Beautiful Heresies

Huichol girl in the tobacco field, Nyarit, MexicoIn The Tobacco Field by Adrian Mealand

The morning unfurled out of the east with an orange bloom, reaching narrow fingers along gullies and streamsides, calling brassy through corridors of hickory and oak.  Reddening leaves in the reddening light- harvest time is come to a head.  One great feast of chestnuts and pumpkins ripens to fruit before the too-long senescence of the forest garden into the death dream of wintertime.  North of here, the frost is on the apple trees.

“Land is a verb, place is a process,” remarked Jeanette Armstrong, Okanagan elder, teacher, and emissary of the En’owkin tradition of peacemaking, in an air-conditioned room in San Rafael, California, along a tidal stream, beside some planted toyons when the song sparrows were calling in the afternoon.  What does this mean?

To a housefly, a film projected onto a screen would appear as a series of still photographs, so much more quick than ours is their visual awareness.  Many perennial plants- Jerusalem artichoke, thyme, willow, etc.- can continue living, thriving even, nigh on forever in the right conditions with attentive care.  What slow, rhythmic understandings emerge from the experiences of these plants?  How are the winters reckoned to an 800 year old grape vine, gnarled through the windows of a crumbling castle greenhouse?  The dance of the continents is measured in millions of years.  One million years ago, we were all Africans.  From these frames of reference, nothing on this living Earth is static.  Birth, growth, senescence, death, of individuals, of families, of species, of communities, of ecosystems, of whole epochs of living diversity, nothing remains that is not changed, nothing changes that does not also remain.

We are used to describing the experience of life in mechanical terms.  Even those of us unenamored of the grossly technophilitic metaphors of the brain as computer or the body as self-regulating machine still use mechanical language to memorialize our visions of the living world.  We refer to the “processes” of the world’s “systems”  in empty, generic terms, classifying endless climatic “zones”, phylogenetic lineages, and geographical “features”.  Even the permaculturalist is not immune, poring over her tables of ecological equivalents and proscribed rootstock characteristics.  Labels are useful, but perhaps the mindset that generates them- and often leads to a confusion of the map for the terrain- is not.  Another language of relationship is needed.

A person experiences a different sort of relationship with a static object than they do with an entity in motion.  Even an inanimate mechanism like a speeding train requires the one who walks on its tracks to submit to the negotiation of movement.  And no thing on the Earth is static.  Even the stones change shape and position, odor and texture with time and conversation with weather and roots.  Everything on this or any earth responds, moves, reacts, and thus affects others, creates other changes.  What register of these changes exists in the hearts of stones?  Where does the learning of your own life live?  Is there really such a difference between the life of a human and the life of a stone so as to preclude all conversation?  Anyway, start with plants, they’re far more talkative…

Every morning the Earth tilts to the sun, every winter she turns away.  Every contra dance ends with the dancers in their starting position, ready for the fiddler to strike up the next tune.  Every autumn the harvest rolls in, sometimes rich, sometimes poor, but never does summer follow from fall.  From the figure-eight flap of a grouse’s wings to the whorl of the milkweed’s leaves, to the long-short beat of a heart or the butterfly swimmer’s stroke, life runs in contrary cycles.  A thousand green centuries followed by a hundred years of burning cities.  Long-short, inhale-exhale, dawn-evening, grief-praise, celebration-lament, weaving-unraveling, full-empty, life-death, togetherness-solitude: necessary cycles, necessary paradox.  How shall we speak to the dawn that rises every day for the first time?


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