Monsters ink

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

I decided to post the entire essay below, under yesterday’s entry, rather than split it and put the second half here. For those who first read it yesterday afternoon, that portion has now been significantly rearranged. (There may be a few more minor corrections, but I don’t anticipate substantial changes – this is, after all, just a blog!) I apologize for the confusion.

I’m wondering if I have invented a new genre here? It’s clearly not a book review of Quammen’s Monsters of God, since I haven’t read it yet. Nor could you call it a book preview, since I have little idea of what’s in it – I was merely riffing on what I take to be a few of the major themes. A “book anticipation,” perhaps?

UPDATE: repeat of conclusion removed as a pointless exercise. I will not pander to the attention span-deprived!

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
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 tree itself

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

This weekend’s full moon marks the minor Jewish holiday Tu biShvat, the New Year of the Trees. This is one of four New Years in the Jewish calendar. Rachel Barenblat over at Velveteen Rabbi has a good essay on the origin and meaning of this celebration, which seems to be gaining more significance with the spread of ecotheology. (See Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s site for more on ecotheology’s Rabbinic and Kabbalistic precedents and its call for healing and renewal.) Barenblat points out that

Trees are a potent symbol within Judaism. In Genesis, Adam and Eve get themselves exiled from Eden by eating the fruit of the wrong tree. According to the Zohar, that tree (the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil) was merely a branch of the Tree of Life until the first humans ate the forbidden fruit, at which point the branch split off and became a tree unto itself. In this teaching, tikkun olam (the healing of the world) means re-unifying the two trees into their initial, singular, state. In Deuteronomy, man is likened to a tree; in Proverbs, the Torah is likened to a tree of life. The Kabbalists of medieval years had a variety of ways of conceptualizing God, including the “sefirotic tree,” an arboreal diagram of divine spheres through which holy emanations flowed into creation.

So this seems like a fitting point to input the passage from Martin Buber alluded to yesterday. I and Thou is my favorite single work of philosophy or religion, and has been a huge influence on me (as on so many other artist- and poet-types) since I first read it in my mid-teens. If you haven’t read it, used copies are not hard to come by . . . but be sure to get the authorized translation by Walter Kaufmann, published by Scribner’s in 1970.

I read somewhere that Buber caught hell from some of his more traditional co-religionists for this passage, which occurs quite early in the book as the first real fleshing-out of his thesis. Why didn’t he use a human being, they wanted to know? I guess to such people the tree-imagery of the Bible is so much empty symbolism, or something. (One wonders what they make of the Song of Songs!) At any rate, here’s the offending passage:

I contemplate a tree.

I can accept it as a picture: a rigid pillar in a flood of light, or splashes of green traversed by the gentleness of the blue silver ground.

I can feel it as movement: the flowing veins around the sturdy, striving core, the sucking of the roots, the breathing of the leaves, the infinite commerce with earth and air – and the growing itself in its darkness.

I can assign it to a species and observe it as an instance, with an eye to its construction and its way of life.

I can overcome its uniqueness and form so rigorously that I recognize it only as an expression of the law – those laws according to which a constant opposition of forces is continually adjusted, or those laws according to which the elements mix and separate.

I can dissolve it into a number, into a pure relation between numbers, and eternalize it.

Throughout all this the tree remains my object and has its place and its time span, its kind and condition.

But it can also happen, if will and grace are joined, that as I contemplate the tree I am drawn into a relation, and the tree ceases to be an It. the power of exclusiveness has seized me.

This does not require me to forego any of the modes of contemplation. There is nothing that I must not see in order to see, and there is no knowledge I must forget. Rather is everything, picture and movement, species and instance, law and number included and inseparably fused.

Whatever belongs to the tree is included: its form and its mechanics, its colors and its chemistry, its conversation with the elements and its conversation with the stars – all this in its entirety.

The tree is no impression, no play of my imagination, no aspect of a mood; it confronts me bodily and has to deal with me as I must deal with it – only differently.

One should not try to dilute the meaning of the relation: relation is reciprocity.

Does then the tree have consciousness, similar to our own? I have no experience of that. But thinking that you have brought this off in your own case, must you again divide the indivisible? What I encounter is neither the soul of a tree nor a dryad, but the tree itself.

Finally, it’s worth noting for those of us who live within the boundaries of the traditional homeland of the Iroquois Confederacy – or in a frontier region where they exercised sovereignty, in my case – that we are only a couple weeks away from their first big holiday after the New Year: the Blessing of the Maples (time varies according to when the sap rises).

Here’s the liturgy from the Longhouse Religion of Handsome Lake, as recorded and translated by Arthur Parker:

The address to the maple, the chief of trees and the prayer to the Creator
A Seneca ceremony

The priest stands at the roots of a [sugar] maple. A fire is burning and the priest casts tobacco in the fire and as its smoke arises he says:

To the tree:
O partake of this incense,
You the forests!
We implore you
To continue as before,
The flowing waters of the maple.

To the Creator and the tree:
It is the will of the Creator
That [from] a certain tree
Should flow such water.
Now may no accidents occur
To children roaming in the forests.
Now this day is yours
May you enjoy it, this day.

To the Creator:
We give thanks, oh God, to you,
You who dwell in heaven.
We have done our duty
You have seen us do it.
So it is done.”

One-shot poems, 5 a.m.

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

A ladybug is sleeping on the letter N.
Somehow this reminds me to go turn
the thermostat up.
Full moon above the low cloud ceiling.
Under their roof of snow a city of voles.
In the not-quite dark of the not-yet light,
silhouette of an opossum against the snow
scuttling from tree to tree.
Directly underneath me where
I sit and type,
something is chewing.
The eaves grow longer teeth,
ice dams overflow.
My burrow is damp.
The moon shows its face for half a minute
through a thin screen of cloud,
snow falling sideways.

Questioning dreaming

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

I had two blog-related thoughts in the middle of the night and can only remember one of them, more or less. Of the other I retain an outline: it seems that I was compiling quotes, and had found one that made a worthy companion to Buber’s meditation on a tree from I and Thou, which I’ve been meaning to include for some time. I did not wake up completely in either instance, but simply made a mental note to retrieve on waking. This is dangerous, given the inexact impressions of the thinking mind during sleep.

Perhaps as I grow older, I will take to imitating my father, who keeps a pen and a stack of 3×5″ slips of paper on his nightstand. When he has what seems like an important middle-of-the-night thought, he’ll half-wake up, write down a few key words or phrases on a slip of paper without turning on the light and drop it on the floor where he’ll see it in the morning. Sometimes, he says, he’ll get up in the morning and find that the stretch of carpet between bed and door is white with thought-spoor from a productive night of dreaming.

This would be a good place to launch into a disquisition on the anthropology of dreaming, but I’m missing the one really essential text: Dreaming: Anthropological and Psychological Interpretation, edited by Barbara Tedlock. Also, I did a lot of research and thinking on this topic for my book-length poem Cibola the year before last, so I’m a little burnt out on the subject. (This isn’t necessarily a plug; I now regard Cibola as an artistic failure, though I still feel there’s some pretty strong writing in it – mostly in the last third – and a lot of good insights.)* The book incorporates regular sections of epigrams from various sources, both as an aid to the reader’s understanding and as a nod to meta-texuality and multi-vocalic whatnot. One of the things I quote from is George Steiner’s essay “The Historicity of Dreams” (in No Passion Spent: Essays 1978-1995, Yale U.P., 1996).

The essay is subtitled “two questions to Freud.” It throws out a number of points worth pondering, for example: “Animals dream. Am I altogether in error in thinking that the philosophical and historical implications of this platitude are enormous, and that they have received remarkably little attention? For if animals dream, as they manifestly do, such ‘dreams’ are generated and experienced outside any linguistic matrix.” The ability to dream in other members of the animal kingdom is often cited as evidence for the view that dreaming is necessary to affix events and images in the memory. Steiner cautions, however, that “not only can we have no proof that the dreams of animals occur in such ‘imagistic-sensory’ mode, but we cannot even ‘think’ any such mode without adulterating it into verbal discourse. Man can almost be defined as a species with only exceedingly limited and falsifying access to the universe (for it is nothing less) of silence.” (Emphasis added.) **

“Did hominid species, in their intimate co-existence not only with primates but with the whole animal kingdom, dream zoo-logically?” Steiner asks. This line of speculation is interesting to me because of my own sense that many dreams are fundamentally altered by their conversion into narrative. And the possibility of hyper-linguistic dreams such as I had last night – i.e., examples of abstract thinking of the kind that are rare enough during waking hours for most of us who are not scientists or philosophers – implies to me that such conversion may not always be completely after-the-fact, upon waking, as the rest of Steiner’s study of dream interpretation assumes. Rather, an almost simultaneous translation may be going on.

Who is the translator, then? Is it the same as the witnessing “I” (eye) of the lucid dreamer? And what to make of the division between witness and protagonist within the selfhood of the dreamer? This could point in several directions. My usual anthropological interests make me want to try and trace a connection with what comparative religionist Karl Luckert refers to as the pre-human flux of mythological time among gatherer-hunters. I’m also thinking of the many ways I’ve read about in which dreaming (and other unconscious or semi-conscious states) can be developed and directed for shamanic purposes: to divine, to heal, to harm – even to kill, in some cultures.***

Steiner is sensitive to these possibilities and nuances as well: “We do not sleep at the same hours, in the same milieu, in the same psychological aura – climatic, nutritive, sexual – as did, say, an ancient Greek, a medieval serf, a Trobriand islander. . . . The dreams recorded by the royal scribes of ancient Egypt or the Bible, by Plutarch or the medieval allegorists differ among themselves as radically as they differ from those set down by anthropologists and ethnographers in the field. They differ strikingly, as well, from those cited as typical in the literature of psychoanalysis.” He goes on to ponder the great gulf between traditional dream-interpretation, in which “dreams are the momentary runes which the future inscribes on the sleeping soul,” and modern psychoanalysis, in which “dreams feed not on prophesy but on remembrance.

“The semiological vector points not to the future but to the past. The dynamics of opacity are not those of the unknown but of the suppressed.” This reorientation first came about among European “Enlightenment” thinkers of the 17th century, he says, and gathered steam with the Romantics, for whom dreams were “homecomings to the ‘visionary gleam’ of birth and childhood.” Steiner proposes several reasons for the shift. First, our conception of the future became mechanical, statistical and stochastic – i.e. “scientific.” Gradually, then, “responsible knowledge is assimilated to daylight (cf. the light-symbolism, the noon-poetics in the iconography and discursive conventions of the Newtonian revolution). Concomitantly, night and its output are assigned to the domain of illusion, of childishness, of pathology. As Goya has it, in that most haunting of his engravings, nightmares are born of the sleep of reason.”

This may be an accurate analysis of Enlightenment prejudices, but it’s hardly a new trope. Sufis, Buddhists, the Kogi Indians of Columbia and others have long used not only the image of enlightenment for the ideal/natural state of the thinking mind, but also the analogy of waking from sleep to describe its experience. But of course Steiner must know this; it doesn’t invalidate his argument, simply re-situates it within a truly global hermeneutic of unconsciousness compared with which modern psychoanalysis seems infantile indeed.

Our guide continues with a brief discussion of the reevaluation of childhood during the Romantic period, which is obviously still very much with us (and very much worth celebrating – especially now in this “Seusstennial” year!). A third possible factor in the shift is “that of the internalizations of experience which come near to defining modernity itself.”

“Such conjectures are,” Steiner hastens to add, “too vague, too portentious, to be of real use.” I beg to differ! What he calls vague I prefer to think of as suggestive.

The remainder of his essay is devoted to rebutting the “arbitrary naivety” of Freud in regard to poetics. (“The phenomenology of dreaming is embedded in the evolution and structures of language. A theory of dreams is also a linguistics or, at the very least, a poetics.”) His own, relatively safe and highly provisional conclusion about the relationship of dream interpretations to waking life is that they reflect and transmute not only individual but shared experiences. And, he implies, they may be predictive in at least the limited sense that one’s unconscious mind can be open to aspects of the larger social and historical milieu ignored or blocked by the waking intellect.

My mother is sometimes prone to dreams that seem vaguely prophetic or clairvoyant. Her only moment of true clairvoyance was many years ago, when she knew the exact moment of her beloved grandmother’s death. I had a similar experience two years ago, when I had a very vivid dream about an old acquaintance whom I hadn’t seen or even much thought about in several years, at what turned out to be the approximate hour of his death. In my dream, he was getting out of a van right next to me in a parking lot, but seemed not to recognize me when I called his name. In fact, as it turned out he had been driving a van when he careened off the highway and was killed. But I am not sure that these dream-visitations occupy the same order of reality as predictive dreams.

My mother included in her book Appalachian Autumn a dream which she had not herself considered to be prophetic. Interestingly, her editor at the University of Pittsburgh Press wanted to take it out – she found its inclusion irrelevant and a little melodramatic, apparently. Before reading the manuscript, based only on my mother’s telling of it and knowledge of the proximate events (which I had not been at home to witness), I felt moved to make a poem out of it. Thus innocently and inadvertently I stumbled upon what seemed to me and to her to be a logical reading. The only part I fudged here, obviously, is the suggestion that she “remembers her dream” a week later, during the event it seems to have foreshadowed. I can’t recall if the part about the guy swallowing his plug of tobacco was my invention or not; it was a later addition to try and offset the high drama with a touch of humor.


It shook her out of a sound sleep, she says,
it seemed so real: the catamount
with all four feet dug into her flesh
riding her back like a demon in an old folktale.

Was it the lion’s voice or her own
she heard as she tried to turn
& couldn’t, couldn’t look,
doubled under that unearthly weight?

One clear autumn morning a week later
she wakes to the roar of a lumberman’s bulldozer
& remembers her dream. The man looking
down from his nest of gearshifts

must wonder at this gray-haired woman
who faces him from the other side
of the blade with hands
half-clenched. He reaches for the switch

& it shudders into silence. Don’t worry,
, he says, eyes watering (no doubt
from swallowing when he should’ve spat),
we’ll cut well above your line.

This Cat is yellow & its teeth and claws are steel.
It lays the wooded spine of the mountain bare.
My mother runs to the far field
to flee the chainsaw’s scream.****

As for the thought I had last night, it was neither prophetic nor especially profound. I’m sure it’ll worm its way into a blog post at some point; I’ll keep y’all posted.

But I think that’s really why I do my blogging first thing in the morning, preferably beginning well before dawn: to take advantage of the lingering impressions from my dreams, which I otherwise rarely make any particular effort to remember. I consider myself a pragmatist on the question of dream-interpretation. For the writing mind too enters a mild state of trance; the self-conscious ego is forced into a temporary retreat. Whose dark words are these, then, with which I am so presumptuously attempting to map the via negativa?

*A pdf version of Cibola is available here. Be advised that there are no page numbers (for no better reason than my very incomplete mastery of Pagemaker at the time of composition) so anyone wishing to print it out should be careful to keep the pages in order.
**I love that “almost”! Steiner’s caution as a thinker is one of his most attractive attributes to me. Without it I would probably be completely intimidated, given his immense erudition.
***See Timothy J. Knab, A War of Witches (HarperSanFrancisco, 1993) – the rare example of an anthropological page-turner.
****Included in Spoil (another pdf), p. 32.

A bad case of the mumbles

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

The screen comes to life in a way that pen & paper never could. The cursor taps its foot. Down below, the computer hums. I am humming this morning a phrase from a song I learned off the radio a good while back. It was in Arabic, I think, or maybe Urdu. No, I am whistling under my breath – all breath, that is: pitch, but no tune. (If you don’t know what I mean I can’t help you. Have you ever tried to describe whistling to someone who can’t whistle? Better to hum, then!) I line my words up as if they were in a poem, but no one’s fooled: my thoughts this morning are nothing but humdrum prose. Sad-eyed, like a hound squatting to take a dump. Glum. I should get with it, act as if I believed words were lifeless dumb inert mechanical servants. Why persist in this fe adorable que el Destino blasfema, this strange irreligion of mine? I have never seen a man turn into a bird, but I believe it is distinctly possible. I have never been shaken by a god inside or out, gourd rattle that I am. I want to shout hey HEY! Ho! but all I can do is giggle. Let others wave signs & chant. Slogans fill me with dread: words outfitted in little uniforms & made to march in a circle. They proclaim we are sincere but anger is so terribly untrue! I would go dressed for an off-color skit about extinction & the first bird Noah released from the ark – not that pale clay pigeon but the other, the one they were all anxious to get rid of because he spoke raucously & out of turn. Said Awk, ark & took off. Awkward fact, too, that he never came back. And while Noah was getting drunk & putting on a show, somewhere a raven was circling, building a great hoop of sticks at the top of the tallest tree, flying all over the earth with branches in his bill. Or something like that. With a better soundtrack, of course.
[Alguna] fe adorable… is a quote from Vallejo, “Los Heraraldos Negros” – “[Some] cherished faith that Fate laid a curse upon.”

The Dao of Jones

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

“It is difficult to punctuate Heraclitus’ writings because it is unclear whether a word goes with what follows or with what precedes it,” Aristotle drily observed (see Philosopher or blog?). This is one of the first and most obvious indications that Heraclitus’ Account may have resembled the enigmatic Chinese text Laozi (a.k.a. Daodejing).

Classical Chinese lacked punctuation altogether. What grammarians call particles – one-syllable words whose function is to denote possession, interrogation, emphasis, etc. – served instead. (Think of them as punctuation marks that you pronounce.) In addition, fairly regular meter and end-rhyme aided enormously in the reading of poetic works like the Laozi. But entire schools of interpretation have coalesced around opposing views on comma placement in this most gnomic of texts. The lack of differentiation between singular and plural adds to the confusion.

Take the famous opening chapter. The first couplet is uncontroversial; translations vary simply because of the difficulty of translating Dao as both noun and verb.
Dao ke dao, fei chang dao; ming ke ming, fei chang ming.
“The dao (knowledge/way) that can be known/followed is not the constant/enduring/eternal Dao;
The name that can be named is not the constant Name.”

The comma wars begin with the very next couplet:
Wu ming tian di zhi shi; yu ming wan wu zhi mu.
“Without name(s) heaven-earth [possessive particle] beginning; having name(s) ten-thousand creatures [possessive particle] mother.”
D. C. Lau, dean of the most prominent contemporary school of Western scholars of philosophical Daoism, in his translation for Penguin (Tao Te Ching, 1963), followed the more conventional interpretation. Based on a comma placement after the second character in each clause, he got:
“The nameless was the beginning of heaven and earth;
The named was the mother of the myriad creatures.”
But an edition I picked up in Taiwan – part of a series of critical editions of the classics designed for college students – places the comma after the first syllable in each clause. This is possible because wu has the stand-alone meaning “void,” and yu is the common word for “being.” This produces a reading something as follows:
“Void: a name for the beginning of the cosmos;
Being: a name for the mother of the myriad creatures.”

The divergence between interpretations continues for the rest of this chapter, which is in many ways a key to the whole work. For example, the third couplet appears to deal with the question of desire. Lau translates,
“Hence always rid yourself of desires in order to observe its secrets;
But always allow yourself to have desires in order to observe its manifestations,”
with “it” understood to refer to the Dao.
But equally plausible is the following:
“Thus, eternal void: seek to contemplate its mysteries;
Eternal being: seek to contemplate its manifestations.”

One can begin to see why the Daodejing has become the second-most-translated book in the world, right after the Bible. I once came up with a semi-facetious translation of the first chapter that was predicated upon the assumption that the author was something of a cynic. This is possible with just one more turn of the interpretative wheel. In D. C. Lau’s translation the last portion of the chapter reads:
“These two are the same
But diverge in name as they issue forth.
Being the same they are called mysteries,
Mystery upon mystery –
The gateway of the manifold secrets.”

Sounds properly mystical, doesn’t it? The trouble is, we have no way of knowing whether that was the original intent of the author(s). After all, he/they did use the pseudonym Old Fellow (Laozi). Since all sages were presumed to be old and venerable, this is tantamount to signing it “Mr. Smith” or “Mr. Jones.” What were they trying to hide? Was the whole thing just a spoof on a genre which may have included many dozens of earnest attempts to repeat the critical success of the great Zhuangzi? (The evidence from some newly discovered texts argues strongly for reversing the traditional chronological ordering of the two classics of so-called philosophical Daoism – probably not a real category at all, by the way.)

The late Warring States Period was a time of profound disillusionment. Zhuangzi includes sections that espouse philosophies of primitivism and of rational self-interest (the Yangist school). The latter contains what may be the original encounter-of-an-earnest-worthy-with-a-wise-old-fisherman dialogue. This (or another like it) was presumably the basis for the “Daoist” story of the cynical fisherman (cited in Monday’s post) who tells Chu Yuan to become one with the fishes.

The morass of competing views about Life, the Universe and Everything was no doubt troubling to many in this period. But for some it must have been a source of amusement, as well. I have no good evidence for this, but it tickles my fancy to think of the Laozi as a deliberately obscure book, in which the esoteric interpretation is actually the expected or exoteric reading, and the hidden or truly esoteric meaning is – well, something as follows:

“These two categories, emerging together, (appear to) name different (things), so their coincidence is taken for a mystery. One mystery after another! (This opens) the floodgates to endless obscurantism.”

Snow good enough to eat

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

A snow date sounds like a most delectable fruit: chewy at first, but quickly dissolving on the tongue. Fanciful? Perhaps, but don’t laugh. When I was a kid, my mother used to make snow ice cream.

Back then, a new snowfall could be wonderful in so many ways. First and foremost, it might let us stay home from school (not always a given in the bad old days before the fear of litigation overwhelmed common sense). It promised the highest and purest forms of outdoor adventure: sledding and tobogganing; snowmen and snow forts and snowball battles; and the elemental pleasure of walking spellbound through a transfigured forest. After a long day out in the snow, it gave one a good feeling to strip off wet boots, socks and pants and pile them to dry behind the woodstove. And sometimes, right before dinner, Mom would give one of us a bowl to fill with fresh, unmarked snow – “I’m making snow ice cream for dessert tonight!” Magic words!

These habits were formed in Maine in the late sixties, then transferred to central Pennsylvania where we moved in 1971, when I was five. For most of the 70s, snowy winters were the norm, back before global climate change really began to have a noticeable impact. Since then, it’s been hit-or-miss; 2001-2002 was the Year Without a Winter. But now that we’ve entered a strange new cycle of heavy precipitation, which began early last March, the snow is back with a vengeance. I feel some of the excitement of my childhood returning. This morning’s snowstorm lured me out for over an hour, wallowing along in snowshoes through the woods, my glasses fogging up repeatedly from the exertion.

When I drop down to the road and divest myself of snowshoes for the walk back up the hollow, it is absolutely quiet except for the faint trickling of the stream and the shhh of flakes against tree trunks and branches. I resign myself to walking without glasses – it is simply too much trouble to keep them clear. As soon as I take them off all detail is lost; I am myopic as an owl in daylight. I feel suddenly small and vulnerable. A hint of nameless panic rises in my chest for a second or two before I can shake it off. What if the winter never ends? How long would my perverse enjoyment of the season hold out?

The new snow – 8 or 9 inches already – has obscured all the spots along the road bank where the white-tailed deer have been pawing down through the snow in search of edible scraps of rhizomes and dried leaves. They’re starving. There was virtually no acorn crop, and their numbers are up as a result of poor hunting success: high winds and heavy snows conspired to keep hunters from connecting with their quarry on the biggest days of the regular deer season. Already we have eaten the last of this year’s venison steak. I fear for all the evergreen seedlings – white pine and pitch pine, hemlock and rhododendron -that have yet to make it above the browse line. A half-dozen years of good hunting had given them a respite, and I was beginning to nourish hopes of the woods someday recovering even a normal herbaceous layer.

Now those hopes are in jeopardy. In the course of my brief walk this morning I have already scared up five deer. As I watch them flounder through the ever-deepening snow, my emotions are a peculiar mix of pity and a cruel hope: not necessarily that they will starve to death, but at least that the coyotes will get quite a few of them before the winter’s out. All it would take, my father commented this morning, would be a good freezing rain on top of a couple feet of snow. Enough of a crust to give firm footing to the coyotes would mean death to as many deer as they had time and appetite to chase down. From what I read, the eastern coyote is already having a significant impact on populations of adult deer in the Adirondacks, where deep snows confine them to yarding areas every winter. This won’t make up for the eradication of the top predators, cougars and wolves, whose year-round predation would compel the deer to completely alter their feeding habits. But it might help a bit.

These kinds of mixed feelings are precisely what make us pine for the simplicity of childhood, I think. Back then, the only serpent in the garden was the far-off and easily ignored payment that would be exacted for our unscheduled holidays: I mean the real snow dates, those awful make-up days that could fill an extra week or two in early June. Climate change was barely a rumor in the 1970s. Children and adults alike were spared the angst of having to decide whether any given weather event was “natural” and a thing to be celebrated, or might in fact be the unnatural result of our mushrooming numbers and our collective over-consumption of fossil fuels. For me, I think the innocence began to fade around 1980, when the news about acid precipitation first hit it big. Here in the mountains of central Pennsylvania, downwind from the coal-fired power plants of the Ohio Valley, acid rain monitors have recorded some of the lowest pH readings in the country. Winter, we learned, could be the worst time of year for acid deposition, especially from the increasingly frequent ice storms and the ridge-hugging fogs that accompanied them.

With all the worries about air pollution, my mother stopped making snow ice cream. Right about the same time, our neighbors began clearcutting their sections of the forest, and fed with easy browse the deer numbers skyrocketed. From my father’s decade-long battle to preserve our access road and watershed from the worst effects of lumbering, I learned perhaps the most valuable and most scarring lesson that can mark one’s passage into adulthood: that you have to fight for what you love. No victories are permanent, and nothing should ever be taken for granted.

The woods are in some ways a little wilder now than in my childhood. Black bear were once so scarce that we could raise bees without any fencing. Now, our end of the mountain is part of the home range of a female bear who raises a new litter of cubs every two years. Ospreys and bald eagles are increasingly common along the larger streams in the vicinity. Fishers have repopulated the area following almost a century of absence. Most marvelous of all is the arrival of the eastern coyote – not an original inhabitant, but with enough wolf genes to qualify as an honorary native. And sightings of cougars in the East become every year more numerous and harder to dismiss.

Are we foolish to hope for comparable success with efforts to reverse global climate change? The unholy alliance of multinational corporate power and an increasingly imperial United States government certainly seems intractable. On the other hand, due in large part to the unremitting agitation of untold thousands of activists over the last couple decades, power plants are slowly cleaning up their act. If the northeastern states are successful in their efforts to strengthen the Clean Air Act and call the power industry to accounts, it’s just barely conceivable that someday snow will once again be good enough to eat.

My mother says she doesn’t remember the recipe she used for snow ice cream. Here’s one I found on-line that’s probably pretty close. The author’s childhood memories mirror mine.

Leaving the questions blank

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Of the most ancient origins,
who can tell the story?
Before “above” and “below,”
how to venture a description?
With light and darkness undivided,
who can discriminate between this and that?
The supposed chaos of forms without substance –
how do we know anything about it?

Thus begin the Questions of Heaven (Tian Wen), a 4th-century B.C. text from southern China. This short book consists entirely of questions, addressing first cosmology, then mythology and history. Modern scholars have their own questions about the work: why was it compiled? What genre should we assign it to?

One traditional view is that it may have been a kind of final exam for candidates to public or ritual office in the ancient kingdom of Chu. Thus, we should read the title as “Divine Questionnaire.” But David Hawkes, translator of Ch’u Tz’u: Songs of the South – the larger anthology of works that includes Tian Wen (Oxford U.P., 1959) – argues that the questions are in fact riddles. “One of the indications that the questioner . . . is neither asking for information nor challenging accepted beliefs is the frequency with which he uses kennings and other riddling devices in order to conceal the subject of his questions . . . If this explanation is correct, it would seem to follow that [Tian Wen] was written as pure entertainment, and not with a view to fulfilling any religious or philosophical function.”

Although there is obviously a strong riddling quality to the work, I am more inclined to view it as a collection of questions for Heaven. (Heaven was still personalized as a divinity during the time it was written.) In other words, I see it as a secularized, poetic version of the questions posed ritually to Heaven during divination. The I Qing (I Ch’ing) and its innumerable commentaries testify to the immense philosophical significance accorded to the arts of divination in ancient China.

And in fact, one of the companion texts to Tian Wen, Bu Zhu, consists of two brief dialogue-stories in which the limits of divination are assessed. Both address the mythic poet-scholar-public servant Chu Yuan’s Hamlet-like dilemma (in Hawkes’ translation):

“‘Is it better,’ Chu Yuan asked [the diviner Jan Yin] ‘to be painstakingly honest, simple-hearted and loyal,
Or to keep out of trouble by welcoming each change as it comes?
Is it better to hoe the weeds and put one’s strength into husbandry,
Or to win a name for oneself by dancing attendance on the great?
Is it better to risk one’s life by speaking truthfully and without concealment,
Or to save one’s skin by following the whims of the wealthy and high-placed? . . .
Of these alternatives, which is auspicious and which is ill-omened?
Which is to be avoided and which is to be followed?
The world is turbulent and impure:
They call a cicada’s wing heavy and a ton weight light;
The brazen bell is smashed and discarded; the earthen crock is thunderously sounded.
The slanderer proudly struts; the wise man lurks unknown.
Alas, all is silence: no one knows of my integrity.’
Jan Yin threw aside the divining stalks and excused himself.
‘There are times,’ he said, ‘when a foot is too short; and there are times when an inch is too long.
There are times in which the instruments [of divination] are of no avail, in which knowledge can give no enlightenment.
There are things which my calculations cannot attain, over which the divinity has no power.
My lord, for one with your mind and with resolution such as yours,
The tortoise [shell] and the divining stalks are really unable to help.'”

In the other dialogue, a cynical fisherman advises him basically just to “go with the flow” and ape his corrupt lords. Chu Yuan’s famous suicide by drowning is anticipated in the mean-spirited suggestion that he try to become more like the fish.

The posing of questions without obvious or immediate answers may possess superior powers to educate or enlighten: one thinks immediately of the koan (gong-an), literally “question/response,” in which the response is not merely provisional but tailored to the needs of the questioner and the exigencies of the occasion. To quote more or less at random:

“What was [Bodhidharma’s] purpose in coming from the West?”
The Master replied, “[You must be hungry after such a long trip;] there’s gruel and rice on the long bench!”
(Master Yunmen, trans. by Urs App, Kodansha, 1994)

“What was the intention of the Patriarch [Bodhidharma] when he came from the West?”
The Master replied, “What good is it to mumble in one’s sleep in broad daylight?”

The closest modern literary parallel to Tian Wen of which I’m aware is by the indefatigable Pablo Neruda, El Libro de las Preguntas, or The Book of Questions. This is one of his last and most playful works, ably translated by William O’Daly for Copper Canyon Press (1991). It begins:

Why don’t the immense airplanes
fly around with their children?

Which yellow bird
fills its nest with lemons?

Why don’t they train helicopters
to suck honey from the sunlight?

Where did the full moon leave
its sack of flour tonight?

A similar playfulness infects the last poems of the equally prolific William Stafford. (Despite my gentle mocking of him the other day, I do place Stafford in the same class as Neruda – two of the greatest poets of the last century.) In “Facts” he questions the most basic data of received opinion about the world:

‘Zurich is in the Alps.’ I learned
that, and had a fact. But I thought the Alps
were in South America. Then I learned
that’s the Andes – the Alps are somewhere
else. And Zurich is famous, for something.

So I gave up fact and went to myth:
Zurich is the name of a tropical bird that
whets its bill on the ironwood tree in south America
singing about life and how good facts are. . . .

Another poem in the same collection (Even in Quiet Places, Confluence Press, 1996), echoes the traditional reading of Tian Wen: an existential questionnaire.

My NEA Poem

A blank place on the page,
like this here “______,”
means, oh it means,
you know, but not said.

And it is better when you come to these
“______”s again
to leave blank places.

But some people
get a grant
and want to show
artistic freedom;

So all they say is,
and “______.”

Also among Stafford’s final works are the almost effortless-seeming Methow River Poems, written in answer to a request from a couple of imaginative forest rangers for a series of poetry road signs. Out of the twenty he submitted, seven were ultimately chosen to be etched and mounted on signs along the North Cascades Highway in Washington state. These are poems that, in a very understated way, go to the heart of our call-and-response relationship with the world,

. . . the elaborate give-and-take,
this bowing to sun and moon, day or night,
winter, summer, storm, still – this tranquil
chaos that seems to be going somewhere.
(“Time for Serenity, Anyone?”)

In the Afterword to Even in Quiet Places, William Stafford’s son Kim asks, “What do we make of a line like, ‘How you stand here is important’? The line hardly says anything, asserts nothing in particular, turns in place clear as water or air.” He goes on to describe an incident from his youth in which his father deflected the attention of a gang of Hell’s Angels solely by adopting “the most pronounced nonchalance I had ever seen, a kind of studied slouch. His baggy pants helped, and the way he leaned back into his left heel, face turned up. It was the quiet, the insistent, the unmistakable posture of a pacifist: Nothing is going to happen. You can do as you will. You will not draw me into violence.

I can’t help thinking William Stafford would’ve given a more useful response to the disgraced exile Chu Yuan than either the diviner or the cynical fisherman.

Suddenly this dream you are having matches
everyone’s dream, and the result is the world.
If a different call came there wouldn’t be any
world, or you, or the river, or owls calling.

How you stand here is important. How you
listen for the next things to happen. How you breathe.

William Stafford, “Being a Person”

Cross-reference: The world of the riddle.