City Life

Homeless People’s Encampment, Manchester, March 2017.

On a trip to Manchester this week I was shocked by the number of homeless people, many of them quite young adults, begging on the streets.  A group of women carrying sheets of cardboard and tatty quilts.  Men sitting on the pavement, lost to the world.  More than I’ve seen in over forty years of occasional visits to that city.  The tent encampment in the photograph above (one of many that have sprung up in recent years) is less than a quarter of a mile from a building site where hoardings announce the impending arrival of a 30 storey tower of luxury apartments ‘with unrivalled 360 degree views’.  And now we have Theresa May, a Tory Prime Minister, claiming she runs “a government that is working for everyone and for every part of the country.”

My younger self had some involvement in housing action in Manchester in the early 1970’s, when at least there was a lot of council house building, and a relatively more equal distribution of wealth.  Today’s escalating housing crisis, which visible street homelessness is only one part of, has been driven by a raft of draconican legislation coupled with cuts in welfare benefits and local government budgets.  The net result of this is that mutual respect between the super rich, or indeed the affluent, and those cast out beyond the increasingly shredded safety net of the welfare state becomes almost unimaginable.

As I was walking along the towpath of the Rochdale Canal beyond Castlefields, a young man approached me.  His manner was friendly, and he was evidently quite excited about something he wanted to show me.  I asked him what it was, but he couldn’t seem to find any words to describe it – so I offered to go and have a look.  We hurried to a spot about 50 yards further along, where he pointed urgently across the canal.  I scanned the opposite bank, which was covered with scrubby trees and detritus, but still wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be looking for.  Then I saw it.  Standing, stock still, and blending in with the background vegetation.  A heron.  When I told him what it was, his face broke into a radiant smile.  This was his first heron!  What a privilege to share a moment like that.

As he went on his way, I hoped he’d be o.k.  After all, we’ve been ‘told’ often enough how dangerous young black men are …

B.T. 25th March 2017.

For more on homelessness in Manchester see here, here, here, and here.

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Wing Beats-British Birds in Haiku

wing-beats001

In recasting “haiku as poetic spell”, I wish to emphasise, firstly, an ideal that is poetic as opposed to prosaic, and secondly, an expression that is more akin to a magical utterance than a mere report of an incident, however consequential or inconsequential.”

Martin Lucas, Haiku as Poetic Spell*

 

It matters little that Wing Beats was published eight years ago.  This beautifully produced collection of 323 Haiku, all of which are ‘solidly grounded in actual experience’, has lasting value.  The poems reflect moments in the lives of, we are told, 131 of the 570 species of British Birds listed by the British Ornithologists Union.  This is, necesssarily then, a local project.  One American viewer was baffled, for instance, by the word tormentil (a small yellow flower that is quite common where I live).  As someone who is familar with, and very fond of, British flora and fauna, though, I find that many of the poems work well as evocations.  They brim with what the seventeenth century naturalist Gilbert White called nice (exact, meticulous) observation of our avian neighbours, whilst Sean Gray’s monochrome illustrations depict each species so convincingly that I’ve been quite surprised that some of his birds haven’t flown up from the page.

The medium of haiku -characterised, according to sources to hand, by immediacy, precision, concreteness (no overt use of metaphor or symbolism), restraint, open-endedness, suggestion rather than explication, and an effacement of human emotional response- elicits slow contemplative reading.  This is not a book to be rushed.

For readers unfamiliar with the evolving tradition of English language haiku poetry, or with British Birds, there is a useful introduction and a series of informative appendices on taxonomy, naming conventions, the process of compiling the anthology, and (a substantial essay) on season words (kigo).  The latter includes interesting comparisons between the avifauna of Britain and Japan, where the associations between various birds and particular times of the year are ‘deeply rooted in haiku tradition’.  Matsuo Bashō often wrote about birds.  British cultural tradition is, of course, also rich in seasonal lore, not least that surrounding ‘the old pagan holidays’.

Interestingly, an early conception of the project was for a book of crow haiku (!) “twisting back from the mythic legacy of Hughes to include Bashō’s famous ‘crow’ haiku”.  Although John Barlow and Matthew Paul chose instead to emphasise ‘the real’, ‘to celebrate the commonplace, the local, the everyday’ and reflect ‘the geography, geology, history, and flora of the British landscape’, they clearly believe that the sensory moments they celebrate ‘refresh the human spirit’.  Stephen Moss, in his Foreword, talks about an underlying indefineable connection with wild creatures ‘the true meaning of which is perhaps known only to our hearts’, and writes that the poems help us reconnect in a deeper, more intense, way, -though ‘an element of mystery remains’.

The quotation (epigraph above) from Martin Lucas -who was a colleague and friend of the editors, and a keen birdwatcher- is taken from an essay in which he likened haiku to ‘a poetic spell’, in which words ‘chime’, ‘beat’, and ‘flow’, have power, and when spoken like a charm, cannot be forgotten.  This recalls Ted Hughes’s conception of poetic magic, though Hughes took the idea further, believing that sufficiently well crafted words could summon an animal, or spirit.  In suggesting that there were other kinds of poetic spell, however, Martin Lucas did leave open the question of what form these might take.

I like this book very much, but a critical voice in me found the lack of an author index frustrating, and would like to have seen more than a couple of passing references to the crisis affecting so many bird species.  The scale of the loss of many once common species is perhaps more evident now than it was in 2008? (See, for instance here).  I’m all in favour of celebrating the beauty of the living world.  It seems to me that many of these haiku have the attributes of Martin Lucas’s ‘magical utterances’, that they have been crafted from the numinosity of nature, and crucially for me, they foreground the agency of other-than-human protagonistsBut its now quite widely accpeted, not least in the burgeoning field of ecocriticism as well as amongst contemporary animists, that celebration needs to happen in a context that tells truths about both the impact of human cultures, especially those framed by global capitalism and late modernity, on other sentient species, and attends to the deathward facing/katabatic aspect of cosmic nature.  This is something that Ted Hughes, at his best, arguably achieved.

I borrowed a copy of Wing Beats from my friend Jo Pacsoo, who has a haiku in the book (and several others here).  Elsewhere she has made effective use of the haibun form, in which haiku are embedded in similarly succinct and controlled prose, allowing personal and/or political context to be elaborated.

But enough from my inner critic.  I would wholeheartedly reccomend this anthology to anyone who knows, and cares about, British birds.  There is a lot to be said for the understated phenomenological precision of haiku as a way of responding to, and evoking, the depth and complexity of the living world.  Taken together, the poems in Wing Beats constitute a valuable repository of testimony to human appreciation of, and respect for, wild land and the multi species communities we are fast losing.  Amid an unceasing deluge of apocalytic news, there is, surely, a pressing need for practices and sites of quiet contemplation and celebration.

B.T. 26th of September 2016.

John Barlow and Matthew Paul, eds.Wing Beats, British Birds in Haiku, Snapshot Press (2008).

Sources:

Martin Lucas, Haiku as Poetic Spell, a paper delivered at the 4th Haiku Pacific Rim Conference in Terrigal, Australia, in 2009.

Jo Pacsoo, Chiaoscuro, and Earth, Time, Water, and Sky, both from Palores Publications, Redruth.

Entanglements in an Anthropocentric World -Thom van Dooren on Crows and Hospitality.

House Crow (Corvus splendens), Tirunelvedi, India. Photo KI Hari Krishnan, Creative Commons.

House Crow (Corvus splendens), Tirunelvedi, India. Photo K. Hari Krishnan, Creative Commons.

Perhaps it is we who have not yet “evolved” into the kinds of beings worthy of our own inheritances‘. -Thom van Dooren, Flight Ways.

Twice on recent walks I’ve encountered older men who evidently thought I was one of their kind.  Although I am older than Jeremy Corbin and do use a walking pole when out on the hills -not least to test the depth of sphagnum bog or peaty puddles- it soon became clear to me on both occasions that I was talking across a cultural chasm.  Both men seemed desperate to vent suppressed fury, and launched into worrying diatribes.

The first encounter, which occured shortly after the British electorate had voted -by a narrow majority in an ill-conceived referendum- to leave the European Union, was with a man I’ve often shared wildlife news with.  He told me he’d voted to leave, and proclaimed, rather dramatically, that “we need someone who’ll give the bastards a good kicking”.  The second encounter was with a dog walker who approached me when I sat down to have a snack.  My new ‘friend’ began by reminiscing about his alcoholic father, but soon embarked upon an account of the Second World War, which, in his view, we only got involved in ‘because some idiot had decided to invade the poor Germans’.

These unsettling cameos seem consistent with the 42% spike in reported racist hate crime in the two weeks before and after the referendum (see here).  And, of course, a week before the referendum the country was shaken by the appalling murder of Jo Cox, a Labour M.P. with an impressive record as a humanitarian activist.  A fund set up in her memory raised £1 million in three days for Hope Not Hate (an anti-extremist charity), the R.V.S. (who care for elderly people), and White Helmets (Syrian search and rescue volunteers).(1)

I’m writing this on a warm early September morning with the window open, but can’t see or hear any House Martins.  Local birders report that they’ve had a bad year, so I’ve been looking out for the larger groups that should be gathering in preparation for their autumn migration.  I don’t know what multispecies stories underly this disruption, but in a period of unprecedented anthropogenic species loss, one of many concerns about ‘Brexit’ is that we have a farming minister who has described key E.U. environmental legislation (the Birds and Habitat directives) as ‘spirit crushing’.(2)

Entanglements

In the current issue of Environmental Humanitiesa thought provoking open access journal, Thom van Dooren and Deborah Bird Rose ponder the writing and thinking practices that inform their research on species extinctions.  In an article entitled Lively Ethography, Storying Animist Worlds they invoke Emma Restall Orr’s notion of “the relational awakeness” of the world and elaborate an approach ‘grounded in an attentiveness to the evolving ways of life (or ethea, singular ethos) of diverse forms of human and nonhuman life, and in an effort to explore and perhaps restory the relationships that constitute and nourish them’.  Their vision of ecological animism attends to a world ‘woven through with co-forming patterns of responsiveness, attention, desire, and communication.’

The authors illustrate their approach with a series of ethographic vignettes from ‘sites of entanglement’ involving Hawaiian monk seals, lava fields, lichen, and alalā, or Hawaiian crows.  Although the latter are regarded by some humans as aumakua, or ancestral deities, the focus of van Dooren and Rose’s ‘art of witness’ is very much on ecological realities rather than engagements with a spirit world.  Despite my strong interest in the subtle dimensions of inter-species relationship I can see that, in some contexts, such issues might distract from urgent discussions about species loss and nonhuman agency -and in any case wholeheartedly endorse van Dooren and Rose’s concern to ’embrace the ethical call others make upon us in the meaningfulness of their lives and deaths’. (my italics) (3).

Hawaiian Crow, Corvus Hawaiiensis. Plate Mammology and Ornithology, Atlas. Cassin J, 1858. Philadephia, C Sheerman, Creative Commons.

Hawaiian Crow, Corvus Hawaiiensis.  Mammology and Ornithology, Atlas. Cassin J, 1858. Philadephia, C Sheerman, Creative Commons.

Thom van Dooren’s work appeals to me because he writes extensively, as an environmental philosopher and anthropologist, about birds.  In Flight Ways (4) he fleshes out Val Plumwood’s notion of human exceptionalism in relation to the lived experience of species such as Laysan and Black Footed Albatrosses, Oriental, Long-billed, and Slender-billed Vultures, and Whooping Cranes, that face the possible extinction of their kind.  When vultures disappear, for example, what Deborah Rose calls a ‘doubling’ of death occurs as the ecological connections and entanglements necessary for life are unmade.

In two recent articles Thom van Dooren writes about two very different species of crow.  In one he discusses the predicament of the Hawaiian Crow, or alalā (Corvus Hawaiiensis), a bird which has been extinct in the wild since 2002.  Van Dooren explores some complex questions that arise around a captive breeding programme in which two small extant populations survive, focussing on ecologists’ attempts to ensure that despite the inevitable loss of vocal repertoire/vocabulary/animal cultures by captive birds, released alalā behave ‘authentically’ (e.g. eat forest fruits rather than forage amongst human garbage).

One informant tells him that released birds are not really alalā at all.  Hawks no longer respect them.  They have become a different species.  Van Dooren responds by questioning notions of fixed and essential species identity.  Building upon Val Plumwood’s call to reconceptualise evolution in a way that respects nonhuman agency, he argues that behaviour is a relational and developmental achievement.  ‘As crows around the world move into cities and learn new ways of life, they conduct experiments in emergent forms of crowness’.

He goes on to suggest that ethical relations between humans and other animals might require ‘careful and deliberate forms of detachment’, respectful distance, a ‘paradoxical absent presence’.  Humans need learn to ask ‘what kinds of relationships and forms of life are crows themselves interested in taking up?'(5)  Although I’m wary of social theories that rely on analogies between human and other-than-human ‘natures’ and ‘cultures’, the parallels here with, for instance, Rogerian client-centred counselling amongst humans, are intriguing.  In Flight Ways (pp133-142) van Dooren cites research documenting the ability of corvids to show empathy, and it seems, to grieve.  What is being lost in the forests of Hawaii, then, may well be an other-than-human culture that includes ways of grieving -for so many deaths, for the loss of a way of life, and perhaps for an entire species.  Yet amongst human cultures the passing of a nonhuman species is rarely marked or mourned.

House Crow Feeding Chicks, photo Emanjsr2611, Creative Commons.

House Crow Feeding Chicks, photo Emanjsr2611, Creative Commons.

In another recent article Thom Van Dooren directs our attention towards the complex realities of a crow species that may, just possibly, have earned its bad reputation, and of the magnitude and effects of power within late modern/global capitalist human societies.  The Unwelcome Crows, hospitality and the anthropocene (6) tells the story of a small group of about thirty five to forty House Crows, a species from the Indian subcontinent, that had set up home in Hoek van Holland.  House Crows have proved themselves to be adept at stowing away on ocean going ships, and are now quite widely dispersed.  Their ‘invasion’ of Europe has not been taken lightly however, and the Dutch authorities launched an eradication programme based on fears that they would damage crops, threaten other species, and spread disease, apparently without first undertaking a detailed study of the birds.

Thom van Dooren’s visit to the location prompted him to reflect on conceptions of hospitality and to write that that the arrival of strangers ‘is always haunted … grounded in specific pasts and futures, imagined and/or lived’.  The attempted eradication of these avian invaders is juxtaposed against the operations of the gargantuan port of Rotterdam, just across the river, characterised by van Dooren as ‘a key driver, an engine, of the Anthropocene’.  Seven days a week, day and night, ships arrive and depart.  ‘This is how old growth forests become floorboards, how we are able to keep burning fossil fuels at low prices’.  How dirty industries, toxic materials, and carbon emission responsibilities, are outsourced to unseen corners of distant lands.  Rather than blaming a singular ‘humanity’ for all of this ‘we’ need to ‘open up the question of who it is that is marking and appropriating the world at our present time’.  Van Dooren pithily comments that ‘here, at the epicentre of our remaking of the world to suit our designs and whims, the lives of forty crows could not be tolerated’.

He then ponders the ability of jackdaws to get on with the new arrivals, and how humans might have responded differently, by moving beyond the ‘logic of the host’, with its appropriative claim. ‘What is needed … is an entirely new frame of orientation: an acknowledgement that the world and its future were never ours -never any individual or group’s- to give in the first place, to welcome or not.’  In multispecies worlds lives inescapeably overlap.  ‘My house, my body, are always already others’ territories too …. [  ] … alter-territorialities are possible’.  Which brings me back to my own recent unsettling human encounters, played out, of course, against the appalling backdrop of an epic migration crisis in which thousands of our fellow human beings are dying as they attempt to reach the shores of Europe.

B.T.

11th September 2016.

Sources:

(1) The Killing of Jo Cox, Wikipedia.  (accessed 1/9/16).

(2) Brexit would free UK from ‘spirit crushing’ green directives, says minister,  The Guardian, 30th May 2016.

(3) Thom van Dooren and Deborah Bird Rose, Lively Ethography, Storying Animist Worlds,  Environmental Humanities 8:1 (May 2016).

(4) Thom van Dooren, Flight Ways, Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction, Columbia University Press, 2014.

(5) Thom van Dooren, Authentic Crows; Identity, Captivity, and Emergent Forms of Life, Theory, Culture, and Society, 2016 Vol 33 (2) 29-52.

(6) Thom van Dooren, The Unwelcome Crows; hospitality in the anthropocene, Journal of Theoretical Humanities, vol21 no2 June 2016.  This article is available here (you can register as an independent researcher).

Environmental Humanities

Thom van Dooren – Encountering Crows

Ted Hughes on Oracular Corvids

 

crow-ted-hughes4
This morning, as I was wondering whether to write something about Ted Hughes in the context of recent hill walks on a rather bleak and exploited stretch of the Lancashire/Yorkshire border -a place he reportedly retreated to during the awful personal nadir from which Crow emerged- an e-mail arrived with a link to a documentary involving Hughes, made by the National Film Board of Canada (in 1994), called Seven Crows a Secret What follows is a brief recommendation of the film, and a footnote on a possible source for the idea of Cave Birds.

In the film a rather subdued and life worn Hughes (who only had another few years to live) reads from Crow and (towards the end) talks about the crow as ‘the totemic oracular god of Britain, a fact which has unfortunately been forgotten’.  Interestingly, given his views on the potential magical power of the photographic image, and doubtless also an understandable resistance to biographical exposure, he doesn’t look into the camera at any point.

The film opens slowly, but if you’re interested in Ted Hughes, crows, or bird lore, its worth persisting.  The first interviewee is Leonard Baskin, the sculptor and printmaker whose extraordinary drawings enliven the Viking Press edition of Cave Birds.  It was Baskin (who also had only a few years left to live when the film was made) who had found Hughes in a very depressed state and suggested he write some crow poems.  I don’t concur with the bleak view of birds, or the rest of nature, he expresses in the film, but I wouldn’t want to judge a Jewish artist renowned for his scupltures at the Ann Arbor Holocaust Memorial on that score.

The film also visited Bernd Heinrich, an engaging ornithologist who conducted influential research on ravens.  Heinrich kept pet crows from a young age, and several years before his major life project on ravens began, recorded a dream in which he heard ravens croaking, telling him that their nest was near.(2)  There’s some nice footage of ravens in the film, and the commentary highlights the widespread negative perception of corvids, pointing out that crows are ‘a model of monagmous devotion’, and loyal parents, and that ravens will give their nest over to their growing chicks, going elsewhere to roost in order to give them space.  This endearing habit has been misinterpreted in beliefs that ravens make bad parents.  Prejudice of this kind is contrasted with a Haida story of the raven ‘trickster’ who coaxed little creatures into the world with his beautiful soft voice, before the first Haida Indians were born.

It’s often assumed that birds don’t mourn, so I was pleased to hear about two ravens at the Tower of London, named Huggin and Munin after Odin’s raven emissaries.  After the female, Munnin, died from a heart attack, her partner Huggin mourned for two years before showing signs of interest in another bird.

After centuries of persecution ravens have benefitted greatly from legal protection in the U.K.   Since the 1990’s they have returned to most areas, including the Lancashire/Yorkshire Pennines.  Unfortunately, following a spate of predation by ravens on lambs in Scotland, farmers and gamekeepers are now calling for them to join other corvids on the list of species on the General Licence.  This would enable landowners to kill them without applying for permission each time (at present ‘destructive ravens’ can be shot or trapped under individual licences).  The R.S.P.B. and other conservation bodies are opposing this  move, which could precipitate an indiscriminate cull. (see here).  Gamekeepers, who clearly don’t regard the crow as an oracular totemic god, and who, ironically, often invoke pejorative lore about the ‘unkindness’ of ravens, justify this on ecological grounds.  Research shows, however, that the presence of ravens has not been a significant factor in the precipitous decline (by up to 50% in the last quarter of century) in populations of wading birds such as lapwing, dunlin, golden plover, snipe, and curlew. (see here and here).

Raven, Corax Corax.

Raven, Corax Corax. (Photo, Pixabay, Creative Commons).

Cave Birds?

I’m not a huge fan of Ted Hughes’s Crow collection.  Ironically, given that he clearly realised the harm done by negative lore and beliefs about corvids, Crow, which was truncated by the second appalling tragedy in his life, has been criticised for its unremitting and unredeemed bleakness.  I agree with those who prefer Hughes’s shamanistic sequel, Cave Birds, in which existential anguish is assuaged, if not resolved, in moments of beauty and ecstasy, though like Hughes, I feel ambivalent about its appropriation of ornithomorphic imagery to explore all-too-human concerns.

After writing about Cave Birds (here) I stumbled upon a reference to the use of actual ‘cave birds’ in Hittite divination.  The birds in question were thought to have been a kind of partridge, the tadorna, which were either sacrificed and subjected to haruspicy (the examination of their entrails) or an examination of superficial signs on their bodies, or released so that their flight could be interpreted.(1)  Ann Skea was unable to find the original sources (dated 1963, 1966, and 1975) in Ted Hughes’ library at Emory University, but thought he may have come across them at Cambridge University library, to which he kept returning (pers comm).

Whether or not Hughes was aware of this connection, there’s a tradition within astrology (and other esoteric disciplines) that names can be significant, even where significance was not intended.  Given that an autobiogaphical strand permeates Cave Birds, given that Ted Hughes’ life would be subjected to intense biographical scrutiny, and not least given the poems’ imagery of interrogation, judgement, disembowelling, lobotomy, and the skinning of souls, a co-incidental naming of the collection after birds who were sacrificed and had their entrails examined, would perhaps have been apt.

B.T 2/5/16 updated on 24/5/16.

Sources:

(1) Michael Lowe and Carmen Blacker eds.  Divination and Oracles, London, George Allen and Unwin. 1981 pp 151 and 153-4 (and references on pp170-171).

(2) Bernd Heinrich, Mind of the Raven, Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds, Harper Perennial, 1999.

Also: Ted Hughes. Crow, From the Life and Songs of the Crow, Faber and Faber, 1970 and Cave Birds, Viking Press, 1978.

On alchemical symbolism in Cave Birds see Ann Skea, Ted Hughes, the Poetic Quest, University of New England Press (1994), also her web page on Crow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Taking Soul Birds Seriously.

Peacock Butterfly, Aglais Io.

Peacock Butterfly, Aglais Io.

Appropriately, on this variously named festival of the first fruits of the northern hemisphere harvest, Saturn, a.k.a. the Reaper, so named both for the necessity of death-in-life, and as ‘the one who harvests fruitful deeds'(1), turns direct in the heavens and starts to move forward across the last degrees of Scorpio, resonating with a potent configuration of other planets. (see astrological footnote**).

Having stumbled upon Peter Fenwick‘s finding that encounters with a personally significant animal, bird, or butterfly, are quite often reported around the time of a death, I wove this into an article that can now be found online in the latest issue of Paranthropology,  Journal of Anthropological Approaches to the Paranormal ‘Taking Soul Birds Seriously, a Post-secular Animist Perspective on Extra-Ordinary Communications revisits a series of kingfisher dreams and appearances that preceded and followed the death of a very dear friend in 2012, in the context of debates around contemporary animism.

One strand in these discussions has been whether we should abandon the term ‘spirits’.   Because it comes to us saturated in dualistic (neo-)Platonic and Christian assumptions that privilege celestial realms (‘Heaven’) over ecological concerns and the wonders of material embodiment, its uncritical use has undoubtedly distorted Western understandings of indigenous traditions.  My preference, however, has been to reclaim ‘spirit’ and ‘soul’, with due care, for earth-centred spirituality.

Having cited Graham Harvey on this, and sensing considerable scepticism about extra-ordinary experience in his Food Sex and Strangers, I was pleased to hear from him that he has no scepticism about the otherworld or its inhabitants.  His critique was, apparently, aimed at the casual approach of some Pagans towards otherworldly beings.

In the Paranthropology article I argue that we need terms that unambiguously signify discarnate persons or beings, whether or not we accept the possibility of their existence, and that the ontological status of visions, voices, or presences, may well be less important than their meaning and effect, and the power relations surrounding them.  I pick up on Brian Morris’s reminder that binary distinctions need not be interpreted dualistically, and on Patrick Curry’s similar argument that ‘contingent local distinctions between spiritual or mental and material … are not the problem, any more than are either rationality or spirituality per se. It is their conversion into an ideology and programme (rationalism, spiritualism, etc) which is pathological.”(2)

I wouldn’t want to ‘pathologise’ ingrained discursive habits such as dualism, but since, from a human perspective, nature seems riven with dualities -none more radical than the apparent chasm between ‘life’ and ‘death’- this simple move hopefully enables us to separate accounts of ecstatic or transcendental experiences and realities from their dualistic misuse, whilst ‘End of Life Experiences’, not least those involving the arrival of helpful and  loving presences, whoever they are and however we perceive and address them, appear (one way or another) to affirm existential continuity.

B.T. 1/8/15 (updated 2/8/15).

Astrological Footnote:  On the first of August 2015 Saturn went direct on 28 Scorpio, square Venus and Jupiter (on 27 and 29 Leo), and semi-square Pluto (on 13 Capricorn).  Pluto was therefore ‘with’ the midpoints Venus-Saturn and Jupiter-Saturn at 13 Libra.  Stationery periods, when a planet appears to hover at one point for a while, are said to concentrate the planet’s astrological effect – or if you prefer, to intensify the phenomena being signified.  Interestingly, Saturn is concerned with boundaries, thus also binary distinctions and ‘othering’, and (as Chronos) with time.  Death is undoubtedly a ‘limit experience’, and temporal boundary.

Sources:

(1) Alan Leo, Saturn: the Reaper, Samuel Weiser, 1916.

Graham Harvey, Food, Sex, and Strangers, Understanding Religion as Everyday Life, Acumen, 2013.  

(2) Patrick Curry, (2012) Revaluing Body and Earth, in Brady E. and Phemister P (eds), Human-Environment Relations: Transformative Values in Theory and Practice, Dordrecht, Springer, 41-54.
http://www.patrickcurry.co.uk/papers/Revaluing%20Body,%20Place%20and%20Earth.pdf

A Cloud Walk with Raven Conversation.

Low Cloud, Revealing by Concealing.

Low Cloud, Revealing by Concealing.

Yesterday we walked up towards the cloud that was sweeping across the hills.  Apart from one of two spots of last week’s snow, a few clumps of sheep’s wool snagged on fences, glistening spider’s webs, and some strange whitish patches of what looked to be fungal growth on worn out grass, all was brown, green, and pale grey.  And silent.  Wonderfully silent.  Or so it seemed at first.

oak moss lichen burnley forest feb 2015b_crLichens on young trees.
Lichens on young trees.

There were signs of habitation everywhere.  Badger runs, fox poo, deer paths, and small holes everywhere.  But badgers and foxes have become largely nocturnal, and deer are adept at camouflage and evasion.

In their absence we mythologise -anthropomorphise, romanticise- their defensive liminality, perhaps?  We once saw a herd of fallow deer at this very spot.  A local landowner used to keep them, so they had probably escaped his clutches.  Amongst them was a white doe, more magically real, for me at the time, than any folk tale hind.  But that dream-like moment has now receded into memory and story …

What have we here?

What have we here?

Whilst I tend to gaze into the distance, or up at the sky, my other half scans the ground for tiny plants and evidence of small creatures.  So it was she who noticed this fine example of a bank vole (?) run.  We’d been hearing a lot about how mice and voles survive the winter by running about in tunnels beneath the snow.  This appeared to be a perfect example, revealed by the retreating snow a few days previously.  If you click to enlarge the photo you’ll see that the grass above the tunnel entrance has been neatly clipped.

Gazing into the distance, I was suddenly jolted by a voice emanating from the swirling mist.  The voice was familiar, warm, throaty, quite high pitched.  Another similarly resonant voice replied.  Then all went silent for a while.  I stared into the formless mass that softened the rockface and refashiond the hillside, and waited.  Then the voice spoke again.

I offer the following inexpert translation of what was being said:

“I think I’ll just pop over there dear …”.  “Oh, all right then.  If you must.”  “I won’t be long”.  “Love you”.  “Love you too”.

Since one of the ravens eventually emerged from the cloud and headed on slowly flapping wings for the other side of the valley, this wasn’t difficult to deduce.  As I’m sure you’ll know, ravens are very expressive birds.  Their voices and body language are relatively easily read by humans -indeed they’ve been kept as pets because they can mimic human language.

Many testimonies confirm that ravens can be joyful, mischievous, impressively angry, or peaceful. Yes, they do feed on carrion, and yes, like carrion crows they peck the nutritious eyes of dead animals.  Their power and resilience has long been respected.  Some cultures regard them as prophetic, and venerate them for their proximity to the divine.

But when I come across them they often seem to be expressing love and affection for their lifelong partners.  Forget Christian imagery of the raven as bird of desolation, foreboding, and unclean-ness, that led to a long history of persecution.  Forget pagan imagery of the raven as a battle mascot for imperialistic warlords.  Hugin and Munin may have muttered prophetic truths in Odin’s ear, but what really mattered for them, I’m quite sure, was each other!  A chance encounter with a Raven always lifts my spirits.

B.T 11/2/15.

*note 12/2/15 – I’d mis-remembered Ted Hughes’s description of a Pike as ‘magically solid’, meaning ‘both ancestral dream figure and ordinary living fish’. (see Letters of Ted Hughes, Christopher Reid, ed p631).  That white deer felt both materially present and dreamlike, not least because of a local folk tale.

Sources:

Mark Cocker, Birds and People, Jonathan Cape, 2013.

Francesca Greenoak, British Birds, their Folklore, Names, and Literature, Christopher Helm, 1997.

Derek Ratcliffe, The Raven, A Natural History in Britain and Ireland, T and A D Poyser, 1997.

The Blackest Earth, Reclaiming Alchemy?

Tabula Smaragdina, Macrocosm and microcosm.  Engraving attached to Basilica Philosophica, 3rd vol of Johann Daniel Mylius, Opus Medico-Chymicum. 1618.  Matthaus Merian.

Tabula Smaragdina, Macrocosm and microcosm. Engraving attached to Basilica Philosophica, 3rd vol of Johann Daniel Mylius, Opus Medico-Chymicum. 1618. Matthaus Merian.

Several years ago, when writing an article on Ted Hughes, Shaman of the Tribe, I decided to have a look at The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz, a Rosicrucian allegory of spiritual transformation, written by Johann Valentin Andreae and published in 1616.  Hughes regarded the Chymical Wedding as a tribal dream, and wrote Difficulties of a Bridegroom under its influence.  In one of his letters he suggests imagining Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure performed at a meeting of Rosicrucian practitioners of hermetic magic and religious philosophy, and argues that the characters in such plays perform a symbolic function. The Chymical Wedding includes a description of a play that resembles a mysterious pageant (1), and is itself something of a dreamlike pageant.

I didn’t share Hughes’s enthusiasm for the story, and struggled to make much sense of its alchemical imagery, but was sitting reading the following episode from the sixth of the story’s seven days: – “In this room a bath was prepared for the bird … but after it began to heat, by reason of the lamps placed under it, we had enough to do to keep him in the bath.  We therefore clapped a cover on the kettle and suffered him to thrust out his head through a hole till he had lost all his feathers in the bath, and was as smooth as a new born babe, yet the heat did him no further harm …” -when I was distracted by a commotion in the garden.  I looked out of the window and saw a wood pigeon columba palumbus flapping about frantically in the grass at the foot of the bird table, before flying noisily away (as they do), leaving ‘feathers scattered in the air’ and over the ground.

Magpies chattered raucously.  Jackdaws cawed.  I went up into the garden and was greeted by a robin who flew down and perched in the elder, two or three feet from my head, and ‘proceeded to tell me what had happened’ with great urgency.  Although I was unable to translate the finer points of robin language this had clearly been a sparrowhawk attack.  Had it been the black cat that occasionaly hunted in our garden a pigeon on the ground wouldn’t have escaped. Later that day a lone jackdaw returned and perched, trapeze fashion, on the phone line, bent down over the scene of the crime, and cursed volubly.

The mythical bird in The Chymical Wedding had previously changed his plumage from black to white, and then to colours of incomparable beauty, becoming progresively more docile.  Once his feathers had been removed in the heated bath, a collar was put round his neck.  I can’t claim that woodpigeons (or any other actual species) resemble the bird in the story, and although the pigeon in question left an impressive trail of feathers, she hadn’t been stripped bare.  They do, however, have a white mark on either side of their necks that suggests a collar, giving rise to the widespread folk name ‘ring dove’, and the image of scalding heat removing feathers but causing no further harm seemed a reasonable, if imprecise, metaphor for the sting of the predator’s talons from which the bird had narrowly escaped.

Wood Pigeon, Columba palumba, photo: nottsexaminer, Creative Commons.

Wood Pigeon, Columba palumbus, photo: Nottsexaminer, Creative Commons.

This, then, had been a showing (synchronicity, if you prefer), albeit a minor and unbidden one.  Such occurances need to be read in context, which, in this case, included several other more intimate showings around that time (as ever the best ‘evidence’ is too personal to present to naive or hostile sceptics!), and by then over twenty years of encounters and dreams, many of which decisively associated bird allies with greater or lesser deaths.

My first thought was that the rest of the content of the Chymical Wedding had little to do with this event, which I saw as another example of how the world works -if only we were alert to her cues.  It now occurs to me, however, that the symbolism associated with the dove -a bird of fertility, courtship, and sexual love (Venus) in many cultures, but also the most favoured bird (at least in the form of a white dove) in Christian iconography, where it represents the holy ghost (a dove shown in rays of light or flames), the souls of the redeemed, spiritual love, and innocence, is paradigmatic of the split that alchemy potentially heals.  The dove’s (or columbine) kiss, said to be accompanied by the lovers ‘dying’ in a sexual sense -as Petronius put it: “We clung passionate together and transfused our straying souls back and forth through our lips.  Farewell mortal cares!  Thus I began to die”- was, for instance, reframed by the church fathers as ‘the image of unity and peace which the faithful should have in their contact with each other’.(2)  So, as is often the case, that world-moment may have been more meaning-filled than I first thought.

Alchemische Vereinigung.  Illustration im Buch Donam Dei - Ortus diviciarum sapiencie Dei.  17th Century.

Alchemische Vereinigung. Illustration im Buch Donam Dei – Ortus diviciarum sapiencie Dei. 17th Century.

The central theme of the Chymical Wedding is an enactment of the hieros gamos, the wedding of a King and Queen, representing a union of (actual or apparent) cosmic opposites – female and male, light and dark, inner and outer, matter and spirit.  Ted Hughes reworked the theme beautifully in Bride and Groom Lie Hidden for Three Days in his ‘alchemical cave drama’ sequence, Cave Birds.  I had thought that alchemy was mostly about dramatising transcendence -releasing spirit trapped in (dead) matter, and/or restoring the world by spiritualising matter- but Aaron Cheake’s Alchemical Traditions in which he argues for alchemy as a ‘nondual process’ in which “so called ‘material’ and ‘spiritual’ realities (are) co-present, interdependent expressions of a deeper ‘existential’ field of being” appeared to offer an alternative view.(3)

Most animists would have little difficulty agreeing with him that ‘the deep relationship … between metallurgised and physiological processes all pertain strongly to the hidden continuity between all bodies, from the mineral to the divine’.  As a Buddhist, however, Cheake still talks in terms of alchemy engaging material existence, at its most dissolute, ‘in order to turn it into a vehicle of liberation’ of the soul from ‘cycles of generation and corruption’, and even of physis, ‘nature herself’.  In this vision a primordial solar nature ‘transforms its material bindings … into vehicles of transcendence’.  Yet the term alchemy can be traced to ancient Egyptian and Coptic names for Egypt (km.t, keme, kemi, chemia) that, according to Plutarch, refer both to ‘the blackest of soils’ and ‘the black portion of the eye’, and to a cosmology valuing both divine darkness and the infinitely subtle material matrix of nature.

In Cave Birds the Socratic rationalist/complacent cock-sure protagonist is eventually metamorphosed into falcon form (as Horus, consort of the goddess), but as Ann Skea points out, alchemical synthesis must be constantly repeated.  The ‘Great Work’ is never finished.(4)  So the apocalyptic cosmic hypersensivity of the last two poems, The Owl Flower and The Risen, is followed by a brief finale announcing the appearance of a goblin.  As animists we might wonder whether the use of bird symbolism in alchemy, and the various traditions it emerged from, reduces other-than-human persons to caricatures and cyphers.  Or might cockerell, peacock, raven, dove, and falcon-persons have become experts in embodying particular divine ‘energies’, particular facets of nature, in which case might it not be reasonable for we humans, not least with all the science, poetry, and free range intuition now at our disposal, to notice and learn from them?

B.T 5/10/14.

Sources

(1) Ted Hughes’s Letter to Donya Feuer, 1979 – in Christopher Reid, ed The Letters of Ted Hughes, Faber and Faber, p412.

(2) Beryl Rowland, Birds with Human Souls, a Guide to Bird Symbolism, University of Tennessee Press, 1978 (quoting  Petronius’s Satyricon).

(3) Aaron Cheake, Alchemical Traditions, from Antiquity to the Avant Garde, Numen Books, 2013.

(4) Ann Skea, Ted Hughes, The Poetic Quest, University of New England, 1994 has a detailed account of Ted Hughes’s use of alchemy in Cave Birds.