A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Wednesday 1 April 2009

Talkers And Dreamers

There had never been anything wrong in my life that a few good days in the wilderness wouldn't cure. PAM HOUSTON

Richard Mabey, one of our foremost English nature writers and compiler of Flora Britannica (about the folklore of British plants), published in 2005 a highly personal memoir called Nature Cure which documented his nervous breakdown. His recovery is closely bound up with his rediscovery of and reconnection with the natural world. He says this about language and nature: It is as if in using the facility of language, the thing we believe most separates us from nature, we are constantly pulled back to its, and our, origins... Learning to write again was what finally made me better - and I believe that language and imagination, far from alienating us from nature, are our most powerful and natural tools for re-engaging with it... Culture isn't the opposite or contrary of nature. It's the interface between us and the non-human world, our species' semi-permeable membrane. This is in fact similar to what The Grizzled Scribe was saying in his comment on my post from yesterday.

Mabey cites various writers who have explored this 'interface' - Aldo Leopold, Henry Thoreau, Gary Snyder, Annie Dillard, and the poet John Clare, of whom he writes: Clare was one of the few writers... to have created a language that joined rather than separated nature and culture. I would also add the name of Edward Abbey to this list - for out of the wild anarchy and bitter irony, the anguish and contradictoriness of Desert Solitaire, comes a plea for the absolute necessity and importance of wilderness, and an appeal for a true, universal 'civilization' rather than the one-sided, prejudiced, short-sighted 'culture' of a particular society in a particular tiime and place (when his book was published, in the 1960s, issues such as overpopulation, nuclear catastrophe, industrial tourism and the destruction of wilderness were very much on Abbey's mind). Through his brilliant writing, through his words, thoughts and ideas, Abbey demonstrates (to me at any rate) very much a 'civilized' mind - pointing out as he does the gulf between mankind and nature, and hinting how it may be possible to bridge it.

Yes, language and imagination are quite definitely natural products of human evolution, and may be used by poets, by writers, by all of us in order to reconnect with the natural world, a world we lost in the Garden of Eden after the Fall from Grace (if we choose to see it in these mythological terms). As Mabey writes: We have evolved as talkers and dreamers. That is our niche in the world, something we can't undo. But can't we see those very skills as our way back, rather than the cause of our exile?

In summation of the rather difficult subject I've tried to tackle in these last few posts (hopefully I haven't tied myself in too many knots!) I'll quote Gary Snyder from his book Unnatural Writing: Consciousness, mind and language are fundamentally wild. 'Wild' as in wild ecosystems - richly interconnected, interdependent and incredibly complex. Diverse, ancient and full of information... Narratives are one sort of trace that we leave in the world. All our literatures are leavings, of the same order as the myths of wilderness people who leave behind only stories and a few stone tools. Other orders of being have their own literature. Narrative in the deer world is a track of scents that is passed on from deer to deer, with an art of interpretation which is instinctive. A literature of bloodstains, a bit of piss, a whiff of estrus, a hit of rut, a scrape on a sapling, and long gone.


Raph G. Neckmann said...

I don't think you've tied yourself in knots, SW, I admire you for being able to analyze these writings so astutely!

I think I understand some of it in my heart, but find it difficult to put into words. All I can say is that plants, and especially trees have a very strong effect on me of wonder, (which Grizzled has talked so eloquently about). Today I was sitting on my front doorstep in the spring sun, writing, and I felt as if I was in paradise.

The Solitary Walker said...

Found it all a bit of a challenge to explain clearly, Raph - but it's a subject I find fascinating so I gave it a go! Not so sure how astute though.

Trees have that effect on me too. And yes, the weather today, with the Spring flowers, the forsythia, the daffodils, the grape hyacinths, the cherry blossom - absolutely perfect! Even if I did see it all from the driving seat of a car (going through the beautiful Lincolnshire Wolds).

Bella said...

Trees also have a special effect on me too...calming and earthing. When I think of many of the religions there is always some sort of spiritual reference to the tree.

I really like the quotes about language and our way back. And the narratives that are tracks interpreted instinctual...wow.. again, I love taking a narrative approach in life...whats the context, the story, the big picture...and narrative psychotherapy - reclaiming the story within a broken or fractured soul.

Rachel Fox said...

Fascinating post indeed.

The Solitary Walker said...

Bella - yes, trees are so special, connecting heaven and earth, the sky and the soil, as they do. The English novelist John Fowles (author of 'The French Lieutenant's Woman') wrote the text to a very interesting illustrated book called 'The Tree', which I would recommend reading.

All our lives, even the most ordinary days, are 'narratives', aren't they? With memory and imagination and true fact and distorted fact all mixed up in them.

I think all our lives, all our days, are journeys, or novels, or poems - with veiled meanings, and hidden goals, but with odd, unexpected moments of illumination. I believe this for my own sanity, in many ways. I can not allow myself to think that literal, mundane, random everydayness is all there is. I simply have to interpret, make significances, make connections, mythologize etc - in other words, make a 'narrative'.

jay said...

"It's the interface between us and the non-human world, our species' semi-permeable membrane"

I love that. It's so true, whether you're talking of nature and interconnectedness with the wild earth, or whether you're talking of communication with our fellow humans.

As you know, I'm not fond of John Clare's poetry, but I will give him that. He did become an interpreter of the natural world, and he did it as an uneducated man.

I very much like what Gary Snyder said about the narrative of deer - I've always thought of our dogs' walks like that. Their landscape is composed of smells, not images. Pheromones and memories and hint of what the unseen dog had for dinner.