Here’s Okanagan Lake, an over-deepened fjord lake full of fossil water just down from my house. It’s the remnant of a much deeper lake, called Glacial Lake Penticton. The top of the green fields at the left were the shore of this lake. My house is in the shallows of this ghost lake, 135 metres above lake level.
Just below I’m going to show you an image from the shallows on the right of this image, about 135 metres above lake level, straight above the mid-point between the two buoys on the right (about halfway along the Head-of-the-Lake Ridge on the right and a little more than halfway up the slope.) If you walked along that ancient lakeshore, you would have met the rock below. It would have lain just below the shore 10,000 years ago. Six months or a year later it would have risen out of the water as the water level sank. Just a rock. Nothing more.
Or is it? I see bear and fish shapes living in one twinned creature, moving into and out of each other, and at the lower left a trickster, a coyote. There’s even a bear paw print in the centre of the image. When I consider that the fish rise out of the water, as this rock would have done, and the first humans through this way after the ice left 10,000 years ago likely walked along that shore, and that their stories have Coyote bringing salmon to the country, I wonder which came first, the imaginative reading, the story or the rock. It is a question answerable only by story, communal memory and experience (poetry, in other words), but is well worth posing. What I find even more interesting today, though, is this bluebird I met in a Siya? bush up on the edge of this summer’s fire.
Are they not the same, the bird and the rock, only expressed in different languages? The rock is expressed in a language of body shapes, animals and stories. If you know the stories, or even the animals alone, you can draw conclusions from what you see about ecological and spiritual connectivity: the bear that eats the salmon is the salmon, for instance, and both are brought to you by the land. Western thought draws a line between natural history and this kind of knowledge, and calls the first science and the second poetry, but that is not a universal line. The bird, for example, is expressed in a similar bodily language: beak, eye, head, feather, foot, claw, wing and so on — all with similarities to human body images. (Sometimes human body images imitate birds; sometimes human images of birds imitate human bodies; sometimes human dress in feathers; sometimes they make language out of bird tracks on paper or a screen; sometimes they sing, like birds. It’s all great stuff.) The line can’t be drawn that truly separates them — only for a purpose. What’s more…
… if one knows the language of science and evolution, one can read a deep history of time, and species connectivity, by looking at the bird. A skilled ornithologist can read the evolutionary lineage of this bluebird back something like 100,000,000 years, with one glance, instantly observing deep time, living on in this bird today. Is my reading of the rock I found on the ancient lakeshore (and possible much earlier readings, perhaps not too dissimilar) very much different?
Is this story of deep time and connectivity not the same story of human bodies and their knowledge, when they find the world staring back (as bluebirds do) and have to navigate the difference between looking into themselves and being observed by something that is separate from them at the same time? This buzzard checking me out, perhaps?
Contemporary Western thought sees a great difference here, but is not that merely a reflection of a line drawn between life and the earth, with living being declared independent and procreative (bluebird and buzzard), and the earth being named dead and an environment for independent life (rock)? That line is arbitrary. It could be drawn in many different places. I could, for instance, use the language of my ancestors, and speak about a bluebird (in its spring plumage below) in their language, the one that lies at the root of this whole discussion, because it was those ancestors who first started to draw these lines between categories of experience. To them, in the indo-european language that came before Sanskrit, German, Romanian, Italian and Greek, to name just a few, this bird was seen as golden…
… and so was this sky, and this aspen.
It was a spiritual colour: an intensity of visual experience that caught your eye at a distance and held it, like a flash of light off a wave. It described the flash, not the “gold” colour of the aspen, where we see it today. To these ancestors, a cloud…
… was a clot, like a clod of earth, a clot of cheese or a clot of blood, a thickening in an energy field that swept around the earth.
In this language of energy, the “things” of the earth are thickenings of energy, that are, in part, thickened by being given a name — by having their spirit (their energy) being given human bodily shape, in other words. In that sense, is the image below not an image of a thickening of energy? And is the photograph not a thickening of energy itself?
Or this stone?
Or these bluebirds coming in from the grassland to feed among the apple trees?
Are they not all the same reading of human bodies and thought patterns on the world, concretized into language, a kind of magical amulet laid out in strings of beads on a necklace of time, which is concretized into scientific understanding, by the act of naming? That act of holding, as an anchor in the flow of energy through the world and through time, is the same, whether it is expressed in a language of stone, a language of energy, or a language of things. In the same way that a bluebird, the sky and the sun are so intertwined, in terms of energy, that they are all gold, and in the same way that a bluebird and a stone and a cloud are so intertwined in terms of human cognitive mapping that they are all alive, this stone …
… and by extension the one below, worn smooth in a river that once flowed along the edge of the hill into the ancient, ghost lake …
… are this young bear.
The word “indigenous” gets in the way of this knowledge. It says that there is one group of people at home on this land who know this, and another group (everyone else) who does not. Well, not entirely. At best, it says that there are people, around the world, who live on the land, within this kind of energy connection, bound to a place, and another group of people (almost everyone) which does not have access to this knowledge. It’s true, this business of certain groups of people being the land they’re on, and it’s also partly not true, because we all have access to this knowledge, and all have access to the ability to speak to each other in this earth-based and body-based spiritual language. That we don’t is a failure of language, of poets, and of society. And it is a failure of love and respect. Our ancestors drew lines between things, for real and pressing reasons. We can erase those lines, or draw different ones, for other real and pressing reasons. We can be together. It is not written in stone that we are apart. And it is for this reason that I believe it is time for poets to leave the universities and walk out into the world, and to bring back bears and bluebirds and gold.
Next, I will argue that it is time for critics at universities to stop playing the game they love to play, of holding critical thought and poetry in their minds at the same time, yet making critical thought primary. They stand on the edge of a new form of art, but prevent its evolution. It’s like saying time stops here now, and our knowledge is the deepest pool. Contemporary politics is demonstrating that this is not so. Let’s explore together what it might mean to take the next step.