Tuesday, 30 September 2014

In Search of a New Almagest

Only a day after I posted last week, I had the good fortune of receiving three very good critiques of the position I took against David Suzuki's Blue Dot Tour. All three were well-reasoned and deeply felt, and all three left me thinking hard about the issue, as well as about how cool my friends are. As a result of those conversations, I did two things this week worth mentioning.

One, I bought a ticket to see David Suzuki when the Blue Dot Tour comes to Kitchener this coming Monday. If I'm going to write publicly about the man and his ideas, it makes sense that I'd go hear him speak when he takes the trouble to visit my end of the country, especially since this is being billed as his last national tour. He's an engaging, frank, thoughtful, and warm-hearted man, and his thought has been a guiding star in my own quest to figure out what is up with this world and where I fit into it.

Two, one of the critiques I mentioned reminded me of how that star came into my life, and spurred me to revisit the thoughts it inspired in me. Dave's suggestion in a comment last week to "consider all of the various traditional cultures around the world that speak of the four sacred elements: Air, Water, Earth, and Fire" pointed me straight toward a book that was already leaping off my shelf and into my hand. That book is The Sacred Balance, by David Suzuki with Amanda McConnell.

The Sacred Balance is an almagest, a long and distinguished genre named after the Latin Almagest celebrated in medieval Europe and originally written in Greek by Claudius Ptolemy, or in Arabic by Ibn al-Haytham, depending on whom you ask. (The original manuscript is long, long lost). It's a treatise on astronomy, mathematics, and alchemy that describes the shape and structure of the world as it was conceived toward the end of the Classical age and throughout the Middle Ages. In those days, the heavenly bodies occupied a series of nested crystal spheres, each rotating independently according to fixed mathematical laws, and all 'singing' beyond the range of mortal hearing, in harmonic ratios proportionate to their relative velocities. The earth was fixed at the centre of these spheres, and it was as round then as it is today. (The idea that people used to think the earth was flat is just a myth; Columbus' big innovation was that it was pear-shaped, with a 'nipple' at one end).

The nested music of the spheres constituted a beautiful vision, and whether or not it was Ptolemy or Ibn al-Haytham or someone else who articulated it first, it came to be known as 'Ptolemy's System'. In the image below we see the whole thing borne up on the back of 'heaven-bearing Atlas', the Titan of Greek myth, which is likely either an artist's fancy or an anachronism, or both. For the medievals, beyond the farthest sphere was the realm of God and the angels, while within the fires at the centre of the earth dwelt Satan.

Illustration of the Ptolemaic world system

The term 'almagest', as I'm using it here, refers to any work that attempts an over-arching description of the world as a whole, articulated using the concepts of the day. This is also known as cosmology. You can see by the cover of Suzuki's book that he's invoking the medieval astronomers who are his intellectual forebears as a scientist in the Western tradition, and the book beneath that cover is indeed a cosmological vision for our time. But it's not heavy or academical to read. He relates modern scientific concepts using layman's language, and he does so within a framework that feels familiar because it's drawn straight from our medieval Western European roots.

Suzuki's approach is to consider the sacred balance that sustains all life on earth. Each chapter addresses one of the elements that make up that balance, and the first four would have been familiar to anyone in medieval Europe, regardless of social standing: Air, Water, Earth, and Fire. To these, Suzuki adds three more necessary elements: Biodiversity, Belonging, and Spirit. It's interesting to watch him combine the scientific and the sacred in one mode of speaking, but what's even more interesting to me is the opportunity to reflect on the fact that our modern sensibility perceives the scientific and the sacred as two separate phenomena in the first place.

Medieval Europeans lived in a world much more suffused with sacredness than the one we inhabit. Although some form of dichotomy between the sacred and the mundane in Western thought is at least as old as Plato, medieval people still lived in a world where the works of the One who had made it could be read either in Scripture or in the so-called Book of Nature. The world around them radiated meaning. If they looked to the stars they could see the celestial beings whose motions profoundly influenced their lives on earth. If they looked to their own bodies they could discern the four elements of which the earthly sphere was composed, represented within them by the four corresponding Humours, or Spirits: blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. Not until the age of Harvey and Newton did the old world give way to one in which first earthly bodies and then heavenly bodies could be explained as the workings of sophisticated machinery.

That was the moment at which the Christian God could begin to be perceived not as the breath and life of the world, sustaining it in his very hands from one sunrise to the next, but as a mere watchmaker, the mechanic who set the whole thing in motion and then sat back to watch it go. It's not a very emotionally appealing conception of the divine, so it's no wonder that this God was killed off during the age of Nietzsche (who, it may be recalled, was quite distraught about the murder, even to the point of madness). The non-interfering watchmaker God was not compatible with orthodox Christian thought, which is premised on divine intervention in human history; nevertheless, the fact that his mechanical servants kept appearing where spirits and celestial beings had dwelt up until that point made it harder and harder to resist the inevitability of his existence, and more and more necessary to violently reject his existence altogether.

Thus I see Suzuki, from the dying years of the twentieth century, reaching back through the 'Disenlightement' of the seventeenth toward those luminous concepts that spoke of the celestial and the earthly as being of one nature, and that nature as sacred. I highly admire this approach, and while there are aspects of medieval thought that I'm glad we've left behind, I think Suzuki is right to acknowledge that the new branches of our understanding stem directly from the trunk and roots of older understandings, and where new understandings have arrived from elsewhere, they must be grafted in if they are to be thinkable by people of the Western family tree. Hence his project of relating modern scientific understanding of the chemical elements and their interplay back to an older, spiritual sense of our participation in the earthly elements that make us up.

The most valuable aspect of The Sacred Balance, in my view, is that Suzuki writes out of a true sense of that epistemological humility which is proper to all scientists everywhere. He admits from the get-go that scientific knowledge can only give us theories and descriptions, never facts and meanings. Science is by its nature a matter of disciplined and creative guesswork, not a stepladder to ultimate truth. You hear this again and again from respected and well-published scientists, which is perhaps why the great scientific minds have retained the sense of all-suffusing wonder and awe that Nietzsche saw being bludgeoned to death in the popular thought of his own time. 

Because scientific suspension of belief is not what you see in popular thought today. Instead we say quite matter-of-factly that we live on a planet called the Earth, that both our inner lives and the world around us can be explained as a series of interlocking mechanisms, that planned processes of human intellect combined with will produce predictable results in the marketplace, in the environment, and in the bedroom, and we take all this as incontrovertible fact. The modern, post-scientific faith in our ability to explain the world denies us the privilege of admitting, like the medievals, that the world is actually kind of confusing and mysterious, and that our ways of explaining it are at best a kind of collective hallucination in whose perpetuation we ourselves participate each time we consider it.

Participation is the key concept here, because if I'm right that ancient and medieval peoples had any sense at all of their role in 'creating' the world around them by means of inadequate but beautiful concepts (and the evidence suggests that they did) then they were miles ahead of us. Our fallacy is not that our cosmological abstractions are out of touch with what nature's telling us, nor even that those abstractions are rooted in hierarchical power relations that distort our sense of our relationship with nature; our fallacy is that we deny the existence of our cosmological abstractions at all. We see an image of the world created by a camera floating in outer space and believe that it is the world, the real world, made visible and comprehensible. We are encouraged to feel devotion and reverence for the image, forgetting that it only represents the ongoing mystery of rocks, trees, and rivers. Meanwhile rocks, trees, and rivers are made comprehensible not through a participatory revelation of their sacred relationship to each other and to us, but through their transformation into minerals, lumber, and effluent.

The Planet is an idol. It teaches us to substitute a man-made image for sacred reality, and then to deny the hand of man in its creation and exalt the image as divine, objective reality. There may be an objective reality, but the genius of ancient and medieval societies was that they understood that it was beyond them, just as God was beyond the furthest sphere of the heavens, yet somehow actively sustaining the world and holding it in his hands. When we depict the Planet in the hands of a human child, we commit blasphemy, according to the proper theological sense of 'putting oneself in the place of God'. More gravely, we reveal the extent to which our manipulation of images is unconscious, both in terms of those images' meaning and in terms of their function in creating human perception. This unconsciousness in turn leaves us open to the manipulation of those who understand very well the meanings and functions of images, and who will not hesitate to turn their understanding into power over our deepest thoughts and yearnings.

That's my exegesis of David Suzuki in a nutshell. I'm looking forward to seeing him, and also to seeing Jon Young speak in Guelph this Thursday and teach at Sticks and Stones Wilderness School all weekend. I've mentioned Jon before in these writings; he's a naturalist and bird language instructor, and I'm going to be taking his Bird Language Intensive course this weekend. He's also, if I can take this opportunity to coin a phrase, as much an Almagist as Suzuki, and comes at his description of the world from a different angle but out of a similar motivation. So by next Tuesday there will be plenty of new thoughts to consider here on A Wizard of Earth.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

How Not to Save the World

This past Sunday saw the biggest grassroots mobilization around climate change the world has yet seen. As international leaders began to gather in New York City for this week's UN climate talks, 311, 000 people took to the streets to demonstrate their visions for a better world- three times the number forecast by the event organizers, 350.org.

The march was organized into six massive contingents arranged so as to tell the story of the impacts of climate change, from the front-line indigenous communities and Hurricane Sandy victims at the vanguard, through the youth organizations, energy innovators, corporate whistleblowers, and climate scientists all the way to the neighbourhood, regional, and national civil society institutions bringing up the rear. The marchers filled the entire 2.2 mile route before those at the back had even left the starting point.

Meanwhile, alongside more than 2000 solidarity actions in 166 countries, two hundred of us marched with signs and banners from Waterloo Town Square to the nearby Barrelyard Park and listened to speeches from local environmental organizations. I gave a short speech on behalf of Transition KW, a group I've mentioned before in these writings. TKW is the local chapter of the international Transition Network, a grassroots movement building local responses to peak oil and climate change.

The gist of what I said to the crowd of sitting in front of me on the grass that day was this:

"What we're really engaged in today is a struggle to end the war against nature that each of us was unwillingly born into. Nature is responding to the violence of our reckless carbon burning with the violence of climate change. It is a war we cannot hope to win... Here in Waterloo Region we're not on the front lines of climate violence, but we know enough to say NO to further escalation. We want peace on earth, and we want it NOW."

Judging by the feedback I received after the event, it seemed that this was a fresh take on the issue for a lot of people. That was exactly my intent. The language of peace and conflict is a perspective  I bring from my Mennonite heritage, which has a long tradition of working to de-escalate violent situations. And frankly, I don't like standing around listening to good people reciting bad news. That isn't why I go to marches. I go to marches to get fresh insight and inspiration for the next round of hard work.

From my perspective, climate change is such old news to those engaged with it, and such unsettling gibberish to those otherwise engaged, that unless we find fresh ways of framing the conversation, we're wasting our time. David Suzuki himself made a similar observation in a fantastic blog post two years ago. "Environmentalism has failed," he begins, and proceeds to reflect on the way that fifty years of hard-won victories in the environmental movement haven't fundamentally altered the prevailing myth of our culture: that the Earth is composed of resources which humans must manage, whether responsibly or otherwise.

You see this reflected in the signs carried by little kids at marches like the one on Sunday: "Fix the Climate", "Save the Planet", "It's In Your Hands", to name a few. They're moving slogans, but when I read them I can't help thinking that the concerned kids are articulating exactly the same underlying worldview that the corporate capitalists are. To put it briefly, this is the view that the planet in all its complexity is something we can grasp, something we can lay hands on, something we can manage (in the sense of the Latin root manus, which means 'hand').

Take a look at these two images.

The first is fairly cliché by now, with many variations available on Google Images. I took a few minutes to find one in which the hands weren't obviously white, and which displayed a side of the globe other than the Western Hemisphere (survey the options for yourself if you like). Still, these two images don't seem all that different to me. One represents man handling the planet with care and reverence; the other represents man handling the planet with greed and tyranny; either way, the planet gets manhandled.

David Suzuki knows what he's talking about. But there's a deeper sense in which the way we currently talk about environmental issues is nonsense, one I don't think even Canada's environmental guru has grasped (if you'll pardon my choice of wording), at least not publicly. If I'm right about this, it goes a long way toward explaining why environmentalism has failed to gain traction in popular thought and instead remained just another 'ism'.

The truth is that 'Planet Earth' is an abstraction. It was born in 1972, when the first full-view photograph of the Earth was taken by Apollo 17 astronauts. The image that resulted, and which was published widely under the title "Blue Marble", is the one I've placed at the head of this blog post. It represents a phenomenon seen by only a handful of people (again, pardon my wordplay) in all of time. The rest of us have taken it on faith for the last forty-two years that we do indeed live on a planet, one which can in fact be laid bare and visible to the eye of man.

Not that I'm doubting the scientific reality of Planet Earth. My point is, so what? None of us will ever know or experience the planet, or have any relationship with it apart from vague feelings of guilt and impending disaster. From its very inception, the image of the Earth from space has represented multiple intricate paradoxes, as is the case for any representation of a society's founding myth. It's a serene image produced by means of tremendous chemical violence. It's a vision of what we're told is our one and only home, but which looks utterly alien hanging there in outer space. It's a plea for world peace as well as an excuse for advancing the goal of total global management and control.

That's why I think Suzuki's current project, the Blue Dot Tour, isn't going to gain him the traction he's looking for either. That little blue dot hanging in space doesn't move me one bit, and more than that, it's a symbol of the kind of thinking that has led us away from intimacy with our immediate environments and into the megalomanic abstractions of the environment. Give me soil, give me water, give me air, forests, creatures, mountains, storms, oceans, land, even earth, but get the Earth away from me. It's not my responsibility. I don't care for it. I repeat, as loudly as I dare lest I draw the accusing finger of heresy my way, I don't care about the Earth.

So this week, as the leaders of the free world meet to discuss or dismiss the various means of global control at their disposal, take some time to go outside and meet your neighbours. Your human neighbours, yes, but also the plants, animals, winds, waters, and weathers that are assembling and testing an arsenal of climate weapons to use against you and your kind. Do what you can to make your peace with them. We don't have to be enemies, but as the board is set and the pieces start to move, it will become more and more difficult for your tiny white flag to be spotted, waving amid the rising seas and rolling storms. Do it anyway. Do it alone or with three hundred thousand others, but do it out of hope, because that's the hard work that peace requires. Do it now.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

On Dreaming

After posting last week I found that I wanted go a little deeper into what I think is meant by Ursula K. Le Guin's reference to 'the Dream Time' in her book Always Coming Home. It's the kind of short, pithy phrase, rich in meaning, that stays with us whether we recognize the specific reference or not. Like a pebble dropped into deep water, a good writer can drop images like these into our minds, images whose ripples spread slowly but surely outward.

Always Coming Home is a work of speculative fiction, but the Dream Time, or the Dreaming, is a real thing in the real world. Nevertheless it escapes easy definition, since it doesn't originate in a way of thinking framed by the English language, or even in any recognizably Western way of thinking. The Dreaming is a central fact of life for the Warlpiri people of central Australia, and as the daughter of an anthropologist, Le Guin likely came by her understanding of it honestly. Most of what I've learned about the Dreaming comes from an excellent ethnography by the anthropologist Michael Jackson, At Home in the World, and it's going to be a challenge for me to do justice to such a deep and complex phenomenon in so short a post. But I think it's an idea worth exploring and honouring beyond the passing reference I made last week.

To begin with, At Home in the World is an ethnography that challenged the way ethnographies were written. Published in 1995, it uses elements of personal narrative, travel stories, conversations with Warlpiri people Jackson met during his three years visiting and travelling with them, poetry, and critical reflection on Jackson's own culture. He went to Australia to find a new perspective on the idea of home by living among people who don't build permanent houses, preferring instead to build temporary shelters out on the land. His exposure to a way of life and perception so completely unlike ours challenged him to write in a way that would convey the jarring sense of newness he experienced constantly during those three years. It's not a scientific, observational style, but one that reflects the messiness and ambiguity of the people and situations he encountered.

It takes a bit of a leap of faith to read like this, not knowing at all times what is going on, but by coming at his account obliquely, Jackson is true to his subject matter. Anthropological fieldwork must involve a great deal of not knowing what is going on. Nothing is explained completely, except in snatches. The Dreaming, one of the essential elements of Warlpiri society, is talked about not in absolute terms, but in terms of how individuals relate to it. In this way individual contributions to the bigger picture of Warlpiri life accrue meaning as we journey with Jackson deeper into the desert.

Early in the narrative Jackson goes to a place called Lajamanu, called Hooker Creek by whites, and becomes acquainted with a Warlpiri man named Pincher Jampijinpa. Later, Pincher asks Jackson to buy him some paints at the store: red, yellow, and white, and when Jackson returns, Pincher unfolds a few old canvases painted in the same colours. To white eyes they appear to be covered in abstract designs, large circles and sinuous lines, but as Pincher explains, they tell the story of the land his father came from. A narrative unfolds which sounds mythical to our ears, but which conveys precise physical details of the land across which the characters journey. The lines are tracks across the outback, while the circles are campsites. This is a songline, or a Dreaming, which belongs to Pincher and his kin, because it belongs to the land that they in turn belong to.

Songlines tell the story of journeys, and they imply an imperative to re-enact those journeys. Singing or chanting the story as one walks the same route one's ancestors walked, through the same landscape, is one way that Warlpiri people make themselves deeply 'at home in the world', in Jackson's words. Their practice of walking hundreds of miles through the desert, finding food and water and such shelter as they need along the way, runs counter to white Australians' demands that they settle down, build permanent houses, and contribute to the economy. When asked how far away the sites mentioned in his particular Dreaming are, Pincher is vague, but even sitting indoors he gestures unerringly in the direction his ancestors came from, because he's made such journeys himself. "We don't use maps," comments Zack Jakamarra, an older Warlpiri man. "We got the country in our heads."

Interactions like these give plenty of food for thought on differences between Warlpiri and white conceptions of land. Jackson was born in New Zealand, so like me he's a white man native to a land he can never truly call his own. Of course, that's putting a sympathetic spin on centuries of murder and forced assimilation, as took place in Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. The white narratives that insist on whites' rights to lands we inherited from thieving ancestors can never be made true, but where does that leave us? If people like the Warlpiri are at home in the world, are we permanently homeless, always to be known as 'settlers' in the only lands we've ever known? For my own part, I accept and affirm the label 'settler', which signifies to me that in many ways my people and I will always be immigrants to Canada. But like Jackson, I'm looking outside my own culture for ways of mending or unmaking the parts of that culture that have caused so much misery across such vast swathes of time and space.

Looming in the background of all his interactions with the Warlpiri is the feeling of alienation and exile many Warlpiri have experienced as a result of settler encroachment and misuse of sacred lands. A sloppy bulldozer operator accidentally destroys a certain tree that has great importance to several families' Dreamings, and the whole community is outraged. Another time, Jackson and several Warlpiri friends decide to try camping at a white-owned campground midway through a journey by land rover, rather than in the bush as they normally would. By this point I had become so accustomed to Jackson’s vivid descriptions of the landscape, the stars, and the smoke from the fires that I too was shocked by the strangeness of white people’s camping: neat little coloured tents set out in rows, grass watered by sprinklers, and store-bought food being cooked over a miniature gas stove.

Although Jackson repeats again and again that his words cannot capture the experience of the Warlpiri world, his words do point us toward a newness of vision. From the window of the land rover, Zack Jakamarra points out landmarks Jackson has read about in the archived journals of white explorers, each hill, rock, or tableland noted briefly and then left behind. But in Zack's eyes each undulation of the land glows with meaning, a crucial element in the story of who he is and where he belongs. As I began to see it, through the distant lens of Jackson's eyes following Zack's gaze, the Dreaming is the dimension of reality that gives it meaning, the source from which life springs and to which life returns. It is ever-present, and yet one must be taught to see it through ceremony and initiatory journeys.

Although it's impossible to really know what someone means through words alone, even leaving aside the question of whether vastly different cultures can ever truly understand one another, I think Ursula K. Le Guin is on the right track. She's read widely and tried to see through the eyes of others, but then she's returned to the land she calls home and tried to imagine a way forward for her own culture. The key to this kind of imagination is a respect for what is yours to take up and refashion, on the one hand, and what belongs to others, on the other hand. The Dreaming belongs to the Warlpiri as they belong to the Dreaming, but I think Le Guin's 'Dream time' points to something different, a newness of her own making that borrows resonance from her journeys into other ways of seeing. It's the ability to see other possible worlds within the world we take for granted, and to believe that those possibilities are ever-present, glowing in the landscape.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

On Practice

It's been good to be able to cross-post to the KW Forest School blog for the past few weeks, but I'm looking forward to settling back into a longer train of thought here on A Wizard of Earth. The Forest School blog will continue to be updated weekly, likely on Mondays or Tuesdays, so keep checking back there if you're curious to see how things unfold. My desire here is to continue to engage with bigger questions in light of the work I do, and to open a forum for discussion of those questions. My thanks go out to those who comment here regularly, along with an open invitation to those whose presence is reflected only in the stats Blogger collects on my behalf. You too have deep utterances waiting in your minds and fingers, and they would make this blog so much better.

Today's subject is practice- not just the practice of wizardry, but the practice of nature, or as Gary Snyder names it in an outstanding collection of essays on the subject, "The Practice of the Wild". (That's the title of the book; the essays are reflections on a lifetime learning and living in the forests of the West Coast and in Buddhist monasteries in Japan). These are the practices that make a person more in tune with the natural world; more aware of oneself, of others, of the interconnectedness between living things; practices which enable us to become gentler, deeper, nobler beings.

The word 'practice' has the wonderful property of being both a noun and a verb. When we say 'practice' we imply both a set of repeated actions that can be talked about and considered as a thing in its own right, as well as the doing of those actions. What are you practicing? one might inquire of a novice wizard, to which he could cheerfully reply, Why, my practice, of course! (A typical wizard's answer.) The word also has the virtue of implying something that you don't get right on the first try, or even on the hundredth try. One doesn't practice in order to be perfect, despite the aphorism; one practices in order to get better.

I have a daily practice that goes something like this: I wake up in the morning, eat breakfast and get ready for the day, and then go out to a place near my building where buckthorn and black walnut trees shade a small bit of wild forest in the midst of downtown Kitchener. It's a miraculous place, and though I'm reluctant to share its exact location, it's the source of the pictures in last week's post and of several ideas and anecdotes in previous posts. I go there to practice, and what I practice can best be described as... being. That's a verb that doesn't really describe an action at all, but an attitude. You could say that I'm observing, that I'm sitting mindfully, even that I'm meditating, but all those verbs sound like more of an effort than what I'm trying to do.

Or at least, you'd think those things would involve more effort. But it's surprisingly difficult to just... do... nothing. Maddeningly difficult, in fact. To be completely honest, my daily practice occurs far less often than the name would imply, because for me it is work! I like to think I have a disability when it comes to practicing being, because as you may have gathered from the foregoing, I'm a person who experiences the world primarily through words. Other people sense things in their stomachs, in their spines, in their hearts or even their brains, but for me the world takes shape between my tongue and the roof of my mouth. When I read silently or work through an idea, I can feel the shape of my thoughts as impressions on my tongue, which may even be flexing or moving silently if I'm making a real effort. As I mentioned in passing in the final line of last week's post, words and thoughts fill my mind even when I'm striving for stillness- especially when I'm striving for stillness.

So why do I do it? There are several reasons. The naturalist mentors from whom I've been lucky enough to learn teach that a regular practice of sitting quietly in nature is one of the common threads that link all traditional land-based cultures around the world. In every place and time where close awareness of nature has meant the difference between vibrant living and meagre subsistence, children and youth are encouraged to find a spot where they can go to sit alone in all seasons and kinds of weather, simply soaking up the world and learning to read the meanings of what they observe. Curiously, this kind of practiced patient awareness has a lot in common with the mindfulness meditation heavily promoted by mental health professionals. Curiously, it also has a lot in common with the historical practice of magic, which, according to one of the most influential wizards now living, can be loosely defined as: "the traditional craft of causing changes in consciousness in accordance with will".

Stillness as a basis for changes in consciousness- that's what I'm talking about. Gary Snyder apprenticed in a similar craft through his Buddhist studies, and every hunter who has ever lived has learned the art of quieting their own self in order to let the forest come alive in their inner senses. And this is what I've been practicing, with less than colossal success. At times my thoughts run wild and take me completely away from the living world around me. At other times I become aware of a deep, slow sadness underneath my thought and breath, as though I were floating delicately on an ocean yet unfathomed. But I remind myself each time that it's okay, it's okay. I'm only practicing. A great boon for me as a word-wielder apprenticing in silence was coming across a casual reference in The Practice of the Wild, to a novel by an author I already admired highly: Ursula K. Le Guin's Always Coming Home, "truly a teaching text", in Snyder's words.

And it is. Always Coming Home is not really a novel, but a loose anthropological survey of a people who "might be going to have lived a long, long time from now in Northern California." It's a collection of short stories, plays, poems, songs, maps, and diagrams exploring the lives of the Kesh, a far-future human culture who inhabit nine villages in a place called the Valley, near the Pacific coast. The narratives are about everyday matters: who fell in love with whom, and how that turned out, which family feuds dragged on unnecessarily and why, where so-and-so traveled as a child and what they saw there, how one is to honour the dead and dying in the Valley.

The stories almost never concern themselves with climate change, sea level rise, peak energy, or industrial pollution, but evidence of vanished Civilisation is silently present, revealed by a narrator's casual gesture or an unremarkable feature of the landscape. The California coastline is further inland than it was in our day. Completely poisoned areas exist in lands adjacent to the Valley. A neighbouring people decorate some of their buildings with tiny balls of fumo, which an author's note explains to be "concretions, usually whitish or yellowish, of ancient industrial origin, of nearly the same specific gravity as ice." Le Guin's mastery in Always Coming Home isn't a finely imagined historical sense of how it all fell out in the Kesh's collective past; instead, she completely draws the reader into the attitudes and assumptions of a people who survived and transcended that past.

History as we understand it doesn't preoccupy them, or the deeds of heroes, or the advancement of society toward some collective goal. Awareness of time and of individual achievements is simply not as important to them as awareness of place and of balancing the various needs of the Valley people. They take it for granted that rocks, plants, birds, and animals are people as much as humans are, and they assign no special place to 'human people' in the grand scheme of things. They possess some sophisticated technologies, but aren't enthralled by them as they are by the absorbing rhythms of cultivating land, craftsmanship, and human relationships. Some of them make exploratory journeys over the mountains. Others make small wars, just for fun. But these pursuits are secondary to the ritual life of the community, expressed in song, dance, and contemplation.

At one point a Kesh Archivist responds to the insistent questions of Le Guin's anthropologist-narrator persona concerning her people's history:

"Listen, you'll find or make what you need, if you need it. But consider it; be mindful; be careful. What is history?"

To which Le Guin's persona replies: "A great historian of my people said: the study of Man in Time."

There is a silence.

"You aren't Man and you don't live in Time," I say bitterly. "You live in the Dream Time."

"Always," says the Archivist of Wakwaha. "Right through Civilisation, we have lived in the Dream Time." And her voice is not bitter, but full of grief, bitter grief.

In this exchange I hear Le Guin the author saying, 'It's okay. It's okay that you don't know how things will happen. What matters is that you stay alive to the Dream Time, even in the midst of the nightmare all around you.' The culture of the Kesh runs counter to ours in a way I think is worth emulating. And few things are more counter-cultural than just...doing...nothing. So in between my daily work of treasuring and carrying forward the good from past and present Civilisations, I practice making time to do nothing, in honour of that which is not yet.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

After the Rain

Early this morning I set out to discover what the rain had brought us the night before. We had heard the thunder and seen the terrific flashing of lightning from our windows, and I had wondered at the time whether my neighbours were managing to stay dry.

It wasn't my human neighbours I had in mind, although many of these do find the cold and wet considerably more challenging than I do in my cozy apartment. It was my animal neighbours I imagined as the thunder rolled and the rain poured down: how did they do it, out there in the forest during this storm, without roofs, walls, tents, tarps, or even a raincoat?

As I crossed the fresh wet grass toward the woods this morning, listening for what might appear, the sound of crickets surrounded me first. I don't hear them every morning, and now I thought back, trying to remember the last time I'd heard such a sound- had it also been following a rainstorm? Was there a link between cricket song and weather?


The birds had seen me coming and retired, but I surprised a jumpy gray squirrel on the way to my sit spot. At my feet, next to the log that is my front row seat at the greatest show on earth, this plant raised its rain-beaded leaves in greeting. How many times had I sat next to it without even knowing its name, only its friendly presence and the springtime memory of its small, golden flowers?

Bird calls reached my ears, not the "pip. pip." or "doo, doo, whip!whip!whip!whip!whip!" of my usual suspects, but a handful of harsh "cheeer. cheeer." calls from the meadow I'd walked through earlier. As I watched and listened, a mid-sized brown bird appeared in a grove ahead of me, ten feet up and facing away. It looked down from its perch and made the same sound, very loudly and clearly indicating its displeasure with whoever was in the thicket beneath. I couldn't see, and so I had to wonder, who was it?

Restless now, I got up and began exploring, stepping quietly but casually, with my toes first and my weight last. The five-leafed Virginia Creeper was just beginning to turn its fall rust-red. I stopped in a glade of reaching yellow flowers, their brown eyes gazing sunward, and wondered who had parted them to form the path that opened at my feet. More importantly to my mind just then, what would that path look like from the perspective of a person six inches tall?


I stood again and looked around me, wondering now what a person six metres tall would see in this forest. I craned my neck up, up, and saw something that clicked in my memory. It was the answer to a question by now so far forgotten that it took me a moment to realize what I was looking at:

Way up in the branches, someone had built a home using the materials that were on hand, without instructions and without tools apart from hands and teeth and wit. This home would last through thunderstorms and snowstorms, and it would be sturdy enough to raise a family in. It was my neighbour the gray squirrel, whom I had so startled on my way in, and who was likely keeping an eye on me still.

I decided to head back to my own warm, dry dwelling to start my day of work among human people. My morning wander had given me one lucky answer and a host of new questions, all crowding in to take the place of the one that had been answered. The forest does that to you: you go in with questions and come out with more questions; you go in seeking silence and come out overflowing with words.

Cross-posted to KW Forest School's blog