Loveliest of What We Leave

"Loveliest of what I leave
is the sun himself
Next to that the bright stars
and the face of mother moon
Oh yes, and cucumbers in season,
and apples, and pears." --  Praxilla (fl. c. 451 BC)  Adonis, Dying

I’m part of a thoughtful discussion group about Caroline Fairless’s book The Space Between Church and Not-Church: A Sacramental Vision for the Healing of Our Planet. The book starts with the ideas that we need a non-anthropocentric vision of our (humans’) place in the Earth community and that we need to “reimagine our moral compass,” reconfiguring it so that paying attention, responding gratefully, and acting with compassion are key. And she seeks ways to use sacred ritual and art to bridge the space between those who are comfortable with the language of religion and those who are not. (That’s a simple summary and possibly not accurate as it’s my interpretation.)

The conversation this week started with musing about urban/suburban/rural experiences of “nature” Around the table, we wondered whether one needs the experience of the natural world to be whole, or to be fully connected with spirit, or something like that. (I’m sorry I can’t recall exactly how it was posed. I’m uncharacteristically not taking many notes during this process.) I think implicit in the conversation is the assumption that to the extent that we (humans) feel connected with place, with the natural world, we will appreciate it, feel gratitude towards it, and act with compassion towards it, as we would toward anyone we love. If this were our attitude, we wouldn’t be stewards, the humans that manage everything not-human as fairly or sustainably as we can; we would be servants, washing the animals’ feet, offering our time, energy and resources towards the joy of the beloved Earth.  I can imagine this.

The first thing I thought about was how unconnected even most Americans (and/or Westerners) who live in rural places are from nature, particularly from our food, from our place in the food chain, from the whole predator-prey way of existence. Obviously, those who have to hunt, fish and/or gather their food, and those who live on a farm and raise, grow, kill and harvest all their food (like Barbara Kingsolver and her family tried to do for a year in Virginia and reported in Animal, Vegetable, Mineral), are more intimate than most Westerners with a process that is the basis for most animals’ existence, i.e., causing death and (to a much lesser extent, given farm life and weaponry) being in danger of being caught and eaten oneself.

I realised that my thoughts were perhaps far afield from the question at hand: thinking about the benefits of a pocket park for the city dweller, or about how enriching the experience of being in the woods is, focuses the conversation differently than thinking about the predator-prey relationship. So I considered whether and what the difference is between a. experiencing the natural world, and b. experiencing oneself in one’s true place in the natural world, as a kind of animal, a mortal being.

And, in the way of the unrigorous mind …

… “That’s the way the mind works: the brain is genetically disposed towards organization, yet if not controlled, will link even the most imagerial fragment to another on the flimsiest pretense and in the most freewheeling manner, as if it takes a kind of organic pleasure in creative association, without regards to logic or chronological sequence. … The brain has a dangerous habit of messing around with stuff it cannot or will not comprehend.” (Tom Robbins, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues) …

… in that way, I wandered farther and wondered further about how, though we are animals, we seem to try to distance ourselves from that fact. For instance, through shame and denial of all manner of bodily functions.

The conversation as it unfolded — with discussion of what we love about wild places, of how they can speak to us, and about the “practice of place” — and my internal responses to it brought to consciousness two things I had recently read.

One thing our conversation reminded me of is a lengthy book review of metaphysical philosopher Michel Serres’ new (and short: 106 pp) book, titled Malfeasance: Appropriation Through Pollution?  The review is titled “Sacred Dirt.” There is much in Serres’ analysis that may seem far-fetched or that may be questioned (as the reviewer, Princeton humanities professor Susan Stewart, does), and at the same time, Serres’ ideas, as interpreted in this review, seem to me insightful, provocative and relevant to our discussion.

The other reading that our conversation brought to mind is a series by Experimental Theology writer Richard Beck on The Slavery of Death, and most specifically, The Slavery of Death: Part 12, The American Culture of Death Avoidance.

malfeasance book coverThe main idea of Michel Serres’ book is that

“animals, humans included, use pollution to mark, claim, and appropriate territory through defiling it and that over time this appropriative act has evolved away from primitive pollution, urine and feces, to “hard pollution”, industrial chemicals, and “soft pollution”, the many forms of advertising.” (AdBusters review)

The book is divided into two sections, the first of which is titled “Urine, Manure, Blood, Sperm: The Lived Foundations of Property Right.” Through some etymological sleight-of-hand, he builds an argument that humans tend to

“create significance through practices of inclusion and expulsion. … Like most animals, human beings use their bodily excreta — urine, manure, corpses, and sperm — to appropriate places. Sacred places are ‘polluted’ by such excreta and must be bounded off from it …. These excreta — urine, sperm, blood, corpses — are used to mark and claim more and more space as they accumulate. … Natural law becomes positive law, according to Serres, by evolving from these practices of sacrifice, invasion, crimes, and stinking, excremental trash to the “soft signs” of the signature on paper, the logo, the brand, and the re-appropriation of what has already entered the economy. He describes us at the end of this long process of rationalization, sporting the logos of those corporations that have ruined our air and water and exploited the labor of our bodies: “the victims stand in line to multiply the advertising that targets them.” …

He says that

our ‘cleanliness is our dirt’: our desire to possess the world by ‘cleaning’ or claiming it for ourselves and then throwing the consequent dirt and detritus beyond the bounds of what we deem ‘propre‘ has brought about, he claims, the ruination of ourselves and our world. He describes how we are severed from the rest of nature to the point that we suffer an accelerating, self-perpetuating, and alienating symbiosis between forms of material pollution — such as industrial waste and toxic dumps — and forms of mental, or metaphysical, pollution — such as the monotony of muzak, the squawking of mandatory televisions in public spaces, and the relentless commands and demands of advertisements in every view. …

Pooch Cafe cartoon strip about tagging

(Pooch Cafe cartoon, 10/25/2011)

There’s a whole lot more in the review, about Serres’ idea that humans should be tenants of Earth and not property owners (individually or communally) and his observation that “the term ‘environment’ leads us astray with its anthropomorphic center in the human figure.”

The connection for me with what we discussed is in the phrase “our cleanliness is our dirt.” When I read that, I think about how we have carved out green spaces in cities, parks in suburbs, forests between highways, and so on, and how much, on the one hand, we love and likely benefit spiritually, aesthetically, emotionally and physically from these wild-er, leafy, green, quieter places of refuge (and some other animals and plants are sustained by them, too), and how, on the other hand, carving out these pristine places carries a significance that harms our spirits, as we separate our space into proper, sacred space (pure of visible waste products, pure of visible signs of death and decay and mortality) and … space that’s not sacred, because it’s contaminated by reminders that we’re mortal animals.

Some would say that all natural space is “contaminated” by reminders of death, because their cycles are seasonal, so in fall and winter we can’t help but observe withered plants, dead leaves, bare branches, fewer obvious signs of life than in spring and summer. That’s true, and yet it seems there is almost a romantic sensibility attached to these dying months, a feeling of nostalgia, melancholy or grief for the brevity of Life (of which our particular life is theoretically part), accompanied by the knowledge that the Earth is merely “resting” until it bursts forth with energy again in the Spring.  Fall and winter, in their own way, enable both a surrogation of our death-grief — an arms’-distance way of not-really experiencing it but feeling like we have — and they also point toward new life (in spring), and all of that is comforting when death and dying are scary.

Of course, graveyards — the place of corpses — occupy a funny place here. They’re both set apart, lying outside the boundaries of normal life because they hold what’s “unclean,” and they are also considered sacred by many humans (and perhaps some other animals, like elephants), and some cemeteries also serve as refuges and places of peace for people in a busy, constructed world.  Taboos can sometimes be recognised as that which can only be talked about or experienced in what is perceived as a sacred setting.

This brings me to Richard Beck’s thoughts in his blog posting.

Beck writes in this posting about Americans’ fear of death and the lengths we go to to suppress, repress and deny the fact that we will die, and anything that reminds us of it, such as aging, illness, disability, and decay, obviously, but (and this is my addition to his thoughts) also those activities that remind us that we are mortal animals, such as sex and waste elimination. These are our cultural taboos, and as such, they define what’s allowed and what’s not, what’s included as proper and “clean” and what’s excluded as improper and “unclean.”

As taboos, they also give rise to obsession, so that on the flip side, when it comes to death, we seem also to worship violence and killing, with our death rows, gun culture, first-person-shooter video games, very violent movies and TV, sacred language relating to the military, the way we grieve over the deaths of celebrities, etc. We both glorify and glamourise it, and we deeply — Beck says, neurotically — fear it.  We will die, everyone and everything we know will die, and yet death will live on. We worship and we fear death’s power. And our repression and denial of it leads us to rope it off, by sacralising it — giving it sacred meaning and endowing it with transcendent powers — and by making it taboo and prohibiting expressions of it. We do everything we can to make it not ordinary, not normal… an aberration.

Beck argues in a previous post that

“in technological cultures death has become disruptive, illicit, and unseemly. Death has become ‘pornographic’ in our era, not fit for polite discussion or contemplation. You don’t want to bring up death at a cocktail party with co-workers. It’s uncouth and vulgar.”

(This partly explains why I’m not good at cocktail parties.)

Beck quotes copiously in the linked post from Arthur McGill’s book Death and Life: An American Theology:

The most crucial task is for people to create a living world where death seems abnormal and accidental. They must create a living world where life is so full, so secure, and so rich with possibilities that it gives no hint of death and deprivation. Here we have the first ethical duty imposed by the conviction that death is outside of life and that life is the only good for which we should live. According to this duty, a person must try to live in such a way that he or she does not carry the marks of death, does not exhibit any hint of the failure of life. A person must try to prove by his or her own existence that failure does not belong essentially to life. Failure is an accident, a remediable breakdown of the system. McGill calls this duty to hide death–the pressure to be ‘fine’–the ethic of death avoidance:

Every American is thus ingrained with the duty to look well, to seem fine, to exclude from the fabric of his or her normal life any evidence of decay and death and helplessness. The ethic I have outlined here is often called the ethic of success. I prefer to call it the ethic of avoidance…Persons are considered a success not because they attain some remarkable goal, but because their lives do not betray marks of failure or depression, helplessness or sickness. When they are asked how they are, they really can say and really do say, ‘Fine…fine.’ “ *

All this to say that to the degree that we feel an obligation to “create a living world where death seems abnormal and accidental” and to clean our space of “dirt” and keep it apart from us, we may fear “nature” and avoid experiencing it … as if we could do this simply by spending no time outside among dirt, trees, plants, sand, water, et al.; the fact is that we ourselves are “all natural” — most of us, anyway — made of flesh, bones, blood and other “dust,” which will return to dust.

Or, we may want to whitewash nature, evidenced in our cultural fondness for charismatic mega-fauna (the dung beetle, which Fairless suggests is as significant as any other being on Earth, is going to have a tough row to hoe, I’m afraid, in its bid to become the poster child for Earth-love), and our penchant for sunrises, sunsets and rainbows, and our attraction to pristine parks and places set aside and looking lushly or starkly attractive (depending on your aesthetic sensibility).

And even those set-aside places may derive from and play into our death-avoidance:

“[M]any Americans have to create a society which does not cause or require debility and death. Life, life, and more life — that is the only horizon within which these Americans want to live. Epidemics of sickness, economic disasters bringing mass starvation, social violence and disorder threatening at every street corner — if any such things were to happen, then death would no longer be outside of life, be accidental to life. Then, the American venture of nice homes, clean streets, decent manners, and daily security would prove to be false.” (McGill via Beck)

These pockets of refuge, with their elements of nature, feel refreshing and soul-fortifying to many of us, as do art museums and other aesthetically pleasing spaces amidst grimy cities. And, they can also serve to keep us in forgetfulness about tooth-and-claw life, life that’s vibrant and vital, even as it leads to death.

And yet, who can blame us for seeking out nature as a balm, a refuge, a way to openness, connection and vitality, where we can “feel alive again”? As Joseph Campbell (in The Power of Myth) remarks:

“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think what we’re really seeking is an experience of being alive.”

Maybe there is something that happens — unnoticed consciously, or sometimes noticed quite consciously — that does renew our hearts and minds, when we are in the midst of other living species, in our true place on Earth; maybe we do align ourselves, or find ourselves, on some psychic or biological wavelength with all of creation, and know in some deep place that we are co-creating, that we are living and dying like all that is natural.

This, then, reminds me of one of the stories in Fairless’s book: There’s a backstory, but the upshot is that she challenges a creative writing class to write about Jesus’ death, but not his resurrection, without using religious language. Her poem “Yellow Bird” (pp. 90-92) is her response to her own challenge, and at the end of her poem, the injured bird is dying, there is no reprieve.

But no one else in the class stopped at death. The students (including the non-religious) all continued on to include resurrection, redemption, the “happy ending” in their stories.

But, when it comes to death: there is no hope, there is no reprieve. Death is normal and inevitable.

It’s not that I don’t, just like Fairless’s students, imagine life beyond death.  I imagine that.  I can also imagine life before death.  I feel some inkling (sometimes much more) that life in all its fullness — “life that is empowered by an imagination not shaded by death,” as James Alison puts it — is fully present, available, liveable in every moment now, pre-death; and that death, which will destroy and is even now destroying  my body and your body, and destroying perhaps my self and your self, doesn’t endanger it. I think we labour under a double delusion: that death won’t happen to us; and that death holds power.

Even more strongly, though, I feel that segregating life into categories of sacred and secular, holy and profane, pure and impure, clean and unclean, good and bad — and once segregating, then excluding, justifying, sanctifying, accusing, scapegoating  — does violence to our lives in a way that death cannot. Maybe this exclusionary mechanism is the very thing  that keeps us dead, though our bodies are alive.

I wrote this a few years ago as part of a larger poem — I’ll end with it, because poetry seems to have a way of linking thought, feeling, and experience, and then expanding into mystery:

“All faith is autopsy” -- Søren Kierkegaard
 autopsy: from Greek, autopsia,
a seeing with one’s own eyes. 1. The personal act of seeing.

I read that a religion should answer four questions:
1. What explains the human condition?
2. What is salvation?
3. What is the nature of goodness?
4. What is transcendent?

Pretend this is true.

Two things explain much:
We want more, and it’s both more and less than enough.
We want what the other has and
we want what the other wants.

And, we forget. We forget.
There is no other.
It’s a thin space, liminal, porous,
air even more than it’s ash.

Salvation is how we are reminded constantly.
How we are reminded — in glimpses, echoes, shimmers,
a fluttery beating, restless silence, a dream or memory
that leaves a shadowed residue as it slips away –
that everything living is loved. That each and every
each and every
is being reconciled, delivered, re-created no matter what
we think we see.

Goodness begins in every moment by recognising
our own complicit violence.
Goodness recognises suffering, acts with compassion,
ardently pursues peace, resists rivalry
and easy dichotomies,

like goodness,

The transcendent is everywhere
and nowhere
there is anything and nothing.

It’s the deepest, darkest arctic magic,
the cry you hear in the wilderness,
the voice you want to hear inside,
a spirit, a creature, a yes that never ends,
even when

* FINE: Per Louise Penny in her crime fiction, “I’m fine” means: “I’m Fucked up, Insecure, Neurotic, and Egotistical.” When I tell you I’m fine, know this is what I’m saying.

The border image is foliage and bloom from a poplar tree in our yard. It seems to be dying. It’s lovely.

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