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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Facing my fears for 2017 with the help of Goya’s painting of ‘the dog’.

I’ve recently been thinking of Goya’s painting of ‘the dog’, the simplest of what are called his black paintings, which he painted on the walls of his house in his last years.

goyas-drowning-dog

Goya’s ‘The Dog’, from the Prado Museum website

All his dark paintings were taken from these walls after his death, and placed in the Prado Museum, Madrid, even though Goya did not necessarily intend them for public view.

It was Laurie Anderson talking about this painting in her personal film essay ‘the heart of a dog’, that made me look it again, as we were nearing the end of 2016.  Like Laurie Anderson, I find that I learn a lot from living alongside dogs, and I have a great love and respect for them.  Perhaps that is why this image of a small dog’s head, submerged in amorphous matter,  makes an emotional impact on me.  In addition, I have been looking at it whilst full of fear for what 2017 will bring – to the UK, the USA, all countries they are connected to; and fear for this lovely planet they are part of.  This small grey dog speaks my fears back to me.

I read its eyes as full of fear, and that this is reinforced through the rest of the painting.  Goya has painted the dog as alone, its body sunk in murky matter.  He has positioned it near the bottom of the wall, just off-centre, facing a rising level of this brown stuff, as if it is about to be enveloped within it.  Trying to describe this painting, to transform it into words, is not straightforward.  No wonder John Berger pointed out

Seeing comes before words

in his seminal TV series and book ‘Ways of Seeing’, way back in the last century (the book I am using was published by the BBC in 1972).

I want to bring in Berger’s work here because it is still highly relevant, but also to mark his recent death at the age of ninety.  He lived his life to the full and used his vision and gift for words to make this human world a kinder, more thoughtful one.

goyas-dog-croppedBerger urged us to consider the context of any painting, as part of its meaning, especially when viewing a reproduction of it, rather than the original, where the work of the painter – the brushstrokes, and colours, close the time gap between the painter and the viewer, and make the communication much more immediate.  That is why I said above that this painting, and all the paintings he did on the walls of this house on the edge of Madrid, were painted for himself, and we have no information about whether he wanted others to look at them, especially in a museum, where they were changed from murals to pictures hung on walls as ‘works of art’.  What we do know is that he had recently recovered from a serious illness before painting them; had gone deaf; that he had experienced the horrors of war in his lifetime, and that the political situation in Spain was very unstable.  A Liberal government that was in power when he he was painting his walls with many disturbing scenes was, in fact, overturned shortly after he moved away.  There are some parallels here between his world and ours, don’t you think? These experiences fed into his painting of the little grey dog.

But the meanings of any image are not fixed by the creator, of course.  The viewer brings to this dialogue their own knowledge and their personal emotional state.  For example, Jonathon Jones, writing about this picture in the Guardian (‘Goya in hell’, 4/10/15), describes the dog thus

Its grey head pokes defiantly out of the brown sludge.

goyas-dog-cropped

 Jones sees defiance where I see fear.  What do you see?

What none of us see, at this moment of reading, is the original mural, or even the painting it was trasformed into.  We are looking at a digital copy – a type of reproduction Berger knew nothing about when discussing the proliferation of reproductions of paintings back then.  He was arguing that the ready availibility of these reproductions needed to be accompanied by a similar spread of knowledge about what the artists were trying to achieve, and how, and the political and art history they are situated in, and communicating about.  He wanted to take this knowledge out of the hands of an elite few, so that:

we could begin to define our experiences more precisely in areas where words are inadequate. (Seeing comes before words.) Not only personal experience, but also the essential historical experiences of our relation to the past: that is to saythe experience of trying to understand the history of which we can become the active agents.

Now we have the internet, and wikipedia, and museum websites we have instant access to a huge amount of the world’s art, and also to that previously elite knowledge.  I can use this, as I am now, to get to know a painting in which I recognise an experience of anxiety that reaches across time, and death, to connect us.  Goya was trying to deal with old age and illness when he painted this, which I have tet to face, but we share the turbulence of political instabilty caused by the strong drives we humans have to split ourselves into distinct groups of ‘us and them’, so we project our own fears onto others.

The first digital copy of this painting I looked at showed an area at the top of the wall, to the right, as painted a lighter, creamy brown than the rest, almost as if there was a distant sun struggling to penetrate the murk surrounding the small dog – a suggestion of light which the dog’s gaze could reach.  This prompted me to read the possibility of hope as part of the meaning of this work of Goya’s.  But looking at a range of digital copies, and learning more about the painting, and the painter, has led me to dismiss this reading as due to the vagaries of the software rather than as part of Goya’s own work at that time of his life.  I wish I could confirm this with a trip to Madrid, but that will have to wait.

goyas-dog-croppedThere does not seem to be much historical data about this series of murals, which ‘the dog’ is part of, and some even dispute that Goya painted them.  Goya left behind no words of commentary or explanation, or, at least, none have been discovered yet.  He has, though, left us this memorable image of a small grey dog alone in an uninviting space, and this expresses some of my emotional state at the beginning of 2017, as well as his own two hundred years ago.  Getting to know this painting has helped me situate my own fears and consider my own finiteness.  It has also helped me through the absences, through what is not included in the painting.  Dogs and humans work very well together,they build reciprocal relationships, but the human companion, who could encourage the dog to get out of the murk, is absent.  What is missing from this painting is any reference to all the amazing endeavour that is helping us understand how interconnected we all are, and how we must keep facing difficult issues together.  Goya was expressing a despair we can all recognise.  Understanding our feelings is important, but so is what we do next.

from http://www.hiraeth.wales/2011/11/07/wales-greenham-common-and-occupy/

Women working together at Greenham Common

our musical selves

georges-braque-www-guggenheim-org

Georges Braque ‘Guitar, Glass and Fruit Dish on Sideboard from http://www.guggenheim.org

I have been thinking for some time of writing about music as part of our set of ‘selves’, long before Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel prize for Literature!  Since music is an everyday part of most people’s lives, and universal to all cultures in our diverse human world, it should have its own space on this blog.

Music is certainly the basis for more than one of my everyday identities.  For over ten years I’ve been a member of a variety of local choirs, formal and informal. (I am currently part of a small ‘chamber’ choir).  With these different groups I have sung a wide range of music from traditional African songs to large, choral works by Berlioz, Handel, Karl Jenkins, and Brahms.

193222batala-croppedA year ago I also joined a samba/reggae drum band and entered into a new world of rhythms and movement.  According to Ian Cross, a musicologist, the Igbo word, nqwa, which we translate as ‘music’, encompasses singing, playing instruments and dancing.  The sum of these is what ‘music’ means to these people in Nigeria.  Singing is a tiny part of the music we make in the band, but choreographed movement is as important as the drumming, unlike the choir, where embodied action is much more static, and concerned with the lungs, throat and mouth rather than the whole body.  Being part of this band, and performing outside of buildings, in our public spaces, feels like this wider kind of music making, which is not surprising as our rhythms originate from the mixed cultural spaces of North Brazil.

After lengthy periods of ‘apprenticeship’, I can now say I belong to both of these groups.  They draw on quite separate parts of the local community, and my ‘drumming’ self feels distant from my ‘choir’ self – two groups of people making different kinds of music that draw on distinct cultural traditions and networks.

LIPS Choir

Lips Choir, London, (not one of the choirs I have been a member of), photo taken by Michael Eden, on Timeout blog 2014

There is little spatial or social overlap between the two, yet, I move comfortably between them, unifying them within my particular body and mind, and adding them to my other ‘selves’ that I have chosen, or inherited.

For most of my life though, I didn’t actively make music – I was not able to think of myself as having anything ‘musical’ to contribute.  Possibly, I was too busy taking risks in other ways.  But music has always been a part of my everyday life, intertwined with all my experiences, through listening, and through dancing.  Certain concerts I’ve been to are like memory markers in my mind – such as those by Leonard Cohen and Salif Keita in Barcelona, and Ella Fitzgerald in Manchester – mental places I can go back to, and catch the ghosts of fleeting happiness.

Music, however you define it, is, of course, so important in our lives because of its intimacy with our emotions.  It expresses them, and produces them in the listeners, in complex ways. Ludwig Wittegenstein, who could be said to be an epitome of ‘the intellectual’, spending his life wrestling with theory, was also passionate about music (although he limited this passion to a handful of German composers such as Beethoven, Mozart and Brahms).  His involvement in this music was as just as intense as his engagement with trying to change the way we see things, such as the language we use.  He became a ‘virtuoso’ whistler, and could whistle whole movements of symphonies.  Listening to, and performing music in this way helped him through his periods of black despair and depression.

Apparently, some evolutionary theorists argue that music is just a ‘by-product’ of other human survival competencies, because it does not ‘produce’ anything essential to survival. They say its disappearance from our worlds would change nothing.  For me, this kind of reasoning results from a detachment from the theorists’ own bodies and emotions, and from the everyday world that surrounds them.  It ignores the ways music can rescue us from emotional darkness, as it did with Wittgenstein,  as well as the ways it is threaded through our celebrations on being alive, of longing and belonging.

vermeer-the-concert

Jan Vermeer ‘The music lesson’ from commons.wikimedia.org

Reading

‘Music, Cognition, Culture, and Evolution’.  Ian Cross, Annals New York Academy of Sciences, 2006, 930.

‘The Imaginary African: Music, identity and Race’.  Nicholas Cook, Samuel Colerigde-Taylor Newsletter, 2015, 38.

‘Ludwig Wittgenstein: the duty of genius.’  Ray Monk, 1990, Vintage.

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

Skerton Weir July 2014

I wrote this description of a place where I often walk as a result of attending a course run by Aberystwyth University called ‘Writing Ecology: writing your square mile’.  The tutor was the Welsh poet Chris Kinsey.  It was held at Gladstone’s library in Flintshire (www.gladstoneslibrary.org) ; a unique place to stay, especially if you have some writing to do.

It is an early July afternoon and the sun is hot. I walk towards the roar of the weir through a patch of scrubby willow and alder that flanks the west bank of the Lune below the blocks of council housing. A small island sits just below the weir and there are always water birds on its stony shore or in the sheltered shallow water of the channel on this side. Today I see nine mute swans, one Canada goose, one grey heron, one coot, a colourful male wigeon and the usual bunch of mallards, mostly drab brown females. A good collection.

painting by Bob Armitage

‘Weir at Skerton’ by Bob Armitage You can see more of his work at http://bankroadarts.webplus.net

My personal name for this scrap of land in the river is ‘Heron Island’ because I nearly always see herons here. Today’s lone heron is unusual. I have counted up to fourteen of them on this side of the island. They often stand in a ragged line along the stony shore, shoulders hunched, inscrutable, like small versions of the Easter Island statues.

While I am counting the birds, three cormorants rise up from the far side of the island, and fly upstream, sinuous black arrows against the blue sky. I walk on and can now see the weir wall. The brown Lune waters turn a steely grey as they pour over the weir. There was a lot of rain yesterday and the river is high. This fast flowing freshwater meets the salty sea here, below the weir, at high tide and then flows under the four city bridges before it broadens into estuary and enters Morecambe Bay.
To continue above the weir I have to go back up to the road that runs along the river and skirt round the edge of the sluice gate pond before dropping back down to the river bank. On the pavement I look down into the deep pool with its rusty iron footbridge arching over it. Cars pass by behind me as I admire the first yellow flowers of the water lilies, and the fresh green of the reeds bordering the pool, not yet overcome by the Himalayan balsam that is now entrenched along both river banks.
The pool is still and seemingly empty in the sunshine. I think back to a chilly January afternoon at the beginning of this year. I was heading back past the pool after a brisk winter walk with my dogs. A tree trunk was half submerged in it, swept downstream by storms and caught by the weir. A circle of large ripples was widening on the surface of the water. I stopped to look. There must be something big in there. I waited, and the ripples continued to grow. In the middle of them a patch of what looked like muddy brown fur appeared briefly. Not a fish then. After a few more glimpses of brown fur I found myself looking directly at a large otter as it poked its head above the water, looked around and then dived back under the tree. This was my first view of one of otters now settled further up the Lune, and at such an unexpected spot, where the river meets the edge of the town. The otter was exploring the pool, continually diving and surfacing, only a few feet away on the other side of the stone wall. It suddenly started to rain, sharp cold bullets of water, and my old dogs, oblivious to the presence of the otter, grew restive. Reluctantly I walked on, leaving the otter to its search.

Today, in very different weather, I walk on past the calm pool and down onto the path leading upstream. The river is wide here above the weir, its fast flow held back by the two curving arms of the weir walls, with the wide fish ladder in the middle, welcoming the salmon home. Although these walls were constructed only about sixty years ago there have been weirs here since at least medieval times. There are a group of seven more swans on the far side of the river, close to the wooded bank that hides the industrial estate behind it. We have altered the shape and flow of the river but every time I walk here it feels like this watery place is the dominion of the fish that leap in and out of the water and the water birds and other creatures and insects that live on it.

Skerton Weir, SD4863 © Copyright Ian Taylor and licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Licence (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/)

I walk on up the river, onto the aqueduct that carries canal water over river water, and back along the other side. As I reach the weir wall on that side two cormorants launch into the air in front of me. They check their flight until a third flies up to join them. Are these the same birds I saw at the beginning of my walk? They fly downstream, marking my way home.