Published in Discursive Impulse. Read it here:
Published in Discursive Impulse. Read it here:
I made about 50 copies of this illustrated book of poetry at end of my residency at Caldera in 2013 and gave them away for free to visitors at the open house.
If you’d like a copy, let me know.
I woke up in my tent and stared at myself in my small plastic mirror. It’s a vain habit to bring that mirror with me when I go camping, since the bright light of the open-air morning discloses more than any bathroom mirror can. Beyond the slightly sadistic pleasure of really being able to see every new wrinkle and blemish, the unadulterated morning light often reveals a version of my face that I cannot access in my daily life. I tend to look softer, more aware, less guarded. I like to remind myself that this version of me still exists.
That morning, I peered at the creases in my forehead, the triple folds under my eyes, the fine lines around my mouth, the pores on my nose, the gray-blue of my eyes, surrounded by lashes still clumped from sleep. I looked tired, overwhelmed, a bit bleak. The version of myself I sought wasn’t showing up.
I had arrived at camp the night before, full to bursting with the heavy hollowness of grief. It had been a summer of accumulating emptiness, a vacuous magnet inside me drawing clumps of ache, growing emptier in their accretion. I was reverberating with loss. I usually gratefully dissolved into the forest but that morning, I felt impermeable.
I lay there, listening. It started once the golden sunlight reached the tops of the tallest firs — a buzz, rising from everywhere and nowhere, filling the air from the ground up, rendering it lighter, more electric, vibrating off the night’s dampness. Piccolo shrieks and bleeps of small birds high in the canopy, flitting from tree to tree. Dust rising, then settling, then rising again. Syncopated thuds of woodpeckers. Chirps of larger songbirds flying, then perching, then flying again. Raspy open-throated calls and high-pitched punctuation over the constant hum of insects, coating the forest floor like a sonic blanket. I was grateful for the passivity of listening. I didn’t need to do anything — the morning’s orchestra simply entered my head.
I put the mirror away.
As John Berger has written, “animals are always the observed.” In the wild, we spy on them from blinds, equipped with eye-extending tools to better witness their every twitch and blink. Biologists have developed ethograms, inventories of known behaviors, for most animal species. Hunters hide in treetops or litter the ground with merciless traps, a sort of hand extension, a form of remote warfare from before this era of drones. And then there is the zoo, a nod to human power and our ability, our right to observe animals, to make of them a spectacle in a micromanaged, farcical approximation of their habitat. Even more abstractly, our culture is obsessed with seeing animals on screens. This is our most domesticating gaze. It doesn’t just transport animals from the wild to the city, like a zoo, but from the wild to our homes, our pockets. They become an abstracted mobile possession.
Observing is never neutral. The male gaze objectifies and flattens the observed female, ensuring that she is a “bearer of meaning, not [a] maker of meaning,” in the words of Laura Mulvey. As Susan Sontag has written, the observer of a photograph exerts a kingly power over the photographed. Being looked at can be a violation or a privilege, or both at once.
But how does looking shift when it is interspecies? What does it mean to be looked at, peered at from above, by the chorus of songbirds announcing your arrival as you walk on any path in any forest? City birds are also acutely attuned to human presence; the humble pigeon perceives a wider range of the visible spectrum of light than any other species. What do the crows in the huge elms outside my house see when they peer into my windows early in the morning? What do the squirrels see as they leap and scurry in the parks? What does it mean to be looked at by the animal other? What do they know?
Aristotle proclaimed that “with regard to intelligence, [animals possess] something akin to sagacity.” Berger agrees, understanding animals in the human imagination as “messengers and promises.” From the roots of Western culture until today, animals have been understood as the earth’s sages, sacred messengers, promises. It is understood that the animals can see us clearly, in a pure and unimpeded form. We are recognized as one small, scared, dangerous, struggling part of a vastly larger whole.
What does it mean, then, to witness an animal witnessing you? The experience is transformative, a temporary suspension from the complex and superficial narrative of life. You are nameless and suddenly aware. Alison Hawthorn Deming writes, “Do you remember a time when you saw an animal and it made you startle into wonder? That moment of consciousness is where art and science and religion were born, that moment of snapping awake.” Your small cage of identity dissolves and there you are, alive in the living world.
It happened like this: my husband and I were sitting at the edge of a large meadow with our backs to a thick forest of fir and spruce. We weren’t talking. He was reading and I was silently contemplating loss, feeling hopeless, held in abeyance. Then I felt myself being looked at from behind. I turned, instinctively, as animals do, in the direction of the gaze, and made eye contact with the cougar. He was close, at eye level, at a distance about the length of my body. It was a long, slow-motion moment of recognition, in which my brain scrambled to keep pace with my eyes. A kaleidoscope of honey-colored pieces fell slowly into place, arranging themselves around a word, a centripetal force: cat.
I want to ask, who did he see? But I know that he didn’t see a “who.” There was no identity there, no invisible, abstract framework. There was just my body, my scent, the quality of my presence, and then my gaze, the whites of my eyes pooling as perception slowly gave way to recognition.
I didn’t see the cougar at first because I didn’t expect to see him. Vision is selective. Neuroscientists are beginning to understand the brain as a vehicle of world-making rather than a vehicle of world-perceiving. We misread the world in subliminal, active, and creative ways. We see what we expect to see, which means that we mostly see the world as a hall of mirrors, reflecting our expectations back to ourselves. A large predatory cat watching me from behind, so close I could reach over and brush its long white whiskers — this was not what I was expecting. It was only when the shape of the two ears connected in my brain to the ears of my house cat that I understood what I was seeing. Until then, I was as stymied by the honey-colored vision before me as a newborn. It was what I imagine the world might look like to a child before she learns the tidy and domesticating symbolism of language. There are shapes, colors, sensations. There is sweetness and there is pain. No expectations, no predictions. No past or future, no names. In that wild and pendulous moment of eye contact with the cougar, he and I were one consciousness. He looked me in the eyes. He said: live.
The Material World
In her book Vibrant Matter, political scientist Jane Bennett proposes that matter — all matter, including but not limited to “edibles, commodities, storms, metals” — is vital rather than inert. By vitality, she is not referring to an animating spirit or soul but to the capacity of things to work with or against the will of humans and to “act as quasi agents or forces with trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of their own.” In other words, all objects are “actants,” sources of action. This is a view of the world she terms “vital materialism,” and this world is composed solely of verbs, not nouns.
The river pours from the towering glacial peak, silty with iridescence, tumbling and leaping over itself in grand bursts. Our trail runs through this river. We need to make it to the other side. We remove boots, remove sweaty, days-old socks with sighs, wiggle blanched toes in the mid morning sun, blaring down on the rock-strewn river bed. Everything is bright, and fast, except for the mountain, which is the glowing embodiment of patience. There is nothing, it seems to say, but time.
This verb-laden world has several implications for environmentalism. Environmentalism posits the non-human world as “the environment,” the substrate for human culture. Vital materialism says that drawing the line between non-human actants and human actants is an exercise in futility. “If environmentalists are selves who live on earth, vital materialists are selves who live as earth.”
That first touch of the icy water always prompts a shriek. It rises, unbidden, from the tiny capillaries on the tips of your toes, up your bruised shins, your aching quadriceps, through your belly to your craning neck to the tips of your teeth: aaaaaaay! A more honest sound there never was.
Environmentalism calls for the protection and management of ecosystems. Vital materialism suggests that the task is to engage more strategically and empathetically with the materiality of the world that is us. The difference is not simply semantic, but calls for alternate forms of encounter, affinity, and awareness.
A first step, tentative as a toddler. Then the next step, and the next, shaky, arms akimbo, stiff-frozen toes seeking a hold on slippery rocks as the current pounds your shins, then your thighs. There is nothing, absolutely nothing at this moment, but the river and the sun. You exist only as a small primal will to survive. You exist more fully only in the minds and hearts of your new friends on the riverbank, cheering you on with quiet intensity.
The first big shift of a vital materialist environmentalism is that the hierarchical world becomes horizontal. The Great Chain of Being that we are all indoctrinated with from any number of pop cultural and academic angles falls with a thunk from its towering heights, laid on its side. “I am a material configuration, the pigeons in the park are material compositions, the viruses, parasites, and heavy metals in my flesh and in pigeon flesh are materialities, as are neurochemicals, hurricane winds, E. coli, and the dust on the floor.”
You made it to the other side and into the dense, woven green of the forest. The calm dampness is thicker than the hot air by the river. Feeling dazzled by the contrast, you allow your mind to roam while your legs carry you up a soft, ruddy trail.
Second, the future is not linear, but is based on a set of unscripted actions. Nature is no longer deterministic, but is governed by an emergent causality. Nature is a process. According to this logic, dramatic pronouncements about “the end of nature” are rendered meaningless.
One step, then another, then another. Pause, breathe. One step, then another. The mountain is measured in the steps of its climber.
Third, and perhaps most mind-bendingly, it means that our conception of “self” as a separate, willful entity is replaced by the notion of an “impure, human-nonhuman assemblage.” Our bodies are ecologies, not objects. For example, according to a recent New York Times article by Nicholas Wade, the crook of our elbows is host to “a special ecosystem, a bountiful home to no fewer than six tribes of bacteria … helping to moisturize the skin by processing the raw fats it produces.” Our bodies are not our own. This reality, while difficult to grock, changes a traditional view of self interest, extending its boundaries to encompass what was formerly known as “the environment.”
In the high alpine wildflower meadow, names fail. There are so many forms and they all speak in different tongues, from pale curvaceous yellow to bold spiky magenta, coy lime green to regal, rugged violet: a cacophony. Sit down in this meadow, get your bearings — or lose them. Flat on your back. Sky a dense, impossible blue strewn with jocular clouds. Bobbing over you, compassionate waves of cream-colored lilies. Above them, boughs of the tall fir dip, rustle, rise. You are motionless, alert, the movement all around you seeping into your sun-warm skin.
This non-hierarchical, process-based, seamless world is the world that Signal Fire participants encounter and reckon with. The same world exists in our day-to-day, predominantly urban lives, but our data-addled brains generally flunk at comprehending or acting on the ideas of vital materialism in an urban context.
In 2014, Signal Fire will embark on a series of trips that celebrates wolves and their remaining habitat. Wolves were once common in North America but due to decades of extermination programs to accommodate the livestock industry, wolves in the lower 48 now occupy less than five percent of their historic habitat. As keystone predators, wolves play a vital role in regulating prey populations like deer and elk, and in so doing benefit a host of species. In forcing elk to move more, for example, wolves have been found to increase streamside vegetation and, along with it, beaver and songbird populations.
On June 7, 2013, the Obama administration announced plans to strip Endangered Species Act protections from gray wolves across most of the lower 48 states. This plan would be catastrophic for wolves and is being fought by many activists and activist groups.
What would this effort to save the remaining wolves look like according to vital materialism? It would begin with the awareness that our own human desire to eat cows (a desire which fuels the livestock industry), does not trump the right of wolves to exist. The hierarchical becomes horizontal — our human desires are no more important than the wolves’ (or the cows’, for that matter). Following that, we would need to recognize that removing wolves’ protections will have unexpected consequences for wolf habitat. Since nature is an unscripted process, even the best science cannot fully predict the consequences of de-listing wolves. Finally, since we, nor wolves, are isolated things, but ever-changing collections of things, our own preservation is intricately interwoven with the preservation of wolves. The goal is the same as any environmentalist’s, but it is undergirded with a wider-ranging and more deeply personal logic.
To think about the wolf as an actant, to think about the mites in her fur, the bacteria in her stomach, as actants, takes a little bit of time and lot of courageous contact with world. As Spinoza writes in his Short Treatise II, “It is never we who affirm or deny something of a thing; it is the thing itself that affirms or denies something of itself in us.” In visiting the home of the wolves, we seek to be affirmed by the wolves’ home, and to have the wild pieces of ourselves recognized and strengthened by the dialogue.
I can’t wait to find this time and enter into that space with next years’ artists and activists in the places where the conglomeration of entities we call “wolf” calls home.