The Land Speaks in Swans….

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

— Tomas Tranströmer

I love this poem by the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer. It always reminds me of the summer of 1964, which I spent in Kenya and Tanzania as an undergraduate research assistant studying baboon behavior with Dr. Irven DeVore. In addition to the required reports of my observations, I’d planned to keep a personal journal of my own feelings & experiences — but I couldn’t. For these, I had no words.

Those were the days when, for example, it was OK for a scientist to talk about struggles for “dominance” among animals or about “instinctive bonding,” but any mention of emotional relationships or personal preferences among animals was met with outraged cries of “Oh No! Anthropomorphizing! Not Science!” [And, of course, that’s still true in some circles today.] I had to record the notes needed for the research project in the typical scientific language that pretends to be devoid of personal perspective, emotion, or judgement. And, of course, the constraints of this scientific language we used to translate our observations & experiences created the illusion of distance from the actual bio-scape in which we were, in fact, not some disembodied & unconnected “observers” but active participants.

For the deeper experience of spending whole days alone with a multitude of diverse other-than-human species, I found I could construct no adequate English sentences. I complained to myself about the “limits of language” but, of course, I was surrounded by a multitude of aural & visual languages akin to the “the marks of roe-deer’s hooves” — some of which I did learn. “Language” itself was not the problem. It was my own native English language — with its inherent tendency to separate & depersonalize — that led to my frustration. I imagined that the original languages of peoples native to & woven into that place — human languages that had arisen in close attunement to the languages of the land & its other inhabitants — might include not only a vocabulary but also a grammar through which I could have found ways to express my feelings and experiences of relationship. [I have since learned that this is true of Native American languages.]

My husband & I encountered the same problem years later, when we lived on a farm in the woods near the Blue Ridge Mountains. We could not find English words to use as a short-hand to describe our relationship with the clear mountain river that ran near our house. To say “our” river suggested an “ownership” that did not exist & which would have completely contradicted the nature of our relationship. We were not the “possessors” of the magical river. It was relationship, not possession. Respect, love, admiration, and humility….

Even terms like “nature” (meaning “other” than human) and “environment” (that which “surrounds” — i.e., is distinct from — something) cut us English-speaking humans off from our true kinship with Earth community. Trying to describe my experience of being with the swans this past week presents a similar sort of conundrum….

The time at the refuges was beautiful — overflowing with beauty … both the beauty of the swans and other creatures themselves & the beauty of my own comprehension of kinship with them… and so much more.

This was not the completely immersive experience we’d had with the great migrating flocks at Chincoteague, a refuge established in my birth year of 1943 & bearing fewer obvious marks of human control. Many of the swans we saw here in North Carolina were dispersed in small groups on fields that had been specially flooded after the harvest. We did see one large gathering of tundra swans (hundreds, thousands?) on the far side of Pocosin Lake. At one point, something must have disturbed them for they all rose together, filling the air with the loud music of both wings & voices as they swept in one coherent cloud around and around the lake before settling down again on the water. Majestic, awe-inspiring, far beyond words…

And I had the good fortune of watching from only yards away as otters swam and hunted under the water. Two rose separately to the surface, each with a big fish in his or her mouth, and galumphed off into the woods on opposite sides of the drainage ditch. One had to cross the dirt road where we were standing. I’ve seen otters swimming and playing — sliding on ice on the river near our old home — but I’d never seen one moving on land. Like the swans, so graceful in their water element but more awkward-seeming in their land-bound movements. Again, beauty….

Another blessing was my encounter with the land itself. Flat, flat, completely flat. [I’ll never again complain that the land around Greensboro is too flat!] I quickly became aware of all the drainage ditches & dikes that, over the hundreds of years since the European incursion, have turned the land from a variety of biologically rich swamps into fields for industrialized agricultural production. Not until the mid-1980s were national wildlife refuges established in this area of eastern North Carolina to at least partially restore some of the wetlands & to offer some protection to native plants and animals, including the great flocks of migrating birds. Current “management” includes such programs as on-going research, soil & water supervision, prescribed burning, and cooperative farming — a complex response to a complex situation.

It reminded me of our recent trip to the elk restoration project in the Appalachian mountains of southwestern Virginia and Kentucky. Ironically, the elk restoration was located on the “restored” land that remained after mountaintop-removal mining. At least it seemed an acknowledgement or gesture, though small, of restitution for human destruction of our kin. Needless to say, my response there, as it was last week, was mixed — grief for the destruction of irreplaceable Earth communities, hope for the efforts that are being made to mitigate the devastation & move into a more compassionate future.

Anyway, my husband & I were much restored in mind, body, and spirit by last week’s encounters. And my curiosity was also set aflame with many wonderings — about the land and its history, about the “official” human relationships with animals (e.g., the discontinued red wolf recovery project may soon be re-instated), and about the tundra swans themselves & their incredible annual migrations. How can the swans fly round-trip every year from Alaska & northern Canada to the mid-Atlantic seaboard of the U.S.?!

Our individual inner well-being, like our physical health, cannot be separated from the well-being of Earth community — from the well-being of all our relations. As always, the poets say it best:

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

— Rainer Maria Rilke

photo from Pixnio

Learning to Converse

“In the Amazon, people refer to the forest as a speaking world, relating, talking, communicating. People can be inter-intelligent with their lands; the languages being formed from the land, and then people in turn singing up their land. The roots of “intelligent” are inter and legere which means both “read” and “gather”—people could gather plants and words from their lands. To gather, of course, itself means both “to collect” (for example, fruits) and “to understand.” So we gather.”
….
“All languages have long aspired to echo the wild world which gave them growth…. According to phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, language ‘is the very voice of the trees, the waves, and the forests.'”

—Jay Griffiths, Savage Grace: A Journey in Wildness

From 2014-2016, I participated in the Inner Life of the Child in Nature program at the Center for Education, Imagination, and the Natural World in Greensboro, NC. https://www.beholdnature.org/ As part of our practice, we each focused on deep, sacred listening to the forest and its beings. Listening is perhaps the most fundamentally receptive — one might say, passive — of the senses. How different it is from our restlessly darting staring seaching gaze, from our touching grasping manipulating hands.

I had been listening to the larger-than-human world since early childhood, so I was comfortable with my silence. Still, as I practiced with more clarity and intention, I learned to “listen” more and more closely with my whole self — not only with my ears, but also with my eyes and nose, skin and heart — eager to hear what the natural world would volunteer to say when neither questionsed directly nor bullied into relinquishing its secrets. Simply listening alertly, respectfully, lovingly — as at the feet of a wise elder — seemed appropriate kfor an adult of our all too often arrogant and domineering culture.

Little by little, I began to understand that the beings of the forest were not only speaking to me, but listening to me as well. I knew, of course, that my animal kin — birds, deer, rabbits, coyote, bear — were aware of and responding, often unseen, to my presence. But the trees too were listening to me, waiting. And after a time, I became aware of some deeper, more comprehensive listening taking place. It was the Forest herself, waiting for me to speak.

I had been chatting with trees, frogs, stones and other beings all my life. But it seemed that now something more was being asked of me. I remembered the theologian Nelle Morton’s wonderful phrase “hearing one another into speech.” I felt that I was asked to accept my full role in the conversation. I was being “heard into speech.”

To be a full participant in this Universe, I must bring not only my listening heart but also my unique voice. I must engage in the conversation of the cosmos, neither dominating nor withholding… That is what it means to be a member of what Thomas Berry calls “a communion of subjects.” It is unmediated intimacy: that which I behold also beholds me, that which I come to know also knows me; that which I hear also hears me; that which I encourage to speak also encourages me to speak.

The forest says “Speak.”
What shall I speak?

Rooted in and spun out of mystery,
we all belong to each other.
What shall I speak but gratitude?
What shall I sing but praise?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Sound: a body’s way of making itself known.
Silence: a way of knowing.”

— Diana Khoi Nguyen

Conversing with Forest, Becoming Tree — weaving & felting; wool, silk

Our Experiences, Our Stories, and Our Truths

Yesterday I read Ursula LeGuin’s 1986 commencement address at Bryn Mawr. (You can find it and many other interesting essays in her book Dancing at the Edge of the World.) Her address includes an extended discussion of the different ways language can be used — to separate and to exert power-over [which LeGuin calls the “father tongue”] or to connect [her “mother tongue”]. I was struck by an anecdote she related:

“Early this spring I met a musician, the composer Pauline Oliveros, a beautiful woman like a grey rock in a streambed; and a group of us, women, who were beginning to quarrel over theories in abstract, objective language–and I with my splendid Eastern-women’s-college training in the father tongue was in the thick of the fight and going in for the kill– to us, Pauline, who is sparing with words, said after clearing her throat, ‘Offer your experience as your truth.’ There was a short silence. When we started talking again, we didn’t talk objectively, and we didn’t fight. We went back to feeling our way into ideas, using the whole intellect not half of it, talking to one another, which involves listening. Not claiming something: offering something.

“How, after all,” LeGuin asks, “can one experience deny, negate, disprove, another experience? …. People can’t contradict each other, only words can: words separated from experience for use as weapons, words that make the wound, the split between subject and object, exposing and exploiting the object but disguising and defending the subject

“People crave objectivity because to be subjective is to be embodied, to be a body, vulnerable, violable.”

*********

To be able to “offer our experience as our truth” and to be able to hear another person’s experience as their truth… To listen deeply to both — to find compassion for both our experience and the experience of our “adversary”…. How different would our conversations be? How different would our world be?

I was reminded of Marilyn Frye’s description of the way the Arrogant Eye objectifies its world while the Loving Eye is situated firmly in its own living body, a participating aspect of the whole living universe. [See For the Earth, posted 4/22] How do we learn to see ourselves & each other with both eyes?

I was also reminded of how difficult it can be for many of us to trust our own experience/truth rather than that which has been scripted for us by family, teachers, society, culture. And, once we do manage to claim our truth, how difficult it can be to find the words that would let us offer it to others.

Nearly 30 years ago, the amazing poet Mary Oliver was Writer-in-Residence at Sweet Briar College, a women’s college just down the highway a piece from where I was living at the time. I was fortunate & privileged to take a semester-long writing class with her. She was a wise person and an excellent teacher. And it was wonderful for me — then at ca. 50 years — to have talented, vibrant, and remarkable young women as colleagues in this learning experience. One day we were given an assignment for a prose poem about how it would be, after a long time alone in a lifeboat, to approach an island.

When we read our poems aloud in the next class, I was struck by the discovery that although the responses were as diverse as the writers, they all had one point in common. So, instead of revising my poem for the next class, I went home and wrote about that.

TRUE STORY

On Tuesday our teacher said, Write a poem. Make it like this: Your ship has sunk; you have been long in the lifeboat alone; you see an island. And we women went home, our heads filled with islands.

Mine was stern– a cliff without path, a face closed against me. I could not be sure that death on the surface might not be simpler than a frozen flailing towards shore or final rejection by the rock. When I showed the lines to my husband, he said, Why don’t you paddle around the island? Check it out? I can’t, I replied, I have no oars. Paddle with your hands, he urged. I can’t; the wind is pushing me past.

On Thursday we went over our writings, told how we had seen, with exquisite clarity, our various ways through the storm and into a calm of words. Our islands rose fiercely or gently; we sighed with anguish or relief; we moved forward into disaster or salvation– but always oarless.

Had we been men, we’d have written different poems–equipped ourselves with oars of oak; rigged Gortex anoraks into sails, taken from the emergency kit our freeze-dried chocolate ice cream. Sisters, shall we write again? Shall we supply ourselves with strong alloy paddles and waterproof battery-operated radio locators?

Dare me to speak more truthfully. Dare me to tell how I rose from the raft and, with many falls and bruises, learned to dance daily on the slick shifting waves. Dare me to tell how I bared by breasts to the moon, sprouted a silver tail, and slipped deep into this lucent world.

MCK

…………………………

P.S. Comments & responses to these Friday posts are welcome!

Wondering About Words

When we were children, we chanted, “Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me.” Even then, we knew it wasn’t true. Words Matter. They become incarnated in emotion and deeds. Depending on context, tone, and intent (and sometimes even without intent), words can inflict pain upon another person. Our words can be used to incite ourselves and others to violent action.

And yet, words can also be used intentionally to clarify the truth or to create and weave new and more generous worlds for ourselves and for others.

We can refuse to speak in order to protect others. We can also refuse to speak to protect ourselves. As I have learned, words spoken or words refused –hidden and repressed– because of our fears can cripple us. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., has said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

What happens to all our words, spoken and unspoken?

At a Journey Into Wholeness gathering about 20 years ago, I met the artist & poet Martha Grant. We talked about how we were hesitant to speak up in group discussions and about the ways in which our mothers, too, had hidden so many feelings and words silently within. When she got home from the gathering, Martha sent me this poem she’d written — and which is included here with her kind permission:

ALL THOSE WORDS IN HER   by Martha Grant
What if she died with all those words in her?
How would we know who she was if she hadn't told us?
We would gather at her gravesite and speculate,
arguing among ourselves over who knew her best,
and in which milieu,
and find discrepancies,
while back at the funeral home
an embalmer would be wringing his hands
over what to do with all these words
that had come flooding from her body
when he'd cut into her.
All his years of embalming school
hadn't prepared him for this.
He scooped them into wastebaskets and file drawers,
old lunch bags, any receptacle he could grab,
and still they kept coming,
while he ran to the back door and called in
the homeless from the streets,
those who'd lost their own voices,
and passed words among them
like doling our Christmas turkeys,
for which the silent ones were just as grateful.
Funny, her drivers license hadn't listed her
as an organ donor.

What do you choose to do with your own words?

Christos Georghiou