“The mythworld is structured like a forest or an animal. It wakes and feeds and sleeps and dreams and changes. And it is made of separate parts that live or die.“
— Robert Bringhurst, A Story as Sharp as a Knife, p.133
This is my telling of Raven Steals the Beavers’ Pond for this day, with gratitude to the Haida people, whose story this is & to all the peoples of the North American NW Coast who tell Raven stories (and have done so since the beginning); to Skaay, the Haida storyteller who told this tale to American anthropologist John R. Swanton in the late-19th/early-20th century; to Swanton who recorded it & to the Canadian poet Robert Bringhurst who offered a new translation (A Story as Sharp as a Knife); and to all the others — including especially Bill Reid (Haida artist) & David Wagoner (American poet) — who have kept the story alive, recognizing that to be Alive is to Change.
I don’t know if this is exactly how it happened, but I know that it is true.
Raven was going along. After awhile, he came to the start of a trail down to the beach, so down he went to the beach and down he sat on the sand. Soon two Beaver people came along and Raven began to weep and sob. When the Beaver people asked him what was wrong, Raven answered, “I am tired and hungry. But I’ve heard we have the same grandmother….. Perhaps…..”
Immediately those Beaver people, who’d been heading out to gamble with friends, turned around and said, “We will help you. Come to our house.”
After awhile, they came to the Beavers’ house — and what a wonderful house it was! The entry was surrounded by huge figures carved of cedar. There was a rock-lined fire-pit in the middle and an exquisitely carved screen across the far end.
“Please come in,” the Beaver people welcomed him. “We shall prepare a feast.” They sat their guest in the place of honor and, striking together two pieces of quartz, they started a fire. Then one of the people went behind the screen and returned with a big fresh-caught salmon, its scales glistening. That salmon was so big, it took both the Beaver’s arms to carry him! As the salmon roasted over the fire, fat dripped down onto the coals and a delicious aroma filled the house.
When the salmon was done to perfection, they gave the best and largest portion to their guest. Then one of the people went behind the screen again and returned with a basket full of the juiciest cranberries Raven had ever seen. It was a feast indeed!
Raven watched carefully. Raven was curious. Where did the Beaver people get such delicious fresh food? Raven wondered and wondered.
That night, after yet another luscious feast, those Beaver people made their guest a bed near the fire where he’d be warm, and they all said goodnight.
Raven lay very still and closed his eyes. He waited. He waited. Then, when he heard the Beavers begin to snore, Raven got up quietly, quietly. And quietly, quietly he walked to the back of the house. And quietly, quietly, he peeked behind the beautifully carved screen.
Raven’s eyes got big, then bigger. He opened his eyes as wide as he could. Even Raven was amazed by what he saw! A beautiful clear lake stretched out before him. Fish were jumping all across the lake and a fish trap near the end of the lake was shaking, full of salmon. He saw canoes, their prows stained bright red as they cruised through the dense cranberries. Raven wanted that lake.
The next morning, the Beavers once again struck together the pieces of quartz to start their fire. Again, one of the Beavers went behind the screen and quickly returned with a fresh fat salmon. They prepared it and roasted it and gave the largest portion to their guest. And when they’d all finished the delectable salmon, the other Beaver went behind the screen and brought out a basket overflowing with plump cranberries.
When they had finished eating, the Beavers set off to gamble with their friends, telling Raven to be comfortable in their house until they returned in the evening. Raven watched the Beaver people walk down the beach. He watched and watched until they were out of sight.
Raven went back into that house. He went behind the beautifully carved screen. And then Raven began to roll up that lake. He rolled and rolled up all the lake and even rolled up the Beavers’ house! And Raven tucked the roll under his arm like a blanket and sat up high in a nearby tree.
When the Beavers got back, they saw no house. They saw no lake. They saw only Raven up in a tree with a bundle tucked under his arm — and Raven was laughing.
The details of how things happen in the story vary from one teller to the another — even from one telling to another by the same storyteller. So, of course, what happens next in this story varies. [I won’t talk about how the story “ends,” because it is still alive & isn’t finished teaching us yet!] In Skaay’s version as translated by Bringhurst, the Beavers chop down many trees while Raven hops from one to the next with his bundle still under his arm. Finally, the Beavers give up and depart to find another lake. In other versions (reminiscent of Raven Steals The Sun), as Raven flies off with the bundle in his beak, he loses his grip and the lake spills out, creating all the lakes and rivers of Haida Gwaii and what is now known as British Columbia.
I tell this story today because truly Water IS Life. I give thanks for the many blessings of Water.
What do we hope for the next chapter in our Story of Water? How can we make it so?
My sister & her partner live in a drought-stricken part of northern California near Mt. Shasta. This past week, their well went dry. No piped water in their rural area. They are now on the well-drillers’ waiting list but were told it would be 9 to 12 months.
Every day we hear more of both droughts and floods; of rising seas and dwindling rivers; of wetlands being “developed” and aquifers going dry; of the restrictions of out-of-date water “rights” agreements and the increase in corporate control; and of the on-going pollution and poisoning of Earth’s waters, and…and….and………..
Now feels like an important time for each of us to examine the relationships (physical, historical, and spiritual) that we have with Water — both as individuals & as members of our society.
We are the ones creating the story…..and it isn’t finished yet…..
Last week I posted my poem “Learning to Read,” about having seen a hawk with the pigeon he’s just killed & imagining what I would have (mis)read into the loose feathers on the grass if I’d arrived a moment later. I loved the 2 comments that were sent.
Warren Peace imagined: “The hawk took one look at the world of humans from her place in the humans’ yard & took off to feast in peace!” [And if I follow that thread — knowing, as I do, where this happened — I’d “see” the hawk flying across Rivermont Avenue to the large wooded park on the other side.]
So here we have at least 5 or 6 different stories about one event: the story as told by the Pigeon, that told by the Hawk, that of Warren Peace’s conjecture (and that of my follow-up/extension), the story of my actual experiencing, and the story of my imagining. Then, of course, there’s the story told by the Cat that I might have blamed — a story which might or might not include any of the above. Not to mention the stories told by the Grass, the Lost Feathers, the Air…… and on and on…..
So many Stories …. So many perspectives… So many ways for us to process the stories of others….
Just something to ponder, especially in these days when we are seeing so clearly — throughout the U.S. and the World — just how the ways Stories are told impact individuals (human & others), cultures, nations, and Earth.
I ask myself — and you:
To what Stories do we choose to listen?
What Stories do we choose to tell?
How and to whom do we choose to tell them?
How do we interact with the Stories told by others?
And speaking of Stories — I just finished reading an enthralling new novel, Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr, that has as a major theme the importance of Story and of Written Books. The novel is too big & complex to summarize (many themes & insights) — but, to use a weaving metaphor, the warp of the book (the taut threads through which one weaves, the steady structure that holds the piece together) is an ancient Greek manuscript of a Story. Back & forth through this structure, the author weaves wefts of myriad colors in the form of multiple stories of characters from medieval Constantinople, from the present, and from the near future — wefts/stories that intersect & intertwingle in a thousand different ways to create a rich tapestry.
Many people (anthropologists, linguists, philosophers) have written about the deep (usually portrayed as negative) differences between Oral & Written Stories/ traditions/ communications. And yet here — in Doerr’s novel (written, of course) — is this ancient Written Story whose very physical form is a part of its being. Again, much to ponder. Definitely the best novel I’ve read in a while. I hope you get a chance to read it!
And on the fiber front — It is not strange that a Weaving metaphor leapt to mind when I tried to describe Doerr’s novel. I am enchanted by wet felting, with its process of easy spontaneous changes in the early stages, the intimacy of touching and energy of rubbing the fibers, & the inherent chaos of forming and form. However, this past week, I have found healing in the simple weaving on a frame loom — not unlike the kind of loom on which I learned to weave in 2nd grade when we were introduced to the Diné (Navajo) arts & culture and I feel in love with it all.
Once tied on the frame, the warp threads provide a stable structure. Of course, I can rebel against the structure & work around in various ways if I wish, but still the structure/the warp is stable & holds the other yarns as One. I weave the weft yarns through the warp with my fingers in intimate contact and interaction. Thread by thread, over/under/over/under/over/under…. My mind slows down to my fingers’ rhythm…. I am centered.
I’ve been looking over my past work with woven masks — a skill taught to me by the wonderful fiber artist Susan Merrill (http://www.weavingalife.com/) who was gifted the woven mask structure in a dream. When I first began, I placed the masks on woven backgrounds, but recently — without thinking about why — I have shifted to placing the woven masks on felted backgrounds. Perhaps my spirit has felt during this time the need to encompass both order & chaos.
In any case, I have now begun to weave the next mask. I am finding the process of weaving soothing, a very quiet conversation with the materials. And, of course, even in this more structured work there is — as in felting — the sense of surprise & wonder as I see how the colors work together & even more to look forward to at the end when I begin to turn the flat weaving into a real three-dimensional face. ….I wonder who this next face I am forming will become…..
P.S. Speaking of points of view…. I just came across my poem —
THE RUG'S STORYPart I: Fate
There was a rug who hated shoes.
Crushed by thick soles, smeared by grimy boots, bruised
by high heels,
he tried slipping out of the way or curling his corners
across his face.
No matter how much they dragged him back and shook and
his brow stayed furrowed with misery.
Throw the old thing out! shouted the voice with boots
who had just stumbled yet again over the rug's
No, said the stiletto voice. Put it in the basement
for the cat's bed.
The rug relaxed and grinned from fringe to fringe.
He knew for a fact that the cat never wore shoes.
That night the rug felt one tentative paw testing his soft folds.
The cat began to purr. The paws began to stamp and knead.
Alas, cried the rug. From hammers to knives!
A rug is a rug is a rug...
Part II: Flying Carpet
In our walled yard, a hawk
stood--grave as an angel--
on a snowy hump of feathers.
She turned her face and
fixed me with her perfectly
round and clear right eye.
At last she simply opened
her wings and rose, carrying
her lunch with her over the avenue.
It is all a matter of moment.
Fewer red lights and I might have seen
feathers flash against the sun:
the stoop, the strike,
the waves of air opening,
a whirlpool towards landfall.
Or, pursuing my usual routine, I'd have come
home late to a scattering of feathers, perhaps
one lump of bone glistening
in its pale pink sheath.
I'd have imagined immediately the neighbor's cat,
long black body pressed flat against the earth,
--slowly, slowly it must have crept
through the screen of bushes
towards the fat and
nearly flightless pigeon.
One paw, then
silently in the grass.
Muscles gather for the great uncoiling...
Hooked together, fur and feathers
tumbling across the lawn and finally
Later, sated, the cat tugs
the corpse away, under
the blackberry brambles.
Tracing the marks, I'd have read
a plausible, earthbound tale:
being completely confident,
being completely wrong.
This blog began just before the Spring Equinox, a time we in the northern hemisphere tend to associate with new beginnings, with the emergence of animals from hibernation and of leaves from the skeletal boughs — a time of sprouting seeds, tadpoles, fawns, new and renewed life.
Now we have just passed the Autumn Equinox, a time of balance before tipping into shorter days & longer night here in the northern hemisphere, a time when we think of harvest, of dwindling light and falling leaves. But — probably because it brings relief from the oppressive heat of summer (harder on me now than when I was a youngster) & because most of my life has been spent as student and/or teacher in places where Autumn marks the start of a new academic term with all its hopes and its often unexpected turnings — I have associated Autumn with a kind of fresh energy, with vibrant beginning. I have been saddened by the lengthening of summer weather each year — and, of course, by what this shifting of rhythms means to the plants and animals and to the future.
Autumn is an amazing season. It dances with so many different movements. There’s the exuberance and abundance of harvest time, both in human fields and in the woodlands as squirrels gather nuts, bears forage and fatten for their long rest, and birds feast among the ripened seeds — whether pausing on their journey from further north or in preparation for the start of their migration, or just getting ready to hunker down for the winter here.
Then, gradually, as autumn progresses, the movement shifts from feast and celebration to letting go — a kind of sacred unraveling. Many of the birds have flown on, ripened fruits have fallen and rotted, flowers have withered, leaves that have been delighting us with their spectrum of fiery colors are dimming, dying, drifting dry and crumbling to the ground.
But the movement doesn’t stop there. This isn’t some sort of final curtain on the yearly show! In fact, as the green fades, as the bright leaves fall, much that was hidden can now be seen more clearly — no longer masked in leaves, the unique shape of each tree becomes almost startling in its clarity as do the curves and ridges of the land, the rocky bones of the mountains, the animals still moving through a more open forest. And what seems to us to be fading and departing is actually just moving on into a new phase of enlivenment, as the summer’s growth crumbles, falling to feed fungi and other tiny beings, becoming the soil from which life will spring.
And something I just recently learned: The autumn leaf hasn’t simply died of hypothermia & left the tree bereft. The tree has protected itself against the hard weather ahead by absorbing the nourishment contained in each leaf back into its main body, separating itself from the worn-out leaf, and then healing the tiny scar so that new buds are possible in the spring. In this letting-go there is already a new beginning that makes space for survival and eventually for new growth.
And all the while, hidden from us, the trees are sharing with each other the sweetness of the sunshine the leaves harvested during the summer, literally feeding each other through an incredible network of roots and fungus underground. Some of the roots continue to grow, even during the colder times ahead. …And how much other Life is still busily carrying on beyond our sight, beyond our awareness?
There are so many poems about Autumn that focus on aging, dying, loss and sorrow….. Mary Oliver writes of this time of letting-go in a different way:
Song for Autumn by Mary Oliver
In the deep fall
don’t you imagine the leaves think how
comfortable it will be to touch
the earth instead of the
nothingness of air and the endless
freshets of wind? And don’t you think
the trees themselves, especially those with mossy,
warm caves, begin to think
of the birds that will come — six, a dozen — to sleep
inside their bodies? And don’t you hear
the goldenrod whispering goodbye,
the everlasting being crowned with the first
tuffets of snow? The pond
vanishes, and the white field over which
the fox runs so quickly brings out
its blue shadows. And the wind pumps its
bellows. And at evening especially,
the piled firewood shifts a little,
longing to be on its way.
And then there is this:
Autumn In The Northern Hemisphere, Spring In The South.. by Michael Shepherd
It’s autumn here: the leaves fall brown,
the nights are cold and frosty,
the days are shorter and shorter,
there’s snow on the way...
is autumn asking you to be sad?
Go take a walk: fill your lungs with air –
isn’t that good? Don’t you feel the air
singing of everything that nature needs
to keep things going the whole year round?
Listen as you walk
to all that goes on in silence;
secret movements pretending to be stillness:
the trees are making plans for Spring,
the plants, the flowers too; the earth
is bubbling secretly with thoughts of Spring..
If on an autumn walk
a Persian poet met a Japanese poet
they might write
a Persian haiku:
This autumn evening
my mind is full of endings;
trees smile as they plan.
I ask myself: What conversation are I having with Autumn right now? Can I feel a sense of trust in or acceptance of the changing — the preparing & the letting-go, the evanescence & the emergence — just as the larger-than-human world does so clearly in this season?
“Intertwingularity is a term coined by Ted Nelsonto express the complexity of interrelations in human knowledge.
Nelson wrote in Computer Lib/Dream Machines (Nelson 1974, p. DM45): “EVERYTHING IS DEEPLY INTERTWINGLED. In an important sense there are no “subjects” at all; there is only all knowledge, since the cross-connections among the myriad topics of this world simply cannot be divided up neatly.”
He added the following comment in the revised edition (Nelson 1987, p. DM31): “Hierarchical and sequential structures, especially popular since Gutenberg, are usually forced and artificial. Intertwingularity is not generally acknowledged—people keep pretending they can make things hierarchical, categorizable and sequential when they can’t.”“
When I am thinking of the reality of cosmic oneness, I love the word Interbeing created by the Buddhist monk Thich Naht Hahn who says in his book The Art of Living):
” About thirty years ago I was looking for an English word to describe our deep interconnection with everything else. I liked the word “togetherness,” but I finally came up with the word “interbeing.” The verb “to be” can be misleading, because we cannot be by ourselves, alone. “To be” is always to “inter-be.” If we combine the prefix “inter” with the verb “to be,” we have a new verb, “inter-be.” To inter-be and the action of interbeing reflects reality more accurately. We inter-are with one another and with all life.”
The term Interbeing is fundamental to my understanding of Cosmos, but oh! there is definitely a place for Intertwingling as well. First of all, it is just so much fun to say! I cannot even think the word “intertwingling” without feeling a twinkle come to my eye and a happy tingling to my heart!
And then, too, Intertwingling in apparently built from the root word “twine,” which calls to mind my beloved fiber arts of spinning, weaving, and wet-felting: Perhaps especially wet-felting, where neither “Line” nor “Direction” are involved as they are in the first two. In felting, you add the magic ingredients of Moisture and Movement to a hodge-podge of fiber and the individual fibers interwingle with neighbors who have interwingled with others and on and on in all directions at once until you have a stable community of fibers — a piece of felt!
The picture at the beginning of this post — “Sharing Knowledge” by the Haida artist Alvin Child — strikes me as an excellent example of Intertwingling.
As the gallery description of this piece says “In this design, Frog’s tongue touches Raven’s. What looks like an intimate interaction at first glance, symbolizes the sharing of knowledge and power, and the ability to communicate with different species. It suggests an interconnectedness between all living things.”
How hopeful I find it to see Raven (that Trickster “assistant to the creator”) and Frog (symbol of Healing) intertwingle their attributes — creating, I hope, something new and much-needed in today’s world!
… As I was writing the above, I realized that “Interwinglement” was perhaps the main reason I am so attracted to the art of the peoples who inhabit the northwest coast of North America. Something about the way the shapes merge and break apart and merge again….
So, like the good (recovering) academic that I am, I began to look for more information about this distinctive style. Imagine my great delight to find an article in the The University of Chicago Press Journals that expresses something to close to what I had felt intuitively:
“… the expansive and expanding figures who appear in Haida and Tlingit art reflect a distinctive theory about aliveness: namely, they understand aliveness to be the generator of all the material, perceptual, and metaphysical structures we call reality. The reality that so arises is predicated not on, say, Kantian concepts of space or time understood as a priori forms. Instead, the shivering intensity of sentience creates the very space in which it exists; a surface does not exist until a being moves over it. Furthermore, this aliveness is most generative right on the threshold of epiphany: the world is authored by the sudden flicker and flash of living beings behind dense screens of nonliving matter.”
Those of you who know me well can imagine how difficult it was, after reading those lines, to grab myself by the collar & say sternly to myself, “Margery — this is a blog, not a dissertation.”
“But,” I replied plaintively, “one thing leads to another & then to others & they lead to still others and…. And I could bring in Andreas Weber’s term “Enlivenment” and…” Exactly: Another example of Intertwingularity! 🙂
And then, of course, I began to ask myself questions about the intertwingling of Stories and …. Isn’t life fun? Always more to be curious about!
As you may have noticed in last week’s post, I delight in ambiguity & paradox and revel in the fact that we don’t know it “all” & can’t even assume that we know the full extent of what we don’t know!
This must surely be part of my fascination with Trickster for he is paradox personified & his tales never have a “final” ending. There is always a sense of more to come, of unknown consequences that are sure to follow. As long as one word of one Trickster tale is out there somewhere, anything is possible!
I never would have guessed that, after 20+ years, Raven would finally decide to land on the shawl I’d woven for him & then abandoned as hopeless. I certainly thought that story finished when I folded up the shawl and put it out of sight.
Now — two decades later — after the shawl serendipitously came to light, I finally figured out that my original plan had been too simple for Raven. If he was going to play a part in the story, Raven wanted more pizzazz, more improvisation & bricolage, and definitely more room for trial and error. (He loved the “error” part!) So here he is at last:
Andreas Weber’s essay https://www.humansandnature.org/skincentric-ecology, reminded me of the lichen chapter (“The Intimacy of Strangers”) in biologist Merlin Sheldrake’s amazing Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures (my favorite book of 2020!).
This week, when I picked up Entangled Life to reread the part about lichen, I laughed to see that I’d stuck ca. 20 small post-it markers in spots throughout the book, each labeled T for Trickster! During my first read through about fungi & lichen, I’d kept seeing the Trickster Spirit poking through, at work in these tiny beings, confounding and subverting — as Sheldrake so beautifully points out — the rigid boxes of our scientific thought.
I wish I could adequately express my delight in Entangled Life ! Actually, a blurb by Helen MacDonald (H is for Hawk and Vesper Flights) says it all:
“One of those rare books that can truly change the way you see the world around you. Entangled Life is a mercurial, revelatory, impassioned, urgent, astounding, and necessary read. It’s fearless in scope, analytically astute, and brimming with infectious joy.”
In other words, the book itself as well as its subject (fungus) is enlivened by Trickster Spirit through and through!
Sheldrake’s book is full of so many words/sentences/paragraphs/pages that imply similarities between fungus/lichen and Trickster that I’ve dithered all week about which ones to include. At this moment, here are a few that rise to the surface:
Like Trickster, [p.71] “Lichens are living riddles. ….. The closer we get to lichens, the stranger they seem.” Like Trickster, fungus and lichens dwell in, leap across, and dissolve boundaries. For example, as they [p.75] “weather” rock, lichens break it up physically and also dissolve and digest it: “Lichens’ ability to weather makes them a geological force…” So, too, Trickster Spirit “weathers” human beings and their cultures, becoming — through our human actions — a geological force: Think, for example, climate change!
Boundary dancers like Trickster, [p.75]”…lichens are go-betweens that inhabit the boundary dividing life and nonlife.” Like Trickster & like all living things, [p.83] “…lichens are an emergent phenomena, entirely more than the sum of their parts.” Not thing, but process. And like Trickster, lichen seem to defy definitive pronouncements. [p.90] Lichen expert Toby Spribille “seems unperturbed by the fact that isn’t possible to provide a single, stable definition of what a lichen actually is. It is a point that Goward often turns to, relishing the absurdity: ‘There is an entire discipline that can’t define what it is that they study?'” Trickster!
[p.88] “Lichens are stabilized networks of relationships; they never stop lichenizing; they are verbs as well as nouns.” And so it is with Trickster: Within traditional cultures, each Trickster tale contains a network of relationships & the cycles of Trickster tales form even larger “stabilized networks of relationships” that help create a stable but flexible whole. Trickster never stops “Tricksterizing”. And certainly he is better considered a verb than a noun!
What Spribille says of lichens [p.89] is exactly had I’d say about Trickster: “Every time we go in and try to find out who’s doing what we are confounded. …. The deeper we dig, the more we find.” What better place can there be to play, to learn, to dance among shifting perspectives & perhaps to revise one’s cherished (and overly rigid) paradigms?!
Here are some of my favorite roots from the street where I live. I love the way the roots of this ancient oak have simply grown calluses over the much younger, invasive sidewalk and steps. Lots of lovely Lichen & Moss. […more about Moss at another time…]
POST SCRIPT: While looking through the book, I came across the epigraph to Sheldrake’s final chapter, which would have been the perfect epigraph for last week’s post:
“Our hands imbibe like roots, so I place them on what is beautiful in this world.”
— Saint Francis of Assisi
And the September Reflection sent out by the Center for Education, Imagination, and the Natural World [ beholdnature.org ] fits so well with last week’s discussion of Beholding that I include it here for your enjoyment & contemplation. I wish I could include the gorgeous mushroom photo that was part of the Reflection — Fungus again! I can’t seem to copy & paste their note, so I’ll type in their full quote by Thomas Berry, “Contemplation and World Order.”
“One of the great achievements of humanity during the early period of awakened consciousness was its capacity for subjective communion with the totality of things and with each particular thing. Each fragment of matter had its own subjectivity, its own interiority, its own spirit presence. It was to this spirit presence that humans addressed themselves. So with the trees and flowers, birds and animals,so with the wind and the sea and the stars, so with the sun and the moon. In all things there was a self, a subjectivity, a center; humans communed with this center with a profound intimacy.
That contemplation whereby humans sink deep into the subjectivity of their own beings is a primary way of experiencing the totality of things and of so constituting a truly functional world order. This is the order of interior communion, not the order of external manipulation or compulsion. Each aspect of reality is discovered in a mutual in-dwelling which is the supreme art of life. Nothing can be itself without being in communion with everything else, nor can anything truly be the other without first acquiting a capacity for interior presence to itself. These come together in some mysterious way. Since all things gravitate toward each other, a person has only to permit the inner movements of his own being to establish his universal presence to all earth.”
It is such a rich and poetic piece that it seems a shame to try to add any more words. Nonetheless, having said that….
I immediately recognized Weber’s way of “seeing” the lichen as the deep process of Beholding. Even in early childhood — back in the days when children were turned loose to entertain themselves for extended periods of time — I intuitively knew how to let myself become still and silent, to open myself to whatever aspect of the natural world presented itself and, taking time, to let myself be drawn into a sense of oneness and belonging with that tree, that animal, that stone, that river……. Becoming an adult — child of this culture as I am — I still did this but, after an hour or so just sitting beside the river and loving it, I sometimes had the thought that I “should” write a poem about it or attempt a sketch of the scene — as if the time spent just Being with the world had to be “justified.”
When I first became involved with the Center for Education, Imagination, and the Natural World in Greensboro NC [ beholdnature.com ], I was delighted to discover that they shared this as a practice: Being, Beholding, Belonging. Now when I was asked about my afternoon, I could simply say that I’d spent it “beholding.”
[As always, I was amazed to notice — yet again — how Naming seems to make things “real.” Definitely a reminder that The Words We Use Matter!]
Through CEINW’s programs, I saw that even today’s over-programmed children or those labelled ADHD or just plain “trouble-makers” in the classroom — and even unpracticed adults! — could, in the quiet of the woods, discover how to be and to behold and to feel the deep sense of cosmic belonging that follows. Beholding seems to be a fundamental way of knowing, an intrinsic part of our human being. Imagine how life might be if we could all behold the world as deeply Andreas Weber does here….
Of course, one of the first things that came to mind as I read Weber’s delightful description of knowing the wider world through skin and touch was fiber, the medium with which I love to work — weaving, felting, spinning, just touching & dreaming. The touch of each different kind of fiber conjures up its own story, its own world. The long tough fibers of flax (linen) – used by humans for more than 34,000 years, woven in the kingdoms of ancient Egypt, and immortalized in European folktales such as Rumplestiltskin. The lovely short and fluffy fibers of cotton, with their darker historical links to empire & slavery and current links to water shortages in several parts of the world. The long fluid fibers of silk — telling of cocoons and of all the transformations of animal, leaf, tree, earth, rock, water, sun — and speaking of the fiber’s long history in human culture, the carefully protected secrets of technique & craft, and the Silk Road with all the stories & ideas & materials & peoples that flowed along it, forever changing both human and larger-than-human worlds. Or wool and fleece of all sorts, singing of diverse animals (camels, sheep, goats, llamas, yaks, rabbits, dogs, even mountain goats) and of all the ecosystems and cultural configurations of which they have been a part. When I touch the soft red fleece of my dear llama Ricky, I am drawn into memories not only of his gentle personality and his healing interactions with a variety of people but also of the pastures and woods in which he & I shared life and then on, back beyond my personal memories, to thoughts of the high Andes Mountains and the pivotal role that llamas have played in the rich cultural, economic, and deeply spiritual lives of the Andean peoples for more than 5,000 years….
Through touch — through my skin, my body — my mind/heart/spirit (like the ever extending mycelium of lichen and other fungi) creates more & more interconnections — placing me in relationship with the world, opening my life to endless sources of nourishment, making me who I am.
"I like to live in the sound of water,
in the feel of the mountain air. A sharp
reminder hits me: this world is still alive;
it stretches out there shivering towards its own
creation, and I'm part of it. Even my breathing
enters into this elaborate give-and-take,
this bowing to sun and moon, day or night,
winter, summer, storm, still--this tranquil
chaos that seems to be going somewhere.
This wilderness with a great peacefulness in it.
This motionless turmoil, this everything dance."
"Sometimes, when a bird cries out,
Or the wind sweeps through a tree,
Or a dog howls in a far-off farm,
I hold still and listen a long time.
My world turns and goes back to the place
Where, a thousand forgotten years ago,
The bird and the blowing wind
Were like me, and were my brothers.
My soul turns into a tree,
And an animal, and a cloud bank.
Then changed and odd it comes home
And asks me questions. What should I reply?"
Yesterday I came across this essay by Andreas Weber, a German biologist, philosopher, and nature writer with whom I had the good fortune to spend an afternoon in a small group discussion sponsored by The Center for Education, Imagination, & the Natural World (https://www.beholdnature.org/) here in Greensboro, NC several years ago. I found that encounter to be inspiring, life-affirming, and encouraging in more ways than I can name.
My immediate personal response to this new essay — to how his words related not only to my experience of the natural world but especially to my relationship with the fibers I use in spinning, weaving, and felting — was something I wanted to share with you, overwhelming any other notions I’d had for this post.
As I thought about it, I soon realized that the greatest gift I could give you this week was simply the essay itself. It will be part of the forthcoming book Kinship: Belonging in a World of Relations, Vol. 4: Persons, eds. Gavin Van Horn, Robin Wall Kimmerer, and John Hausdoerffer (Center for Humans and Nature Press), which is itself part of a 5-volume set due to be released September 15, 2021. I’ll say more about my own response to Weber’s essay next week and would really love to hear your responses, too.
To make things easier for you, I’ve copied the essay below. However, to give proper credit & just in case something goes awry or you’d prefer to download it and read it in print, I’ll give you the whole link here:
After rain I run my hand through juniper or birches for the joy of the wet drops trickling over the palm.
—Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain
The Minerals’ Skin
Every time I looked up from my writing, I saw the lichens. They covered the opposite roof. It was a low roof, not steep at all, wedged in between walls of grey stones, covered by reddish clay tiles.
At first, when I found my writing place here, at the small window looking over the other building, I had not noticed the lichens, mistaking them for weathered patches. These beings—composed of algae and fungi in a single organism—formed rounded spots and spherical halos on the mineral surface. There were black spots, and dots made of soft grey, and circles that in their reddish hue seemed like transformations of the clay itself. I let my eyes wander over the roof made of mineral. Before my gaze, the lichens’ patches transmuted the surface. The mineral bloomed, and its blossoms were slowly spreading, touching one another, growing into each other, meandering around the spaces in between, bleeding into one.
Where the lichens dwelt, the texture of the surface softened and seemed almost creamy. My eyes softened, too. My gaze grazed the lichens, and I felt as though I could ingest the stone, which had become palpable, touchable, edible. My vision worked in two directions: by watching the lichens softening the stone, I was touched by them, and mollified by their touch. They gave back my gaze, and receiving theirs made me soft. The lichens were a dreaming of the rock. And I was a dreaming of the lichens.
I had a lot of time to watch the roof. I was alone in a silent house, spending some weeks between rows of olive trees in the hills of Tuscany, high above Siena, to take care of the cats of a friend’s friend. After my arrival, the succession of moments gradually slowed down and left me with two companions to reflect upon: stone and being. It was January, and in the night the temperature outside dropped below freezing. On some mornings, the high ridges to the southeast of Siena transparently shone through the mist.
The discovery of the lichens’ presence instilled not only pleasure in me, but also a sense of urgency. It was a sort of yearning, as though I should not waste a minute and pay due attention to what they gave to me. They watched me with the gaze of living stone. They sat there, on that roof, as part of that roof, as stone that, if you wait long enough, softens and becomes palpable as a living skin.
Admiration and Grief
Whenever I raised my eyes to the lichens and their spherical patterns on the tiles, I experienced a profound bafflement. I had strong feelings but no words to express them. A clear, sharp beauty slipped through my fingers. The lichens were there—plainly there, just there—present, unmoved, soft and dimly shining, like stone undone—and, at the same time, distant, closed into themselves—making me feel that I could not reach them. I could feel the pull of their presence, but it left a void.
I thought of Thomas Mann’s characterization of love as a mixture of “admiration and grief,” a sentiment I had never liked, since it seemed to be a narcissistic misunderstanding of connection. But I felt something similar here—and feeling it made me more uneasy. I was held in deep attraction—and in endless distance. After all, those were just tiles with epiphytes on them. Why did I experience their presence as meaningful? I gazed upon them and felt watched. How?
My uneasiness was not just about my personal state of mind. It had to do with something more general: with how most humans relate with other beings, and how we share our world with them. I felt bad because of the rule that we humans ultimately are strangers to other beings—to lichen-beings, tile-beings, algae, minerals, water, the stones of the blue Sienese hills. Aren’t these just things? When they suddenly speak, we are startled. We don’t know how to respond. We don’t know how to welcome back. We are unhappily in love.
Sitting at my window overlooking the lichen blooms on the roof, I was too overwhelmed by what I felt on my skin to give in to this resignation. Although I was only watching them, the velvet spheres out on the roof made my body tingle. They made me joyful, nervous, and restless. It was a view of other beings’ skin. The voice inside that whispered to love back did not originate in my head; it was my skin murmuring. It was the soft and touchable aspect in my own flesh that answered. My flesh could not remain indifferent to being touched.
What let me open up to the lichens was that which was lichen inside of myself, slowly softening the surface of a stone and making it blossom with a velvet epidermis. What responded within me was me-the-lichen, me-the-algae, me-the-mycelia, me-the-rock. Its whispering came not as a pertinent voice, but as a gentle touch from the inside, a sweetness that appeared and disappeared and came back again, in waves of making and unmaking, like a tender breath.
I realized that the slight taint in the beauty I experienced came from not giving in to my own desire.
After lunch, I used to walk up the slope behind the house. My companion, a black poodle, raced ahead, happy to move—although she seemed equally happy indoors, lying on the window ledge looking out, keeping company with lichens and hills. The sun was high. We strode past oak trees stretching their barren branches into a transparent sky. We trod over crisp brown leaves, along the withered manes of last summer’s grasses. High in a tree, hunters had set up a shooting platform constructed out of crinkled boards and camouflage tarp, which silently awaited the arrival of the songbirds in spring.
Along the path, granite boulders pierced the earth, softly rounded mounds of grey and white, orange and black. They consisted of stone and flesh, as did the roof tiles. They were covered with dense crusts of lichens. The sun was warm. It had chased away the hoarfrost, and now caressed the stone with careful rays. At the ridge of the hill, where we paused before turning back, a massive boulder rose up from the earth like a colorful cupule, overgrown with vegetation. On top of the boulder, a whitish circle rippled outward in waves, like a radiating sun.
While I sat on that massive stone, careful not to scar the lichen, I found it difficult to tell where the lichen started and where the stone ended. Both had become one being. And indeed: As the lichens grow on the mineral surface, they feed from it. They extract minerals and incorporate them into their bodies. A rock that is colonized by lichens weathers a thousand times faster than it does if it is not embraced by life. Lichens eat rock—just as they eat sunlight. They transform rock into flesh. The being of their flesh and mineral being have merged.
I sat on top of the hill and watched the minutes sink slowly into the blue of the distant valleys. I caressed the coarse rocky skin with my fingers, allowing our skins to merge. I lingered in the presence of the lichens, touched by the lichens, as skin among skin, as breath from the rock’s breath.
Metabolism is a way through which one being becomes incorporated into another, not metaphorically. Metabolism is a way stone becomes me. What in my heart felt like an exchange with plant beings and fungus beings and rock truly was this exchange: Plants transform rock, and, by this pathway, my body—as I subsist on plants, like all life does—transforms from rock into flesh. The same sort of transformation happens as I breathe. I breathe in the exhalations of plants, and they breathe in my body, whose building blocks of carbon are continuously broken down and shed through my lungs as CO2.
A similar transformation happens when I eat: I convert the bodies of other beings into my own. It happens when a root digs into the soil, dissolving its grains and taking up its elements. All those are the in- and out-breathing movements of how the stuff of this world is transformed through beings who meet, touch, intermingle their skins, become one, and separate again to become others. It is all breath. It is all touch. Every incorporation is a meeting of two sensitive surfaces, an exchange of skin through skin.
In every moment, life is the birth of one being into another. I am given to myself through others, and I can go on breathing only by allowing myself to pass away into others. The lichens on that roof were a direct part of this exchange. Some of the CO2 I exhaled yesterday found its way into their bodies. I looked at my own flesh and blood. We were a physical continuity. We were family. Skin is kin.
Persons of Matter
When we experience beauty, something in us knows this. Our sensible skin knows. Our breathing chest knows. Our eyes, taking in light, and radiating light outwards with every gaze, know. We know that we are part and parcel of this grand exchange. We know that we are family.
I have not revisited the silent stone house looking out over the Sienese hills. But the experience has remained with me. So, still today, lichens exert their magic everywhere I look. In the forest close to my place in Berlin, they cover the trunks of the winterly barren oaks with hues of whitish green. The lichens grow on a portion of the trunk’s circumference where they are exposed to a certain amount of rain and sun. On other parts of the trunk, green algae cover the bark with sulfuric yellow. The lichens have needs, and they act according to them. Often I stop at a tree and let my hands glide over the soft coarseness. The lichens are cool, and slightly moist, and they always have a tender grain, like exquisite velvet. I stay and breathe, and at some point I start to see the lichens as the selves that they are, with needs and preferences. I don’t always achieve this, but when I do, then the world suddenly shifts. Every physical detail, every loop and bend of their thalli becomes a gesture of their ways of being.
We are all family because we all share the feeling of being alive. We all share ways of realizing this feeling. And we all share the atoms and molecules that embody this feeling. We breathe one another. And we perceive others striving for the same goals that we strive for: Continued existence, connection with others, exchange of flesh through flesh. In the other beings’ matter we can see ourselves before us, and at the same time we are this being we see there.
Our ways of being alive come about through bodies that are mutually breathing one another. At the same time, each individual’s way of living according to his or her feelings is unique. And each species’ tradition of fulfilling those needs is equally unique. While stroking the lichens, this insight comes to my skin literally as first-hand knowledge. Their uniqueness compels me—the sheer fact of this soft, coarse texture in its pale white, here and now. The uniqueness of a self.
Biology has shown that each being is fundamentally “autopoietic”: Living beings create themselves. Every breath is an act of mixing, but also an act of auto-construction. Organisms are those parts of the living flesh that show an insistence on remaining an active center, an agent, someone to whom its own being is of concern. From this biological perspective, a cell is a subject with needs. A cell is a self. A self is a person.
This is not limited to biological organisms. Organisms express a desire to be-in-connection, but everything takes part in desire’s yearning to become-through-mutual transformation. Stones do. Their openness to new encounters manifests in the slow withering of their crusts. Everything temporal partakes in realizing desire. Everything that happens pushes it further. The arrow of time is the arrow of desire. Time is there because things happen, because atoms meet, because stones breathe one another. Matter is social. Time arises because this cosmos cannot sit still. It needs to share and connect.
If we need to share, then it becomes crucial to what degree our sharing allows us to flourish. If we—granite-beings, lichen-beings, dog-beings, and human beings—need to share with others, then the transmutations of flesh into other flesh are not just silent mechanical processes, but always colored by yearning. If all of us beings need to share, this world is not a neutral place but filled to the brim with feeling. All skin we encounter is sensible skin, like our own, which through its sensibility transmits the urgency of the other’s desire to change form with ourselves.
Our skin knows. Our skin even knows when it does not touch other skin directly, but when we graze the surface of another being with our eyes. Our skin knows, as it is led by the probing fingers of the lichens slowly converting the stone’s longing into sentient flesh. We are matter, and we feel through it. Living through a sensitive skin is how matter feels itself.
Aliveness means to partake in the desire to be, and in the desire to connect. It means to let our skin be touched, to suffuse it with otherness, and feel through it. Membership in the desire to share makes a person. Aliveness is personal. It is addressing us personally through our skins, through which we feel the other. We exist as threads of an endlessly extended mycelium in which everything is of our own flesh and blood. At the same time, all the bliss and all the suffering are experienced by selves, by persons of matter, who yearn to become fuller through mutual transformation.
Beauty Is Family
To realize ourselves as alive means to realize ourselves as family. Totally englobed and absolutely unique. Free to act yet bound by dreadful family ties that require reciprocity, if only to continue breathing, in, toward myself, and out, toward the other. Beauty entails its own ethics. Although the experience of joy and emotional ascent associated with beauty elevates the self, at the same time it points in the opposite direction. Ascent comes through connection, and connection warrants a certain attitude. We can only exist if we don’t put our ego in the center, because the skin is always shared. Where mine opens up, yours starts. Where my epidermis blossoms, it meets the breath of the world, which is the faint presence of every beings’ skin. Feeling the lichen’s skin against mine means realizing that I am myself an act of relating, not a separate individual, distinct from other objects. Feeling this skin requests that I do my part to make relating possible.
In the experience of beauty, we feel that we are family. We realize that we are child and parent to what radiates outward, to what calls us and mysteriously already knows us. It is flesh from our flesh, be it as seemingly distant as the colored spheres on a weathered roof, or seemingly as close as the microscopic ridges on a tender finger that touches our palm. Experiencing beauty means to recognize family and to feel welcomed into connection. Only if we forsake it by putting a wall between humans and the rest of living matter does the
One of the most profound effects of encountering beauty is the impulse to radiate back—the pull to strive to express in words, music, or shape what has excited us by letting us know what we are part of. The experience of beauty incites us to give back by giving away something of ourselves, what Lewis Hyde calls the “labor of gratitude.”
Undergoing beauty is, therefore, a profoundly social process. If we are blessed with beauty, we feel that we owe something. We are in debt to the forces that are continuously creating this cosmos. What is beautiful can only be realized if we reciprocate with our own acts of beauty. Giving back beauty by creating beauty is what drives many artists. Giving back aliveness for having been enlivened is at the center of animist rituals. Both are social gestures in which a person—human or non-human—who has been kind to us is treated with kindness.
We can now understand beauty better: It is not the experience of an abstract principle, nor the glimpse of an ideal world. It is the encounter of another person that shares the desire of the cosmos to be-in-connection with us. Beauty is a meeting that has gone well, and we wish to give thanks for it by enabling more fecund encounters. Undergoing beauty is a social emotion because the cosmos we are embodying in our flesh is a process of intersubjectivity, of mutual breathing.
Being welcomed by family invites us to respond and to reciprocate. What is required—for our own sense of balance, for the well-being of the person we just met, for the fecundity of our shared cosmic body—might be as simple as saying thanks for a blessing received. We can say thanks in many ways. One way is to politely ask, and, if allowed, give a caress with the fingertips. Feel the other’s skin and how it feels ours. Let the lichens feel how vulnerable and open your flesh is, and sense how patient and enduring the lichen’s is. Feel, and let feel, how in meeting both become one, and many.
Acknowledgments: This essay will appear in the forthcoming book Kinship: Belonging in a World of Relations, Vol. 4: Persons, eds. Gavin Van Horn, Robin Wall Kimmerer, and John Hausdoerffer (Center for Humans and Nature Press).Notes (show)
Andreas Weber is a biologist, philosopher, and nature writer. His latest books are Enlivenment. Toward a Poetics for the Anthropocene (MIT Press, 2019) and Sharing Life: The Ecopolitics of Reciprocity (Boell Foundation, 2020).