I love the amazing surprises of serendipity & synchronicity. I’d planned to write today about the ways the Old Oak I greet every day is gently teaching me. The age of the oak is important. Not technically “old growth, I suppose — not part of an old growth forest — but definitely an Elder, a survivor through all that life has thrown at it for who knows how many years — long living as a lone tree in a cow pasture …. withstanding construction that changed the shape of the land & now living on a steep slope at the edge of a small — but still blessedly wild — urban woodland. An Elder.
Certainly we need to learn from the teachings of our human Elders, who understand that humans are an integral part of nature — not something “separate” & “superior” as modern industrial/technological culture would have it. But to become aware of our embedded-ness, we humans also — and perhaps even more — desperately need to remember how to listen to & learn from our other-than-human Elders, wtih reverence and respect.
The author is Dr. Jared Farmer, a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of “Elderflora: A Modern History of Ancient Trees.” I hope you can access & read the whole article. I especially love the way he speaks not only of the ancient trees’ importance to their ecosystems and the whole web of life but also of the immeasurable gifts they give us just by being:
“Ancient trees provide services too, but really, they are gift givers. Of all their gifts, the greatest are temporal and ethical. [emphasis added] They inspire long-term thinking and encourage us to be sapient. They engage our deepest faculties: to revere, analyze and meditate. If we can recognize how they call upon our ethical imperative to care for them, then we should slow down climate change now, and pay forward to people who will need a future planet with chronodiversity as well as biodiversity.”
Among plants, there are ephemerals, annuals, biennials, perennials — and beyond them all a category I call “perdurables.” Perdurance is resilience over time. Humans can recultivate this attribute by caring for old trees and the old-to-be. Sustaining long-term relationships with long-lived plants is a rejection of The End, an affirmation that there will be — must be — tomorrow. That is a gift.”
PRAYER ~~~ by David AbramsMay a good vision catch me
May a benevolent vision take hold of me, and move me
May a deep and full vision come over me, and burst open around me
May a luminous vision enfold me.
May I awaken into the story that surrounds,
May I awaken into the beautiful story.
May the wondrous story find me;
May the wildness that makes beauty arise between two lovers
arise beautifully between my body and the body of this land,
between my flesh and the flesh of this earth,
here and now,
on this day,May I taste something sacred.
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.
“Stories contain the hidden secrets of transformation, the alchemist’s formulas for turning lead into gold.”
~~ Dr. Lewis Mehl-Madrona, MD., PhD., Coyote Wisdom, 2005
The stories we tell about ourselves are powerful. Story is the domain of Trickster — a place of shape-shifting, transformation, wildness, change. Sometimes a story can be — or, as circumstances change, can become — a cage or a windowless room or a festering wound. Nonetheless, we often lug these old stories around with us and defend them against any perceived threats, believing them to be fundamental to our identity and the world as we know it. And, indeed, that fear is justified. What if we encounter — as I did with Raven Brings the Sun — a new exuberant story to replace an old one of fear and hiding? We may find the new story creating windows, opening doors, changing the shapes of our dwelling-places and of our understandings of self and others. Or what if we ourselves re-tell our old story in a new way that opens our heart, deepens and widens our sense of self and of others, and brings us healing and empowerment?
Many years ago, I sat down to write about an old betrayal that was still baffling me at times, shards of its desiccated residue still needling occasionally beneath my skin. I had no preconceived idea where the words would take me. I was just along for the ride. And a wild ride it was! When I finished & reread the story, I felt a sudden sense of strength and closure. I had freed myself, acknowledged my strength. I was healed, made whole once again:
STORY FOR A STORMY NIGHT
Once upon a time--long ago and far away--
I was the princess glad and golden; you,
the prince. It had to be so; I knew
how these things were supposed to go.
And off we danced into velvet nights
and secret bowers where you were
the prince who kissed me asleep:
Through dimming eyes, I saw your feet grow
webbed, your mouth widen, your back
hump down under slick green skin.
And off you hopped to other wells, spilling
from your waistcoat pocket, broken
promises, broken heart--seeds
cracking open in the dark.
Out and up sprang vines and briars--
catching twisting--thick and deep. Quickly
I buttoned my skin tight over the tangle
and no one knew. And all the blossoms
were hidden. And all the blossoms were
the color of blood.
But fierce things thrive in wilderness--
weasel, wolf, and wolverine--and I,
year by year in my spiked cocoon,
slept more wildly, dreamed more wise.
I woke myself when it was time.
Then, what else could I do with a lifetime of
ivy, creeper, and kudzu,
honeysuckle and bramblerose?
I have pulled it, peeled it,
soaked it, chewed it, made it
pliable enough to plait. I have woven
baskets for bread, baskets for brides,
wicker cradles, caskets, coffers. I have
hawked my wares from door to door. I have grown
singular and shrill.
Now I weave one last basket,
round and tight as any coracle flung
by crazed Celtic monks into Atlantic brine.
I climb into my craft and fly,
like Baba Yaga, along the seams of nightmares.
I ride the currents of your lies, the windsheer
just beyond the edges of your eyes. I have
woven well; I fly high enough.
Don't be afraid, old frog, when my cape
feathers out into wings and I plunge--
hook-beaked and taloned--down and down.
It is not your soft body I want: I will
rip flesh off one old corpse, I will lay
bare the bones of the matter. These are
my bones. I claim them: picked clean,