Philosophy

Praying through a Fierce Wisdom

    What role might the Arts play in addressing an “environmental” movement? For an anthropologist, a culture’s art is not just a collection of facts about how, practically and concretely, these people went about their lives. It animates the spirit of those lives. To someone who is sensitive to such things, art paints a picture of what specific human cultures understood and valued. Their behavior and choices make sense to us, not because we would have made the same choices but because we see that they had a rationale and one that must have been deeply compelling to them. I think it is clear that, even though the word “rational” is part of the word “rationale,” it seems far more accurate to understand human behavior as being fundamentally motivated by feelings and values, rather than by a rational mind.  We are not computers, though reductionist science is not averse to thinking our brains are simply this and no more. Nor are we robots of rigorously rational consumption, though modern economics seems to want to define mankind in this way, and to further define the beautiful, wild and dynamic earth as a “free market.” M198073

     An environmental movement that tries to argue for change using only rational and utilitarian arguments will not bring us closer to a wise relationship with the place in which we live. Good science and clear thinking has a great role to play. But if our rationale does not include affection for the places where we live, our cleverness and accumulated knowledge won’t matter. We need good stories, told compellingly by people who care about the land they stand on, the water they drink, and the creatures with whom they share living space.

     The name of this blog is taken from the title of a poem by one of America’s greatest poets, James Dickey. It is a fierce poem, deeply felt, beautiful in its rage and near despair.

 

 

 

FOR THE LAST WOLVERINE

 

                           

They will soon be down

 

To one, but he still will be

For a little while    still will be stopping

 

The flakes in the air with a look,

Surrounding himself with the silence

Of whitening snarls. Let him eat

The last red meal of the condemned

 

To extinction, tearing the guts

 

From an elk. Yet that is not enough

For me. I would have him eat

 

The heart, and from it, have an idea

Stream into his gnarling head

That he no longer has a thing

To lose, and so can walk

 

Out into the open, in the full

 

Pale of the sub-Arctic sun

Where a single spruce tree is dying

 

Higher and higher. Let him climb it

With all his meanness and strength.

Lord, we have come to the end

Of this kind of vision of heaven,

 

As the sky breaks open

 

Its fans around him and shimmers

And into its northern gates he rises

 

Snarling    complete    in the joy of a weasel

With an elk’s horned heart in his stomach

Looking straight into the eternal

Blue, where he hauls his kind. I would have it all

 

My way: at the top of that tree I place

 

The New World’s last eagle

Hunched in mangy feathers    giving

 

Up on the theory of flight.

Dear God of the wildness of poetry, let them mate

To the death in the rotten branches,

Let the tree sway and burst into flame

 

And mingle them, crackling with feathers,

 

In crownfire. Let something come

Of it    something gigantic    legendary

 

Rise beyond reason over hills

Of ice    screaming    that it cannot die,

That it has come back, this time

On wings, and will spare no earthly thing:

 

That it will hover, made purely of northern

 

Lights, at dusk    and fall

On men building roads: will perch

 

On the moose’s horn like a falcon

Riding into battle    into holy war against

Screaming railroad crews: will pull

Whole traplines like fibres from the snow

 

In the long-jawed night of fur trappers.

 

But, small, filthy, unwinged,

You will soon be crouching

 

Alone, with maybe some dim racial notion

Of being the last, but none of how much

Your unnoticed going will mean:

 

How much the timid poem needs

 

The mindless explosion of your rage,

 

The glutton’s internal fire    the elk’s

Heart in the belly, sprouting wings,

 

The pact of the “blind swallowing

Thing,” with himself, to eat

The world, and not to be driven off it

Until it is gone, even if it takes

 

Forever. I take you as you are

 

And make of you what I will,

Skunk-bear, carcajoy, bloodthirsty

 

Non-survivor.

                        Lord, let me die    but not die

Out.

 

–  James Dickey, “For the Last Wolverine” from Poems 1957-1967. Copyright © 1967 by James Dickey.

 

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“Managing” is Letting the World Be: Wild, Beautiful, Enough

     There are three ideas that I make sure to spend time with every day. If pressed to reduce these ideas to a single word each, I might pick WILD, BEAUTY and ENOUGH. If you spend any time with these words, you’ll find that they are devilishly tricky to define empirically. If you don’t like this sort of thing, you might call them “bottomless pits” and a waste of time. They’re subjective. Everyone has his or her own opinion, and that’s that, right? For some, that is as far as they will go.

     If you persevere and you’re willing to turn the volume down on your rational mind, you’re likely to find a great deal of emotion associated with these terms and that these emotions are very deep-seated. In the presence of something “WILD,” for instance, we don’t have to take a few seconds to figure out if it fits our intellectual parameters. We feel “WILD”-ness before we understand it. There’s an awareness that the rational mind, in trying to define these terms, is undoubtedly the servant of the emotions here, the rationalizer and arguer for things already decided. Taking time to pay attention to WILD things and BEAUTIFUL things is quite an opportunity to become aware of yourself as an emotional being. ENOUGH?….is perhaps the most emotional of all. It’s a question of understanding your own self as a wild and beautiful thing: the where you are, what you are and how far your shadow falls. This is where you’re actually alive and where your living affects the world. I sure hope you have feelings about that.

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     Feeling raw emotions can be scary and/or humbling, especially for someone grown up in a “rational” society (ha ha..right…let me rephrase) ….grown up in a society that values the predictability of rational facades, that rewards facts and solid, demonstrable accomplishments. What’s humbling is that it’s pretty common to feel good about myself because I think I have a good argument, i.e. I’m a “good” person because I’m on the right side of this intellectual discussion. Meanwhile, beneath this “good” feeling are other coarser feelings that are less about protecting my social self-esteem. They may be less civilized (anger, sadness, joy, lust, awe) but they’re hardly less real. It’s amazing to notice what you’re really feeling while not immediately rationalizing it away.

      I do not believe that rational thought will ever be able to penetrate to the roots of these three ideas. These are things we know about ourselves at a basic level, before we think about anything, even if we choose to ignore or suppress this basic knowledge. I want to spend significant energy in my life working towards a better human relationship with planet earth NOT because of some rational, utilitarian argument (though I can make some of those) but because I feel genuine and natural anger and sadness and joy and awe. My body, my basic self, wants to celebrate the earth and defend the earth. If someone was coming at me and attempting to harm some part of my body, I wouldn’t have to think of a rational reason to defend myself. The relationship between me and my body is an emotional/intuitive one.

     How is it that we don’t acknowledge a similar mutuality between ourselves and the natural world? I can think of reasons, rational divisions I can make that draw a line between myself and the “Other.” But my feelings don’t always agree with that rational division. Emotionally, I respond to the natural world by having feelings, not quite as urgently as the ones I have about my own body, perhaps, but strong feelings nonetheless. I have a natural urge to protect it, care for it. This is not a rational knowing; it’s what I know in my feelings, in my bones. It’s as natural as my breath. I don’t recall ever in my life feeling apathetic about such things. It is a knowing that has a sense of wisdom to it, though it’s not always easy to extract the truly wise act from the feeling. This takes practice.

    Western civilization has moved for millennia to override this natural knowing and especially so since the Enlightenment and the rise of science. It’s hard to run a populous society if everyone is using his or her feelings to decide how to behave. Biology is so messy; good thing rational man got here to straighten out and streamline everything! By emphasizing the rational mind, humans have learned an enormous amount about the world. The scientific method has to be considered a terrific success. My caveat and warning, however, is this: If saying that rational knowledge is right requires us also to say that emotional/intuitive knowledge is wrong,  then we will regularly fail to make of ourselves good people, good societies or good partners with other wild beings.

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     ENOUGH for this first post, then.

     One addendum: For income, I run an online bookstore called Scholar and Poet Books. (Check out the widget at the side to take a look at my inventory.) As I was writing this post, it struck me how I really do grapple with the balance between these two elements of my consciousness, the thinker and the feeler, the heart and the head. The dance between the two is where good work is done. Any feedback, whether it’s something you feel or something you think, is appreciated.

 

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