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

even my own self, it just don’t seem mine

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’s  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 to step out of academics in disgust.  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 consequences, that I 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 as 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 straightjacket than our ontogeny ever was.

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

DSCF5854Last Sunday a group of us carpooled into JP to hear Charles Eisenstein speak at the Jamaica Plain Forum. I spotted him standing to the side at the front of the church, waiting for everyone to settle down and the event to begin, and an uneasy feeling grew in me. He looked out of place in that big, cold, stone church. It was packed, but he looked alone, and bone-tired. When the talk began, he explained he had just recovered from the flu and that his voice was last to recover. It was painful listening to his voice.

Yet there he was, giving it his best.

I loved Charles’ talk, his words, his confidence, his humbleness, his answers to questions and criticism, and how he held everyone’s silence for over a minute all the way at the end. After the talk I took my copy of The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible for him to sign and thanked him for saying that “sometimes we think we have forgotten how to be human, but we have brought reminders along.” I said he gives me hope that we can come fully alive when it is needed and we need to live up to that more beautiful world. All he did was nod “yes,” and that was enough.

After the talk I read his essay, “2013: A year that pierced me,” in which he writes that the did over a hundred and fifty speeches and longer events in 2013, despite  doubts that he was doing any good. He writes,

I cannot keep doing this work – the exhausting travel, the missing my family, the rejection by social institutions that confer money and status – unless I believe that it is worth it, that I am truly and effectively contributing to a more beautiful world, and that such a world is indeed possible… the case for despair is by far the stronger. No matter. It isn’t evidence or logic that sustains me, nor can it sustain anyone else in a life of service.

A life of service.

Later on I spoke with a friend who was also at the talk. She said she hated it. She hated being cold (it was freezing in the church), and the speaker wasn’t giving it his best, it was like he was just rehashing things from other talks, and she felt that being there was a waste of her time. I expressed surprise, said  I had loved it, then told her that there is this thing I do before walking into events like this, where speakers carry in messages near to my heart: I examine my expectations, then let them go (insofar as I am capable, but I think I’m pretty capable by now). Now this friend is an amazing person and she understood. She asked:

“What do you think I missed because I couldn’t let go of my expectations?”

What an amazing question! I answered all the above (paragraph 3). But this is what I should have said:

“You missed the meal.”

In hindsight, what I see is a man who was offering himself up and being eaten. He was already half-eaten, and yet he had come and was serving himself again, living his life of service. Tired and sick, he came anyway, because people asked him to come, because people needed to be fed.

While shoveling snow after hours of tedious and unappreciated activist work and before cooking dinner, the thought of Charles Eisenstein being eaten by those who love him and those who hate him alike made me angry, then guilty. I had eaten. What had I given him in return? Even when I gave him my thanks, was I taking yet another piece? Then I felt scared for him. There must be a way, I thought, for people of service not to be consumed. A balance of some sort? A protecting ceremony? A cadre of helpers? A way of giving thanks?

Of course that was about me – a little run-down, at that moment, a little resentful for not even being asked to do the work, and the work being anonymous, unnoticed, and the results nothing much to write home about. But after a while when I let go of that, I looked at Charles again. Though I still very much grieve that this is how it seems to have to be, and wish that he will not be fully consumed by our demands on him for a new story, for hope, I come to accept the meal he gave so readily.

As he writes in his essay,

Why am I still doing my work? Much as I would like to say otherwise, it is by no means because of any personal fortitude. It is because of the timely help I receive from people like Joshua, people close to me and strangers from around the world who reflect back at me what I know in my heart and cannot believe without help…  This support answers those who say it is foolish to trust in the generosity of others. It is living proof that we yearn to contribute to something beyond ourselves that is beautiful to us.

It is but one piece of giving true thanks to the one who serves us: not to decline it, to accept and thus value it fully, and make the giving of it everything. There is another piece: to then pass it on.

I am enrolling  in Stephen Jenkinson’s Orphan Wisdom School, which begins in April.

The Orphan Wisdom School is crafted specifically for all those people who will fail to live forever, who have come to the idea – or been driven there – that their yearning for a deep life must be tethered to the plough of labour and learning to harrow the hardened field of sorrows and solitary, grey news that has become our corner of this beautiful world, so that children can one day soon be born into to a real, detailed, laboured over Better Day that we ourselves might not live to see.

There I hope to learn how to serve the meal as well as eat it, all of it, with deep gratitude for the giving.

{UPdate} I just discovered this on Stephen’s blog. In this five-minute video he actually talks about eating:


OLD HANDS Stephen Jenkinson from Tim Wilson on Vimeo.

 

chickorder

 

Kidding! We’re not getting 20 of them. Only four of these little ones will become ours: 2 Buff Orpingtons, 1 Black Australorp, and 1 Barred Rock – these were Amie’s choices. We pooled our order with a friend and a friend-of-that-friend. I can’t wait till April 14, when we go pick them up: a box with 20 puff balls, all chirping away!

As for our five hens (4 of them soon two years old, 1 one-year-old), we’re getting two, sometimes three eggs a day now. I decided to start keeping a record.

It started snowing again, an end to the warmer weather of the weekend. I missed the opportunity to go into my hives, but I did find out that mice got into my stored honey supers and chewed through quite a lot of wax and fouled it up.

Our plans to bury the recently deceased Nocty were thwarted by the deep freeze we are in. The ground is rock hard. The bird too.

I put Nocty in an empty feed bag and rolled it up. I’m keeping her on the porch so no big animals can get at her. As for the little ones, the undertakers, they won’t start their work until the body defrosts. Amie asked why, and I explained we humans are about 60% water and I suspect it’s somewhat similar for a chicken. She got it right away with regard to the chicken. It blew her mind that the same goes for the soil. I couldn’t say how much water is in the soil, but all the tiny spaces between the mineral molecules were flooded when it rained or when the snow on top of it melted, and then that water too froze. So the soil per se isn’t frozen, but the water that saturates it is. That’s why my shovel can’t make a dent in it.

Thinking of it now the similarities between the state of the bird and the state of the soil go further. Both seem brittle, parched, dry, because the water in them can’t do its thing, that is, moisten and move.  The soil should be awash with life and so should Nocty – Amie believes that firmly now, that Nocty should rot and give her body back to the circle. But the bird, the creatures who will do the rotting (the washing), and the medium in which this can be done (the soil/the water) – all are waiting.

Looking down into the brown paper bag at the golden brown feathers, it doesn’t feel right that she’s neither alive in the chicken-sense, nor in the rot-sense. I hope we’ll have a thaw soon.

After reading Lauren Scheuer’s book, Once Upon a Flockin one swoop, Amie now has a favorite blog: Scratch and Peck, which is adorable and very funny and, well, about chickens! She has decided that this Spring we should get one Barred Plymouth Rock, one Black Australorp, and one Buff Orpington, just like Ms. Scheuer has!

Today, just now, in fact, four us met to talk about “inner work”. The question was: what do we need? Not just us, but our community. We talked about how we often feel judged and marginalized simply because we voice our doubts, fear, grief, helplessness. About how there must be others in our towns, struggling with these feelings, but alone. They might think that there is a problem with them, that it’s depression. But, as Jenkinson says, “what if there is nothing wrong with you?” What if it’s not their psychological problem, but a whole community’s cultural problem? What if what you’re feeling is not depression, but grief, and you have a perfectly good reason for that grief? What if we as a group started speaking a bit more openly about our grief, owning it, valuing it? What if we started building a whole new culture. We might create a space where people can come and talk, a safe room like Francis Weller describes, with a floor where we can stand with our grief and not feel like we’re in free fall. More organically, a place and community, in nature where we belong, where grief can enrich us and blossom along with its sister, joy.

Yes.

I’m so glad I picked up Barbara Hurd’s books, Stirring the Mud and Entering the Stone. I’ve started reading the first one and was hooked as of page one. She alerted me to the wetlands, bogs and marshes, and the marginal areas, high-traffic, super-diverse, home to species of the two biota that overlap there, as well as to “edge species”. Humans, she points out, are not such an edge species. We don’t feel comfortable in the undefined, not-one-or-the-other places. We don’t like to be on edge.

I like the idea of the edge. We’re not talking the kind of place where one thing stops and something else begins, a clear edge like a cliff, or the horizon, or the doorstep where indoors becomes outdoors. We’re talking of two edges in fact, in the case of the wetland, the edge of the land, and the edge of the wet,and an overlap, where it’s both wet and land. A nest of being, being-neither and being-both.

Can we think of ourselves in such a place? In between two stories, in both stories, and in neither, all at the same time. We are undefinable. Saints and hypocrites and average human beings in the twenty-first century. Let’s put others on edge. Everyone who thinks they know where they are, in terra cognita, when they’re with us and we’re at our best (with our talk of grief and danger and immeasurable joy) will suddenly find they have wet feet!

I also read, in Paul Shepard, that the ferocity of territorial species is highest in the very heart of their territory, and less on the edges, where the work is one of balancing territoriality with sociality, security with vulnerability. On the edges of the territory are the common spaces. This should give us courage. There is a way of being on edge together. We may have forgotten it – we who have paved over the wetlands, colonized the whole world into one territory, retreated deeply inward via the internet and psychotherapy – but that is our culture‘s error. We know that deep inside we are still human. Let us learn again the way of the edges, where give means take, take means give – one wild and fecund circle!

 

 

Next time remind me not to go in. Definitely, if I do go in, not to visit the Nature section. And if I get there anyway, not to listen to Amie!

She had checked out the Children’s section already and found nothing of interest. Then she joined me in front of Nature – I don’t think she’ll ever go back to Children’s. It’s only two cases, so she read title by title, calling them out to me – siren song! We were no better than each other. We spurred each other on. It’s the fault of neither one of us.

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Amie chose chicken and goat books:

  • Once Upon a Flock: Life with My Soulful Chickens by Lauren Scheuer
  • Folks, This Ain’t Normal: A Farmer’s Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World by Joel Salatin (not only about chickens, but it has a chicken and an egg on the cover!)
  • The Year of the Goat: 40,000 Miles and the Quest for the Perfect Cheese by Margaret Hathaway

I chose the following (bear in mind that the word “choose” is sued here in a loose sense):

  • The Frog Run: Words and Wildness in the Vermont Woods by John Elder (there are a few authors I’ll buy any book from: Bass, Lopez, Harrison and Elder)
  • The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin (Just curious)
  • The Wild MuirTwenty-two of John Muir’s Greatest Adventures by John Muir: wonderful illustrations by Fiona King
  • Finding Home: Writing on Nature and Culture from Orion Magazine by Peter H. Sauer (Collection of Orion articles from before I became a subscriber (1992).)
  • Stirring the Mud: On Swamps, Bogs, and Human Imagination by Barbara Hurd (Intriguing title)
  • Entering the Stone: On Caves and Feeling through the Dark by Barbara Hurd (Comes with the one above)
  • An Unspoken Hunger: Stories from the Field by Terry Tempest Williams (Need I justify this one?)
  • Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death by Bernd Heinrich (I’ve read Mind of the Raven, or was it Winter World? I forget, but it was good)
  • Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature by Linda Lear (I like reading biographies, and Carson is of course a hero of mine)

PS. We did not get to bury Nocty. Both ground and chicken are frozen.

DSCF2765Amie took the news of Nocty’s demise very well, much better than I thought she would. She was shocked, then cried a little. After absorbing the news, we went to see the body on the porch. It was dark so I brought a flash light. I lifted the cardboard to uncover the body and Amie stroked Nocty’s  soft feathers. She said, “She is still a beautiful bird.” Then she became very curious. She tried to open the wing, remarked on the stiffness and I explained that when the blood is no longer flowing, the muscles get stuck and stiff. She even peeled open the bird’s eyelid and peered into the eye, searching for something.  I didn’t ask or talk, wanted to let her thoughts be free.

Then we went to check on Oreo, Nocty’s “sister,” who is now alone at the mercy of the older hens. The chickens were roosting, so she didn’t get to talk to Oreo, but this morning she went out to the coop before school and sat with her for a while. Her abiding concern, as mine, is with Oreo.

She also asked if we could keep Nocty the way she is and I explained we couldn’t, that she will rot. I explained that rotting is  being returned to the flow, that specialized insects and bacteria go in and tear down all the bonds that bind the flesh together and so release the atoms back into the stream and so on, into other bodies and new life.  I said to let that happen we should bury her, put her into the Earth, and we discussed where on the land. I proposed one of the garden beds. Then Nocty’s atoms would go into the lettuces and we could eat them. Amie liked that a lot. Encouraged, I proposed that at the end of the season we could dig up the bones. She liked that too.

We have set Wednesday after school aside for Nocty’s burial. We’ll also  do research on whether it will be safe to eat those lettuces, and on how to preserve animal bones.

DSCF2675small

This morning I found Nocty, one of our younger Ameraucanas (she would have been a year old in April), dead in the coop. She was lying in the narrow space between the roost and the big door.  It couldn’t have happened long ago. Her blue egg was next to her, still somewhat warm. There was no blood or anything on her, and she didn’t freeze. There had been no symptoms, on the contrary, she was the energetic one, and she was regularly laying eggs. I think it may have been Sudden Death Syndrome, aka heart attack. I hope so, because I wouldn’t want there to be a disease in the coop. Everyone else seems fine, but then again, so did Nocty.

I was shocked and sad to see this sociable, sweet and funny chicken lying there so vulnerable and – I think this is what got me the most – so alone. She is still a beautiful chicken and I held her like she let herself be held in life, like a baby. Hardest of all is the realization that Amie will take it badly. Another issue is Nocty’s “sister” Oreo, who is at the bottom of the pecking order and who always found refuge with Nocty, who often pecked back at the four older hens.

It’s the first chicken we’ve lost, indeed the first pet (that’s how Amie thinks of her). I’m getting ready to tell Amie after she comes home and after her play date – which means I’ll need to keep mum the whole time they play. For once I hope it rains and they can’t go play outside, with the chickens.