Slivers of Reality in a More-Than-Human World

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The Secret Garden, by Deborah J. Brasket

We like to think that we humans, with our five marvelous senses, are in full receipt of what this world has to offer in all its glory. But in reality, like all creatures, we tap into but a tiny slice of its vast fullness. We each are trapped within our own perceptual bubble, or Umwelt, that part of our surroundings we can sense and experience.

When we watch a bird coursing through the air, we might try to imagine what it feels like to fly, to have a birds-eye view of the world as it does. And yet what a bird in flight actually experiences with its wraparound vision, seeing in all directions at once, surfing air currents that are as palpable to it as they are invisible to us, tapping into the Earth’s electromagnetic fields to guide its migrations, seeing colors we can’t see and hearing sounds we can’t detect—it’s full bubble of experience—is beyond anything we can experience, even if we could fly.

This is true for all the other creatures that inhabit our backyards and the world around us, as revealed in Ed Yong’s An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us. “Earth teems with sights and textures, sounds and vibrations, smells and tastes, electric and magnetic fields. But every animal can only tap into a small fraction of reality’s fullness,” he writes.

The thing is, while a mocking bird will never know what a bee sees, nor a cat know how a bat navigates, or a mosquito see a spider’s web even while caught within it, for all our sensory limitation, we humans are the only creature who can pierce to some degree beyond our own sense bubble. Through our curiosity and imagination and intellect we can create the tools and technologies to penetrate, at least to some degree, this more-than-human world. We can begin piecing together all these slivers of reality into a much fuller sense of the world in which we are embedded. The technologies we create are just crude tools for piercing that darkness. But they open up windows into the far reaches of reality where our minds and imagination can soar.

I wish I could experience the wraparound vision of a bird, or the 3-D hearing of a dolphin, or smell the smorgasbord of earthly delights wafting up the hill as my dog does. I can only imagine what it might be like to do so. And because of this—my imagination—I expand my sense of the world’s vast potential, and deepen my appreciation for all its marvels. It’s an amazing gift, to be able to tap into other creatures Umwelten. This is our greatest sensory skill, Yong tells us. It carries with it an enormous responsibility for cherishing and protecting all those life-forms that expand our understanding of reality. We must ensure they do not perish from this Earth through our own neglect or indifference or ignorance.

That is one of Yong’s main messages in his final chapter about noise and light pollution: “Save the Quiet, Preserve the Dark.” He reminds us that as “the species most responsible for destroying sensory realms, it falls on us to marshal all of our empathy and ingenuity to protect other creatures, and their unique ways of experiencing our shared world.”

Other-Worldly Encounters with a Feral Cat

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She sauntered into our yard about a month ago, this young orange tabby with a white bib. Her gaze passed over me as if she did not see me at all, as if I was part of the patio furniture where I was sitting. When our eyes finally did meet, I still saw no recognition that I was a human or animate or alive or anything at all. It was eerie—being so unseen, unrecognized—her complete disinterest in me. Even the deer and wild turkeys I meet see me, and seem wary and apprehensive when they do. They recognize me as something apart from my surroundings, something to pay attention to, keep an eye on. But not this kitty.

Until she mistook me for food. I’d dropped a couple pieces of lunchmeat on the patio for her, which she gobbled up. But when I held my hand out to her after that, which must have still smelled of meat, she slowly moved toward the smell. She sniffed at my fingers, and then took a bite. Not hard enough to break skin, but hard enough for me to draw back and for her to skitter away.

Later as I was sitting there reading, and apparently wriggling my bare toes, she approached again, stealthily. She saw my toes as prey—not connected to something larger. Then she pounced and bit, harder this time. I cried out. She dashed off again.

Since then I’ve been putting food out when I see her in the yard. She now seems to “see” me as a food source, rather than as food. She won’t eat until I’ve put the food down and move away. If I stay in the yard, she keeps an anxious eye on me, and if I try to approach she darts off. Sometimes she’ll even stand by the door where I go to bring out food, as if waiting for her food source to fulfill its mission.

But she’s still a wild thing, with wild behavior.

We’ve watched her run full tilt at trees and dash up and down the trunks as fast as she can. One tree after another as she makes her way up the hill. For no apparent purpose but for the pure pleasure it brings, it seems. Once when my husband was pruning our plum tree, she dashed up its trunk and then wriggled like a worm through its tight branches.

At wild cat at play in a wild world.

I’ve watched her stalking birds at our birdbath. At first she tried to get them while standing beneath the bath and reaching up. Now she’s learned to take a running leap at them, flying up over the birdbath stretched out like superman, her back legs trailing in the water while her front feet try to grab the bird. She’s yet to catch any while I’ve watched. But we’ve seen her more than once climb up the hill toward the tall grass with a large furry creature in her mouth.

Now that she recognizes us a food source, she hangs out here more often, sometimes grabbing a drink from the pool or the water-can we keep full for her. Sometimes she drinks from the birdbath. She’s found a favorite padded patio chair with a pillow where she likes to snooze. Although a narrow wall will do just as well.

Sometimes we don’t see her for days.

When we do, I don’t try to tame her. I want her to stay wild and independent. But I also want her to see our home as a safe haven from the predators who see her as food—the coyotes and foxes and mountain lions that live beyond our fence. She’s small enough to squeeze through. They aren’t. And I want to augment her diet during the lean times to keep her healthy but not dependent upon us for her meals.

She reminds me—even more than the deer and coyotes and other wild things that live nearby do—that there’s an entirely different way of being in the world and perceiving it that’s unlike anything we humans could ever experience. Insects, birds, bats, orcas and others species each inhabit separate and distinct slivers of reality known only to them. There’s a word for that—umwelt.

We tend to anthropomorphize the animal kingdom, especially our pets, remaking them in our own minds in our own images. But what they are and the world as they experience it is so extraordinary and other-worldly as to make our own pale in comparison. More on this and the umwelt next time.

Capturing the Spirit of Our Kindred Cousins

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Bronze sculpture, ‘Macaque and Infant’ Detail, by Nichola Theakston

Sculptor Nichola Theakston works in bronze and ceramics to capture the spirit of creatures found in her native Wales and in the wilds beyond its borders. “The notion that an individual creature may experience some ‘otherness’ or spiritual dimension beyond our understanding of its instinctive animal behaviours, is the premise behind much of my work,” she tells us on her website.

I discovered her work on a blog I follow at Colossal, and fell in love with the tender and tranquil faces of her primates, the curious and inscrutable felines, the proud and majestic wildlife.

We learn something about ourselves as humans when we see these qualities in the more-than-human world around us. Is it our own spirit we recognize in them? Or a Spirit that enlightens human and non-human alike, that compels us to see ourselves in the Other.

What do you see when you look at faces of our kindred cousins?

‘Sacred Langur’ in Bronze
Bronze sculpture of “Bastet”
Bastet Study in Bronze
“Still Rhino” in Bronze
‘Standing Silverback’ in Bronze
“Fleet Hare” Study, in Terracotta

Beauty the Brave, the Exemplary, Bursting Open

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White Peony, Jan La Roche Photography

What is it about the fragile, fleeting, and flagrant beauty of flowers that can so break a heart?

I wrote about this once in a photo-essay called Riffing on Roses. And then just this week I found this new-to-me poem by Mary Oliver, Peonies, which broke my heart again.

The poem speaks to the flagrant beauty of flowers that gives itself away, all that it is, so freely and readily to all that comes its way: the ants, the breeze, the sun’s soft buttery fingers, the poet’s breaking heart.

“Beauty the brave, the exemplary,” indeed.

I wish we all could live so bravely, so carelessly, giving all that we are to all there is. I wish we all, like those ants, craving such sweetness and finding it, would bore deep within that sap. We must cherish and adore all we are, all we have, all that is, while it’s still here to have.

Peonies

This morning the green fists of the peonies are getting ready
   to break my heart
      as the sun rises,
         as the sun strokes them with his old, buttery fingers

and they open —
   pools of lace,
      white and pink —
         and all day the black ants climb over them,

boring their deep and mysterious holes
   into the curls,
      craving the sweet sap,
         taking it away

to their dark, underground cities —
   and all day
      under the shifty wind,
         as in a dance to the great wedding,

the flowers bend their bright bodies,
   and tip their fragrance to the air,
      and rise,
         their red stems holding

all that dampness and recklessness
   gladly and lightly,
      and there it is again —
         beauty the brave, the exemplary,

blazing open.
   Do you love this world?
      Do you cherish your humble and silky life?
         Do you adore the green grass, with its terror beneath?

Do you also hurry, half-dressed and barefoot, into the garden,
   and softly,
      and exclaiming of their dearness,
         fill your arms with the white and pink flowers,

with their honeyed heaviness, their lush trembling,
   their eagerness
      to be wild and perfect for a moment, before they are
         nothing, forever?

 Mary Oliver,  New And Selected Poems. (Beacon Press; Reprint edition November 19, 2013)

Thank you to The Vale of Soul-Making where I found this poem.

A Deep-Dive Through Time and Space

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Deep space, 13 billion years ago. Photo From Webb Space Telescope

By now you’ve probably seen the stunning new images from the Webb Space Telescope, which takes us 13 billion years back in time. That’s 8 billion years before the Earth was born. We stand here now looking back at a time before there was ground to stand on, or a human consciousness to see or grasp anything at all. We are looking at a speck of sky no bigger than a grain of sand, they say, yet filled with millions of galaxies and trillions of stars, and who knows how many planets or moons or intelligent life-forms looking back. Only they wouldn’t see us. For we don’t exist yet.

It’s mind-boggling. And certainly puts the turmoil we’re experiencing here on Earth into a new perspective. No less urgent or relevant for our fire-fly timespans. But it points us away from the personal and relative “here and now” into one that is infinitely larger than our selves and the tiny blue marble we call home. Our “here and now” encapsulates not only the present moment but the “here and now” 13 billion years ago. We are the link that spans that distance through time and space. Our consciousness. Mine. Yours. Now. Enfolding all that. Surely it means something significant.

When we turn the eye inward rather than out, into the micro-universe of atoms and particles swirling inside us and everything that exits, we grasp a new paradox. Quantum physics has shown us that those inner worlds at the most infinitesimal level exist only as clouds of potentiality rather than as concrete substance. These clouds of potentiality only become “real”—that is, fixed in time and space—when observed. Unseen they exist only within a hazy realm of the possible.

In comparison to the infinite universe swirling around us and inside us, we humans may seem pathetically insignificant. Not worth a mention in the footnotes of atomic and astronomic legers of Science. And yet we seem to play an essential and outsized role.

Without the human mind to grasp the universe there would be no universe to be grasped. Our bodies may have been evolved from star-dust. But it’s our minds, our own conscious grasping of such, that moves “star-dust,” and all else, out of the realm of the potential and into the realm of the real.

Such is the circular and utterly paradoxical wonder of a world we live in.

The cloudy realm from which stars are born. Photo from the Webb Space Telescope.

Celebrating Ten Years of Blogging

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When I created this blog ten years ago I named it “Living on the Edge of the Wild.” I saw this space as a place to explore what I saw as the borderlands between what we know as humankind and the vast wilderness of what we do not know. I wrote in my first blog post on July 12, 2012:

We all are, in some way, living on the edge of the wild, either literally or figuratively, whether we know it or not.  We all are standing at the edge of some great unknown, exploring what it means to be human in a more-than-human universe.

We encounter the “wild” not only in the natural world, but . . . at the edges of science, the arts, and human consciousness.

I began my exploration into the wild quite literally, when our family was living aboard La Gitana and traveling around the world for six years. It became starkly apparent when I was sailing across the Pacific Ocean, surrounded by nothing but the sky above and the sea below, that I was living on the edge of something primitive and uninhibited, vulnerable to potentially terrifying forces that could rip us apart or swallow us whole. And yet those very same forces are what filled our sails and moved us forward, and what cradled us below, harboring in those depths the creatures that astounded us with their beauty and power.

I came to appreciate in the most intimate way how tiny and insignificant we humans appear in the natural world that surrounds and supports us.  We are indeed living on the edge of the wild, the largely untamed and unknown world into which we are born, exploring the borderlands that lay between the human and the more-than-human worlds, and the ways they overlap and mirror each other.

Looking back over the past ten years of blogging, I’ve tried to stay true to that original vision. sharing my thought on what fascinates me in nature, the arts and sciences, as well as my own creative endeavors and explorations of what it means to be a mother, a writer and someone who worries about the world—who wants to save it and savor it—all its beauty and joy—at the same time.

Over the years I’ve managed to gather 10,000+ followers (according to the website metrics which is not always accurate). But interest in my posts wane and flow, and sometimes, for personal reasons, I’ve let the blogging trickle to a near stop. Eventually, I’ve always returned. Because there’s still so much I want to explore, so many things I discover (books, artwork, music) that give me such pleasure I want to share them with others, and because blogging meets a basic human need—to touch others and be touched in return.

That was the topic of my most popular post, “Blogging and the Accident of Touching,” written nine years ago. I wrote:

We’ve all heard how physical touching is essential to human health and happiness. They say people can shrivel up and die for want of being touched or having someone to touch. A simple pat on the shoulder, a hug, a hand squeeze can make all the difference. Merely having a pet, they say, saves lives.

But there’s a basic human need for another kind of touching—from the inside out. Touching others with what means the most to us, our deepest responses to the world around us. Keeping those unspoken, unexpressed, can be as withering as being untouched physically. Which is why, perhaps, so many writers and artists will give their work away for free if need be, just to allow what’s inside out into the world where it can touch others, and “evoke responses.”

I’ve enjoyed reaching out and touching others over these past ten years, and being touched in return by your likes and responses, and by reading and responding to your blog posts. I’ve made several dear blogging friends whom I’ve never met but feel I know quite well. I’ve learned so much sharing this space with you.

So please accept my heartfelt thanks to all of you who have been with me from the very beginning, to those of you who have stopped by from time to time, and to those who have only recently tuned in to see what this space is all about. Thank you for helping me celebrate a decade of “Living on the Edge of the Wild.”

Time Away, and Back Again. Kinda.

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Sailors and the Sinking Sun by Emile Nolde – 1946

I took two months away from blogging, most of May and all of June. Some of that time was finishing the first draft of a new novel. Some of it was spending time with family. Much of it was preparing for a trial that has now been continued. I won’t go into the details, except to say it’s part of a long, ongoing saga dealing with the guardianship of my granddaughter. Not something I’m worried about, but due diligence is needed to keep her safe and in good hands. And this is the first time I’ve represented myself in the matter. A long, steep learning curve.

But I’m back. Kinda.

In a weird way, I feel like I’m standing at the prow of a ship and trying to decide where to go to next—with this blog, and the rest of my life. The way is wide open before me. So many choices.

Mary Oliver once ended a poem with this question: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

We sometimes forget her question comes right on the heels of another: “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?”

And that follows this: “What else should I have done?”

Which leads, perhaps, to that old clich: “This is the first day of the rest of my life.”

I feel a bit like that now, with all the uncertainty and promise that comes with it.

“We create ourselves out of our innermost intuitions” is another favorite quote.

The seed knows within itself what it will become when it falls on fertile soil. But what of the acorn still clinging to the leaf? What does it dream of? Rebirth in the fertile soil below? Or that wild flight through the crystal air when the way is still wide open. Tethered neither to tree above (the past) nor the earth below (what is to come), but for one brief, infinite instant seeing the whole round world in all its wonders, and itself at the very center of it all.

Far at sea with no land in sight the horizon is round and there is no end to it. We lie at the still center of a vast spaciousness.

Still, the wind will rise before us, the seas will roll beneath, and our eyes will seek something within that vast spaciousness to set our sails for.

And so, while I’m back, I know not where I’m headed next. And, for now, I like this free-fall feeling. The round horizon. The way wide open. For now.

Immersed in My Art, Finally

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Helen Frankenthaler

Please Do Not Disturb: That’s how I’ve felt these past few months, and even more so these past few weeks, so immersed in the work of finishing up my second novel, that I can’t spare the time to do anything else. And when I must take time away, I feel somewhat distraught or guilty, as if I’m cheating on a lover, or playing hooky from school. Even writing this now, feels like that, although I’ve been working eight hours straight since this morning.

I do this 7 days a week now and am making enormous progress. So I’m not complaining. I’m happy, if exhausted, at the end of the day, and looking forward to the next day of writing—revising mostly now, polishing, tying up loose ends, getting it ready to send off. My husband can’t understand how I can feel so exhausted sitting in a chair all day! It’s mental exhaustion, I try to explain. My mind feels washed out after 8 hours.

Even so, it feels good. There were many years when my problem with writing was the inability to find the time to write or the discipline to stay with it so long. So this is progress.

I wrote another blog post a few years ago about being “Immersed In One’s Art” using the same image of Frankenthaler. This is what I wrote then:

There’s something immensely satisfying to see Helen Frankenthaler immersed in her art this way. I found this image on Facebook, along with the following quotation:

“I’ve seen women insist on cleaning everything in the house before they could sit down to write . . . and you know it’s a funny thing about housecleaning . . . it never comes to an end. Perfect way to stop a woman. A woman must be careful to not allow over-responsibility (or over-respectabilty) to steal her necessary creative rests, riffs, and raptures. She simply must put her foot down and say no to half of what she believes she ‘should’ be doing. Art is not meant to be created in stolen moments only.”
― Clarissa Pinkola Estés

Why is it we women (is it only women?) too often put our personal passions last in line behind all else?

I’m trying more and more to put those passions (my writing, painting, music-making) first on my list of to-do’s. But it’s hard. Somehow even blogging comes first, although it too is writing, a kind of art-making. Or at least I try to make it so.

Perhaps because I’ve set firmer deadlines for my blog, or I see it as a commitment I’ve made, to keep this up and running, to not let readers go too long without hearing from me. And blogging is just another way for me to “riff and rapture” about the things I love, to share what inspires me with the world.

Still, to imagine myself immersed in my art as she is in this photo, surrounded by bright splashes of color, my bare legs curled beneath me on the cold floor, and that Mona Lisa smile, that dark gaze . . . it does my heart good.

Yes, it does do my heart good, to be immersed in my writing this way—Finally. But it means I’ve been blogging less these days and will probably be doing less in the coming weeks as well. But I’ll be back to “riff and rapture” again before long. I promise.

Wonder & Worship, Poems for Easter

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The Sun, by Edvard Munch

Primary Wonder, by Denise Levertov

Days pass when I forget the mystery.
Problems insoluble and problems offering
their own ignored solutions
jostle for my attention, they crowd its antechamber
along with a host of diversions, my courtiers, wearing
their colored clothes; cap and bells.

And then
once more the quiet mystery
is present to me, the throng’s clamor
recedes: the mystery
that there is anything, anything at all,
let alone cosmos, joy, memory, everything,
rather than void: and that, O Lord,
Creator, Hallowed One, You still,
hour by hour sustain it.

O Sweet Irrational Worship, By Thomas Merton

Wind and a bobwhite
And the afternoon sun.

By ceasing to question the sun
I have become light,

Bird and wind.

My leaves sing.

I am earth, earth

All these lighted things
Grow from my heart.

A tall, spare pine
Stands like the initial of my first
Name when I had one.

When I had a spirit,
When I was on fire
When this valley was
Made out of fresh air
You spoke my name
In naming Your silence:
O sweet, irrational worship!

I am earth, earth

My heart’s love
Bursts with hay and flowers.
I am a lake of blue air
In which my own appointed place
Field and valley
Stand reflected.

I am earth, earth

Out of my grass heart
Rises the bobwhite.

Out of my nameless weeds
His foolish worship.

Never Say “Never Again” Again, Unless We stop It This Time, Now

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Man mourning a body outside an apartment complex in Kharkiv after airstrikes (Getty image)

If we say “never again” while doing nothing to stop the atrocities going on in Ukraine, then we are lying to ourselves and each other, and being the worst kind of hypocrite there is.

If we collectively—the U.S., NATO, the United Nations, European Union—have the power to stop Putin now, to put boots on the ground and planes in the air to push him out of Ukraine, and if we do not do it, then we are no better than he is.

He is acting on his worst instincts because it personally benefits him and his ambitions. We are refusing to act on our best instincts for fear it could personally harm our own self-interests.

If we have the power to stop this and fail to act, then we too are morally responsible for the slaughter we refuse to stop.

It’s not enough to stand on the sidelines and supply Ukraine with the weapons it needs to defend itself, as we are doing. Although giving them all they ask for would be a step in the right direction—-the planes and tanks, and no-fly zone, and humanitarian safe-zones. To merely arm them, impose sanctions, is a safe way for us to feel good about ourselves. But it is being dishonest and cowardly.

Did we not promise to defend their security when they willingly gave up their nuclear weapons? If only they had kept them, they would be safe now. If only we had promised at the outset to put boots on the ground if Putin attacked, to defend their borders as we had promised to do so then, they would be safe now.

Surely there is some leader somewhere n the world who has the moral integrity and courage to step within Ukraine’s borders and fight with them.

You would think Israel which had been created as a haven for those who fled the Holocaust, who cried “Never again” when it was their own people were being slaughtered, would have been the first to put boots on the ground in Ukraine.

You would think Germany, who to their shame had allowed Hitler to rise to power and slaughter millions, would be the first on the battlefield to make up for the great wrong it had done in the past.

You would think the United Nations, which was created for this very purpose, to say “never again” to this kind of slaughter of civilians and naked aggression of one nation over its neighbor, would do more to stop this. And yet it can’t even expel the naked aggressor from its ranks. Zelensky is right. It should dissolve itself because it has proven to be a feckless power.

You would think the United States who professes to be the Leader of the Free World and the Defender of Democracy would stand on the battlefield with Ukraine, rather than merely arm Ukraine to defend itself. Or else we should relinquish these titles for all time.

Our Generals have already said that to allow Putin to win this war would be a global catastrophe. It would embolden him to attack the Balkans and start another World War. If that is true, then we should be putting all our efforts into ending this war as quickly as possible. And if we and our allies put boots on the ground we would win this war. Putin would be defeated, the catastrophe averted.

Yet we continue to hold back . . . . why?

Because it could trigger a nuclear war? Yet we are committed, so we say, to defending every inch of NATO territory should Putin invade it, which could also trigger a nuclear war. So it’s okay to do so if Putin enters the Balkans, but not if it enters Ukraine? What kind of intellectual sophistry is this? What kind of moral high-ground our we holding with this kind of reasoning?

If we had allowed Ukraine to enter NATO when it had tried so hard to do so, we would have put boots on the ground then. Or would we? Would we have stood back even then? Will we do so when Putin wins this war because of our cowardice and enters a NATO country? I wonder.

And I’m sure Putin wonders too. I’m sure he’ll be willing to gamble that his threat of a nuclear attack will always allow him to win whatever war he decides to start. And I fear he will be right.

If we do not do everything within our power to stop Putin now, we will be like little OliverTwist holding out our empty bowl, saying “More, please” to Putin and to every tyrant in the world. And we will deserve the bitter porridge they serve us.