Sunday, November 23, 2008

Reaching Keet Seel by Reg Saner - Excerpts

Reaching Keet Seel: Ruin’s Echo and the Anasazi. Reg Saner. 1998. ISBN 0874805538


Over more than a dozen summers, with an occasional autumn thrown in, I have fed my pleasure on the ruins, the canyons and mesas of this book, as other work permitted. “Points along the way” were both places and stops toward answering two deceptively simple questions: “Why do I find these things so strangely moving?” and “What are they trying to tell us?”

If biblical minds agreed on one thing, it was that desert is demonic. To efface it utterly was to praise the Lord.

Odd that in this universe where maybe nothing is divine except what’s missing, our last few desert places seem profoundly blessed by what isn’t there. We now feel that truly to bring forth the fruit of such terrain is to agree that its silence and space are unimprovable. We say so any time we answer its hush with an attentive stillness, one wide and deep as respect.

Even assuming that religious emotions are indeed illusory, is human life possible without them? Their impulses seem so universal as to be innate, as if encoded genetically. Are they evolution’s protection against what evolution itself has created, reason’s analytical habit?

Any sacred building’s layout and symbols offer alignment, orientation. They give directions without saying a word.

Christianity, especially, identifies the sacred with “good,” whereas ancient Greeks and Pueblos – to cite parallel extremes – conceived the sacred in ways making “good” irrelevant, even absurd.

By projecting a secularized sacrality onto nature as a sort of benign whiff exuded from forests, vernal woods, or whitewater streams, we may forget that sacred power is traditionally grounded in the supernatural, whereas, and by definition, nature is natural. Yet a Hope leader could say, “The Hopi land is the Hopi religion,” because to Pueblos nature is never only natural.

All the same, though “bleak” should name my mood, it doesn’t. “Emptiness,” yes, and one I’m well content to sit quietly filled with. Its slight sadness feels like wisdom, as if that’s what I, too, had come to Chaco for.

No lands feel more desolate than those of the Hopi, no religion more beautiful or complex. That very desolation must have begotten such beauty and complexity. Encircled by utter indifference in every empty direction, you could feel yourself the least of beings, the merest speck; or you could sense yourself as the focus of spirits and sacred powers – without ceasing, however, to realize that in such vastitudes everyone’s daily affairs hither and yon around your tiny pueblo count for no more than the trickles of ant people busily seething round their anthill.

… is the sacred really self-love echoed back to sound like a call? A circular transaction? For me, its “place” exists anytime we stand at a center, the center of a moment: our own widest awareness of, and agreement to be, who and where we are.

Haven’t the gods always been made of our own limitations? No god has qualities a human wouldn’t find useful.

For most of humankind, wonders merely natural aren’t quite enough – as if our species sorely needs religious emotion to restore what analytical reason makes away with.

There are places you go, simply to be there. In the old days, such going toward was called pilgrimage.

Just as we living ones need the dead to remember us and help us with our lives, the gods rely on us mortals to sustain them.

If you believe there’s such a thing as desecration, you believe in the sacred.

Lots of rock, lots of sand, lots of wind, and very little rain can make juniper stands growing there, at the far end of possibility, an outpost of marginalized eccentrics.

There amid the deranged and violent I also discovered “good” trees battening on the same rimrock; witnessed all the living optimism, all the hurt joy that can scuffle upward out of such rock and suffer openly. In wresting a living from limestone’s long famines of rain, they must sometimes have felt that enduring there was next to impossible, but endure they had.

Mountains echo whatever you tell them, but desert space is always a listener, its only voice a quiet so unbroken it hushes you, thereby making you fit to enter.

Primitive? Yes, but wouldn’t it feel good to regress, to live among townsfolk where nobody had a job? Where instead of jobs, everybody has a life, and every life a clear purpose?

… an escape from self, the “me”. From the incessantly mumbling, grumbling, scheming, blithering first-person singular. It’s a brief but soothing release.

As for a New Mexico, Arizona, or Utah evening, your mood there can invest time’s barest necessities with an allure so narcotic you feel on the verge of understanding things no one will ever understand.

Questing toward some imagined Grand Happiness, we find it rarely if ever; meanwhile, a few blessed moments find us. They’re not anything we’d know how to look for. Besides, that’s not how it works. The blessed moments aren’t targetable. They just happen. Years later, merely recollecting them can summon us back to our best selves, but only if when they come, we’re not too busy to see them for what they are.

If you live long enough, you begin having days when it seems you may actually be getting some sense. How to act, how to see, what to care about. What truly matters.

Now comes the twist that makes endless questing for knowledge problematic. We assume that to know what, where, and why we are is a good thing. Is it? When ignorance is bliss, the proverb reminds us, “tis folly to be wise.” Despite such sayings, don’t we claim to follow “truth” wherever it leads? Or is that only a flattering mirage?

Even at a standstill you can feel it inside you: the road as verge, as threshold, making “destination” a mere pretext for the real business of going to meet it.

But for many of us four-wheeled, non-Native Americans, isn’t it true that our “center” and best mode of being is motion? Whose aim is less a place than simply the horizon.

A people who’ve survived desert conditions for ages are realists. You haven’t a choice. In desert, you become either a realist or a set of bleached bones. Paradoxically, you also come into kinship with a world of realities they eye has not seen …

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram - Excerpts

The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World. David Abram. 1996. ISBN 0679776397


Today we participate almost exclusively with other humans and with our own human-made technologies. It is a precarious situation, given our age-old reciprocity with the many-voiced landscape. We still need that which is other than ourselves and our own creations. The simple premise of this book is that we are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human.

Direct sensuous reality, in all its more-than-human mystery, remains the sole solid touchstone for an experiential world now inundated with electronically-generated vistas and engineered pleasures; only in regular contact with the tangible ground and sky can we learn how to orient and to navigate in the multiple dimensions that now claim us.

For magicians – whether modern entertainers or indigenous, tribal sorcerers – have in common the fact that they work with the malleable texture of perception.

For the magician’s intelligence is not encompassed within the society; its place is at the edge of the community, mediating between the human community and the larger community of beings upon which the village depends for its nourishment and sustenance.

The traditional or tribal shaman, I came to discern, acts as an intermediary between the human community and the larger ecological field, ensuring that there is an appropriate flow of nourishment, not just from the landscape to the human inhabitants, but from the human community back to the local earth.

We no longer describe the shamans’ enigmatic spirit-helpers as the “superstitious claptrap of heathen primitives” – we have cleansed ourselves of at least that much ethnocentrism; yet we still refer to such enigmatic forces, respectfully now, as “supernaturals” – for we are unable to shed the sense, so endemic to scientific civilization, of nature as a rather prosaic and predictable realm, unsuited to such mysteries.

For it is likely that the “inner world” of our Western psychological experience, like the supernatural heaven of Christian belief, originates in the loss of our ancestral reciprocity with the animate earth. When the animate powers that surround us are suddenly construed as having less significance than ourselves, when the generative earth is abruptly defined as a determinate object devoid of its own sensations and feelings, then the sense of a wild and multiplicitous otherness (in relation to which human existence has always oriented itself) must migrate, either into a supersensory heaven beyond the natural world, or else into the human skull itself – the only allowable refuge, in this world, for what is ineffable and unfathomable.

While the notion of “spirit” has come to have, for us in the West, a primarily anthropomorphic or human association, my encounter with the ants was the first of many experiences suggesting to me that the “spirits” of an indigenous culture are primarily those modes of intelligence or awareness that do not possess a human form.

For almost all oral cultures, the enveloping and sensuous earth remains the dwelling place of both the living and the dead. The “body” – whether human or otherwise – is not yet a mechanical object in such cultures, but is a magical entity, the mind’s own sensuous aspect, and at death the body’s decomposition into soil, worms, and dust can only signify the gradual reintegration of one’s ancestors and elders into the living landscape, from which all, too, are born.

“Ancestor worship”, in its myriad forms, then, is ultimately another mode of attentiveness to nonhuman nature; it signifies not so much an awe or reverence of human powers, but rather a reverence for those forms that awareness takes when it is not in human form, when the familiar human embodiment dies and decays to become part of the encompassing cosmos.

It was from [insects and spiders] that I first learned of the intelligence that lurks in nonhuman nature, the ability that an alien form of sentience has to echo one’s own, to instill a reverberation in oneself that temporarily shatters habitual ways of seeing and feeling, leaving one open to a world all alive, awake, and aware.

Our bodies have formed themselves in delicate reciprocity with the manifold textures, sounds, and shapes of an animate earth – our eyes have evolved in subtle interaction with other eyes, as our ears are attuned by their very structure to the howling of wolves and the honking of geese. To shut ourselves off from these other voices, to continue by our lifestyles to condemn these other sensibilities to the oblivion of extinction, is to rob our own senses of their integrity, and to rob our minds of their coherence. We are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human.

To be sure, our obliviousness to nonhuman nature is today held in place by ways of speaking that simply deny intelligence to other species and to nature in general, as well as by the very structures of our civilized existence – by the incessant drone of motors that shut out the voices of birds and of the winds; by air “conditioners” that hide the seasons; by offices, automobiles, and shopping malls that finally obviate any need to step outside the purely human world at all.

It is natural that we turn to the tradition of phenomenology in order to understand the strange difference between the experienced world, or worlds, of indigenous, vernacular cultures and the world of modern European and North American civilization. For phenomenology is the Western philosophical tradition that has most forcefully called into question the modern assumption of a single, wholly determinable, objective reality.

The world and I reciprocate one another. The landscape as I directly experience it is hardly a determinate object; it is an ambiguous realm that responds to my emotions and calls forth feelings from me in turn.

Our spontaneous experience of the world, charged with subjective, emotional, and intuitive content, remains the vital and dark ground of all our objectivity.

Unlike the mathematics-based sciences, phenomenology would seek not to explain the world, but to describe as closely as possible the way the world makes itself evident to awareness, the way things first arise in our direct, sensorial experience.

To acknowledge that “I am this body” is not to reduce the mystery of my yearnings and fluid thoughts to a set of mechanisms, or my “self” to a determinate robot. Rather it is to affirm the uncanniness of this physical form. It is not to lock up awareness within the density of a closed and bounded object, for as we shall see, the boundaries of a living body are open and indeterminate; more like membranes than barriers, they define a surface of metamorphosis and exchange. The breathing, sensing body draws its sustenance and its very substance from the soils, plants, and elements that surround it; it continually contributes itself, in turn, to the air, to the composting earth, to the nourishment of insects and oak trees and squirrels, ceaselessly spreading out of itself as well as breathing the world into itself, so that it is very difficult to discern, at any moment, precisely where this living body begins and where it ends.

Far from restricting my access to things and to the world, the body is my very means of entering into relation with all things.

… a truly authentic phenomenology, a philosophy which would strive, not to explain the world as if from outside, but to give voice to the world from our experienced situation within it, recalling us to our participation in the here-and-now, rejuvenating our sense of wonder at the fathomless things, events and powers that surround us on every hand.

The sensing body is not a programmed machine but an active and open form, continually improvising its relation to things and to the world. The body’s actions and engagements are never wholly determinate, since they must ceaselessly adjust themselves to a world and a terrain that is itself continually shifting. If the body were truly a set of closed or predetermined mechanisms, it could never come into genuine contact with anything outside of itself, could never perceive anything really new, could never be genuinely startled or surprised.

However determinate one’s genetic inheritance, it must still, as it were, be woven into the present, an activity that necessarily involves both a receptivity to the specific shapes and textures of that present and a spontaneous creativity in adjusting oneself (and one’s inheritance) to those contours. It is this open activity, this dynamic blend of receptivity and creativity by which every animate organism necessarily orients itself to the world (and orients the world around itself), that we speak of by the term “perception”.

The brilliant forerunner of today’s “cognitive” and “symbolic” schools of anthropology, Lévy-Bruhl used the word “participation” to characterize the animistic logic of indigenous, oral peoples – for whom ostensibly “inanimate” objects like stones or mountains are often thought to be alive, for whom certain names, spoken aloud, may be felt to influence at a distance the things or beings that they name, for whom particular plants, particular animals, particular places and persons and powers may all be felt to participate in one another’s existence, influencing each other and being influenced in turn.

From the magician’s, or the phenomenologist’s, perspective, that which we call imagination is from the first an attribute of the senses themselves; imagination is not a separate mental faculty (as we so often assume) but is rather the way the sense themselves have of throwing themselves beyond what is immediately given, in order to make tentative contact with the other sides of things that we do not sense directly, with the hidden or invisible aspects of the sensible.

… it is when the magician lets himself be captured by the magic that his audience will be most willing to join him.

As soon as I attempt to distinguish the share of any one sense from that of the others, I inevitably sever the full participation of my sensing body with the sensuous terrain.

The relative divergence of my bodily senses (eyes in the front of the head, ears toward the back, etc.) and their curious bifurcation (not one but two eyes, one on each side, and similarly two ears, two nostrils, etc.), indicates that this body is a form destined to the world; it ensures that my body is a sort of open circuit that completes itself only in things, in others, in the encompassing earth.

When we begin to consciously frequent the wordless dimension of our sensory participations, certain phenomena that have habitually commanded our focus begin to lose their distinctive fascination and to slip toward the background, while hitherto unnoticed or overlooked presences begin to stand forth from the periphery and to engage our awareness. The countless human artifacts with which we are commonly involved – the asphalt roads, chain-link fences, telephone wires, buildings, lightbulbs, ballpoint pens, automobiles, street signs, plastic containers, newspapers, radios, television screens – all being to exhibit a common style, and so to lose some of their distinctiveness; meanwhile, organic entities – crows, squirrels, the trees and wild weeds that surround our house, humming insects, streambeds, clouds and rainfalls – all these begin to display a new vitality, each coaxing the breathing body into a unique dance. Even boulders and rocks seem to speak their own uncanny languages of gesture and shadow, inviting the body and its bones into silent communication.

In contrast, the mass-produced artifacts of civilization, from milk cartons to washing machines to computers, draw our senses into a dance that endlessly reiterates itself without variation. To the sensing body these artifacts are, like all phenomena, animate and even alive, but their life is profoundly constrained by the specific “functions” for which they were built. Once our bodies master these functions, the machine-made objects commonly teach our senses nothing further; they are unable to surprise us, and so we must continually acquire new built objects, new technologies, the latest mode of this or that if we wish to stimulate ourselves.

So the recuperation of the incarnate, sensorial dimension of experience brings with it a recuperation of the living landscape in which we are corporeally embedded. As we return to our senses, we gradually discover our sensory perceptions to be simply our part of a vast, interpenetrating webwork of perceptions and sensations borne by countless other bodies – supported, that is, not just by ourselves, but by icy streams tumbling down granite slopes, by owl wings and lichens, and by the unseen, imperturbable wind.

Nevertheless, conventional scientific discourse privileges the sensible field in abstraction form sensory experience, and commonly maintains that subjective experience is “caused” by an objectifiable set of processes in the mechanically determined field of the sensible. Meanwhile, New Age spiritualism regularly privileges pure sentience, or subjectivity, in abstraction from sensible matter, and often maintains that material reality is itself an illusory effect caused by an immaterial mind or spirit. Although commonly seen as opposed world-views, both of these positions assume a qualitative difference between the sentient and the sensed; by prioritizing one or the other, both of these views perpetuate the distinction between human “subjects” and natural “objects”, and hence neither threatens the common conception of sensible nature as a purely passive dimension suitable for human manipulation and use.

Clearly, a wholly immaterial mind could neither see things nor touch things – indeed, could not experience anything at all. We can experience things – can touch, hear, and taste things – only because, as bodies, we are ourselves included in the sensible field, and have our own textures, sounds, and tastes.

If we dwell in this forest for many months, or years, then our experience may shift yet again – we may come to feel that we are a part of this forest, consanquineous with it, and that our experience of the forest is nothing other than the forest experiencing itself.

In indigenous, oral cultures, in other words, language seems to encourage and augment the participatory life of the sense, while in Western civilization languages seems to deny or deaden that life, promoting a massive distrust of sensorial experience while valorizing an abstract realm of ideas hidden behind or beyond the sensory appearances.

We thus learn our native language not mentally but bodily. We appropriate new words and phrases first through their expressive tonality and texture, through the way they feel in the mouth or roll off the tongue, and it is this direct, felt significance – the taste or a word or phrase, the way it influences or modulates the body – that provides the fertile, polyvalent source for all the more refined and rarefied meanings which that term may come to have for us.

To the sensing body all phenomena are animate, actively soliciting the participation of our senses, or else withdrawing from our focus and repelling our involvement.

When we attend to our experience not as intangible minds but as sounding, speaking bodies, we begin to sense that we are heard, even listened to, by the numerous other bodies that surround us. Our sensing bodies respond to the eloquence of certain buildings and boulders, to the articulate motions of dragonflies. We find ourselves alive in a listening, speaking world.

European civilization’s neglect of the natural world and its needs has clearly been encouraged by a style of awareness that disparages sensorial reality, denigrating the visible and tangible order of things on behalf of some absolute source assumed to exist entirely beyond, or outside of, the bodily world.

The other animals, the plants, and the natural elements – sun, moon, stars, waves – are beginning tolose their own voices. In the Hebrew Genesis, the animals do not speak their own names to Adam; rather, they are given their names by this first man. Language, for the Hebrews, was becoming a purely human gift, a human power.

Among other things, [Albert] Lord’s research indicated that learning to read and write thoroughly disabled the oral poet, ruining his capacity for oral improvisation.

For the letters of the alphabet, like the Platonic Ideas, do not exist in the world of ordinary vision. The letters, and the written words that they present, are not subject to the flux of growth and decay, to the perturbations and cyclical changes common to other visible things; they seem to hover, as it were, in another, strangely timeless dimension.

For Plato, as for Socrates, the psychê is now that aspect of oneself that is refined and strengthened by turning away from the ordinary sensory world in order to contemplate the intelligible Ideas, the pure and eternal forms that, alone, truly exist. The Socratic-Platonic psychê, in other words, is none other than the literate intellect, that part of the self that is born and strengthened in relation to the written letters.

In indigenous, oral cultures, nature itself is articulate; it speaks. The human voice in an oral culture is always to some extent participant with the voices of wolves, winds, and waves – participant, that is, with the encompassing discourse of an animate earth. There is no element of the landscape that is definitively void of expressive resonance and power: any movement may be a gesture, any sound may be a voice, a meaningful utterance.

Without writing, knowledge of the diverse properties of particular animals, plants, and places can be preserved only by being woven into stories, into vital tales wherein the specific characteristics of the plant are made evident through a narrated series of events and interactions. Stories, like rhymed poems or songs, readily incorporate themselves into our felt experience; the shifts of action echo and resonate our own encounters – in hearing or telling the story we vicariously live it, and the travails of its characters embed themselves into our own flesh.

Oral memorization calls for lively, dynamic, often violent characters and encounters. If the story carries knowledge about a particular plant or natural element, then that entity will often be cast, like all of the other characters, in a fully animate form, capable of personlike adventures and experiences, susceptible to the kinds of setbacks or difficulties that we know from our own lives.

In this light, that which we literates misconstrue as a naïve attempt at causal explanation may be recognized as a sophisticated mnemonic method whereby precise knowledge is preserved and passed along from generation to generation.

It is important to realize that the now common experience of “silent” reading is a late development in the story of the alphabet, emerging only during the Middle Ages, when spaces were first inserted between words in a written manuscript (along with various forms of punctuation), enabling readers to distinguish the words of a written sequence without necessarily sounding them out audibly. Before this innovation, to read was necessarily to read aloud, or at the very least to mumble quietly; after the twelfth century it became increasingly possible to internalize the sounds, to listen inwardly to phantom words (or the inward echo of words once uttered).

The senses that engaged or participated with this new writing found themselves locked within a discourse that had become exclusively human. Only thus, with the advent and spread of phonetic writing, did the rest of nature begin to lose its voice.

Whenever we of literate culture seek to engage and understand the discourse of oral cultures, we must strive to free ourselves from our habitual impulse to visualize any language as a static structure that could be diagrammed, or a set of rules that could be ordered and listed.

Minute alterations in the weather, changes in the migratory patterns of prey animals, a subtle shift in the focus of a predator – sensitivity to such subtleties is a necessary element of all oral, subsistence cultures, and this sensitivity is inevitably reflected not just in the content but in the very shapes and patterns of human discourse.

Such deference in the face of natural elements – the clear sense that the animate terrain is not just speaking to use but also listening to us – bears out Merleau-Ponty’s thesis of perceptual reciprocity; to listen to the forest is also primordially, to feel oneself listened to by the forest, just as to gaze at the surrounding forest is to feel oneself exposed and visible, to feel oneself watched by the forest.

A particular place in the land is never, for an oral culture, just a passive or inert setting for the human events that occur there. It is an active participant in those occurrences. Indeed, by virtue of its underlying and enveloping presence, the place may even be felt to be the source, the primary power that expresses itself through the various events that unfold there.

The astonishing endurance of the Aboriginal peoples must be attributed, at least partially, to their minimal involvement with technologies. Their relation to the sustaining landscape was direct and intimate, unencumbered by unnecessary mediations. They relied upon only the simplest of tools – primarily the boomerang, the hunting spear, and the digging stick – and thus avoided dependence upon specialized resources while maintaining the greatest possible mobility in the face of climatic changes.

Knowledge of distant parts of one’s song cycle – albeit in one’s own language – apparently enables a person to vividly experience certain stretches of the land even before he or she has actually visited those places. Rehearsing a long part of a song cycle together while sitting around a campfire at night, Aboriginal persons apparently feel themselves journeying across the land in their collective imagination – much as the Apache man “talking names” to himself is “riding in his mind”.

The chanting of any part of a song cycle links the human singer to one of the animals or plants or powers within the landscape, to Crocodile Man or Pandanus Tree Woman or Thunderstorm Man – to whatever more-than-human being first chanted those verses as he or she wandered across the dreaming earth. But it also binds the human singer to the land itself, to the specific hills, rocks, and streambeds that are the visible correlate of those sung stanzas.

One of the strong claims of this book is that the synaesthetic association of visible topology with auditory recall – the intertwining of earthly place with linguistic memory – is common to almost all indigenous, oral cultures. It is, we may suspect, a spontaneous propensity of the human organism – one that is radically transformed, yet not eradicated, by alphabetic writing.

In the absence of formal writing systems, human discourse cannot isolate itself from the larger field of expressive meanings in which it participates. Hence, the linguistic patterns of an oral culture remain uniquely responsive, and responsible, to the more-than-human life-world, or bioregion, in which that culture is embedded.

It should be easy, now, to understand the destitution of indigenous, oral persons who have been forcibly displaced from their traditional lands. The local earth is, for them, the very matrix of discursive meaning; to force them from their native ecology (for whatever political or economic purpose) is to render them speechless – or to render their speech meaningless – to dislodge them from the very ground of coherence. It is, quite simply, to force them out of their mind.

For the Amahuaca, the Koyukon, the Western Apache, and the diverse Aboriginal peoples of Australia – as for numerous indigenous, oral cultures – the coherence of human language is inseparable from the coherence of the surrounding ecology, from the expressive vitality of the more-than-human terrain. It is the animate earth that speaks; human speech is but a part of that vaster discourse.

Different gods dwell in different places, and different demons. Each place has its own dynamism, its own patterns of movement, and these patterns engage the senses and relate them in particular ways, instilling particular moods and modes of awareness, so that unlettered, oral people will rightly say that each place has its own mind, its own personality, its own intelligence.

The human senses, intercepted by the written word, are no longer gripped and fascinated by the expressive shapes and sounds of particular places. The spirits fall silent. Gradually, the felt primacy of place is forgotten, superseded by a new, abstract notion of “space” as a homogeneous and placeless void.

The new concentration of persons within permanent towns and cities, and the increased dependence upon the regulation and manipulation of spontaneous natural processes, could only intensify the growing estrangement of the human senses from the wild, animate diversity in which those senses had evolved.

To indigenous, oral cultures, the ceaseless flux that we call “time” is overwhelmingly cyclical in character. The senses of an oral people are still attuned to the land around them, still conversant with the expressive speech of the winds and the forest birds, still participant with the sensuous cosmos. Time, in such a world, is not separable from the circular life of the sun and the moon, from the cycling of the seasons, the death and rebirth of the animals – from the eternal return of the greening earth.

The multiple ritual enactments, the initiatory ceremonies, the annual songs and dances of the hunt and harvest – all are ways whereby indigenous peoples-of-place actively engage the rhythms of the more-than-human cosmos, and thus embed their own rhythms within those of the vaster round.

On high plateaus in the Rocky Mountains, where the visible horizon is especially vast and wide, are circular arrangements of stones arrayed around a central hub. It is known that such “medicine wheels”, still used by various North American tribes, once served a calendrical function. Or, rather, they enabled a person to orient herself within a dimension that was neither purely spatial nor purely temporal – the large stone that is precisely aligned with the place of the sun’s northernmost emergence, marks a place that is as much in time (the summer solstice) as in space.

By carrying on its lettered surface the vital stories earlier carried by the terrain itself, the written text became a kind of portable homeland for the Hebrew people. And indeed it is only thus, by virtue of this portable ground, that the Jewish people have been able to preserve their singular culture, and thus themselves, while in an almost perpetual state of exile from the actual lands where their ancestral stories unfolded.

The Jewish sense of exile was never merely a state of separation from a specific locale, from a particular ground; it was (and is) also a sense of separation from the very possibility of being placed, from the very possibility of being entirely at home.

What were these invisible realms that had so much power over the lives of my family and friends? Everybody that I knew seemed to be expending a great deal of effort thinking about and trying to hold onto the past – obsessively photographing and videotaping events, and continually projecting and fretting about the future – ceaselessly sending out insurance premiums for their homes, for their cars, even for their own bodies.

As an animal myself, I remain suspicious of all these dodges, all these ways whereby my species lays claim to a source of truth that supposedly lies outside of the bodily world wherein plants, stones, and streams have their being, outside of this earthly terrain that we share with the other animals.

The horizon of the perceivable landscape is provided, I know, by the relation of my body to the vast and spherical Body of the earth. This is not merely something I have read, or learned in school. It has become evident and true for me in the course of many journeys across the land, watching the horizon continually recede as I move toward it, watching it disgorge unexpected vistas that expand and envelop me even as the horizon itself maintains its distance. And yet if I glance behind me as I journey, I see that this enigmatic edge is also following me, keeping its distance behind me as well as in front, gradually swallowing those terrains that I walk, drive, or pedal away from.

In “Time and Being”, [Heidegger] writes of the past and of the future as absences that by their very absence concern us, and so make themselves felt within the present. This description aids us a great deal. Now at least we can say what we are searching for in our attempt to locate, or place, the past and the future. We are hunting for modes of absence, which, by their very way of being absent, make themselves felt within the sensuous presence of the open landscape.

For the American Plains tribes, at least in the nineteenth century, the home of the dead beyond the horizon was commonly believed to be a land always abundant in edible plants and wild game – the “happy hunting ground” of popular legend. While some such indigenous notion of a fertile and abundant terrain where the ancestors dwell was likely the archaic source of even the Christian belief in a heavenly paradise, it is important to realize that for oral peoples such realms were never wholly cut off from the sensuous world of the living present. They were not projected entirely outside of the experienced world, but were felt as the mystery and hidden depth of the sensuous world itself.

… many indigenous cultures have but a single term to designate the very deep past and the far distant future. Among the Inuit of Baffin Island, for example, the term uvatiarru may be translated both as “long ago” and “in the future”.

… the ineffability of the air seems akin to the ineffability of awareness itself, and we should not be surprised that many indigenous peoples construe awareness, or “mind”, not as a power that resides inside their heads, but rather as a quality that they themselves are inside of, along with the other animals and the plants, the mountains and the clouds.

According to Robert Lawlor, a researcher who has lived and studied among the indigenous cultures of Australia, Aboriginal peoples tend to consider the visible entities around them – rocks, persons, leaves – as crystallizations of conscious awareness, while the invisible medium between such entities is experienced as what Westerners would call “the unconscious”, the creative but unseen realm from which such conscious forms arise.

… the Navajo elders suggest that that which we call the “mind” is not ours, is not a human possession. Rather, mind as Wind is a property of the encompassing world, in which humans – like all other beings – participate.

[The ancient Hebrews] were perhaps the first nation to so thoroughly shift their sensory participation away from the forms of surrounding nature to a purely phonetic set of signs, and so to experience the profound epistemological independence from the natural environment that was made possible by this potent new technology. To actively participate with the visible forms of nature came to be considered idolatry by the ancient Hebrews; it was not the land but the written letters that now carried the ancestral wisdom.

Yet this sense of the written text as an animate, living mystery is nowhere more explicit than in the Kabbalah, the esoteric tradition of Jewish mysticism. For here it is not just the text as a whole but the very letters that are thought to be alive! Each letter of the aleph-beth is assumed by the Kabbalists to have its own personality, its own profound magic, its own way of organizing the whole of existence around itself. Because the written commandments were ostensibly dictated to Moses directly by God on Mount Sinai, so the written letters comprising that first Hebrew text – the twenty-two letters of the aleph-beth – are assumed to be the visible traces of divine utterance.

In the journey to Greece … the letters of the aleph-beth loosened and left behind their vestigial ties to the enveloping life-world; they thereby became a much more abstract set of symbols. But the Greeks also introduced a strange new element into the alphabet, an innovation that would ultimately increase the abstract capacity of this writing system far more than the above-mentioned factors. For the Greek scribes introduced written vowels into the previously consonantal system of letters.

Relative to Semitic texts, then, the Greek texts had a remarkable autonomy – they seemed to stand, and even to speak, on their own.

A century and a half alter, however, when the alphabet was at last being taught within the educational curriculum and was thereby spreading throughout Greek culture, Plato and Socrates were able to co-opt the term psychê – which for Anaximenes was fully associated with the breath and the air – employing the term now to indicate something not just invisible but utterly intangible. The Platonic psychê was not at all a part of the sensuous world, but was rather of another, utterly non-sensuous dimension. The psychê, that is, was no longer an invisible yet tangible power continually participant, by virtue of the breath, with the enveloping atmosphere, but a thoroughly abstract phenomenon now enclosed within the physical body as in a prison.

It was not enough to preach the Christian faith: one had to induce the unlettered, tribal peoples to begin to use the technology upon which that faith depended. Only by training the senses to participate with the written word could one hope to break their spontaneous participation with the animate terrain. Only as the written text began to speak would the voices of the forest, and of the river, begin to fade. And only then would language loosen its ancient association with the invisible breath, the spirit sever itself from the wind, the psyche dissociate itself from the environing air.

We may better comprehend this curious development – the withdrawal of mind from sensible nature and its progressive incarceration in the human skull – by considering that every human language secretes a kind of perceptual boundary that hovers, like a translucent veil, between those who speak that language and the sensuous terrain that they inhabit.

Within alphabetic civilization, virtually every human psyche construes itself as just such an individual “interior”, a private “mind” or “consciousness” unrelated to the other “minds” that surround it, or to the environing earth. For there is no longer any common medium, no reciprocity, no respiration between the inside and the outside.

The human mind is not some otherworldly essence that comes to house itself inside our physiology. Rather it is instilled and provoked by the sensorial field itself, induced by the tensions and participations between the human body and the animate earth. The invisible shapes of smells, rhythms of cricketsong, and the movement of shadows all, in a sense, provide the subtle body of our thoughts.

By acknowledging such links between the inner, psychological world and the perceptual terrain that surrounds us, we begin to turn inside-out, loosening the psyche from its confinement within a strictly human sphere, freeing sentience to return to the sensible world that contains us. Intelligence is on longer ours alone but is a property of the earth; we are in it, of it, immersed in its depths. And indeed each terrain, each ecology, seems to have its own particular intelligence, its unique vernacular of soil and leaf and sky.

The sense of being immersed ina sentient world is preserved in the oral stories and songs of indigenous peoples – in the belief that sensible phenomena are all alive and aware, in the assumption that all things have the capacity of speech. Language, for oral peoples, is not a human intervention but a gift of the land itself.

Human language evolved in a thoroughly animistic context; it necessarily functioned, for many millennia, not only as a means of communication between humans, but as a way of propitiating, praising, and appeasing the expressive powers of the surrounding terrain. Human language, that is, arose not only as a means of attunement between persons, but also between ourselves and the animate landscape.

By denying that birds and other animals have their own styles of speech, by insisting that the river has no real voice and that the ground itself is mute, we stifle our direct experience. We cut ourselves off from the deep meanings in many of our words, severing our language from that which supports and sustains it. We then wonder why we are often unable to communicate even among ourselves.

For such an oral awareness, to explain is not to present a set of finished reasons, but to tell a story.

… a story must be judged according to whether it makes sense. And “making sense” must here be understood in its most direct meaning: to make sense is to enliven the senses. A story that makes sense is one that stirs the senses from their slumber, one that opens the eyes and the ears to their real surroundings, tuning the tongue to the actual tastes in the air and sending chills of recognition along the surface of the skin.

The apparently autonomous, mental dimension originally opened by the alphabet – the ability to interact with our own signs in utter abstraction from our earthly surroundings – has today blossomed into a vast, cognitive realm, a horizonless expanse of virtual interactions and encounters.

There is an intimate reciprocity to the senses; as we touch the bark of a tree, we feel the tree touching us; as we lend our ears to the local sounds and ally our nose to the seasonal scents, the terrain gradually tunes us in in turn.

In order to obtain the astonishing and unifying image of the whole earth whirling in the darkness of space, humans, it would seem, have had to relinquish something just as valuable – the humility and grace that comes from being fully a part of that whirling world. We have forgotten the poise that comes from living in storied relation and reciprocity with the myriad things, the myriad beings, that perceptually surround us.

For those of us who care for an earth not encompassed by machines, a world of textures, tastes, and sounds other than those that we have engineered, there can be no question of simply abandoning literacy, of turning away from all writing. Our task, rather, is that of taking up the written word, with all of its potency, and patiently, carefully, writing language back into the land.


John Fire Lame Deer
Let’s sit down here … on the open prairie, where we can’t see a highway or a fence. Let’s have no blankets to sit on, but feel the ground with our bodies, the earth, the yielding shrubs. Let’s have the grass for a mattress, experiencing its sharpness and its softness. Let us become like stones, plants, and trees. Let us be animals, think and feel like animals. Listen to the air. You can hear it, feel it, smell it, taste it. Woniya waken – the holy air – which renews all by its breath. Woniya, woniya waken – spirit, life, breath, renewal – it means all that. Woniya – we sit together, don’t touch, but something is there; we feel it between us, as a presence. A good way to start thinking about nature, talk about it. Rather talk to it, talk to the rivers, to the lakes, to the winds as to our relatives.

Thomas Merton
Nobody started it, nobody is going to stop it. It will talk as long as it wants, the rain. As long as it talks I am going to listen.

Richard Nelson
…[t]raditional Koyukon people live in a world that watches, in a forest of eyes. A person moving through nature – however wild, remote, even desolate the place may be – is never truly alone. The surroundings are aware, sensate, personified. They feel. They can be offended. And they must, at every moment, be treated with the proper respect.

Rainer Maria Rilke
Ah, not to be cut off, not through the slightest partition shut out from the law of the stars. The inner – what is it? if not intensified sky, hurled through with birds and deep with the winds of homecoming.

Edward Sapir
We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation.

… I’m a lover of learning, and trees and open country won’t teach me anything, whereas men in the town do.

Sword (Lakota shaman)
The circle is the symbol of time, for the day time, the night time, and the moon time are circles above the world, and the year time is a circle around the border of the world.

Tomas Tranströmer
Tired of all who come with words, words but no language
I went to the snow-covered island.
The wild does not have words.
The unwritten pages spread themselves out in all directions!
I come across the marks of roe-deer’s hooves in the snow.
Language, but now words.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Beyond the Wall by Edward Abbey - Excerpts

Beyond the Wall: Essays from the Outside. Edward Abbey. 1984. ISBN 978-0805008203


If you desire to know, feel and live the desert, as opposed to only looking at it as tourists and art critics do, you’ve got to arise from your bottom end and walk upright like a human being, alone or with a friend, into the ancient blood-thrilling primeval freedom of those vast and democratic vistas. You will never understand the secret essence of the world freedom until you do.

I do not hold with those who find in geometry the essence of elegance; what Euclid and his successors fell in love with was not the world out there but the world inside – structures of the human mind. They were admiring an aspect of themselves, like Narcissus doting on his image in the pool.

Beyond the hill is the auburn-colored desolation of the desert: stony hills, lean peaks, narrow bands of olive-drab shrubbery winding along the waterless drainages and in the distance, on all horizons, from fifty to sixty miles away, the farther ranges of blue, magenta and purple mountains, where nothing human lives or ever did. I find this a cheery, even exhilarating prospect. The world of nature is faithful and never disappoints.

I have now walked seventy-five miles plus side trips. Only fifty to go. Five days so far in the open, without roof, without walls. An emotion old as the human race, essence without name, flows through my heart and mind.

… the birds will gather the fruit, eat the flesh, scatter the seeds on the barren ground. But not utterly barren, even here. A few will germinate, sprout, take root, resume the endless, pointless, beautiful cycle, again and again and again. For what purpose? Only the weary and the foolish insist on a purpose. Let being be. To make shade for a titmouse, that is the purpose.

Seated once more on my rear end, like everybody else in the modern world, I slump with relief back into the delights of the civilization I love to despise. My feet are even happier than I am. Within minutes my 115-mile walk through the desert hills becomes a thing apart, a disjunct reality on the far side of a bottomless abyss, immediately beyond physical recollection. But it’s all still there in my heart and soul. The walk, the hills, the sky, the solitary pain and pleasure – they will grow larger, sweeter, lovelier in the days and years to come, like a treasure found and then, voluntarily, surrendered. Returned to the mountains with my blessing. It leaves a golden glowing in the mind.

We were desert mystics, my few friends and I, the kind who read maps as others read their holy books. I once sat on the rim of a mesa above the Rio Grande for three days and nights, trying to have a vision. I got hungry and saw God in the form of a beef pie.

But why, the questioner insists, why do people like you pretend to love uninhabited country so much? Why this cult of wilderness? Why the surly hatred of progress and development, the churlish resistance to all popular improvements? Very well, a fair question, but it’s been asked and answered a thousand times already; enough books to drive a man stark naked mad have dealt in detail with this question. There are many answers, all good, each sufficient. Peace is often mentioned; beauty; spiritual refreshment, whatever than means; re-creation for the soul, whatever that it; escape; novelty, the delight of something different; truth and understanding and wisdom – commendable virtues in any many, anytime; ecology and all that, meaning the salvation of variety, diversity, possibility and potentiality, the preservation of the genetic reservoir, the answers to questions that we have not yet even learned to ask, a connection to the origin of things, an opening into the future, a source of sanity for the present – all true, all wonderful, all more than enough to answer such a dumb dead degrading question as “Why wilderness”? To which, nevertheless, I shall append on further answer anyway: because we like the taste of freedom; because we like the smell of danger.

We topped out on a small rise and there ahead lay the red wasteland again – red dust, red sand, the dark smoldering purple reds of ancient rocks, Chinle, Shinarump and Moenkopi, the old Triassic formations full of radium, dinosaurs, petrified wood, arsenic and selenium, fatal evil monstrous things, beautiful, beautiful. Miles of it, leagues of it, glittering under the radiant light, swimming beneath waves of heat, a great vast aching vacancy of pure space, waiting. Waiting for what? Why, waiting for us.

There was a middle-aged fellow sitting outside the store, on a bench in the shade, drinking beer. He had about a month’s growth of whiskers on what passed for a face. I bought him another can of Coors and tried to draw him into conversation. He was taciturn. Would not reveal his name. When I asked him what he did around there, he looked up at the clouds and over at the river and down at the ground between his boots, thinking hard, and finally said: “Nothing.” A good and sufficient answer. Taking that hint, I went away from there, leaving him in peace. My own ambition, my deepest and truest ambition, is to find within myself someday, somehow, the ability to do likewise, to do nothing – and find it enough.

The river tugged at our bodies with a gentle but insistent urge: Come with me, the river said, close your eyes and quiet your limbs and float with me into the wonder and mystery of the canyons, see the unknown and the little known, look upon the stone gods face to face, see Medusa, drink my waters, hear my song, feel my power, come along and drift with me toward the distant, ultimate and legendary sea … Sweet and subtle song. Perhaps I should have surrendered. I almost did. But didn’t.

The shimmer of heat waves, hanging like a scrim across the horizon, is enough in itself to confuse the senses, puzzle the mind. The mountains float like ships on the waves of superheated air, drifting away from one another, then returning, merging, inverting themselves, assuming shapes out of fantasy. The madness of mirage.

In the Dream Time, say the wise old men of the outback, we made our beginning; from the Dream Time we come; into the Dream Time, after death, we shall return. The dream is the real; waking life is only a dream within a greater dream.

What does the desert mean? It means what it is. It is there, it will be there when we are gone. But for a while we are living things – men, women, birds, that coyote howling far off on yonder stony ridge – we were a part of it all. That should be enough.

Buzzards circled overhead – there always seem to be more buzzards in the sky on the Mexican side of the border. Why? Because both life and death are more abundant down in Mexico. It’s the kind of country buzzards love. A candid country, harsh and bare, which is no doubt why it strikes us overcivilized Americans as crude, vulgar and dangerous.

I thought of the wilderness we had left behind us, open to sea and sky, joyous in its plentitude and simplicity, perfect yet vulnerable, unaware of what is coming, defended by nothing, guarded by no one.

Which is more likely? asked Mark Twain (I paraphrase): that the unicorn exists or that men tell lies?

I am aware of the argument that hunting and fishing can lead a man into an intense, intimate engagement with the natural world unknown to the casual hiker. When the hunting or fishing is based on hunger, on need, I know that this is true. But sport, in the end, is only sport – divertissement. A diversion, that is, from the game of life. Which is – what? Let’s not go into that.

Yet I know that even the mosquito has a function – you might say a purpose – in the great web of life. Their larvae help feed fingerlings, for example. Certain of their women help spread the parasitic protozoa that give us dengue, breakbone fever, yellow fever and malaria, for example, keeping in control the human population of places like Borneo, Angola, Italy and Mississippi. No organism can be condemned as totally useless.

The top of the world. But of course, the giddy, dizzying truth is that the words “top” and “bottom”, from a planetary point of view, have no meaning. From out here in deep space, where I am orbiting, there is no top, there is no bottom, no floor, no ceiling, to anything. We spin through an infinite void, following our curving path around the sun, which is as bewildered as we are. True, the infinite is incomprehensible – but the finite is absurd. Einstein claimed otherwise, I know, but Einstein was only a mortal like us. No ceiling, no floor, no walls …

What can I say except confess that I have seen but little of the real North, and of that little understood less. The planet is bigger than we ever imagined. The world is colder, more ancient, more strange and more mysterious than we had dreamed. And we puny human creatures with our many tools and toys and fears and hopes make only one small leaf on the great efflorescing tree of life. Too much. No equation however organic, no prose however royally purple, can bracket our world within the boundaries of mind.


Paul Klee
There are two mountains on which the weather is bright and clear, the mountain of the animals and the mountain of the gods. But between lies the shadowy valley of men.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Solace of Opens Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich - Excerpts

The Solace of Open Spaces. Gretel Ehrlich. 1985. ISBN 0140081135


It had occurred to me that comfort was only a disguise for discomfort; reference points, a disguise for what will always change. Friends asked when I was going to stop “hiding out” in Wyoming. What appeared to them as a landscape of lunar desolation and intellectual backwardness was luxurious to me. For the first time I was able to take up residence on earth with no alibis, no self-promoting schemes.

The truest art I would strive for in any work would be to give the page the same qualities as earth: weather would land on it harshly; light would elucidate the most difficult truths; wind would sweep away obtuse padding.

When I asked an older ranch hand to describe Wyoming’s openness, he said, “It’s all a bunch of nothing – wind and rattlesnakes – and so much of it you can’t tell where you’re going or where you’ve been and it don’t make much difference.

I suspect that my original motive for coming here was to “lose myself” in new and unpopulated territory. Instead of producing the numbness I thought I wanted, life on the sheep ranch woke me up. The vitality of the people I was working with flushed out what had become a hallucinatory rawness inside me. I threw away my clothes and bought new ones; I cut my hair. The arid country was a clean slate. Its absolute difference steadied me.

I’ve spent hours riding to sheep camp at dawn in a pickup when nothing was said; eaten meals in the cookhouse when the only words spoken were a mumbled “Thank you, ma’am” at the end of dinner. The silence is profound. Instead of talking, we seem to share one eye. Keenly observed, the world is transformed. The landscape is engorged with detail, every movement on it chillingly sharp. The air between people is charged. Days unfold, bathed in their own music. Nights become hallucinatory; dreams, prescient.

Perhaps because the West is historically new, conventional morality is still felt to be less important than rock-bottom truths. Though there’s always a lot of teasing and sparring, people are blunt with one another, sometimes even cruel, believing honesty is stronger medicine than sympathy, which may console but often conceals.

The owners were there, a husband and wife, she a descendant of the original Mormon homesteader. They had the drawn, brittle look that comes from a lifetime of doing work that you don’t love, then finding out you’re a million dollars in debt to boot. “She’s got so many wrinkles she has to screw her hat on to go to church,” said a sheepherder, now unemployed, as she walked by. Her husband, who had married into the family, squinted as if he had been slapped in the face.

Another herder I visited told me that it was the ducks flying overhead in pairs that made him feel left out and lonesome.

Fred cut a curious image on the range: he wore rags – layers of overalls, slickers, sweaters, wool shirts stitched together – topped by what looked like a Maine fisherman’s rain hat. Under it all, his long underwear had been changed so infrequently, his body hair had grown into the weave.

Fred was proud of his self-discipline. He’d taught himself English, abstained from tobacco and drink, and never owned a radio. Since solitude was the peg he’d hung his life on, he saw no point in complaining about it. Besides sheep, his one enthusiasm was international politics. He seemed to inhale the whole of U.S. News & World Report each week, knew where very war, small and big, was being fought, and would plead for peace, he told me, if only someone could hear him.

True solace is finding none, which to say, it is everywhere.

Winter scarified me. Under each cheekbone I thought I could feel claw marks and scar tissue. What can seem like a hard-shell veneer on people here is really a necessary spirited resilience.

Living well here has always been the art of making do in emotional as well as material ways. Traditionally, at least, ranch life has gone against materialism and has stood for the small achievements of the human conjoined with the animal, and the simpler pleasures – like listening to the radio at night or picking out constellations.

In June I moved again – all the way across the Basin to a rambling house near a town of fifty, ”including the dead ones.” Though the rightness of anything had long since vanished, I had a chemical reaction to this old-fashioned ranching community. I was loved, hated, flirted with, tolerated. I fitted in.

Walking to the ranch house from the shed, we saw the Northern Lights. They looked like talcum powder fallen from a woman’s face. Rouge and blue eyeshadow streaked the spires of white light which exploded, then pulsated, shaking the colors down – like lives – until they faded from sight.

To be “tough” on a ranch has nothing to do with conquests and displays of power. More often than not, circumstances – like the colt he’s riding or an unexpected blizzard – are overpowering him. It’s not toughness but “toughing it out” that counts. In other words, this macho, cultural artifact the cowboy has become is simply a man who possesses resilience, patience, and an instinct for survival.

For all the women here who use “fragileness” to avoid work or as a sexual ploy, there are men who try to hide theirs, all the while clinging to an adolescent dependency on women to cook their meals, wash their clothes, and keep the ranch house warm in winter. But there is true vulnerability in evidence here. Because these men work with animals, not machines or numbers, because they live outside in landscapes of torrential beauty, because they are confined to a place and a routine embellished with awesome variables, because calves die in the arms that pulled others to life, because they go to the mountains as if on a pilgrimage to find out what makes a herd of elk tick, their strength is also a softness, their toughness, a rare delicacy.

On and on it goes. What’s stubborn, secretive, dumb, and keen in us bumps up against those same qualities in [animals]. Their births and deaths are as jolting and random as ours, and because ranchers are food producers, we give ourselves as wholly to the sacrament of nurturing as to the communion of eating their flesh. What develops in this odd partnership is a stripped-down compassion, one that is made of frankness and respect and rigorously excludes sentimentality.

What is obvious to an animal is not the embellishment that fattens our emotional resumes but what’s bedrock and current in us: aggression, fear, insecurity, happiness, or equanimity. Because they have the ability to read our involuntary ticks and scents, we’re transparent to them and thus exposed – and we’re finally ourselves.

A Wyoming winter laminates the earth with white, then hardens the lacquer work with wind.

The deep ache of this audacious Arctic air is also the ache in our lives made physical. Patches of frostbite show up on our noses, toes, and ears. Skin blisters as if cold were a kind of radiation to which we’ve been exposed. It strips what is ornamental in us. Part of the ache we fell is also a softness growing. Our connections with neighbors – whether strong or tenuous, as lovers or friends – become too urgent to disregard. We rub the frozen toes of a stranger whose pickup has veered off the road; we open water gaps with a tamping bar and an ax; we splice a friend’s frozen water pipe; we take mittens and blankets to the men who herd sheep. Twenty or thirty below makes the breath we exchange visible: all of mine for all of yours. It is the tacit way we express the intimacy no one talks about.

Dryness is the common denominator in Wyoming. We’re drenched more often in dust than in water; it is the scalpel and the suit of armor that make westerners what they are. Dry air presses a stockman’s insides outward. The secret, inner self is worn no on the sleeve be in the skin. It’s an unlubricated condition: there’s not enough moisture in the air to keep the whole emotional machinery oiled and working.

That’s how the drought would come: one sweep and all moisture would be banished. Bluebunch and June grass would wither. Elk and deer would trample sidehills into sand. Draws would fill up with dead horses and cows. Tucked under ledges of shale, dens of rattlesnakes would grow into city-states of snakes. The roots of trees would rise to the surface and flail through dust in search of water.

Implicated as we westerners are in this sperm, blood, and guts business of ranching, and propelled forward by steady gusts of blizzards, cold fronts, droughts, heat, and wind, there’s a ceremonial feel to life on a ranch. It’s raw and impulsive but the narrative thread of birth, death, chores, and seasons keeps tugging at us until we find ourselves braided inextricably into the strand.

So much in American life has had a corrupting influence on our requirements for social order. We live in a culture that has lost its memory. Very little in the specific shapes and traditions of our grandparents’ pasts instruct us how to live today, or tells us who we are or what demands will be made on us as members of society. The shrill estrangement some of us felt in our twenties has been replaced in a decade or so later by a hangdog, collective blues. With our burgeoning careers and families, we want to join up, but it’s difficult to know how or where. The changing conditions of life are no longer assimilated back into a common watering trough. Now, with our senses enlivened – because that’s the only context we have to go by – we hook change onto change ad nauseam.

On a ranch, small ceremonies and private, informal rituals arise. We ride the spring pasture, pick chokecherries in August, skin out a deer in the fall, and in the enactment experience a wordless exhilaration between bouts of plain hard work. Ritual – which could entail a wedding or brushing one’s teeth – goes in the direction of life. Through it we reconcile our barbed solitude with the rushing, irreducible conditions of life.

I have Indian neighbors all around me – Crow and Cheyenne to the north, Shoshone and Arapaho to the south – and though we often ranch, drink, and rodeo side by side, and dress in the same cowboy uniforms – Wrangler jeans, tall boots, wide-brimmed, high-crowned hats – there is nothing in our psyches, styles, or temperaments that is alike.

All through autumn we hear a double voice: one says everything is ripe; the other says everything is dying. The paradox is exquisite. We feel what the Japanese call “aware” – an almost untranslatable word meaning something like “beauty tinged with sadness”.

Fall is the end of the rancher’s year. Third and fourth cuttings of hay are stacked; cattle and sheep are gathered, weaned, and shipped; yearling bulls and horse colts are sold. “We always like this time of year, but it’s a lot more fun when the cattle prices are up!” a third-generation rancher tells me.


Irrigating is a contemptible damned job. I’ve been fighting water all my life. Mother Nature is a bitter old bitch, isn’t she? But we have to have that challenge. We crave it and I’ll be goddamned if I know why. I feel sorry for these damned rich ranchers with their pumps and sprinkler systems and gated pipe because they’re missing out on something. When I go to change my water at dawn and just before dark, it’s peaceful out there, away from everybody. I love the fragrances – grass growing, wild rose on the ditch bank – and hearing the damned old birds twittering away. How can we live without that?”

A man’s life should be as fresh as a river. It should be the same channel but a new water every instant.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Inspired by Nature edited by Amy Kelley - Excerpts

Inspired by Nature. Amy Kelley (ed.) 2000. ISBN 1560449200


Edward Abbey
To me the desert is stimulating, exciting, exacting; I feel no temptation to sleep or to relax into occult dreams but rather an opposite effect which sharpens and heightens vision, touch, hearing, taste and smell. Each stone, each plant, each grain of sand exists in and for itself with a clarity that is undimmed by any suggestion of different realm.

Wendell Berry
These obscuring preconceptions were once superstitious or religious. Now they are mechanical. The figure representative of the earlier era was that of the otherworldly man who thought and said much more about where he would go when he died than about where he was living.

John Burroughs
Human and artificial sounds and objects thrust themselves upon us; they are within our sphere, so to speak: but the life of nature we must meet halfway; it is shy, withdrawn, and blends itself with a vast neutral background. We must be initiated; it is an order the secrets of which are well guarded.

Annie Dillard
Nature's silence is its one remark, and every flake of world is a chip off that old mute and immutable block.

Annie Dillard
What have we been doing all these centuries but trying to call God back to the mountain, or, failing that, raise a peep out of anything that isn't us? What is the difference between a cathedral and a physics lab? Are not they both saying: Hello? We spy on whales and on interstellar radio objects; we starve ourselves and pray till we're blue.

Annie Dillard
At a certain point you say to the woods, to the sea, to the mountains, the world, Now I am ready. Now I will stop and be wholly attentive. You empty yourself and wait, listening. After a time you hear it: there is nothing there. There is nothing but those things only, those created objects, discrete, growing or holding, or swaying, being rained on or raining, held, flooding or ebbing, standing, or spread. You feel the world's word as a tension, a hum, a single chorused note everywhere the same. This is it: this hum is the silence. Nature does utter a peep -just this one. The birds and insects, the meadows and swamps and rivers and stones and mountains and clouds: they all do it; they all don't do it. There is a vibrancy to the silence, a suppression, as if someone were gagging the world. But you wait, you give your life's length to listening, and nothing happens. The ice rolls up, the ice rolls back, and still that single note obtains. The tension, or lack of it, is intolerable. The silence is not actually suppression; instead, it is all there is.

Annie Dillard
The silence is all there is. It is the alpha and the omega. It is God's brooding over the face of the waters; it is the blended note of the ten thousand things, the whine of wings. You take a step in the right direction to pray to this silence, and even to address the prayer to "World". Distinctions blur. Quit your tents. Pray without ceasing.

Gretel Ehrlich
To find what is lost; to lose what is found. Several times I've thought I was losing my mind. Of course, minds aren't literally misplaced; on the contrary, we live too much in them. We listen gullibly, then feel severed because of the mind's clever tyrannies.

Gretel Ehrlich
Some days I think this one place isn't enough. That's when nothing is enough, when I want to live multiple lives and have the know-how and guts to live without limits. Those days, like today, I walk with a purpose but no destination. Only then do I see, at least momentarily, that most everything is here.

Aldo Leopold
Is education possibly a process of trading awareness for things of lesser worth?

Wallace Stenger
We are creatures shaped by our experiences; we like what we know, more often than we know what we like.

Wallace Stenger
Dutton describes a process of westernization of the perceptions that has to happen before the West is beautiful to us. You have to get over the color green; you have to quit associating beauty with gardens and lawns; you have to get used to an inhuman scale; you have to understand geological time.

Wallace Stenger
Perception, like art and literature, like history, is an artifact, a human creation, and it is not created overnight.

Henry David Thoreau
We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Bertrand Russell Quotation

It can be shown that a mathematical web of some kind can be woven about any universe containing several objects. The fact that our universe lends itself to mathematical treatment is not a fact of any great philosophical significance.

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Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Phil Cousineau Quotation

For millennia, this cry in the heart for embarking upon a meaningful journey has been answered by pilgrimage, a transformative journey to a sacred center. It calls for a journey to a holy site associated with gods, saints, or heroes, or to a natural setting imbued with spiritual power, or to a revered temple to seek counsel. To people the world over, pilgrimage is a spiritual exercise, an act of devotion to find a source of healing, or even to perform a penance. Always, it is a journey of risk and renewal. For a journey without challenge has no meaning; one without purpose has no soul.