Sunday, November 9, 2014

Totems of Intelligibility (Opening Sections)

Sympetrum obstrusm

i.  A Tree of Dragonflies

     On the high prairie, an adult rocky mountain juniper (Juniperus scopulorum), with scaly 
leaves green and tender, holds itself erect under the intense light filling a cloudless sky in August. Planted strategically near the doorway to the museum and offices of the First People's Buffalo Jump State Park. this lone tree, along with the sarvis berry, chokecherry and black currant bushes clustered about it, resists the sweltering heat and welcomes the public. 

     "Ambassadors for better times," I think.  For once a prairie unplowed stretched all about here, a land teeming with a variety of native grasses unusually rich in protein and capable of sustaining great herds of buffalo and more. Today the buffalo are no longer to be found, and the fields are dominated by a single crop - crested wheat grass imported from Asia during the dust bowl to fight soil erosion.  Manifest destiny became all too manifest in these environs, and a multitude of living things no longer are finding their place here under the sun. 

     But the juniper is proving to be a far more effective ambassador than I had imagined possible.  For today, she welcomes not only the Jump's human visitors bent upon finding their way to a museum's door, but also a multitude of white-faced meadow-hawks (Sympetrum obtrusum), who would rather stay outside and play.  Exploring green pockets of shade, hovering and darting and then hovering again, the dragonflies' thin, elongated abdomens shimmer in metallic tones of green and blue and gold.  Transparent wings whirring invisibly suddenly jump into view, shining and poised, as their respective owners alight on an unoccupied branch.  My vision narrows in, and I watch a single dragonfly, bouncing about in the gusty prairie winds, tail and wings flailing in the air.  She clings to a limber twig and rides it like a cowboy riding bronco in an arthropod rodeo.  Delight abides here, the delight of other living kinds in their modes of existing, delight arresting me from my all too human concerns, leaving me breathless and more than a little envious. 

     And so, starting off this inquiry into the intelligibility of land and its living kinds, dragonfly gets the first word.
 Juniper too, as her hidden roots dig in deep to find water secreted in the arid earth, her visible body a hillock of green speckled with shadows, her limbs oozing sticky sap in the oppressive heat.  Come here,” she whispers in my ear, “come here and stay for a while. I am cool and green, an oasis among endless fields of strange grasses, dry and spent in the weathers of August."

ii. The Etiquette of the First Word

     That dragonfly and juniper are given the opportunity to speak first on behalf of the First People’s Buffalo Jump State Park is a matter of etiquette and atonement.

     As to etiquette: We practitioners of academic philosophy have far too long ignored dragonfly and juniper, not to mention porcupine and antelope, rattlesnake and prairie dog, sarvis berry and black currant, red hawk and magpie.  And this is not a trivial point, when I consider that these living kinds are rightfully my kin and among my first teachers.  My education, both manifold and subtle, into becoming what Leopold has termed a biotic citizen, a citizen of the land, began under their tutelage.  Prompted here and now by a host of dragonflies and a juniper tree, I contemplate how walking the contours of this land throughout my childhood proved to be an inalienable aspect of the calling to embrace a philosophical life.  In that time as well, dragonfly and juniper appeared, offering themselves as totems of intelligibility, living kinds capable, along with a host of others, of announcing through their peculiar modes of behavior, through the gestures and shape of their respective lives, how life itself might be articulated in diverse species of wonder and gratitude, of anxiety and supplication, of circumspection and greeting. 

      To this I now offer a heartfelt "Amen." 
 Yet, in the very next breath I must also confirm how the human midwives of philosophical thinking, into whose hands dragonfly and juniper delivered me, were most often quizzical if not downright perturbed at the sources of my not-so-human birth into wonder.   The living kinds were not only in the main regarded as irrelevant but also a danger
to the philosophical vocation, allegedly tempting its practitioners to perverse forms of malpractice.  And so a second education began in which the message was made clear: Philosophy is no Noah’s ark. If you root in with the trees and hover with the dragonflies, you should not be trusted with deducing the categorical imperative, let alone posing the ontological question.  And so, the ritual of the exorcism of the demon of the “pathetic fallacy,” its liturgy peppered with imprecations against naivety and, even worse, nativism, was repeatedly invoked against the intimations of dragonfly and juniper in my speaking and in my writing.  The animals and trees of one’s place under the sun were to be kept at bay.  

     And so today this provocation:
  Can one at least for a moment drop one’s philosophical guard and let dragonfly and juniper have their say? And on their own terms?  Or put another way: How might one become open not only to the question of land's intelligibility but also to the very categories of intelligibility by which land makes itself known?  For the land, when it speaks, speaks as much in dragonflies and juniper, or in shadows and shape-shifting, as in Blackfoot and English.  In a Greek way of saying these things, the time is long overdue for a moment of disruptive poesis in the court of philosophical judgment.  It’s time for some introductions to take place. 

The Jump


iii. The First People's Buffalo Jump State Park

     The First People’s Buffalo Jump State Park is located on terrain surrounding the largest site of its kind on the North American continent, an elongated, sandstone cliff in the rough shape of a horseshoe running for several miles along the northern, southern and eastern edges of a low lying butte.  The butte in turn emerges, just barely, between two broad, flat-bottomed valleys carved out on either side by the yearly spring flooding of the Missouri and Sun rivers.  The country here is high plains – big sky and dry earth – a landscape of undulating prairie rising to meet blue-gray reefs of limestone constituting the front range of the Rockies some sixty miles distant. 

As one looks west toward that convergence, the land begins to bunch up, as if a string has been threaded through rough burlap then pulled increasingly tight, so that wrinkles and kinks begin to appear and then knot themselves into chunky buttes and columns of foothills.  At the very edge, always, lurking on the horizon, are those limestone teeth capped with snow, ridges and peaks jutting along the very margins of the earth before all falls away into dreams and unknowing.  The Piikani, I am reminded, locate the very place of creation on that distant ridge.

     The management plan for the park includes the following sentence: “The site welcomes Native American use for worship and celebration and for reconnection with ancestors.”
  It appears, according to the archaeologists, this has been going on for 6000 years or so.  

Thursday, September 18, 2014

All in the Family: In Praise of Goldenrod and its Pollinators.

Digger Wasps among others feeding on flowering Goldenrod
The season has arrived in which to praise goldenrod and the living kinds who love it.  While two species of goldenrod are currently making their home in the garden, by far the one preferred by both human and arthropod is the commonly occurring Solidago canadensis.  The progenitors of this particular patch were harvested unceremoniously from a roadside ditch and had their roots folded into the damp soil at the edge of small bog put together from scratch in the back yard.  The transplants immediately thrived and now have reseeded themselves across the garden. Goldenrod doesn't take a lot of caring for to flourish and is among the first species to colonize a newly-disturbed area.  When in flower, according to the Omaha People, goldenrod presages the ripening of the corn crop.  Here in the back yard, rows of erect yellow blossoms announce a free for all for digger and ichneumon wasps, organ pipe mud daubers, soldier bugs and locust tree borers.  In the heat of the day, when each plant is busy photosynthesizing sugar, all of the above and more crowd in.  Later in the evening, when the pickings are leaner and more nimble fliers have departed, the slower-moving carpenters bees stick around to claim, in a quieter moment, their own full share of the nectar. Some of these stay right through the night, becoming dormant and then reawakening in the morning to resume their feeding in the early dew.
Locust Tree Borers Mating
For several reasons, I have been taking photographs of the various tribes of living beings showing up on the blossoms over the last week.   Perhaps the most visceral motivation for doing so involves a desire to take snapshots of one's relatives.  The more one spends time hanging out in the garden with these creatures, the more they seem like one's neighbors and then one's family.  And why not? We are, after all, all sharing our respective places at the table in the very same garden under the very same sun.  And the manner in which each species negotiates its participation in the great feast is worthy of note.  With so many airborne diners, one comes to appreciate the many styles of arrival and departure - from acrobatic to bumbling, from beeline to roundabout, from nervous to assured.  And while most defer from mating while dining, locust borers find a way to do both, the female clawing her way from flower to flower, drinking in nectar, while the male is perched on her, preoccupied with another matter altogether.   If this is family, then it's a crazed one.  And snapshots are certainly required, if only to remind one of the family resemblances, in so far as they can be ascertained.

Organ Pipe Mud Dauber
Ailanthus Webworm Moth
But the reason that took me, camera in hand, out into the garden in the first place was simply the prosaic task of identifying its living kinds. Before one can welcome someone into the family, that someone needs a name. The photographs were a mnemonic tool, a way of keeping fresh, if not in mind then at least in image, the shape, color and sundry characteristics of a particular creature, until a guide book could be supplied to correlate its picture of a species with mine of a specimen. Needless to say, this phase of my relationship with my subjects involved getting the proverbial God's- eye view of them, both from above and from the side, with all the relevant parts clearly displayed.  In metaphor if not in reality I was intent on pinning down each new species, as if it were already strategically positioned in a specimen box stuffed with yellow flower heads instead of the usual white cotton.. I wanted a picture just like the field guides supply, and getting that exact image held all the excitement of the hunt, as I stalked each photographic prey in turn until they were caught, proverbially frozen in my weapon of choice, the camera's omnivorous eye. Only later did I begin to notice how the camera possessed the uncanny power to open up my senses to an arthropod's engagement in her or his environs by bringing me face to face and so eye to eye with an individual actively working her or his way through endless, yellow strings of goldenrod flower heads. Astonishingly, the gaze of various arthropods I was so busily capturing in image would sometimes follow my movements, fixing on my camera's stare as it moved to the left or right, adjusting their bodies to be out of my line of sight.  Of course, at some level I know insects are keenly aware of my all-too-human presence, but how this presence is palpably registered in their gaze as they react to my approach never ceases to amaze me.  I am reminded that they, like me, negotiate the world with their senses and their bodies.  Like me, they squat down to get underneath a low-hanging object in their path. Like me, they turn their heads to catch a flick of motion nearby.  And like me, they wish to be left unimpeded as they pursue their own agendas among the flowers of late summer.
Face to Face with a Locust Tree Borer
As Leopold notes in his 1947 essay "Conservation Aesthetic," Americans, when they have turned to the living world for recreation, for the most part have gone out in search of one sort of trophy or another, whether it be a mounted elk head, a colorful trout for one's table, seeds for one's indigenous garden, a stone for one's pocket or merely a photograph for one's facebook page. Leopold allows that the photographic image is perhaps the least invasive of these practices (at least in the places where they are taken, as opposed to those unhappy sites, most often located in third world environs, which supply the raw materials and industrial production for one's camera and its image-storing paraphernalia). But Leopold also argues that the beauty of a photograph is nothing next to an intimate knowledge of the living kinds and their cycles of life, of the numerous processes and relationships constituting the flow of energy that is land.  As a result, in Leopold's words, "to promote perception is the only truly creative part of recreational engineering."  I suspect this also holds true of the "engineering" that goes into the planting of one's garden. When goldenrod flowers, one's knowing who shows up and why in all its breadth and complexity is necessary to becoming a worthy audience for the land's beauty, for what Australian Aboriginal peoples name "country" in English. Like music, country is a flow of energy, various chords and motifs finding their moment under the sun before either dissipating or moving on, the plethora of living kinds arising and decaying in diverse tempos and keys.  The life cycle bringing the organ pipe mud dauber to these flower heads is not the same as that of an ailanthus webworm moth. One stings and the other has dusty but colorful wings.  One winters over in the area and cobbles together ornate nests resembling organ pipes for its young, watched over by both parents. Spiders are supplied in abundance for their larvae to eat. The other is a subtropical insect that has recently taken to migrating north every summer to lay eggs on the leaves of the increasingly widespread Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima) introduced to our continent from China.  In this case, the larvae fend for themselves, feeding and then spinning their silky cocoons in the folds of ailantus leaves, while their parents are busy with mating and imbibing on the nectar of a host of flowers nearby.

And so these two living kinds, among a host of others, find their way to an ordinary patch of goldenrod that happens to be in my garden.  And in their comings and goings is overheard a few small phrases of that vast music, those intricate rhythms and motifs, that is county. I am impatient to hear more.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Putting New Scales on One's Eyes

The mid-summer sun has been pouring down nonstop on the meadow garden, a plot in my yard with a variety of native plants and some not so native ones: false indigo, phlox, Joe-Pye weed (not really a weed), meadow sweet, cone-flower, bee balm, butterfly weed (really a milkweed, which is also not a weed, except for some), hyssop, yarrow, cup rosinweed (also not a weed, except evidently in Connecticut), rudbeckia maxima (a black-eyed Susan on steroids) several varieties of bunch grasses, nettles, meadow rue, trumpet flower and the like.  Basically green things that like to congregate in crowds of green things.

Today the sun is hot, and the honey is coming. Non-stop.  The pollinators arrive in droves; a feeding frenzy ensues..

As the meadow's perennials have rooted in over the last decade and found their respective places among their fellows (with varying degrees of guidance on my part), I've begun educating myself about the many types of pollinators coursing through this patch.  Little insights accumulate.  For instance, at first one's eye, uneducated, is caught by the obvious: big burly bumble bees dashing here and there to alight on the purple crowns of bee balm and cone-flower; or multicolored swallowtail butterflies clustering on a leafy wall of scarlet runner making its home in the nearby vegetable patch.  Polaroid moments ensue.

But then one looks again.  And again.  And notices smaller bees and wasps, flies as well, some small and quick enough that the only hint they are there is the glinting of their wings as they dive into the perianths of blossoms no larger than grains of rice.  Sometimes even smaller than a grain of rice.  It's not for nothing that botanists and entymologists come armed with a loupe when entering creation.

And so the question of scale arises. Blaise Pascale, both mathematician and philosopher, suggests that humans are poised between two scalar realities--that of the increasingly large and the increasingly small. While Pascale was intent on thinking through how either direction leads to the infinite (a mathematical concept and metaphysical category with which he was especially conversant), for the time being and the garden's sake one could simply think of  the scalar magnitudes close to the middle ground characteristic of our all too human gaze upon the face of the earth.   Plenty of wonder can already be found in this neighborhood.

And that thought brings me to the image above, taken with a Pentax DSLR 5000 as I stood in the garden earlier today surrounded by buzzing pollinators.  The picture is of a wasp, yet to be identified, in mid flight after having gathered nectar from masses of miniscule pink blossoms clotted on an umbel of Joe-Pye weed. Up this close the intricate structure of the umbel finds renewed definition in the foreground, even as one's eyes are directed slightly beyond to the hind end of that wasp, its legs hanging freely and its wings shimmering with movement.  I am particularly fond of the two antennae curved above its body, indicating where the eating and seeing end of the wasp is located.  It is as if I have entered another dimension of creaturely existence, as if the gaze of those compound eyes located under the antennae have been delivered to me. Looking about the world from the viewpoint of a wasp, I find, is exhilarating. revelatory, something both very old and very new under the sun.

Of course, I did not register any of this at the moment the scene occurred.  Only the camera through whose viewfinder I was gazing had the quickness of eye and the exactitude of memory to bring this particular world to light.  What I saw was a wasp sprawling across an umbel, crawling busily from perianth to perianth, ravishing each blossom for its nectar before moving on to the next.  And then in a blur, the wasp disappeared. When this occurred, it was only happenstance, the click of the shutter repeating itself in fast mode, that found an insect in flight.  So as natural as this scene might appear, a tool was involved in bringing it to light, a tool that helps extend the scale in which my own limited and all-too-human eyes can operate. For in this case the very quick and the fairly small were at issue, neither visited with ease by the unaided perception of homo-sapiens.

All of this brings me to two thoughts.  The first involves how the image invites its viewer to enter concretely this fetching, even magical scene.  Indeed, as I gaze at the photograph, moments from animated films, both recent and old, come to mind, in which a winged insect powers through the intricate and miniaturized world of a meadow, bringing our all-too-humans eyes along for the ride.  The scene is, I realize, culturally familiar, even beloved, copyrighted repeatedly by Disney and Pixar.  But the scene is also archetypal.  For  reaching back deep into into our history, variants are found in folk tales, as fairies, elfin creatures the right size for riding on wasps and living on the nectar of roses and lilies, are revealed to us in story if not in fact.

These old tales offer, I suspect, wisdom in their very genre.  For humans cannot move down the chain of magnitudes in order to inhabit other levels of space and time without our existence becoming strange and stranger.  A human that effortlessly rides a bee is not one whose perceptions would translate easily into my own. Part of the axis of our humanity, an orientation that keeps us in check and checked in, is revealed to be the very size and speed at and with which we exist bodily.  We can visit the scene above briefly in our imaginations and fly with the bees; but remaining there would cost us much.

The second thought is more prosaic.  It has to do with the manner in which scale bedevils all questions ecological.  How does one measure the diverse populations of species comprising an ecosystem, for instance?  Does one stop with every footstep to take an inventory?  But if so, what particular line of inquiry should these footsteps take through the ecosystem to be measured? And how far apart are the multiple pathways to be set?  Should they be arranged in a grid?  And how small or large should the mesh of that grid be? Or should the lines of inquiry follow other sorts of contours suggested by variations in topography?  And again, how small or large should the mesh be?  And even as one stops at each place where the ecosystem is to be catalogued and numbered, at what scale of size does one leave off?  Do quarks count as much molecules?  Do molecules in stones count in the same way as they do in cells?  Do cells matter as much as organisms in which they are located?  And should the stars overhead be included automatically in the inventory as well? What of all the others creatures just passing through an ecosystem on their own particular lines of inquiry?  Not to mention the differences that occur, if one's line of inquiry is performed on any given day in a particular season, as opposed to all the other days and seasons. It turns out the very diversity of scales, whether temporal or spatial, through which an ecosystem can be approached is dizzying.  Inevitably, we must decide where to draw a line and keep to it.  In doing so, we also admit implicitly that whatever we know of the living world is always necessarily a fragment and so distortion of it.  In the intricacy and diversity of its scales and their interactions, a single ecosystem transcends all hope of fully perceiving, let alone fully knowing it.

This brings me, in conclusion, to a recent email from my colleague Michael Folkoff, a physical geographer who thinks a lot about the soil and topography.  His complaint: the criterion by which topographers determine the minimum size that must be reached for a "small water body" (otherwise known as a "pond") to be recognized and counted as one has been set fairly arbitrarily.  Since topographical data is stored digitally and mapped out at a scale of 1:24,000, the USGS has decided a small water body must be at least the same size proportionally on the face of the earth as the symbol for a small water body is on a topographical map. However much space the symbol takes up at a 1:24,0000 scale becomes the deciding factor on whether a pond exists or not in the eyes of the USGS.

To decide which bodies of water are or are not ponds is an unenviable task, fraught with the complexity of competing scales noted above.  Who can blame the USGS for cutting the Gordian knot in such an efficient manner?  Yet, as Folkoff notes, "hundreds of ponds in Wicomico County alone are excluded from SWB enumeration by this standard."

How small does a body of water need to be before it ceases to be such?  Droplets on leaves, for instance, are hardly ponds and not even puddles.  They're droplets. Which leads to yet another question: How many categories of the gatherings of still waters are needed to precisely mirror the reality of an ecosystem?  How many ponds can dance on the head of a pin on a topographical map?  As a philosopher this gets me thinking: Why not construct a scalar ontology, a theory of being that does not begin by enumerating concrete or even metaphysical entities or the relations between entities but with the diversity of scales by which entities can appear and be approached in the first place?  Size does matter.  In all sorts of ways.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Blue Mountains, Lyrebirds and Stories We Tell

Lyrebird Lyrates and Filamentaries
The Blue Mountains in winter: entire forests of gum trees, their spindly limbs crowned by green mops of leaves, thrash in torrents of air scouring the landscape. One image in particular comes to mind: perched on the heights at an angle against the gusting winds, I look out over a ledge into the depths of the Jamison valley. In massive gulps, the airstream around me is stripping water off the greenery after a rainy night, stripping the water, atomizing it into mist and then scattering it over the lip of an escarpment into the country stretching below.  And there in front of me a rainbow, really rain-ribbon, or rain-serpent, materializing and evaporating and materializing again, soaring up the steep slopes from below and anchoring itself in the red sandstone cliffs opposite me.  The Blue Mountains are, if anything, a landscape of rainbows, precipices and wind.

And yet. later, hiking down the escarpments to the wooded bottom lands of the valley, I was amazed to find that terrible wind dissipating with every step, the air becoming nearly still and birdsong audible.  As if the valley below were the permanent eye of an unending hurricane raging above it.

Actually the Blue Mountains are a massive plateau eroded away in great chunks to form a series of forested canyons and valleys framed by towering escarpments.  And the lowlands are, it turns out, a great  place to encounter a lyrebird.  At least in mid-winter during their their mating season.  Belying their reputation, the birds were not at all difficult to find: the racket they make, thrashing about in the forest as they dig in the duff for insects and salamanders, unabashedly signals their presence. And they are not concerned about exiting the scene, unless the human visitor is a bit too insistent about approaching near.  And even if one cannot see a lyrebird directly, the males, perched on their hidden thrones, mounds built up of dirt and leaves to impress a cohort of mating females, fill up the forest with whistles and  throstlings, cooings and tweets, twitters and buzzings and croaks in stereophonic virtuosity.

Blue Mountain Escarpment
At one point I did approach a male to capture a better image, in fact the one appended above.  Eventually, impatient with my insistence, he flew down the slope in a power glide (this particular set of wings being not good for much else), his body configured in a blue ideogram of feathers so perfect, so unearthly, that it surely had escaped from a special effects program for high end video games. The two lyrate tail feathers, as they are termed, are held, at least during flight, curved open in a shape suggesting the musical instrument after which the bird is named.   Mating is another business altogether, according to avian ethologists, with the tail feathers directed forward so that they hover over the male's head as he struts his stuff.

This plumage is hypnotic.  To call it beautiful obscures the fact that its most powerful virtue is that of dissemblance, of shape shifting.  As the male digs incessantly into the earth in search of goodies he tilts his rear upward--this ungracious posture unleashing a furious dance of feathers in which the two chestnut brown lyrates are transformed into a pair of hyperactive snakes writhing in mid air over the earth.  The lacy filamentaries also composing the tail confuse the light around the lyrates and render the ensemble ghostly, a mixture of form and void, uncanny flesh dissipating into shimmers of airy light.  Spellbound at this sight, I can sympathize with the fidelity of the mating females to such a display.  In some part of me, I'm seduced too and prepared to stay here as this male's consort for eternity.  Surely this is Eden and this lyrebird Adam.

Given the flamboyant feathers and preternatural talent for mimicry, the lyrebird not only fascinates humans but leaves us envious.  You Tube is filled with videos showing off the capacity of this species to ape everything under the sun: from kookaburras to car alarms.  In one of these, David Attenborough encounters several, obviously not in the wild (of this fact he is not forthcoming: see Hollis Taylor's blog on this issue), that can mimic camera clicks, the buzz of chain saws and men working nearby.. But this fascination with a captive bird's talent for simulation leaves me wondering: Why is the capacity in a living creature to duplicate the sound of a fire alarm so noteworthy?

Lyrebird Habitat in the Jamison Valley
To this question I have a hopeful and not so hopeful answer. I'll start with the hopeful and more subtle point first.  In giving voice to click of camera and whirring of electric-motored film advance, the captive lyrebird transforms the inert noises permeating his surroundings into something rich and strange. This power of living things to transcend the merely mechanical and efficacious has recently been christened "biosemiosis."  In this term one registers how the very stuff of life, from our genetic coding on up, involves the expression and reception of signs among the living kinds, as well as within the bodies of every living kind. The entirety of creation it turns out is full of messages in search of reception, which is to say, full of storytelling.  And so I am thankful for the closeup in Attenborough's video of the captive lyrebird's beak, as an electrical whirring emanates forth from its gifted voicebox: in my very hearing, a mechanical sound, an intricate, human-made contraption of moving metal and plastic gears, finds a renewed and uncanny dwelling place in living flesh of another living kind.  In this reverberation of a vibration, it turns out, something more than mere efficacy, the chief virtue of technological existence, emerges.  The camera leaves its imprint on the lyrebird's hearing not as machinery but as encounter, not as redundancy but as creative opportunity.  

But that very closeup is also distressing, particularly given Attenborough's condescending take on the moment. It is a matter of the story, after all.  And the story Attenborough tells and enacts is one of a huckster:  "Look at this," his tone intimates. "Ain't it grand?"  But is this the story worthy of a species 15 million years upon the face of the earth, one whose forebears, unlike our own, are part of the very strata of the continents? Rather than questioning the process by which the vocabulary of a lyrebird is overtaken by the sounds of cameras, car alarms and buzz saws, the fact is simply sketched out as an elaborate joke, a trick.  This exchange of bird and human here is just one step up from trick dolphins jumping through hoops and elephants balancing on each other's backs.  Of course, what is different is that the lyrebird comes to this trick voluntarily via its own practices.  But the circumstances of those practices are not voluntary at all: he has been confined to a cage.  And this question haunts me:  Why is the mimicking of machinery so noteworthy in a living being?  And listening again to it, I realize this: This bird no longer is my Adam; his power to seduce these human ears has been reduced to one that amuses.  
The Three Sisters
Other stories, it should be noted, are told of the lyrebird, including stories by peoples who were willing to follow for tens of thousands of years the lines of song laid down by a living kind across country.  The Gundungurra people, for instance, who own the stories of what we whitefellows call the Jamison Valley, have something quite different than Attenborough to say about the lyrebird and its mimicry.  But their stories are for the most part kept alive and cared for, when they have not been annihilated by colonial violence, in the closed circles of their keepers.

Still one story might be told, a story that was falsely attributed to the Grundungurra and was actually authored by a whitefellow schoolgirl by the name of Patricia Stone. Her tale involves three sisters who are transformed into stone by their father, a powerful cleverman, to save them from a bunyip, a terrifying creature who lurks in the waters waiting to feast upon anything that comes by, particularly women and children. Angered at the daughters' transformation, the bunyip chases the father, until cornered, he transforms himself into a lyrebird with the same magic bone he had used upon his daughters.  And then, to his dismay, he discovers the bone has been lost.

If a whitefellow is to tell a story about country, this is perhaps not a bad start.  And it leaves its audience with important questions to chew upon. Why, for instance, does the clever man turn his daughters to stone, even as he chooses a lyrebird for his own moment of shape shifting? Parents, in protecting their children, can go too far and with tragic results. Yet by throwing rocks heedlessly from the cliff top (which is what initially alerts the bunyip to their presence), the daughters themselves are implicated in their petrification due to their own thoughtlessness. And there is the issue of that magic bone.  It is powerful but also limited in its efficacy. And it can simply be misplaced.  The contours of the real emerge here in an intricate interplay of themes and forces:  the ferocity of love, the carelessness of  youth, the outbreak of elemental violence, the limited means of wisdom and and the fragility of human power.   In the face of the bunyip's hungry maw the cleverman chooses song over blood letting.  Shakespeare would be pleased.

But what most intrigues me today is the cleverman's decision to become a lyrebird.  The ways in which humans find themselves affirmed in the lyrebird, even as the lyrebird finds its peculiar talents affirmed in human beings is worthy of more than a little thought. As I hear it, the telling of this metamorphosis, of man to lyrebird, gives words to the mystery of language itself. For words clarify the meanings of things, as the act of naming calls forth reality and reality calls forth naming. And like the lyrebird, are not humans in the business of singing their existence in borrowed song?  We clothe ourselves, both in body and in thought with the skins and voices of all the other living kinds. When all is said and done, we are made of words.  If a human is to become another animal, certainly becoming a lyrebird makes a lot of sense.  Thank you Patricia Stone for this thought.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Stone Markers of the Choisi-Michi Pilgrimage Route


180 stone markers, spaced 109 meters apart, line the Choisi Michi trail leading to Koyasan, the seat of Shingon Buddhism and the resting place of Kukai, its founder and most illustrious thinker.  Each marker has its own history and stories surrounding it. Photographing each pillar as I walked up the last 7 km. of the trail in the rain unexpectedly became a meditative practice. The inpouring of sensations as one walks among so many living entities and elements making their home in the environs of the trail can be overwhelming.  Cascades of ferns, innumerable branches of hinoki and sugi, the rushing of water among stones, the call of crows in the distance. The markers helped to steady me a bit. I thank them for that.


Thursday, January 2, 2014

A Camphor Tree in the Dark

A Camphor Tree in the Dark

Sometimes the image does all the talking.  And sometimes the tree in the image is doing the talking in all the talking.  This aged camphor tree, a Shinto shrine in the very heart of Wakayama, is a must visit spot each time I return to Japan with a new group of students to hike the Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage Route.  A sporadic stream of people, some homeless, some well-dressed, some young and some old, visit this site throughout the day and into the night.  Humans gather with crows and ferns and feral cats and all other manner of living creature to find a moment of solitude, to offer a word of thankfulness, to seek consolation.  Or simply to be in the presence of the tree's ministry.

I have photographed a series of images of this tree, mostly at night.  Interestingly, in this particular image the outpouring of light from the city illuminates the sky turning it into a spectral backdrop, even as the many lamps lining the paths of the park in which the tree is found provide foreground and accent lights.  The tree, it turns out, is posing in a vast photographic studio constituted by a flood of urban illumination.

Urban light pollution is often and rightfully mourned as one of a host of factors cutting off us denizens of the contemporary techno-imperium from the living stuff of creation.  Or at least cutting us off from how the world is shared with creatures far more accustomed to the dark than we are.  In wiping away darkness from the night, have we not lost contact with our own dark natures?  Which is to say those aspects of the world that befuddle our senses, or at least our vision.  The world is not always ours to grasp at a distance, the darkness teaches.  And when distances do appear in the unobstructed darkness of the night, they are the magnificent and harrowing heights of the stars spreading out and dancing in a great circle over the sleeping earth.  For us humans to look into the night sky that is full of the night calls for humility and daring. Losing the night diminishes us.

Yet, this image of a camphor tree, I must confess, is a striking one.  And I hunger to return night after night to see what new revelations it might have in store.  The urban night lights afford nature a shining forth that is not to be found otherwise for human capacities.  What to do then with this blasphemy that is also a blessing?