The Dark Mountain Blog

The right kind of ignorance

It’s small and blackish and may have wings folded flat to its body, ready, waiting. But it’s so small I can’t see it very well. Or my eyes are weak. Or it’s impossible to get any closer to seeing this animal anyway and I can only shrug my shoulders and admit how strange it is. And how it lives, for now, in this corner of office, just far enough from the cobweb to remain safe.

I leave the room to wake my children and take them to school, and when I come back, it’s still there. It’s smaller than ever and very still. I find a magnifying glass and peer through it. It looks like a fruit fly, only smaller. It has legs the size of iron filings and wings; it definitely has wings. Either that, or they’re weird halos. Nothing about it is familiar, not its body, not its habits, not its time. In fact, the only thing that we have in common is sentience and mortality. I think about killing it. I could press it flat with my thumb, squish it dead in less than a second. A tiny black smudge that I could flick on the floor.

But I don’t. I Google it instead (a kind of death by over-information): I type in ‘tiny black fly’ and hundreds of pages of text fill my screen like a swarm. I learn new words and definitions: moth flies, owl midges, drain flies, fungus flies. They are all small and black with legs and wings, though each one is slightly different – there are variations in eye colour, barely visible markings, microscopic wing-patterns. But all the new information does is make me feel factual. Now I can hazard an educated guess that the fly is a baby fruit fly, of the family Drosophilidae, which means “dew-loving”. Meanwhile, the fly has flown off.

In John Berger’s essay ‘Why Look At Animals’, he talks about the human observation of animals as a sign of our separation from them: ‘The fact that they can observe us has lost all significance. They are the objects of our ever-extending knowledge. What we know about them is an index of our power, and thus an index of what separates us from them. The more we know, the further away we are.’ I agree up to a point (I think Berger’s actually drawing attention to different ways of knowing, as opposed to rejecting factual information out of hand). But ignorance can be just as powerful and separatist. Here’s a post I came across on one of the many ‘black fly’ forums:

I keep getting lots of tiny black flies in my house
and just can’t seem to get rid of them?

They seem to gather mostly around windows and no matter how many i kill they just won’t go away. i’ve cleaned all of the kitchen which is where they are mainly and have fly killer patches on my windows, which are catching them, but i am killing well over twenty a day. they are driving me mad! They are about half a centimetre long. Any advice would be GREATLY received as I am getting fed up of hoovering the dead ones up each day and spraying my house with fly spray.

Reading the forum reminded me of Jo Shapcott’s poem, ‘Scorpion’, in which she tries to unravel aspects of the human-animal relationship, using an animal that has the potential to inflict as much harm on the human as the human inflicts on it.

Scorpion

I kill it because we cannot stay in the same room. I kill it
because we cannot stay in the same room with me sleeping.
I kill it because I might look away and not see it there on
the wall when I look back. I kill it because I might spend all
night hunting it. I kill it because I am afraid to go near
enough with glass and paper to carry it outside. I kill it
because I have been told to. I kill it by slapping my shoe
against the wall because I have been told to do it that way.
I kill it standing as far away as possible and stretching my
hand holding the shoe towards it. I kill it because it has
been making me shake out the bedclothes, look inside my
shoes, scan the walls at night. I kill it because I can. I kill it
because it cannot stop me. I kill it because I know it is
there. I kill it so that its remains are on the heel of my shoe.
I kill it so that its outline with curved sting is on my wall. I
kill it to feel sure I will live. I kill it to feel alive. I kill it
because I am weaker than it is. I kill it because I do not
understand it. I kill it without looking at it. I kill it because
I am not good enough to let it live. I kill it out of the corner
of my eye, remembering that it is black, vertical, stock still on
the white wall. I kill it because it will not speak to me.

What the poem shows, I think, is the right kind of ignorance. Shapcott repeatedly wanders out to what fellow poet and teacher, Fran Quinn, calls ‘the exciting place’, the place where ignorance throws you around and you get surprised by life, over and over again. You can feel it in her poems. The keen edge. The possibility that the whole thing might not come off because it’s already all the time gaining water and she’s madly bailing. Quinn talks about the importance of ignorance in the creative act: ‘The creative act, by its very nature, is based on ignorance,’ he writes. ‘If you know it, it’s already been created, if you don’t know it, you have to create it. The nature of the creative individual is an ability to walk into the thing that you don’t know and create it. We were all taught to feel ashamed of our ignorance. Almost the entire educational system is structured to say that we’re supposed to know the answers. What I’m saying is that we have to break that model.’

I too have been taught to believe that what I don’t know is a sign of something lacking in me, as opposed to the wonderful opportunity for learning that it is. Sometimes, in writing poems and sharing their imperfection, there is fear and even shame. What Quinn suggests is that the best parts of our creative energy is often caught up in these very emotions. He believes there are fruitful ways of getting lost and that ignorance should be the place you enter the poem. ‘There’s this huge opportunity,’ he says, ‘and yet we keep wandering around in this tiny garden of knowledge that we’ve carefully walled so that nothing can come in from the great unwashed outside and eat us alive – the ignorance part.’

It reminds me of something Paul Kingsnorth talked about at the recent (and very wonderful) Prophets of Rock & Wave workshop on the edge of Dartmoor, together with myth-teller Martin Shaw. Paul talked about Val Plumwood’s essay, Being Prey, which describes her narrow escape from the jaws of a crocodile:

‘In its final, frantic attempts to protect itself from the knowledge that threatens the narrative framework, the mind can instantaneously fabricate terminal doubt of extravagant proportions: this is not really happening. This is a nightmare from which I will soon awake. This desperate delusion split apart as I hit the water. In that flash, I glimpsed a world for the first time “from the outside”, as a world no longer my own, an unrecognisable, bleak landscape composed of raw necessity, indifferent to my life or death.’

To experience the world anew, to claw back the layers of perception and their attendant beliefs, to write our way out of our comfort zones, perhaps we should throw ourselves at a crocodile – metaphorically speaking, of course.

It’s this approach to writing and sharing poetry that I try to practise. In April 2013, Susan Richardson and I are co-leading a Dark Mountain poetry workshop at Wiston Lodge in the Scottish Borders. I’d like to explore Fran Quinn’s ideas of journeying out into unknown territory. I’d like to talk about animals and how far away from them we are. There’ll be a session of mask-making as part of the creative writing process, a sense of play that’s not just intellectual, but hands-on too. There’ll be bonfires, time spent outside, great food. We’ll be sleeping in wooden cabins at the foot of Tinto Hill.

Check out the events page on this website and a previous DM blog for further details. Or email me or Susan to find out more or book a place. There are no prerequisites for attending: absolute beginners to established writers are equally welcome. We’re keeping the workshop small – there’ll be a maximum of ten places, and five are already booked -so that we can have a good chunk of time to share and discuss work. Book soon if you want to join us.

If ignorance is the most creative place to get lost, what might we end up finding there?

[I’ve quoted and paraphrased freely from an article on Fran Quinn’s workshops in Poets & Writers, Sept/Oct 2011]

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