The juncos have arrived from up north.

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This morning we were all still in bed when there was a loud rap against our bedroom window pane. I jumped out of bed, knowing it was a bird that had just collided with the glass. I looked out and there, among the flock of juncos grazing in the grass, was a spread out, unmoving one.

I threw on my jacket and scarf and rushed outside with a kitchen towel. There is was, still not moving. Normally I’d leave it, watch it from a distance, but it was cold and a bird in shock like that would probably not recover, or get eaten by a cat or what have you. So I picked it up and wrapped it in the towel. It was only as I was bringing it into the house that it revived a little.

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We kept it warm for ten minutes, then it started squirming and got away from me, demonstrating its desire and ability to fly. I caught it and brought it outside to let it go. It flew off in a jiffy and we rejoiced.

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We had the clothesline out on Sunday to dry out some tarps, and it was graced by two dragonflies who really liked their perch: they let us photograph them from pretty up close, and whenever they flew off, they returned immediately, so we got to try the new camera’s macro function and lens.

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Over the weekend it started. The non-stop tiny patter-patter of black specks raining down from on high. You stand still and listen and it sounds like fizzing.

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We thought they were seeds on the patio, as much as possible under the umbrella, and didn’t think much of it, except : what fecundity! Billions of seeds!

Fecundity is about right! It’s inchworm poop! It’s these guys:

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Making this:

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It is covering everything. It crunches underfoot on the patio stones. When wet it stains brown.

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It’s not good to have so many inchworms, or cankerworms, in your garden. Not, IMO, because they get into your hair and clothes (and ears!), or ruin the BBQ or a drink left uncovered by adding protein, but because they’re obviously having themselves a banquet. So far only the big adult trees are their feast, but they’ll survive (I’m told). The as yet small hazels and the cherry tree are suffering too and them I’ll spray with an organic pest-repellent. Everything else seems fine, so far. I’m trying to find the positive side to this: this poop must be pretty good fertilizer, don’t you think?

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Amie and I are enjoying reading and telling creation stories. We weave in evolution, the Flood, how Coyote created land, fossils, Darwin and Lopez, and how the first people came out of a bird’s egg.

“If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.” — Barry Lopez

And how the trees grow straight up out of the snow.

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The Robin pair has arrived. They are slow and ponderous and conspicuous in all this white.  The Carolina Wren is a much smaller, darting blur of motion between bush and planter.

The snow is coming down again. There are only  two layers to the sky: closest, most turbulent, where you can distinguish the snowflakes; behind that  it, the trees dissecting the static grey zone. That’s where it ends, like we’re in a grey-walled, grey-ceilinged room.

There are more than two layers bearing down on the porch. Snowfall after snowfall, compressed and wind-sculpted, plus the icy melt from the roof above it, absorbed into it as by a sponge. The new snowfall is adding to this. We’re not sure if the roof can handle the extra weight.

Two feet now and counting. The messy tracks we made in the snow yesterday – snowball fight, writing with icicles, then some ice sculpting  with hammers and chisels – are but vague reminiscences. Down, down comes the sky and I am loving it.

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Last night, February 14, was a Full Moon (the Snow Moon) and the light was bright and magical on the snow. I always try to take pictures but my camera (or the camera woman) isn’t really up for it. Still, here are the best ones. There was no “lightening” done on these images. This is the kind of light you can read by. It casts sharp shadows, like here in my study:

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The path down the driveway. The snow is now almost two feet high:

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The neighbor’s house across is all lit up:

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We had a rough evening when, two weeks after our chicken Nocty died, one of Amie’s two parakeets also died – also unexplained. This one was harder for her to bear, because she feels responsible for the birds, who live in her room.

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This bird was rather  wild and would never let anyone hold her.

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If you would like some music with this post,  I recommend Isakov’s 3 a.m., from which comes the following lyrics:

give me darkness when i’m dreaming, give me moonlight when i’m leaving
give me mustang horse and muscle, cuz i wont be goin gentle
give me slant-eye looks when i’m lying, give me fingers when i’m crying
and i aint out there to cheat you, see i killed that damn coyote in me…

.

One of the first papers I wrote for the professor of Kantian philosophy for whom I would eventually try to write a doctoral dissertation involved an attempt to give “the given” a place in Kant’s idealism. He discouraged me from pursuing this. For Kant the given is always already “the raw sensible manifold of intuitions,” always already in the framework of human perception. Ontology can only be epistemology. That’s all there is to it.

I wish I had found Paul Shepard‘s books then. Maybe I would have gone on to question Kant on this matter or to drop him as a subject of study altogether, instead of plodding on for years of growing discouragement and self-doubt eventually to let it chase me out of academics. But I doubt it. This road along which I found Shepard has been long and hard-won. And even if I had had the maturity to recognize what he was talking about back then, I doubt I would have accepted the consequence, that I would have had to ditch the entire paradigm in which I was studying and staying in this country. I would have had to take a stand, instead of studying others’ stands like a good student of the history of philosophy.

But, though I am increasingly of a mind that Always-Already is really Too-Late, in this case it was not too late to come to Shepard’s iconoclasm, to get a second chance at turning the tables and having a turn at dancing on the board.

***

The given is for Shepard the antidote to the cult of relativism – “the incipient abandonment of positions” – that has thrown a pall over science, education, history, and art alike and landed us in this mess. We view ourselves as a special case: biological evolution has ended for/with us and “cultural evolution” is now calling the shots. Therefore, man is free to make a world according to his desires. He need not be troubled by the long past, his animal self, or any rules that seem given rather than made. Man makes himself, and nothing is given that cannot be remade to his liking. 

If nothing of consequence is given, or prior, then there is no absolute. Without such a foundation, all ways of life, all views, all manner of using nature are legitimate in a democratic society. Hence, writes Shepard, the incapacity of the modern mind to find permanent environmental attachments, the alienation, the destruction.

It is clear what we have to do. We have to accept that

the wild, taken to mean the whole community of species, is the prior question. In fact, it is not a question at all. For there is no alternative to living with wild things… In some part of our skulls there is a wilderness. We call it the unconscious because we cannot cultivate it the way we do a field of grain or a field of thought. In it forces as enduring as climate and bedrock maintain our uniqueness in spite of the works of progress. (Encounters with Nature, 168)

What is given – our ontogeny, to put it simply – is absolute, deterministic. No relativism or Kantian idealism can touch it, not in the sense that it is elsewhere, on some other side of us (and therefore we can still be free of it), but, on the contrary, in the sense that it bears down on us, body and soul/mind, with millions of years of evolution, and weaves us into the shaggy web of all life.

Some say to be

Is to be perceived

I hope that means

that

Nothing is alone.

(poem 1 in 350 Poems)

But that’s like being flies in a nasty spider web, so we thrash about. For centuries we succeeded in rending the fabric that holds us. Our machinery, our efficiencies, our psychologies and ideologies have reduced it all to resources. Bumping up against limits, we idolize the ever faster change for its own sake (novelties, fashion, restructuring, “New features are coming!” ), progress for progress’ sake.  It can’t last long. Shepard, writing for the most part in the seventies, was innocent of the realization of climate change, but when he writes that “there is no alternative to living with wild things,” his words ring with an untimely echo.

We are at that time, an end-time either way you look at it.

***

Shepard knows full well what we’re up against: “This philosophical antinaturalism now conditions most of modern life–so diffused into the tissues of society as to become a mode of perception.”  Shepard’s most outspoken essay, “Ugly is Better” (1977, you can read the short essay here) is well worth a full and close reading.

The disease has burrowed so deeply that it affects our language and, even worse, our actions. Environmentalism, conservation, recycling, “Keep America Clean,” John Muir and the Audubon Society – all for naught. Worse yet, they have made things worse, “a worse disaster for the American environment than an oil spill.”

Anti-little campaigns and freeway plantings are Airwick and deodorant soap–sensory crutches protecting our own perceptions from unwelcome data… It looks at first like counterculture, and it may have been for some. Mostly it was the system taking over the old landscape aesthetic, one with which it could live, and making illusory options–like the modern soap company that in reality owns its own competition… recycling is the ecological slave in the front office. We seem determined to engage in the most frenetic charades and games to avoid reducing consumption and human numbers. (“Ugly is Better” Encounters with Nature, 177-9)

He wrote that in 1977. Look around you. I think it is fair to say he was right.

***

Then what can we do or think or say?

We cannot formulate a new relationship [with nature] out of air… We cannot achieve a fundamentally different worldview by an act of will alone–some individuals can, perhaps, but not societies.

For the present it is just as well. We have only begun to recognize [the problem].

This is not a cop-out. It is not the curiosity of the inventor and capability of the engineer that have been at fault–but rather the zeal to employ every technological innovation for change and newness as ends in themselves. Changing culture is open to the same mistake.

True, but we are almost forty years later now. That is nothing, from the viewpoint of ontogeny, but it may be everything from the viewpoint of our ontogeny. That is why people like Derrick Jensen and now also the mild David Holmgren are calling for an active overthrow of our culture. Those who are not ready to consider Holmgren’s “Crash on Demand” should read Shepard anno 1977.

***

Of late I have seen a lot of quarreling and downright nasty behavior toward one another among activists/environmentalists. People switch “camps,” carve out new camps, defend and attack (Dave Pollards “New Political Map” is a pretty good approximation) all the time, and that is all fine, but the  personal attacking makes me wonder.

So I was  happy to read Dave’s latest blog post, which directed me to Eric Lindberg’s essay “Agency on Demand”. Dave holds with Eric that

our agency is limited, and that our propensity for beating each other up for our different ideas and proposals for coping with emerging system crises and collapses, stems from an exaggerated sense of our own agency.

Eric urges in his conclusion “Let us be patient and tolerant with ourselves and each other.” That’s hard to do as we grow more and more alarmed about out future and our apparent inability not only to control it, but even to agree on what tactics and strategies are most appropriate to cope with what is coming.

So we thrash and with each kick and shove we are reminded that the dominant culture, the “cultural evolution” that is supposed to make us free, may be a tighter straitjacket than our ontogeny ever was.

Do I have any agency left to get out of that straitjacket? Can I change my culture, find a new language, find my way back into the landscape? Can I take a stand?