Gone Looking for Swans

Mythtelling assumes that the stories already exist in nature, waiting to be overheard by humans who will listen for them…a myth is the power of place speaking.

Sean Kane, wisdom of the mythtellers

David Abrams, Sharon Blackie, and many others speak of the relationship between Story and Place. Keith H. Basso devotes his book Wisdom Sits in Places to the relationship of landscape, language, and story among the Western Apache. As was it told to him:

“Wisdom sits in places. It’s like water that never dries up. You need to drink water to stay alive, don’t you? Well, you also need to drink from places. You must remember everything about them. You must learn their names. You must remember what happened at them long ago. You must think about it and keep thinking about it. Then your mind will become smoother and smoother.”

For the past few months, I’ve been contemplating the meaning of Place. We’ve lived here for 6 years. Although I have begun to put down roots, they have not yet deepened as I long for them to do here in North Carolina. Since I’ll live here the last years of my life, I keep the process alive. The big old oaks and the animals in our neighborhood (owls, hawks, crows, possums, a beautiful fox — and, I’m told, also a racoon) all help me grow roots. Seeing wild swans here in NC feels just like what I need now to be totally Here.

Living in Virginia at the edge of the ancient Appalachians and in the midst of woods filled with a wonderful assortment of wildlife, including a doe nesting near the house, bears that came to eat our pears, & herons nesting by and guarding the clear Tye River, I easily took root. Cris & I took 2 winter trips up to Chincoteague just to hang out for a while with the flocks of birds that had made their yearly trip down from the north. That felt so real and so magical! It enlarged my sense of place. But, now that I long to see a tundra swan again, Chicoteague is too far.

Googling has led me to a cluster of National Wildlife Refuges near the shore — just 2 and 1/2 hours from here — with overwintering birds and even some red wolves that are part of the re-wilding program there. So — we’re off this week to be with the birds for a few days! Though I doubt if we’ll see any wolves, it will be so good to know that we are in the woods with them, and they may be seeing us.

I’m being very careful about Covid, but since we found a place to stay with its own kitchen, I feel safe enough to go. We’ll be back Friday, the 28th, and next week I’ll let you know how it went.

In the meantime, I spent some time this weekend working with fiber. My intuition was right: Clearing space through gifting has led to an amazing upsurge of creative energy. My re-engagement with a partially completed project led me around in some circles until I realized a significant change in direction was required. Sometimes working/making with fiber or words seems like putting together a 1,000-piece jigsaw with no image of the completed picture to guide me. But then, that’s the fun — the discovery, at the end, of what the materials and I have co-created! I am continually surprised!

When I finished this particular mask, I thought “he” might be the Spirit of Ochre, but as I tried to entice “him” into possible ochre-y cave-like contexts, she shook her head firmly and said “No, I am a dream of Sunrise.” OK. I wove this for her & now she seems satisfied and settled. I’ll fiddle some more with hair and fringe, sew in the loose ends, line the mask, and put it together when we get home.

Dream Towards Sunrise (wool, alpaca, silk) MCK

In the meantime, while I thought I was heading in that direction, I became fascinated by Ochre — painted on cave walls and on bodies around the world, sculptured on hair in Africa, used as protection from insects & sunburn & as a dietary supplement, and in prehistoric times a key ingredient in an adhesive used to attach stone points of arrows & spears to their shafts. Ochre is a form of earth sacred to humans. It is believed by some to have been instrumental in the spread of our ancient ancestors and possibly in their physical development. So, here is my current heap of inspiring colors & textures, including some samples I over-dyed with walnut and iron to tone down the too-bright terracotta. (The colors are more subtle, not as bright as in the photo.) We’ll see where it goes….?….!

Love & blessings, Margery (Tuesday, January 5)

A Circle of Swans: Story as Healing, Story as Wings

About a week ago, someone mentioned stars and their stories and — for whatever reason — I suddenly remembered an essay I’d written 15 years ago as a post-paper several weeks after taking the course “Introduction to Indigenous Mind” with Dr. Apela Colorado (Oneida) at the University of Creation Spirituality in California.

Have you ever encountered something you’ve written or made or done — but not thought about for a long, long time — and said “How could I have been so wise?!” That happened to me when I read this paper (followed, unfortunately, by the question “And how can I have forgotten so much?”). In fact, in a number of ways, it felt like my paper had been written to address some of my current questionings & pondering about place, story, and the rootlessness stemming from histories of colonization and modern industrial culture.

There is so much I would like to share with you from this paper I entitled “A Circle of Swans: Story as Healing, Story as Wings,” but it’s too long — a full essay + 2 photos and, as an appendix, a story I’ll share with you another time. So I’ll content myself (and, I hope, not bore you too much) with several lengthy excerpts.

After an introductory page describing my intentions as I started the class and my actual arrival for the 1st class on a misty morning when the neighboring Lake Merritt was alive with geese and ducks & a flotilla of majestic pelicans suddenly swooped down out of the fog, I wrote:

*******

Given my intentions, I was not surprised to find that our Indigenous Mind gathering was to be held as ceremony rather than seminar. Still, I was not prepared for the forceful bodily shock of recognition I received that first morning when [something I could barely catch] was said linking “Swan” and “European ancestors.” It was as if my heart had been torn open. Of the experience, I wrote in my journal: “If I came here for no other reason than that, it is enough.”

And I immediately remembered several other “swan messages” in my life: the small antique felted swan handed down through my mother’s German family, my three or four encounters during recent months with a profound swan poem by Rilke, […] my life-long identification with the first part of Hans Christian Anderson’s “Ugly Duckling Tale”….

That same afternoon, in Kaleo Ching’s mask-making class, we worked with partners, learning to feel each others energy. My partner asked to share the image that she had felt leaping from my heart. “First,” she said, ” I heard a loud trumpet sound, and then I saw a golden trumpet. Then from out of the trumpet flew a white bird, followed by a golden sunburst opening and expanding.” I was stunned. I am a quiet sort, not a “trumpet-person” I think. What could it mean?

It was not until the next day that I began to put the emerging white bird together with the compelling Swan of my ancestors. Then, on Wednesday, Apela blew the auroch’s horn for the calling of the ancestors — and again, I was stunned, opened to and for something powerful and unknown. Only now, after having learned of Swan’s [liminal nature and] associations with Sun and music, am I beginning to glimpse ever fuller meanings and further responsibilities. [In her comments here, Apela notes that “SZAN (Sanskrit) is the mythological transference of pure light into sound.”]

[Swan symbolism abounds in stories and art going back to prehistoric times and is found in many lands. Swans are associated with transformation in its many forms, including rebirth. After looking at swan-symbolism & story through the ages, the paper then focuses on one type of tale: the Swan Maiden stories.]

Seemingly sprung from more ancient roots than the Swan-Knight stories and found throughout northern lands, the Swan-Maiden story appears in many guises. Among some northern peoples (Inuit and western Scots, for instance), the central figure [of such stories] is a Seal-maiden [Selkie] rather than a swan, but the Swan-maiden is most common.

In the simplest telling of the Swan-maiden, a hunter spies on several beautiful swans who have flown down and removed their Swan-skins to bathe as beautiful women. Being lonely, the hunter hides one of the Swan-skins, thereby trapping the creature in human form, and takes her as his wife. After living with her husband for many years and bearing his children, the Swan is fading and failing until at last she finds her hidden Swan-skin — or one of her children does. She dons the skin, renewed, and flies away.

[There are many different versions, with different endings depending on the time and culture in which they were told. Later versions often include endings in which the hunter “rescues” his “enchanted” bride], demonizing the animal form and glorifying the male hero-quest, speaking volumes about the kind of changes occurring European cultures during the last millenium….

As I read the Swan-maiden tales, I found myself growing sadder and sadder — gripped by the flat “either/or” choices of the story’s frame. Either wildness or domesticity, either freedom or love, either soaring flight or stable family, either spirit or society…. These stories portray a fatal splitting of the soul, of reality itself — as if such dualism is inevitable, as if there can be no bridge between worlds and ways of being, no way that the paradox can be sustained.

There are many ways to hear an ancient story. We can focus on classifying it according to folkloric “type.” We can analyze its “structure.” We can hold it at scientific arm’s length and try to view it through an anthropological or literary lens. Or we can embrace the story, and — more important — let it embrace us.

The Jungian analyst Barry Williams says that we do not need to solve the puzzle of our dreams; rather, the dreams come to “solve us.” Rabbi Lawrence Kushner has suggested that myth and sacred text are the dreams of a culture and should be approached as such. And so I ask myself, how are these Swan-maiden stories coming now to “solve” — to heal — some hurt in my heart, some wound in my culture? I sit with the small felted figure of a mute swan in my hand and think of my mother — a woman who, in many ways, laid aside her Swan-garment and ceased to fly. I think of myself and the ways in which my own life has been lived or unlived. I consider how — in an amazing Art-As-Meditation class three and a half years ago — when Luisah Teish asked us to find a new name for ourselves and to “tell the story of how we were given that name,” I told (without knowing what it was or what it meant) a sort of Swan-maiden story — a story of the recovery of my wings.

And then I opened a book and read one more Swan-maiden story.

Now, to offer a mere summary of a story is to commit a kind of murder, but once again, for the sake of this paper and its limits, I present the bare bones, knowing that, with a teller’s sweet breath, they can rise dancing and cloaked again in beautiful living flesh. This one is the Irish Celtic myth of Aonghus (Angus) Og, the god of dreams and love, of beauty and poetry — a god of delight who is followed everywhere by birds circling his head like kisses and sweet laughter:

Night after night Aonghus is visited in his dreams by a beautiful woman but, though he falls ill with longing, she refuses to stay with him into the day. Lovesick, Aonghus will not eat and — hoping to prevent his death — those who love him set out to find the strange woman. After long searching and many setbacks, the lovely Caer Imbormeith is discovered at last — one of a flock of swans who spend alternate years in human form.

And does Aonghus steal Caer’s swan-skin to trap her in human form? Does he catch her and force her to make a choice? Of course not! Aonghus himself takes the form of a swan and flies off with Caer to consummate their love as swans.

And so it is that Aongus and Caer dwell together alternating years — Samhain to Samhain — as swans and as human in their home, Bru Na Boinne. And their singing is so sweet that those who hear it are blessed with three days and three nights of enchanted sleep.

Swans still swim near Bru Na Boinne — now known as Newgrange, built more than 5000 years ago — on the Boyne River, named for Aonghus’s mother Boann. … [A shaft of light stills enters the dark interior of Newgrange on the Winter Solstice and] researchers Anthony Murphy and Richard Moore have also linked the orientation and construction of Newgrange’s passages to the stars in the swan constellation Cygnus.

[Here I briefly discuss some of the] deliciously long and tangled threads of connection [this story has with other symbols and myths, but go on to say that] For now I want to rest with Aonghus and Caer in their home at Newgrange, basking in the possibilities they open for our world. When I first saw Aonghus turn swan to join Caer, rising on great silver wings, something old and heavy unclenched in my soul, as if a fist had relaxed into an open and generous hand. Not either/or but both/and! Not “masculine vs. feminine,’ but wholly human. Not “man against nature,” but “humans as an integral part of Earth.” Not “freedom vs. affiliation” or “individuality vs. community,” but compassion, …compassion, …compassion….

*******

Several days after returning home from that class, I went — on pure impulse — to a small lake near my home. I had seen geese and ducks there on previous visits. But this time, there was something different: a single swam floating in the center of the lake.

my family’s old felted swan, resting with a feather and in a shell found at Chincoteague in the winter where snow geese, tundra swans, and ducks of many kinds were flocking in their thousands during the cold months when their northern breeding grounds were frozen

With Love to All Those Who Have Rekindled My Inner Fire

This week, in an online discussion group, someone posted a quote from Albert Schweitzer that would have fit perfectly in my 12/24 blog:

“In everyone’s life, at sometime, our inner fire goes out. It is then rekindled by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who have rekindled our inner spirit.”

Albert Schweitzer

As I look back over my life I am amazed by how very many times my own inner light has flickered or seemed to go out, only to be rekindled even more brightly by an encounter with the needed teacher. That teacher may have appeared in any form. It might have been as a wise tutor, a student, a friend, a family member, or a stranger…. It might have been as a story or a poem, an animal, a tree or a forest, a river or lake or ocean, a rock, some ice crystals glinting in late afternoon sun, a garden, the way tall grass speaks when the wind passes, the smell of soil after a rain, or…… I wish I could name all those teachers that have rekindled my spirit when I have forgotten to feed my fire or have hidden it so completely that — starving for air — it has been smothered, extinguished by my own reluctance. Fortunately, our true teachers — the beings who help us rekindle and replenish the fires of our hearts — are everywhere. They find us when we stay open to at least the possibility that a flame could be offered to help us keep burning brightly.

How many times has the smell of hay or even old landscaping straw pulled me out of dark thoughts & taken me back to the times when I have been in deep relationship with horses and their wisdom & spirit?!

Certainly Trickster Stories have held out their torches again & again — patiently offering their lessons until I finally peek out from behind my shield of fears & realize that they approach with their wild flames not to burn down my house but to keep its hearth alive with fire.

And I will never forget what happened during a difficult time when I lived in Lynchburg, VA. I was feeling both overwhelmed by & disconnected from my life, and my inner light was quickly fading. I longed hopelessly for the kind of companionship and encouragement that I seem to find so easily in deep wilderness. Then one morning, while I was walking my beloved Siberian husky in the park across the street from my apartment, I saw three vultures feasting on something on the sidewalk just ahead. As I approached, one of the vultures flew to the top of an adjacent chain-link fence, looked at me in exasperation, put her hands on her hips, and said firmly, ” You ARE in the midst of it!” Immediately I was filled with joy & awe, my feet were once again gripping the earth, and my body wanted to do a “vulture dance” – even though I didn’t know exactly what that meant.

Indeed, wherever we are, we are in the midst of Life, in the midst of the Mystery. I didn’t need reminders of that during the two decades I lived on our llama farm in the woods — or, perhaps I should say, the reminders there were omnipresent! Now, in my more urban location, the old oaks remind me, and I am reminded every time one of the neighborhood hawks or owls comes to visit, or when I’m lucky enough to be looking out the kitchen window as a possum scuttles out from under the workshop in back & hurries off into the deepening dusk. A recent unexpected glimpse of a fox just a block from our house reminded & delighted me:

In my heart I am sending a love letter to each of the multitude of people & other beings (some long gone, some forgotten or unnoticed at the time) who have so touched me and kept me truly alive. 

I imagine there may be people who have always tended and enlarged their own inner fire, but I think I am not the only one who can look back at flickerings and fadings that were rekindled just in the nick of time by just the right teacher. It might be fun to look back and trace the fortunes of your own bright spirit. Who were the helpers that reached out to reignite your flame if/when it dwindled?

*******

PostScript to last week: I was so happy to send out the Raven shawl & 3 masks this week. I received a 2nd request for one of the masks shown in the post, so ended up sending out a different but related mask that I still wanted to clutch close to me & so hadn’t listed. Apparently, my masks are less reticent about showing up in the world than I am! There are more teachers here, with many lessons for me to learn, unlearn, or relearn! Ember Dreaming Flame, Waking Lion Spirit, and Desert Dreaming are still available — ready to fly off as gifts to you or to someone you know.

Still Thinking about Gifts…

While re-reading Lewis Hyde’s The Gift, I especially enjoyed his use of folktales to demonstrate old ways of understanding the nature of gift. I thought about Raven Steals the Sun (3/19/2021) and Raven Steals the Water (10/15/2021). These stories focus not on the giving of gifts, but on the irreverence and immorality of hoarding. The gift is only dispersed – as it should be – when a single individual (Raven) finds it too large to be selfishly contained.

For several months, I’ve had trouble focusing on my mask projects. I cleaned my studio & cleared off my work surfaces, but that didn’t solve the problem. The walls are crowded with finished pieces and I can’t help feeling two things: Although I am still learning from looking at them, I feel the masks are getting tired of looking at me. And new masks seem reluctant to come until there is space for them to exist…. Then, recently, I re-read Charles de Lint’s fantasy novel Memory & Dream. In this story, the subjects of oil portraits beg their painter to release them into the wider world. This fits perfectly both with my intuition & with comments in The Gift. Hyde reminds us:

“An essential portion of an artist’s labor is not creation so much as invocation. …[We must create] within ourselves that ‘begging bowl’ to which the gift is drawn.”

“Bestowal creates that empty space into which new energy may follow.”

“Passing the gift along is the act of gratitude that completes the labor.”

I’ve long known the necessity of letting one’s work fly free. My poetry, for example, flows freely when I am part of a mutually-sharing writers group where it is read and heard by others. On the other hand, when I just shut away my writings in a drawer or a file, that creative spark soon flickers and fades away.

But I haven’t known what to do about the accumulating masks. They seem too specific, somehow intrusive to give as Christmas or birthday gifts — as I’ve done with scarves, shawls, handmade books, etc. It has been suggested that I sell them. However, having sold — & then stopped selling — one-of-a-kind shawls whose making had always felt to me more like bestowing hugs than manufacturing articles of clothing — I have no idea how I would comfortably go about organizing that. Anyway, the masks feel more like prayers than commodities & I do have the luxury/privilege of being able to just let them go.

So, I’ve put pictures of several of my older pieces here. I’m hoping that some of you may find that one of them calls to you. If so, please contact me with your address at margery@trickstershoard.com . They are so eager to meet new people & places!

So I

The Season of Giving

Three Muses for the year to come (MCK)

Mid-Winter & Festivals of Light are in many traditions a time for gift-giving. Nowadays the idea of Gift is so commercialized & fraught with emotional baggage of one kind or another that it is easy to lose track of the deeper nature of Gift as a sacred movement of energy between people. I have been thinking a lot about the nature of gifts. Each day is a gift. Each breath of air is a gift. As Lewis Hyde says in his excellent book The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, “I think a gift…is a mystery.”

Certainly all of you have been a real gift to me during the months since Spring Equinox. Thank you. I tried to think of what I could give in return, but as Fra Giovanni has said so eloquently:

“I have nothing I can give you which you have not, but there is much, very much, that while I cannot give it, you can take. No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in today. Take Heaven! No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in this present instant. Take Peace! The gloom of the world is but a shadow, behind it, yet within reach is joy. Take Joy! There is a radiance and glory in the darkness, could we but see, and to see, we have only to look. I beseech you to look! Life is so generous a giver, but we, judging its gifts by their covering, cast them away as ugly, or heavy, or hard. Remove the covering, and you will find beneath it a living splendor woven of love, by wisdom, with power. Welcome it, grasp it! …. And so at this time, I greet you. Not quite as the world sends greetings but with profound esteem and with the prayer that for you, now and forever, the day breaks and the shadows flee away.”

And then, too, Neil Gaiman’s blessing for a New Year:

"May your coming year be filled 
with magic and dreams and good madness.  
I hope you read some fine books and kiss someone who thinks you're wonderful.
And don't forget to make some art -
write or draw or build or sing or live as only you can.
And I hope, somewhere in the next year,
you surprise yourself."

Sending you love & all best wishes for a year where your curiosity burns bright and you make discoveries that fill you with awe & joy – – –

Margery Knott

Festivals of Light

Brú na Bóinne (Newgrange) at Solstice

Winter Solstice — the shortest day & longest night of the year in the northern hemisphere, the turn of the Earth towards lengthening days — occurred last Tuesday. Since earliest times, humans all over the world have noticed, felt, and expressed the significance of the shifts in light at both the solstices and equinoxes. For the most part, we can only guess at the earliest myths and rituals associated with these points in the dance of Sun & Earth. Fortunately, at least since Neolithic times, people in a number of places around the globe have built both simple and more elaborate & labor-intensive places to mark the movement of the life-giving Sun.

One of the oldest and most well-known of these sites is Newgrange (Brú na Bóinne) in Ireland, the mythic home of The Dagda (god of Wisdom & Fertility) and his son Aenghus (the god of Love & Dreams). Built ca. 5200 years ago, this massive Neolithic complex of underground passages and chambers, whose stone walls are covered with intricate carvings, was constructed so that only at the Solstice would a ray of sunlight, falling through an opening above the entrance, penetrate all the way through the darkness to light the main chamber. Can you imagine what it must have been like to be deep inside the dark and to watch the light coming in to meet you?

Today, as always, many of us continue to celebrate, in both story and ritual, the return of the Light and retreat of the Dark, whether understood literally or metaphorically — expressing our joy at this cosmic turning through festivals of light such as Diwali, Hanukkah, Christmas, and many other spiritual practices, both old & new. And, everywhere, a symbol for this turning towards a positive Mystery is the Candle. So I’ve been thinking about candles.

At this time, we in the northern hemisphere can count on the lengthening of days, the literal increase in life-giving sunlight. But, in so many ways & on so many levels, Earth and her community (including humans) are going through some metaphorically dark times. I won’t enumerate the many dire challenges we face. You all know them. But the question is: How can we each help facilitate a turning away from destruction and into a place of light, joy, peace?

Have you ever attended a gathering of people standing in the dark, each holding an unlit candle? There are no words to capture the awe that begins as one candle is lit. And the awe expands as the first candle lights another candle & each of those light others & on and on, spreading the illumination outward until every single candle burns with its own lively dancing flame.

Is it possible to do something similar with our own inner light?

The poet Rumi reminds us:

"Being a candle 
Is not easy.
In order to give
light one must
first burn."

I ask myself, Am I willing to light my candle? What will it take? And how can I pass along its loving flame?

One candle is a small thing.

But many, gathered together, can illuminate the world!

Wishing you all peace and joy — now & always…..

Photo credits: Irish Examiner, Geralt, Myriams-Fotos, Mike Labrum

Celebrating the Winter Solstice

Turning

Now the earth slides faster down
the long dark days towards Solstice.
We’ve been flung
almost too far from the center,
skidding violently along
the curve of space.
The pace
presses me flat against the rocks,
among the dried debris of summer.
Blackberry canes snarl my hair;
faded petals or leaves,
compressed beyond recognition,
cling to my lips and eyes.
Oh, it’s a long slide
down to the Solstice.
But we 
      shall be
tugged sunward at last on gravity’s leash:
     a cosmic 
                     crack-the-whip.
We’ll hit the corner flying
and careen round into who knows
what great wind of passage.
Even I
may be blown clear out of this cave, clean
onto my feet.
Lifting my arms to
layer upon layer of translucent
color cupped to Earth’s curve,
I’ll feel the thrust of the planet
beneath my feet.
Gulping air straight
from Arctic floes,
I’ll raise my face to
the icy stab of Orion’s sword and
roar
              for Joy.

Saunter & Gawk

Eighteen years ago I was fortunate to take a life-changing course entitled “The New Cosmology,” taught by Dr. Larry Edwards. It was a week-long intensive class with lots of reading & a paper before the gathering and more reading & a longer paper due a month afterwards. We looked briefly at the origin stories told not only by our Western cultures but also by other cultures around the wold, and considered how different origin stories were both creators of & products of the cultures in which they were found. We looked at the current scientific explanations/stories of cosmic evolution, Earth’s evolution, the evolution of Life, and finally — within the context of these larger patterns — human evolution. We considered the ways that the various species of plants and animals in an ecosystem help shape each other’s evolution, creating distinct traits and skills that interlock. And the human? What is our special trait? Perhaps, Dr. Edwards suggested, it is our ability to become fascinated by what we encounter, to wonder, to simply stop & gawk. One of my classmates added the word “saunter.” That’s it we decided: What makes us human is not simply our physiology or our technical achievements — it is our delight in sauntering & gawking — and then making up stories (whether scientific explanations or extended reflections) about what we’ve encountered.

“Saunter & Gawk!” That pretty much sums up my life this past week. Even in my fiber work, I’ve been doing a sort of saunter-and-gawk as I spend time in the company of some poorly-prepared llama and angora rabbit fibers — trying to understand the nature and “desires” of these tangled fibers. I’ve also been sauntering & gawking with delight in the natural world that surrounds me here and in the written world of ideas & discoveries & the records of unique personal experiences.

A brief question from my brother about a current forest fire here in North Carolina led to questions of geology, and I began saunter (and/or stumble) through information about the geology of this place in which I now find myself living. So much to learn! Much of what I encountered was beyond my comprehension, but I did stop to gawk at some wonderful surprises. I’d sort of assumed that the Piedmont where I live was mostly a result of the erosion of the Appalachian Mountains to the west. Who’d have guessed that this place was — before that — a chain of volcanic islands that were eventually squished between colliding tectonic plates?! Somehow seeing that deeper story of the land upon which I walk daily delights me and makes me feel more at home here.

Yesterday I came across an essay by David Abram which affirms our class’s “saunter-and-gawk” hypothesis. https://www.humansandnature.org/on-being-human-in-a-more-than-human-world In it, Abram begins by sharing the question that was inevitably asked every time he spoke about the human place in Earth ecology:

‘Alright, Dr. Abram, I understand when you say that we humans are completely embedded within a more-than-human world, and I understand your claim that many other animals, plants, and landforms are at least as necessary as humans are to the ongoing flourishing of the biosphere. But despite the attention and praise that you bestow upon other species, surely you must admit that humankind is something utterly unique in the earthly world?’

After musing about that question and his responses over the years, Abram goes on to say:

And after puzzling and pondering the matter, over and again, sussing out the signature traits of our species, I began to feel my way toward a fresh answer, one that rang true to me even as it seemed to satisfy my challengers—or at least to give them pause.

For if there’s something exceptional about us two-leggeds, it seems to reside in our ability to become interested in—even fascinated by—well, pretty much anything. Diverse other creatures, as I watch them go about their days, seem to stay fairly focused on a range of matters that concern their own well-being, indulging in other whims and curiosities now and then, but rarely ranging very far afield, with their sustained attention, from the sort of things that seem to grab others of their kind. But we humans have a peculiar proclivity to become fascinated and enthralled by the most incommensurable matters. Among even my close friends, there’s a person who closely studies the antler patterns of moose, another whose hobby involves documenting the life cycle of various lichens, and another whose expertise lies in throwing and baking the perfect Neapolitan pizza. That same baker is also a fine gardener who spends much of her week wooing various butterflies down from the skies to alight on the plants that she’s carefully cultivated for their delectation. There are people who steep themselves in the long-dead languages of lost cultures, and others who listen in on and try to decipher the long-distance utterances of humpback whales. Still others decline to consider those calls as linguistic, but concentrate their talents on playing music with whale songs….

So perhaps there is, indeed, something uniquely unique about our species. Yet we defy this uniqueness when we strive to assert what is most unique about humankind. Whenever we focus so exclusively upon ourselves, training our attention day after day upon the specialness of our species, then we are no longer enacting the very trait that most exemplifies our humanity. ”

Finally, Abrams — after contemplating the linguistic relationships among the words ‘human’ & ‘humus’ & ‘humility’ — counsels humans to remember their intrinsic interdependence with the larger community of other earth-beings and to act, therefore, with appropriate humility.

As I’ve been thinking about saunter-and-gawk, I’ve come round once again to Trickster, for that is what Trickster loves to do — to ramble along, to see something & to get curious about it. But then, thinking only of himself and his desires, Trickster stops looking and just jumps into the situation head first — only to find himself, time and again, in dreadful trouble. Humility is not to be found in Trickster’s vocabulary or in his actions!

Can there by any doubt about what message Trickster stories have for us these days?

*************

We are humans. Who are we?

We are listeners, listening to the song of the Land.
And we are one of the many voices to which the Land listens.
We are spinners, spinning wild fleece into Meaning.
And we are the fleece being spun into Meaning by others.
We are weavers, weaving radiant colors into Story.
And we are the colors, being woven into others’ Stories.
We are children standing in awe of Cosmic beauty.
And we are the Cosmos reflecting on Itself.
And when we sing praise songs, sing songs of gratitude,
Then we become a part of the Song.
photo by Noah Buscher
photo by Casey Horner

WONDERING ABOUT PLACE & STORY

We’ve been having what we used to call “unseasonably” warm days this week — up in the low 70s, which feels ridiculous for December even here in central North Carolina (where, of course, the winters never produce the snow & ice that formed my template of the season when I was a child in Iowa). I am dismayed by what these lovely warm days are telling me about Earth’s reaction to our human irresponsibility, but I’ve enjoyed them nevertheless. It’s been good to spend time outside putting some of the summer’s growth to bed for the winter — although one of my cone flowers has just put forth new blossoms and the iris & daffodils are sending up what they must think are spring shoots. I’ve also been planting more pansies for winter blooming. I love their little faces & all their different colors. Pansies remind me of my childhood when, each spring, I got to choose my own pansies to plant. (No hope of winter blossoms under the prairie snows in those days!)

Not much new on the fiber-front this week. Mostly I’ve been procrastinating. I’m so well-practiced at that, it often feels like the easiest path — until I realize once again how much energy it takes to not-do something. I did finish — to the best of my ability — finding the shape of my most recent mask/person. I was excited to discover that he is very different from & much more interesting than my early imaginings & expectations. The name that came surprised me. I think it is “Ochre: Sacred Red Earth,” so — naturally — I had to spend time learning more about ochre & the role it has played in humanity’s unfolding story. Some surprises there too!

Ochre: Sacred Red Earth — the actual colors are more subtle

This mask, this Spirit of Sacred Red Earth, has sent my imagination careening in some new directions. I’m curious & eager to see what will happen and have done a little playing with fibers in that direction — but the few unfinished details on 2 old projects have kept nagging at me. I finally found the will/intention or just plain gumption needed and told myself — in no uncertain terms — that I must finish the old before chasing after the new. Why is it so hard for me to take the final step that says “Done”? I guess there are several Life Lessons somewhere in there.

Yesterday I finally felted the tabs that are necessary to hang both “Conversing With Forest; Becoming Tree” & “Thalassa.” Thalassa was easy, since her tabs won’t show, but I wanted to hang Forest/Tree on an old twisted stick that had been gifted to me decades ago. Since the tabs for this have to be integrated visually with the piece as it already existed, I’ve had some trouble envisioning them. I haven’t yet sewed the tabs on & will probably experiment a bit more before I do, but at least I’ve started the forward movement!

Much of my “creative energy” this week has gone wandering down thought-paths that lead me in directions I find troubling. During the past several months, I have been wondering about how Story (or any Making, including my masks) relates to or perhaps emerges from Place. I keep running into more and more readings that, directly or tangentially, raise questions of Place with increasing urgency. Then, more recently, another issue that has begun to arise with increasing frequency in both my readings & my thoughts is Shape-Shifting. For instance, last week this link to a podcast on Shape-Shifters flew to my mail inbox: https://www.ttbook.org/show/shapeshifting?utm_source=Join+the+Center%27s+e-mail+list&utm_campaign=c2d49256a5-March_5_e_newsletter_QRF_Launch_3_1_2014_COPY_01&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_e050879c3d-c2d49256a5-418457636 )

I am curious about how these 2 areas of exploration might be connected. Already my pondering has gone too far for a single blog post. This is something I’m going to have to dive into more deeply & extensively.

I’ve been re-reading David Abram’s spectacular classic work Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World, in which he points to the way that not only stories but, even more fundamentally, languages themselves have grown out of the Place in which they have been formed. Abram’s words, examples, experiences, and images are so rich & complex that I hate trying to condense or summarize them. I’ll just quote some of his sentences from pp.61-86 to show the starting place for some of my meandering thoughts:

Our senses “are divergent modalities of a single and unitary living body, …complementary powers evolved in complex interdependence with one another.’

“My senses connect up with each other in the things I perceive, or rather each perceived thing gathers my senses together in a coherent way, and it is this that enables me to experience the thing itself as a center of forces, as another nexus of experience, as an Other. [….] …[M]y body is a sort of open circuit that completes itself only in things, in others, in the encompassing earth.”

“In contact with the native forms of the earth, one’s senses are slowly energized and awakened, combining and recombining in ever-shifting patterns.”

“It is this dynamic, interconnected reality that provokes and sustains all our speaking, lending something of its structure to all our various languages. [….] Ultimately, then, it is not the human body alone but rather the whole on the sensuous world that provides the deep structure of language.”

“As technological civilization diminishes the biotic diversity of the earth, language itself is diminished. [….] For when we no longer hear the voices of warbler and wren, our own speaking can no longer be nourished by their cadences. As the splashing speech of rivers is silenced by more and more dams, as we drive more and more of the land’s wild voices into the oblivion of extinction, our own languages become increasingly impoverished and weightless, progressively emptied of their earthly resonance.”

Following trends in western cultures, the English language seems to have become more & more skewed to reflect precise analysis (separation into discrete parts rather than systems & wholes) and technology (rather than the actual living world). For an example, consider the recent changes in words included in the Oxford Junior Dictionary — https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jan/13/oxford-junior-dictionary-replacement-natural-words .

I’m often frustrated by my inability to express in English the wildness of living Earth & the nature of the relationships within her web of being. Pronouns (especially possessives) can be a problem & words like “nature” & “environment” seem to deliberately hide the wonderful intertwingling of us all. Just as I was beginning to think the situation hopeless, I remembered some of the ecstatic poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889, English poet & priest), whose attentiveness to the other-than-human world flowed into his exuberant words. I found this poem (and photos of the actual location described, which unfortunately I couldn’t copy here) at https://hopkinspoetry.com/poem/inversnaid/ :


    Inversnaid

    This darksome burn, horseback brown,
    His rollrock highroad roaring down,
    In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam
    Flutes and low to the lake falls home.
    A windpuff-bonnet of fáawn-fróth
    Turns and twindles over the broth
    Of a pool so pitchblack, féll-frówning,
    It rounds and rounds Despair to drowning.
    Degged with dew, dappled with dew,
    Are the groins of the braes that the brook treads through,
    Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern,
    And the beadbonny ash that sits over the burn.
    What would the world be, once bereft
    Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
    O let them be left, wildness and wet;
    Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.

Giving Thanks

“Give thanks for what you have been given.
Give a gift, in reciprocity for what you have taken.
Sustain the ones who sustain you and the earth will last forever.”

~ Robin Wall Kimmerer

As a child, I was fortunate to attend the University Elementary School in Iowa City, Iowa. The learning was active, with lots of “hands-on” participation. In addition to all the usual basics, our 2nd grade year was devoted to a study of the Native Americans. When we studied the Plains people, we made a teepee of sheets, decorated it, and set it up in the hallway. We pounded out “pemmican” from dried beef and raisins — and gave it to the principal, who did take a bite! When we studied the Diné (Navajo), we made weavings on little frame looms that we had helped make at home. [As I’ve said earlier, this is one of the earliest roots of my love of weaving.] We even made a wickiup (wigwam) and planted some corn on the playground. All these things — along with the reading, encouragement, and travel opportunities my parents provided — led to my later involvement with native groups and gave me a deep respect for the indigenous peoples of this continent.

I continue to learn from these diverse cultures & people who have so much to teach those of us in profit-driven/consumer cultures. At this time of year, I like to revisit the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address which, as many of you know, is recited by members of the Iroquois Confederacy at the beginning & closing of any gathering and regularly in their tribal schools. I like to read it slowly — perhaps aloud — truly taking time to be with each of our relations as they are named & thanked.

Speaking of this Thanksgiving address, Robin Wall Kimmerer says, in her beautiful book Braiding Sweet Grass:

“As it goes forward, each element of the ecosystem is named in its turn, along with its function. It is a lesson in Native science. You can’t listen to the Thanksgiving Address without feeling wealthy. And, while expressing gratitude seems innocent enough, it is a revolutionary idea. In a consumer society, contentment is a radical proposition. Recognizing abundance rather than scarcity undermines an economy that thrives by creating unmet desires… The Thanksgiving Address reminds you that you already have everything you need… That’s good medicine for land and people alike.”

Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address:

Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address:

Today we have gathered and we see that the cycles of life continue. We have been given the duty to live in balance and harmony with each other and all living things. So now, we bring our minds together as one as we give greetings and thanks to each other as people.
Now our minds are one.

The Earth Mother
We are all thankful to our Mother, the Earth, for she gives us all that we need for life. She supports our feet as we walk about upon her. It gives us joy that she continues to care for us as she has from the beginning of time. To our mother, we send greetings and thanks.
Now our minds are one.
The Waters
We give thanks to all the waters of the world for quenching our thirst and providing us with strength. Water is life. We know its power in many forms- waterfalls and rain, mists and streams, rivers and oceans. With one mind, we send greetings and thanks to the spirit of Water.
Now our minds are one.
The Fish  
We turn our minds to the all the Fish life in the water. They were instructed to cleanse and purify the water. They also give themselves to us as food. We are grateful that we can still find pure water. So, we turn now to the Fish and send our greetings and thanks.
Now our minds are one.
The Plants
Now we turn toward the vast fields of Plant life. As far as the eye can see, the Plants grow, working many wonders. They sustain many life forms. With our minds gathered together, we give thanks and look forward to seeing Plant life for many generations to come.
Now our minds are one.
The Food Plants
With one mind, we turn to honor and thank all the Food Plants we harvest from the garden. Since the beginning of time, the grains, vegetables, beans and berries have helped the people survive. Many other living things draw strength from them too. We gather all the Plant Foods
together as one and send them a greeting of thanks.
Now our minds are one.

The Medicine Herbs
Now we turn to all the Medicine herbs of the world. From the beginning they were instructed to take away sickness. They are always waiting and ready to heal us. We are happy there are still among us those special few who remember how to use these plants for healing. With one mind, we send greetings and thanks to the Medicines and to the keepers of the Medicines.
Now our minds are one.

The Animals
We gather our minds together to send greetings and thanks to all the Animal life in the world. They have many things to teach us as people. We are honored by them when they give up their lives so we may use their bodies as food for our people. We see them near our homes and in the deep forests. We are glad they are still here and we hope that it will always be so.
Now our minds are one
The Trees
We now turn our thoughts to the Trees. The Earth has many families of Trees who have their own instructions and uses. Some provide us with shelter and shade, others with fruit, beauty and other useful things. Many people of the world use a Tree as a symbol of peace and strength. With one mind, we greet and thank the Tree life.
Now our minds are one.
The Birds
We put our minds together as one and thank all the Birds who move and fly about over our heads. The Creator gave them beautiful songs. Each day they remind us to enjoy and appreciate life. The Eagle was chosen to be their leader. To all the Birds-from the smallest to the largest-we send our joyful greetings and thanks.
Now our minds are one.

The Four Winds
We are all thankful to the powers we know as the Four Winds. We hear their voices in the moving air as they refresh us and purify the air we breathe. They help us to bring the change of seasons. From the four directions they come, bringing us messages and giving us strength.
With one mind, we send our greetings and thanks to the Four Winds.
Now our minds are one.
The Thunderers
Now we turn to the west where our grandfathers, the Thunder Beings, live. With lightning and thundering voices, they bring with them the water that renews life. We are thankful that they keep those evil things made by Okwiseres underground. We bring our minds together as one to send greetings and thanks to our Grandfathers, the Thunderers.
Now our minds are one.
The Sun
We now send greetings and thanks to our eldest Brother, the Sun. Each day without fail he travels the sky from east to west, bringing the light of a new day. He is the source of all the fires of life. With one mind, we send greetings and thanks to our Brother, the Sun.
Now our minds are one.

Grandmother Moon
We put our minds together to give thanks to our oldest Grandmother, the Moon, who lights the night-time sky. She is the leader of women all over the world, and she governs the movement of the ocean tides. By her changing face we measure time, and it is the Moon who watches
over the arrival of children here on Earth. With one mind, we send greetings and thanks to our Grandmother, the Moon.
Now our minds are one.
The Stars
We give thanks to the Stars who are spread across the sky like jewelry. We see them in the night, helping the Moon to light the darkness and bringing dew to the gardens and growing things. When we travel at night, they guide us home. With our minds gathered together as
one, we send greetings and thanks to the Stars.
Now our minds are one.
The Enlightened Teachers
We gather our minds to greet and thank the enlightened Teachers who have come to help throughout the ages. When we forget how to live in harmony, they remind us of the way we were instructed to live as people. With one mind, we send greetings and thanks to these caring teachers.                                                                                                                        Now our minds are one.
The Creator
Now we turn our thoughts to the Creator, or Great Spirit, and send greetings and thanks for all the gifts of Creation. Everything we need to live a good life is here on this Mother Earth. For all the love that is still around us, we gather our minds together as one and send our choicest words of greetings and thanks to the Creator.
Now our minds are one.
Closing Words
We have now arrived at the place where we end our words. Of all the things we have named, it was not our intention to leave anything out. If something was forgotten, we leave it to each individual to send such greetings and thanks in their own way.
Now our minds are one.



[This translation of the Mohawk version of the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address was
developed, published in 1993, and provided, courtesy of: Six Nations Indian Museum and the
Tracking Project All rights reserved.
Thanksgiving Address: Greetings to the Natural World English version: John Stokes and
Kanawahienton (David Benedict, Turtle Clan/Mohawk) Mohawk version: Rokwaho (Dan
Thompson, Wolf Clan/Mohawk) Original inspiration: Tekaronianekon (Jake Swamp, Wolf
Clan/Mohawk)
]

May we all find comfort, meaning, and joy in this time of giving thanks!