Of Cashews and Creativity

This is a cashew.

Staghorn Sumac

This is a cashew.

Cashew_applesReally. Source.

This is a cashew:

P2230163Poison Ivy

There are many other cashews in the world. Mangos …


… and pistachios …


… for instance. In reaction to various environments, these plants transformed themselves in new shapes, with new characteristics. Then there was this…

1165_00029000017115.jpg … and this …christmas-biscotti-1

Here’s another cashew, native to my grassland:


Smooth Sumac in Autumn

Six of the above images are outpourings of the creative potential of the earth. For some reason that defies all respect for the earth and living things only three of the images above are named creative products. I guess it’s because it’s a technological culture that gets to make these definitions, for some reason. These three:

They are grown, harvested, roasted, flavoured, dyed (gad), marketed, shipped, sold and consumed, yet the true creative energy here, cashew herself, goes uncredited. In this context, creativity is a use to which the things of the earth, which evolved in what is termed a random process, are put.



Hardly. These Oregon grapes live in a complex set of relationships, but it’s not random. It’s just complex and organic. It’s how life does things.

The randomness is an echo of a scientific method that pulls things apart to study them separately before putting them back together again, which leaves a human mark. That’s technology for you. Another echo of the method is that under its effects plants, and their evolution, are considered separately from their environments, although they did evolve in certain specific environments. Can that rightfully be called random? Did not the environment find its balance together?


Three Minutes After the Image Above the Sun Went Behind a Cloud

Red leaves, which turned colour in response to the fall sun, help with that. They create heat. Like the rock wall they grow against, it brings spring more quickly. That’s not precisely random. It is balance.

The only way the environment can be separate from its parts is if plants are invasive, independent actors, but, here’s the thing: after four years writing a book about the history of my grassland in the context of the American colonial invasion from 1835 to 1893 and the Canadian one that followed immediately in the north and continues to this day, that looks an awful lot like a description of a particular kind of unrooted colonial human behaviour. Now it’s enshrined in a contemporary definition of creativity, which, just like a concept of independent nature made out of separate structures and forces does not include the earth. It’s all about a certain concept of humans. It doesn’t include this:


Waterfall, Coyote Bluffs, Kalamalka Lake

Old concepts of human nature do. Indigenous ones do. Sufic and many Christian ones do. Nordic ones do. Many others, no doubt, do as well. But here in North America, the so-called male colonizing principle, that rides into the virgin wilderness and plants a stake into it, is enshrined, even though most of the men who did that kind of thing were murderous vigilante sociopathic, psychopathic bastards. Nonetheless, researchers who try to get at some other way of talking about creativity are constrained by the limitations of contemporary definitions of creativity, in ways little different than the ones that constrained Methodist and Presbyterian women who settled this West around 1855, isolated from the genocide that was making their honest, gentle, nurturing lives possible and turning their sisters, the Indigenous women of the Northwest, into sex slaves and corpses. I’m sorry, but it happened to often to set aside, and it’s still not safe to be a brown woman in Canadian society. We all know that. Luckily, there are healthier forms of creativity, such as the ones which conclude this essay:


Here are some of Gabora and Holmes’ conclusions:


I applaud their work, but I’m going to do so without challenge. This part, I believe, needs challenge, because it’s culturally specific, not universal. Why, for example, is creativity about a choice of life or death? Isn’t that a human characteristic? Isn’t that about gothic novels? The rest of the earth chooses life:


Wild Clematis

Yes, gothic, have a look:

You see, when American, Canadian and British settlers came to this country they took it from its Indigenous people, who knew better than this. Settlers employed the philosophy that people who did not create the fences of private ownership (actually, Indigenous ownership rules were complex but invisible to settlers) actually had no right to the land they had lived with for 8,000, 12,000 or even 16,000 years. What’s more, settlers brought spiritual philosophies that were really quite beautiful, about humility, grace and subjection to order, but they were then used to culturally dispossess the region’s people. Gabora and Holmes’ conclusions are equally beautiful, but there is a context to them which isn’t, and needs to be foregrounded as a caul for caution. This colonial drive for order and obedience is also a ghost in the quote below about a bimodal human intelligence, one able to switch between two functioning methods depending upon circumstance — a beautiful conception:

two ways

It’s the authors’ intent, if I read the essay correctly, to propose that training “creative” people to switch between modes in different circumstances, will prevent them from the negative consequences of creativity, which in their argument include “dangling by a thread”, or inability to integrate with regular society, and a statistically-high rate of mental illness. Well, it’s like this: for “creative” people, this might be the case. I don’t know. There are other people, however, doing work that is called by some “creative” but isn’t, to whom this doesn’t apply. That suggests to me that the argument (and the notion of creativity itself) are grossly incomplete. Many of these “non-creative” creators I know actually feel that society is the one dangling. That’s not the only troubling gap, though. These arguments of separation, incomprehension and even madness are very similar to ones that were once thrown against the Cayuse, Palouse, Umatilla, Wanapum, Sinkiuse, Kittitas, Nez Perce, Yakama, Methow, Washaptams, Syilx, Synixt, Secwepemc, Nlaka’pamux and all the other peoples of my country. The solution is much the same as the one offered then, too: to transform minds tuned to creation, which view connections, into ones which view those connections as merely being “apparent”, being “myths”, while the “real” connections are analytical and are built around method, whether it is scientific or spiritual. A secondary colonial solution is also at play here: the development of a form of biological nature: instead of nature, or God, or spirit, or the Earth being actualized within a person, with each person being the world walking, that world was now outside, behind a boundary of consciousness, as an expression of randomness and time, and people were given, in its place, an actualized self, sometimes a miniature Christ, sometimes a stand-in called analytical thought, embodying hierarchies and methods of will and the ability to apply them. Powerful stuff, for sure.


Nature Welling Up

The red bark of these dogwoods is a natural product of photosynthesis, which allows these wetland plants to survive in relatively dry and extremely hot climates, by dispelling excess sunlight as heat. It’s not intentional. It’s a natural flow. It was human once. It still is.

In other words, in the time of colonization these “solutions” involved replacing a system of earth knowledge and mapping based upon spiritual union, story-telling and social and family hierarchies of respect, all cultivated by practical human activity, with one based upon a primordial nature that wells up into the world, that can be harnessed to forms and made to “work”. Today, this concept of nature has evolved and is portrayed as “genetic” and “evolutionary” history. The authors explain that like this:

two waysThese are two European modes of thought, beautiful ones, for sure. There are, however, more than this in European tradition, and that should be addressed, too, but just set that aside for a moment. What’s really missing here is Indigenous creativity and consciousness, from the peoples of this grassland, who grew up with it from the moment the glaciers left and the floods receded, and who in many cases made it into the “nature” that settlers saw, when in fact it was their stories and not “nature” at all, or at least a joint project between Earth and people (usually women). I expect that this story of the Middle Upper Paleolithic applies universally to all humans, yet just to dwell on that physical ground is cultural, which puts its universality into question. Indigenous modes of thought include tricksters and other forms of contextual focus, other than just the two mentioned in the essay, including visions and spirit songs, among others.

mrsLooking good, Mrs. Coyote!

There is, fortunately, much wisdom in Gabora and Holmes’ essay. This for example:sum1If I read them correctly, they are saying that humans are able to adapt modes of thoughts to situations. That’s like our friend Cashew, evolving in different ecosystems. It’s like Indigenous peoples, evolving land use strategies adapted to the land they live on, in its own forms. The thought, however, expresses only two dominant European modes — not even minor ones, or ones buried in history. Just two. It doesn’t bring in Indigenous ones, either, from this place in which the essay is written. Just the two European ones. Yet, despite that oversight, created more by the boundaries of the research tradition that gave rise to the paper than by any failing or intent, the paper’s argument allows for a recombination of modes, and hints at a mechanism by which it might take place:sum2

That’s the preamble to the idea, and I think it gets off on the wrong foot. As a person who is engaged in “making” daily, with twenty-eight books of my own, hundreds of thousands of photographs, over 70 books edited for writers and two degrees in create writing, I appreciate that I am not a creative person, as defined by the technological culture these scholars — my friends — live in, and appreciate that they might call that “dangling by a thread”, but that doesn’t mean that associative thought necessarily has a propensity to be “emotionally overwhelming”, or that analytical thought is more “even-keeled” or that associative work is “strange” or that analytical work is “more fine-grained”, or that one form of thought is light and another is dark. Those are cultural choices. They speak of a notion of creation that lives within a certain cultural matrix, one in which these choices are true because they express the skeletal framework of this matrix of embedded and realized selves. The thing is, though, as I have been demonstrating in this blog for three years, and as I have spoken of in this series of posts on creativity since late 2015, this is not universal human experience and not representative of the full breadth of the work of makers. There’s another troubling set of conclusions in this essay.


Involuntary, unpredictable nature of creativity? That’s the anti-Coyote message again. It looks like the continued positing of an “Other” instead of union with it. It’s really hard to see how union with the planet is going to be achieved across the gulf of such a myth. There’s more:


That’s fantastic: women’s voices and modes of thought get to be included and used as tools. Absolutely, the more the better. Please. Now. Forever. The “dangerous chasms and destructive breaking and crashing of old boxes,” though? That’s some kind of myth-making, again, because that metaphor is certainly not respectful of the breadth of male experience, if male experience is meant by it, or of pre-Marxist female experience, if that’s what’s being expressed. Human experience is richer and broader than that. We’re all doing the best we can. The thought, fortunately, continues positively:

Atwood 2

To take nothing away from the primacy of mothering, fathering and nurture, are, of course, complementary forces, no less positive and fertile. But this isn’t about gender, or I’d like it not to be. I think it’s about respect. Organic form belongs to all humans, and we all need women to bring new modes forward. We also all need men to do so. We also need rich discussions of human nature and of nature itself, often together, in more than standard modes. Gabora and Holmes have introduced many intriguing threads here. I hope they return to their essay soon and revise it to include the modes they missed — no doubt under the constraints of space —as well as the most important one: the earth. This is a vital ethical issue.



It’s not about us. It’s about Her. It’s about actualizing Her. What the self is, ah, that comes next.




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