The calculus of luck

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Ungrateful keyboard! I wake myself up two hours early to write and all you can do is sit there. Your so-called keys stay locked. My brain says write, my heart says hum to yourself.

The new snow stopped falling sometime in the night and a few stars were blinking in and out of the clouds by 5:00. Every snowfall has its own properties; this one brings the trains closer and drives the gurgle of the stream farther away. As I sat out on the porch with my coffee I was admiring as I do so often the unique pitch of each eastbound locomotive whistling the crossings: Bellwood, Tipton, Grazierville, Tyrone, Plummer’s Hollow, Birmingham. Now all I can do is sit here and hum, writing about writing about nothing. Because important things have been happening too fast for me to record, unless I were to turn myself into a writing machine with no time left over to experience anything except in retrospect. So I guess I’ll have to break an unwritten rule here and resort to bullet points, so as not to forgo all mention of:

~ The courtship flights of the woodcock at dusk almost every evening for the past week – the way it can slip in and out of sight against the almost-dark clouds, the sudden transition from strange nasal peent to the rapid piccolo it makes somehow with its wings, rushing across the sky in wide arcs like a released balloon

~ The week-long Visit of the Beloved Granddaughter (my niece Eva) from Mississippi, and her 8th birthday celebration yesterday in the snow she welcomed as “a present from God – I mean from Santa!”

~ The scavenger hunt for birthday presents, and the riddles my dad and I had dreamed up for clues leading from one present to the next all over the farm

~ Some of the things collected before the snow fell: ruffed grouse feathers; jawbones from winter-killed deer; bird’s nests; a large handful of wild grape tendrils, each one an eloquent restatement of the beauty in clinging, the unique possibilities of attachment

~ My mother saying yesterday morning as the birds mobbed the strewn seeds: “I wonder if a fox sparrow will show up today?” and a fox sparrow showing up two hours later, obligingly digging his trademark holes in the snow, the song sparrows and juncos giving him a wide wake

~ The very punctual return of the eastern phoebe in the middle of the snowstorm. I was attending to e-mail yesterday afternoon when he landed on a branch of the mulberry sapling right outside the window where I type and flicked his tail up and down three times.

It’s light now and I can see what the night brought: just the barest additional skim of snow on top of yesterday’s five inches. Today, we’re off to Penn State to visit museums – always a fun thing to do in the company of a bright and inquisitive 8-year-old.

I don’t get to enjoy the company of children very often – especially children who love nature, poetry and all the other things that exercise the imagination. So naturally I’ve been enjoying the excuse to relive my childhood for a few days (who knew that tinkertoys could still be so much fun?!). Fueling my enthusiasm, too, is the marvelous, multi-authored literary experiment unfolding over at Commonbeauty, “The Archaeology of Childhood.” The entries are in the form of personal letters between participants, describing an illness or an affliction suffered during the writer’s childhood and what it meant to him or her. The results have been very moving – not a dud yet. As Tom Montag observed a couple days ago, this is an experiment that takes advantage of the unique possibilities of the blogosphere for spontaneity and immediacy.

I believe today will see the seventh and final installment of this unique experiment, so if you have the time to stop over you can read the whole series from start to finish.

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When I began thinking about luck yesterday it was with a specific destination in mind, but I ended up somewhere else instead. I’ll start again, with the “reprint” of an essay off my other website that’s also in the spirit of the archaeology of childhood. This was written in January of last year, as the chorus of harpies calling for “shock and awe” in Baghdad was rising to a crescendo.

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RATS IN THE WOODPILE

There were always rats in the barn when I was a kid. We kept the chicken feed in wooden bins reinforced with sheet metal but they still managed to chew through. My father said that a Norway rat could chew a hole in a lead pipe in twelve hours, and I believed him. He put out d-con rat poison, but it never got them all. We tried not to think about how it worked: slow death by dehydration.

Then when we cleaned out the shed, we found dozens of mummified rats hidden in the scrapwood pile. My brothers and I kept the most gruesome examples for a long time, bringing them out to show visitors. The mummies were completely hairless, and their tough yellow-brown hides made them seem less animal than vegetable, dried seed husks or corn stalks in winter. Except, that is, for their heads, the place where their eyes had been. “Look at this one! It’s still got all its teeth!” “Why is it grinning like that?”

The rats had excavated an extensive subway system connecting barn, shed, and compost heap. The only way to catch more than a glimpse was to sit very still in the basement of the barn for a while, for instance with a loaded .22. They were part of the natural order of things, and it never occurred to me that they could die out. But one day a few years after we stopped keeping chickens and the raccoons killed the last of our Muscovy ducks, I realized there weren’t any more rats around. Their major tunnel entrances were all grown up with weeds.

My niece Eva comes to visit at least once a year, at Christmas. Two years ago, when she was four, she and her Uncle Steve discovered a mummified duck under the hay in the barn basement. Something had eaten half its face, but otherwise it was in pretty good shape. Eva was fascinated. Every day for the rest of her visit she would beg to be taken down to the barn to see the dead duck. Nor was it a passing fancy–a year later she was still visiting it faithfully at its resting-place on the hay of the next-to-last stall.

Had I been thinking, I probably could have predicted that Eva’s first poem would include a duck–very much alive, with ducklings in tow. In my family, we’re fond of attempting such auguries about people, about the weather, about world affairs, though we never bet any money on them. For major events, like elections or impending wars, everyone will predict a different outcome.

These days, there’s fierce competition for the worst-case scenario. No one actually wants it to come true, of course–in fact, some of us cling to the notion that a bad thing can’t happen if it has been fully exposed in advance. But even if it does come to pass, someone at least can enjoy the brief frisson of its discovery. “Why is it grinning like that?”

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This brings me to what I wanted to mention in yesterday’s post: the role of luck/grace in the birthing of any truly original poem or work of art. I don’t mean to discount the importance of practice, practice, practice. In fact, I think that Pasteur’s dictum, “Chance favors the prepared mind,” perfectly captures the relationship of preparation to inspired discovery. All I’m saying is that such discovery is utterly chancey – as my experience this morning with the mute keyboard reconfirms. And that it comes from some specific place, some spot in the in-between of earth and sky: all genius was originally of place. The word applied to the production of an artist only by the once-conventional presumption that inspiration is (as its eymology still implies) a species of possession.

I had been invited to participate in a poetry reading for State College’s First Night celebration a year ago, and as usual I brought my audience with me in the form of the extended family. Eva was then six going on seven and wanted to know what kind of tree was this “poetry” I was going to read about. She sat with me in the front row throughout the entire two-hour reading – a fairly hyper, high-energy kid who is also blessed with the ability to concentrate. A month or two later, her daddy helped her type her very first poem and I proudly e-mailed it around to all my friends. She hasn’t written anything like it since, and I have no intention of pushing her.

[untitled]
by Eva Bonta (6 going on 7 years old)

How would it be to smell
like a flower and the petals
fall off from cold wet breeze
pink and silver yellow.

The birds fly up to
their nest as hot as the
sun with their hot smooth
egg. The frog at the
pond croaked once more
as the Duck with her
Duck-lings go silently to
bed when the moon is
yellow.

In the evening news

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

What happens in the meantime has nothing to do with us. The wide-eyed stories about angelic visitations are all beside the point, and here’s why. All day Tuesday the tundra swans streamed north, great “V”s each some fifty birds strong, with two, three, sometimes as many as four flocks strung out across the sky at the same time. You hear them first, high notes from a tuneless music of the soul, as if all the klezmer clarinets in the world had decided to start talking at the same time.

Hearing the first few distant notes you scan the sky, clear but for a scrim of cloud along the horizon. There! Bring the binoculars up: my god. Long white tireless wings going wft wft wft, outstretched necks tipped in a black you can’t quite see against the blue, bodies white, so white the contrast with the sky almost hurts the eyes. They’re rowing, you think. They’re singing as they go, like all good boatmen. Flotillas of kayaks in the sky’s unending lake.

They’ve spent the winter in the inland waterways of the mid-Atlantic coast and now the tundra is calling them from two thousand miles away. Get a map and draw a straight line between the huge impoundment at Middle Creek in southeastern Pennsylvania and Lake Erie: it’ll go right over our mountaintop farm. And when the swans go they all go together, lifting off from Middle Creek in a dizzying rush of thousands all at once, I’m told. Some spring I will have to go there with our birder friends who make the pilgrimage every year – not to watch so much as to listen. I want to hear how such liquid fluting gets transformed all of a sudden into a rhythmless symphony for brushes on still air.

I went for a walk in the starlight around 8:00 p.m., stood in the woods for a while and listened as the flocks kept going over, straining my eyes, focusing on one part of the sky to try and catch the blink of stars crossed by wings. A great-horned owl was booming from just over the ridge: odd juxtaposition, but of course in Nature there’s no such thing as dissonance (though no harmony, either, except in retrospect).

Wednesday morning when I sat outside at 5 a.m. the swans were still going over. I thought about the day ahead in which I would go off to a conference held by and for biologists and bureaucrats from the state and federal wildlife agencies. Long talks filled with acronyms and plastic words like develop, manage, enhance. Language like a cold fog. Power that points, projected toward horizons that can by definition never be reached. If we could only leap – just for a moment! – into the unimaginable waters of the mind of a swan! I am reminded of the title of a book I once looked at, on the history of Buddhism in America: How the White Swans Came to the Lake. Does Buddhism tell us anything useful about the minds of animals, I wonder? I think it merely repeats that old rumor, the one so many wildlife managers regard as the most dangerous heresy: that animal minds are no different from ours in their original clarity, their wildness.

So all night while we slept there were swans going over the house, way up over everything. This thought is beyond humbling. I think of some of what they have to cross in the course of their journey and it makes me weep, right there on the porch, clutching my coffee cup.

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The evening before, during a lull in the music I had walked on up to the top of the ridge and looked at the lights for a while. It’s a farm valley; the lights are yard lights put up supposedly to discourage burglars and vandals. Over the past 10 years as the Amish have moved in these lights have dwindled, at the same time that the town on the other side of the ridge has installed street lights so bright the whole northern portion of the night sky is lost. The spreading darkness in this valley seems especially friendly to me because we’ve gotten to know these new neighbors better than we ever knew our old ones, whom we never had much reason to know because their only thought is cows. The Amish, by contrast, have dozens of different ventures going on at every farm. The ultimate conservatives, they are, paradoxically, among the most imaginative of farmers.

I can easily picture one of the maiden aunts
at the farm across the valley walking
back to her cottage from the main house
and hearing the swans. She pauses
long enough to wipe the last of the dish soap
from her hands onto her apron, smiling to
herself, not bothering to look up because
what’s to see? And after a moment
goes back to tell the others, who will also
want to come listen.

I will keep their names out of this, but
respect still permits I hope a sketch –
unadorned, of course – employing
only shades of black and navy blue
and saying nothing of the white strands
tucked primly under the bonnet.
The constellations all have names
in German. Venus would’ve already set
behind the horizon, which for them
is this very ridge where I stand, busy
with my embroidering.

This lady I’m telling you about keeps a store
stocked with wholegrains, kitchenware
and quilts, quilts. She and the others
have spent all winter at them: in March
they bulge from the shelves. But
her store has in addition a rack of books;
the books include field guides to the birds.
She knows plenty about swans, I’ll bet –
as much as anyone.

But about some things she knows a bit less,
and at times I suspect she feels that lack
as a sadness, maybe a hurt. Think of it:
even a radio is off-limits. Spring
comes unheralded except by signs
like this. What has she heard
in the course of her fifty years?
Her faith forbids all music made
by the too-clever hand of man.
Teenaged boys can run wild until
they get married and baptized – thus
some of the men may once
have corrupted their hearing
with instruments beyond the plain voice.

But for an Amish woman, standing outside
in early evening with her tired eyes
grateful for the darkness, pausing
for a long moment to be
alone with it, this
swan music must sound
like the purest praise.

Giving ourselves up

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

From the AP’s daily dispatch of disinformation comes this puzzling statement:

Without ruling on el Motassadeq’s guilt, the appeals court said the lower court erred because it failed to consider whether the lack of direct evidence from Binalshibh should have influenced its decision.

A lawyer for relatives of Sept. 11 at both trials, Andreas Schulz, said Thursday’s ruling “will certainly be met with incomprehension” by them.

What does it mean to brag about one’s own (or one’s clients’) willful ignorance in this context? Could ignorance be somehow essential to innocence, that sine qua non of victimhood? It certainly inspires more pathos to imagine (say) new prisoners at Auschwitz actually believing the death camp’s motto, “Arbiter Macht Frei” (Work Makes [You] Free). But what about those among the prisoners who were both well aware of the fate that awaited all the camp’s inhabitants, and who were appointed by the Nazis to positions of power over their fellows? Doesn’t the consideration of their fate and motives somewhat muddy the “moral clarity” that neo-conservative nabobs are always nattering about? What does it mean to talk about “victim’s rights” if the right to reconciliation, the right to hold or withhold forgiveness, is routinely overshadowed by the demand for retribution? Should the wronged party in fact be permitted to claim a right to retribution, or should simple recompense suffice?

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I wonder if the victim of a crime can ever be repaid in the way that retributive justice seems to demand. In Germanic tribal law, blood guilt could only be averted through arbitration, and the victim (or the victim’s next of kin, in the case of murder) agreeing to some settlement, usually monetary. For truly heinous crimes, exile was the severest penalty. By contrast, in our supposedly more enlightened society, most people don’t see anything wrong with making someone pay for murder, say, by depriving them of freedom and dignity and subjecting them to privation and often extreme violence and psychological trauma for the rest of their life. And we consider this more humane than simply executing them, which at least has the advantage of proportionality to the crime.

“Primitive” law codes, written or unwritten, express a tautological truth that many seem now to have lost sight of: that the legal system was developed to avert lawlessness. Lawlessness, in tribal societies such as those of the ancient Germans or Western Semitic peoples, did not mean primarily “lack of obedience to authority,” because authority tended to be fluid and decentralized. Rather, social disorder equated to illegitimate violence: another tautology. Better to say: disproportionate violence, violence that spirals or threatens to spiral out of control. “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” may seem vengeful, but in fact it was intended to replace “an arm for an eye and your firstborn’s life for my tooth.”

What is it about the cycle of revenge that tends to send it spiraling out of control? Years ago my father came up with a physical analogy to describe what happens when individuals remain mired in their own points-of-view. “‘I was willing to go halfway, but he was not!’ How many times do we hear this sort of statement advanced as self-evident proof of reasonableness and good intentions?” my father asked rhetorically. “But here: let’s look at each other from a few feet away. Now, I am going to put my finger where I think the halfway point is. You do the same.” Between our fingers a gap of a few inches remained.

His conclusion: we each have to be willing to go more than half-way toward the other, from our own perspective, if harmony is to be preserved. There must be give as well as take. Is this not the root meaning of forgiveness, I wonder: to give in excess of that which strict justice would seem to require?

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Martin Luther King: “Peace is not merely the absence of war, it is the presence of justice.” In this sort of usage, I think, justice is invested with a broader meaning that encompasses both fairness and harmony. It includes seeing oneself as another and seeing another as oneself. To practice respect, to engage in hospitality. It’s not so difficult, really. As the quote with which we began this inquiry strongly suggests, willful ignorance is essential if we are to cling stubbornly to our own perspectives, insist on our unique and fundamental victimhood. No qualifiers are permitted; nuance is impossible. It is an outrage. The very ground cries out for blood.

But simple hospitality and mutual respect do not suffice to bring about social harmony. For proof, one need look no farther than the perpetually warring tribesmen of northern Yemen, or other parts of the world where the canons of hospitality are strictly observed. A more radical form of hospitality seems to be in order, one that transcends bilateral relationships to perceive the intricate web in which we all move, human and non-human alike, the living and the dead and the generations yet to come.

What might such a perspective entail? What are its preconditions? Does it depend upon religious institutions for its propagation, or might it flourish more readily beyond their reach? These are each huge questions; any answers I propose now or in the future must remain highly tentative.

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A few angles of approach do suggest themselves. One is the possible centrality of the very kind of unknowing that has been the underlying theme of this weblog. In contrast to willful ignorance, which involves a self-conscious refusing to look/hear/understand, what I call “unknowing” describes a realization of inadequacy to anything approaching full and comprehensive vision/hearing/apprehension. Knowing that one doesn’t know is essential to understanding, both at the mundane and supramundane levels. At the supramundane level, I suppose, one comes acropper of the unknowability of Creation, the way in which the material world exceeds mater/matter at every turn – the way in which “a man’s reach must exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” And “more beautiful is the hunt than the pelt,” as the Dutch proverb has it, because when that which is hidden gives itself up for dead, we run the great risk of accepting a diminished role as killer, rather than recipient of a gift which is never fully deserved.

So we can perhaps draw a parallel with the religious concept of faith – not in the usual Christian sense of blind, unwavering belief in absurd propositions, which probably belongs more under the heading of willful ignorance. What I have in mind here is something more universal: the religious person’s sense that they must give themselves up to a higher or deeper power. “No gesture is more significant,” says the philosopher Gabriel Marcel, “than the joined hands of a believer, mutely witnessing that nothing can be done and nothing changed, and that he comes simply to give himself up.” Or in that wonderful phrase of Heschel’s I quoted last week, “Faith is not a product of our will. It occurs without intention, without will. Words expire when uttered, and faith is like the silence that draws lovers near, like a breath that shares in the wind.”

There is a feyness to such faith – a sense of ourselves as hunters no longer, but helpless prey. Lambs of God the great predator. I am reminded of a Vishnavite devotional painting that depicts the petitioner stretched supine across the knees of a multi-armed, multi-headed manifestation of the Godhead, Whose foremost arms end in the razor-clawed forepaws of a lion. The petitioner has been disemboweled; the Divinity’s fangs drip with blood. The petitioner gazes upward, rapt, enraptured.

This sounds horrific until one recalls that god and worshipper are not immutable roles. From the vantage-point of evolution, humans appear as both predator and prey. In the strictly religious realm, one goal in many traditions is personal transcendence through moksa, nirvana, imitatio Christi, etc. God can die within us (in the dark night, in the cloud of unknowing) just as we can die within God. When we partake of the sacrificial lamb or the wafer or the psychadelic mushroom, we are consuming the flesh of God, dissolving it within our own bellies. In these and many other ways, individual human beings are encouraged to strive for a realization that experience and thoughtful reflection tells us is beyond our powers. We need to somehow unite our own inadequate power with what the Pure Land Buddhists call simply Other-Power.

Usually outside the religious realm (at least here in the West) is the self-transcendence experienced during sex. But sex is an interesting case because, at least in its heterosexual form, it contains the implicit promise of a form of literal self-exceeding not possible with other altered states. (The Vajrayanists might argue with me here. I don’t discount at least the possibility of emanation-bodies and the like.) The literature on so-called entheogens – mind-altering drugs used for religious purposes – does suggest that shared visions are possible and even common, at least in some South American traditions. And as Andrew Weil once pointed out, the mind can be trained to do on its own anything that it can be made to do through chemicals. This, incidentally, may reduce the sense of dependence on gods and spirits but, if anything, increases one’s reliance on Other-Power in the form of the guru. Be that as it may, we should be careful not to succumb to the current fashion of treating sex as the standard by which all other self-transcending experiences must be measured. (Western science, too, can breed a form of fundamentalism!)

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This discussion of self-transcendence brings us back to the subject of my two most recent posts. Recall, first, Tedlock’s comments about the Newekwe transcending all boundaries. Recall too how the Mudheads offered a graphic representation of material or biological being as grotesque. In the medieval European culture of the carnival, we saw the material body celebrated for its self-transcendence. “It is a body in the act of becoming . . . It is continually built, created, and builds another body. Moreover, the body swallows the world and is itself swallowed by the world,” Bakhtin writes.

This returns us to the dance of predator and prey: “the gaping mouth, the teeth, the swallowing” are central images in the popular-festive system, connecting life and death, the banquet and the underworld. In greater Mesoamerica, of which Zuni was a far-flung part, the swallowing and disgorging underworld merged with the image of the world serpent (roughly analogous to the Sumerian Tiamat, ancestral to the West Semitic Leviathan).

In the Zuni worldview, culture involves a necessary but somehow tragic relinquishing of power: we are literally and figuratively less than our animal selves. Zuni creation myths offer an indigenous analogy to the now-discredited Darwinist myth expressed in the formula “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.” The Zuni believe their ancestors emerged from their original home in the dark and watery underworld with webbed fingers and toes, tails and extra sets of genitals on their heads – they were all basically Mudheads. Interestingly, it was a sinister character known as the First Witch who performed the job of civilizing the ancestral Zuni, bringing death into the world at the same time. I am greatly oversimplifying, of course, but this ought to give at least a hint of the kind of deep ambiguity with which the Zuni view our separation from Nature, and the utopian idealism that motivates their efforts to escape the tyranny of death and the dailiness of civilized existence. Levi-Strauss was sufficiently impressed by Zuni theorizing (as recorded originally by Frank Cushing and translated into French) to title one of his influential volumes on structuralist anthropological theory The Raw and the Cooked.

The notion here is of humans as eaters-of-cooked-food who “are what they eat.” Before a newborn can be given a name, shown the sun and welcomed into the world, it must first be “cooked”: placed in a bed of gently heated sand every day for ten days. The originally African practice of circumcision involves a somewhat related realization that to be civilized is to be reduced or refined (the analogy here is with metallurgy and alchemy).

Frank Cushing himself, in his ever-popular monograph Zuni Fetiches, captures the Zuni understanding of their position in the chain of being through a formulation just general enough to permit comparisons with a large number of traditional societies the world over. “The animals, because alike mortal and endowed with similar physical functions and organs, are considered more nearly related to man than are the gods; more nearly related to the gods than is man, because more mysterious, and characterized by specific instincts and powers which man does not of himself possess.”

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But of course modern science must show these ancient intuitions to be inaccurate, right? I’m not so sure. The capacity of other animals to experience joy and sorrow, to dream, to anticipate, to recognize their own images in mirrors are fairly well attested now. Several years ago, in an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education, psychologist Frans B. M. de Waal reviewed the literature on empathy in rats and monkeys and concluded that, if anything, these creatures displayed more empathy than humans might have shown under similar circumstances. “Perhaps the most compelling evidence for the strength of empathy in monkeys came from a group of psychiatrists led by Jules Masserman at Northwestern University. The researchers reported in 1964 in the American Journal of Psychiatry that rhesus monkeys refuse to pull a chain that delivers food to themselves if doing so gives a shock to a companion. One monkey stopped pulling the chain for 12 days after witnessing another monkey receive a shock. Those primates were literally starving themselves to avoid shocking another animal, clearly a stronger reaction than that of the rats in [Russell] Church’s experiments.”

De Waal proposes some possible explanations for the existence of empathy. One is “emotional contagion” – the way in which even human infants will experience distress at the distress of another. De Waal notes that, though many theorists consider emotional contagion a peculiarly human trait, he has observed it quite commonly among infant rhesus monkeys as well.

“In all of those studies, the most likely explanation of the rats’ and monkeys’ behavior seems to be what, in humans, is called personal distress. That means that the acts of apparent kindness are not based on a concern about the other’s welfare but rather are a way of dealing with the distress of seeing the distress of another individual. For example, young children often get teary-eyed and upset – and run back to their mothers for reassurance – when they see another child fall and cry. They cry not because they are concerned about the other child, but because that child’s emotions vicariously overwhelm them. It is only later, when children develop a distinction between self and other, that they learn to fully separate another’s emotions from their own.”

Or to put it another way, animals and young children experience distress at the distress of another because they have not (or not yet) learned to fully distinguish between themselves and others. As cultured animals, human beings differ from the others not so much in our “level of consciousness” – an obnoxious conceit that implies a hierarchical arrangement with guess who at the top – but in our degree of self-consciousness. That is, our alienation. Thus there is, I believe, a trade-off. And rather than exhaust my limited supply of adjectives along with whatever remains of the reader’s patience, I’ll end by quoting from Rilke’s Eighth Elegy (Duino Elegies, translated by Edward Snow, North Point Press, 2000).

With all its eyes the animal world
beholds the Open. Only our eyes
are as if inverted and set all around it
like traps at its portals to freedom.
What’s outside we only know from the animal’s
countenance; for almost from the first we take a child
and twist him round and force him to gaze
backwards and take in structure, not the Open
that lies so deep in an animal’s face. Free from death.
Only
we see death; the free animal has its demise
perpetually behind it and before it always
God, and when it moves, it moves into eternity,
the way brooks and running springs move. . . .

__________

For a Buddhist perspective on what this Open might look like, and how the self might be transcended, see Dale’s discussion of “Ye Emptynesse of Selfe” at Vajrayana Practice

Monsters of God

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

I’m exhausted. I spent most of last night battling, or running and hiding from, Evil.

They weren’t full-fledged nightmares – I’m a lucid enough dreamer to nip those in the bud, usually by waking myself up and going to the bathroom, as I did around midnight. But it is a tribute to the hold of monsters and demons on the imagination that I returned to the same dream when I fell back asleep.

I can’t remember many of the details now, but the monsters were basically alien invaders of indeterminate form who had the power to assume human shape. You could recognize them only when they opened their mouths, literally and figuratively: their voices were strange and machine-like, and they had many rows of monstrous teeth. (This has precedent for me not only in the movie Coneheads, but also in the 14th century classic of English mysticism The Cloud of Unknowing, where we are told that the devil is anthropomorphic in every respect except that his mouth lacks a roof. Someone checking his upper jaw for cavities would see the fires of hell roaring away inside his skull – which vision would produce instant and irreversible insanity.)

And of course my dream monsters were very hard, if not impossible, to kill. I say “of course” because everyone reading this has had similar dreams, and has doubtless seen many of the same horror and sci-fi movies I have. It’s a truism to observe that the supposed Death of God has barely touched beliefs in monsters and demons; alien abduction stories fit the mold of the time-honored, nearly universal demon-possession motif. A widespread perception of wolves and big cats as vicious killers hampers well-meaning efforts to reintroduce top carnivores, despite statistics showing that attacks by domestic dogs are far more dangerous. (In terms of annual human fatalities, the deadliest animal by far is the mosquito. When was the last time you had nightmares about a mosquito?)

The very fine natural history writer David Quammen has a new book out called Monsters of God, which has been garnering very good reviews; I’ll be anxious to see what he makes of these issues. The book is billed as a report on the status of man-eating carnivores around the world, most of which are now endangered or seriously threatened by poaching and/or habitat destruction. This raises not only ethical dilemmas but epistemological issues, it seems to me. Aside from the keystone ecological roles played by top carnivores, might they be said to play a keystone role in the human imagination?

I believe it was Bruce Chatwin, in Songlines, who proposed a direct link between human evolutionary biology and mythology (I don’t have the book in front of me). He cited ample evidence that our hominid ancestors co-evolved with large, predatory cats, which became extinct (or were driven to extinction?) a scant million years ago or so. Thus, the terror of being stalked and killed is in some measure “hard-wired” into our genetic makeup, because a healthy fear of Things That Go Bump in the Night would’ve been a highly advantageous trait. Those among our potential ancestors who entertained a less fearful or more romantic view of Wild Nature would’ve achieved a mystical oneness with powers greater than themselves somewhere in the digestive track of a saber-toothed tiger.

I maintain that the continued existence of big critters than can eat us (and gladly will, given half a chance) is essential to the health of the human spirit. Large carnivores remind of us our place in the overall scheme of things; they serve as teachers and role models for the proper use of violence; and through our continued coexistence with them we learn to master fear and hatred, which otherwise can transform us into the very monsters we most hate. Let me outline each of these arguments in turn.

Knowing our place

Man-eating tigers, crocodiles, rhinos and the like help keep us humble. By humble, I don’t mean subservient to so-called higher powers. However much the dog-like dominance hierarchies of human social arrangements may suggest otherwise, in Nature, as Heraclitus first pointed out, there is no absolute high or low, no up or down. The Great Chain of Being is in fact a food web – a perfectly Deleuzian rhizomatic structure. Rather, as the Sufi thinker Idries Shah maintained, humility is a technical requirement for the advancement of understanding. At its most basic, it grows from a healthy awareness of the relative (in)significance of the individual ego and of humanity as a whole. It’s no accident that God’s “answer” to Job out of the whirlwind (itself a symbol of fearful, greater-than-human realities) culminates in lengthy descriptions of Behemoth and Leviathan. These are the archetypal Monsters of God.

Canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook? or his tongue with a cord which thou lettest down?
Canst thou put an hook into his nose? or bore his jaw through with a thorn?
Will he make many supplications unto thee? will he speak soft words unto thee?
Will he make a covenant with thee? wilt thou take him for a servant for ever?
Wilt thou play with him as with a bird? or wilt thou bind him for thy maidens? . . .
His breath kindleth coals, and a flame goeth out of his mouth . . .
The sword of him that layeth at him cannot hold: the spear, the dart, nor the habergeon.
He esteemeth iron as straw, and brass as rotten wood . . .
(see Job, Chapter 41)

Note the language of covenant here. The author implies that by lording it over wild animals, man is playing God without any real sense of the responsibilities this entails. In the world of the Old Testament, excessive pride is seen as sinful because it implies the assumption of undeserved powers: see the Tower of Babel; Lucifer; Nebuchadnezzer; etc.

The scholar James Kugel, in his very accessible introduction to the Old Testament The Great Poems of the Bible (Free Press, 1999), stresses the ancient Hebrews’ quite different estimation of the importance of self from our own. “A human being just is very small, and God . . . is ‘very big.’ In other words, it is not (or not simply) that biblical man cannot conceive of the world without God for some mechanistic reason – because, for example, the world could not function without God. Rather it is first and foremost that he cannot conceive of himself without God, without, that is, some notion of how he and the rest of the little creatures down here fit into the much, much larger world. [H]is own capacities . . . extend only so far, and if he is to be able to understand anything of the world beyond them, he needs to fit himself into the world, he needs a source of reference beyond himself.”

Kugel quotes Psalm 104, that great hymn to the powers of Creation:

Thou makest darkness, and it is night: wherein all the beasts of the forest do creep forth.
The young lions roar after their prey, and seek their meat from God.
The sun ariseth, they gather themselves together, and lay them down in their dens.
(Psalm 104:20-22)

This is a far cry from the modern worldview. Even those who call themselves fundamentalists are convinced of human mastery over the cosmos – in fact, they are often in the vanguard of those who call for the commercial exploitation of wilderness and the eradication of large carnivores from what they consider to be at most a semi-wild playground for human beings. Where the authors of the Bible envisioned a non-human realm filled and ordered by an essentially playful, often violent Creator and his creatures, we see frontiers, open space, resources.

Playing god, crying wolf

“But really,” a secularist reader might argue, “however you might decry it, there’s no turning back now. Humans have simply altered the biosphere too much not to play God. In fact, it would be irresponsible now to shirk our god-like responsibility to act as planetary managers. For without wise stewardship, without planning on a massive scale, there will be social and environmental chaos.”

There’s some appeal to this argument – and little doubt that the arguments of libertarians to the contrary are regularly used to downplay or excuse the crimes of the biggest despoilers of land and water and the most oppressive exploiters of human beings. But I tend to agree with the libertarians about the risks of assuming that we could ever possess the wisdom that would be required to impose a New World Order. And I wonder if true wisdom is even compatible with the kinds of judgements that are involved in running a state or managing a trans-state entity like a global corporation or the U.N.

Let’s return briefly to the Bible – although many other ancient texts and accounts from modern ethnography might serve just as well. Again and again the reader is told that “the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.” This is, I’m afraid, one of those notions that keeps everyone but discipline-happy and obedience-prone fundamentalists from fully enjoying the Old Testament. Unless we cling to a narrow definition of wisdom as the internalization of a set of rules, how can fear possibly have any positive side effects? Isn’t God just a synonym for love writ large? How can divine love possibly inspire fear?

Abraham Joshua Heschel, in God in Search of Man (Jewish Publication Society, 1959), says that the word usually translated as “fear” in this context – yirah – should actually be rendered as “awe.” Heschel defines awe as “the sense of wonder or humility inspired by the sublime or felt in the presence of mystery.” It is, he says, an essential prerequisite to faith. The person who simply fears punishment, in this life or the next, is “considered inferior in Jewish tradition.”

“In a sense, awe is the antithesis of fear,” Heschel continues. “To feel ‘The Lord is my light and my salvation’ is to feel ‘Whom shall I fear?’ (Psalms 27:1).” I am a little skeptical that the distinction between awe and fear can be so neatly drawn. But I concur wholeheartedly with Heschel’s conclusion: “Forfeit your sense of awe, let your conceit diminish your ability to revere, and the universe becomes a market place for you. The loss of awe is the great block to insight. A return to reverence is the first prerequisite for a revival of wisdom . . . ”

The disastrous consequences of reductionist thinking, of turning the world into a market place, are all around us. To cite just a few of the latest outrages, planned or on-going: drilling for oil in the fragile arctic tundra, home to one of the last fully intact ecosystems in the Northern hemisphere; developing gas fields all along the Rocky Mountain Front; draining aquifers of fossil water to pump coal slurry hundreds of miles through the desert of Arizona; clearcutting old-growth forests to make particle board and disposable chopsticks. These examples are obvious and can easily be multiplied.

A more insidious consequence of the loss of awe is the unthinking, society-wide acceptance of the proposition that humans can and should manage Nature for their own benefit. Questions of scale and time-frame are usually tossed aside. Discussions of the ethics of new technologies such as cloning and genetic engineering tend to devolve into narrow considerations of human self-interest, sometimes expanded to include questions about what might happen to ‘the environment’ if, say, genetically engineered traits escape into the wild. But the operative assumptions are baseless fantasies: that human self-interest is an obvious, measurable and culturally neutral thing; and that it can be separated from the interests of non-human species and of the biosphere at large.

With all due respect to George Orwell, it seems to me that we are closer to the antiseptic horror of Brave New World than the slave-state of 1984. Technologies that will allow parents to pre-determine the sex of their offspring, and possibly many other traits as well, are already coming into use. To accept such decision making as normal and rational is to forego far more access to freedom than we would lose through simple tyranny, for in this case it is the freedom of Nature itself that is being infringed upon. The same argument may be made against genetic engineering, nuclear power, and the production of chemicals that have no analogue in nature and no precedent in evolutionary history. In each case we are trying to fit Creation into a container of our own making, and in each case we our courting doom.

In the Bible, as we have seen, Wild Nature is Creation at its most elemental. We in the West derive much of our sense of wilderness from the Bible, of course. Wilderness is not merely the mirror-image of the pastoral realm; it is also a source of refuge – even salvation. Moses leads the Hebrews through the wilderness for forty years to acclimate them to their new-found relationship with Yahweh; Jesus fasts in the desert for forty days before he fully accepts his own role. Fields must be rested every seventh year – allowed to grow wild – to regain their vigor. Every seven-times-seventh year, during the jubilee, land must be not only rested but redistributed equally among the people. That’s because land is not ultimately owned by human beings, but held in trust for them by God: that is to say, it is ultimately free.

In the Hebrew Bible, major infractions of the covenantal relationship with God lead to droughts, crop-destroying hailstorms, plagues of locusts – what we would call environmental consequences. And when God reclaims land, it returns to its original state of wild (i.e. willful, self-willed) freedom. In the wilderness the wild donkey roams free of the halter; storms and whirlwinds wreak their fury; young lions and baby eagles scream for blood. What might be seen as disastrous in the human realm is an integral part of the awesome grandeur of Creation.

What we know of ecology bears out the intuitions of the ancient Hebrews, which are shared to a great degree by indigenous peoples around the world. Our attempts to manage land and water for economic ends usually involve the radical curtailing of natural processes that appear inconvenient and highly destructive. Streams and rivers that regularly flood their banks must be channelized, diverted, contained by levees, locks and dams. Wildfires must be prevented. Trees felled by natural disturbances must be “salvaged.” Insect and disease outbreaks must be battled through every means necessary. In all these cases, attempts to place limits on the violent power of Nature involves us in the perpetration of far greater violence against the health and integrity of ecosystem processes.

Not surprisingly, the professionals charged with managing our public lands strongly resist any implication that their efforts might be counter-productive. Never mind that some ecosystems must burn; that regular floods, tornadoes, icestorms, insect outbreaks, etc. are part of natural disturbance regimes. Never mind that essential processes such as pollination, plant-fungus interactions and nutrient and water cycles are endangered by the interruption or prevention of those processes. Never mind that effective land management in many cases is oxymoronic, predicated upon knowledge that is fragmentary or non-existent. The notion that some areas should simply be left alone (after some minimal restoration efforts) is anathema to the managerial ethos. Indeed, many higher-level bureaucrats in the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management appear to agree with their counterparts in industry: that self-willed land has been “locked up.” Freedom is Slavery!

Wilderness advocates and opponents alike say that the distinction between humans and Nature is artificial, and so it is. Perhaps in another century or two we will achieve the wisdom that many American Indian tribes once possessed, and “wise use” will no longer be a grotesque caricature of true, thoughtful stewardship. But what strikes me about the whole wilderness debate is the absence of any recognition that wilderness – broadly defined – is not so much a realm where human beings are absent, but where larger-than-human realities are present.

Chief among those realities, of course, are the Wild Things that can Eat You Up. Kids love monsters, as Maurice Sendak understood: it’s somehow fun to be scared. Campfire ghost stories and monsters under the bed are inescapable facts of childhood. And well into their adulthood, many people here in the East (for example) remain convinced that cougars are still out there, in the semi-mythical back-of-beyond – and many people are actually excited by the possibility! “The truth is out there,” as agent Mulder says about extraterrestrials. And maybe it is.

Keystone predators

This is more than an idle dream (or errant nightmare). Recent biological research is bearing out the intuition that predation is an essential part of the natural scheme. It is not simply a matter of populations of prey species becoming too large in the absence of natural predators. In fact, populations of many species are controlled by predation, but less directly than the way we suppose. Studies of large herbivores have shown that the healthy fear of predation is much more important than the actual number of killings, which would be too small in aggregate to constitute much of an effect. This fear is healthy not only for individuals of the prey species, whose chance of survival is thereby maximized, but also for many other species in the same ecosystem.

If predators are removed from an ecosystem, large herbivores like deer and elk quickly lose their fear of browsing in the open year-round. (Hunting seasons enforce only a temporary reversion to more natural behavior.) They tend to congregate in larger groups, during daytime hours, and simply spend a lot more time feeding – leading to higher reproduction rates and population explosions. Biologists refer to this as a switch from time-minimizing to energy-maximizing behavior. Sensitive environments such as streambanks and natural forest openings are suddenly much more vulnerable to over-browsing. As populations expand, whole suites of plant species can disappear along with everything that depends upon them for food or habitat.

When top carnivores are reintroduced, the ripple effects can be far-reaching. Mid-sized predators are forced to alter their behavior along with herbivores, and their numbers will drop in a similar manner. Populations of many species of birds, small mammals and other prey of these mid-sized predators will rebound. At the same time, brushy, edge and herbaceous habitats will begin to recover, with positive repercussions for many more species and for the recovery of other ecosystem functions. Streamside alders – essential food for beavers – may successfully sprout after a century of severely arrested development: this has been the case in Yellowstone following the reintroduction of wolves. Beavers play a keystone role in the creation of wetland habitats. Even though they are directly preyed upon by wolves – which places a severe restriction on how far they can go from water, hence limiting the size and shape of their disturbances – beavers benefit enormously from the presence of wolves in the ecosystem.

Biologists still have a lot to learn: for example, how do different species of “top” carnivores, such as wolves, cougars and grizzlies, interact within a single landscape, and what might be the ecological ramifications of those relationships? The state of scientific knowledge is limited in part because of the success of bounty programs in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in removing carnivores from much of North America. These programs had the blessing of wildlife managers of the time, who were heirs to a Christian or Manichaean worldview that saw herbivores as good and predators as useless parasites whose removal, it was thought, would lead to the natural equivalent of utopia. This experiment failed as catastrophically as contemporaneous movements to create a socialist paradise (though doubtless for different reasons).

Unfortunately, however, we need specialized training – not just awe and humility – simply to perceive the damage wrought by this failed attempt to play God. Humans are adaptable animals; a short memory can be a distinct blessing in a world filled with terrors. And who really wants to be told that the pleasingly park-like forest where we go running and the nice, open lakeshore where we go for picnics are actually radically simplified, impoverished landscapes that fewer and fewer other species can call home? Who doesn’t thrill to the grace and beauty of a doe nuzzling her fawn, and shudder to think of the fangs and claws that honed such perfection through millions of years of co-evolution?

Beware more beasts

I still remember my first true encounter with existential terror. I think I must’ve been around 14. I was lying on my back in the field, looking up at the night sky, when all of a sudden I felt chilled to the core by the thought of all that “outer space” that was not and would never be human. I suppose the best way to express it would be to say that it was an encounter with supreme indifference. I realized in the most immediate and visceral way imaginable that everything humans think they knew about the universe is most likely, simply wrong. As I continued to stare upwards, I had the sensation that I was looking up into a gaping mouth with countess burning teeth, opening wider and wider.

Was this the kind of awe that leads to faith? I don’t know. But there’s no doubt it was a profoundly humbling experience. Heshel makes the important distinction that God is not the mystery itself but the revealer of mysteries; certainly I did not for a moment feel any impulse to worship the “outer space monster” that had intruded upon my imagination. But now that I think about it, I wonder if my immediate re-visioning of a cold indifference into a kind of fire-breathing monster wasn’t, in fact, an attempt to humanize the mystery? Isn’t this what the shaman does: stamp a human face on every part of the cosmos? Endow every sublime and mysterious thing with sentience, such that even the most terrible beings display a predator’s fond regard for its prey?

Presumably, anyone given to the kinds of thoughts and impressions I habitually entertained as a teen would have been prepared for shamanic initiation in a gatherer-hunter society. But while a shaman-to-be would often allow himself (or herself) to be symbolically eaten by a future power-animal, most if not all members of such societies would seek a relationship with a spirit guardian, often personified (yes, that’s the right word!) as an animal. The near-universality and apparent great antiquity of such practices led the eco-philosopher Paul Shepard (The Others) to speculate about “how the animals made us human.” Neanderthals, as far as we know, did not paint animals on cave walls; recent thinking depicts them without symbolic language, and hence without the cultural flexibility to adapt to the violent and abrupt climatic shifts of the Paleolithic.

Genocide against these competing hominids may have been our original sin. Be that as it may, there is mounting evidence that the megafauna of the Americas, which evolved in the absence of humans, was driven to rapid extinction by the Paleolithic invaders of 14,000 B.P. It is interesting that virtually every modern hunting people investigated by ethnographers in the last 150 years evinces a deep sense of angst about the necessity of killing. A sense of human fallenness seems a near-universality.

In indigenous worldviews, the prey animals must be implored in advance and propitiated after the fact for the gift (or loan) of their bodies. Often there are mythical Owners of the game who must also be propitiated. Strict rules (“taboos”) govern every aspect of the hunt and subsequent use of the animal. No part of a carcass may be tossed idly aside or otherwise treated with disrespect. Can we really say, with the spectres of Mad Cow Disease and regular e-coli outbreaks hovering over our antiseptic supermarket shelves, that these beliefs are so much superstition?

Christians would do well to remember that they are alone among the three Peoples of the Book in lacking a ritual analogue to these most ancient codes of reverential conduct toward our non-human brethren. From my perspective, as an outsider to all three religions, it does seem as if, in rejecting the minutely detailed halakhic superstructure of the “scribes and Pharisees,” Christianity deprived itself of a great source of complexity and nuance. The radically simplified mental landscape of the religion of St. Paul proved all to easy to subvert: with the conversion of Constantine, “love thine enemy” became “in hoc signo vinces.” A kind of schizophrenia crept in. The book of Revelation swarms with fevered nightmares of beasts, paranoid visions of cosmic evil and power-fantasies about a sacrificial lamb come back to life as a super-carnivore. And the Church became more Roman than the Romans in its fanatic determination to extract confessions and punish all thought-crimes with torture and execution.

Thankfully, the worst excesses of extreme dualism were kept at arm’s length. But there’s little doubt in my mind that our on-going war against the wild has deep roots in Christian tradition, whatever its ultimate origin (the Greeks, the Persians, the ideology of the Roman empire). Rebels against God included not simply heretics but wizards and witches (eventually meaning anyone with access to unofficial knowledge or power) and all the monsters of the bestiaries. The brutish, speech-deprived wild man was the archetypal enemy of the knight-errant in the mythology that grew out of the Crusades and formed the first truly popular literature after the introduction of the printing press. As most of us know only from reading Cervantes’ brilliant send-up of the genre, such romance novels were all the rage during the decades that saw the Conquest of the New World and the beginnings of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

“Love thine enemy” may or may not be too idealistic a formulation. But common sense alone suggests that respect must be extended toward our opponents, our adversaries, toward everything with the power to harm us. The cumulative wisdom of the ages – based on reverence, which is respect taken to a higher power – teaches that whatever has the power to harm may also heal us. The figure of the monster is thus deeply ambiguous. Our natural discomfort with ambiguity leads us to try to capture and confine it in one of two mental cages: either as an all-malevolent demon, or as a cuddly stuffed animal (cf. Defenders of Wildlife’s ever-popular version of the Gray Wolf).

I greatly fear that without the continuing presence of wolves, bears, jaguars, tigers, crocodiles, sharks and the like, an irreplaceable treasure house of visions to counter human self-centeredness will be lost. Our descendents will forget that there ever was such a thing as a beast whose violence was not only not malevolent, but could even be seen as necessary and beautiful. Already our children’s impressions of Wild Nature are shaped largely by Walt Disney, even as we teach them to fear the all-too-real human monsters that actively wish them harm.* Already, we in the United States are reverting to a medieval view of righteousness beset by cosmic evil, of barbarians at the gates (when in fact the barbarians are in charge). A universal myopia threatens to leave us forever suspended between utopia and dystopia: Don Quixote’s impossible dream unable to hide the horror of the endlessly recapitulated Conquest. Genocide, ecocide: we become what we most fear. “Feed my lambs,” said the gentle voice on Rwandan public radio over and over on the morning when the state-sanctioned killing began. God help us all.
____________
*See The illusion of safety in Creek Running North for a valuable corrective to the society-wide perception of the risk of child-snatching.

In the ice forest

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

for Jennifer, currently in the rainforest at Tela, Honduras

I enter the forest of ice
slowly, and on foot.

Trees creak in the slightest breeze.
Small branches break & fall
with a tinkling of bells.

The everywhere green of the mountain laurel
never looked fresher, each leaf
preserved
under glass.

The sun comes out.
A thousand swords leap from their scabbards.

On top of the snow, in every dip
& hollow, windrows of black
birch seeds.

The way of a naturalist (part 2)

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

(Part 1 appeared on Tuesday, January 13. Click here for the permalink.)

Maurice Maeterlinck called him “the Insect’s Homer . . . one of the most profound and inventive scholars and also one of the purest writers . . . of the century now past [the 19th].”

To Edwin Way Teale, this “humble chronicler of the commonplace” was like Diogenes, Ponce de Leon and Thoreau rolled into one.

Phenomenologist Gabriel Marcel may very well have had his famous countryman in mind when he wrote about “the naturalist,”

For him, the word ‘insignificant’ has no sense. In the passionate study of a particular species he has triumphed for all time over such reactions. The living organism he considers subsists in a dimension of being to which we, the profane, have access only with difficulty. Even leaving aside any belief in a divine creator, the naturalist experiences a kind of wonder before the fineness and complexity of the structure he observes. Here, in a very unexpected way, beyond our world of the profane and the ignorant, some connection is realized between the scientist and someone who must perhaps be called the saint. (Tragic Wisdom and Beyond, 1968)

If one pictures the saint as someone touched with an abnormal, slightly mad sense of dedication toward a single goal that most of us never give more than a passing thought to, then J. Henri Fabre definitely fits the bill. Born in 1823 and living almost a century until 1915, Fabre lived essentially two lives in succession. In the first, this son of French peasants clawed his way up out of the extreme poverty of his childhood into the more-respectable penuriousness of a rural schoolteacher in Provence, scrimping and saving toward his retirement at the age of sixty.

Along the way, he was fired for trying to admit girls into his science classes. (Though his one visit to Paris had left him appalled at the lonely existence of modern city-dwellers, he was no reactionary.) He had managed to befriend John Stuart Mill, whose loan of $600 was enough to keep the wolf from the door while he threw himself into writing popular science books and even pot-boilers to make enough money to support his wife and five children. During these especially lean years an audacious and (to most) incomprehensible dream took root. And in 1879, at the age of 55, with his children grown and the loan paid off, Fabre began to put his plans into action. He bought “a small foothold of earth,” Teale writes, “sun-scorched and thistle-ridden, unfit for grazing or agriculture, an area known locally as a harmas, at the edge of the village of Serignan. It was the first bit of land Fabre had owned in his life. To him, the stony soil, arid and rusty-red, formed an Eden.” (The Insect World of J. Henri Fabre, 1949).

For the next 36 years, this was to form his outdoor laboratory for many of the imaginative experiments and the countless hours of observations that went into his second life’s work. The idea he’d hatched was to write a great, multi-volume, encyclopedic work on the lives of insects and other arthropods: Souvenirs Entomologiques. With his beloved oldest son and wife recently deceased, at the age of 60 he remarried and fathered three more children. He spent virtually every day either out in the field or in the shed he’d converted into an indoor laboratory, though being too poor to afford even a microscope, his chief instruments were, he once remarked, “Time and Patience.”

When the last of the ten magisterial volumes was finally complete, Fabre did enjoy (if that’s the word) a brief, incandescent renown among scientists, government officials and men of letters. Entomologists revere him to this day. What is puzzling to me is that he not more celebrated by the champions of French literature for what one English translator called his “simple, durable prose,” reminiscent of John Steinbeck or George Orwell. Through regular, humorous asides and occasional longer musings upon his task, and with countless classical and popular references to make his subject matter more sympathetic, Fabre quickly endears himself to even the least nature-savvy of readers. In the first excerpt Teale included in his anthology, Fabre admits that some critics “have reproached me with my style, which has not the solemnity, nay, better, the dryness of the schools. They fear lest a page that is read without fatigue should not always be the expression of the truth. Were I to take their word for it, we are profound only on condition of being obscure.”

Of course, if some of the critics may have looked down their noses, that was nothing compared to reactions he elicited from his fellow villagers. He describes one incident in which a rural policeman attempted to arrest him for suspicious behavior while he was lying in the sand engrossed in the hunting activities of a wasp. He uses the present tense to describe another incident he describes as characteristic:

Ever since daybreak I have been ambushed, sitting on a stone, at the bottom of a ravine. The subject of my matutinal visit is the Languedocian Sphex. Three women, vine-pickers, pass in a group, on their way to work. They give a glance at the man seated, apparently absorbed in reflection. At sunset, the same pickers pass again, carrying their full baskets on their heads. The man is still there, sitting on the same stone, with his eyes fixed on the same place. My motionless attitude, my long persistency in remaining at that deserted spot, must have impressed them deeply. As they passed by me, I saw one of them tap her forehead and heard her whisper to the others: ‘Un paore inoucent, pecaire!’ And all three made the sign of the Cross.

An innocent, she had said, un inoucent, an idiot, a poor creature, quite harmless, but half-witted; and they had all made the sign of the Cross, an idiot being to them one with God’s seal stamped upon him.

The incident is introduced for reasons beyond mere self-deprecating humorousness; it is the hook: “It is in this ravine with its three grape-gathering women that I would meet the reader,” Fabre explains in The Hunting Wasps. Like the writer,

The Languedocian Sphex frequents these points, not in tribes congregating at the same spot when nest-building begins, but as solitary individuals, sparsely distributed, settling wherever the chances of their vagabondage lead them. Even as her kinswoman, the Yellow-winged Sphex, seeks the society of her kind and the animation of a yard full of workers, the Languedocian Sphex prefers isolation, quiet and solitude. Graver of gait, more formal in her manners, of a larger size and always more sombrely clad, she always lives apart, not caring what others do, disdaining company, a genuine misanthrope among the Sphegidae. The one is sociable, the other is not: a profound difference which in itself is enough to characterize them.

This amounts to saying that, with the Languedocian Sphex, the difficulties of observation increase . . .

As this sample demonstrates, Fabre did not completely abandon the populist techniques he had honed during his years as a hack writer. He had the sense to leaven his detailed descriptions of insects and the experiments he performed on them with plenty of drollery which, somehow, never quite strays into the minefield of unscientific anthropomorphism.

This is of course a particular challenge with insects and other invertebrates, which cannot fail to seem alien to even the most avid reader. Maybe because it IS such a challenge, some of the most engaging natural history classics of the 20th century also took insects for their theme: Teale’s own Near Horizons and Grassroot Jungles; Howard Ensign Evans’ Wasp Farm and Life on a Little Known Planet; Berndt Heinrich’s Bumblebee Economics. Yet I confess that, much as I have enjoyed all these books, the specific details, even the names of the insects they describe so lovingly quickly fade from my memory. Perhaps it’s because I am at heart a humanist, but insects seem simply too foreign for my imagination to fully assimilate.

But the fact is that insects, so supremely endowed with inhuman otherness, are linked to us by a thousand commonalties and unconscious partnerships. The science of ecology, unknown in Fabre’s day, gives ample support to the intuition that, without insects, most complex food webs would collapse and the vast majority of multi-cellular life forms – plants, animals and fungi alike – would rapidly go extinct. In the radically simplified, artificial ecosystems favored by farmers and gardeners, insects appear chiefly as pests. But this gives a distorted impression, since the species so perceived represent a tiny fraction of the total. Even in apparently healthy, “natural” ecosystems, outbreaks of native herbivorous insects are, in many cases, the result of widespread human alteration of landscape patterns and disturbance regimes. In some cases, outbreak behavior is a normal part of local or regional cycles of disturbance and is essential to the propagation of that species, such that its great numbers during an outbreak belie its sensitivity to environmental change. The Rocky Mountain locust (Melanoplus spretus) for instance, became extinct within a few decades of the introduction of the plow and the cow to the river valleys of the Great Plains and the intermontane West.

Insects challenge us in many ways. Even apart from their keystone roles in maintaining ecosystem functions, their sheer diversity is daunting. The British naturalist B.S. Haldane, when asked by a clergyman what, if anything, a lifetime of scientific research had led him to conclude about the mind of the Creator, famously replied that God must have “an inordinate fondness for beetles.”

One of the biggest challenges for a scientific observer is simply to come up with reasonable explanations for behavior that, in humans, would be taken as prima facie evidence of reason. Fabre’s ability to disprove, through careful and imaginative experimentation, the obvious and anthropomorphizing explanation was the truest sign of his aptitude for what we call science.

Fabre’s unflagging faith in the power of blind instinct might strike many readers as symptomatic of a stunted imagination or an insensitivity to wonder. But actually I think the opposite was more nearly the case. The fact that insects can accomplish so many amazing feats WITHOUT the ability to anticipate or to ponder cause and effect should be (as it was for Fabre) an inexhaustible source of wonder. In a famous series of experiments with captive burying-beetles, for example, he managed to show how these insects could surmount innumerable obstacles to the burial of a small mammal. The beetles were, Fabre decided, the beneficiaries not of reasoning intelligence but of a limited toolkit of instinctual behaviors and enough time to employ them in, over and over in varying combinations, until at last a solution appeared on its own – or failed to appear, despite the insect’s physical ability to accomplish it.

Fabre’s own instincts have largely been borne out by subsequent research, which too is impressive considering the meagerness of his respective toolkit. He knew nothing, for instance, of the importance of pheromones and other chemicals to insect communication, yet through close observation he was able to document the very haphazard and (to our way of thinking) inefficient way in which insects such as the burying-beetles would “investigate” and “cooperate” to achieve complicated results.

Casual readers of this weblog might assume, based on my frequent criticisms of reductionism as a stand-alone basis for human understanding, that I would advocate its complete abandonment in favor of Zen-like direct apprehension or some form of quasi-theistic mysticism. Not so! The fact is that the ability to break a problem down into its constituent parts is usually essential to its solution. To reject all such problems as unfit for the spiritually inclined would be to accept, in most cases, explanations that flatter rather than humble us. The imagination is like a muscle: it needs to be exercised. In this regard – paradoxical as it may seem – skepticism is the imagination’s closest ally. Fabre rightly dismisses the “explanations” of previous naturalists, who lacked his skeptical and wide-open gaze, as so much folklore. But the real folk, his fellow villagers, struck him as superior in their instinct for the truth. When queried about the cause of some mysterious phenomenon, such as the clumps of foam produced by froghoppers, they would answer simply “I don’t know.”

“The theorists, proudly daring, have an answer nowadays for every question,” Fabre wrote in The Mason-Wasps, “but as a thousand theoretical views are not worth a single fact, thinkers untrammeled by preconceived ideas are far from becoming convinced.” He continued:

It is something to observe; but it is not enough: we must experiment, that is to say, we must ourselves intervene and create artificial conditions which oblige the animal to reveal to us what it would not tell if left to the normal course of events. Its actions, marvelously contrived to attain the end pursued, are capable of deceiving us as to their real meaning and of making us accept, in their linked sequence, that which our own logic dictates to us. It is not the animal that we are now consulting upon the nature of its aptitudes, upon the primary motives of its activity, but our own opinions, which always yield a reply in favor of our cherished notions. As I have repeatedly shown, observation in itself is often a snare: we interpret its data according to the exigencies of our theories. To bring out the truth, we must needs resort to experiment . . . Observation sets the problem; experiment solves it, always presuming that it can be solved; or at least, if powerless to yield the full light of truth, it sheds a certain gleam over the edges of the impenetrable cloud.

“Fabre is another Gulliver,” writes Mary Oliver in Blue Pastures. She calls his descriptions of insects and other arthropods “close to miraculous.” That’s why, a century after their first appearance, despite the competition from so many other, more recent classics on one aspect or another of the mammoth Class Insecta, Fabre’s volumes continue to amaze and enchant.

I am a dreamer and a writer of poems. The scientific quest is, in some ways, as strange to me as the world of insects. I have neither the patience nor the aptitude to pursue a scientific career, yet perhaps for that reason I am awestruck by the few latter-day Fabres I have been fortunate enough to meet. The seasoned field naturalist is as unlike the verbose humanist scholar as one can imagine: he or she tends to be much less convinced of the ability of language to capture truth. “The more I observe and experiment,” Fabre confessed, “the more clearly I see rising out of the black mists of possibility an enormous note of interrogation.”

J. Henri Fabre’s life makes for a great morality play: a scientist’s version of the Horatio Alger myth. For all that he may have been a paragon of single-minded dedication to an enormous and exacting task, it is his good sense and wisdom that wins me over in the end. One of his most famous statements of belief comes from a letter he wrote to a friend near the end of his life. If it were up to me to rewrite the Bible, I would put this quote right at the very end:

Because I have shifted a few grains of sand upon the shore, am I in a position to understand the depths of the ocean? Life has unfathomable secrets. Human knowledge will be erased from the world’s archives before we possess the last word that a gnat has to say to us.

____________

Bibliographic note: The Maeterlinck quote comes from the Preface to The Life of the Spider, translated by Alexander Teixeira de Mattos, Dodd, Mead and Co., 1919. This preface also contains a slightly different translation of the quote, just given, about the limits to human knowledge. It continues (in part): “Success is for the loud talkers, the self-convinced dogmatists; everything is admitted on condition that it be noisily proclaimed. Let us throw off this sham and recogize that, in reality, we know nothing about anything, if things were probed to the bottom. Scientifically, Nature is a riddle without a definite solution to satisfy man’s curiosity . . . To know how not to know might well be the last word of wisdom.” I’m sure it was statements like this that sparked Teale’s comparison with Diogenes!

All the other Fabre quotes come from the one-volume selection, The Insect World of J. Henri Fabre, edited and introduced by Edwin Way Teale. Not only is this book still in print but, according to Amazon, affordable reprints of each translated volume of the full-length Souvenirs Entomologiques are available too. Despite not being exactly a household name, Fabre obviously still has a devoted following.

For more on the extinction of North America’s only native locust species, see Jeffrey Lockwood, “Voices From the Past: Learning From the Rocky Mountain Locust,” Wild Earth, Spring 2002, 21-27.

The way of a naturalist

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Idries Shah’s observation that humility is not merely a virtue but a technical requirement points to the deep kinship between authentic self-knowledge and empirical knowledge about the so-called mundane world. (See the quotes from conservation biologist Reed Noss from one of the entries on December 17.) Islamic mathematicians, geographers and scholars of a thousand years ago made much of this kinship, of course; when Western European naturalists picked up the torch half a millennium later, however, initial allegiance to a kind of decayed theosophy quickly faded. For whatever reason, the greatest revolution in human thinking the world had ever seen bequeathed to us the modern view of a universe in which almost everything is dead, inert, or at best robotic. Despite ample evidence to the contrary, the majority of behaviorists continue to assert that only humans possess “consciousness” (continually redefined to exclude other species that are strongly suspected to dream, anticipate, mourn the dead, experience joy, etc.). Even fellow humans can be shown to operate mostly on the basis of self-centered urges and instincts. It is commonplace to speak of DNA as “programming” – never mind that this completely ignores the role of chance (or God, if you prefer) in shaping all outcomes.

Originally an elite, minority view, this way of looking at the world has become dominant even among those who consider themselves to be most in revolt against modernism (or postmodernism, which is a fairly undistinguished offshoot in my opinion). “Scientific creationism” is an obvious example. But I would go even further: I don’t believe there’s any evidence that literalistic interpretations of religious texts and traditions held any sway before the modern era. Yet today such interpretations are at the root of a worldwide phenomenon – religious fundamentalism – and it isn’t hard to see why. Humans are an intensely visually oriented species; the overwhelming material and technical elaboration of modern societies and the raw power that that confers adds up to an argument that is extremely difficult for the adherents of more traditional worldviews to confront head-on. Even without the direct experience of conquest and slavery or debt-peonage, folks living more-or-less contentedly for centuries on subsistence and gift economies now suddenly understand themselves to be impoverished. Lacking. Inadequate and inferior. (Helena Norberg-Hodge writes movingly about observing this process in the kingdom of Ladakh, where India has been the direct source of the modernist malaise, in her book Ancient Futures.)

A generation or so later, the reaction sets in. But power once gained is difficult to give up, and where the modernist project is concerned that power is expressed in stark, shameless reductionism. The world is nothing more than a grab-bag of resources to be exploited for human use; human beings are nothing more than consumers/taxpayers/voters whose well-being derives ultimately from adequate access to resources. Fundamentalists – be they Christian, Muslim, Ultra-Orthodox Jewish, Hindus, even American Indian – in asserting the validity of their own traditions, attempt to exploit the power of reductionism rather than to challenge its primacy. (They are after all reactionaries, not radicals.) The materialist’s simple-minded dichotomy opposing objective, concrete reality to subjective, imaginary interpretation – “just the facts” vs. “just a myth” – has already insinuated itself into their thoughts and their language.

But all this has been a digression from what was to have been my main topic today. I want to look at a few of the ways in which a modern scientist might cultivate what a Sufi (or Zennist, or Christian mystic) would recognize as authentic ways of knowing. Our guide will be the late Lawrence Kilham.

Lawrence Kilham was a distinguished virologist who also wrote extensively about woodpeckers and crows for the ornithological journals. He is a relatively rare example of a laboratory scientist who also honored – and employed – the skills of a field naturalist. (As most readers are probably aware, the culture of modern science fetishizes laboratory work and, even more, the ‘pure’ theoretics of physics; biologists who engage in such lowly tasks as observation and systematics are near the bottom of the totem pole, along with anthropologists and other unworthy aspirants to the testosterone-charged arenas of Pure or Hard Science.) In the introduction to The American Crow and the Common Raven (Texas A&M Press, 1989), Kilham discusses the kinds of intellectual tools necessary for the scientific enterprise, mostly by quoting others. (Honoring the chain of transmission, as a Sufi might say.) Here, in quoting Kilham, where he simply lists author and date in parentheses, I’ll include the titles of the works referenced.

“‘Each scientist,’ wrote Agnes Arbor (The Mind and the Eye, 1954), ‘should be able to say to himself, like Descartes, that his intention is to build upon a foundation that is all his own.’ This may seem difficult when one is starting out, but it is the only way likely to be enjoyable. There is no such thing as one scientific method that all must follow (J.B. Conant, Two Modes of Thought, 1964). As Nietzsche said of philosophy, ‘This is my way. What is yours? As for the way, there is no such thing.’ Each must find or invent techniques best suited for his individual approach.’ . . .

“Preferring to be a free agent, I have always shunned the idea, whether with birds or viruses, of starting with a hypothetical problem and sticking to it. The challenge is to get from the known to the unknown. Almost any problem can set the wheels in motion. But once under way, I know I can do best by observing all that birds do, taking notes, then reviewing and reflecting on them when I get home. Persisting in this pedestrian fashion I find that something exciting almost always turns up. It is the chance discovery that makes science exciting. As [Konrad] Lorenz (Studies in Animal and Human Behavior, 1970) states in a chapter entitled ‘Companions as Factors in the Bird’s Environment,’ ‘The factual data upon which all of the following investigations are based derived almost entirely from chance observation.’ The chance experiment, he thinks, assures an impartial observer freedom from any initial hypothesis. I have long found such ideas congenial. They echo Louis Pasteur’s dictum, enshrined at the Harvard Medical School . . . that ‘chance favors the prepared mind.’
(Kilham, The American Crow and the Common Raven, 5-6. Emphasis mine.)

Whether in the lab or in the field, Kilham preferred to keep it simple: “I like to work with a minimum of apparatus,” he admits, and quotes Rousseau: “The more ingenious and accurate our instruments, the more unsusceptible and inexpert become our organs: by assembling a heap of machinery about us, we find afterwards none in ourselves.”

For behavioral studies in particular, Kilham says, “All one needs is a pair of field glasses, a notepad, and an open mind. One cannot, at least I cannot, study bird behavior and be occupied with a complicated piece of apparatus. Observing is a full-time occupation. You have to have your mind on what you are doing. Important bits of behavior – a copulation, a glimpse of a passing predator, or something new and unexpected – can take place in seconds. If one’s mind is on a camera, wondering how to get a good picture, one’s mind is not on what a bird is doing; being a good photographer is also a full-time occupation.” And he goes on to describe how one attempt to bring a tape recorder into the field caused him to miss a distressing amount of crow behavior.

“If one concentrates on producing a statistically sound publication, one may overlook much of what the birds are doing. Emphasis will be on covering as many nests or pairs as possible. But in trying to study birds as whole, living entities, noting everything they do, I find that two pairs of woodpeckers or, with crows, two cooperatively breeding groups, is the maximum I can study effectively. I am committed to this approach and thus feel that simple narration, or an anecdotal style, is the soundest way of presenting how animals live.” (Ibid, 7)

One problem with his kind of approach finding a wider acceptance among scientists, Kilham recognizes, is the mechanistic biases of the reigning “scientific” worldview. He quotes the ornithologist Olas Murie, who complained in a 1962 journal article that “we are extremely timid about assigning to other animals any of the mental or psychological traits of man. One would think that the scientist is the perfect fundamentalist, carefully maintaining a wall between man and other animals.”

The problem is that individual observations are hard to quantify. Even the most fascinating or tantalizing observation is likely to be dismissed by the worshippers of Hardness and Purity as anecdotal. Kilham again quotes Lorenz to the effect that the supposed centrality of quantitifiable methods is “one of the dangerous half-truths which fashion is prone to accept.” “The fallacy,” Kilham adds, “is what the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead referred to as ‘the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.'” He quotes a biologist named Donald Griffin, who thinks that the mechanistic view of nature is in error not only “because it belittles the value of animals, but because it leads us to a seriously incomplete and misleading picture of reality.”

After a paragraph on statistics and its lack of utility in either of the disciplines which formed his life-work, Kilham concludes, “There is much that is enjoyable in thinking for oneself and studying birds in one’s own way. Few seem to realize that even an ordinary person can make discoveries. The hitch is, as Polanyi (The Study of Man, 1959) pointed out, that ‘you cannot discover or invent anything unless you are convinced that it is there ready to be found. The recognition of this hidden presence is in fact half the battle. It means that you have hit on a real problem and are asking the right questions.’ This book is mainly an account of my search for the ‘hidden presence’ in crows and ravens. There has been no magic involved. Only the thousands of hours of watching, none of which has been dull.” (Ibid, 9-10. Emphasis added.)

We might argue with Kilham’s limited definition of magic, but never mind. The immense significance attached to birds in many different cultures is another topic to reserve for fuller treatment some other time. But I can’t resist closing once again with the motto to Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (invoked also in one of the foundational entries for this weblog):

How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way,
Is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five?

Poem for the New Year

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

The squirrel says: the trees
in which I have slept
are the color of the sun.
Leafless now and clear
all likely pathways. The tree peers
bleary-eyed through every scar
that used to be a leaf,
she is stiff and cold
and full of old voices.
I rub my face and neck against
her bark: wake up!
My tail trembles.
I am rainwater running
up and down the trunk,
from tree to tree I am wind
leaping, making the treetops sway.
Every possible gulf
of space is spanned
by a possible branch, look!
I can taste the kernels
at the tips of possible twigs.
And within me, now, too,
sunlight on branches.
Aching blue sky of January.
Cries of thirst.

In lieu of an omen

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

First natural observation of the New Year: a gray squirrel running through the branches of the five black walnut trees in the yard of my parent’s house. I’ve drunk my coffee, have gotten up to go back inside my own cottage (it’s 30 degrees F) and I notice the squirrel as I glance west, toward the sunlight seeping down Sapsucker Ridge and across the field. The walnut trees are still half in shadow, their crowns glow a rich gold. The squirrel – probably resident in the cavity of the largest tree – is racing up and down the sunlit limbs and flinging itself from tree to tree in a manner I can only describe as ecstatic. When it pauses, its tail vibrates spasmodically and it rubs both sides of its face and neck against the tree bark, left side then right.

I know this behavior from having observed it often among squirrels in the butternut tree that stood in my own front lawn until this past August, when it toppled over onto the porch one morning shortly after I’d gone inside. (Losing this butternut was almost as traumatic for me as the death of my grandfather the month before; both left a sizable hole.) I assume, based on what I’ve seen and what I’ve read in the scientific literature, that this behavior is associated with the onset of estrus. But something can have an “explanation,” be fairly familiar and still seem strange and wondrous. My only resolution for the New Year (and lord knows I could make many!) is to see the world more frequently in such a light.

Snowblind

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

The sun sings a song of oneness: Take off your dark glasses, undress, succumb! She holds nothing back, that’s why it hurts to look directly in her heart. From too much whiteness, vision fails. The way of light leads straight through the valley of the shadow. (Or something like that.)
*
After a week of cold, today the temperature is up near 50 degees F. & even with the sun behind the clouds, the six inches of accumulated snow are sinking fast. Unfortunately the flu has kept me inside for four days, missing out on some great x-c skiing.
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“Snowblind” was one of the best songs on Black Sabbath’s flawed masterpiece, Vol. 4. I think it was about the perils of cocaine use. One of the many great LPs I sold off, ten years ago or more, to buy alcohol.