Carry Dirt

No justice comes from ignorance.

Inspired by Christine DePizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies (1405), as translated by Earl Jeffrey Richards.

***

How is it that so many of them––learned, too––seem to speak from the same mouth, painting us with every vice they wish to wash from themselves, and why? This was my question.

Then came three women and the first among them said, Daughter, build a city. Make it of lasting beauty, and you will draw forth waters from the heavens.

I considered the births of other divinely inspired cities: Troy, Thebes. I recalled their ruin and said so. But the women insisted: This one would not be taken or conquered. Lay a strong foundation, they insisted. Set it deep. Get up, daughter. Go where earth abounds. We will help you carry it.

I asked, why do they revile us? She told me only, carry dirt. Then she added, no justice can come from their ignorance.

They explained that some derive pleasure from slander of what mystifies them. Others are moved by awareness of their own defects, and others by jealousy of anything they cannot own. Leave them, they told me, and avoid attachment to their tools.

Look closely, they insisted. They explained: these opinions only pretend to be based in reason. By claiming to own reason, they deny its essence with the same breath by which they mean to deny you access to their ill-begotten power.

The path to what is true may be narrow, but it leads to such abundance that no one who follows it to its natural end could ever consider keeping it to themselves, since such innate greed of purpose would naturally bar them from their destination.

No one can take away what nature has given, but many will deny what she is, attempting to hoard her abundance for themselves, by creating the dragon’s lairs that are their own demise.

I had more questions, but they became impatient with my need to know. Don’t be as they are, they insisted. Get up. Carry dirt. Go.

***

The above meditation was inspired by this morning’s reading of DePizan’s excellent theological critique of misogyny. I borrow some phrases from the original (translation), but rely more heavily on impressions, blurring the lines slightly to create a more encompassing critique (to include not only overt misogynists but anyone attempting to hoard access to truth and power by demeaning any other living group, including the non-human species of the earth), and to heighten the call to recognition of the vital flaw at the heart of this life-killing move while attempting to magnify the resonance of its answer, a call to return to a holistic, generous sense of logic, justice, and development rooted in a sense of abundance (rooted in an understanding of life) rather than scarcity (which has its roots in fear of the unknown/ death).

Vigil

Protection begins with attention.

Remember the bridled white eye, with his tiny spectacles, who seemed always to be offering an arch look to punctuate a well-placed question. As in, what are you doing?

Or Bachman’s warbler, who once knew the damp floors of the dense forest? Remember the Kauai akialoa, with his flourish of long bill, hooked like the edge of the reaper’s scythe, and the honeycreeper that once set her eggs in cup-shape nests. Remember the little Mariana fruit bat, the flying fox slowly poisoned by DDT in cycad seeds.

Careful! A mother calls after a child, ever reckless with living and ignorant of possibilities for being snuffed out. Watch! Watch out!

The Scioto madtom once fed on the bottoms of graveled streams in central Ohio. The upland combshell mussel could only produce with enough space in the clean waters of an undisturbed riverbed, with fish enough for hosting the young. The blade horned chameleon of Tanzania’s old growth forest darkens its skin under stress. It wraps its tail around a tree branch and hangs on. 

Hold tight! she calls.

The Pacific bluefin tuna are often caught before they can breed. 

Hurry, hurry!

The North American bumblebee made its home in the eastern grasslands now plowed for corn and its attendant poisons.

Watch out!

How easy it is to lose what isn’t watched. Among the African elephants, the matriarchs will slow their pace so a calf can keep stride. A cheetah will move her litter every few days to keep predators off the scent. An alligator will hold her babies in her mouth to protect them from being eaten by another.

She is watching out a window, through a screen. She is watching the sky, the temperature, the poisons, the electrical outlets, the latest reports. What do you know? She will ask, sometimes. Waking to check that her young are still breathing, waking to number the threats, count the fires, track the melting ice and the coming war, to calculate the timing of her next move, and wonder, how? Her song is silent like the watch she keeps over the lives of the living, so easily and recklessly lost.

***

This post was inspired by a sobering look at the report, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services Proposes Delisting 23 Species from Endangered Species Act Due to Extinction. This on the morning after an American holiday in which it is fashionable to offer thanks for what is solidly in hand. The juxtaposition of the report and this moment have me imagining how the notion of gratitude might be expanded to include grief over what was once had, but then lost, and vigilance over what remains, teetering precariously and often invisibly between here and gone.

In Bird News

This morning, I am heartened by the parrots.

“We proclaim human intelligence to be morally valuable per se because we are human. If we were birds, we would proclaim the ability to fly as morally valuable per se. If we were fish, we would proclaim the ability to live underwater as morally valuable per se. But apart from our obviously self-interested proclamations, there is nothing morally valuable per se about human intelligence.”  – Gary L. Francione

This morning, I am heartened by the parrots. First, it’s Bruce, a New Zealand kea with a severe disability, who has fashioned his own prosthetic. Bruce is missing most of his upper beak, which is essential for preening, which removes parasites and dirt from feathers. Researchers watching Bruce observed that he was not simply enamored with pebbles in a random manner. He only picked them up to preen. Unlike other birds interacting with stones for other reasons, Bruce only picked up pebbles of a specific size. He’d fit these between his tongue and lower beak when he preened. No other kea did this. It was his own idea, they concluded. Upon publication of these findings, some asked the scientists why they had not given Bruce a proper prosthetic. He doesn’t need one, they answered.

Also, in an experiment involving trading tokens for treats, African grey parrots have been demonstrating a remarkable tendency to help one another, even when there is no obvious benefit to the helper. When one parrot had the tokens, but no access to the treats, he would pass the tokens to the bird beside him, even if the other was a stranger. The other bird could trade the tokens for treats. Repeating the experiment with other species, researchers found the Blue-headed macaws to be more selfish, perhaps because they live in smaller, unchanging groups. One of the researchers offered an alternative reading of this disparity in sharing, suggesting that perhaps the selfish species are just not as good at understanding the needs of their mates

I have no small amount of fascination with birds, and reminders back to this often call to mind a passage from Terry Tempest Williams: “Once upon a time, when women were birds, there was the simple understanding that to sing at dawn and to sing at dusk was to heal the world through joy. The birds still remember what we have forgotten, that the world is meant to be celebrated” (from When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice)Amen.

Notes

I discovered a report about the study published in The Journal of Scientific Reports, “Self-care tooling innovation in a disabled kea” through a link in this New York Times article by Nicholas Bakalar, which in turn led me to this one on African grey parrots by Elizabeth Preston.

Gary L. Francione has raised interesting questions about the way that current practices in what passes for animal rights legislation tend only to reinforce systemic hierarchies that treat animals as property. Distinguishing between rights and welfare of animals, Francione has argued that the single most important right of animals that should be understood, is the right not to be treated as property.

More bird-themed posts:

For the Birds

Nest

Flight Paths

Pigeon Spectrum

Mirror, Mirror

On Service: An Allegory

They did not turn their faces from the landscape in the dragon’s gaping maw.

When it came time to fight the dragon, one among them shouted, I will not serve.

He would not submit, but others would, to the lies he commissioned, always dressed in righteous robes.

The fighters went on, the one before them saying, I will.

Those moved by this example said nothing. They did not shout. No trumpets blared.

They did not turn their faces from the landscape in the dragon’s gaping maw. Announcing allegiance to another order, they moved with the quiet conviction of visitors to the dying and the sick. Each tended to another’s wounds and they left no one behind. They brought diapers to new mothers and to orphaned children; soap to the unwashed, clothing to those who had been sticking to their own stink. They shielded the unsheltered from the elements, including fire from the righteous. They brought water to those beginning to hallucinate with thirst. Not food, but meals. Not pretend answers, but real questions to real needs, and the mess of it never left them. They wept often under the strain, and knew joy, too. And in the land of fire with the dying in the dragon’s mouth, there was peace because they were there, offering it where they could. 

Salt, Light, and the Living

To honor the dead and the living, against despair.

Considering the permafrost, one doctor observes: we have melted back to the stone age, we are speeding back in time. He is speaking about the iceman that revealed himself recently in the melt: body the color of tea, his was probably a case of bleeding to death from a shoulder wound.

Another speaks of other findings: sights of the ancient massacres of whole villages; instruments of killing among the oldest known artifacts. There’s a puppy carcass too, believed to represent a link between dog and wolf, friend and killer. The Lena horse, the cave lion. Like a library on fire, says the doctor, regarding the impermanence of the freeze, how fast it melts. The point, he says, is to save what you can.

One gets so exhausted: the constant fire, the latest extinctions. There’s a question in this moment: how to resist despair without giving in to vapid, empty optimism? The doctor is silent, considering. Another speaks, slowly and deliberately–– of the stoics, how necessary their discipline is now: to meditate deeply on negative possibilities, to sit with the anxiety, the grief, the sense of relative powerlessness, and after sitting, resolve to act anyway on behalf of the living. It’s the only way, the doctor insists, to cope with the trial of the moment.

I am sitting with this today, and meanwhile, I am also aware that it is All Souls Day, and after dinner an old friend reminds me how the grandmothers would light a candle so that those who have died can return for a brief visit. They knew that in order for the dead to return with their animating force, they needed the strength of love and intention as a guide. One would also set out two small vessels: one of salt, one of water, to represent life and the meal we would make for them if they could join us at the table. On this day, they would come, leaving their love and blessings, and taking many of our troubles with them. They are also able to have some communion with us, when the veil between the worlds is thin. 

While nothing like the stoicism that the doctor shared, this reminder rings harmonious to my weary ears, relieved to be called back to the quiet, steadfast patience of these grandmothers. The responsibility to the living requires us to keep going, and our responsibility to the dead demands that we tend a tiny flame and these small vessels, because what is nourished will grow, and this, even now, is still a meaningful choice.  

***

Inspirations

I was reading about the permafrost melt this morning (In The New York TimesAs Earth Warms, Old Mayhem and Secrets Emerge from The Ice, and As Earth Warms, the Diseases that May Lie Within Permafrost Become a Bigger Worry. Later, I came across this article (from Columbia Climate School) about the need for Climate Stoicism, and hours after that a friend returned me to certain Irish traditions for celebrating All Souls Day.

Taste

Considering longings for unknown homelands.

The feelings that hurt most, the emotions that sting most, are those that are absurd – The longing for impossible things, precisely because they are impossible; nostalgia for what never was; the desire for what could have been; regret over not being someone else; dissatisfaction with the world’s existence. All these half-tones of the soul’s consciousness create in us a painful landscape, an eternal sunset of what we are.” – Fernando Pessoa

If memory is the original fiction, then let me remember the women 

whose warm hands, stained with vegetables, 

tended to Sunday stock, who were unknown 

except to those who ate what they offered, 

and who made what they offered in a haven 

unknown to cameras and reviewers and stars 

of achievement. Let me remember the thrill 

of running along a Normandy coast, 

after mussels when blond wheat covered 

the fields before they gave way to corn, concrete, 

plastic; when necessary meant bread at a midday meal. 

Inspired by this morning’s sighting of Madeline Kamman’s When French Women Cook, a book I discovered about a decade ago in a used bookstore. It’s descriptions of a French countryside that no longer exists created a strange sense of longing, one that I have come to associate with a word I happened to discover around the time I discovered this book. The word, hireath, is a Welsch word with no exact translation in English, was presented to me originally as “longing or homesickness for a place you have not directly known.”  It resounded, in an instant, as one of the dominating feelings of my time on the planet.

Etymology of Gravity

Considering the force that holds a body here.

If time is spinning earth on axis in rotation around the sun, it should send us flying away, except that we are held by force of attraction, to the planet that insists by its incessant motion on our aging, recording all the while: lives, deaths, mutations, development of fins where once there were limbs, trading original fur for original sin and taking it like penance in the furs of those that warmed us, fed us, watched us. We knew them. But a body bent on survival will induce forgetting when it needs to––for a time, anyway.

Then we watched the sun. Rising, setting, it seemed about to retreat from our waiting, and we sang to pull it back. It shaped our voices, our habits, our sleep, birthdays, solstice, winter.

We lived in one dome, and some said that there were other domes beneath us, in layers, through which certain ancestors had passed, struggling up and up; and now it seems obvious, the tension that holds us: on the one hand up and out, and on the other, here––as in, Here is your hand, and because it holds mine, I do not fly away. These are the first words, I like to think, that we might have said to one another when we first lost our furs, grasping for a language better than any of our words.

The first shelter we found when we knew we were naked was nothing but translucent blue, infinitely distant, and it was endlessly spinning, and everywhere you looked, there you were, at the center of the turning skies, shattered. How does a body ask to be held when the words for the safety it suddenly needs are not yet invented? Cruel irony, to place a set of eyes in the center of a universe just to remind them of the possibility of being tossed by the sheer velocity of a relentlessly spinning planet––into nothing.

Why language, when words feel so feeble, most of the time? Here is why: a body on the verge of certain annihilation cannot help but cry out, and there is no use for words except as some version or another of the open hand, pleading in mute and sudden exposure: Hold.

Gift of the Skies

Considering the vast wisdom of ancient dreamers against the small spectacle of contemporary foils.

October skies prompt certain recollections. Consider the ghosts of sky watchers, for example,  how they once stood among the old ruins, unruined among the old stars.

Those beautiful dreamers, for whom knowing was learning the way back to the original vision, before words.  It must have been something to be among them within the stories they must have told, and the tellers of them: rooted and sturdy as trees to sleep in, and who ever does that now? In contrast, I’m recalling the parable of the dreamer, a much more contemporary tale, apropos to the moment, overheard when I was out somewhere, wide-eyed with possibility. I had listened with rapt attention, waiting for a brilliant conclusion. It wasn’t that sort of story, but I couldn’t know this at the time. 

The parable I am remembering was not about one of these dreamers, but a self professed “dreamer” in the popular sense. The sort that loves to confess, “I am a dreamer,” as if doing so might lend a certain je ne sais quois to a cultivated artifice, aside from being an excellent excuse from the terrible burden of being tethered to anything of heaven or earth beyond his own needs. How unlike the real dreamers he was, whose original visions would never let them forget that they were nothing if not obligations to be more than mere selves, those notorious tricksters, those endless constellations of illusions and untamed wants who thrived on mischief-making, knowing nothing else.

The wise ones before him would chant with the rising sun, and for it, an act of worship borne of humility. Our latecomer arrives, knowing nothing but himself since he’s been so steadfast about resisting ties to anything else, right down to being unable to believe that anything could be nearly as real. Coming down to absorb the energy of the moment, he asks one of the reverent about their purpose. Upon learning that the object of worship is the sun, he cannot help but arrive at a singular and fateful conclusion: not that he is the sun exactly, not as a matter of fact (he isn’t much interested in facts, which too much resemble the proverbial ropes and chains from which is he is ever-wanting to free himself), but that he could be.

“I am here!” he declares, “And behold, a great light!” and raises his hands to absorb the energy of his adoring crowd. Proud of himself for remaining unsullied, he imagines the warmth he is feeling to be the pure radiance of his own miraculous self. 

Oh, the cheering! He thinks, how magnificent! When he deigns to remove himself from this heightened state, he must tell them!  He must tell the people. He is not selfish, after all! Truly, he had sometimes wondered. But if he were, how do you explain this impulse to let the common assembly, infinitely less complex than the smallest finger of his two outstretched hands, partake in this radiant heat?

The old ones shake their heads, chuckling at a misreading so far-fetched that they could never have dreamed it up. They’d love to see what else this one comes up with, but they can’t stay for the rest of the show. Dreaming, as they know it, is the hard, daily work of a lifetime, and they share a common agreement to get back to it.

“Should we say something?” One says, as they are walking away.

They pause, look back. But in the looking it becomes clear that saying anything to someone in such a state is about the same as saying nothing, and possibly much worse, given the likelihood of misunderstandings like the one that led our infant dreamer to claim the altar as his own.

They go, a procession of ancients in unison, under an ancient sky, pulled by an ancient purpose, older and more vast than any one among them.

Secondary Questions on the Nature of First Aid

One has reason to wonder about the validity of the preeminence of aid associated with certain hierarchical naming conventions.

There are books you can acquire, on fundamentals of for survival. The idea being, that if you know enough, you can respond effectively in any crisis. The idea being, that this is the point, like a raised sword into battle, a popular image among anyone primed to think of themselves as the hero about to happen.

In a typical lifesaving manual, you can find sections on dressing for survival; on hyperthermia and muscle cramping; heatstroke, hypothermia, frostbite. 

Then comes the chapter on tending wounds: what to do before and after. How to stop the bleeding, assess the damage, clean the wound, decide on treatment, close it up. 

––Burns, too: first steps, the signs in order of degree: first, second, third, a hierarchy of singed flesh. And notes on life-threatening complications, as if to reassure the reader that such matters––the complications, that is–– were secondary.

Next come the mammal bites, rabies, snakes; foreign objects in the skin; bark scorpions, fleas, chiggers, gunshot wounds; stinging nettles, poisonous plants. 

Rib injuries, lacerations at the neck, collapsed lungs, flail chest, broken feet; what to do when someone collapses. For these things there are specific treatments because what led to the breaking of bones and vessels for bleeding are matters of an entirely different order, as with the fire of the gun, the long exposure to cold, the vulnerability of certain skins to certain forms of abrasions and lacerations, the moments preceding collapse.

The matter of saving a life goes beyond the moment of crisis, but here is the proverbial tough pill, too wide even for many a gallant knight’s earnest and proclamatory throat. To the dismay of many a less-attractive object of need than the damsel-in-distress or child at the edge of a hot cauldron, the crisis is always more glamorous than the slow attention it takes to watch someone and understand precisely which cries are consistently muted, and to recognize that the capacity for burning cannot be measured any better by degrees than its aftermath can be easily sorted into a neat ranking of first, second, third.

There’s a silence to watching honestly, and it’s repellent to the seekers of valor. There is nothing glamorous about slow attention, no reason to raise a white horse on its hind legs in show of strength. There is only patience, and watching, the slow action of growth below ground, and everywhere above it, the attention it takes to count the lines in a knuckle, the veins in a hand, the rhythm and meter of rising and falling ribs before they are broken.

I would die for this, the would-be hero wants to always proclaim, of the death he imagines as clean as the light gleaming from a sword before it’s tested. The living is such a mess. How uncomfortable it is, to recognize the courage of surviving the contamination and doing so consistently, in the name of nothing more glamorous than the next waiting moment. 

Here is the birth of the courage that few are willing to look at directly. It hurts like looking at the sun: to see what it takes to survive––not the crisis, but the slow and patient tending to what may yet grow––and then again, maybe not. The waiting can kill you, and here’s the rub: when it does, it will sound like absolutely nothing.

Here’s what I think of the valor of the knights I was raised to revere. I think showing up in a crisis is an easy victory, fruit plucked heavy from a tree limb by a sword not so different in intention from that which would give pause to the waiting lady. It’s as easy as being celebrated with hearty open hands of congratulations, against the solid-seeming back, the only one visible when the back on which it leans is buried underground, tending to the merciless details required of everything with a fraction of a chance to live, and unable to give up for the length of time it would take to stand and shake off something that someone with the privilege of pretensions to ideals like Truth and Belief would never imagine had any weight at all.  

Overheard

Overhearing a conversation on a Friday morning in October while more than a little tired.

How are you?

Oh, you know.

Yeah.

You know. To be real, today I am a little bit tired.

I know it.

Truth be told, today I noticed that I am almost always extremely tired. Like, more than I have ever been, is that possible? Don’t answer, of course it isn’t. I mean, you remember what it was like, way back. When––  I know I was more tired then, I must have been. And yet. I can’t help it, I just —

Endorphins, maybe?

What?

They say that it’s something about the endorphins that make new mothers forget the pain. 

Of childbirth, you mean? But I’m not talking about––

No. I mean, sure, that was the reference when I read it who knows how long ago but think about it. You could apply this to other things. 

Don’t tell me a puppy because I don’t even want to––

No, but being a teen, maybe. I mean really, it was awful but that’s not the first thing you think.

True.

And some of those all-nighters when we were nineteen, twenty? Some because we had to but then we would go do another one just because, when the whole world was constantly falling apart, not to mention all the bombs, remember? They were like every other day in the news then, it was just what we lived with. But looking back, what do you remember?

I remember dancing and singing the lyrics at the top of my voice, even when I didn’t know them.

That’s it!

Especially when I didn’t know them.

Exactly!

Haven’t done that in a while.

Well, there you go, then.

Maybe that’s why––

You’re so tired?

No, I know why I’m so tired. I could give you a list, but you’ve got your own. But I mean––

Why it feels like this?

Yes, like more than ever before.

Because ––?

Because I don’t have the scream-dancing at the same time. I’m just––

Trying to survive?

Yes, like this. Coffee, I feel like I live for this––I know it’s more than these sips, obviously, but when I can’t remember what that is exactly––not by name, anyway, that’s when I really don’t want to talk and I definitely don’t want to have to put down the cup. I just want to be in this space where I’m still at the edge of a dream, and no one is poking at it, letting the air out. 

How’s that working out?

Well. There are many rough edges.

How many?

Too many to count right now. I’ve still got half a cup. Can you just––.

Would you like one of these?

What is this?

A bunny. I found them at–––

No, see, that’s what I mean. Why are people collecting these bunnies and handing them out?

They are soft.

I don’t even––

Feel!