Thursday, March 23, 2006

Inhabiting the Wilderness of the Spirit

[This essay is part of a work in progress currently titled 'Between the Beast and the Dream: Inhabiting the Wilderness of the Spirit'.]

Telling Stories

'Man is not totally compounded of the nature we profess to understand. Man is always partly of the future, and the future he possesses a power to shape. 'Natural' is a magician's word—and like all such entities, it should be used sparingly lest there arise from it, as now, some unglimpsed, unintended world, some monstrous caricature called into being by the indiscreet articulation of worn syllables. Perhaps, if we are wise, we will prefer to stand like those forgotten humble creatures who poured little gifts of flints into a grave. Perhaps there may come to us then, in some such moment, a ghostly sense that an invisible doorway has been opened—a doorway which, widening out, will take man beyond the nature that he knows.'
— Loren Eiseley, The Star Thrower

He was an Inuit shaman-priest, a maker of songs of power for his people, and an Anglican priest. He was speaking to us in the old way, though we sat in chairs with our feet on the floor instead of on the ground with our legs stretched out in front of us; in a warm, pre-fab house instead of one made of skins or snow.

His shaggy white head was nodding rhythmically, his nearly-blind eyes turned inward, waiting for the vision. He spoke in Inupiaq first, then in halting English. He told us of sea ice that had disintegrated under him, how the dry suit made of bearded seal intestine, painstakingly sewn together by his wife, along with certain skills and attitudes, enabled him to survive in the frigid water for nearly an hour—a miracle, a lesson. Survival in Arctic waters is usually measured in seconds, minutes at most.

He spoke to us as if we were his grandchildren, with respect; he was communicating matters of life and death. The critical nature of this landscape allows little distinction between a lie and a mistake. If you observe wrongly, if your account is inaccurate, someone may die. Time and space are one in such a narrative, and, as we listened, we were carried into its vastness, freed from our Occidental notions of time ripped from its spatial context to be devoured like any other commodity.
The ancient song-maker repeated nearly every line in a half-chant. The long pauses between phrases gave us time to listen and remember, communicated to us the deliberation and review vital to survival in a marginal environment. This intent listening, this re-visioning of knowledge thousands of years old—the method, he seemed to be telling us, is as important to survival as the story's content.

A song of power is far more wonderful than magic, if by 'magic' you mean the illusion of casting a spell to control something so that it fits into the confining projections of your mind. A song of power makes you whole, tunes you to the rhythms of the landscape, awakens subtle senses, an antic attention, reminds you to listen, remembering that you are prey as well as predator, an integral part of a universal harmony, a wildness beyond imagining.

The practice of telling stories is as old as human beings, or older. We might even say that animals tell stories when they teach their young about survival: how to gather food, where to sleep, which creatures even among their own kind are enemies. But survival is only one reason for telling stories. Stories communicate cultural attitudes, emotional memories, transmit cautionary insights, myths about life and death that bestow knowledge by indirection. Stories convey grief, regret, wonder; the mysteries of the spirit, love, disaster. Stories mark the passing of an age whose perceptions and lessons might still enrich the lives of subsequent generations such as ours, when technology threatens to reduce the universe to merely observable 'facts'.

Stories are told as much in what is not said as what is, and the storyteller always conveys far more than she knows or or may intend. The process of listening to a story is itself instructive: it requires us to break from our habitual heedlessness, our half-crazed running after the phantoms of wealth, power and manufactured experience; it invites us to be still, to be aware, to imagine, to listen, to open the ears of the heart, to lose our selves in another narrative that will expand our sensibility beyond the limits we have imposed on our selves.

Stories that are written down add another element: solitude, a solitude that draws the reader so deeply into himself that he can become deaf to what is happening around him, aware only of what is leaping into his mind from the page. Written stories have much of the ineffable about them, for the words floating on a white background, and their tantalizing inexactness pulls us into a space where anything can happen, and Silence becomes the teacher. It is a world in which we lose our preoccupation with our selves, in which the eye that seems constantly to observe is focused elsewhere and our haunted sense of separateness dissolves for a time.

We have no language adequate to convey this integrative attention, any more than we have language that conveys a sense that we are an integral part of 'nature' and not separate from it. In fact, it is telling that we have no language to convey any relationship with the meta-human but this language of apartness, of alienation.

In consequence, we have a tendency to relate to our context and origin, that is, wild animals and their ecosystems, the biosphere, as if they were animatronic characters in an amusement park. As Umberto Eco says, 'Disneyland not only produces illusion, but—in confessing it—stimulates the desire for it. A real crocodile can be found in the zoo, and as a rule it is dozing or hiding, but Disneyland tells us that faked nature corresponds much more to our daydream demands....Disneyland tells us that technology can give us more reality than nature can.... imitation has reached its apex, and afterwards reality will always be inferior to it.' He suggests that the subtext of much of what is presented to the modern world as 'the goodness of nature' is Universal Taming—an Orwellian imposition of conformity on people as well as on the nature they wish to relate to in human terms.

The oscillation between a promise of uncontaminated nature and a guarantee of negotiated tranquility is constant.... The killer whales perform a square dance and answer trainers' questions not because they have acquired linguistic ability, but because they have been trained through conditioned reflexes, and we interpret the stimulus-response relationship as a relationship of meaning....Nature has almost been regained, and yet it is erased by artifice precisely so that it can be presented as uncontaminated nature. (Umberto Eco, Travels in Hyper-Reality)

The effects of these ways of thinking, now deeply ingrained, unconscious and habitual, have led to the devastation of the world around us as we demand that it give us 'experiences' that conform to our reified expectations. Whale-watching, for example, has become a big industry in the Northwest and in Alaska. While there are responsible guides who seek to be unobtrusive and to help their clients understand the complex and beautiful biosphere whose children we are, there are also many operators who are ignorant or even unscrupulous in their exploitation of humpback whales, killer whales, porpoises, seals and sea lions. They use terms such as 'eco-tour' or 'professional whale watching' to imply that they have acquired some special qualification or certification. There are no such qualifications or certifications; every pursuit of a marine mammal is an intrusion. In an attempt to alleviate the pressure the Federal Government has issued guidelines and regulations for approaching marine mammals, but there is not enough money or personnel to enforce them.

The reality is that a two-hour whale-watching trip in a fast and noisy boat is always destructive. There are a number of factors that make this so. Sound is not only disruptive to marine mammals, it can kill them, as experiments with Navy sonar have demonstrated. But even what most people would regard as minor noise can be harmful. It has been shown that orcas in Puget Sound now have to 'scream' to make themselves heard above boat engine noise. It has also been shown that this particular orca population has declined sharply as a direct consequence of this noise, which interferes with the echo-location essential to their feeding patterns and scatters the fish that are their food. Among the swarm of noisy whale-watching boats in our area there are two that are so loud they can be heard for 10 miles, even when there is a large island between the boat and the listener on the mainland. The effect of this noise on the sensitive ears of whales is inconceivable.

Humpback whales are particularly vulnerable to whale-watching because their movements, especially when they are bubble-feeding in a large group, are slow and rhythmic. The complex and precise choreography of this feeding pattern follows along a predictable course. Boats exploit this trait. I have seen them place themselves so that the pod will surround them when the feeding whales surge simultaneously to the surface, mouths open, scooping up the herring they have enclosed in their bubble net. When they suddenly find a boat in their midst, the pod falls into disarray; babies get separated from their mothers, and there is general chaos. The whales have only the summer in which to feed and store fat; they fast in the winter when they migrate to Hawaii.

I have even seen a whale-watching boat place itself so that a whale, surfacing to breathe, came up partly trapped under the keel of the boat so that it had to exhale sideways onto the passengers, which caused great squeals of excitement and doubtless led to bigger tips, but it must have been hell for the whale surfacing to breathe only to find a boat weighing several tons blocking its way. As there were at least a dozen other boats surrounding this whale in the narrow pass—including one of the fast ferries—the whale had no room to maneuver. Such interference is dangerous for the boats, as well as the whales; there is no predicting when a whale might panic because it cannot find room to get air, or lose patience; and in the swift currents, there is always the risk of boats colliding or grounding.

Often the drivers of these boats—for who knows what motive—harass endangered Steller's sea lions, hauled out on a buoy. They circle closer and closer until every last animal has panicked and thrown itself back in the water, where it thrashes, simultaneously trying to keep the boat in sight and to escape. It takes tremendous energy for a sea lion to haul out on a buoy and fight for its place, and even more energy is drained when the animals panic into the water. Every summer's day their energy is drained by human ignorance and, worse, greed, leaving them with diminishing resources to face the harsh winter.
We know relatively little about marine mammals, but we do know that these activities are harmful. Occasional low-key scientific intrusion may be necessary to help preserve them, but our contemporary cultural mindset that we have a right to disrupt these animals' lives for our entertainment is insupportable. There are good reasons simply to allow creatures to survive for their own sake and in the long run such an attitude is beneficial to humans as well.

Whales and other creatures, and the land and seascape might have a story to tell us, if only we will be still and listen. If we want to understand them, then we must allow them to reveal themselves to us—or not. It must be their choice. Otherwise, we are only creating an artificial context that will invariably yield an artificial result.

The whales' story is as much about us as themselves, not only the tale of our evolution from a watery past, and our increasing hunger to relate to the world from which we emerged and from which we are alienated, a world which is fast disappearing, but also about our need to objectify, control and dominate. Among human beings, these sorts of behaviors are often labeled 'abusive' and lead to the breakdown of social groups. Yet we seem to blind ourselves to the fact that our interactions with what is left of the biosphere is often just as abusive, and that the consequences will inevitably rebound on our selves. Stalking whales, the celebrities of the ocean, is a billion-dollar business, while stalking humans carries jail time. There are ways to be in nature (and to observe whales) that have minimum impact, but we must realize that our lust for creating, forcing and manipulating experiences we think we want to have is counter-productive, as opposed to simply being in a landscape without expectation, where experience that is beyond what we are able to imagine may come to us.

A cartoon in The New Yorker a few years ago showed two humpback whales and a boat loaded with tourists overhead. One whale was saying to the other, 'They have no lives so they watch us.' The anxiety that accompanies human emptiness can be overwhelming. We cannot bear to let go our fantasies about our selves, our illusions of power and importance. At the same time, there is something in us that wants precisely this: to lay down the burden of running the universe so that we may understand our part in it, to seek something that is greater than our selves. Paradoxically, to be human we must stay connected to our non-human sources. To find meaning, we must relinquish its pursuit.

Earlier cultures did not have this problem. Their lack of technology made them only too aware of the precarious nature of human relationships and the vulnerability of human beings alone on the sea or abroad on the land. Their stories and poems speak of loss in the same breath that they speak of welcome. They knew that

'Wisdom only comes when the abstract knowledge of moral codes and appropriate behaviors is catalyzed by experience into something personal and immediate, capable of powerfully engaging man's emotions of fear and awe and of channeling his spiritual energies.' (Vincent Gillespie, A Companion to the Middle English Lyric)

Our contemporary experience tends to be monochromatic, sanitized, lived in environments that are entirely artificial, yet the hunger for immersion into a context uncreated by human hands lurks just below the surface and is expressed through fascination with extreme sports, fantasy literature, film and videogames, and the occult. In a completely artificial world we lose our perspective and our humanity; without considered thought we decide to do things just because we can. Wisdom is not only forgotten, it is unavailable. Perhaps the tourists' urge to seek the whale-path could be understood in this light: a desire to know that there is something greater than themselves so that they may regain a sense of 'their own weakness and frailty, and, in recognizing their own impotence, [discover] how to seek mercy and forgiveness....' (Vincent Gillespie, A Companion to the Middle English Lyric)

But their mistake lies in thinking that this experience can be bought through a brief afternoon's whale-watching from the vantage point of a luxury catamaran or a fast jet-boat that run out to show the folks the spouts, backs and flukes (mostly flukes, as the whales try to escape) of the toy whales frolicking in the postcard sea under soaring cardboard peaks. The short trip in the boat may be exciting but it is ultimately unsatisfying, even troubling, for far from the transforming experience for which the tourist might have hoped, it was merely another act of human dominance and exploitation. The way we treat animals tells us a lot about the way we treat one another and our selves.

No matter where human beings live, they are affected at every level by their interaction with the rest of the created world, whether or not they wish to acknowledge their context. The creation is not something alien; the human species is not the collective ghost in the Earth machine. People may immure them selves in concrete and traffic, they may work in windowless boxes and breathe filtered air, they may exist in a desert instead of a rainforest, but survival depends as much on paying attention to the forces and creatures around them as the climber who strikes out alone to traverse a glacier.

Wilderness exists wherever we are; it is essential to being human. To think we can dispense with it is folly. As a species we evolved in wilderness; we learned from its conditions and its creatures. They gave us a language before we had language. As it is now thought that the structures of grammar are innate, so also is this other, more subtle language rooted at the very core of our being. Like verbal language, if it is not used it will cause tensions to build up as they do in children who cannot yet make themselves understood. To relieve this suffering, spiritual teachers in every age have taught the same first principle: explore the wilderness within; learn silence, stillness.

'The imagination of man, in its highest manifestations, stands close to the doorway of the infinite, to the world beyond the nature that we know.... Man's quest for certainty is, in the last analysis, a quest for meaning. But the meaning lies buried within himself rather than in the void he has vainly searched for portents since antiquity. Perhaps the first act in its unfolding was taken by a raw beast with a fearsome head who dreamed some difficult and unimaginable thing denied his fellows. Perhaps the flashes of beauty and insight which trouble us so deeply are no less prophetic of what the race might achieve....
Man, at last, is face to face with himself in natural guise. 'What we make natural, we destroy,' said Pascal.... It is not the outward powers of man the toolmaker that threaten us. It is a growing danger which has already afflicted vast areas of the world—the danger that we have created an unbearable last idol for our worship. That idol, that uncreate and ruined visage which confronts us daily, is no less than man made natural. Beyond this replica of ourselves, this countenance already grown so distantly inhuman that it terrifies us, still beckons the lonely figure of man's dreams. It is a nature, not of this age but of the becoming—the light once glimpsed by a creature just over the threshold from a beast, a despairing cry from the dark shadow of a cross on Golgotha long ago.' (Loren Eiseley, The Star Thrower)

Pascal is not alone in his concern about our adaptive choices. It has been argued that nothing wild is left, that ‘nature’ (with or without a capitalized first letter) no longer exists; that every process on this planet is now influenced by human activity. As the human population has deepened its delusion of distancing itself from the rest of the created order, it has become fearful of it and has even sought to destroy it. We seem unable to understand that what we are losing are the resources to be fully human; we do not realize that the accompanying inarticulate grief and rage drive us to ever more heedless ecological destruction in the name of utility; that we are engaged in a futile search for ‘happiness,’ and that our enslavement to the possession of consumer goods makes us hate the material world.

How do we talk about the post-human race? For as surely as we are engaged in the most rapid mass extinction in the history of the planet we are destroying the possibility of knowing who we are. Not only are we intricately linked with every other living creature at the biological level, but the narratives we create to give our selves meaning—our symbolic and metaphorical life—also arise from this organic matrix. How could someone understand Blake’s poem if the only tiger they have seen is stuffed? In a culture of conformity whose members are coming more and more to resemble the single organism of ants in a mound, will there soon be but a single construct of self?

Throughout human history humans beings have exalted human potential and achievement, despising other orders of beings as 'lower' or 'bestial'. Drunk on our own rationality, we have, in part, measured what it means to be human (and associated words such as humane) by a series of idealizations of our self: a god, a little lower than the angels, the dwelling-place of the divine, the artist, the engineer, the poet, the architect, the explorer of inner and outer space. At the same time, humans destroy, rape, murder, torture, and plunder. In our denial we speak of these activities as ‘inhuman.' But they are quintessentially human.

What can help humans to understand how simply to be, to know who and what they are, which is far more than slaves of their own minds and technology and of violence and greed? What can help us to learn not that we 'become part of it' (the natural world), but to realize that we always have been, for better or for worse. This realization can emerge only when we no longer seek to do, to exploit, or to force what is other to fit our stereotypes and projections. Rather we must seek to listen, to hear unfamiliar stories that will change our ideas about ourselves and reveal the world around us.

The stories in this book describe encounters and epiphanies that are available to anyone who is willing to receive them. I went out on the whale-path alone, city-bred, with no special training, and not much hardiness or money. Perhaps my physical weakness and my poverty were to my advantage: in order to survive, I had to listen. My purpose was not to accomplish anything, but to learn to inhabit the landscape. In the process, I discovered that my slightest effort to be instead of to do was richly rewarded, and that similar riches are available to anyone who is willing to sit in stillness without expectation for twenty minutes. A landscape suitable for this purpose doesn't have to be in Alaska, where the pressure of unregulated tourism has made much of the state into a theme park, and has destroyed the silence and presence of many of the places described in this book; it does not even have to take place in the countryside: wild creatures are learning to adapt to city life. It can begin in a bare room, facing the wall.

In the end, it is not so much the context as the stillness that is important. At some point we have to realize that our restless seeking must come to an end, and that we must be where we are, carefully. Whether we come to this by sitting on a beach or listening to a story, we are seeking for a Word. A seeker in the fourth century would go to an elder in the Egyptian desert and say, 'Give me a word.' Whatever the elder said or did not say was taken as the next lesson of life. Implicit in this exchange is the seeker's admission that she has come to the limits of her own efforts, that she has understood that she is trapped by the boundaries of the small universe of her own ideas and perceptions. She can go no further on her own . By asking for a Word she is asking the elder to help open her understanding, to help her make sense of the tragic comedy that is life, the bewildering mix of failure and achievement, longing and pain, wonder and sorrow, joy and incomprehensibility; to show how her life makes sense in the larger scheme of things.

Like as not, the elder would say nothing, but offer bread and water and figs; at most, in terms of words at least, the seeker might depart with an aphorism echoing in her head: sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything. In the world of late antiquity, the term 'cell' was often associated with the hexagonal wax chambers in the comb that bees make to hold their honey. In modern American the word has rather different connotations. For the seeker both apply. The human heart is the true wilderness, and it can overflow with honey (though not without tears, as Climacus reminds us), or become a prison, a wasteland of bitterness.

Here be dragons, and angels too, and the ordinary stuff of life: a flower, a color, a human face. We do not need to pursue Leviathan to come to insight. Our perception, as the Ox-herding Tale reminds us, is at first oblivious, then overwhelmed and finally, when the extraordinary becomes the ordinary, all of a piece, at peace. Or, as Orthodox Christians are wont to say, the Transfiguration shows us what ordinary life is really like; what we normally see is more like a bad dream. Our wholeness, our integrity, comes not from separating ourselves but from realizing our integration. The meanings of the Latin root—integer— common to these two words tell us much: intact, sound, fresh, entire, complete, chaste, renewed, starting afresh.

It is the paradoxical nature of story-telling that we create narratives in order to communicate what life might be like if we could suspend human narrative, to receive back the meaning of what it is to be human from non-human creatures and an often hostile and always indifferent environment. In the event, we will be given only glimpses and echoes, but they are enough. Listening to Patrick, the Shaman-Priest, I was able to hear only fragments of what he was saying, but they filled me to the brim, pressed down and overflowing, spilling onto these pages. Perhaps these are simply the memories of an old woman, or a scrapbook of a world that once was and cannot be again: who knows what a story is? Perhaps every story is a song of power, an elegy for life received and transfigured.

Patrick died a few years ago. He died singing.

'Amidst the fall of waters on that desolate shore I watched briefly an exquisitely shaped jellyfish pumping its little umbrella sturdily along only to subside with the next wave on the strand. 'Love makyth the lover and the living matters not,' an old phrase came hesitantly to my lips. We would win, I thought steadily, if not in human guise then in another, for love was something that life in its infinite prodigality could afford. It was the failures who had always won, but by the time they won they had come to be called successes. This is the final paradox, which men call evolution.'
— Loren Eiseley, The Star Thrower


Anonymous dFish said...

I guess it is in no vain that i come to your blog - seeking, asking for the Word. Only to feel the awe and the joy that the Word is gratis...Seeking i will continue.

6:00 am, August 11, 2009  

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