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It’s here! The Sugar Mule “Women Writing Nature” issue containing my first published poems has been made public. Download the PDF here. (My poems are located on pages 323 and 324.)

I’m thrilled and honored to be included in the (long) list of truly wonderful writers and poets published in the issue and to have found a momentary niche in a community of sensitive, intelligent, perceptive women. Together, we observe and discuss the natural world and our places in it — the bonds we human animals make with other animals and the impact of not only ourselves on the land but also the land’s impact on us. It’s a symbiotic relationship we have with the earth, for all our sins against and struggles with it. The pieces included in this issue reflect the various, idiosyncratic experiences we have in a world that is both brazen and subtle, wild and tame, wonderful and bitter(sweet), strange and common — sometimes all at once.

Check it out. I’d love to know what you think.

It’s been around a year since I first heard Fleet Foxes’ “The Shrine/An Argument,” and I’m still in love with it. So is my husband, who said this morning, “I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that [this] is one of the best songs ever… It’s everything amazing all rolled into one.” And that’s coming from a sometimes agonizingly picky musician.

If you haven’t heard it yet, it’s definitely folk, reminiscent of ’60s groups like Simon and Garfunkel, but refreshed by non-folk elements like the free jazz bit at the end. It’s mysterious and ambient, unexpected and austere, progressive without being off-putting. It’s deeply, tenderly spiritual in a personal, unsentimental, non-evangelistic way. It’s flakes of sunlight, dark caverns, green apples, hidden pools, gray ghosts of fog drifting along the chill northwestern coastline. It physically hurts — like lovesickness — to hear it. Robin Pecknold singing, “Sunlight over me no matter what I do,” stretching out his pretty-folk-singer voice to release a brief, hoarse cry, gives me chills. The lovesickness is for those wafts of simplicity and purity and the kind of primal spirituality that escapes language and ritual, that’s only observation and feeling, that come in certain pensive moments I wish I could gather up and cling to, but that inevitably slip away the moment I recognize them for what they are.

“The Shrine/An Argument” also has an incredible music video directed by Sean Pecknold (Robin’s older brother and the man behind Grandchildren.tv). The video, like the song, is eerily mythic, at once surreal and earth-bound. Listen to the song with your eyes closed first, then watch the video below.

From the editor-in-chief of the new literary journal I’ve been working on:

 

At American Athenaeum, we’re asking writers to adopt an endangered species. You may already know of an endangered animal or can research one that is endangered (or one that is already extinct) and write a story about it. We’ll accept fiction and non-fiction. We are seeking well-crafted, well-researched stories, ones that speak on behalf of the animal/species. Who will speak for the polar bear? Who will speak for the Cooper’s Hawk?

You should consider that your story may serve as a record of the species for future generations. So write it with detail. Show the species, its habitat, livelihood and so on. “Adoption” of a species is a way to be part of the solution, to use your skills as a writer to promote awareness. You might also blog about the species you’ve adopted, make T-shirts, get a tattoo, or end up starting a foundation — really, there is no limit to how much you can do when you adopt an animal.

The Endangered Species Act was made law in 1973. There is hope for saving many species. Species can be plant, animal, reptile, insect, and so on, but not humans. You might choose one on the list in your own state (see list below). You might buy an Endangered Species chocolate bar and start with the animal on the package @  http://chocolatebar.com/.

We are also looking for stories dealing with the environment. Maybe you want to tell a story about Earth Day or a community garden (also good for our community issue) or from the point of view of a logger or a whale. It’s open; your imagination is the limit. Lastly, we also have a column called “Doorstep Activist” that seeks submissions about what you’re doing in your neighborhood to make positive changes. Tell us about it in 500-1000 words @ http://www.swordandsagapress.com/American-Athenaeum.php.

Here are a few places listing endangered species.
http://www.earthsendangered.com/list.asp
http://www.earthsendangered.com/
http://www.fws.gov/endangered/
http://www.fws.gov/laws/lawsdigest/ESACT.HTML

Thanks for your support with this. Please spread the word to your animal-loving friends.
Hunter Liguore
Editor-in-chief

Exile of the Deer, Tricia Cline. Porcelain. 2008.

I recently stumbled upon Tricia Cline’s porcelain sculptures (thank you, art pinners on Pinterest!). Her work has a quality that I tend to (mostly subconsciously) seek out and appreciate in all art forms — an otherworldliness, often lovely, but a little strange, unsettling, maybe creepy, though not in any particularly obvious way. Which is, incidentally, how many of my stories have been described. I guess it’s my thing. Anyway, I went to her website and became even more fascinated by her work after reading the artist’s statement for her most recent series of sculptures, Exiles in Lower Utopia. It’s beautifully worded, so instead of paraphrasing, I’m providing it below in its entirety:

This body of work is an ode to the Animal, its ability to perceive, and our return to that perception. An animal is its very form. Its function is its form. A dog runs at full speed, a distinct scent or sound alters its direction. The legs, the nose, the ears of the dog are its function, its bliss. When an animal recognizes another animal it reads with an instinctual eye the character in the form- the essential nature in the form before it. Its text is not a concept about what it’s looking at but a full-bodied response to the shape, smell, movement, and stance of the image in front of it. The language of animals is the language of images. An image is not an idea with a defined meaning, it is itself an animal. 

This is the ode–to reconnect with our own animal perception is to clarify and heighten our perception of who and what we are in the moment… to go beyond the limited mental concepts of who we think we are… to an awareness of oneself that is infinitely more vast. The Exiles migrate between the human world and the animal world and carry this awareness on their backs. They are the silent embodiment of this Quest. They understand the language of animals and are self-appointed ambassadors from that world. They are firmly seated, in the language of animals, the language of imagery. They have succeeded by virtue of being.

The key points for me are: 1) to read something by its image is not necessarily to limit because “an image is not an idea with a defined meaning, it is itself an animal,” and 2) reconnecting with our animal selves is a task that, rather than taking us backward, moves us forward into a deeper understanding of ourselves and our place in the universe. By understanding an image (that is, one’s perception of a thing) as an animal itself — something complex, evasive and in constant movement — on its own terms, rather than trying to define and redefine it through static statements that ultimately fall short, we come closer to seeing things as they truly are. In this way, Cline’s Exiles function as envoys and icons to remind us of our secret, truer selves whose virtues are merely being and seeing.

Literature has its place on this path as well, in spite of its form being limited to words (which is what makes writing so difficult — it’s the least sensual medium of all). As with other art forms, the key to creating truthful literature is to create images, and to do this, one must avoid making direct statements about things. We have to beat around the bush, to talk around a subject — not to evade, but to more clearly illustrate the ineffable. Creating literature — stories, poetry, essays, plays — is not about making some single, absolute declaration; it’s about creating, out of nothing, those image-animals that breathe on their own, that have layers of secrets and truths. It is to create something that allows others to create their own image-animals.

Flannery O’Connor said in her speech-turned-essay “The Nature and Aim of Fiction”: “It’s always necessary to remember that the fiction writer is less immediately concerned with grand ideas and bristling emotions than he is with putting list slippers on clerks” because the truth of the clerk is best communicated by literal details like his wearing list slippers than any abstract and frankly stated “grand ideas and bristling emotions”  that a writer might thrust on him. We humans are sensual creatures, just like the other animals around us, and in spite of our impressive ability to think abstractly, we still (and have always and will always) respond most strongly to that which we perceive through our senses. And so it is through complex, free and living images liberated from vain abstractions (e.g. “bad,” “ugly,” “moral,” “beautiful”) that we perceive truth. Our labor is to see things as they are — in all their complexity — and then hold our tongues, rather than whittle them down to concrete, abstract terms.

You can view more of Cline’s images on her website (linked above). And you’re welcome to share your thoughts on her work (and my words) below.

My husband and I recently had a discussion/debate with a friend of ours who, on the subject of legislating compassion (or, more specifically, legislating in the name of compassion), pretty much said that without all of our elevated, civilized, moral compassion, we’d be “nothing more than animals.” While I’m a big proponent of compassion, I don’t think our morals necessarily make us more compassionate, and I think that there’s often as much compassion in non-action as there is in action, which is to say that sometimes not doing something is more compassionate and beneficial than blindly forging ahead (although, really, the best route is to combine the two with careful discernment).

I also don’t think it’s a bad thing to try to be more like animals, to get in touch with our animal sides. After all, animals aren’t the ones destroying our environment and each other on a species-wide level; they aren’t the ones enslaving each other (except for the slavemaker ants, of course); they aren’t afflicted by the overwhelming greed and viciousness that plagues humanity. If animals are greedy, it’s on a limited, usually reasonable level; if they are violent, it’s for survival — not spite. Animals are the innocent ones. And, really, whether we want to admit it or not, we are animals — complex, astoundingly creative animals, but still animals. I’m not saying that humanity is the lowest of the low in terms of animal virtues, but I do think it’s pompous to assume we’re that much more morally elevated above the rest of the natural world just because we can build complex tools and think in terms of the imaginary and intangible. I think art, which is arguably a uniquely human construct (although it depends on how you define art and whether or not the female bowerbird’s appreciation of her male’s bower can be considered artistic appreciation), is great; I think technology can be great. But I also think that what makes (human) art great is that it expresses and seeks to explore our deepest animal impulses; the best art gets us in touch with our animal selves and analyzes it, rather than denying it. And technology is really just a complex result of our basic animal survival instincts.

I think compassion is the greatest and most necessary quality a person could have, but I don’t like “morals” because they’re prescribed. It’s cold legislation rather than natural compassion, which comes from an organic and personal impulse. Compassion is simple and small and daily — not some elevated, authorized virtue. In its purest form, as in the animal world, compassion is unconscious and exhibited on an animal-to-animal basis. And while not all animals are compassionate in the way we define it, they’re not uncompassionate, either. As I’ve said above, they don’t hate; they aren’t (with few possible exceptions) unnecessarily cruel.

Anyway, the discussion reminded me of a Wallace Stevens poem I love:

“Less and Less Human, O Savage Spirit”

If there must be a god in the house, must be,
Saying things in the rooms and on the stair,

Let him move as the sunlight moves on the floor,
Or moonlight, silently, as Plato’s ghost

Or Aristotle’s skeleton. Let him hang out
His stars on the wall. He must dwell quietly.

He must be incapable of speaking, closed,
As those are: as light, for all its motion, is;

As color, even the closest to us, is;
As shapes, though they portend us, are.

It is the human that is the alien,
The human that has no cousin in the moon.

It is the human that demands his speech
From beasts or from the incommunicable mass.

If there must be a god in the house, let him be one
That will not hear us when we speak: a coolness,

A vermillioned nothingness, any stick of the mass
Of which we are too distantly a part.

The only thing I would add to Stevens’ argument is that we aren’t naturally alien — we’ve made ourselves so — and that we can get back to that wholeness and freedom of being as long as we’re willing to loosen the noose of our morals, let wordlessness stand in for language (not forever and always, but more so than it does) and forget our pompous attitudes about our own superiority. If we can let ourselves be smaller, more quiet and basic, we’ll be closer to and more a part of that unlimited god that Stevens describes.

But I don’t harbor any illusions about doing away with law, society and technology and living like squirrels or bears. As our friend correctly said during our conversation, “The change has happened. We can’t go back.” I just think that we’d more benefit ourselves and the rest of the world if we tried to emulate the plant and animal life around us a little more, rather than trying (in vain) to conquer nature both beyond and within ourselves. I think we’d all be better-off without legislating and politicizing compassion — that is, deciding in black-and-white terms who is deserving of understanding and compassion and who isn’t and using that to justify political action. Because if we select an object for compassion, we’re necessarily denying compassion to something else. If we bring compassion down from the moral pedestal, stopped flinging it at other people like a weapon, and considered it on a personal, daily level (asking ourselves if we’re being indiscriminately compassionate enough and how we can be more compassionate, especially to the people whom we feel least deserve it), then the world really would be a better place. It’ll build on its own, but we have to build from the bottom, beginning with ourselves.

I think I should also say that my friend, if he were to read this, might not actually disagree with me. Sometimes when the three of us (myself, my husband and our friend) sit in a car together for too long, we start to disagree for the sake of disagreement — either because we’re playing the devil’s advocate and testing each others’ convictions or because we just want to get the other’s goat — which is how the whole compassion-and-animals discussion began in the first place. But it makes for a good blog post, I think.

Feel free to leave your comments below!

A couple of weeks ago, somehow or other, I came across the Wikipedia page for the Laughing Owl of New Zealand, which was officially declared extinct nearly 100 years ago (specifically: July 5, 1914, when the last recorded owl of the species was found dead in Canterbury, NZ). Cryptozoology has never been a hobby of mine, but something about the few surviving images of the Laughing Owl draws me in. I can’t really explain my feeling and I won’t ruin the mystery of it by trying, but it has something to do with the pathos in their shiny, dark eyes. I’m also intrigued by the descriptions of their calls, which are supposed to sound like crazed human laughter.

Fortunately, there have been reports over the years that, possibly, the Laughing Owl is not an extinct species, just small-numbered and hidden in the deep of the forests. To quote the article:

There have been unconfirmed reports since [the extinction date]; the last (unconfirmed) North Island records were in 1925 and 1927, at the Wairaumoana branch of Lake Waikaremoana… In his book The Wandering Naturalist, Brian Parkinson describes reports of a Laughing Owl in the Pakahi near Opotiki in the 1940s. An unidentified bird was heard flying overhead and giving ‘a most unusual weird cry which might almost be described as maniacal’ at Saddle Hill, Fiordland, in February 1956 (Hall-Jones, 1960) and Laughing Owl egg fragments were apparently found in Canterbury in 1960…

“There was…[a] description of an encounter with the supposedly extinct laughing owl in 1985, by a group of American tourists camping out near the small village of Cave, New Zealand. The two travelers were sleeping in a forest, far from any other people. They were awoken in their tent by ‘the sound of a madman laughing.’ According to the campers, the sound terrified them, and they feared for their lives (being as they were so far away from civilization). When they checked to see who was making the noise, they reportedly didn’t see anyone or hear any other sign that there was a person in their camp. The travelers hadn’t even heard of the Whēkau Laughing Owl, and their story was never explained until many years later.

“Around the year 2000, back in the United States, an ornithologist from New Zealand came as a visitor to the former tourists’ duck hunting club in Suisun, near Fairfield, California. The man happened to tell the story of the mysterious laughing man, during which the ornithologist grew very excited; [the male former tourist] had given a textbook description of the Laughing Owl. This had been the first evidence in many years that the Laughing Owl might not be extinct after all. Though this story has never been verified, it still provides hope for the survival of the Whēkau Laughing Owl.

For more information, check out the New Zealand Birds article on the species, or the Wikipedia article.

After having put down Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches for a while, I’ve returned to it to (finally!) finish it up. About 20 pages toward the end, I read this:

“As I sat reflecting thus upon a rock, I saw in front of me a cherry tree hardly three feet tall just beginning to blossom — far behind the season of course, but victorious against the heavy weight of snow which it had resisted for more than half a year. I immediately thought of the famous Chinese poem about ‘the plum tree fragrant in the blazing heat of summer’ and of an equally pathetic poem by the Priest Gyoson, and felt even more attached to the cherry tree in front of me.”

And I thought of how much of an impact human craft has on a person’s perception of the world, specifically the impact of literature on the individual and the objects s/he encounters. It’s the same idea here as Adam in Genesis naming the plants and animals of the world: they mean little to us until we give them meaning. Basho appreciates the beauty and hardiness of the cherry tree on its own, but remembering poetry written about other trees makes it significant, endears it to him. I think of features of the landscape that have meaning for me — the mourning dove, the toad, the darkness, the birch and willow — and realize that behind those images are stories, poems, songs.

While I’ve long thought that there is no inherent meaning in anything, and that we all layer meaning like a lacquer over our lives, desperate to preserve, I rarely feel how deep it goes. We’ve all been conditioned to love some things more than others, fear things more than others, disregard things more than others, and it’s largely literature — old and new — that quietly dictates which shall be loved, hated or ignored. And so nature is a mirror, reflecting our thoughts, fears and desires back to us. We respond by thrusting more of ourselves onto the object and, believing it’s a dialogue with nature, split our monologues in two.

Never thought much of pine trees
Ere reading Basho’s haiku.

I pick up a cone
Among the late winter leaves –
A spider is home.

-28 Feb. 2011-

I’ve started reading Nobuyuki Yuasa’s translation of Basho’s travel sketches, including The Narrow Road to the Deep North. I was going to wait to make a post about it until I finished, but I got so excited about the following quotes from and about Basho regarding writing poetry (which can be expanded to writing in general) that I couldn’t help myself:

“Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo. And in doing so, you must leave your subjective preoccupation with yourself. Otherwise you impose yourself on the object and do not learn. Your poetry issues of its own accord when you and the object have become one — when you have plunged deep enough into the object to see something like a hidden glimmering there. However well-phrased your poetry may be, if your feeling is not natural — if the object and yourself are separate — then your poetry is not true poetry but merely your subjective counterfeit.” (Basho)

In his collection of critical essays entitled Kuzu no Matsubara, Shiko (one of Basho’s disciples) included commentary on Basho’s famous poem:

Breaking the silence
Of an ancient pond,
A frog jumped into water –
A deep resonance.

Of the poem’s creation, Shiko wrote:

“This poem was written by our master on a spring day. He was sitting in his riverside house in Edo, bending his ears to the soft cooing of a pigeon in the quiet rain. There was a mild wind in the air, and one or two petals of cherry blossom were falling gently to the ground. It was the kind of day you often have in late March — so perfect that you want it to last for ever [sic]. Now and then in the garden was heard the sound of frogs jumping into the water. Our master was deeply immersed in meditation, but finally he came out with the second half of the poem… One of the disciples sitting with him immediately suggested for the first half of the poem,

Amidst the flowers
Of the yellow rose.

Our master thought for a while, but finally he decided on

Breaking the silence
Of an ancient pond.

The disciple’s suggestion is admittedly picturesque and beautiful but our master’s choice, being simpler, contains more truth in it. It is only he who has dug deep into the mystery of the universe that can choose a phrase like this.”

We stayed awake until 3:30 this morning to watch the lunar eclipse. Since it was the first time that it’s fallen on the same day as the winter solstice in nearly 400 years, I insisted on seeing it and, though my husband Eric was exhausted and had to wake up four hours later for work, he stayed up with me. Unfortunately, it was cloudy. Still, we did get to see a little of it and I think it was worth staying up for. We first went out around 2:00 AM and stood in the driveway for fifteen minutes or so, staring at the sky and waiting for holes in the thick blanket of cloud to pass over the moon. After catching several glimpses of it, half-lit and half in shadow, we felt mostly satisfied and went to bed. Around 3:00 AM, my sister sent me a text that said she was watching the eclipse, so I woke Eric and we went into the office at the front of the house, pulled up the blinds, and searched the still-cloudy sky until, finally, we saw the hazy, fully eclipsed moon, brown-red with just a sliver of white on the edge. We stayed there by the window, sitting cross-legged like little kids, craning our necks until they cramped, and then holding them up with our hands until we were too tired to stay awake and went back to bed.

It’s always been important to me to catch rare celestial phenomena like this, to view something historic that hasn’t been seen by many others. It makes me feel closer to the past, more a part of the fabric of history, united for a moment with the last people to have seen it in 1638. Moments like this are a large part of what makes life so wonderful and worthwhile — seeing great, unusual things that we have played no part in creating, small and powerless as we are. It’s in these moments – in the silence and darkness, faced with something beautiful and strange — that I sense life’s mystery most acutely.

Oscar Wilde wrote in the Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, “All art is at once surface and symbol.” Life, too, is at once surface and symbol: changing seasons represent the cycle of life and death for cultures the world over, as does the cycle of the moon, slowly growing until it reaches its fullest point, then slowly diminishing. Even the smallest wilting flower is a symbol of something else: life’s beautiful, inevitable transience. For a long time, people have considered winter a time of  hardship and death, and for good reason: vegetation withers; livestock are slaughtered; the days are short and the nights long. A total lunar eclipse — which occurs when the moon passes through the center of the earth’s shadow and, due to the effects of the earth’s atmosphere, turns the moon red — was an omen of evil for many people through the ages. Yet darkness doesn’t have to signify evil, even in death or times of hardship. For some, like myself, it’s purely visual mystery, and so the onset of winter and the lunar eclipse are symbols of the unknown. As such, they signify a time to contemplate mystery — not to resolve it, but to enjoy its presence, to appreciate not knowing.

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