Three days of ignorance and lectures

Back in the days of my mis-spent youth, my idea of fun was fairly conventional. Woodstock’s “three days of peace and music” sounded like a pretty good time. Now, as a sign of how much I have embraced what Epicurus would have considered life’s superior pleasures,* here’s an example of the sort of thing that really turns me on. Yesterday, I got a really nifty, full-size poster featuring the artwork of Remedios Vara, a kind of 20th-century Hieronymus Bosch: his “Spiral Transit.” (The .pdf doesn’t really do it justice.) The poster is an advertisement for a free, three-day conference on The Ethics and Epistemologies of Ignorance, sponsored by – no kidding! – the Rock Ethics Institute at Penn State. It promises “A multidisciplinary dialogue exploring the ethical, political, and epistemological implications of the conscious and unconscious production of ignorance as it impacts practices of domination, exploitation, and oppression.” Bitchin’, dude!

A look at the program reveals plenty of rockin’ sessions. You can groove to talk-fests on “Obesity” as Ignorance: Medical Ideologies and the Fat Acceptance Movement; Schooled in Silence — Panel Presentation; White Identity, White Ignorance; Willful Ignorance: The Blissful Addiction; Aestheticed Ignorance; Farming Made Her Stupid; The Entwined Ignorance of Oppressor and Oppressed; Computers, the Production of Ignorance, and the Ecology of Knowledge; Untitled; etc., etc.

I’ll go nuts with all the concurrent sessions – like trying to decide which stage to go to at Lollapalooza! My mind is already boggling. If I’m lucky, this rockin’ conference will reduce me to a state of utterly blissful stupefaction, if not catatonia. (But if it rains, we’ll all be inside. No actual mud to wallow in, alas.)

*”The flesh receives as unlimited the limits of pleasure; and to provide it requires unlimited time. But the mind, intellectually grasping what the end and limit of the flesh is, and banishing the terrors of the future, procures a complete and perfect life, and we have no longer any need of unlimited time. Nevertheless the mind does not shun pleasure, and even when circumstances make death imminent, the mind does not lack enjoyment of the best life.”
– Epicurus, Principal Doctrines

In media res

Out on my porch before first light, sipping my coffee, I think: If I were viewing these trees for the first time . . . & just like that they shift, turn strange. I’m looking back in time, at woods seen only once & apart from everything. But then a raccoon comes out of the culvert, moving stiff-legged in rapid circles on the icy crust, so much like a child’s wind-up toy, it’s hard not to laugh. After a few minutes he catches my scent. Rears up on his hind legs to get a better look.


Gray dawn. The chickadee stops in the middle of his feebee chant & drops half an octave.


I was out on the glare ice at noon; the moon was higher than the sun but completely invisible at the end of its monthly rope. The ground & the sky were like two smooth stones. In the spruce grove I found the carcass of a doe with her throat ripped open, a gash below her ribs where the succulent bud of a fawn had been folded by. A nuthatch was going tick tick tick in a locust tree. I kept to the ice so my boots didn’t squeak in the thin, here-&-there patches of dry powder. One patch was etched with lines of arrows that pointed toward wild turkeys – or rather, in the opposite direction. Crossing the field I had to squint, the blue veins reaching out from the edge & at the center a bright gash, a gaping hurt.

Back on my hobbyhorse again

This morning my thoughts are itching to break from their places in the procession, to spin off, to dance, to swim, to soar, to climb walls, to descend into subterranean passages. Paradigmatic thinking is too little, narrative thinking too much. That’s why I keep coming back to poetry: at its best, it’s a way of letting thoughts be, loosening the heart and the tongue. Implicit in the neat division of thinking into rational and non-rational is the notion of order as something necessary to understanding. Cogito, ergo sum. But how does the dream of self-consistency play out? We wake up, sticky with fluids. Or the happily-ever-after: we wake up in the arms of the Beloved.

We confuse categories when we talk about natural laws. What does it mean to have a law that cannot be broken? Anything that doesn’t fit this fundamental paradigm is “supernatural,” “paranormal.” Two equally tautological choices present themselves: either we simply lack the appropriate hermeneutic key by which to explain away all apparently supernatural phenomena, or else there is some parallel order – existing in our minds and/or another dimension, perhaps – of which the supernatural is a part. Neither alternative admits the possibility that Nature is inherently recondite.

Paradigms are nets: something will always slip though. Narratives are maps: endlessly inventive, selective by design. Our minds dictate, suppress, deny, impose themselves on a world that continually rebels because it has its own ideas. In the prayer, in the poem, in the unforced performance of all necessary and superfluous work things try to speak themselves through us. The so-called creator is both medium and mediator. Cultivating awareness of this role involves us in a game whose rules, often of our own apparent invention, are constantly changing (think “Calvinball,” from the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes). We are mapmakers; we are weavers of nets and matrices. Logic and narrative go together like bitter and sweet – they flavor the game. Among other things . . .

Poem Beginning with a Headline from the Weekly World News

Thank you, Jesus, for my plastic ears
& my raccoon penis bone necklace,
thank you for caring,
thank you for appetite more than meat.
Thank you for tire chains & groovy tattoos,
thank you for speechless joy,
thank you for guns & a world
full of targets. Thank you, Jesus,
for the evidence of things not seen:
for superstrings & wormholes,
for neutrinos,
for cans of whup-ass & tits on a boar hog.
Thanks for the train you rode in on & for
your scarf of stars. For whiskey
before breakfast & the strength not
to drink it. Thanks for yesterday’s soup,
three ways to whistle & cash
on the barrelhead. Thanks for Knock
& It Shall Be Opened, thanks for Cast
Thy Bread. And even though
you very likely had
little to do with it, thanks for this Thank you
that keeps on waking & walking
up & down, from room to room
in my belly
& in my breast.

Subtropical interlude

Here’s something for everyone who’s getting tired of winter. In June of 1995 I spent a couple of days on the Caribbean coast as part of a six week stay in Honduras. It was absolutely sweltering; the humidity was intense. I fell in with some Garifuna (Afro-Carribean people who have maintained a very West African culture and language) and smoked some really strong ganja – which instantly made the heat not only bearable, but pleasant. The ocean began to talk to me.

Postcards from the Caribbean Coast

A piece of banana leaf serves as a wrapper
for a loosely rolled joint–
Me and him have two fincas allá en la montaña
& the rastaman bundles his hair up into a topknot


The guidebook recommended a restaurant called
Luces del Norte, “Northern Lights,”
where electric fans are aimed at every table
& the black waitress has mastered the art of killing flies


A puff of sea breeze accompanies each wave
up the beach & dies in the dunes

Sitting on the sand in the stifling heat
one quickly learns how to breathe
in time with the sea


A pimp & three young girls from town

The sea keeps on wagging
its swollen tongue:
Todo . . . Nada . . .
Todo . . . Nada . . .

Note: a finca is a small farm or simply, as in this case, a large clearing in the jungle [montaña]. Most Garifuna men are fluent in both Spanish and English, and switch rapidly between the two when addressing non-Garifuna.

There’s something vaguely fraudulent about travel poetry: one must live in a place for some time, I think, to really learn anything useful about it. On the other hand, the visitor experiences things perhaps more vividly than a life-long resident can ever hope to. Though the tourist’s gaze may not penetrate too far beneath the surface, surfaces themselves – clothes, masks, fur, bark, surf, the trembling ground in a cloud forest – concentrate mystery of a particularly elusive sort. (See Deeply superficial, on Mark Doty’s poetics of surface, and Mask and pageant.) Then, too, there is the problem of what to leave out, how much to reserve for the notes? The following two pieces avoid this dilemma by remaining in prose form. I am deeply indebted to my brother Mark’s expertise as a cultural geographer and long-time resident of Honduras for much of the information in these essays. (Hot tip for writers of place: go on tours with professional geographers!)


Excerpts from a Travel Diary: The Geography of Power

You could say that Carí­as is governing us from the grave. I read somewhere that he adored birdsong, and that while he listened to the birds he often ordered an assassination or an imprisonment.
Roberto Sosa, 1981 interview (translated by Jim Lindsey in The Difficult Days)

Back in our hillside barrio after a trek through the cloud forest–a landscape so strange most ordinary terms, including landscape, don’t really fit–the backyard birdsong sounds so homey, so familiar. I hear robins almost like ours, & the breathier counterparts of mourning doves; & from sunup to sundown a pair of wrens, exuberant cousins of the Carolina wren, finish each others’ riffs with the virtuosic speed of tenor saxmen in a head-cutting contest.

So runs the soundtrack to my day-long fever, penance for drinking unboiled water in the campo. A fever that leaves me literally emptied, flat on my back & ready for at least a taste of that tropical specialty, the fever dream. Perhaps if I raked open the scabs on my legs, offered the god of mosquitoes a little more blood? I need to understand some things, like why the shadows take on such striking colors.

Because even the sun is a bit of a stranger here–sudden in its comings & goings, & omnivorous as the god of Abraham and Lot. I think of the Mayas, their storied temples collapsing into the forest, kings turned to pillars of stone like the arrogant little girl in the Hans Christian Anderson story who trod on her mother’s loaf & was swallowed up. Paralyzed in the underworld: a stinging & biting half-life of vengeful familiars with claws & tails & wings. Condemned to listen as the gears of their pitiless calendar go on grinding, driving the turbines of El Cajón, the largest hydroelectric plant in Central America.

I remember my guided tour through the bowels of the dam, after a long, winding descent past campesino shacks without electricity. It was cool and damp and full of tremors, like a cave with six heartbeats. Banks of knobs and dials looked as if they’d come from the set of a 50s sci-fi film. And the engineer in charge deferring to my friend, the park superintendent. It’s widely acknowledged how tightly the fate of the reservoir is tied to the fortunes of the cloud forests in its watershed: they act, as the popular image has it, like giant sponges. Aquifers on the peaks; the mirror images of glaciers. So when too many trees are cut–whether by desperate peasants or wildcatting transnationals–all the country’s lights go out.

And of course the city water supply is even more tenuous. Here in the barrio La Leona the water comes on once every third day, announced by a kind of death rattle way down in the pipes. No wonder the most expensive hotels, like the Hotel Maya with its foreigners-only casino, depend exclusively on their own buried generators. While the U.S. embassy, swollen lymphatic node of a more abstract kind of power, draws water from its own wells–even has its own septic system to demonstrate Environmental Sensitivity. The John Wayne behind bullet-proof glass at the cafeteria demands a You Ass passport as collateral for a drink at the water fountain.

The lush lawns of the embassy compound provide little nesting habitat for native species; only the invasive grackles and English sparrows flourish. From the window of his high air-conditioned office the ambassador must enjoy an uninterrupted view of the familiar peaks with their scruffy wet backs of cloud forest. Ah the range of possibilities on the horizon for this fledgling democracy, he may actually find himself thinking, forgetting for a moment the papers covering his desk, the thicket of bureaucratic prose waiting to be cleared with a few powerful strokes of his fountain pen.


Notes on the Economy of Scale in Tegucigalpa

Tegucigalpa was a mining town–& probably a colony as well–even before the Spanish arrived with their Mandinka engineers. Its name means “Hill of Silver” in the language of the Aztecs. The streets are said to follow the miners’ paths. My brother, the geographer, once saw a picture of a web woven by a spider on caffeine, & pointed out that it looked just like a map of Tegucigalpa.
It makes it easier if you think of the beggars as spiritual ATMs. At any hour of the day you can toss spare change to the halt & lame in hundreds of convenient curbside locations. They sit like yogis or cigar-store Indians, blanketed in diesel fumes, open hands resting on their knees. And if there’s a lull in the traffic, you might catch a bit of their patter: non-stop blessings, as gentle as an all-day rain.
Children here sing nursery rhymes about the black vultures. These beloví¨d birds waddle around the streets like enormous bald pigeons & eat the garbage, scouring the banks of the river–which in turn provides several essential services, free of charge, to the body politic. Across the river is a separate municipality, Comayagüela. People go there for the sprawling indoor/outdoor market, an organic accretion of very disparate parts, redolent with sweat & peppers & the cheap perfume of fresh mango peels, dangerous with garlic- & guaro-breathing drunks. Light years away from that expatriate Nicaraguan, Rubén Darí­o, & his immaculate black swan.
If Tegucigalpans were ever to change the name of their city, they could save trouble by choosing “Coca-Cola.” That’s what the huge, Hollywood-style letters on the mountain south of town spell out. (San Pedro Sula–Teguz’s commercial rival to the north–sports a similar mountainside sign for Pepsi). But at street level, the Coke logo is one of a pantheon. This is a poor country; why pay to paint the front of your store if someone will do it for free? In 1995, that someone seems most often to have been a hireling of the American Tobacco Company: the trademark for Lucky Strike, so uncommon in the States, was ubiquitous. Wherever in the city I wandered, I always felt as if I’d arrived. Because somewhere not far away, a big, red target marked the spot: Lucky Strike. A pictograph even the Aztecs would’ve understood.

Ugh! Too many ideas, too many adjectives. Now I remember why it’s best to stick to poetry . . .

Hotel Agua Azul

Held captive for the diversion of furtive
couples on weekend flings,
below the terrace a spider monkey
swings by his tail, kicking off
the tree trunk with one hind foot
while the other clings to the chain
dangling from the collar. He keeps it up
for hours, as if driven by hidden
gears & springs. But draw a chair
within range & the pendulum stops,
he clambers onto the deck & slings
a hairy palm in your face, importuning
food, trinkets. Whatever brings relief
to a life of boredom, you think,
searching your pockets, going through
your things. How friendly he seems–until
you notice the strength of his grip,
how he enrings your leg. It takes
the help of half the hotel staff
to pry him loose, & days later
the spot where he bit still stings.

Solving for w

A “doomsday” that is billions of years away has little or no meaning for members of a species less than a million years old. (We’ll be lucky to survive the next hundred years!) So my initial reaction to a story on current cosmological hypotheses entitled “From Space, a New View of Doomsday,” is a snort of derision. Apart from the framing, however, this story (by Dennis Overbye in today’s New York Times) is full of interest, as the following excerpts demonstrate:

“That number, known as w, is the ratio between the pressure and density of dark energy. Knowing this number and how it changes with time – if it does – might help scientists pick through different explanations of dark energy and thus the future of the universe . . .

“One possible explanation for dark energy, perhaps the sentimental favorite among astronomers, is a force known as the cosmological constant, caused by the energy residing in empty space. It was first postulated back by Einstein in 1917. A universe under its influence would accelerate forever.

“While the density of energy in space would remain the same over the eons, as the universe grows there would be more space and thus more repulsion. Within a few billion years, most galaxies would be moving away from our own faster than the speed of light and so would disappear from the sky; the edge of the observable universe would shrink around our descendants like a black hole. . . .

“Another possibility comes from string theory, the putative theory of everything, which allows that space could be laced with other energy fields, associated with particles or forces as yet undiscovered. Those fields, collectively called quintessence, could have an antigravity effect. Quintessence could change with time – for example, getting weaker and eventually disappearing as the universe expanded and diluted the field – or could even change from a repulsive force to an attractive one, which could set off a big crunch. . . .

“But the strangest notion is what Dr. [Robert] Caldwell has called phantom energy, the dark energy that could lead to the Big Rip. . . .

“While the density of the energy in Einstein’s cosmological constant stays the same as the universe expands, the density of phantom energy would go up and up, eventually becoming infinite. Such would be the case if the parameter w turned out to be less than minus 1, say physicists, who admit they are stunned by the possibility and until recently simply refused to consider it.

“‘It crosses a boundary of good taste,’ Dr. Caldwell said, calling phantom energy ‘bad news stuff.’ Phantom energy violates physicists’ intuitions about how the universe should behave. A chunk of it could be used to prop open wormholes in space and time – and thus create time machines, for example.

“‘It could lead to such bizarre effects as negative kinetic energy,’ Dr. [Lawrence M.] Krauss said. As a result, objects like atoms would be able to lose energy by speeding up. . . .

“Dr. [Robert] Kirshner said phantom energy had been dismissed as ‘too strange’ when his group was doing calculations of dark energy back in 1998. In retrospect, he said, that was not the right thing to do.

“‘It sounds wacky,’ he said, referring to phantom energy, ‘but I think we’re in a situation where we’re going to need a really new idea. We’re in trouble; the way out is going to be new imaginative things. It might be our ideas are not wild enough, they don’t question fundamentals enough.'”

Taking stock

O indigence at the heart of our lives,
how poor is the language of happiness!

– Osip Mandelstam (Clarence Brown and W. S. Merwin, trans.)

Via Negativa is two months old today. Calloo, callay!

I started out expecting to write mostly short entries, but they’ve gotten longer and longer. I set myself the goal of going nowhere, proving nothing and avoiding relevancy at all costs, but I think I may have slipped up once or twice. I have written probably more about religion than is healthy, less about science and nature than I’d like and as much about philosophy as I can get away with without betraying my abysmal ignorance. Via Negativa has at least six regular readers and perhaps another dozen who check in from time to time. I continue to discover new blogs worth adding to my list of favorites. The writing is still its own reward. I hope to continue for at least another ten months.

UPDATE: Now we are green – for no better reason than that Change is Good. We have an Atom RSS feed . . . and no, I don’t have the slightest idea why that matters. There’s a new a la carte list of high points in the sidebar, ’cause I always like it when other bloggers do that. Please e-mail me if you think I overlooked something that should be on the list – or if I listed something that doesn’t belong there.

Good morning, blues

Yesterday Kurt at The Coffee Sutras posted three translations by Izumi Shikibu, the 11th-century Japanese poet I quoted Czeslaw Milosz about last month. These are perfect translations, from a book I wasn’t aware of called The Ink Dark Moon (I haven’t really been keeping up with East Asian translations in the last 15 years).

Here’s one more by Lady Izumi, my own version. This was written for a screen painting of three people on horseback gazing at wildflowers:

We hold the flowers
in our mind
after we pass,
entrusting ourselves completely
to the oblivious horses.


I was also delighted to find a link to an exhibition of Huichol yarn paintings over at Mysterium last night. If you don’t have time to click though all the images at the museum’s site, Mysterium reproduces the most elaborate image, with appropriate text, here. Few pictures really are worth a thousand words, but this one might be. I love that visionary blue! For anyone wanting to read more about Huichol shamanism, Barbara Myerhoff’s Peyote Hunt (Cornell, 1974) is excellent.


On Valentine’s Day, the inimitable Blaugustine celebrated a new find: the site of a cancer patient who is determined to die laughing (if at all). The site is called Cancergiggles, and it breaks the blogging mold by having the introduction on the home page, with more recent entries a click away. The author bills it as “an idiot’s guide to accepting, living with, laughing at and dying from cancer.” This is philosophy at its most essential, folks:

“I have heard many people protest that if they had cancer, they wouldn’t want to know. This is really, really dumb. Have you ever had a nightmare about something real? For almost everybody, the answer is NO. It is the unknown, the shadowy stuff, that normally causes fear. Human beings are actually pretty good at handling real situations and you will probably surprise yourself.”

“Ok so you can handle what is happening to your body. It ain’t doing what it should and it’s not looking like a picnic from hereon in. So you feel sorry for your situation, you regret your wasted life and you sink into a depression. Don’t you dare, you selfish bastard! The only people who deserve any pity are those poor souls who will take care of you and watch helplessly as you eventually begin to slide. There’s no need to think that you should just accept it all and give up hope. On the other hand, accepting that this could be Gods way of telling you that you’re not his favourite bunny can actually be quite positive. Odds are that like me, you may get a pleasant, if possibly only temporary surprise.”


The diva wanted everything white. Threw fits if a single dark lipstick case interrupted the absence of color – or was it the presence of all colors? That abstract white that vanished the second she stained a finger with the anywhere surface of the world. Perhaps a votive white, paraffin candlestick burning with almost no scent? I envision her guarding with a cupped hand her fifteen minutes of flame. Beset by a swarm of moths. Or the white sand beach of the silver screen, that mirror of the vanities, that tablecloth for a powdery pick-me-up? I can be whomever I want, she thought every time she went backstage.

Winter has locked us down under armored plate. Yes, all the messy stuff is gone. Logs and stumps and scrubby bushes are covered up; the ground is smooth and gently contoured as any glamorous nude. But it’s slick, you can’t get a purchase on it. The deer lose their footing, slide hundreds of feet downslope. The trees in their tight white collars bleed silently in the sun.

The diva’s handlers are forecasting a winter storm. But the language is arcane, as usual. No one understands the difference between a warning and a watch, a watch and an advisory. She tunes her headset to an open frequency to listen to the surf: white noise. When it’s on the screen: snow. And some call it pleasure when it’s in the mind, but its real name is power. Or powder, she thinks, applying each nostril in turn to the line on her mirror.

Myth defying circumstances

How to account for the continuing popularity of Jung’s crackpot theories? The “collective unconscious” is mysticism lite, and has a strong whiff of racialism about it. And no one ever prayed to an archetype.

The myth-mongers perpetuate a number of questionable assumptions, in my opinion: 1) that the main purpose of religion is to answer ultimate questions; 2) that the role of the individual storyteller in shaping religious narratives is minimal; 3) that sacred stories point inward, rather than outward; and 4) that our experience of inwardness is universal, or at least the norm.

On the contrary: 1) In actual practice, where universalizing ideologies intermingle with local traditions and everyday concerns, religion can play many different roles for many different people. Generally speaking, I think, very few people ever concern themselves with so-called ultimate questions on a regular basis. Those who do may be revered as saints and holy (wo)men, their tombs may become sites of pilgrimage, but few seek to follow their example. Instead, the great mass of believers want from saints the same sorts of things they want from their gods and ceremonies: good luck; affirmation and security; therapy; miracle cures; guidance through life crises; a sense of belonging; better stuff; inspiration; social status; etc. To posit a higher plane where the Big Questions only are permitted simply recapitulates the elitist views of the promulgators of official, institutionalized religion.

The other three generalizations I’ve identified are also colored by ethnocentric and elitist biases unsupported by ethnography. 2) Some peoples do indeed view sacred stories as received wisdom that the storyteller alters at his/her peril. But others expect and celebrate improvisation in the retelling or reenactment of divine escapades. (See examples below.) 3) The ego/environment split is no older than the Industrial Revolution. Reactions included not only the Romantic revolt but also the so-called Great Awakening, where for the first time the fate of the individual soul trumped any concern about community. Before this time, I think it is fair to say that accounting for customs, preserving a community’s sense of identity and inculcating social norms were chief among the purposes served by sacred narratives. 4) A division between inner and outer is fairly meaningless in societies where individualism is not highly stressed, and/or where what we conceive of as the environment is seen as a kind of divine rebus. The World Religions all stress inwardness, but this strikes me as less an innovation than an attempt to compensate for the loss of richness that attended the cancerous spread of hierarchical and warlike societies across the globe. For example, according to one theory, monasticism played a pivotal role in the growth of armies: a conscious attempt to rein in the bands of marauders and brigands that had always posed such a threat to the established order. The shaved head of both the soldier and the monk testify to their submission to collective order and unity.

As commerce and empires spread their monocultures of the mind (in Vandana Shiva’s evocative phrase), cultural diversity suffers. Where once the body might have been thought to harbor three or more souls, now it houses only one. Where once one’s afterlife destination(s) might have been viewed as a consequence of the circumstances of one’s death – to the extent that it was thought about at all – now it is seen as reward or punishment for the conduct of one’s life. (This points in two directions: toward the breakdown in social taboos associated with the growth of polities to a point where anonymity is possible, and toward the projection of the apparatus of the state upon the cosmos.) Local gods are abandoned or subsumed by an ever-more-remote godhead, and tricksters vanish or turn sinister. Divine possession and other forms of ecstasy are demonized or pushed to the social margins. Ritual performance becomes the monopoly of an elite few. Religious behavior becomes monotonal, a matter of high seriousness. With the growth and spread of literacy, the stories can be effectively frozen in time. The sacred text becomes a new idol. The world of nature becomes increasingly stereotyped, its revelations dismissed as illusory or worse. Eventually, even reading out loud is abandoned for the quintessentially inward experience of silent reading and study.


Myths of the origin of humans vary widely in the Chaco, not only from tribe to tribe but from teller to teller. . . . In a Lengua account the Creator is said to have been an enormous beetle, who first caused evil spirits to come out from under the ground, then produced a man and a woman from the grains of soil he had thrown away.
John Bierhorst, The Mythology of South America (William Morrow, 1998)


Weep Wizard, 1979:
One of the Power-People had a dream. Some say it was the first Power-Man, some say it was the Ultimo and some say Maria Castellana: one of them had a dream. They would find what they wanted in a place struck by lightning, said the dream. Well, let’s say it was Diego Poklaj: he walked along the ridge of Volcano-Volcano and on down to Volcano-Her-Children [= local toponyms]. There he was caught by a strong south whirlwind rain until he took refuge under a tree. He got soaked. A big lightning struck there and he knew it was a sign, but a sign of what he didn’t know.

In the afternoon, the sun came up and nearby where Diego Poklaj, Diego dust, had taken shelter and had his dream, there was this old, beaten up tree: a tz’ajtel tree, an old one, really cut to pieces and hacked about. Diego Poklaj looked at it and said to himself, ‘Christ! They couldn’t mean this thing, it’s a mess, it’s far too soft, it sucks!’ And he passed it by. So he heard a whistle behind him. He went back to the tree and asked, ‘What’s the big idea?’ the tree just grunted back. ‘Are you the chosen one?’ said Poklaj. The tree just grunted. So Poklaj took out his stone hatchet and chopped.

Nathaniel Tarn with Martin Prechtel, Scandals in the House of Birds: Shamans and Priests on Lake Atitilan (Marsilio, 1997)


Abstractions do not provoke loyalty in [the Vodou priestess] Alourdes. She continues . . . to locate those individuals who can be called her people because she knows them and because they have earned the title.

But these days she casts her net more widely, and the group she includes in it is more diverse. Alourdes has always shown courage and creativity in taking on the new and the foreign. Through her, at my marriage ceremony, Danbala moved her whole community to a broader response to the question, Who are my people? This may be the way of the future for Vodou in the immigrant communities. But such a path leads to both gains and losses. Vodou can share its wisdom and its healing techniques with a larger and more varied group; but as the group of potential devotees expands, the spirits will also become more universalizable, the faces of the spirits less transparent to those of the ancestors, and the stories that carry the wisdom of the religion more abstract.

Karen McCarthy Brown, Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn (University of California Press, 1991)

See also That old-time religion, Cat’s cradle and It’s art, dammit!