My thinking has been profoundly and wonderfully shaped by a number of authors who deserve credit here. One is So Sinopoulos-Lloyd, whose article I mention below. Another is Lupa Greenwolf, whose frank, no-nonsense blog has me calling “YES!” every time I read it. Books relevant to the discussion below include: The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram, and Beyond Nature and Culture by Phillipe Descola.
It’s five days until the Summer Solstice, and the weather is strangely and unseasonably cool here in the high desert of Southern California. It’ll heat up soon, but for now, the high winds are cool. If I knew more about meteorology, perhaps I could say something more profound about this coming transition from 75 degrees Fahrenheit to over 100 in less than a week.
The one constant, though, is the wind. She roars. She truly rules here.
A few days ago, I finally escaped my summer lethargy and wandered out into the undeveloped, public (for now) land close to my childhood home. The environment is chaparral, and very dry, dominated by squat, round junipers. I had planned to do a little gathering and maybe some solitary ritual after my hike, so I brought a small backpack with things I might need.
I crossed the field and climbed down into the wash, taking my time. This wasn’t for exercise, I reminded myself, but for observation. There was a limited pallet of colors to enjoy, since the quick bloom of wildflowers had long since passed and there was not enough water to support anything but the hardiest of plants. I stopped to acknowledge how different the wild space was from my own yard; my parents maintain a green lawn, and the property is framed by soaring cottonwoods and some sad little pines, infested with bark beetle.
Down in the wash, I followed the tracks left by the distant memory of water, which had carved out a wide, sandy gully and exposed a low cliff-face soft enough for animals to burrow into. I wondered when the last time was that it had seen water. Probably not since the big floods I remembered from my teenage years, almost ten years ago now.
Overhead, I heard the call of a raven. The desert ravens are a ubiquitous presence here. If the wind rules, then the ravens are her viceroys. They ride the waves of the wind and soar higher than any other bird in the area, save for the falcons they greatly outnumber. Turning toward the raven’s call, I watched as two danced and played on the rising wind. Drawn inexorably toward them, I climbed out of the wash and up a steep, conical hill, upward until I was nearly level with their dance. On the way, I found a raven’s feather on the ground – evidence that this was a usual haunt of theirs, up here where the relentless wind wraps around the cone of the hill and shapes it until it is smooth.
The ravens soared around me and over me, buoyed on the wind that threatened to blow me down from my precarious seat. Suddenly, a new cry – not the low, croaking squawk of a raven, but the high-pitched, piercing call of a falcon. I could see it against the grey-blue sky, bigger and wider of wing-span than the ravens. The black-winged pair engaged the falcon in a spectacular dog-fight. I wondered about the term; I used it instinctively as the first association that came to mind was the stories my father told me about jet-aircraft combat. But the way dogs fight on the ground is nothing like the careful, sweeping, terrible dance in the sky that I witnessed that day.
The ravens escorted the falcon out of their territory, then returned. I knew they had seen me, that they were watching me. (I almost wrote that in the passive voice. We need to train ourselves, I think, to speak about our animal Kindred as agents.) That they recognized my presence. In so doing, I came into being, recognized and acknowledged by an Other.
I think, perhaps, that a different part of ourselves becomes present when non-humans see us. The land sees us, feels us pass, and we become a being moving through and across a body. The birds spy on us from overhead, and we become a large, lumbering mammal, too large to be prey, but too earth-bound to be predator. Rabbits scurry across our path, and we become a source of fright, a potential threat, whether we wish to be or not.
We become more than our minds, our associations, our affiliations at such times. We become members of a world that we shape, and which shapes us. We do not leave culture behind, but become part of a larger culture, an eco-culture, that speaks in a gestural and instinctual language, one that speaks only in intimate and sympathetic relation to the rocks, the sand, the swaying junipers, the lumbering beetles, and the rising wind.
A friend and colleague (such a sterile word for so important a person!) of mine recently published an article titled “Tracking as a Wayof Knowing,” in Written River: Journal of Eco-Poetics. This article expresses So’s powerful engagement with the world and creative way of speaking to and about it. I am forever indebted to So for pointing me toward my own path of radical engagement, one I’m slowly trying to tread in my own way.
Though So makes a number of profound points in the article, I’d like to highlight a few lines from the conclusion:
“Seeing as the majority of beings on our planet (as well as the rest of the universe) are non-human, we can expect a limited view of reality if we aren’t welcoming efforts to soulfully relate to them. Let us see beyond the jaded (and polarizing) caricature of the nature-hippie who escapes from civilization to the forest. If the intention is not to leave but to enter, not to hide but to belong, relationship with the non-human brings back deep value to human community and enriches culture.”
Tracking and nature-observation have value beyond pure aesthetic appreciation or nostalgic attempts at “escape” from an “unnatural” or “tainted” human world. In learning the languages of the other-than-human world, we become more human. We learn that our division between nature and culture is arbitrary, even illusory, because culture is not our mastery over the land and manipulation of it, but rather a complex set of tools that have emerged as a consequence of our speaking to and with it. The memory of these ancient conversations has waned within the post-industrial world, but it can be recovered.
Our modern cultural ways of knowing have become so abstracted from our life-ways, our experience-of-being-alive, that we wrongfully believe we can continue to think and speak and dream without reference to the world around us. Our economics have become abstract – blind to the lived realities and suffering of others. Our politics and even our talk of justice have become abstract – focused on language and intention rather than the lived experiences of struggling communities. Our philosophy has become as abstract as it was for medieval Scholastics – no one now asks, “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” and yet so many philosophers now spend their time playing second-fiddle to the natural sciences, which themselves are becoming mere servants of the technology race, driven by abstracted visions of value and capital.
And the conditions which have enabled the human conversation with the phenomenal world are changing. According to an article from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, light pollution now makes the Milky Way invisible to most humans on the planet. And Karen Emslie at National Geographic writes that traditional calendars used by people in the Pamir Mountains of central Asia are losing their effectiveness as a consequence of Climate Change. This is one example of the ways in which human culture has developed in conversation with the local landscape, one tried-and-true method that has served humans for generation as they move in concert with their place of being.
Lest my call for thinking with the land seems overly romantic, my friend So reminds us that “In this view, feelings of solidarity, love, and belonging that traverse the boundaries of species and beyond are not luxuries or overly sentimentalized notions; they are functions of ecological interdependency and are integral to survival.” I would argue that even the survival of post-industrial societies which believe themselves masters over, or independent of nature, also depend upon re-developing our ties of Kinship with the world around us, to bring our abstractions back down into conversation with the world as it breathes and speaks to us.
Nor is religion exempt from this call – even so-called “nature religions.” How often do we speak about the “spirit” of a tree or animal, but fail to engage with the tree or animal itself? What wisdom can we learn from the spirit of a willow, an oak, a raven, or a cotton-tail, if we don’t know anything about how these Kindred of ours actually live alongside us and other Beings? When we focus on “essences,” for example, we again abstract the lived reality of our Kindred and extract them from the Web of Inter-Being that constitutes their – and our – existence. Is the “spirit of the raven” anything more than a carrier for our associations, when we ignore the relationship between the raven and the wind? Between the raven and the dead it scavenges? Between the raven and the mockingbird that chases it relentlessly, until the raven’s greater wing-span takes it beyond the smaller bird’s range? What do we learn from the abstract raven, when it speaks only as an image on a screen or paper, rather than as a soaring, breathing, relating Being that shares a world with us?
The view from the top of the hill was spectacular, While (as I mentioned) the colors were limited, the landscape of the high-desert foothills is stark and impressive. I currently live in a bowl-shaped valley, framed by the foothills and the San Gabriel mountains. The wind gets channeled through the valley and rushes down the hills, taking with it anything not tied down. Aside from those trees nurtured by human landscaping, the wind prevents anything taller than the squat, round juniper bushes which dot the landscape.
From my vantage point, I could see a rare mist roll in down over the hills across the valley. Around me I felt the shuddering, twitching celebration of a land animated by the wind. The atmosphere itself came alive with the petrichor scent of microorganisms in the soil, of leaves opening their pores, of the thirsty desert waking up and reaching out for the promise of moisture.
I descended the hill and back down into the wash. Had the wind carried a true rain storm, it would have been a dangerous place to be. I remembered the flash-flood warnings that came seasonally before the drought hit. But this was a gentle mist, just enough to bring relief to plants well-adapted to drought conditions.
The land held the memory of humans in the wash too. The tracks left by horses (both prints and manure) were accompanied by plastic bags caught on thorn bushes, of old, rusted cans heaped up and bottles of beer smashed against rocks.
In my solitary ritual, I addressed my Kindred of this land, and begged their forgiveness for years of trespass and disrespect. I addressed my ancestors and admonished them for their carelessness. Ancestors are difficult. We are here because of them, and their wisdom is ours to work with. But they were not always wise, or noble, or true. I tend to try to speak formally while doing ritual, as it feels appropriate, but I couldn’t resist the thought that rose up out of my frustration, echoing sardonically in that country way typical of my rural community:
Ancestors – you done fucked up.
I returned home, dirty and covered in stickers, but more at peace than I had been for some time. Speaking with the land, or rather, being silent and letting the land speak to me, has become my own form of therapy. While medication for my anxiety and depression has absolutely helped me in the past, I know that I cannot be healthy when I lock myself in my room for days. Anxiety and depression are my constant companions, but their hold on me lessens when the trees show me how to bend with the wind, when the ravens show me how to soar and play in the roughest of gales, when the land itself presses back under my foot and whispers, I feel you. I know you are here. Tread where you will, but tread softly.
It is not simply “remembering” my Inter-Being with the world that brings me out of the haze of depression. While remembering is not purely mental (more on embodied cognition later), it is primarily that. In actually walking under a cottonwood alive and thrashing in the wind, in tracking the movement of a raven with my eyes, in feeling physically the land under my feet, I am physically re-woven into the world that grew me. I am the one being bodily re-membered by the world that is more than my worries and neuroses.
How could this world-around-me not be the source of all that is good, true, worthy, and meaningful? How could any abstract-presence, or abstract-value, or abstract-ideal ever have the power to do what the grass under my feet does?
The original blog can be read here.
Amelia “Émile” Wayne has studied the intersections of religion, history, and culture for eight years, and has spent the last two years teaching undergraduates in various Humanities courses as an adjunct professor. Émile’s personal spiritual quest flowed along lines of inquiry laid out by research, and eventually led them to seek out a form of religion which could counterbalance Émile’s tendency toward intellectual abstraction through a radical affirmation of lived experience. It was through participating in Ár nDraíocht Féin (ADF) style rituals that Émile came to embrace Paganism. Émile will be pursuing a PhD in Philosophy and Theology at Drew University in New Jersey from 2016-2019. Their goal is to construct a naturalistic pagan philosophy which engages Queer Theory, Process Philosophy, and Ecstatic Naturalism, while remaining firmly rooted in actual soil and actual lives. While not studying or teaching, Emile enjoys horseback riding, mystery dramas, and craft beer.
Read Emile’s previous post here.