The way of a naturalist (part 2)

(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.

This is not my beautiful house

It would be fun to try and put together an anthology of poetic riddles – a modern Exeter Book. This idea has crossed my mind more than once, but all I’ve managed to produce is the following poem (included in my collection Capturing the Hive, which has a kind of insect motif). I confess I am only half-satisfied with it. The problem is, there are two kinds of poems, and the ones that come from many hours of slow, deliberate construction and revision, like this one, are just never as satisfying to me as the ones that spring full-grown from the authentic wells of inspiration. (See the New Year’s squirrel poem for an example of the latter.)


Who’d have guessed the very riddle of a face
pivots on the possibility of a neck?

In your scientific campfire tales
mine is the face of Icarus.
You gave me a ghostly
popped-balloon body & a wild alias–
M.I.A. at Roswell, New Mexico.
Be careful what you call alien.

Too bad your psychics & cryptozoologists
didn’t come to me first. Perhaps my mode
of transport disappoints: no sleek discus, no warp-
driven spheroid, but a flying ship
straight out of Jules Verne – rudder, portholes & all.
Not the sort of future
you’ve come to expect.

Still, if I’m as mantic as you say,
what crystalline possibilities
these lidless eyes suggest, yes?
together with the pair of scalpels
held reverently at the ready as if
to petition, to witch for water,
to haruspect.
My emerald city stretches
over half the summer
& I promise you there’s no manikin
on either side of the curtain.
Now tell my name.

The world of the riddle

I am thinking that, rather than alter the previous post, I’ll wait until I trim the unruly poem down to size and then include that in a separate entry at some other time. (I guess if I were at all abashed about putting the messier byproducts of the creative process on display, I’d probably never post a single poem – or even blog at all!)

In the back of my mind as I put it together was the model of the Anglo-Saxon riddle. Those who are unfamiliar with this genre should not think of the parlor-game kind of riddles that are brief and admit of only one answer. In fact, a half-dozen or so of the 96 riddles preserved in the 10th-century Exeter Book are double-entendres. A handful incorporate runes and sophisticated puns, while others stray into vatic modes. Some are riddles in form only, the thing to be guessed at unveiling itself line by line with all the dramatic flair and linguistic flourish at the poet’s disposal. Some are obscure to the modern reader simply because the solution is a thing no longer in use, or a phenomenon that we would designate with more than one word. Such is the case with the opening poems of the collection, which describe tornado, earthquake, seaquake and storm at sea as one, compound being:

Sometimes my Lord corners me;
then he imprisons all that I am
under fertile fields – He frustrates me,
condemns me in my might to darkness,
casts me into a cave where my warden, earth,
sits on my back. I cannot break out
of that dungeon, but I shake halls
and houses; the gabled homes of men
tremble and totter; walls quake,
then overhang. Air floats above earth,
and the face of the ocean seems still
until I burst out from my cramped cell
at my Lord’s bidding . . .

(#3, translated by Kevin Crossley-Holland, The Exeter Book Riddles, Penguin, 1979)

Thus the opening trio of riddles also point beyond their own solutions. The anonymous cleric who compiled the manuscript doubtless wanted to invoke the power of the Almighty, but in a manner appropriate to the medium. The people who composed and delighted in these riddles were – as so many of their greatest poems remind us – a seafaring folk for whom the ocean was a source of both joy and terror. A man’s relationship with the sea was very much like his relationship to the divine: one of awe-struck reliance tempered by feeble efforts at propitiation. The storm and earthquake were signs not only of divine power but of the ultimately fluid and changeable nature of the things we take for granted, setting palaces on fire, uprooting forests, swallowing fleets. Earth and ocean are commingled by the elemental power of the Creator/Destroyer.

. . . Spuming crests crash
against the cliff, dark precipice looming
over deep water; a second tide,
a sombre flood, follows the first;
together they fret against the sheer face,
the rocky coast.

This sense of awe (which I define as fear leavened by wonder, or vice versa) is a fundamental part of the outlook of all pre-modern cultures of which I am aware. But many civilizations tend to leave it out of their high-culture products. The Germanic cultures of the so-called Dark Ages were unique in producing (or at least writing down) a body of literature that did not reflect merely the refined sensitivities of an urban aristocracy – refinement so often involving a willful insulation from life’s starker and more humbling circumstances.

There is just enough of this poetry preserved to allow us to form a fairly complete picture of how the universe appeared to the ancient Anglo-Saxons. It is interesting to me how much their outlook anticipates what we have come to think of as the unique heritage of the modern era: the worldview of scientific rationalism. The riddles in particular display a fascination with the world as an endless series of puzzles to be solved. But even poems that are not riddles bristle with kennings, the cunning metaphors that were the skaldic poet’s stock-in-trade. Solving one mystery often points simply to further mystery, but this is felt to be a source of delight rather than frustration. Enough of the pagan outlook has survived the general conversion to Christianity to preserve intact the instinct that all things have inherent value, a unique spirit that is capable of saying its own name, of questioning and calling into question.

I’m a strange creature with various voices:
I can bark like a dog, bleat like a goat,
honk like a goose, shriek like a hawk,
at times I imitate the ashen eagle,
the battle-bird’s cry; the vulture’s croak
trips off my tongue, and the mew of a seagull,
as I sit here, saucily . . .

The translator says of this poem (#24) that it bristles with onomatopoeia in the original. (The evident solution is a jay or magpie.) Another bird riddle, one of uncertain solution, in the very last line spells out the connection between animal vocalization and speech: “They name themselves (#57).”

The challenge can be literal:

He who struggles against my strength,
he who dares grapple with me, discovers immediately
that he will hit the hard floor with his back
if he persists,

says the mead (#27).

As the translator points out in his introduction, by and large the makers of these poems stay resolutely focused on the everyday world of working people. “There are riddles about bucket and bellows, churn and key, ale and mead, anchor and plough; riddles about badger and bullock, the swan, the jay, the swallow, the copulating cock and hen; riddles about the sun and moon, and sudden storms, and ice (p.15).” But in fact, all of Creation is a riddle to be solved:

I stretch beyond the bounds of the world,
I’m smaller than a worm, outstrip the sun,
I shine more brightly than the moon. The swelling seas,
the fair face of the earth and all the green fields,
are within my clasp. I cover the depths,
and plunge beneath hell; I ascend above heaven,
highland of renown; I reach beyond
the boundaries of the land of blessed angels.
I fill far and wide all the corners of the earth
and the ocean streams. Say what my name is.

(# 66, in its entirety)

Thus, although these poems are deeply Christian, they very much partake of the conjurer’s art. The world may be full of terrors, but nothing is too great to be encompassed by the skaldic art. Do we have a word for this kind of unveiling, this Adamic naming that still permits the thing so named to unfold its own destines in secret? Again, I can’t help thinking of the modern scientist who knows that all classification schemes are provisional and that theories, wonderful tools as they are, will always fall far short of a comprehensive description of nature. Like #66, #40 – the longest riddle in the manuscript – also assumes the voice of Creation, the ultimate subject (since God cannot be subjected to such a naming). It abounds with paradox:

My age is much older than this circle of earth
or this middle-world could ever attain,
and I was born yesterday – a baby
from my mother’s womb, acclaimed by men.

This is much closer in spirit to something like the Yoruba hymn to Eshu I quoted here a while back than to the allegorical poems of the high Middle Ages, where abstractions in anthropomorphic form utter moralizing lines glorifying the very small wonders of a rigidly hierarchical, perfectly geometric, Ptolemaic universe. I can’t help thinking that it was this latter spirit, nurtured by the pieties and persecutions of the Roman Church, that produced the true Dark Ages, culminating in wars, famines, pogroms, the burning of heretics, witches and herbalists and the conquest of the New World. All of this activity was, if not caused, at leased licensed by the radical devaluation of nature and deracination of reality that still distinguishes European and Euro-American civilization. What happened, sometime around the 11th century, to turn awe into suspicion, even hatred? The names of things, once sources of wonder, became stereotypes. Wild animals – wolves, eagles, stags – turned into object lessons and heraldic emblems. The rich natural imagery of the Bible was universally seen simply as a code, a set of ciphers. For close to 1000 years, no one in the West would climb a mountain for pleasure or write a poem celebrating the power of the storm.

On the wing

Found Object
for G. Z.

The knot of roots that used to be
a bird perched in the lilac bush
now sits long-legged atop
my file cabinet, fast
friends with an alarm clock
and an aloe vera that has dangled
its tattered crown down on
a ridiculous length of rope. What I
can only call a knot may not ever
have been bird – but certainly
something difficult to name
that spoke of hope, Dickinson’s
thing with feathers. The lifted wings,
the fanned tail tell of just-
arrested flight, as if by window
(the wingbone broken in mid-wish,
the tiny clot in the brain that clogs
the unfathomable works) or
from a cell phone tower’s fatal wink.
Frayed muscles can snap, they said,
appalled – the survey team
that found an entire midnight
flock of warblers dead or dying,
littering the ground all around
some guy-wired, steel-girdered
ridgetop Lorelei. It seems
the low clouds & fog forced them down
& the tower’s lights were just right to take
the place of polestars. Imagine it:
to have one’s deep instinctual quest
(like a sex drive, except it’s toward a place)
derailed in favor of this frantic circling –
a comet captured by an unexpected sun.
They will not tell you this on the 6:00
o’clock news. There’s always
some lurid tale of a car crash or drug
bust right down the street, my God,
they were all such good kids, too – straight As,
athletic scholarships . . .
But this – knobs & bumps
of wood, clumped
ends of rhizomes, the grain
that could be feathers, the missing
claws and beak that I neglected
earlier to mention – this isn’t
bird in the hand, but in the bush.
I was myself to blame or credit for it.
(It was I, said the sparrow, with
my little arrow.) I cut it
from the bank with a shovel
when I moved the wall back.
The lilac seemed unaffected.
It remains a sturdy refuge from
the sharp-shinned hawk, a place
where bluebird or cardinal straight
from the bath can ruffle dry their feathers, &
where a hundred other contingencies
might flourish – wholly unguessed at –
down among the baroque
& deliberate roots.

The way of a naturalist

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?

Shah on "The Commanding Self"

Since I’ve mentioned Idries Shah twice now in the past couple of days – both here and over at Vajrayana Practice – I thought it might be a good time to let the man speak for himself, as it were. Shah was an extremely influential 20th-century Iranian-British teacher in the Naqshbandi tradition of Central Asian and Middle Eastern Sufism. Although it would be much more entertaining to transcribe one of his teaching stories, a passage from the introduction to The Commanding Self (London: The Octagon Press, 1994) seems more appropriate, because it touches on themes I have raised in the past several posts. And unlike the darn-near impenetrable teaching stories (collected in many volumes such as Tales of the Dervishes, Thinkers of the East, Caravan of Dreams, etc.), here he actually tells the reader what he’s about.

It’s a lengthy excerpt, so I stuck it up on a separate page for now. Click here.

Death takes a holiday

Pica raises the question of violence and religion in the comments thread to yesterday’s post. Is violence at some level intrinsic to religion, or is it simply something that insinuates itself into the myths and/or ceremonies of cultures that are violent, or were violent in the past? To what extent might religion license and perpetuate violence? These are huge questions, and if I seem like a coward to dodge them (or pass them off onto my Dad, who is a peace scholar), so be it.

The journalist and longtime war correspondent Chris Hedge’s book, War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, offers a rare example of a completely unsparing portrayal of modern warfare. He examines, at great depth and with abundant examples from the classics, the hold that warfare has over our imagination – how exciting and addictive it can become to writers like himself. Hedges is a former seminary student, and as the title suggests, he does not shy away from critiquing the role of religion or religious-seeming behavior. With good reason: the language of sacrifice is still used heavily by those who seek to give large-scale, organized butchery an air of nobility. (Liberals have criticized Bush for not employing the language of collective national sacrifice often enough. His response to 9/11 was “Go shopping!”)

Whether or not we can say that most religions are built on a foundation of violence, I think it is almost axiomatic that nation-states are. Patriotism is a covert form of religion, in my opinion – covert in the sense that it is disguised simply as the bedrock of all civic virtue. In the U.S.A., patriotism is particularly virulent because of our lack of an official state religion. This only works as long as we are in denial about the true nature of the situation, given the First Amendment’s clear guarantee of a freedom from religion. There is almost no escape from patriotism, especially during times of war. In virtually no other country that is not a totalitarian regime can one observe national symbols displayed everywhere, including in homes and offices. Like any icon or fetish, the U.S. flag transcends mere symbolic value. It is not only highly charged and ambiguous, invested with multiple meanings (anthropologist Victor Turner’s definition of a symbol), but for many people, I believe, it actually is animated somehow by a mystical essence (America, Freedom). It requires regular feedings of blood to retain its power – or so I would conclude from the most commonly cited justification for banning flag desecration: that the flag is sacred because so many people have died for it.

To be opposed to violence as a legitimate way of accomplishing social ends is perhaps the most revolutionary stance you can take. People from all over the political spectrum react with horror, disgust or simply bemused condescension to such a position. “Of course we, who are grownups, understand that sometimes unpleasant tasks are necessary, the world being as it is.” In fact, it is rare that the proponents of violence do not immediately resort to essentialist arguments about “human nature” – which suggests to me a strong tendency toward avoidance of the specific dilemmas that peaceniks tend to annoy us with. It may not be an exaggeration to say that such discussions are in fact taboo. At any rate, this brings us back to one of the main themes of this weblog, which is, can we say anything meaningful about (human) nature at all?

The 16th-century Quiche Mayan text Popol Vuh (see the Dennis Tedlock translation published by Simon and Schuster) is full of violence – murder, cannibalism, you name it. Its story of the journey of the hero twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, to the underworld of Xibalba to defeat the lords of death pivots on what I consider a profound insight into the nature of violence. The twins allow themselves to be killed and bring themselves back to life through their own power but – unlike Christ’s resurrection – that act alone does not constitute a complete victory over death. They use a combination of what we might call high and low magic – that is to say, transformations of both surface appearances and deeper identities – to compose a comic and enticing display. Traveling through Xibalba in the guise of ragamuffin acrobats and parlor magicians, they amaze all and sundry by their songs and dances, which include real sacrifices of one brother by the other, followed by his resurrection. News of this spectacle quickly reaches the ears of the rulers, who have them summoned to the palace.

The lords of death thus are enticed to become willing participants in their own destruction: their power is turned back upon them. “Sacrifice my dog, and bring him back to life again,” the chief lord says eagerly. They do so. “Set fire to my house.” The hall is engulfed in flames, but miraculously no one is injured – just like a Hollywood action-adventure flick! “Make a sacrifice without death!” Universal delight. “Do each other!” Pandemonium.

“And then the hearts of the lords were filled with longing, with yearning for the dance of Hunahpu and Xbalanque, so then came these words from One and Seven Death:

“‘Do it to us! Sacrifice us!'” they said. “‘Sacrifice both of us!'” said One and Seven Death to Hunahpu and Xbalanque.

“‘Very well. You ought to come back to life. After all, aren’t you Death? And aren’t we making you happy, along with the vassals of your domain?’ they told the lords.” (Tedlock, Popol Vuh, 153)

And of course they don’t come back to life. Caught up in violence-for-the-sake-of-violence, they fail to understand the higher import of the game.

One message I take from this is that comedy does triumph over tragedy in the end. Both may employ violence, but for completely different ends. If you look at the world in its tragic aspect, it will appear that violence is inevitable: are we not, after all, part of the food chain? Isn’t biology destiny? We carry our deaths within us; our appetites are without limit. Life is, as the Buddha observed, unsatisfactory. But – cruel as it seems – the very fact that death is no respecter of persons suggests the limitations of the tragic view, which cannot get beyond the perspective of the individual organism.

A friend of mine who is a Voudun initiate is ridden (“possessed”) by Ghede* during the spontaneous sacred dramas that are at the center of almost all Voudun convocations. Ghede is the orisha (“god”) of the crossroads and the graveyard, and acts as the master of ceremonies in these dramas because he is an intermediary between life and death. (As with many peasant religions, the main focus of Voudun is simply to commune with the ancestors.) Ghede is a quintessentially comic, Rabelaisian figure. He wears dark glasses, smokes a stogie, and drinks Bacardi 151 straight from the bottle with no apparent effect. (My friend says the effect does hit him after the orisha goes away, though not nearly as hard as it would if he had drunk an equivalent amount in a purely secular context. He knows from rum.) Ghede is extremely fond of dirty jokes and is certainly no respecter of persons, poking fun at everyone who crosses his path.

Ghede is subversive. There is a famous incident in which he simultaneously possessed hundreds of people in Port-au-Prince back during the days of the dictator Baby Doc Duvalier. (Keep in mind that Duvalier himself used Voudun to project an image as a lord of death, with his secret police acting as the dreaded Tonton Macoutes or bogeymen.) Picture a crowd of men wearing black suits, dark glasses and big, ear-splitting grins, striding jauntily along with the aid of white canes, making their unruly way (an anti-army!) up the broad avenue to the very gates of the palace while the dictator cowers inside. Tap tap tap tap tap tap tap go the canes upon the gate, an anarchic rhythm like a sudden hail of bullets. Ghede has a message for you: the doctor is in. “Nothing cures everything like death,” my friend is fond of intoning.

As I’ve mentioned before, I think that religion is fundamentally utopian, thus comic. At one level, the denial of death’s importance simply helps perpetuate violence and suffering. At a more advanced stage of awareness, the self that perishes is seen as extrinsic to the real self, part of the play of transformations in which death is a mediator rather than the final judge.
*Also spelled Gede, Guede.


It’s probably far from obvious to a reader of the previous post that The Sylph is in fact a friend of mine who prefers to remain pseudonymous. (I don’t know the cloudshift/photoblogger from Adam, and just plug his blog ’cause I like what he’s trying to do.) I included that e-mail because I really dug the way it played with the “cloud of unknowing” concept. But I do feel a more profound issue is at work here. The Sufi thinker Idries Shah says that the presence of people who feel somewhat lost by the discussion but who nonetheless can listen with an active, open mind is essential in order for any genuine teaching to take place. I don’t know if this would apply here, however, since I am by no means a qualified teacher myself, simply a freelance, masterless student with various headstrong preconceptions about what should constitute a valid teaching. It seems to me that it is a strong possibility, almost an inevitability that, in the course of my blogging, I will bark up many wrong trees. That’s why I feel reassured by the presence of blithe spirits like The Sylph, who can balance bafflement and wisdom and know enough to keep the tongue firmly planted in the cheek at all times!

Meet the cloud

Yesterday I received the following communication:

“I like reading your blog but have given relatively little thought, when one considers a lifetime of time to think, to most of the topics discussed in ViaNegativa. My presence as blog consumer would best be represented as a virtual cloud floating through the text, lingering on a poem, the odd wisp filtering into cassandra, back to hover over the reference section…weightless…mere vapor. No piece of my mind (yuck) but breath of my attitude.
[signed] The Sylph”

This made me go check on cloudshift/photoblog, my first visit since the New Year. This is a great site with mysterious photos and spontaneous, gnomic interpretations from a practicing Buddhist. (You can tell they’re spontaneous, ’cause he doesn’t bother to correct misspellings and typos.) In the entry for January 6 he could be conjuring our Sylph here. I won’t attempt to describe the photo, but the legend reads as follows:

“Shifting in and out of crowds (clouds), avoiding piercing stares… I followed and lead and pushed on towards my destinaion… It was a sight to see, and a sight to be seen.

“My reflection exists in the eyes of those I love.

When the world is filled with evil,
Transform all mishaps into the path
of bodhi.”

Not bad. But Friday’s cogitation was more along my line. The photographer tilts his head, captures a split-second’s play of light and shadow (red and black and gold) and ruefully admits,

“I apply my conceptual knowledge to my surroundings, and therefore put everything into a small box of my own making. If I can see outside these boundaries, perhaps then I can really see.”

Check it out – and drop some comments in his box. He might be lonely, too. As for me, now that I know Via Negativa has a spirit-guardian, I feel quite reassured.

Sorcery and the limits to knowledge

Does geography determine culture? The indigenous Mojave people, living in the hottest and one of the bleakest corners of what is now the United States, were obsessed with death. Funerals and mourning anniversaries were their main ceremonials. They were one of the few cultures in which sorcerers – that is to say, shamans who use their powers for self-aggrandizement and murder – practiced openly. “I am going to kill you,” a Mojave sorcerer frankly told the anthropologist A.L. Kroeber in 1910. (1)

One of their sacred stories offers an interesting contrast to the postmodern notion of deus abscondus – a god whose purported abandonment is used to explain manifold suffering and injustice. The first sorcerer kills one of the two creator gods. The other one, his younger brother, has just rescued the people from a world flood which he himself produced. Their Ararat is Avikwame, today known as Newberry Mountain, north of Needles, CA. John Bierhorst describes the conclusion of their Creation cycle in his authoritative Mythology of North America (Oxford UP, 2002, p.102 ):

“On the mountain he gives future shamans their dream power while they stand before him either as unborn children or as little boys. Afterward, he teaches the Mojave to farm, to cook, to speak, and to count, then changes into a fish eagle and flies off ‘without power of recollection, ignorant and infested with vermin.'” (2)

* * * *

It is a commonplace among cultures where magic is regarded as an authentic way of knowing, that knowledge is inherently limited and available only for a price. There is a strong appeal to the idea that many forms of understanding must be hard-won. For example, I’m told you can read the full details of most “secret” tantric teachings – they have been published and translated. But they are nonetheless still hidden, in the sense that their true content can only be grasped by someone who has been gone through proper training and is prepared to receive them.

To take another example, most of us probably have the experience of meeting “uneducated” individuals of a certain age whose every utterance radiates wisdom. (If you haven’t, you need to get out more!) The reason why these kinds of folks seem like sages, and the average PhD does not, presumably stems from the way in which they have acquired their knowledge about the world.

On the other hand: you can decry our society’s own “disenchantment” and the supposed Death of God all you want. But I’ll bet you take for granted things like free public libraries (thank you Andrew Carnegie, you murderously oppressive, self-aggrandizing son-of-a-bitch!). This is the absolute bedrock of civil liberties in the United States: the freedom not only to say what you want and think what you want, but to access knowledge that, in almost every other society the world has ever seen, would have been off-limits to all but an elite few. Sure, we still have “experts” whose typically mendacious interpretations dominate the airwaves. And most professions and disciplines employ occult terminology with a strong gatekeeper function. But we also have – possibly for not much longer – the Freedom of Information Act. Many individual states have Right-to-Know laws. And of course, we have the Internet – though more and more of it is off-limits to non-subscribers.

If, as some say, we are living in the twilight of the Free Information Age, we should be concerned about what this could mean for democracy. The Bush/Cheney regime has displayed an unprecedented obsession with secrecy and utter contempt for laws and customs mandating accountability. The more that the powerful can withhold access to knowledge, the more difficult it becomes to fight them. Thus their monopoly accelerates. What prevents them from becoming like gods – lords of death, arbiters of the planet’s fate? Is there something intrinsic to the power of understanding, that it might ultimately desert those who seek its ultimate control?

* * * *

An afterthought on the Mojave myth: this god, whose name is Mastamho, cannot be equated with deus abscondus. In the first place, however altered and diminished, he is still with the people as long as there are eagles. Moreover, by the ingenius conception of presence-as-future-possibility for the unborn, all religious specialists can claim to have communed with him directly! Which was, of course, the point. As masters of the dream, shamans always have access to the illo tempore of sacred story, the dreamtime where death and forgetfulness can be reversed, humans and animals are all just people and outward forms are, if not quite unreal as Plato thought, infinitely supple. The mind that can master these transformations is indeed a dangerous thing.

(1) I think the date is right. I read this a while back, and don’t have the reference at hand.
(2) Bierhorst should have updated the translation. By “fish eagle” he means, of course, the bald eagle.