Noticing 2: walking with other species

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the dogs listen to the forest

In  my last post I was thinking about our observation of the world about us, and the other beings in it.  Here I want to consider how this noticing is shaped by the bodies we inhabit.

In the photo above, taken in a Scottish winter, the dogs are ahead of me on the forest path.  They are listening intently, their ears held erect and swivelling to hone in on interesting sounds in the thick of the trees.  While I am noticing the way the winter sun lights up the snowy path, and thickens the darkness of the surrounding forest, they are noticing the presence of other creatures within its dense growth.  As usual on our walks together, they are engaging with this place differently from me, using senses that are common to all us mammals, but differently attuned  Watching them respond to the world makes me aware of my own human-ness.

Wittgenstein said: ‘if a lion could talk, we could not understand him.’  Other species that dwell on this planet have their own cultures, interests and ways of communicating.  But he also said: ‘If I see someone writhing in pain with evident cause I do not think: all the same, his feelings are hidden from me.’    This is an example of a context in which we can understand the feelings of others, through their actions.  For this philosopher the context drives the communication. Regarding other species, we know the causes of many of our dogs actions because they are part of our daily lives. We share a long history together.

hare_hound getty.edu

medieval illumination http://www.getty.edu

As countless books demonstrate, we know a lot about this particular species, and they know a lot about us humans.  Alexandra Horowitz’s ‘Inside of a Dog’, for example, explores how dogs perceive their worlds and our relationships with them.  From childhood, we build up our consciousness of self and other through our interactions.  These interactions are not only with other humans, but also with other species and the plants and places we spend time with.

I am in a wood with the dogs and I have stepped to the side of the path and crouched down to look closely at some pale fungi sprouting from a fallen log.  The lurcher runs back to look for me.  I watch silently as she runs right past me, even though I am in plain sight.  I notice that she is looking upwards to a height which I realise is roughly where my eyes are when standing.  This unusual direction of her gaze makes visible my upright, two-legged position; how I carry my main sense and communication organs perched on the top of my body.   In contrast dogs mainly keep theirs close to the earth that their four limbs are firmly planted on.

garden and Shell Island August 2016 004

Their noticing is led by their noses, jampacked with sensory cells.  What makes a walk an aesthetic experience for me is most often what I see – the sunlight dancing on the water, the blue mountains melting into the far horizon.  The sharp tang of seaweed and salt water, or the coconut perfume of the gorse flowers may add to my pleasure.  For the dogs though, beauty is to be found in a heady mix of fragrances.  Potentially edible ones are exciting, maybe leading to a sun-cured rabbit carcass or the remains of a picnic.  Places frequented by other dogs are also of great interest to them, and they study the messages splashed onto gate posts and rocks with the same absorption as my contemplation of a graceful tree, or bank of bluebells.

As we walked along the river one day I glanced up the wooded slope to the right of the path.  Half way up, amongst the young saplings, my eyes slowly focussed on a motionless deer, almost blending into the dappled shade.  I then made out two more nearby, as immobile as statues.  The dogs were just in front of me, noses to the ground, unaware.  They discovered the scent trail of the deer some minutes later, by which time the deer had disappeared. 

Similarly, in another wood an old fox and I stared at each other for what seemed like a goodly amount of time, plenty enough for me to admire his red pelt and bushy tail.  I don’t know what he was thinking about me.  This silent interaction was abruptly terminated by the dogs rushing back down the path, ears and tails up, their noses now full of his particularly pungent perfume.  The fox made a quick exit through the undergrowth.  Dogs need movement to trigger their visual attention, whether they are looking for their human friend, or for the opportunity for the kind of chase that lies deep within their bones.

We humans also have in our minds imagination and language, through which we can enter into other consciousness, to amplify our perception of this world We use these for creative purposes as I said in the last post.  We are also slowly discovering that other species too have complex communication systems and creativity.  Sharing our time with other species can remind us that we are embodied beings too.

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Noticing 1

Arctic_Tern_141 IBC

from the International Bird Collection

This post is inspired by Mary Ruefle’s poem ‘After a Rain’ (Selected Poems, Wave Books, 2010), in which she explores being ‘a noticing kind of person‘.

Like the arctic tern in the photo above, many of Ruefle’s examples of noticing are grounded in observation.  Here is one of them:

………, I noticed an infant will grip your hand like
there is no tomorrow while the very aged
will give you a weightless grip for the same reason,

And here is a recent observation of mine, not so beautifully condensed as Ruefle’s.

I noticed that the heron on the other side of the canal did not flap away in the usual indignation as I passed by with the dogs.

heronandyholt_tcm9-52505

Grey heron by Andy Holt for RSPB.

On my return I checked and saw it in the same intent position. Moving on, a sharp splash made me look again, to see the heron backing away from the water’s edge, a flash of silver in its beak, and then its thin neck bulging as it swallowed.  I have passed countless solitary herons staring into the water, but this is the first time I’ve seen one get its reward.

In this kind of noticing we rely on our senses – sight, of course in my case, but also hearing, and touch in Ruefle’s consideration of  the grip of a hand.  Perhaps you can think of when smell or taste have been part of something you’ve noticed?

Ruefle also makes use of another type of noticing in her poem.  Here is an example:

……… and I noticed the road followed roughly
the route of a zipper around a closed case,

Here, you may say she is drawing on sight, but this is imaginary vision, a noticing that draws on her language knowledge to make new connections between things.  She also mixes the two kinds of noticing together – as in the first example ‘I noticed an infant will grip your hand like there is no tomorrow‘.  This kind of noticing is a primary staple of poems, of course, and is also part of the work of visual artists, using the power of image rather than words.  Louise Bourgeois’ work immediately sprang into my mind as I was thinking about this kind of noticing:

BOURgeois NY Times

One of Bourgeois’ spider works from the New York Times.

This kind of noticing is a creative process of course, and so here I am, thinking about creativity again, which wasn’t my initial intention in this post!  As such it needs a great deal more practice than those based on observation only, at least to make connections that open up the eyes and minds of the rest of us.  Here is another sculpture example, this time from Kiki Smith:

Rapture by Kiki Smith

 

My journals are jampacked with small incidents I have noticed.  They are there for me to remember and rejoice over, but these quickly written notebooks are not the place for this second kind of noticing, such as the kind of connections Mary Ruefle shares with us in her poems.  This kind of noticing makes me go ‘oh yes!’ as the image she has summoned up in words enters my mind, and I begin to savour the rich meanings invoked.

Honing our senses to notice what is going on around us is though, something we can all make more space for in our daily lives, and prepares the ground for the second kind.

Green Man: past and present

This is the Green Man that oversees my garden, courtesy of a local artist.

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I knew he had to be there as soon as I laid eyes on him, but I didn’t know much about his origins, apart from a vague association with pre-Christian beliefs.

UprootedSo I was happy to read Nina Lyon’s recently published book ‘UpRooted’.  This is a book about what little is known about this enigmatic figure, and its current revival.  It’s also about being English and Welsh in these first decades of this century and at times Lyon’s wry descriptions of some of our contemporary rites and rituals (and her own attempts to construct these) made me laugh out loud.  She weaves into these discussions of past and present philosophies about the relationships between Nature and spirituality.

This book is about place, as well as people and their ideas, especially the woods and valleys of the border lands between England and Wales, where the Green Man once had a significant presence.

She takes us to places where images of the Green Man were incorporated into the early medieval buildings of the newer Christian religion, in order, perhaps, to curtail the power of these earlier deities.

Her main focus is on the old kingdom of Archenfield, once a centre for Celtic beliefs, located in what we now call Herefordshire.  She takes us to Garway church, where there is a carving of a horned Green Man.  The church was built by the Knights Templar in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries on the site of an earlier wooden one, .

Garway_Church_-_Green_Man

By Kxjan – Photographed from ancient stone carving., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37015203

This early Green Man is on an arch dated to around 1200 and why he is there is not known, but the warring activities of the Templars connect this rural building and place with countries and beliefs far away to the East.  Lyon gives us a detailed description of this image in her book but I wanted to see him for myself, at least digitally for now.   That is the main reason I am writing this post – not to attempt to summarise Lyon’s book (I’d rather you read it for yourself), but to look at these Green men she discusses and reflect on some of what she says about them.

She also takes us to the nearby Kilpeck church, built by local masons in the twelfth century.  These masons are thought to have been overseen by someone who trained, or worked in South West France, so we can see how two small, institutional buildings were part of global networks and set me thinking of William Golding’s richly imaginative account of this earlier time of building in ‘The Spire’.  Like globalising movements today, Kilpeck shows us the local in the global with its rich carvings from pre-Christian life and worship.  There are at least two Green Men, among a wonderful array of Celtic images.  Here is the one you see on the doorway, before going in:

Kilpeck_Green_Man

Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=434197

These two powerful images in Garway and Kilpeck are given a more abstracted, distancing human form, in strikingmy garden 2010 comparison to the contemporary Green Man who guards the fertility of my small garden, and oversees my desire to encourage wildness within it, with as light a management as my neighbours will tolerate.

However, the Green Man that was originally on the roof of Dore Abbey, built in the same century as those above, is more recognisably human and approachable :

This is what Nina Lyons says about this Green Man:

He had the demeanour of a laughing Buddha, or an anthropomorphised Sun. This was the Green Man of pub signs and summer-worship.

He is a Green Man made by the Cistercians, formed from within their beliefs of working with the land, and with animals, his smile and colour symbolising the beneficence of Nature, with blue skies and rich harvests.  He reminds me of the version of the old Roman god, Bacchus, who officiated over the drinking of wine and free for all sex, the powers of fertility and creation.  The two Green Men of Garway and Kilpeck, in contrast, index the havoc-wreaking power of Nature we have no control over – the roaring winds, the floods and droughts, the tree roots cracking through concrete and the joyous mass of plants that take back places we have abandoned.

I would like to know what the people who made these images called them, what the people who went into these buildings during that time thought and said about them in their Welsh or medieval English tongues.  They certainly wouldn’t have called them ‘the Green Man’.  As Lyon said, this is a very recent name, invented by Julia Hamilton, writing about folklore in 1939.  Lyon argues that much of the writing about figures such as the Green Man, like Hamilton’s, and those of the Late Victorian, have created new myths, based on speculation, because all we have is a diverse set of images like the ones I have included here, and a rag-bag of remnants of old tales and rites.

Still, as Lyon says, the Green Man himself, representing our relationship with the very force or soul of Nature, has always been with us, ‘It had been there all along, hidden at the edges, doing its own thing, like a wild man of the woods.

These days he is coming out of the edges and into our garden centres and our festivals in new forms, as this photo from the Pilton Green Man day shows.   I think the Green Man, in his multiple guises, is as important for us today as he was to our ancestors, local and global.

Here is a friend’s Green Man,  who watches over her garden – a very ‘foliate’ man, but also less alien than the early medieval representations. green man Mary

 

Green Man 2013 by Mary

In praise of trees

Eaves wood, Lancs.

Eaves Wood, Lancashire

‘The Chinese count wood as the fifth element, and Jung considered trees as an archetype. Nothing can compete with these larger-than–life organisms for signalling the changes in the natural world. (…) Trees have a capacity to rise to the heavens and to connect us to the sky, to endure, to renew, to bear fruit, and to burn and warm us through the winter.’
Roger Deakin, ‘Wildwood’.

I can’t imagine living without trees.  As a child I used to climb them, and feel safe among the green leaves, hidden from view and supported by their strong limbs.  As an adult I walk in local woods and make trips to visit venerable and ancient trees.

Martindale yew, Cumbria

Martindale yew, Cumbria

This is one huge branch of the ancient yew tree at Martindale, in the Lake District, reaching out to support itself.    The stone chapel you can see in the photo was built in the twelfth century to accompany it and together they have co-existed in this small Cumbrian valley down the centuries.

This yew could be up to 2000 years old, like at least one of the three remaining standing of Wordsworth’s ‘Fraternal Four’ in Borrowdale, which I also had the privilege to visit.  I was lucky enough to be alone with them for a few hours one Christmas day, probably because it was pouring with rain.  The muscled, reddish-brown trunks glistened with raindrops as the wind blew curtains of rain through the valley.  Hard it was to take in the length of time they had spent in this place, shaped it.  Beneath the wind and rain, in the shelter of these huge yews, there was a hush, a serenity, that these old beings emanated.  I felt that Wordsworth might step out of the mist and into this grove, notebook in hand, as he did a mere one and a half centuries earlier.

Nan Shepherd (The Living Mountain) said of the fir trees of the Cairngorms:

‘the fragrance is the sap, is the very life itself. When the aromatic savour of the pine goes searching into the deepest recesses of my lungs, I know it is life that is entering.’

On that wild winter day in Borrowdale I felt that I was touching, and breathing in, not life, but the essence of time itself.

autumn woods

autumn woods

Walking through woods is a sensual experience, whatever the season.

Kicking up piles of crisp, golden leaves, hopping over knotted roots, listening to the woodpecker’s energetic drilling, breathing in the heady scent of bluebells or wild garlic, Middlewood walk May 2015 002tiptoeing past the tree hollow with its nest of shy owlets, sitting on a fallen log listening to the intense summer hum of insects, 2007_0922septemberB070034glimpsing a fox with a glorious brush tail pause as it sees you and the dogs then silently slip away,  resting in the cool green shade on a hot day, rejoicing in the shapely, frosted outlines of bare trees shimmering in the low winter sun.

Here is Nan Shepherd again, on the magic of birch woods:

‘Exquisite when the opening leaves just fleck them with points of green flame, or the thinning leaves turn them to a golden lace, (birch trees) are loveliest of all when naked. In a low sun, the spun silk floss of their twigs seems to be created out of light. Without transfiguration, they are seen to be purple – when the sap is rising, a purple so glowing that I have caught sight of a birchwood on a hillside and for one incredulous moment thought the heather was in bloom.’  (The Living Mountain).

Woods in the daytime and at dusk, woods in winter, spring, summer and autumn – Midsummer Night’s Dream, Under the Greenwood Tree, Wind in the Willows, Teddybears’ picnic….. but what about woods when darkness falls, when Hansel and Gretel are lost, the owls call and mysterious shapes loom in the shadows?

fir wood in Dumfries and Galloway

fir wood in Dumfries and Galloway

When the light goes, and the trees become an undifferentitiated dark mass then all the sounds in a wood become more noticeable, and the imagination gears up.  Where our eyes could see the crows on the low branches, now we only hear the rustle of bush and leaf.  Where we could see the path stretching out empty, now who knows what may be ahead or behind us?  Our imagination – or at least, my imagination – has been fed by all those old fairy tales I read as a child.  Tales that go way back into the past when stories were told, not written, and we all lived surrounded by large dark forests, where you really could get lost, meet strangers, face danger.

2014-04-22 15 05 23As Clarissa Pinkola Estes describes when discussing the tale of the handless maiden, these forests were often the very places where the protagonists had to face their fears and discover their individual psyche or self (Women who run with the wolves):

This large wild forest that the maiden finds is the archetypal sacred initiatory ground.  It is like Leuce, the wild forest the ancient Greeks said grew in the underworld, filled with the sacred and ancestral trees and full of beasts, both wild and human.

It is also in the middle of forests that you need to go to seek out the Baba Yaga, the wild woman who knows about both life and death, learn the powers of intuition, as part of your journey towards maturation.

Spending time in the much smaller woods we have around us today, working to protect them, getting a little lost in the process of getting to know them in all their seasons, is one way to get to know yourself, as well as the trees that create the enchantment of these special places.  Clarissa Pinkola Estes urges us to go out into the woods;

If you don’t go out in the woods, nothing will ever happen and your life will never begin.’  (Clarissa Pinkola Estes)

crab apples

crab apples

Post election reflections: shedding the ego

Dama by Antonio Saura 1958

Dama by Antonio Saura 1958

Since the election results in the UK those of us in England who are passionate about caring for all the species on our planet, have been full of despair. Those of us in England who are trying to build an egalitarian society, where all can flourish, have been full of despair. During the election the atmosphere throughout this long island has been suffused with fear and anxiety and negative campaigning.  That’s why I have started this post with one of Antonio Saura’s powerful works. They show, in a way I can’t with words, my current feelings of alienation – through his strong thick brush strokes, his sober palette of colours, his sharp edges.  The white strokes caught up, overwhelmed, in this jangle signify, for me, the glimmer of hope shared by many of us as we went to vote.

Time, I thought, to turn back to Roy Bhaskar. Could he help free me from these negative feelings? Help me struggle out of the mires of defeat and find ways to carry forward our vision without acrimony?

He reminds me that to be is to be related.

He reminds me that I cannot myself be free or fulfilled until all beings are also free and fulfilled.

He reminds me of the role of the ‘ego’ that is so self-evident in the voting patterns at the outcome of this election.  Here is his description of this, from ‘Reflections on Meta-Reality’, page 137:

It is that sense we have of ourselves as separate and cut off from the rest of creation, that sense of my separate identity against yours. That sense that in some way I can exist independently of you and that you are not a part of me and that in some way my well being does not depend on your well being. That is the ego. Western philosophy and our contemporary society is structured around the idea of the individual self which possesses. And this individual possessive self stands in possessive, instrumental relation to an object world which is outside of himself. (……….) That is the ego, that is the sense of separateness that we have, and that is an illusion and, to be free, we have to get rid of it.

He reminds me that we all have to be continually working to be aware of our own negative emotions that come from our egos, and continually clearing them in order to become ‘like a translucent vessel with no dust to disturb its translucent irradiating qualities.’  In that way we each can act to transform rather than reproduce the current social structures we are working in.

He reminds me that

the only way you can act, ever act, is through yourself. You can only act through or in virtue of your embodied personality. (..) I can only act through myself and then I cannot free you. I can unlock the door but you have to walk out. Emancipation or freedom is not something that can be imposed from without. Every embodied personality has to free themselves.(p. 147)

I can only act myself but I can always try to act to maximise the self-realisation of all beings everywhere.

He argues that capitalism is fed by the negative emotions of the ego – desires, greed, pride but also reminds us that it is also sustained by the virtues of creativity and love of those enmeshed within its asymmetrical networks.

Creative human beings could survive without oppressive or dysfunctional systems of economic or political or for that matter religious management and control. But those systems could not survive without the creativity of human agents. (pp. 316-7, meta-Reality: Creativity, Love and Freedom)

He reminds me that I need to continually be aware of my own illusory, but powerful ego; that I need to continually clear it so that my acts can be transformative.  ‘Anything you do intentionally will be mediated by your emotions’.

I will finish this post with the essential quality of love, which for Bhaskar is the powerful, healing force at the ground-state of us all:

I prefer to think in terms of five radiating circles of love. When you are in one circle this will almost inevitably take you into other circles. These circles are the circle of love for yourself; for another human being; for the totality of other human beings; for the totality of other beings in creation; and for the source or sustaining power in creation itself (p.181, meta-Reality: Creativity, Love and Freedom).

Drum sound rises in the air,               

its throb, my heart.September 2011 Essex and Suffolk 003

A voice inside the beat

says ‘I know you’re tired,

but come. ‘This is the way’.

Jellaludin Rumi, quoted by Bhaskar in meta-Reality: Creativity, Love and Freedom)

Watching the terns

clouds and sea

I stood, a small static spot in the wide sweep of
the white sand and seething sea, amazed by
the show as terns flew above the shore and hurtled
into the waves below.

J.Audubon 'Birds of America'

J.Audubon ‘Birds of America’

These agile artists etched erratic silver
streaks into the deep blue canvas of the
sky; haphazard strokes connecting sunlight to salt grey
water, then dissolving.

Sometimes my slow eyes could only catch the quick
flick of sea foam as these sea swallows plunged beneath
the waves, creating sporadic explosions
of stippled spray.

The bravura patterns of moving light, made from these
acrobats’ sheer steep falls from the air, are seasonal star
performances within the eternal drama of sea and sky unfolding
on Embleton sands.

But these winged artists also use a different set of rules to
draw on land, I found, while loitering along the shore and
snooping into rock pools. At the water’s edge I saw
a pair of terns begin their act.

First they faced each other, then
each turned to sketch a perfect
circle on the wave polished sand.

Facing each other once more
they dipped their heads and brought
the tips of their beaks together,
before each carefully stepped out
and round their circle again,

incising their spiked claw prints,
firming, confirming, returning.
Finally they stood close together
looking out to sea, two small grey
backs resolutely excluding me.

from the International Bird Collection

from the International Bird Collection

The nonchalant ease of their plummeting sky falls and careful
courtship circles kept me returning to these sands, trying to
interpret these abstract forms produced from
their briny elements.

sea and skyI watched these terns on Embleton Sands, Northumberland, but I was so busy ‘snooping’ that I didn’t take photos while there.  For this post I have used photos of another sea on the opposite side of England, on Morecambe Bay.  There are no terns here, sadly, but there are shorelines, sands, clouds and big skies.  The photo above was taken, not by me, but by a friend (thanks Mary) on a a late afternoon walk we shared, walking around just one small part of it.

In memoriam: Roy Bhaskar

roy-bhaskar

Roy Bhaskar 1944-2014

‘We have to see the natural and social dimensions of existence as in continuous dynamic causal interaction. Thus, not only are many ‘natural’ ills and disasters socially produced, but social production may have absolute natural limits and conditions.’ (Reclaiming Reality, chapter 1, 1989).

 

 For this first blog of 2015 I am starting with an ending – the sad death of Roy Bhaskar, philosopher, on 19th November, 2014.

Roy was an intellectual, thoroughly at home in the debate and discussion of abstract concepts, but also a fierce fighter to make our social world a more equal and sustainable place. His theories are intended to serve this cause – to show the social world is a place of difference, but can be one where every individual has the opportunity for well-being. He argued for a ‘richer understanding’ of both individuality and collectivity (‘Reclaiming Reality, 1989).

I was privileged to attend a series of seminars he gave in 2006, and experienced some of his ‘almost preternatural kindness’, (David Graebur in his obituary in The Guardian http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/dec/04/roy-bhaskar), when talking to him about my own work. His theories of meta-Reality helped me make sense of my own exploration of individuals who try to break out of social norms and, indeed, make sense of my own life, especially through his books ‘meta-Reality: Creativity, Love and Freedom’ and ‘Reflections on meta-Reality’.

He was steeped in knowledge of Western philosophy, and that makes most of his books difficult to read for those of us without a philosophical grounding . But his own individual circumstances – his intellectual abilities, and his mixed cultural heritage (his father was born in India), gave him alternative perspectives and he used these to build his critique of Western traditions of thought. His intellectual depth and honesty led him into work that is ground-breaking, and therefore, beyond the comprehension of some of his fellow philosophers.

He leaves a unique gap in the world but his work lives on to inspire us and continue learning from.

We do not create society – the error of voluntarism. But these structures which pre-exist us are only reproduced or transformed in our everyday activities; thus society does not exist independently of human agency – the error of reification. The social world is reproduced or transformed in daily life.’ (‘Reclaiming Reality, 1989).

 

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