Beautiful Heresies

Posted in Uncategorized on October 10, 2011 by Ben Kessler

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?


The Tupelo and the Ailanthus

Posted in Uncategorized on July 18, 2011 by Ben Kessler

Kudzu performing ecological repair in temporarily deforested Athens, GA.  Photo from Creative Loafing.

We are surrounded by infant old-growth forests.  Every woodland that manages to avoid the perils of drought, storm, disease, crown fire, and unscrupulous human beings will grow more stately, beautiful, bountiful, and biodiverse as the years march on.  While we are currently in the opening stages of what is likely to prove the most comprehensive mass extinction since the end of the Permian, old trees are tough to shift.

Forests typically outlast cities.  Think about how permanent Angkor Wat, Altun Ha, Pripyat, or Namie seemed to their builders and inhabitants.  Consider the street trees in your nearest urban area; what will happen to the sidewalks, roadways, water pipes, electrical lines, and nearby buildings as their root systems and branches expand?  Given the state of local municipal budgets these days, will there be the money or inclination to repair that interruption by the time these saplings grow old enough to cause it?  Which is more valuable to an increasingly food-insecure populace, high-speed internet or plums?  Suburban landscapes across North America are perennially one growing-season month of lawn-mowing away from reversion to meadow and thicket.  “Pripyat began returning to nature as soon as the people left, and there was no one to trim and prune and weed,” remarks botanist Svitlana Bidna in Mary Mycio’s book Wormwood Forest: A Natural History of Chernobyl, “It takes a lot of human effort to maintain urban landscapes.”  What effects might the collapsing US economy have on urban and suburban wildlands?

What species will constitute these forests as time goes on?  How will the landscape smell, how will it look, what sounds will be heard?  Who will live here?  I’ve wanted to spend some words on the subject of living in a mass extinction event for some time, but until recently my ideas have been formless and unfocused.  It took an evening’s reflection under an old blackgum tupelo to clarify the issues at hand.

The phrase ‘mass extinction’ summons up images of sudden asteroids and freezing dinosaurs, or hectares of rainforest churned into McDonald’s feedlots, but this is somewhat misleading.  While multi-species die-offs are considered sudden in a geological time-frame, they take rather a while to play out for those individuals experiencing them in person.  The great Permian-Triassic ‘event’ responsible for the loss of 83% of all (known) genera lasted a million years at its peak, and may well have been preceded by other die-offs spaced at five million year intervals.  The end of the Permian was celebrated with a couple of serious planetary benders followed by a fifteen million year hangover.

Our current extinction seems set to occur much more rapidly.  The massive ecosystem destabilization our cultural forebears initiated when they first put plow to topsoil and axe to oak some 16,000 years ago did not help matters.  The subsequent rapidity with which the Earth’s oceans are warming exacerbates the trend further.  Moreover, we Westerners have befouled the waters, air, soil, bedrock, and bodies of this planet with some of the most persistently toxic chemicals present this side of the galaxy.  Some have argued that these factors have all but guaranteed a rapid die-off of everything more anthropomorphic than E. coli and bread mold.  While we may yet be set to lose closer to 90% of all (known) genera over a geologically brief timespan (many of the more huggable ones during your and my lifetimes) I do not think that we have seen the last of the ecosystems called forest, reef, chaparral, or prairie.  Eukaryotic life has shown surprising resilience in the past; one ought not underestimate the regenerative prowess of growing plants.

Before charging ahead, take a minute to let the reality of mass extinction sink in.  No more polar bears.  No more honeybees.  No more whales.  No more tigers.  No more elephants.  No more bananas.  No more frogs.  You will see this happen.  No more redwoods.  No more sea turtles.  No more butterflies.  No more eagles.  No more cedars.  No more fireflies.  Amphibians, who hold the lineage of the first vertebrate on land, stand to disappear in a welter of chemical mutation and slime-choked lungs within the next handful of decades.  The lifestyle that includes reading and writing computerized essays is wholly responsible for this situation.  You and I have taken part in behavior that is killing the most beautiful creatures in the world.  You and I have soiled innumerable iridescent feathers with dull sludge.  You and I have razed sun-dappled glades that were old before our great-grandparents were born.  You and I have killed from afar with weapons called factories and power plants, and we have killed eye to eye on dark roads at 70 miles per hour late at night while no other human was watching.  Tempting as it is to succumb to mea culpas, mail a check to the Sierra Club, and forget all about it in the morning, extinction is bigger than our guilt.  We among the living, among the ancestors of the canny survivors, have a duty to the world to live well.  The dying must be tended with care and compassion, the dead wept for, and the living richly fed with the fruits of our lives.  Learn from our mistakes, live, and help the world to grow in richness even in a time of decay.

By storm and toxin, drought and flame, who will persist to sustain the spark of life through the next fifteen million years of calamity?  It’s that hardy 17% of Permian survivors who we must look to, that 17% who became 100% over many aching millennia of suspiciously similar forest types, sudden storms, and frequent wildfires.  The organisms that survive mass extinctions tend to be either generalists or very lucky.  Further words will be spent on each type in future essays.

It seems to be to the general benefit of eukaryotic life as a whole that resilient, fast-growing, opportunistic, hardy organisms like starlings and Ailanthus have been spread to the four corners of the Earth by deranged European explorer-types, all negative press to the contrary.  The Earth doesn’t always operate for our convenience at a human pace or in accordance with a Western aesthetic.  Life is frequently and necessarily ugly to our eyes.  In the event of a planetary emergency, the lions, tigers, and (panda) bears are toast any way you look at it, but rats?  While we all, pigeons, toads, tree-ferns, and featherless bipeds alike, would have greatly benefited had not a bunch of ancestral yahoos decided to take more from the land than they were given, we have nevertheless arrived at the present situation.  Our land ethic regarding invasive or rampant species must stem from a careful appraisal of our actual, rather than ideal, predicament, including the possible and probable futures depending from that predicament.  Biodiversity often acts as a means to the ultimate end of resiliency.  The health of the forest is more important than the health of any individual tree, or any individual species; the existence of the ecosystem is vastly more important than its health or complexity at any one given minute, generation, or century.  When dealing with unprecedented climatic fluctuations and a stew of persistent, bioaccumulative toxins unseen before on this planet, it makes only a short-sighted sort of sense to uproot, further poison, and otherwise attempt to extirpate the sorts of species most likely to survive the hard times to come.  The older the forest, the more resilient it is.  Let the weeds establish themselves, either mourn the displaced species or tend them actively so that they need not be displaced, and help the forest be a forest.

But back to the suburban old-growth.  The long-lived organisms of our present environs may yet prove to be the last of their kind.  Old trees are tough- once a plant reaches its second century in good health, not much is going to shake it for the next five (arborists put down your billhooks, I’m generalizing here).  Infant trees, however, are much more susceptible to climatic shenanigans and other disturbances.  The relatively slight waves of localized extinction over the past three-odd million years were marked by changes in forest composition caused by the shift of climatic zones across the landscape faster than the trees themselves could relocate their offspring.  As we are now staring down an extremely rapid shift in average and extreme local temperatures, to say nothing of rainfall, winds, fire, etc., we can also expect that many of our grandmother trees will never shelter their own grandchildren.  (I wonder what type of creature could carry infant trees from one climatic zone to another faster than the trees themselves would migrate, thus preserving some degree of biodiversity in the landscape…)  If you, me, and all our neighbors decide not to destroy the trees in our neighborhoods nor tolerate their destruction, and if we tend these trees with care and skill, and if, moreover,  we teach our children to love them well, they will remain in our world, growing richer, livelier, and more beautiful with every year.  The old-growth woods of the more picturesque places of the world are here in the American suburbs.  Every place on Earth has burned to the ground, been buried in a mudslide, drowned under floodwaters, toppled, changed.  Now the land is grey over green.  The forests of your elderhood may be more Ailanthus than tupelo, the skies more English sparrow than goldfinch, the meadows more knotweed than milkweed, but such is our world that we must depend whole-heartedly upon these most resilient of our neighbors.  Once there was fire, later there will be fire, now there is forest, tomorrow there is forest.

Bonus Box!:

For more information about some efforts made to rethink the old invasive species paradigm, see this excellent post from my friend and long time partner in crime Connor Stedman’s blog.


Posted in Uncategorized on June 8, 2011 by Ben Kessler

Picking BlueberriesCree women picking blueberries, 1926.  Photograph by Edward S. Curtis.

It’s a good year for mulberries.  The regular rainfall of last month prompted a frenzy of blooms, and now this small dry spell has concentrated the sugars in the fruit to a delectable sweetness.  I’ve been coursing the neighborhood lately, scanning the sidewalk for tell-tale purple stains and keeping a lone eye peeled for hidden pawpaws, honeysuckle pan pipes at my lips.  As aquifers in the Midwest continue to dry out, economies the world over chase their tails, and climatic shenanigans rake the continent’s thin skin, the specter of food security stalks the Maryland suburbs in a floppy hat.  It’s eleven o’clock in the Western world; do you know where your fruit trees are?

Practical matters aside (but seriously: if your local supermarket stopped selling food, what would you eat?) these recent adventures in foraging have spurred me to think about our (we computer users, we book-readers, etc.) role in the landscape in yet another light.  Many words have been spent describing Westernized human activities like mining and agriculture as parasitic, in the vampires and tapeworms sense of the word.  While those of us reliant on supermarkets for food, municipal pipes for water, foreign mines for the metal in our cars and cell ‘phones, and so on, are indeed sucking the life out of lands, peoples, and other species- usually far enough away from our attention that we can pretend otherwise- I’m much more interested in how we relate to the places in which we perform our day-to-day living.

Parasite, if you remember from your high-school biology class, comes to us from the Greek parasitos, ‘eating beside another’ as in one’s neighbor at a banquet.  The parasitikoi were hangers-on at the wild parties the wealthier classes used to throw in old-time Athens; they came, they saw, they mumbled quietly: wallflowers.  I’m sure you’ve encountered someone like this at a party before, the earnest and glum sort who despite never seeming to open his or her mouth nevertheless manages to eat all of the cucumber sandwiches.  Hell, we’ve all been there on one off-night or another, so maybe you’ve felt sympathetic enough to go over to one of these frail creatures and strike up a conversation.  Five minutes into an airless exchange and perhaps you have gained some insight into how that blandly innocent term, ‘the eater beside another’ came to take on such grim and lurid connotations.

As the half-empty drink and vague smile are to the reluctant party-goer, the hiking boot and factory-made “trail mix” are to the would-be outdoorsperson.  While we’ve managed to get up the gumption to go out and see what the scene’s all about, we’re so stuck in our heads that we brandish our defenses lest we let the world slip in, our selves slip out, and, heaven forfend, actually have a good time.  The same applies to the gourmet who turns time into money into food without cutting out the middle man, and to the gardener who loves plants, yet grows only European annuals.  The architecture of suburbia is the structural equivalent of a conversation about the weather; it keeps out what everyone, deep down inside, wants to let in.

We of the city and the road are parasites on the land, in the boring dinner guest sense.  We’re rude, not by intent but simply because we’re too wrapped up in our own concerns to take an interest in anyone else; we’re not nearly intoxicated enough, and we repeat the same dull stories to anyone who’ll listen.  You see, the coyotes in the den need someone to sing tenor to make up the harmony, and the trees in the kitchen have been waiting for ages for someone with thumbs to show up, and that pretty Io moth has been making eyes at you all night, and, well, it’s an awful quiet solar system, and this really is the only happening place around.  You might as well shuck your overcoat and mingle for a spell, see what comes up.

Wherever you are, somebody is ripe enough to eat.  Our landscapes have changed radically since the last time human being people hit the ecological dance-floor.  The old dances still work, even with new partners, and there are nascent moves and beats so fresh they have yet to be performed.  Get to know your fellow revelers this summer: make a flower crown, follow a raccoon, go fishing with a bent paper clip and a pokeweed-cord line, eat too many wild plums.  Me, I’m off to the creek in my dancing shoes; it’s a crap year for crawdads, but you never know who you’re going to run into along the way.

Bonus Box!:

Check out this fantastic essay on mulberries, social guilt, and delicious shortcakes by fellow Mid-Atlantician Brynn Slate.

River to River

Posted in Uncategorized on June 6, 2011 by Ben Kessler

AnacostiaNorthwest Branch of the Anacostia River, Maryland

Jayi CanyonJayi Canyon, Navajo Nation

“The world as men have made it is an ungainly
hardship that comes of forgetting
there is other life than men have made.
While the summer’s growth kept me
anxious in planted rows, I forgot the river
where it flowed, faithful to its way,
beneath the slope where my household
has taken its laborious stand.
I could not reach it even in dreams.

HoneysuckleHoneysuckle, Northwest Branch

DaisiesDesert daisies, Marble Gorge

But one morning at the summer’s end
I remember it again, as though its being
lifts into mind in undeniable flood,
and I carry my boat down through the fog,
over the rocks, and set out.
I go easy and silent, and the warblers
appear among the leaves of the willows,
their flight like gold thread
quick in the live tapestry of the leaves.

PignutPignut Hickory, Northwest Branch

ArchNatural arch, Jayi Canyon

And I go on until I see crouched
on a dead branch sticking out of the water
a heron- so still that I believe
he is a bit of drift hung dead above the water.
And then I see the articulation of feather
and living form, a brilliance I receive
beyond my power to make, as he
receives in his great patience
the river’s providence.  And then I see
that I am seen, admitted, my silence
accepted in his silence.  Still as I keep,
I might be a tree for all the fear he shows.
Suddenly I know I have passed across
to a shore where I do not live.”

–  The Heron, Wendell Berry

NacostanAnacostia River

Navajo CreekNavajo Creek

Hornbrook Pastoral

Posted in Uncategorized on May 9, 2011 by Ben Kessler


After much trial and travail, lots of words and a lengthy silence, I am departing the hills of Hornbrook, California for my home lands of the Maryland piedmont.  I spent the winter here alone, tending the oak woods, Ceanothus scrub, and new gardens for my dear friends Lara and Derek while they were off having exciting adventures in Central America.  They’ve since returned, and have been building on my winter’s work to create a burgeoning market garden, edible hedge system, forest orchard, and greywater paradise.  The land here has a good spirit to it, and the people are generous.

DerekDerek tending the new raspberries.

ScrublandBuckbrush (Ceanothus cuneatus) Mountain Mahogany (Cercocarpus betuloides) and Oregon White Oak (Quercus garryana) scrubland.

FireweedThis plant is called “fireweed” by locals.  It secretes a minor skin irritant, and seems to thrive in marginal soils.  Does anyone know the highfalutin name for this plant?

Better home and gardens.When we started, this whole area was hard-packed dirt with gravel mixed in.  Lots of sheet mulch was added, as was the massive rainwater tank, and the greenhouse.  I threw together a temporary arbor to hold the kiwis and hops this year (if they decide to brave the looming summer and extend some tendrils upward) with plans in the works to put up a sturdier structure once the plants are more established.  The arbor is located over the tank for the well water, with the intention of utilizing the shade provided by the vining plants to keep the tank cool.  The stones in the garden are arranged in a series of spirals inspired by the arc of a scorpion’s tail.  All winter long the wind kept blowing the top layer of mulch off.  While moving some rocks around one blustery day in yet another fore-doomed attempt to create a windbreak, a little scorpion crawled out from a crevice in the hillside and told me what to do.  Sunflowers, beans, lettuces, assorted wildflowers, weeds, and Jerusalem artichokes are all coming up.  Squashes, gojis, Lonicera, and a few other odds and ends will be added to this garden later in the season.

Elf houseTen points and a bright, shiny nickle to the reader who can guess who lives here.

Mary's PeakEvening looking out towards Mary’s Peak.

Grandmother JuniperSunset under the Grandmother juniper.

Mt. ShastaAlpenglow on Mount Shasta.

The Language of Myth, Part 2: Tall Stories

Posted in Uncategorized on March 9, 2011 by Ben Kessler

True Adventures!Modern storytelling technology.  Art by Frank Cozzorelli


A story I have heard runs:

‘Once there was a people free of want, though at times the rain brought chill, and the winter, hunger.  They lived and told stories, and saw their hearts reflected in the face of the land, and when they died, they died knowing their spirits and ancestors attended them.  One day strange people came, who spoke with harsh voices and wore clothing like armor.  The strangers said, “what we desire we take, and what we take we ruin until we no longer desire it, and this is the Only True Way.  The world is made of nothing but things for us to take- you are all things, the mountains are things, the trees and all the animals, also.  We, too, are but things to one another, and this is the Only True Way.  Your spirits and your ancestors are lies you tell yourselves because, despite your smiles and welcoming gestures, despite your fitness and health, you are more miserable even than we.  You must worship a spirit as miserable as we know you to be (for we can never be mistaken) for this is the Only True Way.  The Names of this spirit are many, though you will know It by Its effect.  Some call our one true god Commerce, others Government.  Some know It as Technology, Church, Science, Literacy, Bureaucracy, Law, or Power, but all must accede that whatever the Name, it is the Only True Way.”  And the people looked at one another and said (for they were a courteous people) “what you speak of is difficult to understand, so far below your god-like magnificence are we.  Pray, tell us how you, in your wisdom, would have us live.”  The strangers looked at one another with lean and hungry faces, and the leanest and hungriest of them all then spoke, “you must submit to my will, for I am the loneliest, the fiercest, the vainest, the most callous of my people, so is status accorded among us.  What I decree, you must perform on pain of torture.  I desire the wood of the forests, that I might hide myself from the attention of the world; kill them all and build with their bodies a gilded cage.  I desire the comeliest of your maidens, that I might frighten them and destroy their self worth, for so do my people take our pleasure.  I desire that all should suffer as I suffer, for perhaps then I will not feel so lonely, so fierce, so vain, and so callous.  You must destroy your gardens and cease your conversation with the birds of the air and the plants of the wood, for we find this threatening though we do not know why.  You must dig up the earth and grow these weak and short-lived plants in the ruin, and you must never again eat of the fruits of the wild.  You must spend your days in pain and boredom, for this is the Only True Way.  You must learn to fear those who can harm you, and harm those who do not yet fear you, until all are fearful of all.  You must forget that it was ever otherwise, for there is only one true story, and we are so generous that we shall share it with you.”  A pregnant silence grew about the assembled crowd, and uncertain looks were exchanged.  “You ask much of us, strangers,” one of the people said, “you offer us a life of drudgery, forgetfulness, fear, agony, and confusion, yet you seem so certain that it is the only true way.  I wonder what great misfortune has disordered your thoughts so, and if we might aid you in your healing.”  The strangers then seized upon that one and tore her apart before setting her body aflame.  “She did not follow the Only True Way,” was all the strangers said in explanation.  The people were unnerved, but seeing the great potency of the strangers, they acceded, and submitted, and were drained of life and filled with the ravening emptiness of the Only True Way.  “Thou good and faithful servants,” the strangers declared, gimlet eyes gleaming, “you have served us well.  Though your toil has been long and difficult, and though you have endured much hardship, look what changes you have brought upon the face of the land:  Where once were lush forests and meadows are now amber waves of grain and whirring, dead, metropoleis.  Where once were rivers strong, free, and clear are now neatly caged reservoirs, teeming with contagion.  Where once the air was pure and the water sweet are now black clouds and poisonous sludge.  It is a small pity, perhaps, that our desire for the bodies of the earth have resulted in such ugliness, hazard, and ruination, but such is the inevitable price of the Only True Way.  Turn your sight away from these unpleasantnesses, look not at your brothers and sisters confined by chains to benches where they shed their lives in meaningless labor.  Gaze instead on such wonders as we have wrought!”  And the people looked and saw towers of metal and stone.  They saw forests hewn into books, where the Only True Way was said to dwell.  They saw acres of buzzing, whirring machines.  They felt their bellies always full, though of what they did not know.  Their eyes were dazzled by bright lights and their ears bombarded with new sounds.  And the people knew the glory that was Lady Gaga and High Speed Internet, and there was much rejoicing, for their every want was answered.  They had come to know the Only True Way, and the people became as strangers to themselves, forever.’

A myth is a true story.  Let me explain what I mean:  The word ‘myth’ comes to us directly from the Greek mythos, meaning both a narrative story and any of its component words.  In this sense, a myth is holographic (i.e. every individual part contains the pattern of the whole) and indeed it would not be too far to guess that at one point in the history of the eastern Mediterranean the whole of the world was taken to be a sort of story, of which every narrative action or spoken word was an integral and defining part.  Mythos emerged through some process of migration and recombination from the very old Proto-Indo-European root mm (pronounced, ‘mu’) one of the most foundational of our onomatopoetic vocabulary.  Mm represents the first noises made by infants, the cooing, gurgling hum that forms the basis for every language thereafter learned.  ‘Myth’, then, refers to a story of primordial origin and impact that relates the teller and the audience in an integral way with the rest of the universe.  The folk-definition of  ‘myth’ as an obviously untrue story (usually valued highly by some foreign, unsophisticated nation of people) is quite recent, dating only to the 1840’s, though the barbarous practice of disparaging the stories of others is a firm standard of Western textual religions, shared by contemporary sects from Shia Islam to textbook science.

The word ‘true’ comes to us intact from the indigenous Germanic languages of the formerly dense Northern European woodlands.  The Proto-Germanic trewwjaz refers to one characterized by good faith, trustworthiness, or reliability.  Delve deeply enough, and eventually we get to the Proto-Indo-European root shared by so many of our good words: dru, or tree.  In the forests of old Europe, the gold-standards of reliability were the trees, especially the great oaks that once grew in glades across the continent.  To be compared to a tree was the ultimate compliment on one’s honesty, hence our modern word.  These roots appear to have been forgotten relatively recently.  The word ‘true’ was coopted by the Church in the 1200’s, its definition deliberately altered from ‘honest and reliable’ to ‘consistent with fact’ (i.e. orthodox interpretation of Biblical scripture).  By the 1500’s ‘true’ had been reinterpreted by the scholastic establishment to mean ‘agreement to a given standard’, which is the sense we frequently use it in today (a “true” story doesn’t contain anything smacking of mystery, spirit, numinosity, imagination, or anything else anomalous under the dominant paradigm).  Interestingly, the true/false dichotomy only emerged in 1923, as a type of question on tests given out as part of a move to mechanize education to a state of ‘agreement with a given standard’.  The increasing narrowness in meaning of this formerly quite beautiful word follows the trend in our culture’s history of increasing authoritarian and bureaucratic power, greater disassociation from wild nature, including the wild and irregular aspects of our selves, and rising faith in the written word and the say-so of distant authorities over local oral history and direct experience.  Every word tells a story; the ending is not yet written.

Myths, be they sagas of legendary heroes, trickster tales, esoteric metaphors for cosmic principles, teaching stories, comic stories, mysterious stories that begin in the middle and have no endings, mnemonic models of the creation of the universe, or any of a hundred other types are essential to the health of human communities.  The archetypal heroes, monsters (from the Latin monstrum: a sign, portent, or warning) guides, spirits, and antagonists of well-remembered myths are the strong threads that a human being weaves her unique life around.  When fear and uncertainty loom large, we can gain strength and understanding from these archetypes and progress through the trials of our lives undaunted.  Good myths warn us against taking actions that have led to disaster in the past, and encourage us to stretch our comfort zones to secure heroic feats.  By celebrating certain types of deeds and condemning others, myths play a role in the determination of a society’s values and the behavior of its members; there is something to be learned from the global distribution of the archetypes of antagonistic braggart and humble savior.

‘…In the darkest of his days, his family killed by the machinations of enemies, Hiawatha wandered vaguely south, his thoughts contorted by sorrow.  He trudged across many lands, unmindful of winter’s bite or spring’s caress, until he reached the edge of a wide reed-filled lake.  Uncaring, he continued to walk on, though he would meet his end submerged in the mud.  Ducks and geese, seeing the depths of his despair, took pity on the exile and stooped to bear the water away from his path, that he might cross to the other side.  As the water was carried away, Hiawatha looked down and noticed the bright white shells of freshwater clams glinting in the black mud of the lake bottom.  He collected these shells, and on the far back stopped to string them into patterns expressing his grief.  He stayed on the shore for many days, contemplating the condolences he had woven out of the fruits of the lake, before rising, his grief assuaged, to share his tale and resume his diplomatic mission…’

Legends like this one, part of the Haudenosaunee epic cycle of the Peacemaker, act as bridges between events and experiences of the present generation and those of the ancestors’ times.  In cultures where history isn’t just a collection of names and dates, the lessons taught by past events are recalled significantly, with relatively little loss of meaning over time.  The traumas of the Five Nations War were remembered ever afterward for the next 2,000 years, and indeed the member nations of the Haudenosaunee confederacy never again made war on one another.  Imagine if the stories we told about wars between nations had a human-scale focus, rather than looking at the largely meaningless flow of abstracted violence on sketchily-imagined battlefields.  What would we feel should we recall the experience of even one child orphaned by the Battle of New Orleans?  How might we act if we kept such a felt understanding close to heart?

Mythic archetypes provide a unique framework to make sense of the shifting passions and conflicted experiences of even the healthiest of lives.  Who has not felt the pangs of alienation endured by the Tzutujil Raggedy Boy, the comfort of the Lydian Bellerophon in his partnership with Pegasus, the exultation of the Indian Hanuman as he crested the parapets of Ravana’s fortress, or the sense of mystery and doom endured by the Thracian Orpheus in his descent into the Underworld?  But these are not the stories of our peoples.

Complementary to the good work of healing neglected wildlands, ailing urban and agricultural ecosystems, and communities removed by cultural illusion from their home lands, we permaculturalists must also pay some attention to the sphere of our communications.  A story told with thin heart and inconstant intention could lead to the collapse of a carefully designed garden though the ground be vibrant for a time.  I argue that those oral technologies we characterize as mythic are of great utility to us in this “work that reconnects”.  Here are some ways we might reintegrate myth into every-day communication, and begin to cultivate meaning in the ground of our exchanges:

1.  Learn stories by heart, and tell them frequently.

Many people have a born knack for telling tales.  Sometimes we say they have ‘the gift of the gab’, or we call them orators or writers.  Nurture these people, and goad them into loosening their word-hoards, that they might practice and excel, and that the audience might learn and be amused.  If you are one of these people with a latent storytelling ability, exercise it!  Learn stories by ear and by book, but where possible tell them from memory or by heart.  A story told from a book isn’t quite a story; there’s something incomplete about a tale held in rigid words formed by a personally unknown other.  Stories must be given the freedom to tell themselves through the body and voice of the skald.  Other people’s stories are good to know, better if they’ve been given to you directly by another story-teller.  The benefit of stories, and the point where entertainment becomes education and stories become myth, lies in the ability of the storyteller to bring them to wild life.  Tell dramatized versions of important dreams, tales of feats and mighty deeds by fellow community members or ancestors, characterized stories of the nonhumans in your neighborhood.  The timing and purpose of storytelling also affects the growing future of the local culture.  No matter how evocatively you tell them, stories told exclusively as entertainment lose some of their latent power.  Powerful myths must be treated as such, so as to properly impress their importance on the malleable minds of young audience-members, though this does not always mean a grave countenance is required for a strong tale.  Some stories gain power from their location at certain points in the geography of the landscape or the chonology of the year.  Most of the world’s oral traditions mix storytelling with song- something to keep in mind…  When we tell mythic stories we bring a little of the healing magic called ‘imagination’ into the world.

2.  Learn and draw upon the deep poetry of your own language.

I hope the point I’ve been trying to make with my endless lexicographical rambling has by now sunk in a bit: every word tells a story.  Learn a handful of Latin or Greek roots and watch in amazement as the world of scientific terminology opens up like a flower.  Dig deeper and familiarize yourself with some Indo-European phonemes, and the patterns that connect diverse branches on the tree of meaning shift into focus.  Research into wood roots has the added benefit of bringing your own cultural history to life, as questions emerge like, ‘why did this word change meanings at this time?’  Teach this richer form of the language to kids as an antidote to the acronym-ridden nonsense of the contemporary vernacular.  Biology teachers, environmental educators, coyote mentors, and other feral adults:  Ignore the advice of the otherwise excellent Coyote’s Guide; don’t trivialize binomial nomenclature.  Introduce ‘scientific names’ as mystical, magical, secret words that summon up the essence of the creature (Heliomaster constantii, the one mighty by the lord of the sun and constant in his ways, is way cooler than ‘plain-capped starthroat’).  Or, when you’re dealing with something inane like Toxostoma lecontei (LeConte’s arrow-mouth, or ‘LeConte’s thrasher’, as though the fact that entomologist John LeConte once saw one is the most memorable thing about these birds) you can always collectively come up with something more evocative for one or both portions of the name.  Just because a name is written one way in a book doesn’t mean that’s the only name worth using.

3.  Communicate with poetic excellence.

Use beautiful words frequently.  Pay some attention to rhyme and meter, especially in storytelling, teaching, writing, and any other activity that involves a few people speaking and many people listening.  Listening to expert storytellers and orators is a good way to gain some insight into what sorts of constructions work well.  Everyone has their own style though, so don’t get too hung up on imitating the greats.  Descriptive epithets, like the Norse and Old English kennings, are a great way to enrich communication and strengthen the bonds of community.  Calling an automobile ‘road-treader’ rather than ‘the white Subaru’ is a bit more meaningful, just as ‘Sally Frog-Catcher of the house of Martha Pie-Baker’ both sounds fantastic and evokes pride and good feeling, unlike the neutral ‘Sally Jenkins of 32 North Pine Street.’  Machines are anonymous and interchangeable, but we are living human creatures with lives rich in legendary experience- so, speak as though it were so!

4.  Make new words.

Once you have a familiarity with the basic structure of your language, you can mess about a bit, and fill in holes in your vocabulary.  Start from the roots up, so your new words have some connotative link to the rest of the language, and prefer onomatopoetic sounds to arbitrary ones, again for a stronger connotatively meaningful content.  Lewis Carroll was brilliant at this, though many of his ‘portmanteau words’ were regarded, by himself as much as by his contemporaries, as little more than nonsensical amusements.  As always, enthusiasm is no replacement for diligence, and an old word often remains, forgotten at the edge of the vernacular, that will do the job best.  As with honorifics, kennings can serve the purpose of neologisms quite well.  Play around with it, the more people playing the better.  Local food, local markets, and local currencies are all coming into vogue these days, why not local language?

5.  Speak from the heart.

Language loses meaning when lies are common.  Be quite clear about what you mean before you say it, even if that internal awareness is of a lack of personal clarity on the matter at hand.  I was once accused by a student of speaking “like a White Man- with forked tongue” after some rambling introduction in which I inflicted some idiotic standardized test on the class after vehemently protesting my dislike of such educational obstacles.  This would be an example of not meaning what one says; had I genuinely felt the test was not worth the time of my students, I would have found a way around it, or would have invited them to help in brainstorming some lateral solution to the dilemma of departmental authority.  In any event, we make our own realities through language, and its up to us whether or not to accept the realities of others, no matter what hierarchy they may belong to.  Words have power, and we steal away a little of that magic every time we use them inaccurately.  Much of the language we hear in the Westernized world carries intentions of strife and woe.  We live in a culture of euphemism and dysphemism, where the purpose of press releases, news ‘events’, advertising, and scholarly papers is more often than not to delude and dominate.  If we desire to live in a place where people communicate to enlighten, educate, empower, and aid, we must change our way of talking, and be more critical and less tolerant of untrue speech.

This last tenet, of speaking with intention, is far and away the most powerfully transformative of the lot, as it is the one every one of us can do.  It is also the most difficult, as it require us to know ourselves deeply, sometimes uncomfortably so, and to act from those deep places.  Attend to this deed of self-knowing, though, and your own mythology will coalesce even as the illusions of the dominating culture disperse.

The world of machines and endless highways, lit by bright halogen bulbs, the garbage dumps, clearcuts, sweatshops, and slums always somehow hidden in shadow, is undergirded by its own mythology.  On compulsion of a story are forests leveled and children enslaved; on the fragile strings of narrative does one man dance his life to the tune of another.  Our sacred wound, as a people, is a broken story somewhere at the core of what we have come to call the world.  It is a thin myth though, which tells of a man, always a man, pulling himself up by his own bootstraps to lie and steal and hurt without censure.  It’s the story that introduced this essay, but there are others…

‘And so it came to pass in the dark days of the strangers, that there arose among the people those who chafed beneath the yoke.  Within their hearts they felt not the hollowness of the Only True Way, but an echoing richness that seemed to emanate from the ruined forests and blasted hills.  Some remembered that they were not always strangers, but once had been people themselves.  These people were called Witch and Heretic, Kook and Unscientific, Pinko, Hippie, Punk, and Idealist.  Though they were sorely persecuted by the followers of the Only True Way, they persevered, living on in the house of the enemy.  They came to doubt the stories of the coming of the Only True Way, and began to remember a different history:

The strangers did indeed come to the land of the people in olden days, and they bore many strange gifts and veiled threats, but the people were not so easily swayed.  After much council, the fateful words were uttered, “You People Are Nuts.  Go Live Over There And Leave Us Alone.”  And for a time the strangers kept to their allotted lands, nursing their madness and building their strength in secret.  From time to time lone strangers would cross the land, remembering in their hearts that they were people once too.  They were welcomed by the people, and the snakes were combed from the hair of the exiles, and their backs were straightened.  It was whispered that the strangers reserved their direst tortures for those who turned their backs on the Only True Way, and many of the people-who-were-once-strangers were stolen away in the night, never to be heard from again.  As the strangers waxed strong they made terrible war on the people, taking what they desired and ruining what they took.  The people fought bravely, but the strangers were so fierce, their weapons so terrible that eventually all but the hardest hearted of warriors lay down their arms.  Better to risk the wages of bondage, to grieve for the dead and pay proper homage, than to lose oneself in battle-rage and be polluted by the madness of the enemy.  The people bowed their heads and wept for the loss of their finest, for the banishment of their guiding spirits, for their exile from their most-loved lands, for the gathering silence of the world around them.  The wisest and most gifted among them were dispatched in the cruelest ways imaginable by their conquerors.  Without their guidance, the youth of the people came to see the strangers as role models.  The children of the people aged, their minds and hearts twisted until they confused cruelty for justice, greed for virtue, brutality for love, and ignorance for wisdom.  Their hearts were scoured by unnamed sorrow, and in the vacuum where love for the world once dwelt unfurled a desperate faith in the Only True Way.

And the people who remembered shivered and shed tears for their waylaid ancestors.  They steeled their eyes and sharpened the blades of their tongues, and girt their voices in potent beauty.  The hardest hearted of them marched again to war, singing old bravery songs and visiting destruction on the machines of the strangers.  Others sang healing songs and combed the snakes from the hair of their fellows, and reminded them that they, too, were once people.  Some sang songs of earth and wood, renewing long-forgotten pacts with the spirits and creatures of the land.  Those most sensitive sang grieving songs to feed the hungry shades of too many generations lost to emptiness.  Some sang beauty songs, teaching songs, guiding songs, songs to light fires and songs to break steel, songs to welcome in the spring and songs to wake the mountains.  Many of the singers were cut down where they stood by strangers with stoppered ears and hearts in conflict, but where one song died, ten others rose in volume in its place.  The singing of the people grew in strength, joined now by harmonizing voices from sea and forest, rock and wind.  Building and building, resonating in the hearts of every people, the songs were streaming out across the land, and what they touched burst into life.  It was a dark time for strangers, one of hunger and chill; scarce were the flashing lights and buzzing machines, and loud were the songs of the world.  The songlines of the Only True Way fractured and unraveled, spinning melodious harmonies of reason and pragmatism, caution and care.  Where once were dead cities bloomed fragrant gardens.  From the ashen soil where grain lay in serried ranks grew verdant prairies, lush savannas.  Rivers loosed their bonds and rose in rich tumult over floodplains and deltas, waxing proud and wild.  The black clouds fled from the skies, and the springs again rose clear and sweet.  Where once was emptiness, the hearts of the people were filled with the life of the world.  The grandchildren of the people and the grandchildren of the strangers looked on the world, and on each other, and could not tell where one ended and the other began.  And they all lived happily ever after…’

Now we make it happen.

The Language of Myth, Part 1: Source Decay

Posted in Uncategorized on March 7, 2011 by Ben Kessler

The Message of Odysseus by Marc Chagall

“Nations and peoples are largely the stories they feed themselves.  If they tell themselves stories that are lies, they will suffer the future consequences of those lies.  If they tell themselves stories that face their own truths, they will free their histories for future flowerings.” –  Ben Okri, Birds of Heaven

All language ripens from earthly experience, like a plum from a plum-blossom.  Every signifying sound we make is onomatopoetic at its core.  Our languages are imitative of the voices of river and wind, raven and whale.  To tell a story is to undertake an act of consilience with the speakers of the past and the listeners of the future as we weave our place into the fabric of the ongoing world.  Every sentence, every word, when you get right down to it, tells a story.

We contemporary Anglophones live in strange days, when very few of our number can actually speak our language with much precision, accuracy, or beauty.  Our dictionaries pay lip service to the old roots that live within words, but seldom are they taught to the younger generation, and rarer still are they remembered in conversation.  This severance from the linguistic past has been widening for some time now, but it has perhaps reached its apotheosis in the present generation.  (brb got 2 chek 4 txts!)  The line between a language’s slow change over time and its active degeneration may be drawn somewhere on the map of its signal to noise ratio.  I would hazard to assert that this decay of meaningful, essentially onomatopoetic, signal into thin noisiness is by no means a modern phenomenon, though it is abundantly apparent in the modern commercial milieu.  Is there really such a profound difference between a Whopper ™ and a Big Mac ™ that we require wholly separate nouns to denote them?   As synthetic products acquire particular identities with unsettling rapidity, a flattening of distinction between wild species seems increasingly common, such that anyone who can distinguish an ash from a linden tree is generally regarded as some kind of professionally trained expert.  To many contemporary Westerners, a tree is a tree, and that’s as far as it goes.  While this loss of species awareness may be a recent epiphenomenon of the craze for electronic entertainment, which removes one’s attention from one’s home ecosystem, our vocabulary for the living world has been shrinking for far longer.  Most indigenous languages, and almost certainly the languages spoken by the ancestors of Westernized people the world over, contain a great many terms for different growth patterns and colors of practical plants, patterns of movement in animals, and a psychological and spiritual vocabulary of greater nuance and depth than that found in many Western languages.  Where have words like the Lakota tankashila (ancestral spirits that move through things) Maidu hisdom chupi (grey willow switches used to make the inner coil of load-bearing baskets) and Greek daimon (tutelary deity or guiding spirit) gone in our current tongue?  What can you speak of at length, and what must you search for words to describe?

Consider the archaic and quaint sound of many of our words for biogeographic features: wold, heath, fen, hedge, guyot, copse, thicket, hillock, etc.  Think about the sounds of old words, and what they suggest, synaesthetically, about shape or texture.  Look to the awkward and inharmonious portmanteau construction of many neologisms for evidence of forgetfulness of what the syllables within words actually mean, and of the lack of consideration for connotative value over denotative expedience: anti-racism, structural adjustment loan, Darwinian, cell ‘phone, sub-prime mortgage, environmentalist, etc.  Looking only at the last hundred years or so of linguistic history within the Westernized world, it’s easy to see where post-modernists (is that really the best name they could think of for themselves?) got the notion that all meaning is essentially arbitrary.  But, as I said, this sort of nonsense has been building up for generations now.

Quick, how many synonyms for ‘anger’ can you think of?  How about ‘love’?  Describe the process of buying new clothes.  Describe the feeling of buying new clothes.  Would you say ‘testicle’ in front of your grandmother?  What about on a first date?  Words tell stories.  The words we know affect the sort of stories we are capable of telling.  Likewise, our knowledge of the meanings behind and within the words we know affect the sort of stories we tell in every conversation, council, speech, and heart-to-heart.  Even folks with the best of intentions may find their causes subtly undone by insufficient or unsatisfactory vocabulary.  See this earlier discussion of the word ‘sustainability’ for an example of this sort of pitfall.  Ben Okri, who writes frequently about the relationship of language and stories to the character of societies, noted in the Birds of Heaven collection of essays, “To poison a nation, poison its stories.  A demoralized nation tells demoralized stories to itself.  Beware of the story-tellers who are not fully conscious of the importance of their gifts, and who are irresponsible in the application of their art: they could unwittingly help along the destruction of their people.”

Read a newspaper: what types of narratives are featured?  How are they told, and what is valued by the words used in the telling?  What is considered important, by its mention, and what is considered irrelevant, by its omission?  Put cynicism aside for a moment; what do you feel in its absence?

There is a wound at the heart of the Westerner’s soul.  The decay of our languages is a symptom, as is the wrath and confusion that plague so many of our psyches, as is the determination so many of us put to the extermination or confinement of everything wild and untamed, as is the equal determination so many of us put to ignoring these processes.  This wound is very old and very deep, and though it has scabbed over with many generations of scar tissue, it still draws pain when the weather shifts.  It is a wound borne stoically by the tired-eyed policeman who tells you that your last remaining human right is to remain silent.  It is borne by the businessman’s daughter, who every year gives more and more of herself to her toys, and every year receives less and less in return.  This wound is not carried in the flesh, though from time to time the stigmata of blackened eyes and clotted arteries flower across the body, attesting to the sacredness of this pain to our highest of churches.  It flares and sears excruciatingly behind the frightened limbs holding the saw, straining, to the trunk of the cedar tree, and in the unnamed fear behind dilated pupils, behind raging voice, behind the flailing arm that tumbles to a lover’s face.  This wound, like all wounds, is an incompleteness, a cutting off of one essential part from another.  We are wounded in the part that knows stories, in the pattern-making pattern-seeing soul of the self.  Our wound is the severance of self from place, ancestry, and community, of human from animal, of culture and society from all the rest of the living world.

The loss of communicable meaning via the vernacular tongue is both symptom and exacerbating cause of many of our more personal ills in this asphalt-ridden Western nightmare.  We have forgotten many of the old myths that reminded us, frail and forgetful creatures that we are, what a human being is, and how we fit, as individuals, community members, mothers, sons, elders, brave makers of fire, tricky runners, spirit lawyers, tree-pruners, eaters of flesh and fruit, the clever, the foolish, and the wise, into the great pattern of life.  There’s a reason traditional people put so much care and attention into their oral technologies; it’s the same reason many indigenous languages show remarkable constancy over tens of thousands of years, and the same reason many root phonemes in these tongues lie close to the surface.  We are a species inclined to flights of fancy, to short tempers and deep despair.  We have not the patience of the chameleon nor the quickness of the fly, nor the armor of the pangolin.  We make our naked way through this world of wonders and dangers by honeyed tongue, keen eye, and clever hands, tricking, delighting, and negotiating the rest of the world into helping us out.  In many North American creation stories, humans are the last created animal, the runt of the earth’s litter; every thing we have is a gift from someone else.  But as individuals we are inclined towards pride and foolishness, traits embraced to exuberant excess during the adolescent stage of our psychological maturation process.  We need mythic stories to remind us of our responsibilities, to satisfactorily center ourselves in the places we inhabit, to show us how we are never alone in a world crowded with living cousins, and to prepare us for the mysteries of death and the shifting places at the edge of our awareness.  Without stories that make sense of the world on the deepest and most resonant of levels, we succumb easily to confusion, frustration, sorrow, and rage.  Superficial explanations of material phenomena are not enough, as this world of ours is more complex and affects us on more levels than those of dancing atoms and singing paths of energy alone.  The stories we tell about the world we are a part of affect how we perceive it; how we perceive the world affects how we interact with it.  What sort of landscape results when we assume that the world is incapable of meaningful communication?  What sort of society results when we forget the vocabulary of love?  What sort of person results from an imagination without resonant archetypes?  Look around.

For the time being, I’m going to dodge the matter of how this wound in the ancestral soul of the West came to be.  It’s important and I’ve put words and pictures to the matter before, and will again, I’m sure.  For the purposes of this essay and its twin, I’m interested in how we can use oral technology to heal some of the damage we Westerners have, in our madness, inflicted on the world.  Next time I’ll be talking about how myths and mythic aspects of language can be put to the permacultural purpose of growing healthy ecological communities.  Stay tuned!

“I sat upon the shore
Fishing, with the arid plain behind me
Shall I at least set my lands in order?”
– T.S. Eliot, What the Thunder Said, The Waste Land