Look around. Earth in a bit of distress? Not quite looking up to her old self?
Attention, Tractor Drivers! Snakes are Sacred, You Guys!
(Poor little baby bull snake meets the Seasonal Foreign Worker Program at the exact point at which it meets a vineyard road wider than most highways in most countries. Such freedom of movement! So seductive! So deadly.)
Words made it so.
Words Did This
Vineyard wasteland after a rain.
Is the patch of earth above a dry landscape or a wet one? A hot one or a cold one? The questions are absurd. Only a long process of unattached abstraction hiding behind a veil of calm could create even the possibility of such a question. Here’s a small example of what it looked like before its transformation (note: this is a transformed landscape as well):
aka Lichen on Dead Stalks of Big Sage.
I’m working towards an environmental idea. Just to be clear, I’m not advocating Christianity here (or arguing against it). I’m merely pointing out that there used to be a word for unity: God. For a lot of well-known historical and political reasons, most of which revolve around attempts to escape a history of people killing each other in the name of forms of prayer to this unity, this unity was put aside. The whole concept was awfully explosive 200 or 300 years ago in Europe, just as it is in Syria, Iraq and the Gaza Strip today. Sadly, though, the idea of interconnectivity was shelved with the personification of this force, as was the aristocracy that shared that personification. In all that, my words just above,
“unattached abstraction hiding behind a veil of calm”
are one definition of God that survived the collapse of the unity of faith and politics in the West. It survived because it was taken up by the new technicians of the sacred: physical and theoretical scientists and their technicians. Out of it, given enough time, they have made stuff like this:
Vineyard at the Rise, Vernon
People believe in the romance. They pay big bucks for it. The reality is that of a near mono-cultural assembly line. Or a laboratory.
Well, no surprise that it worked out like this, I guess. It never really was a definition of God, anyway, or an honest one of unity, for that matter, just a mirror image of the monks and nuns who worked it up in the first place — an idea made in their own image, too, to top things off.
The Monastery of Maulbronn
Self portrait by monks, or Unattached abstraction hiding behind a veil of calm.
God himself? He can’t be defined. You can just point and make some kind of physical noise or gesture. Here, I’ll show you:
No, not the grasshopper, and not even the entire scene of grasses, stalks, stones and clay. Not even the air around them. Not even the bonds of energy that are holding all this together. You can’t make an image of God, that’s the thing. There he is, yet not what you are looking at or what you can describe. He is nothing and everything, whether you ‘believe’ in him or not.
This drove early scientists bonkers. Responses varied. Some said there was no God at all. Others saw God everywhere, as a presence (never as that pesky nothingness and not-there-ness noted above.) The first group held that the earth was a collection of blind, mechanistic physical processes, combined by chance. The second group held that, well, that grasshopper is God, really, but along with everything else. Then that bunch went off to see how he put everything together as a collection of blind, mechanistic physical processes, combined by chance. There was a lot of truth in what they found along this path, but, still, nobody asked the grasshoppers what they thought about all this.
That’s probably because grasshoppers don’t think. They are fully present instead. To think, you have to stop being present. You need a bit of distance. Either that, or you have to be continually present, as these aspen leaves are, glowing in the sun.
Not with Sun, In the Sun.
Sometimes the old words are best.
The net result of all of this struggle against a God that didn’t exist was a concept almost universally taught in schools in the West. I’m pretty sure that you have had it drilled into you wherever and whenever talk got around to poetry or writing. It’s called metaphor. It says that things (including God and the sun) aren’t what they seem. I know, I know, Wikipedia begs to differ and, in fact, here she goes, differing away:
A metaphor is a figure of speech that describes a subject by asserting that it is, on some point of comparison, the same as another otherwise unrelated object.
Of course Wiki’s right, the electronic dear, and a darned useful logical tool this metaphor thing of hers is, too. It allows concepts to be created out of thin air, and after that one can argue about them until the cows come home.
Rodeo Performer Relaxing at Home After a Season on the Road, 150 Mile House
How such a power tool is used, however, is vital. On this, I’m afraid Wiki gets thrown off her horse, to whit:
One of the most prominent examples of a metaphor in English literature is the All the world’s a stage monologue from As You Like It:
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
—William Shakespeare, As You Like It, 2/7
This quotation contains a metaphor because the world is not literally a stage. By figuratively asserting that the world is a stage, Shakespeare uses the points of comparison between the world and a stage to convey an understanding about the mechanics of the world and the lives of the people within it.
Yes, (the bad writing of the passage aside), the rhetorical tool it describes is commonly agreed upon. In case you haven’t seen it in its raw form, here it is:
The Western Mind, Ready for Work
It’s awfully handy. The passage, too. It displays a mighty fine bit of Shakespeare, and that carries a lot of cultural weight, but, well, you see, if the world were a stage, in God’s mind or even in the minds of men, women and children (Shakespeare had all of those in mind by the way), or in the mind, presence or being of this fellow …
California Quail in the Sagebrush, Okanagan Landing
Pit pit paKAh! pit pit, he says. PAH! PAH! Listen.
… then that metaphor would be less a way of cutting open a window into the world than of closing windows and screwing them tight. It would be directing its readers away from unity to a universe of secrets by means of a bit of sleight of hand (brazenly changing one thing for another and then using the simplified changeling in the place of a dynamically unified original.) Well, that’s an old philosopher’s trick for confusing opponents and getting them to concede, whether they’re right or wrong. It’s called “The Straw Man” and it was a favourite of my grandfather’s friends at the University of Freiburg in 1928, when they used to go out and fight on the streets and then come back to their friend the medical student and get bandaged up and sewn back together. I really don’t have much stomach for it. Here, let me try again. The following image shows what I think of this sleight of hand business…
Bird1, as dissected by Bird2, on the Grey Canal Trail: a play in one act.
The pile of feathers represents what is commonly termed “Survival of the Fittest. The idea is that the force driving the differentiation of species into new species is the survival of those individuals with traits best fitted to circumstances, while others die out. Of course, it’s true. It’s just incomplete, that’s all. Thousands of species are going extinct today due to activities of what is not the fittest species on the planet, just the deadliest. The frame of mind that might see these (self-defined rational) humans as the most fit is the same that might render birds into abstractions in the first place.
Three Red-Tailed Hawks Hunting Together Above the Vineyards
Not abstractions. Not Buteo jamaicensis.
It’s a strange kind of fitness, after all, that sees a species destroy not only its own habitat but that of most other species at the same time, and all at while it translates living birds into sets of classified ideas. What arrogance made men believe that birds had anything to do with them, separate from the unity they share? Well, the idea of a non-physical, non-present God, for one thing, a God of thought and will, who made them in his own image, and so on. Well, crumb, but they missed something in the long trains of thought that led them to that handy conclusion, this:
Red Dogwoods Just Beginning to Turn Colour
The delayed reddening is the result of receiving water and fertilization from a choke cherry tree, and shade as well. Here’s one growing in full sun, with far less water or shade, just a couple hundred metres away:
Red Dogwood In the Sun
One species, delicately registering subtle environmental changes. That is a profound unity. Any concept of natural history or biological science, and any struggle for environmental protection, that doesn’t see that is, like most things in a human-centric world, centred around human struggles for social power. (Which is how the unity was smashed apart in the first place.) In the Shakespearean passage quoted by Wikipedia above, for example (repeated below for your reading pleasure)…
… the important thing is not the passage’s playful mask of fiction and truth (although Shakespeare so loved to play with those) but that word “stage.” There is a particular attitude which reads “stage” as “theatrical stage.” A reading like that makes the whole passage a delightful fiction. Little fooling confusions between physical reality and appearance were de rigeur in baroque Europe (out of which science sprang). In the Duchess of Baden’s pleasure palace in Kuppenheim, between Baden Baden and the Rhine, for instance, insects and dropped playing cards were painted into the flooring, in the hope of making someone squeal and provide the opportunity for laughter. I haven’t sat down today to fool with Shakespeare, like that, or with you. I’m only using Shakespeare as a rhetorical wedge, to open up a discussion on a word, metaphor, that seems so obvious as to brook no comment, and I’m doing that to make a statement about the social relationship between humans and the earth. One of my main points is that a dissecting rational consciousness is not the only way of seeing the world (although it is the one most of us have been schooled in). There is, for example, another form of consciousness that looks like this …
The Neighbours Up on the Hill
… and another like this …
Western Ground Squirrel, Kalamalka Lake Provincial Park
… and another which reads “stage” in terms of the world. In other words, to it the world is a stage and whatever a stage is, it is the world. This, for example, is a part of that stage…
Abandoned Fenceline, Bella Vista
… as is this …
Weeds, Cut and Baled as Hay, Bella Vista
That’s an industrial apple factory in the foreground.
… and this …
“Red Hill”, John Day River, Oregon
The appropriate way to read this stage is to walk it, with the body, not with the mind, and to respond to it as a body, not as a mind. The new cultural study called “Walking” is an attempt to codify these responses, using the human body, rather than the Graeco-Roman and Judeo-Christian traditions, as ground zeros for Western readings of the world.
Woman Meets Ancestor, Horsethief Butte, Washington
If you don’t walk, you won’t find her.
But there, I’ve gone on a bit much again, I fear. Maybe this will help: as humans, we have a tendency to read the play that is unfolding on this stage through the patterns of our own minds, which means that looking out through a couple trees over water and distant mountains automatically triggers thoughts of narrative, hunting, voyage, shelter, family, security and return. Perhaps, then, if my images above are just plain confusing, the one below will be more “framed” by the body, as a cognitive organ? (Yes, you read that right.)
Charlotte Lake, Chilcotin Illahie
Looking northwest over the Coast Mountains. How’s that looking to you? Like a stage? Like a good place to settle down and raise the kids for a few thousand years?
There’s yet another ready possibility for readings of the word “stage.” This one reads both stage and world as the same thing, plus it throws “theatrical stage” into the mix. In this way of thinking, Shakespeare’s theatrical stage is a rather wooden version of the one that, today, is called the Earth. It even includes the ecosystem of the actions of people upon it, their intentions, their readings, and their joys and sorrows, as part of a whole that is larger than they are.*
*This is one of the definitions of poetry, a method of merging body and mind that contemporary culture avoids at its peril.
(aka Late Afternoon Boats on Okanagan Lake) Note: NO metaphor involved.
I don’t mean to put all the important stuff into captions, so let me say that again: there is no metaphor in this kind of consciousness. To it, metaphor is just a tool, and when expanded to a properly viewable scale that looks like this:
Metaphor, With Its Masks Off
I’m not just slicing and dicing words. I think this difference between modes of consciousness is vitally important. To explore a little further a mindset that breaks a unified world up into a cognitively observed play covering a hidden, practical reality viewable only by the initiated (i.e. educated), I offer this image of an oregon grape in early July …
Kalamalka Lake Shore in Early Summer
Note how the so-called “Autumn Colours” have already begun. (Autumn: another word not really helping anybody out, is it.)
Now to get to the heart of the matter. A consciousness that sees Shakespeare’s words as less than literal is the one that created Western traditions of science and claims that the oregon grape in the image above represents something other than an oregon grape. What that ‘something’ is varies. If one were a poet caught up in such a mindset, it might represent, say, a stellar cluster in a cloud of gas. It would be something to admire, like a parlour trick, a little bit of a beautiful idea in a day, passed on and forgotten. If one were a scientist caught up in this mindset, it might represent Mahonia aquifolium. It might represent a key player in an ecosystem. It might represent Nature.
Growing on the approach to a Celtic Hill Fort above the Rhine. You can be darned sure that to the Celts, this wasn’t “nature”. Each of the plants you see here, and even the soil beneath them, had deep spiritual significance. This was a book. But that’s a discussion best left for another day. I just wanted to show you what nature looks like (when seen by conquerors) as opposed to what it looks like to people who are indigenous.
In neither the mind of the poet who accepts metaphor nor the mind of the scientist who utilizes standardized tools of comparison in the place of metaphor, however, is the thing just what it is, without being cognitively transformed into an argument and into the forms of an argument (and remember, they are spun out of thin air).
The Oregon Grape and the Fly Are One
Now, of course unity is a difficult thing. In the mindset that sees Shakespeare’s stage as a metaphor, for anything to happen unity must be broken. Otherwise, we’d all be standing still. (Interestingly, photography, the art form that rose up with technological science, sees everything as still.) See?
Photography: Eternal Stillness
That is, perhaps, an illusion. It is easy to find movement and change within unity, as long as the cognitive point of view of a human observer is not at play. It could all be moving within movement, for instance, and together movement and movement are what the English language calls stillness; it could all be moving within the mind of God, and humans are all somewhere off in a corner with the other Great Apes, cracking nuts with their teeth; it could all be within the energy of the universe itself; and so on. Lots of ways of shaking it up. Intriguingly, images below were one of the class of ideas that led to the disparagement of God over the last couple of centuries (and the loss of a concept of unity with him):
The Energy of the Universe Turning Okanagan Lake into Wave Forms
See those waves? That’s the effect of wind on the water. The wind in this region comes largely from two sources: from the turning of the earth, which is a function of the formation of the planet out of a spinning disk of gas in the early solar system, and from localized heating and cooling caused by the sun on the hills (and opposing slopes of cool shade.) When early scientists discarded the idea that this is the mind of God moving over the water, by pointing out that it was just the wind, they missed the fact that wind or not, it was still part of a unity at least as large as the solar system, and 4,500,000,000 years long, at least in this present iteration.
Point of view is an important tool. Scientific understanding as we largely know it is predicated on an individual human rational point of view. It could, in other words, be best understood as the working out of the possibilities of this point of view, just as the medieval conception of God was a working out of the lives of the medieval monks who cooked it up in the first place. The gaps or limitations in the world view of this scientific understanding are, thus, as much the limitations of this chosen anchoring point (the observing self) as anything else. Thing is, though, it’s not just an observing consciousness but a dissecting and systematizing one, too. It is a bit of a problem. Here, let me show you one small way in which this works.
They’re not called red osier dogwoods for nothing! Now, a peach from my garden…
They’re not called “Red Haven Peaches” for nothing! Now, a young staghorn sumac from up the road…
On its way to full colour glory. Do you see how that works? No? Let’s try again. Tomatoes from my garden?
Yellow clover, maybe?
Well, a ridiculous name, really, but at this time of year it puts on some mighty fine colour in its stalks. Now, in scientific nomenclature, these are all varied plants, with varied latin names, classified according to patterns of leaf and stalk and seed, to place them in what are called “families” but which are, actually, lineages of genetic material. This classification system is a powerful and useful tool, but it is not neutral. If these plants were classified as one related energy, based on the colour red, for example (and this is just an example), like this…
… the various points at which the colour red were manifested would take on significance, in the same way that genetic markers take on in the science of metaphor, and would be put to use and developed into technologies quite different than the ones that come out of the traditions of metaphorical science. Such forms of classification were also a part of the Christian and aristocratic traditions before they were thrown away, and were relegated to the territories of art and poetry, and even to spirituality. Well, that was a long time ago and those art forms are lost, or nearly so, and the world is dying for the lack of what men and women once knew.
Tomorrow: Part 2. Alternate spiritual traditions and alternate forms of classification.