A Practice that Doesn’t Make Perfect

By Denis MacDermot

(from GreenSpirit magazine, summer 2009)

As a collapsed Catholic in an age that worships Progress and Growth, I have found it difficult to shake off the underlying assumption that the purpose of our individual lives is self-improvement and self-perfection over time and that we can use ‘spiritual practice’ to make us better.

But in concentrating on the spiritual, whatever we consider not to be spiritual—the moving body, sometimes the heart, our unconscious responses, the urges and patterns that arise spontaneously and take indistinct shape in our awareness—all these get left out. For example the effect of sitting meditation has been compared to allowing a cloudy liquid to settle out so that the liquid becomes clear. Metaphorically the sediment is subordinated while clarity and purity are prized. I do not want to deny that these qualities are desirable, only to assert that they do not represent or engage the whole person. Buddhists will tell you that the aim of practice is to be able to become mindful all the time. Walking meditation is a kind of transition—carrying the state of awareness of sitting meditation into motion. But if you have tried walking meditation you will know that you’re not supposed to let the body go; it is as if you are carrying that settled-out glass carefully along. Most of our lives are actually lived in motion, in dynamic relation to other people and the environment and spiritual practice does not always prepare us for this; there are many stories of people coming back from lengthy retreats and finding they are no better at dealing with the ‘stuff’ of ordinary life. I am reminded of the quip “I thought I was enlightened till my mother came to stay.”

The thrust from the platform of the meditation cushion, the cast of the eyes in prayer is typically upwards—higher, lighter, clearer, brighter, purer. Retreatants in search of enlightenment head for uplands, for caves in the snow, not down into the valleys—the vale of soul-making (to quote Keats).(1) We need at times to climb Apollonian mountains in search of clarity and perspective but the real action takes place lower down, in the mud, in the foul rag and bone shop of the heart. Spiritual practice can be a retreat from the confusions of embodiment.

What kind of practice might help us deal with our physicality, the complex currents and unexpected urges of physical existence? Mary Oliver’s often-quoted poem ‘Wild Geese’ begins with the declaration:

“You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” (2)

What a relief! Yet the recipe is not to be so easy to apply. Simply understanding what the soft animal of my body loves is really difficult. (It is not chocolate, or not always). What it loves today, if I really listen, might be different from what it loved yesterday, yet often the mind, liking formulas, wants to repeat yesterday’s pleasures and satisfactions. Listening to the body needs practice.

I experience my body as having its own autonomous life, not just in the way it carries out a million housekeeping tasks (regulating temperature, prompting me to eat, drink, excrete, sleep, wake etc.) but also in the way it reacts to the outside world. Working as it does autonomously outside the control or purview of the conscious ego, the body is like the psychological unconscious. The problem is finding the meanings in this autonomous muddiness while allowing it to remain opaque. If we are not careful, applying the conceptual mind is a bit like trying to pick out the pattern of shadows by shining a bright light on them. The challenge is similar to that of remembering dreams, and once we have remembered them, of sensing their meaning without stripping them of all resonance by dissection, as if they were coded messages to the intellect. Perhaps a better way to deal with mud is to soften the focus of our knowing eyes and feel it in our hands—being open to the shapes that want to emerge.

There are many practices and techniques whose aim is to help us to arrive at a kind of whole-body knowing, a felt sense, using intuition as well as the head. I have my own which uses movement and art. A sidelong cunning is key. The great painter, Francis Bacon described what he did as “setting a snare for reality using artificial images.” In the same way I use the artifice of a score to put a finger on that vague ‘something’ under the radar. A score establishes intention, a defined time-space and activities, a kind of framework within which the unexpected can happen. Here’s an example.

In February, I went with a friend to Spain, to the Alpujarra. When we arrived, the almond blossom was out, the sun was shining. It seemed we had stepped from winter into spring. I felt a call to expand, to go outside. I felt a contradictory desire to stay in: “too early, the air is cold”. On another level I was curious to explore the nearby town, the shops, the people. But with my rudimentary Spanish I felt afraid of engagement. So—curiosity and fear: an outward-going impulse and a closing-in impulse. I set aside an hour and 20 minutes to explore this in movement and art. Here is my score, with explanatory notes in italics:

Intention: Explore curiosity/fear, opening/closing. I struck out “curiosity/fear” because these terms seemed too loaded and narrow, too knowing.
Activities:
20 minutes: warm-up (using various stretches and routines to sink awareness into the body)
20 minutes: explore “opening and closing” in movement, (using both body sense and physical location—in the warm sitting room, through the kitchen and outside onto the veranda)
15 minutes: drawing (whatever comes out of the movement experience)
15 minutes: explore drawing in movement
10 minutes: (creative) journal writing (this phase is integrative allowing a return from artistic to conceptual mind)

This is what I experienced, mostly reproduced raw from my journal:

Moving indoors, slow, warm, muted… imagining opening, arms raised and lowered, chest expands, contracts… gradually, circular movements repeating.. petals, an image of a flower coming out bravely in the sun. Then … MY FRIEND OPENED THE FRENCH DOORS!!! OUTRAGEOUS!! The warm cocoon destroyed. Triggered into a tantrum, I beat cushions then stomp downstairs to saw wood… repetitive angry movement warms body and calms outrage.

Here is my drawing:

McDermot

I explored my drawing in movement (this simply involves focusing on different elements of the drawing and allowing your body to respond) then wrote in my journal:

“Splattering blows aimlessly out in all directions, a tantrum without power.. and opens up the delicate round flower petals to daggers and lightnings in. Oh cold blast of wind from outside, this hothouse plant cannot sustain but galvanized to harden before its ready time, pushed out, pushed out.”

then a dialogue:

Petals: “I swell roundness out, yellow, sunny, childish pleasure. Jittering, a flimsy enthusiasm, naïve, trusting”

Sky: “This is no place for babies! Go back inside. Or toughen up. Don’t be silly!”

Petals: “Pushed out, not allowed back in to the warm cocoon. But I am not very brave though I put a brave face out.”

Sky: “What do you want? Open air or closed safe space, the hollow warmth?”

Petals: “Open air seems vast and empty and cold. I want to light it up but my bright delight needs protection. My sunny rays do not go far.”

Stalk: “I am the link, a sinuous corridor for sap, my feet in the stolid lumpy ground, I hold you up, I feed you, I make earth nourishing. I am the secret alchemist, slow and patient.”

Re-reading this, I am struck by the muddled syntax (I have to resist the desire to correct it) and by the way the metaphors overlap with each other in a most untidy way—the flower is both flower and sun, it wants to blossom in childish pleasure but also feels victimized, pushed out. There are echoes of childhood ‘stuff’. I could go into an analysis saying it is all to do with being forced to wear shorts in winter at the age of seven but I don’t want to because this kind of language is reductive, narrowing, and closes down the imagination.

I am also struck by some metaphorical resonances between the drawing (spirit/sky earth/mud, the secret alchemical stalk) and the themes of this article.

The drawing is art-expression but does not claim the status of Art. Like my raw and naïve writing, I find it a little embarrassing to show it here. But my intention in this session was to explore not to communicate. Expression was at the service of exploration. Part of me goes – “ah, what is this, this pattern, this feeling, what is it like, where does it lead?” – shape is found, created in the moment of expression and becomes content. The process feels very organic; I blossom out my own unique inner world in the patterns of my movement and in the colours and words that spill out on to the page. What I express in this way becomes a resource and a mirror. I know myself through my expression. To communicate meaning to others (through artwork, poem or dance performance) needs a different kind of attention and skill.

John O’Donohue talks about our position on a threshold between our unique inner and outer worlds and the importance of keeping these in balance. The score described above had an inward focus but in the same week I explored the outer world using very similar techniques…that mountain on the skyline, a crook like my elbow, the gnarled shape of the almond boughs, the finger-tip blossoms, those budded branches reaching up towards the sun, a cold wind, contracting “brrr!”—echoes in my body everywhere. My drawing that day was much more representational.

So what was the effect of this practice session? I can’t say I became a better or more spiritual person or that I grew in some way as a result but I definitely found the quality of my experience, its resonance, was enhanced – I felt I had found a bridge (or was it a stalk?), at least for a while, between my muddy dream body and my waking conscious world. I felt more in touch with my emotions and with my environment. In short I felt more alive and more me.
Notes

1. See James Hillman: “Peaks and Vales” and “Soul and Spirit” from A Blue Fire (Harper & Row, 1989)
2. Mary Oliver. Dream Work (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1994)
I am as always indebted to Carl Jung, especially Four Archetypes – The Phenomenology of the Spirit (Bollingen Series, 1969)

My practice leans heavily on the work of the Tamalpa Institute (www.tamalpa.org) but I have also been influenced by a number of other movement based practices.
Denis MacDermot is a thinker and writer with an enthusiasm for movement, drama and art . Since ending a long business career in 2002, he has been seeking a creative approach to life that allows space for all aspects of our humanity: spirit, soul, body, the sacred and the profane. He lived for a year in the Findhorn Community, and trained in California at the Tamalpa Institute. He is a father and grandfather, lives in Ashburton, Devon, teaches art and drama for Magic Carpet in Exeter and works with refugees in Plymouth.

Deep Form in Art and Nature

By Betty and Theodore Roszak

(reprinted with permission from  Resurgence, 176, May/June 1996, pp. 20-22)

The spiritual crisis of the modern world has been described in many ways. From the viewpoint of the arts, Herbert Read’s diagnosis is among the most incisive. Read believed a serious loss of aesthetic sensitivity has paralleled our progressive estrangement from nature. we suffer, he said, from an ‘atrophy of sensibility’. Art as well as science and technology harbours the illusion that we live outside or above the natural world, and so may treat it as we please, turning it into an object of exploitation for the exclusive benefit of our species.

Over the past century whole philosophical and aesthetic movements have been predicated upon and even dedicated to our alienation from nature as if it were the inevitable human condition.

The essence of modernism has been a deepening immersion in extremes of despair, anxiety, or outright cynicism. Few would dispute that it is the role of art to reflect its times. But ‘reflection’, should include what art itself has to offer to the soul in need. It must look beyond the contemporary wasteland to find life-enhancing possibilities.

Settling for the fashionably anguished or fashionably cynical, mainstream art stops at the city limits of a culture that has lost or forgotten its ecological roots. In a time when so many artists have learned to confabulate with extremes of horror and alienation, the most daring thing an artist can do is to fill a book, a gallery or a theatre with joy, hope and beauty. This is more than a matter of calling for a new ‘movement’ or ‘style’. As the degradation of the planetary environment worsens, we are being forced to recognize that a culture divorced from the biological foundations of lie is simply not sustainable. both environmental ignorance and aesthetic atrophy are rapidly approaching terminal status. To refuse despair has become an ecological imperative.

In her provocative survey of the outer limits of modernism, the art critic Suzi Gablik asks ‘After the avant garde, what’. Her answer can be found in the title of her book The Re-Enchantment of Art. There she writes hopefully of a new art ‘ushered in by twentieth-century physics, ecology and general systems theory, with its call for integrative and holistic modes of thinking.’ The terminology Gablik uses is drawn from modern science, but the re-enchanted sensibility she calls for takes us back to the shamanic roots of art.
On the far side of modernism artists may find they have a great deal to ‘learn from Lascaux’. This is not a matter of scavenging the ‘primitive’. There has been enough of that in the twentieth century. Too often the effort to salvage ancestral images has been animated by a domineering consciousness, one that insensitively ransacks or even plunders the tribal cultures. Lately, spokespeople for traditional societies have taken issue with such invasive practices. Jerome Rothenberg’s ‘ethno-poetics’ is a better approach. It seeks to redress this essentially colonialist attitude by preserving and enhancing the human values that connect us with primitive people. Our goal should not be to borrow from elsewhere, but to search among our own cultural resources, perhaps even in modern science and industrialism, for ways to restore art to the status it has always held among primary people as a form of knowledge..

In the modern western world, the Romantics were the last major cultural movement to assert the ‘truth of the imagination’, defending art as a way of knowing the world that equalled or surpassed scientific reason. In their resistance to what Blake called ‘Satan’s Mathemitik Holiness’, their goal was not to reject science hut to enlarge it. Newtonian science sought to understand the world by a process of reductionism. The method may be legitimate enough, but it can carry over into reducing in value. Phenomena deprived of their dignity and vitality become ‘nothing but … nothing but’. They are cheapened by the very act of knowing. In contrast, the Romantics sought to understand by augmentation. In Blake’s terms, they sought ‘fourfold vision’ rather than ‘single vision’. From the Romantic perspective, a landscape by Constable makes our knowledge of nature bigger: art adds to what we learn from any combination of physics, biology, geology and chemistry. It tells us the world is (to offer a poor verbal translation) magnificent, perhaps sacred, therefore deserving of reverence. At its highest level, it transforms our consciousness by uniting us with Deep Form in the natural world.

By ‘Deep Form’ we mean the correspondence between formative processes of mind and formative processes in nature. As Coleridge put it, ‘the rules of the imagination are themselves the very powers of growth and production.’ For the Romantics, recognizing this congruency between creativity in art and in nature was not a mere subjective reflex, it was as much a fact as anything a botanist tells us about photosynthesis or a geologist about continental Drift. Deep Form offers us the knowledge that an authentically deep ecology requires in order to place us in a respectful, sustainable relationship with nature.
‘Great works of art,’ Goethe believed, ‘are works of nature just as truly as mountains, streams and plains.’ The oneness of art and nature has not been wholly beyond the reach of scientists themselves. Even as tough-minded a Darwinian as Thomas Huxley once admitted to the fact that ‘in travelling from one end to the other of the scale of life, we are taught one lesson, that living nature is not a mechanism, but a poem.’

Georg Groddeck, Freud’s most eccentric follower, was among the few psychotherapists who granted art an epistemological status of its own. An admirer of Goethe, Groddeck regarded art as the key criterion of sanity. Healthy art creates a healthy soul, sick art creates neurosis. Groddeck believed that, since the renaissance, the art of Western society has been corrupted by an excessive humanism. He warned that when we turn away from nature we lose ‘the chance of cultural development, cease to recognise our dependence upon the universal whole, and direct our love, fear and reverence only upon the strivings and sufferings of our fellow men. ‘ This degenerates into a narrow psychologism especially as our lives come to be bounded by what the neo-Romantic poet Robinson Jeffers called ‘the incestuous lie of the cities’.

It is heartening to see how the sense of Deep Form has managed to survive in the arts despite all that urban industrial society has done to shatter the natural continuum. We can find celebrations of Deep Form among some of the masters of modernism, a small, gallant contingent who never lost their nourishing connection with the Earth beneath the pavement. While their style is distinctly of our time and place, their sensibility allies them to the dawn of human culture. Paul Klee is a leading example. He once gave this advice to a fellow art teacher:
Lead your students to Nature, into Nature! Let them learn by experience how a bud is formed, how a tree grows, how a butterfly opens its wings, so that they will become as rich, as variable, as capricious as Nature herself. Perception is revelation, follow the ways of natural creation, the becoming, the functioning of forms. That is the best school.’

According to Werner Haftmann, Klee collected skeletons of small animals, mosses, bark and lichen, shells and stones, beetles and butterflies. ‘They were most carefully selected, hr if one can see through them and master the laws governing their existence and their form, nature itself becomes transparent, the spirit moves and the artist eels compelled to attempt similar acts of formal creation.’

Similarly, Emil Nolde subscribed to a deeply organic aesthetic. He too sensed the forces of nature that work within the artist, bringing us the knowledge of an animated universe. ‘My aim,’ he said, ‘was that colours should be transmitted to the canvas, through myself as the painter, with the same inevitability as when Nature herself is creating forms, just as minerals and crystals are formed, just as moss and seaweed grow.

One can name many others whose work is an expression of Deep Form. They are not the dominant movement in twentieth-century art, but they appear here and there like upstart springs that flow from the distant shamanic sources of their vocation. The voice of the Earth sounds throughout Walt Whitman and his major disciple Pablo Neruda. Georgia O’Keeffe must be numbered among the company and so too Emily Carr, who so vividly recalls in her diaries the unitive experience that comes with the discovery of Deep Form. ‘I woke up this morning with ‘unity of movement’ in a picture strong in my mind. . . . For long I have been trying to get the movement of the parts. Now I see there is only one movement. It sways and ripples. It may be slow or fast but it is only one movement sweeping out into space but always keeping going – rocks, sky, one continuous movement.’

The Artist, like a tree, drinks up nourishment from the depths and from the heights, from the roots and from the air, to bring about a crown of leaves. The organic metaphor is essential here to the concept of Deep Form. Nature is reborn through artistic vision. ‘Think what it would be like, [Italo Calvino once wrote] to create a work outside the limited perspective of the individual ego, not only to enter into selves like our own, but to give speech to that which has no language, to the bird perching on the edge of the gutter, to the tree in spring.’
Yes, and to the stones, clouds, and stars.

Deep Form reveals the web of vital relationships embedded in all things its vision of the universe is what Read called ‘a prodigious animism’. It reminds us that the great drama of our time is the discovery that all things and creatures on Earth share a common destiny. We are linked to one another in what the poet Robert Duncan once called a ‘symposium of the whole’.

Duncan’s poetry is among the most eloquent appeals for the creation of what the Deep Ecologists have called an ‘ecocentric community’. She writes, ‘to compose such a symposium of the whole, such a totality, all the old excluded orders must be included. The female, the proletariat, the foreign, the animal and vegetative, the unconscious and the unknown, the criminal and failure – all that has been outcast and vagabond must return to be admitted in the creation of what we consider we are.’ The words echo Klee’s profession: ‘I sink myself beforehand in the universe and then stand in a brotherly relationship to my neighbours, to everything on this Earth.’

As examples of work that embodies the full ecological significance of Deep Form in the visual arts, we have chosen two artists; both are English now living in California. Gordon Onslow Ford began his artistic lie as a surrealist. From that school he took his powerful introspective orientation. Now in his eighties, Onslow Ford has gone well beyond the purely personal subconscious that delimited surrealism. In his major work we enter territory where inside and outside, microcosmos and macrocosmos, merge and mirror each other. He inhabits ‘an inner world beyond dreams’, where ‘the world is the subject and the painter eventually becomes one with what is happening in the world.’

Onslow Ford’s is an activated space where, in an instant, matter becomes energy and energy matter. He speaks of his paintings as experiments in ‘ecomorphology’ that offer us the inner, vision experience of such otherwise speculative scientific concepts as the black hole and the Big Bang. His canvases become visual hymns to the material foundations of life and mind in the cosmos.

Christopher Castle’s art is also a vision of the inner energetic spaces, the worlds of inner earth. Both he and Onslow Ford are concerned with an organic concept of space and matter. Castle, who identifies his work as ‘geomantic’, creates layered archaic images that reverberate with those hidden, telluric forces that our ancestors experienced as animate and divine. This requires the closest attention of the viewer: lines of force, growth patterns, seeds, stones, the folds and fissures of land, and the dark pulsating symbols of ancient sites. In Castle’s work we view the landscape, usually a sacred site, simultaneously from above, from below, from the air, from beneath the earth.

Both artists present us with a world of unbroken inter-relationship, with a space vibrating with energy, with a depth not of perspective but of multiplicities. Oscillations of figure and ground occur in which images appear, disappear, then appear again. In Onslow Ford’s work, as in the tracings of subatomic particles in a cloud chamber, form appears and disappears mysteriously in that boundary zone at the moment of creation. Castle draws upon Neolithic patterns spirals and zigzags imprinted on sky or earth. He reclaims the runic script of nature, the sinuous serpentine movement of dark, telluric powers, rising from great depths to mirror the heavens.

As stylistically different as the two painters may seem at first glance, both assert the vital link between the artistic celebration of from and the real existence of form in the world. In their work, aesthetic pleasure becomes knowledge, the mind is thrown open to that primordial form-making power from which the cosmos has arisen.

Deep Form offers the artist a new repertory of gestures instead of grasping, seeing, mastering, struggling, it attempts a tender touching, a non-interfering gaze, a receptive bonding with Earth and the other. The dark, submerged feminine reappears as image and informing spirit, a new anima mundi with her rich welter of sensuous experience in colour, scent and sound. Wherever Deep Form wells up among the poets, the painters, the architects, the performers, life is made whole again and the universe is re-animated. The creative imagination returns us to an aesthetic both old and new, to a mode of knowing the natural world which can be the ally of science. The human again becomes an integral part of nature, life and mind become part of a vital matrix as vast and as old as the universe. This primal ecological insight views human art not as anomaly or arbitrarily fashionable decoration, but as integral to the natural order, the common root being inherent formative processes at work at every level of reality from the structure of atoms to the formation of galactic clusters.

Betty Roszak is a poet who has written and lectures on eco-feminism.
Theodore Roszak is a Professor of History at California State University.
He is the author of The Voice of the Earth

Follow these links to find out more about the artists mentioned in the article
Christopher Castle    Onslow Ford    Suzi Gablik    Robinson Jeffers
Paul Klee                      Emil Nolde        Georgia O’Keeffe

Authentic Pagans in the Modern World

By William Bloom

(from GreenSpirit magazine, summer 2009)

DSC_2921_R

Some pagans and eco-spiritual campaigners despair of modern life, which they see as having abandoned all connection with earth, elements and seasons. But from another perspective, this is not so. The core pagan instincts are actually fully alive in our general culture but in new cultural forms.

The spiritual experience of the natural world still throb in modern, urban culture. The rhythms of nature and cosmos still dynamically express through us. The basic and tribal instinct to pulse our bodies to nature’s rhythms never ended. Millions, billions, for example, still dance! In fact, there is more non-stop dancing and music than ever before on our planet: rock and roll, pop, disco, raves, MTV, thousands of bands and gigs. In these situations people absolutely feel the connection and common pulse of life. You may despair of ipods but view them more hopefully. Human creatures are enjoying music and rhythm.

We also still follow the seasons, going to the beach in the Summer or to the snow in the Winter. And our connection with the natural world also manifests itself in many mass consumer and media habits, as we buy plants, keep pets, take vacations in beautiful places, watch nature programmes, sail, trek and do all the other activities that connect us with the natural environment. You can either perceive all this through the half-empty glass of yearning for a time lost, or hopefully, noticing nature’s rhythm in new forms.
Even though we are urbanized, even though we have been so tragically destructive to the landscape and our natural resources, we are still glorious apes – full creatures of this planet. Watch the natural flow, rhythms and good humour of children; remember what it feels like to be one of them – the bubbling vitality. We still curl up in our beds like hamsters in nests. We slurp and enjoy our food and drink. We know how to rest and we know how to play. We know when to be with others and when to be on our own. We have all the pulses of creatures who are fully alive.

Whatever certain green pessimists may think of our species, we are still emergent beings from the earth and universe – and instinctively, we know it and feel it.
We also find great enjoyment with each other. We truly enjoy our culture together, engaging in our mutual concerns and delights. The beauty of a flock of birds moving in unison, the glory of a forest – this kind of complex connection also erupts through mass humanity.

Urbanized humanity throbs in its own way to the vibrancy of being alive. People love being industrious and creative. The cities are filled with marvels. The arts, social care, education, sports, science and technology are brilliant. It is a sad person who can see the beauty in the colour of a butterfly’s wing but is blind to the beauties of human society.
At one huge rave in the UK in the 1980s, 10,000 people gathered in a remote aircraft hangar to dance through the night. High on natural endorphins and ecstasy, the deejays led the rave into a peak of blissful rhythm which exploded at dawn. The whole eastern side of the warehouse, a huge door, slowly began to rise, revealing the rising sun. The dancers, pulsing with the music, merged with the landscape and the light of the new day.
The megalopolises and great cities of our world are no more separate from nature than bee-hives, anthills and bat colonies.

The arts in general are also an expression in many different forms of how we experience, interpret and express the world around us. Detached from the land, humanity has not lost its sensibility to the rural and wild environment, but has stretched its artistic response to include all aspects of civilization, sublime and grotesque. This is obvious in dance, painting, sculpture and writing. It is also there in popular music. Hip-hop is precisely an interpretation and expression of urban social and technological reality, its use of rhythm, voice and movement absolutely in parallel with tribal and pagan dances that, too, reflect their environment.
Who were the great pagans and animists of the last century? It is not useful to look to the pagan ceremonial teachers, because – to a degree – they missed the point, detaching from the mass collective, the human tribe, and yearned for something lyrically romantic. Surely it is more appropriate to look to Picasso, James Brown or Marilyn Monroe. These are the true medicine people, shamans and gods/goddesses of the last century.
What then were the great pagan events of the last century? Again, we need to look to popular culture: the great rock and roll concerts, the sensational movies, the explosion of MTV and the global Live Aid events.

I write all this celebrating life as it is.

If I were melancholic, then of course I would be looking to a romantic lost time when things were better. The challenge, for me, is not to be over-stimulated or harassed by the noise of the modern world. The challenge is not to be a grumpy Green. The challenge too is to understand the changing flows of history and culture and see through the plastic bling to the soul that is always there.

Biophylia – the embedded, cellular love of nature – is inside us simply by virtue of our existence. As the pagan chant goes: Earth my body, Water my blood, Air my breath and Fire my spirit. Not just out there, but inside too.

William Bloom is an educator, author and activist working in the field of spiritual and holistic development. He is a founding director of the Foundation for Holistic Spirituality and Spiritual Companions. www.williambloom.com

‘Prodigal Summer’ by Barbara Kingsolver, reviewed by Christine Avery

AALittProdSumPBBarbara Kingsolver Prodigal Summer (Faber & Faber, 2000)
It is an old claim that reason hates imagination – that the scientific mind ‘unweaves the rainbow’ and leaves us with a gray world from which illusion and fiction are banned. Dickens’ Mr Gradgrind illustrates the potential truth of this idea. But the fictive imagination, with its indispensable power to suspend disbelief, is as tough as a gingko tree. I recommend Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer as a triumphant example of one way of fusing fiction and the claims of reason.
At college Kingsolver was a biologist and it was only after working as a scientific writer for the University of Arizona that she made the transition (significantly perhaps when suffering from insomnia during her first pregnancy), into writing her first novel, The Bean Tree.
To her scientific background add a childhood spent on a Kentucky farm, and you begin to get some idea of the resources at her disposal. At the core of Prodigal Summer is a quality of attention – ever-enquiring and judicious, very rational but deeply appreciative, with which all three main characters approach the world of nature. The interest is inclusive. ‘You’re nature. I’m nature,’ says Lusa, echoing Rachel Carson’s ‘man is part of nature’, and in fact another main character, Nannie Rawley, has named her child after this pioneer of ecological sanity.
The characters are in three groups each living in different habitats on Zebulon Mountain while an Appalachian spring turns into summer all around them. The one who lives closest to nature, high up on the mountain in her solitary cabin, is Deanna Wolfe the Forest Ranger. She is intensely preoccupied with watching and trying to safeguard the family of coyotes who have crept into the area to make a bid for the ecological niche left by the extinct red wolf. She becomes involved in a complex loving-and-opposing relationship with the wanderer-hunterer from Wyoming, Eddie Bondo who says, ‘I’m a ranching boy from the West, and hating coyotes is my religion. Blood of the lamb so to speak. Don’t try to convert me and I won’t try to convert you.’ Deanna sees the human’s mass extermination of predators, for sport but with plausible excuses about the safety of farm stock, as motivated by fear and stupidity. The progress and resolution of this most serious fight, carried on in action and in sparky dialogue, is deeply engaging.
Further down the mountain is Lusa Landowska, a Polish-Arab-American from what the locals see as the awesome metropolis of Lexington, who finds herself caught in an unresolved conflict with her farmer husband. Young and recently married, they are at odds in ideas and language – a rawness of misunderstanding between them makes his death in a road accident the more horrifying. But Lusa, whose main interest in her research scientist years was in moths and pheromones, has had a revelatory moment not long before Cole’s death. Across the width of a field she smells the honeysuckle that Cole is picking to bring to her. She thinks: ‘This is how moths speak to each other. They tell their love across the fields by scent. There is no mouth, the wrong words are impossible…she considered a language which could carry nothing but love and simple truth.’
Another dialogue is carried on between close neighbours who live at the bottom of the mountain on the edge of the town of Egg Fork. Nannie Rawley, an elderly organic smallholder, is regarded with frank detestation by Garnett Walker, a Christian fundamentalist who states, ‘The earth and its inhabitants were created in 4300 B.C… I am a scholar of Creation science.’ Garnett is a character conceived with great tenderness, insight and humour. Through his exasperation with Nannies’ organic methods they become involved in an unfolding series of moves, mishaps and arguments. At one point she is able to explain to him that indiscriminate crop spraying simply increases the numbers of pests since their more slowly reproducing predators are also decimated and the surviving populations get out of balance. There is a fairly unambiguous message that the economic difficulties of the farmers in the area are caused by pesticides and big business. The only exceptions to the trend are the Amish who are glimpsed from a distance as a traditionally farming and thriving group.
The links between the apparently separate characters are manifold and are placed with an exuberant craftsmanship which distinguishes the whole book. These links typically form around natural phenomena; for instance there is a huge felled chestnut tree left on a remote part of the mountain; several very diverse characters have a special relationship with this tree which they consider to be exclusively theirs, whereas in fact their deeper affinities meet and knit together through it.
Perhaps most impressive of all is the confidence and energy with which our stale ‘either-ors’ of intelligence versus feeling, science versus spiritual awareness, local versus global are presented and transcended.
Christine Avery

Green Spirituality in Literature

A list of books in the field of fiction, near fiction and fantasy that have been recommended by GreenSpirit members as providing inspiration and a depth of insight that only works of the imagination can supply.


Collated by Erna Colebrook

AALittWillows

Kenneth Grahame. The Wind in the Willows (HarperCollins, 1994), pp. 272. ISBN 0 00 647926 X
The adventures of Mole, Ratty, Badger, Toad and the River.
Text available online.

 

 

AALittEarthseaUrsula La Guin. The Earthsea Quartet (Penguin Books, 1993), pp. 691. ISBN 0 14 015427 2
Comprising A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore and Tehanu.
As a young dragonlord Ged, whose use-name is Sparrowhawk, is sent to the island of Roke to learn the true way of magic. Ged becomes an Archmage and helps High Priestess Tenar escape from the labyrinth of darkness. But as the years pass, true magic and ancient ways are forced to submit to the powers of evil although these are finally overcome by the dragon Kalessin.

 

AALittJustsoRudyard Kipling. Just So Stories (Penguin Books, 1998), pp. 160. ISBN 0 14 062113 X.
How the Camel got its Hump, The Beginning of the Armadillos, The cat that Walked, The Butterfly the Stamped and many more stories of beginnings.

Text available online.

 

AALittNarniaC S Lewis. The Chronicles of Narnia (Diamond Books, HarperCollins 1997).Boxed set comprising: The Magician’s Nephew; The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; The Horse and his Boy: Prince Caspian; Voyage of the Dawn Treader; The Silver Chair; The Last Battle.The history of the world of Narnia and of the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve who became kings and queens there.

 

AALittNorthernLightsPhillip Pullman.Northern Lights (Scholastic Press, 1995), pp. 416. The Subtle Knife (Scholastic Press, 1997) pp. 352.
The Amber Spyglass
(Scholastic Press, 2000), pp. 560.
The complex plot is driven by an affirmation of physicality and also of consciousness. The ‘Dust’ which streams through the story’s parallel universes without communication with intelligent beings will leak out into nowhere. If you want to know how this and kindred themes are woven into a narrative with a wonderful variety of living characters, read these books!
[Click here for a review of the trilogy by Jean Hardy]


AALitthyperion
Dan Simmons.Hyperion (Bantam Books, 1990), pp. 482. ISBN 0 553 28368 5.
The Fall of Hyperion
(Bantam Spectra, 1991), pp. 517. ISBN 0 553 28820 2.
Endymion
(Bantam Books, 1996), pp. 624. ISBN 0 553 57294 6.
The Rise of Endymion
(Bantam Books, 1998), pp. 709. ISBN 0 553 57298 9.

 

AALittFrodoJ R R Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings (Harper Collins, 1993), pp. 1137. ISBN 0 261 10325 3.
Comprising The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King. The story of the quest to destroy the Great Ring as told by Bilbo and Frodo of the Shire. “The English-speaking world is divided into those who have read The Lord of the Rings and those who are going to read them.” The ecological aspects of these stories is studied in Patrick Curry. Defending Middle-Earth (HarperCollins, 1998).

 

AALittIslandAldous Huxley. Island (Grafton Books, 1976), pp. 336,
ISBN 0 586 04439 6
This was Huxley’s last novel, first published in 1962. While Island is a work of fiction, it is the vehicle Huxley used to communicate his ideas about how people in a good society would interact with each other and their environment.
See also www.island.org/Huxley/ for quotes and comment.

 

AALittProdSumPBBarbara Kingsolver. Prodigal Summer
Hardback: (Faber & Faber, 2000)
, pp. 455,
ISBN 0571206387 Paperback: (Faber & Faber, 2001), pp.453,
ISBN 0571206484
The key character in this story of an Appalachian spring is a female coyote who does not appear until the very last page but who provides the thread weaving the other characters together. This is a beautiful story, very well told. [Click here for a review by Christine Avery]

 

AALittSnowGooseWilliam Fiennes. The Snow Geese (Picador, 2002), pp. 250,
ISBN 0 330 37579 2
Snow geese spend their summers in the Canadian Arctic. Each autumn they migrate south, to Delaware, California and the Gulf of Mexico, and in the spring they fly north again. One year William Fiennes decided to go with them and to write the story of his travels. The result is a mesmerizing story about the joy of being alive, of being on the move and – above all – of returning home.

 

AALittguinUrsula Le Guin. Always Coming Home.
(University of California Press), pp. 524,
ISBN 0 520 22735 2
The people in this book might be going to have lived a long, long time from now in Northern California. The main part of the book is their voices speaking for themselves in stories and life-stories, plays, poems and songs.