Sympathetic magic is a complex term for a simple phenomena: in pre-Enlightenment culture, the power of objects was believed to derive from similarities between them; knowledge of these similarities, and the ordering of them, allowed people not only to read the world but to control it. The Earth is sacred, because its soil is the colour of blood, for instance.
John Day Painted Hills
That the red is also the colour of fire and pottery, or that it’s also the colour of the seeds of the cheatgrass running up through the flows of spring water, is also part of the phenomena. This is precisely the form that poetry trains people in — specifically in how to read it from texts. Sympathetic magic is an Enlightenment-era phrase to describe how it has been used historically to read the world instead; poetry is the textual form of a far older form of reading. Here’s one way:
See that? You can pick up the stone, and the energy not only of blood but of the earth is in your hand. If you carry it with you, the energy will give you strength and guide you. This is the power of a different kind of “magic”: the power of the amulet. In poetry, it is the power of the word. What else, for example, are “man”, “woman”, “rock”, “sun”, “star”, “water”, “fire”, “head”, and so on, but such amulets, picked out of a beach as wide as the world?I picked up a number of such stones at Rialto Beach and Second Beach this spring, carried them with me for awhile, gave them energy by naming their colours with human rather than earthly terms, then threw them out into the incoming tides to add energy back into the depleted sea. It was a beautiful artwork.
I was reminded of the power of this aesthetic mindfulness yesterday, high above Kalamalka Lake. Here’s Terrace Mountain, peering up above the Commonage, covered in snow and lines of black volcanic rock from ancient floods of stone. The lake is a remnant of a 10,000 year old inland glacial melt sea. The bush in the foreground is a saskatoon, blooming and scenting the landscape with its creamy pear-blossom-like perfume: a warm scent, yet as cool as the water that gives it forth. The aesthetic correspondences are strong here, and include the mountain holding winter’s cold, the lake holding the sky, and the bush holding the cold water of the mountain, and winter’s snow, within its blossoms. Through the upcoming season of drought it turns this energy into spherical red and black fruits, each like an earth, each crowned with a star.
When the camera pulls back, the context of the saskatoon as a burning mountain, a fire made of water and winter, starts to pull in the balsam roots, now blooming throughout the bunchgrass on the slopes.
When it is pulled back further, the balsam roots, the pines, and the glacial and volcanic forms of the land start to reveal their complex combinations, complete with the forms called shoulders, heights and tongues, the land forms adopted by bodies, called lays, lees and beams, and the forms that language, given through poetry, has used to hold the mind, called pools, skies, thrusts, flares and so on.
It is all aesthetically-created. Here, this image should illustrate that well:
See that? Climb a few metres higher and a bit to the north and the correspondence is no longer between the white, watery fire of the saskatoon and the eagle crown of Terrace Mountain, but between a knob of ancient seabed, covered in hawthorns, and the mountain; it is now a correspondence of forms, rather than of energy that can be communicated by light. Everything changes from this …
… and different forms and narratives can immediately be seen with every shift. The shift below shows both correspondences, within their own relationship. Stories of winter water and sun are easy to read here. The lichen on those rocks colonized them as soon as the glaciers left. That’s the glacier there, molten in its bed, holding a reservoir of the sky. That sky, read by human bodies, is the mind. It is possible to swim in it. It is not something you think about. It is an experience of the world, all at once.
It is possible to read the world like that, all the time; to be in it and of it. To do so, however, does mean that the term “sympathetic magic” needs to be cast away. This is a form of reading, not a form of spirituality. It’s not in competition with Christian or Enlightenment traditions. The original statement that it was so was an error, based on a division between God and the Earth that simply has no grounds in scripture or human experience. This is our planet. Of course we can read it. Here’s Terrace Mountain from the next arm west, looking over Okanagan Lake this time. I stood about seven kilometres off to the left of this image, to make the shots above. Notice here, how the land reveals different forms against the same peak.
And in winter … And from lake level…
The changes are complex. Because they cannot be read by the tools of mathematics or science, they are called random. That’s not to say that they are, just that they are of such complexity that no tools have been invented that can read them accurately, predict them, or put them to practical use. Well, except for this:
The first is a human body living as the earth. The second is an eagle perch; without it, the birds with the heads of mountain snow, would not come to fish. The third is a ponderosa pine, as in the previous two images, but close up, showing how it weaves the light over the years, drawing it in through hollow green tubes, like reverse lightbulbs: an image of the human mind. The fourth is a path, which is all of the above images put to a particular social use; one way to move through them aesthetically. Yesterday, many young women were jogging along that path, and many middle-aged people, middle-aged dogs, and elderly people were walking along it. There were no young men. There were no children. It is time, I think, to rescue the earth, and poetry, for them, for the sake of those young women, if nothing else. One other point: once you have experienced these forms and languages in the world, which are called, variously, poetry, art or magic, and which follow the forms of ancient grammars, you can read them without the anchoring mountain. Typically, in Canadian culture, they are read\ as “nature” or “beauty” or, at times, recreated as “poetry”, to make them accessible to people trained only in how to read from books.
They are also, of course, readable as images, as photographs, as that particular art work. I find that a particularly exciting path, because while I have been making this blog over the last 42 months or so, I have presented something like 15,000 images. Many have been understood to be images of “nature” or “the earth” or “the Okanagan Valley” or “the grasslands” or whatever they might be, but what I’ve actually been showing you and finding the words to describe is this:
… and this …. … and this, which is what the world looks like without poetry:
That’s Terrace Mountain from a failed residential subdivision that destroyed the valley’s most pristine grassland for feeble images of Provence and Arizona and an American golf course. It wound up as barren gravel and dead rattlesnakes. In this context, reading poetry as a thing of words, as an intellectual and academic tradition bound with Enlightenment culture, with the kinds of meanings found in Enlightenment textuality, such as the narrative time lines of novels, is a misreading of our bodies, our selves, and the earth that we are. If our cities are such …
New Westminster Quay
Predator Ridge Golf Course, between Kalamalka and Okanagan Lakes
Kin Beach, Okanagan Lake, with Sterilized Geese and Invasive-Weed Mower
Kelowna Tourist District, behind the facade
Downtown Kelowna, a Global Playground
… that they cannot hold these conversations with the earth, it’s time to teach people how to read. As long as universities remain the bastions of Enlightenment thinking, within a global technological context, the answers don’t lie with them. The cities are, in fact, their products, not their solutions. So is this:
Pond, Turtle Mountain
That’s not Nature, by the way. That’s a rich grassland pond full of algae, its reeds trampled by cattle, its hawthorn nearly strangled by them, its grass turned to weeds and sagebrush, and its frogs absent. This is cattle country, the foundation of land ownership in these parts. It represents an idea of what the land can be, an idea that can’t even touch this one:
Biscuit Root, Turtle Mountain
This ancient food crop lives within the earth, in aesthetic balance with it. Any form of aesthetics that doesn’t acknowledge such balance, or that images of nature, and the balance required to make them work, are part of the language of biscuit root and paths into the deepest self and the strongest human identity, is not a house to live in. This is:
It’s not magic. It’s life. Until we see the 6,000 school children of Vernon leave their classrooms and sit amongst those flowers and learn to read them, we haven’t even begun to live here.