeavors, but poetry’s wilderness feels especially fraught. What is there deeper and more true to say—especially for a forum where grief and hope are not equal partners?
Global catastrophe presents an endless scroll of doom, redolent with the fevers of the day. In the week’s news:
Greenflation is depressing the housing market, where lumber for new construction costs three times as much resulting in 40 percent less new construction. The transition to renewables is proving untidy, uneven and difficult, which means higher prices and lower availability — a scourge of this pandemic — is being worsened by climate change. Bark-eating beetles and flooding have disrupted timber supplie sin British Columbia, and record heat in the U.S. plains this past summer gave rise to grasshopper swarms that devoured wheatfields and raised corn prices 45 percent. Investment in zero-carbon energy sources is lagging far behind the $4 trillion needed over the next decade, giving fossil fuel energy producers far more clout than they should have, and the steady rise in oil prices are further spiking inflation.
Politicians are resorting to “greenwashing” their lack of climate action. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida who sent a long letter to constituents describing his attempts to champion climate change while doubting the science and refusing to empower government to address it. “Greenwashing is purposely hard to detect,” writes Pam McVety, a retired Florida EPA official in an opinion piece in The Orlando Sentinel. “It is meant to deceive you and it is everywhere these days.” “Greenwashing” was coined as a phrase back in the ‘80s by Jay Westerveld, who used the phrase to describe hotels who boasted about their “save the towel” campaigns when there were far more significant (thus costly) things they could be doing to become sustainable.
Despite the efforts of global bodies to stop deforestation — at the Glasgow conference this year, an additional $7 billion was pledged from the private sector — the routing of the world’s forests continues apace. According to the World Resources Institute, in 2019 the loss of the world’s old growth tropical forest was increased by 12 percent over the previous year. Globally, 10 percent of intact forest landscapes were fragmented or cleared in the first 16 years of this century, and half the remainder are designated by governments for logging, mining and oil and gas extraction. Luxury goods made of leather are a force too, driving up demand for cattle which has led to Amazon deforestation. The Devil surely does wear Prada.
Who can resist this doomfeed? Catastrophe is the literary crack of the day. Yet for all the obsessiveness of the feed, nothing much seems to be getting done. Armed with facts, we doze. The time is a moose in the headlights of an approaching semi. As critic at large Amanda Hess writes for the New York Times, we are awash in warnings that we are running out of time, and yet the climate crisis is outpacing our emotional capacity to respond:
Ours is a banal sort of apocalypse. Even as it is described as frightfully close, it is held at a cynical distance. That is not to say that the rhetoric signals a lack of concern about climate change. But global warming represents the collapse of such complex systems at such an extreme scale that it overrides our emotional capacity. This creates its own perverse flavor of climate denial: We acknowledge the science but do not truly accept it, at least not enough to urgently act. This paralysis itself is almost too horrible to contemplate. As global warming cooks the Earth, it melts our brains, fries our nerves and explodes the narratives that we like to tell about humankind — even the apocalyptic ones.
In contrast to disaster films where there is always a catastrophic conclusion, the climate feed keeps us “in an oxymoronic state, inhabiting an end that has already begun but may never actually end. Faced with this inexorable decline, the fire-and-brimstone fantasies grow ever more appealing. The apocalyptic drumbeat of social media gestures at the hopelessness of our situation while supplying a kind of narcotic comfort for it.”
Like others have pointed out, Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up fails for Hess as a climate catastrophe allegory in one essential way, for it ends with a cataclysmic impact rather than centuries of steady overcooking. The problem with global warming is scale: it’s just too damn big and lasts too long for our human-sized descriptors. Give us the big bang so we can move on.
But we can’t, and instead languish in the scroll, marveling in the exotic foetids and fevers of its swamp. “In our response to global warming,” Hess writes, “we resemble the frog who does not hop from the heating water until it’s too late. Except we are aware that the water is boiling; we just can’t imagine leaving our tumultuous little pot.” To keep repeating Thomas Friedman, everyone wants to go to heaven but no one wants to die.
In the end, the scroll may prove to be most useless artifact of our self-destruction as Hess concludes.
The internet is often criticized for feeding us useless information, and for spreading disinformation, but it can enable a destructive relationship with serious information, too. If you’re a person who accepts the science, how much more do you really need to hear? The casual doomsaying of social media is so seductive: It helps us signal that we care about big problems even as we chase distractions, and it gives us a silly little tone for voicing our despair.
Most of all, it displaces us in time. We are always mentally skipping between a nostalgic landscape, where we have plenty of energy to waste on the internet, and an apocalyptic one, where it’s too late to do anything. It’s the center, where we live, that we can’t bear to envision. After all, denial is the first stage of grief.
Which brings us back to the quote from the AA oldtimer who caused so many heads to commence nodding when he said it. I fill up on wildness but it’s like appetite, eventually I thirst and hunger again. Wildness is a resource that cries for renewal. Yet the center where it’s found — inside as much as the wilderness without — is a battered boreal forest we romanticize too much while stumbling around in its fumes.
I hardly need go far into the mental wasteland of misinformation, conspiracy theories, and virtual surreality that daily sinks us into deeper into the mire of nowhere. If anyone doubts this is a race to the bottom, the United States this past week just passed the 900,000 mortality mark for COVID-19, largely due to vaccine misinformation. And the U.S. Republican party censured two of its own members for participating in the Jan. 6 congressional committee looking into presidential malfeasance and the riot attempting to overthrow the election results., declaring that the mob who swarmed the U.S Capital were instead participating in “legitimate political discourse.” How far is this from rumors of a Russian deepfake video creating the illusion that Ukraine had attacked. Russia and offering pretext for Russian invasion?
Of course, the prize always gets back in US hands, where far-right conspiracy theorists recently launched a campaign against a Texas butterfly center because they were convinced it was being used as a cover for child sex trafficking. The center was forced to close. ““When I took this job, I thought I would be able to spend a good amount of time outdoors: butterflies, birds, educating children, writing grants,” said Marianna Trevino Wright, the center’s executive director since 2012. “Now every day my children literally worry whether I’m going to survive a day at work.”
Ta daaa! Thinking about this stuff takes one quickly into the maelstrom.
in his book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing To Our Brains, Nicholas Carr writes that our brains themselves have been disrupted by digital media, our neural wiring re-routed, so that we now think fleetingly, distractedly, widely but without depth, without concentration or meditation. “What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation,” he writes. “Whether I’m online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a jet ski.” Published more than a decade ago, The Shallows aptly describes a mentality we have become hardwired into; online dependency is as fundamental as fossil-fuel culture.
Our distracted and desensitized minds may be as much as result of too many online carbons floating about in our brains as the oppression of our worsening climate. I’m becoming increasingly convinced that our virtual existence is a big part of the problem. It may not be possible to be wild and online at the same time; they are minds of a different order, the one free and ungovernable, the other a silo of self-seeming things.
As Dogen Zenji puts it in The Etiquette of Freedom, “the way the self arrays itself is the form of the entire world. Whoever told people that ‘mind’ means thoughts, opinions, ideas, and concepts? Mind means trees, fence posts, tiles and grasses.” (p 17)
Wildness is mind truest to its nature. As Snyder writes in The Practice of the Wild, “to be truly free one must take on the basic conditions as they are — painful, impermanent, open, imperfect — and then be grateful for impermanence and the freedom it grants us. For in a fixed universe there would be no freedom.”
The mind must feed on wild sources; greening is both invitation and surrender. Dogen, again: “Are you going to improve yourself or are you going to let the universe improve you?”
Turn off the feed of worsening dread. Grieve with hope and be free!
For this week’s challenge, write of WILD MIND. How does green fire take root in the thought of our poems?
A soft Sea washed around the House
A Sea of Summer Air
And rose and fell the magic Planks
That sailed without a care —
For Captain was the Butterfly
Helmsmen was the Bee
And an entire universe
For the delighted crew.
— Emily Dickinson, #1198, c. 1871
BURNING (ANDANTE NON TROPPO)
We are all burning in time, but each is consumed
at his own speed. Each is the product
of his spirit’s refraction, of the inflection
of that mind. It is the pace of our living
that makes the world available. Regardless of
the body’s lion-wrath or forest waiting, despite
the mind’s splendid appetite or the sad power
in our soul’s separation from God and women,
it is always our gait of being that decides
how much is seen, what the mystery of us knows,
and what the heart will smell of the landscape
as the Mexican train continues at a dog-trot each
day going north. The grand Italian churches are
covered with detail which is visible at the pace
people walk by. The great modern buildings are
blank because there is no time to see from the car.
A thousand years ago when they built the gardens
of Kyoto, the stones were set in the streams askew.
Whoever went quickly would fall in. When we slow,
the garden can choose what we notice. Can change
our heart. On a wall of a toilet in Rock Springs
years ago there was a dispenser that sold tubes of
cream to numb a man’s genitals. Called Linger.