What if rather than invoking a table of brotherhood, he invoked a suite of statistics?
What if rather than calling to be free at last, he called for ‘mitigation of racial impacts?’
Well then he would have been talking like an environmentalist.
This isn’t meant to criticise environmentalism, but to point out a dichotomy of language: that when we speak of injustice to humans we do so in moral terms, yet when the victims are non-human we default to the hygienic terminology of science. Rather than laying out spiritual ambitions, we lay out technological ones. Rather than employing the clarifying imagery of symbols and metaphors, we repeat the opaque objectivity of numbers.
Why? Why so abstract when the subject is nature? Don’t we engage as intimately with the non-human as we do the human? We emerged from the sea and are mostly made of water, we breath the exhalations of plants, we bury our noses in flowers, we sing like birds, we cuddle our animal companions. So why do we talk about it like it was from another planet? Why do we have one language for us, and another for them? I sense an evasion in this way of speaking, this vernacular of distance and objectivity. We count and count, model and tabulate, yet somehow it keeps adding up to the same strange silence.
I wrote The Silence of Vanishing Things to confront this silence, and perhaps break through it, calling, through three essays and 60 poems, for a shift toward a sacred, more reverent narrative. I look particularly at the word ‘environment’, elucidating its troubling origins and contrasting it with the word it replaced, ‘nature’. I also explore indigenous ways of speaking about the earth, which I was fortunate enough to witness both at Standing Rock and during the successful battle to stop a global shipping interest from building a coal port on sacred ancestral land of the Lummi Nation in Washington State. Finally, since love of nature suggests action in its defense, I end in the spirit of activism, recounting a kayaktivists’ vigil in the Salish Sea that attempted to block Shell’s Arctic drilling vessel, Noble Discover, from escaping port and embarking on its drilling mission to the Arctic.
It feels like a homecoming writing about the book here, as one of its poems is the frontispiece for Dark Mountain’s inaugural issue. I’ll begin with this poem.
I Went Looking for the Wild One
I went looking for the wild one, the howler, the vatic
tramp, the one for whom the wounded hillsides
are inner burns, whose blood is stained
with the old love-wine of poet and earth—
warrior poet, slinging battle flak out at the static,
shattering polite conversations everywhere.
I looked in the anthologies, listening for echoes, traced
for signs in the quarterlies, magazines, best-ofs. I learned
it’s been a good year for poetry, grants and awards coming in,
contests and prizes proliferating. The wise grey consensus
counsels a return to the classics.
Meanwhile, poor scientist holds extinction
in a palm full of numbers
with nothing but data
to howl with.
We all recognise this scientist. He, or she, is in a tough spot, appointed as intermediary between humans and the rest of creation, but only in a restricted sense. He can provide data, but he can’t tell us what that data means, either emotionally or morally, let alone in sacred terms. He can speak about the earth, but not necessarily for the earth. He can speak to facts, but not mysteries. He has the expertise, but not the language.
What this scientist needs is not better data, but a better context, a narrative in which his data is not peripheral, but central. He needs another, non-scientific entity to train the cultural imagination to what’s sitting there in his hand, to conjure in our minds the living world his numbers point to. Perhaps you can guess where I’m going with this. From the first essay:
Society needs the poet right now. It is an age of irony and reversals and this is one of them. If we have forgotten what air is, have lost sight of its divine formula – plant and animal breathing life into each other – who but the poet to remind us? If we have lost our enchantment with nature, who but the poet to re-enchant us, to retune our senses to nature’s hidden energies and mysteries? For every scientific explanation of nature, there is a poetic explanation. And it’s the poetic explanation we most need now.
The poet may not want to go, and I wouldn’t blame her, or him. Her muse may smell politics in the venture, societal expectations, ideology. Besides, the notion of organising poets is too much like an oxymoron, if not a comedy. But I can’t shake the sense of an ancient understanding between poet and universe, some mysterious induction by which the poet is granted special access to look across the human border and see into things. It’s as if by apprenticing ourselves to language, we are granted to hear beyond it, to decipher the voices of the more-than-human, with a duty then to translate them.
Certainly there is the need, for in this culture the sacred in nature is all but abandoned. Science, in prizing objectivity, avoids it as a matter of procedure. Religion – meaning here the three Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam – simply demotes it at the outset. From Genesis 1.28: ‘… fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’
You can hear this desacralisation in our language today, which is distant, technical, authoritative, made for use and control, and about as far from sacred as language can get. It’s almost as if it were designed to function that way, like a vacuum cleaner, sucking up the felt, divine energy of things, leaving them mute, compliant, like good resources.
This is a process, however, that can be reversed.
Place a Bible, a Koran and a Torah
beside each other in a field, one not higher
nor lower than the other,
and according to no order you could intend.
Then walk away, letting the high summer grasses
close behind you.
Autumn rains come, and the washings of time.
Small needs of mice and robins
shred pages into nests. Partial psalms
disappear into burrows. Torn parables
and suras wing to branches.
And like this the sacred words
spread through the circling woods
like widening rings on a lake.
In the leather covers
the ground recognises its own;
the meal is glad, gradual.
There is no gluttony here; everything passes
into new beauty,
and you did not walk away.
You, the pages, the words…
Returning to the earth its original divinity, bringing it back down, consciously and conspicuously, seems an essential work of poetry today. Currently society is given only a version of the earth, one artificially construed, and only partially rendered, like notes on a page but not the music. Clarifying things, then, tuning the ear of the listening body, making spiritual sense of what remains, has become necessary. It doesn’t need to be complicated. It can begin by simply announcing the intention, like leading a horse into a ring. Nature, like the horse, is its own proof.
The beautifully faded maps
want to dissolve,
to become fragments
and leaves for the wind.
Let the wind have them.
We are wanderers again.
There is no place or thing
that must not be freshly seen.
A beetle in a driveway lifts its antenna
into the humming air
and waves them at the mountains
which gaze at the sun
who invites all things
to sing their names.
The listening among these,
and the cells rearranging—
that is the journey:
discerning what is real
from what we’ve merely made—
with hominid humility,
blessed by the trillion voices,
finding and singing them back
to the centres of our prayers.
I began this piece with words from Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. I think what made his narrative so powerful was how firmly he embedded it in spiritual metaphor, tapping values so universal they completely undermined those of race. He was a Christian minister, and the Bible, with its story of the Israelites fleeing Egyptian bondage, served him well, allowing him to tap into a moral map already ingrained in our culture. Casting his dream of equality as ‘deeply rooted in the American dream’, he solemnly strode right into the American story.
Environmentalism has taken a different approach, partly by what has seemed a necessity, entwining itself with science, betting that rational interpretation of real facts will lead us out of the hell we are making. And by all rights, rational interpretation of real facts should! And perhaps it would if we held nature in higher regard, if we spoke in terms that honoured it, if we understood that without it we wouldn’t exist and then allowed the mystery and beauty of that equation into our beliefs, if we sang the obvious praises.
I’ve been using the term ‘we’ as if speaking for everyone, but there are cultures outside the global-culture-mass who do properly regard the creation, who’s language is already reverent, who belt out sacred songs, who pound drums for the ancestors and whose oral liturgy is older than ours by mere thousands of years.
I’m privileged to live where I do, alongside the waters of the Salish Sea (once called Northern Puget Sound.) Many indigenous nations have survived here, and, despite the depredations of colonialism, are resurging. Nearly extinct languages are being revived, ceremonies recovered. Never has identity with the earth made more sense.
Not long ago, near where I live, a transnational shipping interest called SSA Marine set out to develop the largest coal port in North America adjacent to the Lummi Indian Reservation, at a beach called Cherry Point, west of Bellingham, Washington. The Lummi call it Xwe’chi’eXen. It’s sacred, ancestral territory for them. After a period of quiet deliberation within their own councils, the Lummi organised a ceremony at Xwe’chi’eXen to let the wider community know their feelings about the project.
Speaking first in his ancestral language, hereditary Chief Bill James addressed the roughly 200 of us in attendance. I noticed as he spoke his hands kept hovering near his heart, then they would motion to the hills behind us, then back to his heart, then out towards the sea, then to his heart again, to the Lummi youth present, then back to his heart.
Then he repeated what he had said in English. When his hands were motioning to the hills behind us he was reminding us they held ancestral spirits. When his hands swept over the sea and islands behind him, he recounted the thousands of years the Lummi had camped and fished on this beach, and how essential it was (motioning to his heart) not only for his people’s physical survival but spiritual survival. When his hands gestured toward the Lummi youth, he was affirming his people’s sacred obligation to coming generations.
He was redefining the place, reorienting us from a dot on a map called Cherry Point, to a place full of story and alive. This was the first and most essential step, and one which I have witnessed over and over amongst Native Americans, how almost every event begins with prayer and ceremony and acknowledgement of Mother Earth. This then lays the ground for the commitment, for sacred obligation, not only in the present moment, but stretching back to the ancestors and ahead to the ones to come.
Earlier, before he began speaking, I noticed a group of Lummi youths starting a fire on the beach. These young people were later called forward, lined up to face us, honoured and draped with ceremonial blankets. A large mock-up of a cheque was brought forward, representing the usual bribes corporations offer tribes to forsake their sacred lands. On the amount line was written ‘Not Even Millions of Dollars’, with ‘Non-Negotiable’ stamped over it in dripping, blood-red letters.
Then the cheque was handed to the Lummi youths, who took it over to the fire they had started earlier. As their elders stood in a solemn line with the sea and islands behind them, the youths placed the cheque on the fire, where it smoldered, crumpled and curled into flame. Rising in the column of smoke went any lingering doubts about Lummi resolve to protect their sacred lands.
There is much for environmentalism to learn here, but not to appropriate, not to take and make our own. Native people say ‘find your own indigenous’, that it’s in us too, only further back. I sometimes wonder if that isn’t what poetry is for Western civilisation, a tap root to our own indigenous memory, to our original relationship with the more-than-human. The tradition is there. Here is a sliver from 1798, at the start of the Industrial Revolution. Freidrich Holderlin: And, Mother of Nature, if a word with immense/energy is needed, the people remember yours.
Poetry is many things but like everything it began in the earth. It is an old story, told over and over, if only for the purpose of repeating it. Because that story, that this universe is alive, participatory and sacred, needs the telling. Or someone turns it into profit.
I remember what a Lakota woman said to a small group of water protectors at Standing Rock. I’m paraphrasing here: ‘Sometimes we have trouble with the language. But that’s not a problem for us. Whenever we’re in doubt we just ask the land. It tells us what to say.’
We can do the same. We can turn to the world and ask all over again the old, still beautiful, questions.
The tide seeps in like a secret
telling one pebble at a time.
Reflecting a cool, distant sun,
cloud-light silvers the ripples
that slide past the shoreline firs
made candelabras by perched herons,
the pace steady, stately
like a public processional.
And isn’t this a kind of public?
Am I not facing
the true civilisation?
Behind me a great democracy stutters,
our votes become tickets to a carnival
that periodically sweeps through town.
Your choice: waffle cone or fun-house mirror,
haunted castle or whirling tea cup
with a wheel in the middle to make it feel
like you are steering.
Here, the crab has cast its ballot:
an empty shell on the beach.
The sun lowers and gives
rise to the moon.
Sand grains walk
Time, perhaps, to leave off
perfecting the Union
and turn again
to perfected creation.
The rain cloud over the desert
doesn’t need a plan. The flower
growing in the pavement crack
will bring the revolution.
Image: Our Painted Responsibilities, Mobile Mural created around the topic: Defending the Sacred. guided by Melanie Schambach
This mural was produced alongside a 6,000-mile totem pole journey that toured between the Salish Sea, the Alberta Tar Sands and the US Powder River Basin in 2014. Led by members of the Lummi Nation, it visited numerous Native and non-Native communities in the path of proposed oil and coal exports, working to raise indigenous solidarity and public resistance to industry efforts to get tar sands oil, Bakken fracked oil and coal to Asia. At each stop, participants were invited to make contributions to the mural, painting images and writing words around the theme of protecting the sacred. The final result includes renderings of heron, indigenous canoes, eagles and humans, as well as poems, prayers and a variety of personal messages.