Saturday, 13 December 2014

An Experimental Kind of Magic

Having reflected further on this blog and its purpose, I'm satisfied with my decision not to continue posting weekly. But I'm not satisfied leaving certain things unsaid.

My idea up until now was to use blogging as a teaching tool to complement my work with kids and adults in the urban forests of my hometown. Certain regularly-occurring blogs have been transformational in my own understanding of nature and the magic thereof, so I know the value of having deep truths articulated in ways that are accessible and timely in terms of a student's growth.

My assessment of the blogging experience so far is that it's been excellent for my own growth as a student, in that it's kept me disciplined and productive, producing some 1200 words every seven days for an audience of my peers who can correct and guide the development of my thoughts. I think it's been a good move to consider myself an apprentice Wizard of Earth rather than a master, because after seven months of attempting to teach myself and a willing experimental audience of online readers, I've gained a greater appreciation for the planning, foresight, and experience that good teaching requires. Those are skills I just haven't developed enough yet to make a weekly blog worthwhile.

As the magnetic pull of writing has drawn me back toward the keyboard, however, I've been taking thought as to what this blog might mean going forward. I'd like to re-envision A Wizard of Earth as a wizard's laboratory (perhaps a crackpot wizard's laboratory), an experimental kitchen where ideas are allowed to bubble and stew and explode in colourful puffs of smoke. If I find success in the magical brews concocted here, I can bottle them and bring them to my teaching blog on the Forest School website, which doubles as a business platform and so receives a larger willing audience.

The 'willing' part is key, as the best kind of learning happens as a collaboration, be it between student and teacher, student and peer, or student and nature (that last one is a practice I'd like to develop further). My own studies cannot be conducted in isolation, and the internet is a useful tool for sharing one's research and receiving touches of guidance from those who take an interest in guiding it. I'm only just learning to use the blogosphere, but it's dawning on me that amid the vast superhighways of cyber-data transecting the wasteland of inanity that is the internet, there are fertile and steaming oases, fermenting in hidden pockets of the intellectual landscape, where real ideas are shaped and discussed and brought back to the living world as tools for living well.

That is the point, isn't it? We're all trying to live well with the time that is given to us, and for each person that means something different. But if there is to be anything we share, i.e. a physical world and life together within it, then we have to be willing to share our inward attitudes toward that which we share, and hope to share well. Hence another blog about nature...

I'll continue to wrestle with the problem of spending time with computers vs. spending time with humans and trees, no question about it. But recent conversations with humans have led me to reconsider the value of written exchanges, and to consider giving this experiment another shot, with perhaps a more experimental kind of attitude. Because I'm really interested in the idea of magic I've been brewing here, and although I may not be entirely sure of what I'm talking about yet, I think it's worth exploring.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Looking Back, Moving On

When I began writing this blog I was brimming with ideas, so full I thought I would burst if I didn't find a way to set them down in readable form and share them. Over the last seven months I've quite enjoyed sitting down for a few hours each week to shape those ideas and really test myself to see if I knew what I was talking about. In some cases I did, in others it became clear that I needed to dig deeper. That was helpful.

It's also very satisfying to have written some 40, 000 words over thirty-two weeks and not have them locked in a desk drawer, which has been the fate of most of my life's writing up until now. Thank you, internet. Thank you, even more, to those of you have stuck with me this far. Being able to share words with you means so much to me.

Now, however, I find I'm replenishing my store of ideas more slowly than I'm spilling them onto the internet. More specifically, I'm spending more time in front of the computer than I am wandering outdoors and soaking in new ideas and experiences. Not only does that make me tired, unhealthy, and generally less happy, it also makes me a hypocrite. That is not how I would like to be, so... I am going to put an indefinite hold on posting weekly to this blog. I want to continue to write, but I want to write more poetry, stories, and articles shared in tangible forms. Maybe even a sermon or two.

The content of this blog will remain live, and I may return to it at some point, or decide to post occasionally. If you want to subscribe in case of occasional posts here, the form's on the right sidebar. If you want to leave a message for me, post a comment at the bottom of the page and I'll receive notification. A 'not for posting' comment is fine too, I can read your message and not publish it on the blog if that's your wish.

I do intend to continue with the KW Forest School blog, and that may well become my primary outlet for ideas about nature and the magic thereof. (Still working on getting a 'subscribe' option on that page.) Things are afoot in the non-virtual world, and it looks like Forest School is going to be good, satisfying work. So check us out, like us on the face book, check back now and then, and maybe we'll change the world one of these days. Starting tomorrow.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

In Remembrance of the Disappeared

Here in Canada the eleventh day of the eleventh month is set aside to honour those who have given their lives in war, especially in the World Wars. It was ninety-six years ago today that the armistice was signed which ended the War to End All Wars. At the eleventh hour on this day, it's customary to stop what we're doing, at work, in school, wherever, and observe a minute's silence.

Of course, it was only twenty years after the signing of that armistice that the War to End All Wars was renamed the First World War, as the fires of the Second broke out across Europe. The Paris 1919 talks that had redrawn world maps and forced crippling reparation payments on Germany ensured peace, but not justice, and thus set the stage for a second round of conflict between the same chief combatants beginning in 1939.

Since the end of the Second World War there has been peace between the major world powers, despite the long shadow of nuclear standoff between the US and the USSR. The last seventy years have seen amazing progress worldwide, both in terms of average life expectancy and average annual income. In the words of Professor Hans Rosling, "aid, trade, green technology and peace" seem poised to continue that trend well into the future. My only objection to Professor Rosling, apart from his aversion to truthful rendering of statistics, discussed in last week's post, is that what counts as peace depends on whom you're asking.

On this day of remembrance I'm thinking of a journey I made three years ago to the southern United States. I had boarded a bus one Thursday morning after French class and travelled through the night with a group of several dozen others, arriving Friday around noon in the deep south. Our destination was Columbus, Georgia, where thousands of people from across the United States and Latin America gather each November at the gates of Fort Benning, the United States Army base in town.

For three days of the year, the open street leading onto the grounds of the base is blocked by three chain linked fences topped with barbed wire and monitored by a watchtower and low-flying helicopters. That's because they know the peaceful demonstrators are coming.

Fort Benning is home to the School of the Americas (SOA), also called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC). The name change came in 2001 after eleven years of pressure from organizations like SOA Watch, which hosts the yearly demonstration, and mounting allegations that the SOA was training Latin American military personnel on American soil in the arts of torture, terror, and assassination. In fact, since its beginning in 1946, the institution has trained 64 000 soldiers from Latin American nations to return to their home countries and target educators, union organizers, and others who stand up for the rights of the poor. In those seventy years, hundreds of thousands have been raped, tortured, disappeared, killed, or forced to flee their homes and homelands.

It's well-known that the US government funded guerrilla groups known as 'contras' to fight against the elected Nicaraguan government during the 1980's, and that the CIA has been instrumental in various coups and attempted coups in Latin America, but what's not generally well-known is how institutionalized the violence is. I met a very kind and gentle social worker not long ago, a young father dedicated to his work assisting mentally ill youth, who had served in the US army at Fort Benning and knew of the SOA only as 'the foreign unit'. When I tell people about my friends in the States who work for peace and social justice, it's hard to convey what exactly it is they're working against without remembering the stories of those who journeyed thousands of miles to speak on a temporary stage before the gates of Fort Benning about murdered parents or other relatives.

Why are these people being killed? The short answer is that they seem to regard the current state of world affairs, enthusiastically illustrated by Hans Rosling's dynamic graph (stop video at 4:15) as intolerable. Remember, the ratio of average income in the poorest of nations compared to average US income, according to Rosling's 2010 statistics, was 3:400. When I travelled to the SOA in 2011, this sort of disparity was on display in installations like the one pictured below.

The signs on the buckets indicate that "Farmworkers make $5 for harvesting this amount" and "Supermarkets charge $1000". The crop in question is tomatoes, a staple of the North American diet. What's interesting is that the ratio of workers' to supermarkets' earnings on display here (5:1000 or 2:400) is reminiscent of the income ratio between rich and poor nations cited above (3:400). Similar number sets, very different displays, with very different emotional resonances.

For the people who pick the tomatoes we eat, the peace that followed the Great Wars and the rise of the United States to superpower status means something very different than it does here in North America. For those who try to organize their fellow labourers to demand better rights and wages, it means something different again. It's just not in the interest of the free market to allow people like that to speak out and get away with it. On the Sunday morning of the gathering at Fort Benning, a funeral procession circles the area before the gates, with each participant carrying a white cross inscribed with the name of someone killed by an SOA graduate.

As I look over these pictures now, remembering the power of that ceremony three years ago as well as my American friends preparing to bear witness in the same way less than two weeks from today, I'm reminded of the poem so often read on Remembrance Day here in Canada: "In Flanders fields the poppies blow/ Between the crosses, row on row." The crosses raised up at the gates of Fort Benning have no official recognition from the powers of the world, but the names they bear are as important as the names of those who died in the clash of the powers during the World Wars. Their voices do not fade away, but remain with us, reminders that without justice there is no peace.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Defence Against the Dark Arts: Statistics

I want to carry on the discussion of two different ways of wizarding begun in last week's post by looking at an example of what I'd call dark magic. Just as Saruman and Gandalf took different approaches to power in The Lord of the Rings, there are different ways of using magic as I've described it here- simply put, the ability to perceive and manipulate meaning.

By that definition, of course, everyone's a little bit magical. The fact that you can turn a series of black markings on a screen into living ideas that grow and move around inside of you is an indication of that trait, and a marvelous thing to consider. The fact that certain objects in your home are arranged so as to bring to life certain memories or feelings is an indication that you already have a sense that meaning is a dimension of the world as much as mass, temperature, and colour are. The fact that there have been systems of knowledge and practice developed to tap into this dimension, in order to, for example, train the will toward greater clarity of thought and action, or to activate the natural healing processes of human bodies, indicates that other peoples in other times and places have been more attuned to this dimension than we are here and now.

I am not learned in such arts. But in my own small way I am trying to understand the meanings of things, and to get behind the fog that surrounds certain aspects of our lives. The example I want to show you today involves the youtube, so find a pair of headphones or a quiet nook and check out this five minute video.

Did you watch it? How about that? Pretty neat, huh? Now let's talk about what just happened.

To begin with, we are invited to follow an elderly but spry wizard into his workshop as he tells us about his work as a teacher and his familiarity with data. He is genial but definitely learned beyond the average mortal. Next he shows us his team, all skilled in the technical arts, and invites us to join him on a venture which even he has never tried before: 'animating the data in real space'. Having uttered these words, whose meanings are hidden from the untutored, he proceeds to dazzle us with his art.

Data is one thing, presentation is another. You'd think that 120 000 data points would speak for themselves, but that's not so. As I've said in previous writings here, how one chooses to narrate world history says a lot more about the teller than about how we've got to where we are. Hans Rosling's perspective is clear: we're all becoming healthier and richer as time progresses, and we live in "a converging world" in which "the historical gap between the West and the rest is now closing".

But take another look at that graph- pause the video if you wish, and get out a tape measure or ruler. I'd highly recommend actually trying this, because it illustrates what I'm talking about far better than my description can. When I open the video in full-screen on my computer, my tape measure indicates that the left half of the graph, up until the $4000 mark, measures 3.4 inches. 3.4 inches to the right of this mark should land us at $8000 on the x-axis, but instead I find myself at well over $40 000. It's clear that the right half of the graph is working on a different scale than the left half; indeed, all three portions of the graph are operating at different inches-to-income ratios, or else the scale accelerates continuously at an unspecified rate. This would be fine if it were acknowledged and explained, but it isn't.

Now pause the video around 4:15 and pick a dot in the upper right corner of the graph, I don't know, say, the USA- it's the big yellow dot just past the $40 000 mark. If I use my tape measure to extend the x-axis along a uniform scale of 3.4 inches for every $4000, the $40 000 mark falls at 34 inches (2' 10") from the y-axis, putting the US nearly three screens away from Congo, the poorest nation on the graph. (It's not clear whether the 'Congo' dot represents the Republic of Congo or the Democratic Republic of Congo, which are separate but neighbouring nations, but from the size of the dot I'd guess it's meant to indicate the DRC, which is about 17 times more populous).

The tape measure exercise is a way of more accurately visualizing the data suggested by this graph. You can corroborate by comparing the 1810 stats (pause video at 1:15) and the 2010 stats (pause at 4:15). It's hard to tell at the outset which blue dot represents 'Congo', but the poorest nation in 1810 seems to have an average annual income of about $150. Assuming a uniform scale between the $400 and $4000 mark, the US falls at around $2000 a year. The income ratio between the poorest nation and the US in 1810 is thus 3:40. By 2010, the graph indicates that the poorest nation, Congo, earns double what the poorest nation in 1810 did, around $300 a year. Meanwhile the average US citizen has seen their annual income rise to twenty times what it was in 1810, at over $40 000 a year. The income ratio between the poorest nation and the US is now 3:400.

What this data demonstrate is not that we live in a converging world, but that over the past two hundred years the West and the rest have vastly outstripped the poorest nations, in terms of both real and relative wealth. In 1810 the highest-earning nation in the world, the Netherlands, earned 20 times what the lowest-earning nation did. In 2010 the highest-earning nation (I'm assuming that green dot is the United Arab Emirates) is off the chart, well past the US, which itself is well past earning 100 times what the lowest-earning nation makes.

These examples are from the extreme ends of the data spread, but you can easily pick a segment of the 2010 graph and notice nations whose citizens earn 10 times what people in other nations earn. In 1810, by contrast, only the very richest (the Netherlands, the UK, and those just behind them) and the very poorest (the African nations clustered around $300 a year and below) were separated by an order of magnitude.

You'll notice that I've been rather thorough so far about not doing any research outside of Hans Rosling's video, aside from dipping into my gazetteer to ascertain the relative populations of the two Congos. I'm taking it for granted that his team's numbers are true and accurate. The visual element, the graph, is somewhere between a truth and a lie, since it contains no falsehood but suggests something other than the truth. What sways me toward naming this little show as dark magic is that it supports an impressive-sounding expert like Hans Rosling in drawing conclusions that are just lies.

What's curious to consider is why he would do such a thing. I've no doubt that Rosling is a brilliant statistician, fully capable of creating a visual representation of world health and income statistics that doesn't distort the data. I've also no doubt that he knows what kind of picture a uniformly-scaled graph would paint, and that he made a deliberate decision to hide that picture from view. Perhaps he wanted to put the full weight of his scientific and technical authority behind a message of hope in "aid, trade, green technology and peace". The person who introduced me to this video certainly seemed encouraged by it. On the other hand, perhaps Rosling wanted to use his arts to summon such emotions in his viewers for other ends. You just can't tell by watching.

What you can tell is that the US, along with its cronies 'the West and the rest', have become fabulously wealthy in the past two centuries. This was mostly accomplished by monopolizing and burning through millions of years' worth of fossil fuel energy. It's a funny coincidence, to say the least, that as US power and wealth have grown, the number of nations hosting US military personnel has increased from 3 in the 1920's, to 39 during the Second World War, to 64 in 1968, to 148 in 2011. The world just seems to love American soldiers. It also seems to love American aid, trade, and peace, especially when those things come in the form of IMF debt, sweatshops, and regime changes. Too bad they aren't making a lot of green technology in the US these days, because the world really doesn't have enough yet of what America has to offer.

Of course, what we can actually expect from the future is a convergence of several factors not listed by Professor Rosling: disease, economic crisis, faltering technological innovation, and war, all hinging on the underlying factors of energy scarcity and an overburdened global empire. Each of those factors will feed into the others to create conditions such as those you see depicted at 1:55 in the video. These are not pleasant facts and numbers, but if we want to grasp the kind of real hope that sustains and empowers, we will have to first move through an honest assessment of what there is to hope for. It's not the end of the world, but it is the end of our world. There is no hope in the continuation of progress.

Now is the time for wizards in the tradition of Gandalf the Grey to arise and speak truth to power, because there is much that is good and that can be saved from the wreck of the empire of progress. The role of these wizards is to shake us free of the lies that tell us either to despair in the face of overwhelming power, on the one hand, or to remain naively hopeful in the security offered by power, depending on whether we see that power as benevolent or destructive.

The lies of Saruman the White and his followers are seductive, but as I've said before, sometimes a quick history lesson is enough to clear the air. And let's not forget that there is a third wizard in The Lord of the Rings, one whom Saruman laughs to scorn but whose wisdom is hidden from the minds of the mighty: Radagast the Brown, friend of all birds and beasts and growing things. Perhaps we'll have occasion to speak more about him in coming weeks.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

A Tale of Two Wizards

There is more in this vein.

By 'this vein' I'm referring to the discussion of magic I began two weeks ago. I'm aware that the idea is not mine for defining; there are historically rooted practices that make up a body of knowledge and formal technique known as magic. These were well-known and widely used in many cultures for thousands of years, but in the last three hundred they've fallen so badly out of style in Western cultures that most people aren't even aware that magic has ever been more than superstition and fantasy.

Leaving aside the real magic worked by operative mages, shaman healers, and practitioners of voodoo, I want to examine a more fantastical, metaphorical branch of the art. This is the branch in which I have chosen to apprentice, and in which fantasy and metaphor are the bread and butter of the operative. The method I've chosen is both a concrete example of what I mean and an illustrative commentary on the various uses of the Art Magic. The concrete example is a story, (as if you didn't see that coming) and the commentary concerns two wizards whose deeds are commemorated in story and in song, and who followed very different paths on their journeys through this world.

The elder was named Curunír, which means 'man of skill'. He was learned in all ways of smithcraft and wheelwork, with great gifts of hand and mind. When he spoke, it was with a voice both subtle and majestic, a voice that moved the hearts of men to thoughts and deeds they would not have pondered of their own accord. In the beginning of his days he travelled far into the East and returned with much lore and learning, but after this he settled in the West, taking up his abode in an ancient tower tall and strong. Those who sought his counsel journeyed from far and wide to speak with him there.

The younger was called Mithrandir, which means 'the grey pilgrim'. His vocation was to be homeless, wandering from land to land as a friend of all. Many strange countries he knew and many strange peoples that dwelt therein. He was multifarious in tongues, having mastery of many languages both living and dead, and he was at home in the halls of the mighty and in the cottages of the weak. Quick-tempered but with a swift smile on his lips, his goings and his comings were as unpredictable as the wind, but he always seemed to appear where he was needed most.

Curunír and Mithrandir, by the sacred laws of their order, were forbidden to match their powers against the powers of darkness. Though both of them were mighty in their own right, their task was instead to strengthen the wills of all those around them who were able to resist the darkness which in their time was spreading over the earth. This Mithrandir did, and by means peculiar to his character. He travelled far and wide, risking life and limb, speaking hope where fear held sway in words best suited for each of his hearers. By his labours and constant vigilance he was able to call together a last alliance to challenge the darkness before its dominion was complete.

Curunír, on the other hand, learned all he could of the means and mechanisms of the dark arts, at first in the hope of finding a way to defeat them, later out of admiration, and finally out of a desire for mastery. He came to believe that only by appropriating the tools of power into his own hands could he order the world in accordance with wisdom. He forsook what he called the foolish hope of the weak and took upon himself the hope of the strong. He studied, and was seduced, and became himself a power of darkness, fortified in his tower of stone and commanding armies that trembled at the sound of his voice.

To each of the two wizards befell very different fates. If you know of Curunír and Mithrandir already by their more familiar names, Saruman and Gandalf, then you'll already be aware that Curunír/Saruman's path led him to a slavish imitation of the Dark Lord himself, a role which even he in his native power and intellect was not great enough to fill. His own machinations turned against him, and he was defeated and humiliated. Mithrandir/Gandalf, whose chosen path of self-sacrifice had revealed in him greater strength than any but the wisest would have supposed, himself broke the staff of Saruman and cast him from the order of wizardry. Their final confrontation on the threshold of Isengard fortress is one of the most masterful scenes in The Lord of the Rings.

I had a greater difficulty than usual in writing this post, in part because as a writer and teacher the question for me is personal. Which path will I take? On the one hand is the path of machination, of gathering followers and building up around oneself the mechanisms of power and influence. In The Lord of the Rings, this approach to power is expressed in the deceptively simple device of the Ring. It is the machine par excellence, the power one takes up to enhance one's power, perhaps with the intention of working good, but inevitably with the result of multiplying evil. On the other hand lies the path of humility, of renouncing power in order to empower others. Gandalf's gift was to enable his companions to see through the lies of machination and fear, and to envision in their place a practical hope, however fragile it seemed.

For the powers of darkness are not challenged lightly (though I dare say a pun or two here and there helps lighten the work). I have a keen interest in the project of dispelling the very real lies and machinations serving the powers of darkness as they presently stand. I have a keen interest in empowering people around me to arise and take their hope into their own hands, whether that hope looks like an ancient sword or a gardening spade. While it would be nice to build my authority and gain followers by means of the internet and related devices, it would be better if these writings could serve as a mere eye-opener, a head-scratcher, a vision of a different way of coming at things. That is, the blog is a nice thing, but it's what we do with it that matters.

In the coming week I'd like to take a look at how dark magic, as I've conceived of it here, manifests in our day and age. This will be helpful for me both in continuing to clarify my idea of magic and in practicing and promoting Defence Against the Dark Arts. The story I've told here is simplistic; that's because The Lord of the Rings is a story whose strength is in bringing to light certain deep forms hidden beneath the surfaces of things and colouring them in sharply contrasting hues to make them more readily visible. Thus it's often maligned for reading as a tale of black and white, good and evil. Of course things are more complicated in the real world, and Tolkien was not naive to this fact. In the interest of carrying forward the master's work, we'll be looking next week at how the roles of Saruman and Gandalf are taken up in our time.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Tales in Honour of Ursula K. Le Guin: The Wanderers

Begin again then, where the trail runs cold...

This is the story of the people who had forgotten their own story.

They lived, a long time from now, by the shore of a lake, in the midst of a great and ancient forest. When the sun shone it turned the waters of the lake to gold, and when the moon rose it changed them to silver, and all through the night and the day the great forest breathed and its creatures conversed with one another about what the wind and the sun and the rain were doing. The human people had enough food to eat, and enough to do getting that food, and enough to converse about, what with the doing and the eating and the wind and sun and rain, so that there was hardly time between one day and the next to snatch a minute's silence among the trees and think, or pray, or lie still and watch the leaves turn in air.

There were other places, beyond the human village on the lakeshore, where silence was. In the Stone Lake to the south, deep beyond thought, the rains pooled and fish swam under the sheer walls of rock. But this was also a favourite place to play and swim during the summer months, and the jumping cliffs more often rang with the sounds of shouts and splashes than with silence. To the west was a ruined place where no one but ghosts lived, and people went to get steel and other useful things from among the heaps of rock and pebbled glass. But here there were wolves and coywolves, and those who made the journey went warily, with the sounds of hammers and chains ringing in their ears as they harvested the good materials.

The best place to find silence was on the eastern shore of the lake, where the rays of the setting sun from across the water stole through the pine branches and turned the air to mystery and breathlessness. Young people would steal across the lake in canoes and lie down on soft beds of needles, watching the blue sky through the branches darkening into night, drinking in silence. In winter too, it was quiet there, for no fires were lit and no one chopped wood or broke the ice to fish. And when the young people returned home from the Wood-Beyond-the-Water, the wind seemed different to their ears, whispering through the branches: 'elsewhere, elsewhere,' it seemed to say. Old people would see the young ones sigh, and smile, knowing in their own hearts what it was like to be young.

This was true for years beyond memory, but there lived a young man who wanted more. He sought the Wood-Beyond more often than the others, and each time he returned from the silence of the pine groves his heart was more troubled than before. At last the words 'elsewhere, elsewhere' echoed in his ears unceasingly, and he came before the elders and said,

“I have it in my mind to cross the water and settle forever in the Wood-Beyond. There I have found silence and deep peace, and having tasted that I know that this village is no home of mine. I will take with me as many as will come.”

“Do not go,” said the elders, “for when you leave, silence will come to where we are and remain.”

But the young man was a fiery heart, and he spoke to his friends about his wish. Many decided to go with him, and they packed up their tents and trowels and dishes and deerskins and adzes and axes and withies and washing machines and seeds and smithies and all of their family remembrances, and went in a great fleet of canoes to the eastern shore of the lake. They landed there and built a new village, and dwelt among the tall groves they had grown to love.

The summer passed, and winter came, and the young people learned that the soil in the Wood-Beyond was not strong enough to return them a sufficient harvest. Before winter was at its deepest they left their village and moved out onto the land in smaller groups to hunt and to trap, scattering north, south, and east into the deep silence of the forest.

When they gathered under the pines again in spring, leaner than when they had landed, each talked about the place they had wintered in, comparing this land to that land and conversing about which had the best game, the best soil, the best access to water. All agreed that the Wood-Beyond could not support them, but no one could agree on where was best to move. An argument arose, and as the young man who had led them listened to the noise of voices rise through the branches he felt the peace of the Wood-Beyond seep away forever into the earth. It could never be called Home. The wind off the lake picked up and made the pine trees sway, and it seemed to him that they murmured, 'elsewhere, elsewhere'. Finally he spoke, urging his companions to move further east, and this they did.

They found a new place and built another village in a valley with rich earth and a broad stream with many fish. They planted and hunted and worked at the crafts that pleased them, but as the corn came up they saw that it was diseased, and that they had built on poisoned soil. Again they broke the village before midwinter and scattered north, south, and east, and again they gathered in spring to debate where next to move. This time the young man who led them thought he heard the whole valley stir with the spring wind and cry 'elsewhere! elsewhere!' Again they picked up and moved eastward in search of a place to call Home.

This continued for many years, for each place they chose proved wanting in some way or another: one was sheltered from the wind but flooded too easily, one had rich soil but no game, one was abundant in game but the springs carried the taste of bad metals. Each spring they picked up again and moved, sometimes northward, sometimes southward, but always further to the east. Children were born among them who had no memory of the birthplace of their parents. Some people died from the hardship of their journeys, and things were lost along the way, things that held memories that could not be replaced. Nowhere could they find the peace they sought.

When the young man had become a man of middle age, with forest-born children of his own, they came at last to the shore of the great sea. As he looked out over the endless waters he heard the restlessness in his own heart echoed and re-echoed: “ELSEWHERE, ELSEWHERE,” shouted the waves, and he was moved almost to tears.

“Here is the answer to our long wanderings,” he said, “for when first we yearned to cross the water, our yearning was only an echo of this greater yearning. Let us build greater canoes than before, and paddle across the Great Water to where we shall find our Home.”

Many were troubled and would not consent at first, but his fiery heart was strong, and eventually the people took their axes and adzes and made canoes from the forest that were deep and strong. Then they put their children and their belongings into the canoes and began the journey over wave and along the pathways of the wind. After long and harrowing labours, they reached at last a small village on a distant shore. As the dawn broke over the hills before them, they landed their canoes and approached the center of the village, where a woman walked alone in the shadow of the clock tower, cradling her infant child in her arms.

The leader of the wanderers approached her. “Is this Home?” he asked, his voice trembling.

“No,” she said. “I have lived here all my days, and I have never heard it called Home. What you seek is elswhere, elsewhere.”

At this the man’s long-suffering heart broke, and he wept there before the woman and all his people. But she was kind, and she asked him to tell why they had come. He told her of his people’s long wanderings, how they had lost so much, and how even their memories had perished as the young children grew up without a home. “That is why we sought, here beyond the sea, our last hope of finding peace,” he said, with tears in his eyes.

The woman nodded, and looked at all of them standing there, and then she said, “There is a place where silence is, and deep peace, a place which is called Home. But why did you ever leave it?”

And they knew that she was right, and as one they looked back at their own shadows stretching westward across the water.

“But please,” said the woman, as they made ready to go, “take me with you. I am an outcast among my own people, and there is no home here for my son.”

And that is how Hobart the Hunter and Marsiah, Mother of Tales, joined the Wanderers and journeyed Home, there to begin again in a new land.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Render Unto Caesar

In the last little while a few people have asked me what exactly I mean when I talk about magic, and I'll admit I had a hard time putting my finger on it. That was a good indication to me that some writing on the subject was required.

I don't mean the type of magic that allows one to levitate objects with one's mind or hex people from afar, or even the kind that allows one to create complex potions or machines whose workings are mysterious to the uninitiated. To my mind, magic is an art that deals with the inner world only, but it would be a mistake to say that that makes it an imaginary art, or one that deals only with the imaginary. Or perhaps it does, if our thoughts and feelings can be said to be imaginary, or if personality and will are constructs, which they may well be. But those aren't meaningful questions, to my mind.

My best explanation so far (and it's an amateur's explanation) is inspired by something I once heard a master poet say: a wizard is someone who can slip below the surfaces of things, and see the depth of meaning where others see only surface. Magic is the discipline of deepening one's awareness of those meanings and one's competence in manipulating them. I tried to think of a less sinister-sounding world than 'manipulate', but couldn't. The temptation to use magic for dark purposes is in the nature of the art itself.

Everything we see and touch and taste has layers and layers of meaning which most of the time we fail to notice. Dante, when he presented his Divine Comedy to Cangrande della Scala, instructed the Italian nobleman to read the poem on four different levels of meaning, but for the most part we live on the surface of things. Modern culture has a well-developed sense of the bigness of the world, but hardly any appreciation of its deepness.

Religious practice is often a matter of carefully drawing out the deeper meanings through ritualized reflection and contemplation, but as religious practice has waned in the West, that role has been taken over more and more by departments of literary studies. And whereas religious discourse is at ease reading meaning into almost any physical object at hand, students of literature deal almost exclusively with texts, and as a result the ability to read images and physical objects has declined almost to nothing in our time.

To illustrate this idea I'm going to set magic aside and share a pair of stories that have been on my mind this week. They both take place in first-century Palestine, where Roman colonizers had ruled since the forces of Gnaeus Pompeius invaded in 63 BCE. Pompeius had conquered Jerusalem, dared to enter the holiest inner sanctuary of the Temple, and set up a series of client kings whose job it was to ensure that tribute flowed smoothly toward Rome. That series of kings included such benevolent monarchs as the infanticidal Herod the Great, and that tribute became taxation in 6 CE, when Herod's sons were deposed and the region formally became the Roman province of Iudaea. Direct Roman rule wasn't exactly gentle either- if you got between the colonizers and their tax revenue, you got crucified.

The first story I have in mind comes from the gospel of Mark, chapter 12 (I'm quoting the English Standard Version here):
And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians, to trap him in his talk. And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are true and do not care about anyone’s opinion. For you are not swayed by appearances, but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” But, knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why put me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” And they brought one. And he said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said to him, “Caesar’s.” Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they marveled at him.
At first reading, it seems like Jesus has pulled a slick dodge by appealing to the concept of separation of church and state. But the mental categories of first-century people didn't match up with the ones in which we neatly slot 'church' and 'state' today, and even if they did, they certainly wouldn't have been separate. Caesar, the name claimed by the Roman emperors who succeeded Julius Caesar after his defeat of Gnaeus Pompeius and conquest of the Roman Republic, was by this time the name of a living god. It was a point of extreme tension in Roman Iudaea as to whether the emperor's statue would be erected as an object of veneration inside the walls of Jerusalem. What Jesus was actually saying was pretty edgy, since he was rejecting outright the authority of foreign, earthly, Roman power over his people, the Jews.

The second story goes even deeper, and it's one that Jesus himself tells. We have two versions recorded, one in Matthew 25 and one in Luke 19, but both involve a rich man who goes away on a journey, entrusts vast sums of money to his servants to manage in his absence, and then returns and judges their handling of the money. Those who have increased the master's holdings through crafty investments are given charge of more, while the one who chose to bury the money (or lay it away in a napkin, depending on the version) is either banished or slaughtered before the master's eyes, again, depending on the version.

This is almost always interpreted as an instruction to use wisely and productively the gifts God has seen fit to give us, whether those gifts are monetary or more intangible, like skills or time. The fact that the ridiculously large sums of money are called 'talents' in the Matthew story just reinforces this view of the story. But there's a very different, and much more fitting interpretation put forward by theologian Ched Myers.

Luke's version of the story begins with some extra details about the rich master: he's a nobleman who travels to a far country 'to receive for himself a kingdom and then return'. While he's away his people send a delegation after him with the message that they hate him and don't want him to be their king, but whoever's handing out kingdoms gives it to him anyway. It just so happens that a young Herod the Great made a similar journey to Rome in 40 or 39 BCE to ask for the support of the young emperor Caesar Augustus against Herod's rivals. Augustus must have agreed, because the Roman Senate appointed Herod King of the Jews and sent him home, where he ruled with an iron fist for 37 years. Jesus was born in the last years of Herod's reign, and narrowly escaped the slaughter of all the male infants of Bethlehem when rumour reached Herod that a rival 'King of the Jews' had been born.

This is the context of our quaint Bible stories about the proper uses of money. As my readers know, Roman history is a subject near and dear to my heart, but I want to now set that aside and take up the physical object at the heart of both stories I've told: the coin. Whether it's a denarius, a talent, or a mina (the last two actually represent weights of precious metals that may or may not have been converted into coinage), the currency of the realm bore Caesar's face stamped on it. No first-century Jew could have forgotten for a moment the link between Caesar's coins in their pockets and Caesar's crosses outside the city gates. To bury Caesar's likeness, or to put his likeness in a napkin resembling a burial shroud, was to symbolically wish him dead.

If you take up a coin in your hand today, you still see a face stamped on one side. In Canada our Caesar is Elizabeth, Queen of the British Commonwealth, a kindly old woman who delivers a speech on TV each year at Christmastime. But her image on a flattened disc of metal represents a power greater than that wielded by the Caesars: the power to colonize, ravage, and tax whole continents; the power to level whole forests and sell them for shipping skids; the power to make whole nations labour in dismal factories for a handful of those coins each day. Rome may have fallen, but make no mistake: Caesar is alive and well today.

I addressed these stories to a small group at the church I attend this past Sunday, and what I wanted to point out was that one of the central rituals of Christian worship services, the passing of the collection plate, is an expression of the contradiction at the heart of the life of the church. We want to have both Jesus' stories and Caesar's wealth, but because we live on the surfaces of things we remain unconscious of the irreconcilability of what the two men stood for, and stand for still if their legacies mean anything at all. I raised the issue in a church setting because religious communities are one of the rare places outside the cloisters of university English departments and corporate branding teams where questions of symbolic meaning can be discussed, and because I think that remaining collectively unconscious is a recipe for disaster.

Where does magic fit in? If my amateur's definition suits, then theologians, poets, and advertising executives are all engaged in forms of magical tinkering, some for noble ends and some not. All three are finely tuned to the deeper meanings and emotional resonances of symbols, and all three have the power to articulate and shape thoughts and longings. This is dangerous stuff, but if the David Suzuki's and Jon Young's of the world want to make a difference where it counts, in the imaginary realms of human motivation, then they're going to need to apprentice in the imaginary arts of magic.

I think that's enough ragging on two very good-hearted and hardworking men, for now at least, so I'm going to leave off this train of thought and take a story break next week. Afterward, who knows? There may be more to be explored in this vein, or there may be other avenues to explore. We'll see what the weather brings.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

A Weekend With the Elders

This past weekend was intense, what with spending Thursday evening through Sunday with Jon Young, bird language expert, and Monday evening with David Suzuki and friends, taking part in his coast-to-coast Blue Dot Tour. There's a lot to say about these two men, and even more to be said about their differing approaches to a common goal. This week's reflection will be my unpolished thoughts on the experiences, with much more to be unfolded in due time, I'm sure.

First off, my business partner and I had the opportunity Thursday evening to set up a display table for KW Forest School and do some networking at an event hosted by the Guelph Outdoor School. Jon Young was the featured speaker, and he talked to a packed high school gym about his plan to build a continent-wide culture of nature connection by teaching and modelling the lessons of bird language. Sound crazily ambitious? It probably is. But Jon is such a down-to-earth speaker and casually magical storyteller that by the time the evening drew to a close, he had us hooked.

I was off in my assessment last week that Jon is an almagist, one who seeks to explain the world in a coherent and rational system. He studied anthropology, and has done some very interesting and massively influential work 'reverse engineering a culture of nature connection', as he puts it. He grew up being mentored by the famous American tracker Tom Brown, and later lived and studied with indigenous people on three different continents in an attempt to abstract the common features of their land-based cultures into a single model that he could teach to cultures who had lost touch with the land they lived on. Again, crazily ambitious, but kind of cool.

But rather than label him an almagist, I'd say Jon Young is much more an operative mage. By this I mean that he's someone versed in the practical arts of changing awareness through experience. The Thursday night event contained almost all the elements he's identified as those that build robust, connected communities: music, storytelling, food, theatre, inter-generational contact, and of course, lots of time for mixing and mingling. The one thing left out was real, raw contact with the natural world, and that's why I had decided beforehand to register for his weekend-long Bird Language Intensive workshop at Kimbercote Farm.

Kimbercote is a swathe of re-foresting farmland near Heathcote, Ontario, home to Sticks and Stones Wilderness School, where I've visited and taken other courses previously. The image above is a view of the beautiful Beaver Valley, with the Kimbercote barn nestled among the trees. The sloping meadow dotted with maple saplings in the foreground is where my fellow workshop participants and I crouched in the chilly rain before sunrise each morning of the workshop, pencils in hand, eyes and ears wide open. After forty-five minutes, we'd meet in small groups to debrief and map our observations, then pool those observations to form a master map and an overall story of what went on in the meadow during our sit.

Here's where the magic came in. Whether or not we knew the names of the birds producing the tweets and chirrups we noted, Jon was able, with his own observations and questions, to draw out from the assembled group a precise picture of where the hawks and other predators had been moving on the land. Even though the hawks themselves were silent and sometimes invisible. For example:

WORKSHOP PARTICIPANT: This afternoon we heard the robins alarm and saw them jump a few feet higher on their tree. Then the hawk appeared, flying down the hill, and there were short alarm calls all along the line of the cedars as it passed.

JON YOUNG: Why didn't the robins dive for cover?

PARTICIPANT: I guess they weren't as worried by this predator as they would have been about other dangers.

JON YOUNG: What did the robins do after jumping up to a higher branch?

PARTICIPANT: They kept very still, facing... up the hill, away from the hawk.

JON YOUNG: Ah, posting to sentinel. What do you think they were looking at?

PARTICIPANT: Another hawk?

JON YOUNG: You can bet anything you like on that.

The 'seen' hawk turned out to be a Norther Harrier, which hunts by soaring fast and low and dropping suddenly on whatever isn't wise enough to detect it coming. But the broad-winged Harrier isn't agile, so a robin can evade it by getting only a couple of feet above its flight path. Much more dangerous to a songbird is the Cooper's Hawk, which can dive and swoop and even play some nasty tricks on its much smaller prey, like hunting in the wake of a larger, more noticeable predator like the Harrier.

Jon's detective skills and years of experience listening to birds hammered home the message again and again throughout the weekend: nothing in nature is random. Everything birds and animals do means something, and if you can learn to quieten yourself and pay attention to their signals, not only will you be able to see more wildlife, you'll be able to read powerful meaning where before you perceived only random noise. Can you see why learning bird language can be such an inspiring, even spiritual experience? Jon understands this, and he also understands that spiritual matters can't be communicated by words- they have to be experienced, and the experience has to be guided by someone who understands the language of emotions.

I arrived home from the weekend tired, cold, and looking forward to seeing David Suzuki, the other nature guru, speak Monday evening to a packed concert hall. This was a very different kind of event, and the lineup included presentations by aerial photographer Edward Burtynsky, rock band Whitehorse, and slam poet Shane Koyczan, among others. The evening both dispelled some of the prejudices I'd expressed here and confirmed certain other feelings, mainly that the mainstream environmental movement has yet to understand the language of emotions.

I have more admiration than ever for David Suzuki, the man. At seventy-eight years old he's still touring the country, speaking from a heart unclouded by cynicism, and expressing a willingness to change his mind and refine his thinking. When he speaks, he leans into his words, gripping the podium and swaying with the intensity of what he's saying. He said very little about saving the Planet, and quite a lot about how amazing it is that we are air, water, and earth, members of an extended family that includes every living thing on earth. These insights were lifted almost directly from his book The Sacred Balance, which I discussed in last week's post, and I was cheered to hear them from his own mouth, worked into the context of this moment, in this country, building this movement.

As Alex pointed out in a recent comment, the Blue Dot tour is about building a movement with a very specific goal: legislating the fundamental right to a healthy environment at all levels of Canadian government. The tour coincides with municipal election time because the plan is to convince local governments to adopt statements to that effect first, then using that precedent to leverage provincial governments into endorsing environmental rights, and finally pressuring the federal government to acknowledge healthy air, water, and food as fundamental rights, for all Canadians, for all time.

It's a beautiful idea, and it's completely practical to use law as a tool to curb destructive behaviours like those we see going on in Sarnia, Grassy Narrows, and northern Alberta. It's also crazily ambitious, since recognizing Canadians' rights to a healthy environment would necessitate re-working every aspect of how we do things in this country, including such craziness as putting human rights before financial profit. And let's remember that Canada was created in the first place so that Sir John A. Macdonald and his friends could profit from the newly constructed Canadian Pacific Railway by violating the human rights of the people in the railway's path.

My problem with David Suzuki, the movement, is that I left the event Monday night feeling angrier than when I'd come. I'd fidgeted all through the evening, as projected images of global injustice alternated with feel-good empowerment speeches and indie rock ballads that had nothing (really, nothing) to do with either. The critical point in the evening came about two thirds of the way through, when a polished young man waved a postcard at us and urged us to commit to standing up for a healthy environment. We did so, literally standing up and clapping to signal our assent to the Blue Dot plan and our commitment to action, of some kind, soon.

I walked home grateful to have seen David Suzuki in person and to have contributed financially to his movement, but restless and dissatisfied with the experience I'd just been through. The anger I felt was a reflexive response to the deep grief that had been exposed in me by Burtynsky's images of devastated landscapes and Suzuki's lament for a nation being ruined by greed. It's a grief I carry with me always, everywhere, and what I seek in the woods and in my words is a way to assuage that grief and transform mourning into active hope.

The difference between David Suzuki's and Jon Young's events, as well as I can articulate it at this point, was the difference between being told something important and being taught it. A true teacher is committed not only to speaking the truth, but to guiding the emotional development of their students toward that truth. It's easy to tell people that we need to create change, and harder to teach them how. Of course, real, raw contact with the natural world is a step in the right direction, and I wish I could have heard David Suzuki speak in a woodland meadow, or even a drafty barn. But until we meet again, it'll be back to the woods for me, with my ears open.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

In Search of a New Almagest

Only a day after I posted last week, I had the good fortune of receiving three very good critiques of the position I took against David Suzuki's Blue Dot Tour. All three were well-reasoned and deeply felt, and all three left me thinking hard about the issue, as well as about how cool my friends are. As a result of those conversations, I did two things this week worth mentioning.

One, I bought a ticket to see David Suzuki when the Blue Dot Tour comes to Kitchener this coming Monday. If I'm going to write publicly about the man and his ideas, it makes sense that I'd go hear him speak when he takes the trouble to visit my end of the country, especially since this is being billed as his last national tour. He's an engaging, frank, thoughtful, and warm-hearted man, and his thought has been a guiding star in my own quest to figure out what is up with this world and where I fit into it.

Two, one of the critiques I mentioned reminded me of how that star came into my life, and spurred me to revisit the thoughts it inspired in me. Dave's suggestion in a comment last week to "consider all of the various traditional cultures around the world that speak of the four sacred elements: Air, Water, Earth, and Fire" pointed me straight toward a book that was already leaping off my shelf and into my hand. That book is The Sacred Balance, by David Suzuki with Amanda McConnell.

The Sacred Balance is an almagest, a long and distinguished genre named after the Latin Almagest celebrated in medieval Europe and originally written in Greek by Claudius Ptolemy, or in Arabic by Ibn al-Haytham, depending on whom you ask. (The original manuscript is long, long lost). It's a treatise on astronomy, mathematics, and alchemy that describes the shape and structure of the world as it was conceived toward the end of the Classical age and throughout the Middle Ages. In those days, the heavenly bodies occupied a series of nested crystal spheres, each rotating independently according to fixed mathematical laws, and all 'singing' beyond the range of mortal hearing, in harmonic ratios proportionate to their relative velocities. The earth was fixed at the centre of these spheres, and it was as round then as it is today. (The idea that people used to think the earth was flat is just a myth; Columbus' big innovation was that it was pear-shaped, with a 'nipple' at one end).

The nested music of the spheres constituted a beautiful vision, and whether or not it was Ptolemy or Ibn al-Haytham or someone else who articulated it first, it came to be known as 'Ptolemy's System'. In the image below we see the whole thing borne up on the back of 'heaven-bearing Atlas', the Titan of Greek myth, which is likely either an artist's fancy or an anachronism, or both. For the medievals, beyond the farthest sphere was the realm of God and the angels, while within the fires at the centre of the earth dwelt Satan.

Illustration of the Ptolemaic world system

The term 'almagest', as I'm using it here, refers to any work that attempts an over-arching description of the world as a whole, articulated using the concepts of the day. This is also known as cosmology. You can see by the cover of Suzuki's book that he's invoking the medieval astronomers who are his intellectual forebears as a scientist in the Western tradition, and the book beneath that cover is indeed a cosmological vision for our time. But it's not heavy or academical to read. He relates modern scientific concepts using layman's language, and he does so within a framework that feels familiar because it's drawn straight from our medieval Western European roots.

Suzuki's approach is to consider the sacred balance that sustains all life on earth. Each chapter addresses one of the elements that make up that balance, and the first four would have been familiar to anyone in medieval Europe, regardless of social standing: Air, Water, Earth, and Fire. To these, Suzuki adds three more necessary elements: Biodiversity, Belonging, and Spirit. It's interesting to watch him combine the scientific and the sacred in one mode of speaking, but what's even more interesting to me is the opportunity to reflect on the fact that our modern sensibility perceives the scientific and the sacred as two separate phenomena in the first place.

Medieval Europeans lived in a world much more suffused with sacredness than the one we inhabit. Although some form of dichotomy between the sacred and the mundane in Western thought is at least as old as Plato, medieval people still lived in a world where the works of the One who had made it could be read either in Scripture or in the so-called Book of Nature. The world around them radiated meaning. If they looked to the stars they could see the celestial beings whose motions profoundly influenced their lives on earth. If they looked to their own bodies they could discern the four elements of which the earthly sphere was composed, represented within them by the four corresponding Humours, or Spirits: blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. Not until the age of Harvey and Newton did the old world give way to one in which first earthly bodies and then heavenly bodies could be explained as the workings of sophisticated machinery.

That was the moment at which the Christian God could begin to be perceived not as the breath and life of the world, sustaining it in his very hands from one sunrise to the next, but as a mere watchmaker, the mechanic who set the whole thing in motion and then sat back to watch it go. It's not a very emotionally appealing conception of the divine, so it's no wonder that this God was killed off during the age of Nietzsche (who, it may be recalled, was quite distraught about the murder, even to the point of madness). The non-interfering watchmaker God was not compatible with orthodox Christian thought, which is premised on divine intervention in human history; nevertheless, the fact that his mechanical servants kept appearing where spirits and celestial beings had dwelt up until that point made it harder and harder to resist the inevitability of his existence, and more and more necessary to violently reject his existence altogether.

Thus I see Suzuki, from the dying years of the twentieth century, reaching back through the 'Disenlightement' of the seventeenth toward those luminous concepts that spoke of the celestial and the earthly as being of one nature, and that nature as sacred. I highly admire this approach, and while there are aspects of medieval thought that I'm glad we've left behind, I think Suzuki is right to acknowledge that the new branches of our understanding stem directly from the trunk and roots of older understandings, and where new understandings have arrived from elsewhere, they must be grafted in if they are to be thinkable by people of the Western family tree. Hence his project of relating modern scientific understanding of the chemical elements and their interplay back to an older, spiritual sense of our participation in the earthly elements that make us up.

The most valuable aspect of The Sacred Balance, in my view, is that Suzuki writes out of a true sense of that epistemological humility which is proper to all scientists everywhere. He admits from the get-go that scientific knowledge can only give us theories and descriptions, never facts and meanings. Science is by its nature a matter of disciplined and creative guesswork, not a stepladder to ultimate truth. You hear this again and again from respected and well-published scientists, which is perhaps why the great scientific minds have retained the sense of all-suffusing wonder and awe that Nietzsche saw being bludgeoned to death in the popular thought of his own time. 

Because scientific suspension of belief is not what you see in popular thought today. Instead we say quite matter-of-factly that we live on a planet called the Earth, that both our inner lives and the world around us can be explained as a series of interlocking mechanisms, that planned processes of human intellect combined with will produce predictable results in the marketplace, in the environment, and in the bedroom, and we take all this as incontrovertible fact. The modern, post-scientific faith in our ability to explain the world denies us the privilege of admitting, like the medievals, that the world is actually kind of confusing and mysterious, and that our ways of explaining it are at best a kind of collective hallucination in whose perpetuation we ourselves participate each time we consider it.

Participation is the key concept here, because if I'm right that ancient and medieval peoples had any sense at all of their role in 'creating' the world around them by means of inadequate but beautiful concepts (and the evidence suggests that they did) then they were miles ahead of us. Our fallacy is not that our cosmological abstractions are out of touch with what nature's telling us, nor even that those abstractions are rooted in hierarchical power relations that distort our sense of our relationship with nature; our fallacy is that we deny the existence of our cosmological abstractions at all. We see an image of the world created by a camera floating in outer space and believe that it is the world, the real world, made visible and comprehensible. We are encouraged to feel devotion and reverence for the image, forgetting that it only represents the ongoing mystery of rocks, trees, and rivers. Meanwhile rocks, trees, and rivers are made comprehensible not through a participatory revelation of their sacred relationship to each other and to us, but through their transformation into minerals, lumber, and effluent.

The Planet is an idol. It teaches us to substitute a man-made image for sacred reality, and then to deny the hand of man in its creation and exalt the image as divine, objective reality. There may be an objective reality, but the genius of ancient and medieval societies was that they understood that it was beyond them, just as God was beyond the furthest sphere of the heavens, yet somehow actively sustaining the world and holding it in his hands. When we depict the Planet in the hands of a human child, we commit blasphemy, according to the proper theological sense of 'putting oneself in the place of God'. More gravely, we reveal the extent to which our manipulation of images is unconscious, both in terms of those images' meaning and in terms of their function in creating human perception. This unconsciousness in turn leaves us open to the manipulation of those who understand very well the meanings and functions of images, and who will not hesitate to turn their understanding into power over our deepest thoughts and yearnings.

That's my exegesis of David Suzuki in a nutshell. I'm looking forward to seeing him, and also to seeing Jon Young speak in Guelph this Thursday and teach at Sticks and Stones Wilderness School all weekend. I've mentioned Jon before in these writings; he's a naturalist and bird language instructor, and I'm going to be taking his Bird Language Intensive course this weekend. He's also, if I can take this opportunity to coin a phrase, as much an Almagist as Suzuki, and comes at his description of the world from a different angle but out of a similar motivation. So by next Tuesday there will be plenty of new thoughts to consider here on A Wizard of Earth.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

How Not to Save the World

This past Sunday saw the biggest grassroots mobilization around climate change the world has yet seen. As international leaders began to gather in New York City for this week's UN climate talks, 311, 000 people took to the streets to demonstrate their visions for a better world- three times the number forecast by the event organizers,

The march was organized into six massive contingents arranged so as to tell the story of the impacts of climate change, from the front-line indigenous communities and Hurricane Sandy victims at the vanguard, through the youth organizations, energy innovators, corporate whistleblowers, and climate scientists all the way to the neighbourhood, regional, and national civil society institutions bringing up the rear. The marchers filled the entire 2.2 mile route before those at the back had even left the starting point.

Meanwhile, alongside more than 2000 solidarity actions in 166 countries, two hundred of us marched with signs and banners from Waterloo Town Square to the nearby Barrelyard Park and listened to speeches from local environmental organizations. I gave a short speech on behalf of Transition KW, a group I've mentioned before in these writings. TKW is the local chapter of the international Transition Network, a grassroots movement building local responses to peak oil and climate change.

The gist of what I said to the crowd of sitting in front of me on the grass that day was this:

"What we're really engaged in today is a struggle to end the war against nature that each of us was unwillingly born into. Nature is responding to the violence of our reckless carbon burning with the violence of climate change. It is a war we cannot hope to win... Here in Waterloo Region we're not on the front lines of climate violence, but we know enough to say NO to further escalation. We want peace on earth, and we want it NOW."

Judging by the feedback I received after the event, it seemed that this was a fresh take on the issue for a lot of people. That was exactly my intent. The language of peace and conflict is a perspective  I bring from my Mennonite heritage, which has a long tradition of working to de-escalate violent situations. And frankly, I don't like standing around listening to good people reciting bad news. That isn't why I go to marches. I go to marches to get fresh insight and inspiration for the next round of hard work.

From my perspective, climate change is such old news to those engaged with it, and such unsettling gibberish to those otherwise engaged, that unless we find fresh ways of framing the conversation, we're wasting our time. David Suzuki himself made a similar observation in a fantastic blog post two years ago. "Environmentalism has failed," he begins, and proceeds to reflect on the way that fifty years of hard-won victories in the environmental movement haven't fundamentally altered the prevailing myth of our culture: that the Earth is composed of resources which humans must manage, whether responsibly or otherwise.

You see this reflected in the signs carried by little kids at marches like the one on Sunday: "Fix the Climate", "Save the Planet", "It's In Your Hands", to name a few. They're moving slogans, but when I read them I can't help thinking that the concerned kids are articulating exactly the same underlying worldview that the corporate capitalists are. To put it briefly, this is the view that the planet in all its complexity is something we can grasp, something we can lay hands on, something we can manage (in the sense of the Latin root manus, which means 'hand').

Take a look at these two images.

The first is fairly cliché by now, with many variations available on Google Images. I took a few minutes to find one in which the hands weren't obviously white, and which displayed a side of the globe other than the Western Hemisphere (survey the options for yourself if you like). Still, these two images don't seem all that different to me. One represents man handling the planet with care and reverence; the other represents man handling the planet with greed and tyranny; either way, the planet gets manhandled.

David Suzuki knows what he's talking about. But there's a deeper sense in which the way we currently talk about environmental issues is nonsense, one I don't think even Canada's environmental guru has grasped (if you'll pardon my choice of wording), at least not publicly. If I'm right about this, it goes a long way toward explaining why environmentalism has failed to gain traction in popular thought and instead remained just another 'ism'.

The truth is that 'Planet Earth' is an abstraction. It was born in 1972, when the first full-view photograph of the Earth was taken by Apollo 17 astronauts. The image that resulted, and which was published widely under the title "Blue Marble", is the one I've placed at the head of this blog post. It represents a phenomenon seen by only a handful of people (again, pardon my wordplay) in all of time. The rest of us have taken it on faith for the last forty-two years that we do indeed live on a planet, one which can in fact be laid bare and visible to the eye of man.

Not that I'm doubting the scientific reality of Planet Earth. My point is, so what? None of us will ever know or experience the planet, or have any relationship with it apart from vague feelings of guilt and impending disaster. From its very inception, the image of the Earth from space has represented multiple intricate paradoxes, as is the case for any representation of a society's founding myth. It's a serene image produced by means of tremendous chemical violence. It's a vision of what we're told is our one and only home, but which looks utterly alien hanging there in outer space. It's a plea for world peace as well as an excuse for advancing the goal of total global management and control.

That's why I think Suzuki's current project, the Blue Dot Tour, isn't going to gain him the traction he's looking for either. That little blue dot hanging in space doesn't move me one bit, and more than that, it's a symbol of the kind of thinking that has led us away from intimacy with our immediate environments and into the megalomanic abstractions of the environment. Give me soil, give me water, give me air, forests, creatures, mountains, storms, oceans, land, even earth, but get the Earth away from me. It's not my responsibility. I don't care for it. I repeat, as loudly as I dare lest I draw the accusing finger of heresy my way, I don't care about the Earth.

So this week, as the leaders of the free world meet to discuss or dismiss the various means of global control at their disposal, take some time to go outside and meet your neighbours. Your human neighbours, yes, but also the plants, animals, winds, waters, and weathers that are assembling and testing an arsenal of climate weapons to use against you and your kind. Do what you can to make your peace with them. We don't have to be enemies, but as the board is set and the pieces start to move, it will become more and more difficult for your tiny white flag to be spotted, waving amid the rising seas and rolling storms. Do it anyway. Do it alone or with three hundred thousand others, but do it out of hope, because that's the hard work that peace requires. Do it now.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

On Dreaming

After posting last week I found that I wanted go a little deeper into what I think is meant by Ursula K. Le Guin's reference to 'the Dream Time' in her book Always Coming Home. It's the kind of short, pithy phrase, rich in meaning, that stays with us whether we recognize the specific reference or not. Like a pebble dropped into deep water, a good writer can drop images like these into our minds, images whose ripples spread slowly but surely outward.

Always Coming Home is a work of speculative fiction, but the Dream Time, or the Dreaming, is a real thing in the real world. Nevertheless it escapes easy definition, since it doesn't originate in a way of thinking framed by the English language, or even in any recognizably Western way of thinking. The Dreaming is a central fact of life for the Warlpiri people of central Australia, and as the daughter of an anthropologist, Le Guin likely came by her understanding of it honestly. Most of what I've learned about the Dreaming comes from an excellent ethnography by the anthropologist Michael Jackson, At Home in the World, and it's going to be a challenge for me to do justice to such a deep and complex phenomenon in so short a post. But I think it's an idea worth exploring and honouring beyond the passing reference I made last week.

To begin with, At Home in the World is an ethnography that challenged the way ethnographies were written. Published in 1995, it uses elements of personal narrative, travel stories, conversations with Warlpiri people Jackson met during his three years visiting and travelling with them, poetry, and critical reflection on Jackson's own culture. He went to Australia to find a new perspective on the idea of home by living among people who don't build permanent houses, preferring instead to build temporary shelters out on the land. His exposure to a way of life and perception so completely unlike ours challenged him to write in a way that would convey the jarring sense of newness he experienced constantly during those three years. It's not a scientific, observational style, but one that reflects the messiness and ambiguity of the people and situations he encountered.

It takes a bit of a leap of faith to read like this, not knowing at all times what is going on, but by coming at his account obliquely, Jackson is true to his subject matter. Anthropological fieldwork must involve a great deal of not knowing what is going on. Nothing is explained completely, except in snatches. The Dreaming, one of the essential elements of Warlpiri society, is talked about not in absolute terms, but in terms of how individuals relate to it. In this way individual contributions to the bigger picture of Warlpiri life accrue meaning as we journey with Jackson deeper into the desert.

Early in the narrative Jackson goes to a place called Lajamanu, called Hooker Creek by whites, and becomes acquainted with a Warlpiri man named Pincher Jampijinpa. Later, Pincher asks Jackson to buy him some paints at the store: red, yellow, and white, and when Jackson returns, Pincher unfolds a few old canvases painted in the same colours. To white eyes they appear to be covered in abstract designs, large circles and sinuous lines, but as Pincher explains, they tell the story of the land his father came from. A narrative unfolds which sounds mythical to our ears, but which conveys precise physical details of the land across which the characters journey. The lines are tracks across the outback, while the circles are campsites. This is a songline, or a Dreaming, which belongs to Pincher and his kin, because it belongs to the land that they in turn belong to.

Songlines tell the story of journeys, and they imply an imperative to re-enact those journeys. Singing or chanting the story as one walks the same route one's ancestors walked, through the same landscape, is one way that Warlpiri people make themselves deeply 'at home in the world', in Jackson's words. Their practice of walking hundreds of miles through the desert, finding food and water and such shelter as they need along the way, runs counter to white Australians' demands that they settle down, build permanent houses, and contribute to the economy. When asked how far away the sites mentioned in his particular Dreaming are, Pincher is vague, but even sitting indoors he gestures unerringly in the direction his ancestors came from, because he's made such journeys himself. "We don't use maps," comments Zack Jakamarra, an older Warlpiri man. "We got the country in our heads."

Interactions like these give plenty of food for thought on differences between Warlpiri and white conceptions of land. Jackson was born in New Zealand, so like me he's a white man native to a land he can never truly call his own. Of course, that's putting a sympathetic spin on centuries of murder and forced assimilation, as took place in Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. The white narratives that insist on whites' rights to lands we inherited from thieving ancestors can never be made true, but where does that leave us? If people like the Warlpiri are at home in the world, are we permanently homeless, always to be known as 'settlers' in the only lands we've ever known? For my own part, I accept and affirm the label 'settler', which signifies to me that in many ways my people and I will always be immigrants to Canada. But like Jackson, I'm looking outside my own culture for ways of mending or unmaking the parts of that culture that have caused so much misery across such vast swathes of time and space.

Looming in the background of all his interactions with the Warlpiri is the feeling of alienation and exile many Warlpiri have experienced as a result of settler encroachment and misuse of sacred lands. A sloppy bulldozer operator accidentally destroys a certain tree that has great importance to several families' Dreamings, and the whole community is outraged. Another time, Jackson and several Warlpiri friends decide to try camping at a white-owned campground midway through a journey by land rover, rather than in the bush as they normally would. By this point I had become so accustomed to Jackson’s vivid descriptions of the landscape, the stars, and the smoke from the fires that I too was shocked by the strangeness of white people’s camping: neat little coloured tents set out in rows, grass watered by sprinklers, and store-bought food being cooked over a miniature gas stove.

Although Jackson repeats again and again that his words cannot capture the experience of the Warlpiri world, his words do point us toward a newness of vision. From the window of the land rover, Zack Jakamarra points out landmarks Jackson has read about in the archived journals of white explorers, each hill, rock, or tableland noted briefly and then left behind. But in Zack's eyes each undulation of the land glows with meaning, a crucial element in the story of who he is and where he belongs. As I began to see it, through the distant lens of Jackson's eyes following Zack's gaze, the Dreaming is the dimension of reality that gives it meaning, the source from which life springs and to which life returns. It is ever-present, and yet one must be taught to see it through ceremony and initiatory journeys.

Although it's impossible to really know what someone means through words alone, even leaving aside the question of whether vastly different cultures can ever truly understand one another, I think Ursula K. Le Guin is on the right track. She's read widely and tried to see through the eyes of others, but then she's returned to the land she calls home and tried to imagine a way forward for her own culture. The key to this kind of imagination is a respect for what is yours to take up and refashion, on the one hand, and what belongs to others, on the other hand. The Dreaming belongs to the Warlpiri as they belong to the Dreaming, but I think Le Guin's 'Dream time' points to something different, a newness of her own making that borrows resonance from her journeys into other ways of seeing. It's the ability to see other possible worlds within the world we take for granted, and to believe that those possibilities are ever-present, glowing in the landscape.