“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).
“Words and language open possibilities, but also limit them. When we use words in certain ways, we lay down the roots and details of how these words will shape the world, and how the ideas they influence will–and can–be used. When we choose one word over another, we offer more than a simple building block for a sentence. We offer a constellation, a worldview, a story, and action plan.”
Lyanda Lynn Haupt, Rooted, 2021
My relationship with Language has always been felt important and intense — thus likely to lead to all the emotional fluctuations and drama of a soap-opera. As a child, I was entranced by the ability of Language to create multiple realities: I swam with delight through the lively oceans of myth, fairy tale, metaphor, and poetry. I loved individual words as well as stories & was the kind of child who might spend a rainy afternoon happily curled up with a dictionary, fascinated by how one word led to another of similar or opposite meaning and then on again.
However, by high school I had begun to glimpse the demonic aspect of Language’s mutability. It was not only the lies of advertising, racism, and Cold War rhetoric that troubled me. By college, I found that that the academic world in which I was immersed encouraged a certain linguistic glibness as we learned to move facts around on various theoretical chessboards. I was appalled to discover that I could used the same myth to write an essay either “proving” or “disproving” Levy-Strauss’s theory of culture as built on binary opposites. As a college sophomore, I taped on my mirror a reminder: “Don’t believe something just because you can say it.”
At the same time, in my attempts at poetry, I became frustrated with the inherent limitations of English (or of any language). As Michel Foucault has said: “It is in vain that we say what we see; what we see never resides in what we say.”
Many cultures have a traditional belief in the efficacy of the spoken (or occasionally, written) word. The folklorist Barre Toelken worked closely with the Navajo storyteller Yellowman for many years — and I expect I’ll have more to say about that deep & fascinating relationship in future posts. One thing that Yellowman taught Toelken was that a spoken word in Navajo had the power to actually “create the reality in which we all live,” unlike English words which the Navajos considered to lack such creative power. Toelken took care to use the traditional stories properly but he was concerned about the future use of recordings he had made of Yellowman telling those stories–especially those of Coyote. When he asked Yellowman’s widow (his adoptive Navaho sister) for advice, she considered the matter:
“After a long silence, she said, ‘Someone could get hurt with those tapes: what if someone hears the stories at the wrong time of year, or what if someone says some of those words out loud in the wrong situation? They could be injured. You’d better send them to me. I will destroy them.'”
We must remember that Barre Toelken was an American academician, taught by his training that destruction of primary field data would “constitute a kind of academic sacrilege.” And yet, Toelken continues:
“On 30 January1997, I boxed up the 60-plus hours of original field recording tapes (and various copies used in classes and lectures) and sent them to her by registered mail.”
Barre Toelken,”The Yellowman Tapes, 1966-1997.” The Journal of American Folklore, Vol.III, No. 442 (Autumn 1998), pp.381-391.
[I do hope that some of you can track down Toelken’s full article — available at https://www.jstor.org — to read his full story & explanation.]
I’ve been puzzling over our current use of American English language [the only language about which I can speak from first-hand understanding] which remains a fundamental form-producing power of the Earth community at the same time as it may act as a wisp of smoke that distorts or masks that which it pretends to portray. Indeed, in the last couple of years, we Americans seem to have gone from a world of alternative stories to a world of “alternative facts.” Our language, with all its possibilities, feels animated by the Trickster spirit.
I am reminded of a piece I wrote at the conclusion of a week of quiet & writing with 10 other women in 2004. It includes obvious references to the political situation of that time:
"Language -- you Trickster, Traitor, Liar!
With corporate jingles and recycled rock, you steal our children's souls and sell them --shrinkwrapped in plastic-- to the highest bidder.
With luscious words, you seduce the rich ones into want--Want this! Want that!-- and the poor ones into compliance with their own demise.
With pious platitudes, you lead us through the Red Sea and back into Pharaoh's hand.
With the cheap sequins of star-spangled babble, you drape from our sight the coffins, caskets, collateral damage--
even, or especially, the abundant breasts of Lady Justice at which we need, so desperately, to suckle.
The Haida people tell of Trickster Raven, the one seldom called by name. When a whale swallowed him, Raven -- ever voracious -- simply gobbled the whale up from the inside out. (Jonah, take note!) And when his brother-in-law Sea Lion grew fat and succulent, Raven gobbled him too from the inside out -- putting on the Sea Lion's skin in order to sleep with his own sister. It was Raven who made himself into the chief's beloved grandson and, night by night, changed out of his innocent baby shape to steal the people's eyeballs. Three towns went blind before one old woman, wakeful in her corner, heard the popping of eyes roasting on the fire and woke the slumbering household.
May we be such women!
O, we are awake to your tricks, dear Language, but know as well -- for we are not without the wisdom of our years -- that few things are simple or singular.
We remember that it was Raven -- this same wandering Raven of no fixed address -- who fashioned women's sex out of chiton shells for our pleasure as well as his own. Not bad!
We know it is Raven, too, who -- with all his mischief -- reveals the Hidden: He brought out the Freshwater riches confined behind a screen in Beaver's house and liberated Light from Old Man Under Sea. And if it was only Raven's carelessness and the haste of his greed that spilt out lakes and rivers across the land, that loosed the Sun untethered in the sky -- never mind. We eat the salmon; we laugh in the daylight.
Language -- Trickster, Lover, Liberator! You are as bad and as funny and as full of possibility as Raven. We have our eyes on you -- and they are still in our own heads and full of our own fire!
As I’m sure you, too, have discovered, there are many occasions when clock-time/calendar-time (chronos) is just not in synch with human-time/soul-time or divine-time/sacred-time (kairos). This is one of those occasions. I will post the “official Friday, August 6″ blog at noon on Saturday, August 7. I hope you’ll check back then.
In the meantime, I’m going out to enjoy the varied multitude of bees, butterflies, and birds that are enjoying our summer “pollinators’ garden.” Hummingbirds — which thronged by the dozens at the farm, but have been a rare sight since we’ve moved to town — dart by twos & threes from flower to flower. And a goldfinch sits on the tallest pink zinnia, stripping off the petals one by one as she seeks the miniscule seeds that nestle underneath.
We know how leaves give
their hearts to the dance:
water, air, light spiraling in and out:
-- receive and release,
receive and release --
Or the heart of the hummingbird who stood
this morning midair before the fuchsias,
turning nectar into glinting dance:
-- receive and release,
receive and release --
What can my human heart offer the earthly round?
It fills with coppery feathers and blossoming bells, then
lets loose syllables that fly abroad, ringing with gratitude:
-- receive and release,
receive and release --
I stub my toe yet again on one of the fist-sized rocks that spring up in my way at random intervals, random as the sound that flares erratically from some hidden place in the canyon, fading again on a falling note. Now a teasing trill to my left. I lift my eyes from what seems to be increasingly perilous footing, hoping to catch a flash of wings. Stumble again. Take a step to catch myself. Twist my ankle. Sit down on the dry red soil.
How far must I have come since that last crossroads? I cannot remember the count of days, nights, — could it be seasons, years…..? I am sure that the turning point was set in a greener, more domestic land than this — with fields and villages and sometimes companions and wine on the way. Perhaps I misunderstood that old woman who sat grinning & nodding at the crossing, wrapped in a frayed and faded shawl, humming quietly to herself. I thought she extended her hand to point the way. Did I misunderstand? Was it alms she wanted instead?
Too late now. All my silver gone. My backpack lost to a melt-swollen stream in the first range of mountains.
Should I have turned back when the pavement ended? By then I’d come too far; I hadn’t the heart for a return. At the time, it seemed easier to grit my teeth, call it an “Adventure,” and just put one foot in front of the other.
It is long since I’ve really paused to looked around, to see where I’ve come, to discover what this land is & what it has to teach me. Now, ankle throbbing, I shrug stiff shoulders, stretch my back, lift my chin. Beginning to feel the crumble of dust beneath my hands, noticing a surprising variety of scents, seeing the way light bounces off the different rock faces.
I notice my footprints in the dust behind but can’t discern the trail I’d thought I was following — just a meander among the sharp, drought-loving plants. And what are those other tracks? The neat diagonal strokes of a sidewinder well away from my footsteps and, far to the side, the bounding heart-shaped tracks of a lone antelope heading for the horizon. But what are those other tracks crisscrossing my way again & again, paw-prints pressed atop the persistent plod of my boot prints?
I have seen no creature, sensed no movement, heard nothing but the wind and those sporadic high fluting notes that, now and again, tickle my ears — teasing, pulling, lulling me into a sense of liveliness even in this sere hollow place. I try to remember when I first became aware of those wavering notes but find instead that I cannot remember a time without them — though they seem to have grown more frequent since I left the farmlands behind….
I notice the walls of the canyon have narrowed since I entered it. I cannot tell if they make a turning ahead beyond those boulders or dead-end in sheer cliff.
A breeze kicks up transitory, transparent dust-devils, spinning them into and out of existence around me. One gathers up flakes of red clay, taking on substance as I watch — spinning, spinning, spinning a snout, spinning a tail — then dancing up the canyon, dropping a ragged clump of tawny fur nearby.
And that mangy old skin picks itself up & shakes itself out & extends its right hand in introduction as politely as you please. “Hello. I’m Coyote. I think you’ve been enjoying my tunes.”
And taken aback, too surprised to think things through properly, I shake his hand as automatically and cordially as if this were a church potluck and say, “Hello.”
He smiles then, a smile with too many teeth.
“I’ve been watching you,” says Coyote, “and I think you’re lost.”
I wait for what will happen next.
“I think you’re lost,” he repeats, “and I think I can help.”
“Will you show me the way home?” I ask. “Please?” And his smile broadens into a grin, and his red tongue hangs out just a little at the side.
“We’ll make a bargain,” says he. “Now I have a Coyote song, but my song needs words, words that even humans can sing — words to warm, words to charm. You give your words and I’ll show you the way.”
Writing lyrics? Though the notes are odd & the melody disjointed at best, I did take a poetry class in school…. Surely I could do this. And I don’t want to die of thirst.
“Of course,” I reply. “I’ll give you my words.” And no sooner it is out of my mouth than I try to call it back — but it’s too late. My words are gone. And Coyote dashes about gathering them into his pockets and laughing like crazy as he rounds the boulder and out of sight.
Wait! Wait! I try to call. But all that comes out it silence.
Again, the high fluting song. Now it sounds like someone singing, though I can’t quite make out the words — my words.
Do I have a choice? I fear I made it unaware and long ago. I stand up and limp on after the fading echoes.
The last month or so have been, for me, a difficult convergence of multiple medical issues and my on-going grief for so much ecological, cultural, social & political devastation. I know that Trickster loves stirring things up to make room for new possibilities but — once nightly insomnia joined my list of playmates in the downward spiral — I ran out of energy for the dance. I am fortunate to be one of those privileged few in the world with access to good medical care — so medical problems are being addressed and, as insomnia begins to fade away, I am once more alive to my self and to the world. Still, there is my grief at what I & my kind have destroyed & are still destroying.
A conversation several days ago reminded me of several poems by Rainer Maria Rilke (translated by Joanna Macy & Anita Barrows). In many of his works, Rilke writes beautifully of the embrace of darkness. Today, I want to share 3 of them. [Actually I’d like to share a dozen, but I’m becoming a “realist”…..]:
“You, darkness, of whom I am born —
I love you more than the flame that limits the world to the circle it illumines and excludes all the rest.
But darkness embraces everything:
shapes and shadows, creatures and me,
people, nations — just as they are.
It lets me imagine a great presence is moving near me.
I believe in the night.”
“How surely gravity’s law, strong as an ocean current, takes hold of even the smallest thing and pulls it toward the heart of the world.
Each thing — each stone, blossom, child — is held in place. Only we, in our arrogance, push out beyond what we each belong to for some empty freedom.
If we surrendered to earth’s intelligence we could rise up rooted, like trees.
Instead we entangle ourselves in knots of our own making and struggle, lonely and confused.
So, like children, we must begin again to learn from the things, because they are in God’s heart; they have never left him.
This is what the things can teach us: to fall, patiently to trust our heaviness. Even a bird has to do that before he can fly.”
“Quiet friend who has come so far,
feel how your breathing makes more space around you. Let this darkness be a bell tower and you the bell. As you ring,
what batters you becomes your strength. Move back and forth into the change. What is it like, such intensity of pain? If the drink is bitter, turn yourself to wine.
In this uncontainable night, be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses, the meaning discovered there.
And if the world has ceased to hear you, say to the silent earth: I flow. To the rushing water, speak: I am.”
On the fiber front, I finally had enough energy to play a bit in the studio yesterday — making various small felt samples to try out different textures. I came up with some I liked & with many more ideas to try before making decisions. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to get a good photo of black on black felt. [And no, the color has nothing to do with my past few weeks! It is more a case of rebirth & growth as I once again work on a Raven shawl I’d woven 15 years ago & pushed to the back of the closet — given up as “hopeless.”] I’ll keep playing & hope to have the shawl completed to show you soon.
In his poem “East Coker,” T.S. Eliot wrote:
“I said to my soul, be still and wait without hope, for hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love, for love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith, but the faith and the love are all in the waiting. Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought: So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.”