Language Making Nature: Notes from the Book Club

You may remember I began facilitating a small group of peers in reading aloud and playing with the ideas found in David Lukas’ book Language Making Nature.

We have made it 6 chapters in (out of 75!): Voices and Gods, Crossing Boundaries, Three Dimensional Words, Contractions, Word Manufacturing, Word Boundaries.

I present some images of my language play from the last session. Of course, I don’t present these as paragons of the art – I encourage you to write and say similar foolish and ill-formed things as you play with language yourself! And: feel free to read along with us every week – I’ll be posting weekly updates.

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The Land Makes Language that Makes the Land

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I recently discovered a book that I have waited and waited – lacking the scholarship, craft, and patience myself to write such a thing – for some pugnacious and insightful soul to write. A book on reclaiming language as a folk art, as an engine of perception, as a cord connecting us to our ancestral selves, and as a guide back to the land.

It’s called Language Making Nature, by David Lukas, an author of many other books and magazine articles, including birding field guides, but most importantly a passionate naturalist himself.

To celebrate the occasion, a small group of like-minded friends and I are meeting up and reading it aloud chapter-by-chapter (most chapters are very small, a few paragraphs to a couple of pages long), and afterwards experimenting together with the ideas by creating new language together through the written and spoken word.

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The chapter titles (on the yellow sticky notes in the image below), present an excellent overview of the core issues that have concerned me the most in my explorations of animist and nature-based language, and present a few new ones.

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Keith Basso’s Wisdom Sits in Places, a book close to my heart, apparently played a chief role in inspiring the author down this road.

I heartily encourage you to check out David Lukas’ book – as our book group has begun to meet, it has already proven a sure guide through this renaissance of an ecstatic language of the land.

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Fairies, Lived Experience, and Meaning

I recently ran across a lovely talk by English historian of folklore and religion Ronald Sutton, wherein he showcases a remarkable poise and generosity to both the scientific tradition which trained him and the lived experiences of the people who live on this wild and wondrous world.

Sponsored by the Manx Heritage program on the Isle of Man, where the talk takes place, I encourage you to stick around for the 30 minutes of Q&A that follows his hour-long presentation.

Tone Policing and Social Collapse

On the Everyday Feminism blog, I just saw a webcomic illustrating the toxic and endemic protector of privilege: tone policing. This term refers to telling the oppressed or the traumatized that their emotional tone makes it difficult to hear the content of what they want to say, or that their emotions have overwhelmed their sense of reason.

Essentially, the privileged use it to get the non-privileged to shut up and sit down.

I’ve blogged fairly extensively about the Roma and their community court, the kris, and how it widens scope to include all community discord and outrage, and how healing imbalance, not abstract notions of reason and justice, sit at the center of the process of remedy.

You can also look into the restorative justice movement for a more mainstream version of this way of thinking.

Remember, feelings of discomfort mean you have arrived at the place where healing can begin.

A Matter of Life and Death

After dithering around for a bit, this video finally gets to the meat of the issue, “Since we fundamentally can’t draw a line between live matter and dead matter, we must ask, is everything alive? Or is everything dead?”

If you willingly ask that question, however, I can think of many more.

How do we treat matter or subjects that we consider alive? How do we treat what we consider dead matter?

What do we commodify? How often do we commodify what we consider alive, versus what we consider dead? Does commodification make something more alive-seeming, or more dead-seeming?

How alive do we consider a robot? A slave? Does a slave feel as much pain as the master of the slave? Does a companion animal feel as much pain as the owner of that animal? Does a food animal – a cow, a pig, a chicken – feel as much pain as the companion animal?

Do black bodies feel as much pain as white bodies? Do you consider one more alive, a black body or a white body?

Do we consider a wolf more alive than the river it has changed?  Do we consider the wolf more alive than the tree on the banks of that river? Does the wolf feel pain more than that tree, or that river?

Do we consider a story alive? What happens when no one remembers a story anymore, does it die? Does a story feel pain as the people begin forgetting it? Anthropologist Clifford Geertz once said “culture means the stories we tell about ourselves”. Where do our bodies end and the stories we tell about ourselves begin? Where does our breath end and our body begins? Can a story have life apart from the breath that it rode into the world on?

Does a magnificent old boulder on a mountain path have more life than the boulder pulverized and mixed into concrete that forms the sidewalks beneath your feet?

If I call something dead, what are my ethical obligations towards it, as opposed to something alive? Economically, what are the pressures that may cause me to declare something alive or dead, and what benefits accrue to me?

These questions, and many, many more, lie at the core of an animist inquiry into the world. They also drive to the heart of decolonization, of privilege, ethnocentrism, but they don’t stop there, they continue beyond, unravelling every fantasy that keeps the machine going, but even farther, to the core of what it means to live as a human being, who must kill other beings to live.

What is the future of the College?

We now have a forum! The College has always, first and foremost, focused on applying new ways of seeing and moving through the world. I’ve struggled with how to enact this mission more meaningfully. If you enjoy the subjects I have written about here, and would like to discuss the future of the College, how we can together take it where it needs to go next, then join our discussion now.

What Deserves Knowing

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A track reveals the maker swept their eyes from neutral to down and forward right, to look at something on the ground a couple feet away.

The world of tracking still appears small – but compared to just five years ago it has grown huge. Huge enough to contain many conflicting opinions  – but then again, almost from the beginning, trackers differed on ‘what is worth knowing’ [sic] – what deserves our attention and curiosity.

The larger world of science worries and mumbles over this issue too – in fact, few issues does it worry over more. ‘What is worth knowing?!’ asks the scientist. “Certainly not pseudoscience and superstition!”

But before that, the church worried over this too – the urge to know about something not deserving our knowing inspired cries of ‘heresy!’ (as famously experienced by Galileo, along with many wise women and men who served their villages and land and died in fire as the churchmen watched).

In this culture of labeling things worth or not worth knowing – what science calls pseudoscience, the church might call heresy, the person-in-the-street might call “a waste of time”. The scientist risks their academic reputation, the churchgoer risks their divine soul, the person-in-the-street risks their ability to…well Thoreau has probably written everything a person needs to know about what that person is risking. “Time is money” [sic! and sick!] after all.

Back to the culture of tracking I participate in – believe it or not, some trackers too think some lines of questioning have value, and some don’t. For example, pressure releases – the idea that soil liquefies under sufficient pressure from a foot, and instantly expresses an ornate interwoven field of waves and branching forces that then freeze when that pressure is removed, the surface of this flash-frozen churning pond documenting the makers every movement, thought, and emotion…

For some this just goes too far.

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Track reveals maker looked to their forward and right downwards, but at something several feet away, and without any sweep of gaze. Note shadowed deepest fourth toe with textured surface on the floor of the toe’s track, different than any of the others, along with light flaring white at the track horizon where wall was pressured.

Well, and who can blame them really. But I still don’t have any patience for someone who sorts through every room in this palace of glittering mysteries that we call reality deciding that this can stay and that must go – this we can know, that we must throw away as foolishness.

Many trackers I run into have more in common with modern birders (a tremendous skilled and expert bunch of citizen scientists) than with what I’ve come to call ‘tracking in a lineage’, or indigenous tracking. I don’t claim myself any indigenous heritage – far from it, as a guest on this land in the Pacific Northwest of North America, I daily work to do right by both the land herself, and the indigenous peoples still alive and still fighting for that land and its people.

Let’s say instead that the kind of tracking I do has more in common with what old time indigenous trackers value than what highly skilled modern trackers do.

I’ve learned tremendous amounts from peers in this modern world of tracking – I feel a deep thanks to them. And yet…

So rarely does it demand what I demand, does it ask what I ask, does it plea for what I plea:

What I learn in this moment, may it not just teach me one thing, but may it teach me about the nature of all things, about love, about family, about living a good life, about the deep voices in the void who speak to me.

So, as I study pressure releases, in the lineage of tracking that comes from Tom Brown, Jr. and his teacher, I think about birders who too have followed a lineage carried by Jon Young and his work with bird language.

As I examine the viscoelasticity of the soil, the rheology of the hertzian cones rippling out from the 4-beat-rhythm impact points of heel-ball-blade-toe, as I see the soil transparent like water and the churning turbulence and deep currents in its depths, all expressively texturing and undulating the track floor, that membrane that separates two worlds much like my own skin, as these tell me about the movements, thoughts and emotions of the maker, I think to myself, “just imagine if I did not consider this worth knowing?”, and a wave of mixed feelings of exasperation and acceptance, of celebration and gratitude come over me.

In the end, what do we lose when others despise and mock what we love? We do lose something surely, it does indeed injure the soul. And yet the garden of wonders beckons us once again and we must go.

the Art of Tracking Radio Show: Design in Nature with Adrian Bejan

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Join host Garth Olson and me as we interview Duke University Professor Adrian Bejan, author of Design in Nature, on the new Constructal Law of physics, which I have blogged a bit about. I think we all blew each other’s minds several times during the show.

Listen here.

And consider subscribing to the Art of Tracking Podcast – hosts Garth Olson and Weasel Bear are constantly finding fascinating people – trackers, scientists, naturalists and more – to have conversations with.

“Hesh!”, or, “the Heroic Roadkill”

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Every once in a while I run across the Dead, lying in gutters, their faces sometimes peaceful, sometimes locked in a final grimace of pain, eyes milky or shriveled shut. I almost always stop to witness and pay my respects.

A teacher of mine, Martín Prechtel, talks about an old Tzutujil Mayan practice of throwing pottery, greek-wedding-like, against the stones and crying, “Hesh!”, which I understand means, “eat!”.

The Tzutujil do this to feed to unseen other, the divine, because we take so much from the world, they give back in this way. A gift has only been fully received by the divine when its physical body is destroyed. And so they smash cups, plates, bowls.

A good friend of mine, Hedieh, a woman of Persian descent, told me that when people in her culture accidentally break a cup, plate, or bowl, they thank it – because it took the bad luck meant for them.

This arrow of this idea hit its mark in me when I lost my favorite tea mug, a magnificent gentleman of Finnish extraction, and a twin to one I brought back for my sweetheart.

As I looked at the shards of my beloved cup scattered across the kitchen floor, I thanked him/her/it/ze for taking my bad luck. And feeling overwhelmed me – suddenly I had been drinking from the cupped hand of a hero, a protector. I felt deep gratitude, and the colors of life felt richer. I still think of that cup fondly and wonder what bad luck it grounded.

I’ve witnessed those raised by this culture often offer pity to the Dead lying by the road. Opossums, squirrels, raccoons, cats, rats, we usually see on the streets and in our gutters. On paths we might find moles, shrews, mice. These wild people, lying there, having lived their tiny heroic lives in the midst of all this madness, elicit “awwwws” and “that’s so sad” from passersby.

On the one hand, a cat, a family member (I wept for days when my cat died), we tend to treat as infants or children, and I understand the offering of a parental pity.

But for the others – adult heroes and heroines, raising children and not giving up their wild lives in the midst of industry, I find pity a poor offering for such beings.

Parents offer pity, sure, but we wander far from the path when infantilizing these wild beings. They come here to teach us, to remind us what a well lived and wild life looks like, even raised on garbage and poison.

In some stories, these beings participated in the actual building of the world itself, that we only came later to live in. And here they lie, still building it, still living in it.

I think by offering thanks for their heroism, we dignify both them and ourselves, and come just a little closer to our human selves that these wild beings would then thank in turn when Death comes for us.

Endless Blessings

IMG_3052Play games, my friends, play games.

Cultural creation starts with play – and matures as structured play, what we call “a game”.

The folks doing the most important work culturally I often find in the world of games.

I offer up Bernie De Koven, of DeepFun, as a fantastic example of this. I’ve long known we need to reclaim and practice our ability to thank and bless each other. Well Bernie has developed a game towards just this end, called “the Endless Blessings Game.”

I see a special shine on the work Bernie does, because of his emphasis on light-heartedness and “play for its own sake.”

Oftentimes cultural creatives such as myself get too serious – we lose our sense of playful exploration – because of how much importance we place on our work.

But if we can stay open, stay in the “playful space”, for its own sake, we can discover and re-discover what opens our hearts up without even trying.

So appreciate your innate ability to discover what cultural practices deeply nourish human beings, by appreciating and savoring your own sense of play.

The Paradox That Wasn’t

The animated video below explains “the Fermi Paradox”, a paradox only to the infantile or insane. The idea that knowing the high probability of life on any one of billions of habitable worlds, that it must naturally beg the question, “Where are all the ‘advanced civilizations’ – where are all the spaceships?”

The madness of this unrooted babbling, culminating from 10,000 years of civilization, hits its apex as this story brings global ecological collapse to the brink. We stare down the barrel of the gun we made.

And the biggest question on our culture’s mind? “Where are all the spaceships?”

And meanwhile the poisons from Deepwater Horizon, Fukushima, Chernobyl, the tar sands, fracking, and on and on lay siege to a dying planet.

“Where are all the spaceships?” we say as we pull the trigger.

Accelerating Self-Decolonization With A New View of Life

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My ancestors go back through Ireland, England, Denmark, Germany, Austria, all the way back to the cradle of the earliest form of my recognizable ancestry on the Central Asian and Eastern-European steppe. My people worked for empire and civilization for a long, long time. And so decolonization looks very different for me than for indigenous peoples just a few generations into coercion to collaborate on this modern project.

For me, fully embodying the fundamentally different, animist perception of life, continues to challenge me. But year by year I make progress. I believe the only way “away-from” destructive and rapacious modern technological mythologies lies through them. Which means that we must find our animism there, somehow.

I have seen some amount of attention on a new physical theory of life, based primarily in physics rather than in biology as we know it. A professor at M.I.T. recently has gotten a lot of attention from the media, and in his view we can talk about life, in physics, as structures of energy diffusion, that naturally emerge in a field of energy work (sunlight, tidal waves, geothermal marine vents, etc.), as what-we-think-of-as matter aligns and forms into structures that more and more efficiently diffuse that energy – structures that once they get complex enough and self-replicate, adapt, and so on, that we feel compelled to call them life.

Christopher Alexander’s 4-volume book, the Nature of Order, offers another view on this very same thing. In his view, matter and space-time naturally wants to differentiate itself into more and more “whole”, coherent structures that we eventually call “life”.

My friend and fellow tracker Garth Olson, co-host of the Art of Tracking podcast, also introduced me to Constructal Law, another way of looking at the puzzle; that what we think of as (dead) matter aligns and forms into structures that more efficiently accommodate flows of energy into a natural system – we eventually call this too “life”.

You can see our direction by now.

All of this fundamentally connects with the world of complexity sciences, where science looks at systems that are far from equilibrium, high-dimension, and open, calling them “complex”.  Living and non-living systems cannot be distinguished through this lens – a galaxy, or a village, can be viewed intelligibly and usefully with the same perspective.

In my opinion, these points of view, these approaches, all fall in the category of “western science slowly creeping towards animism”. I don’t think the scientists would necessarily agree with me, but as time goes on indigenous points of view become more relevant, not less, which ought to surprise you.

With this point of view, Carl Sagan’s “demon-haunted universe” gets its demons back – but these demons generate insights, rather than blunting curiosity out of fear, as Sagan once worried. By recognizing spirits and demons we can interact with complex systems that we normally wouldn’t call “alive”, from a scientific perspective, and yet they have as real an influence on the world as me. The internet for example, has as much life as any other complex being – and its impact is unfathomable. Ideas, stories, Richard Dawkin’s almost robotic notion of cultural “memes” that at once seem both slave and master to human beings, rather than that notion demoting life to artifice and dead matter, we can promote them to the status of fully “living” agents – because we understand that all of space-time lives. Emptiness has life – fullness has life. The Tao Te Ching famously speaks to this.

Christopher Alexander might jump in here and say – “Well, sure, but also remember that everything also has degrees of life.” And I would agree with him – in the sense of places, times, stories, people, can become fully alive, or they can fall asleep, so that they have very little influence. In this talk about degrees of life, Alexander doesn’t refer to their value, he points to their impact and level of complexity. These complex beings – rivers, storms, cultures, recipes – may even die and return to feeding the rest of life. But they never stop participating in the space-time field of life. They never lose their fundamental aliveness.

I believe when I can embody that a story told, or watched on a screen, has as much life and agency as myself, that I will have really integrated something deep about diffusion structures, constructal law, complex systems, and most of all – animism. 

High Contrast Thinking

IMG_2893 In my opinion, you can “be right”, or you can learn. As simple as that. The pursuit (or belief in) Rightness closes doors, closes perception, closes awareness.

The avoidance of Wrongness creates hesitation, cowardice, smallness. It diametrically opposes bravery and discovery.

Rightness also misleads, because the universe simply doesn’t work that way. However, I’ve come to believe that for anyone new to a skill, or new to a field of ideas, that a new learner naturally hews to what I call high-contrast thinking.

High-contrast thinking means looking at nouns, instead of verbs. Looking at facts, instead of relationships. It means looking for separation and identity. By doing this, a new mind can navigate this new world of learning they find themselves in. In essence, it means looking at “right” and “wrong”, “correct” and “incorrect”. In tracking, it means looking at the shape of a track and matching it with a pattern in your mind, or in a book. It means forcing reality to change to fit your model of reality. You have to begin here, of course.

But! You must keep going. You must move on from high-contrast thinking as soon as possible. This illusion that empowers  you to begin a journey, you must abandon for a richer perspective on the world as soon as possible.

Relationships, flows, verbs, context. The opposite of high-contrast. You might call it low-contrast; wherein you can barely see the edge of one domain as it slides along a continuum into another. High-contrast, like the tracking stick, always waits for  you to need it again. You can always go back there, and you will, though you will need it less and less as time goes on.

All models of the world come from high-contrast thinking, and essentially lie. But these lies can create life if they point to deeper currents of truth. Low-contrast thinking means pure-awareness without labels, navigating according to an unconscious sense of everything at once.

Literacy and Tracking

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A person could argue that most of the living world “reads” constantly. Like introverts in the library, we never want leave the constant unfolding stories carried by winds, scented earth, star positions, ocean currents, body languages. All beings – whether bears or bees, clouds or cormorants, lichen or lithic giants slumbering under the sky, we all read each other.

And yet the modern sense of reading – words in sentences, sentences in paragraphs, text that crawls from one page to the next until the book ends with a clap of covers, but always remains the same each time we look within – to me, this new “reading” has nothing to with the original reading at all.

Even worse, this new form of reading (and writing!) makes us terrible trackers. We expect words to “mean” what the dictionary says, and for these meanings to stay the same under different eyes.

The more I learn about tracking, the more I look for flows and forces, relationships and dynamics, within the soils and sands crushed underfoot. And yet I started out, in the very beginning, thinking, “that is a cat track”, “that is a bird track”, “that is a snake track”, and I do mean “is”, in violation of my e-prime habit.

In some ways this just points to a natural learning arc; in the beginning, we need clear sign-posts. As we mature, nuance and perspective enrich so much that we abandon our sign-posts.

I suppose one could engage a modern book in this same way; questioning every word, looking for forces and flows, juggling multiple interpretations.

My oldest tracking mentor, Tom Brown, Jr., often shares the perspective that his mentor in turn shared with him: “All earth moves like water”. As a Lipan Apache, water had a special meaning as a source of wisdom, as springs and seeps source life in the dry places.

Perhaps then, for reading we best assume all words, sentences, paragraphs, stories and texts, perhaps they all move like water too?

In any case, the joy, the thrill of entire worlds churning and sloshing within the track, waves crashing against currents all under the passing forces of beings about their business from one track horizon to the next, this for me describes the real world of tracking that awaits any who ask enough questions and court the tracks with an open heart.

The Landscape Within A Track

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Controversy swirls around author, teacher, and tracker Tom Brown, Jr., I can’t deny it. As founder and head instructor-for-life at The Tracker School in New Jersey, he has made a career out of having strong opinions without any apologies. And yet one thing, that he said in the very first class I ever took, has stuck with me for almost twenty years:

If you believe everything I say, you are a fool.

Prove me right, or prove me wrong.

But I betcha can’t prove me wrong…

Pressure Release tracking, what Tom (in his inimitable fashion) calls “master tracking”, called to me from the first time I heard of its possibility. And yet, due to my health and the maladies of youth, I couldn’t sink my teeth into more than just the surface of this traditional art.

Tom asserts that this art directly comes from the Lipan Apache Scout tradition of tracking. Over the years, knowing Tom’s storytelling nature, I’ve wondered about its origins and investigated other possibilities. But, at last, I have decided to defer to the decision of the still thriving Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas – who, as best I understand it, recognize Tom as a teacher via his Lipan mentor.

So, I feel confident speaking about my pride and awe at this indigenous system of tracking, which to me, shows as much or more complexity than the acupuncture point system in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Tom shares what his mentor taught him as thousands of “pressure releases” – individual behaviors and expressions inside the track – upwards of 5,000.

What does “pressure release” mean? Well, you could call it “how the earth feels about the movement of your foot against it”. You could also call it a track landscape feature – ridges, caves, crests, fissures, and so on.

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But more than that, this approach dives into the soul of the being making the track – exploring not just how much they weigh, how tall, male or female, handedness, leggedness, how old, but also how much food in their belly, how much they need to pee or poop, hunger, thirst, emotional state, where they look, injuries, sneezes, coughs – only your curiosity limits you.

You can best think of this world – this amazing tiny massive world inside the landscape of the track – as a cultural world. A traditional, indigenous, continuously mapped and remapped world of the living soul. As Tom has translated into English (and you probably know my feelings on how widely “civilized” languages and indigenous languages differ from each other in character and purpose), the Lipan Apache Scouts had a deeply expressive yet highly technical jargon for describing and exploring the tiny world of the track.

As a lover of Sherlock Holmes and mysteries of all kinds, this original science has owned my heart for years.. And over the past few months I have begun to embrace Tom’s call to “prove me right, or prove me wrong”.

Due to the limitations of WordPress, I encourage you to follow my adventures here on my tumblr blog. I dream of a well-designed online space for collaborating on this inquiry into pressure releases, but for now, a tumblr blog will have to do.

Let me end with this thought: up until Tom began sharing it, this system of pressure releases, a few thousand different features in size (and growing slowly with the discoveries of new trackers), remained hidden from view. I don’t know of it surviving anywhere else (apparently other tribes had similar systems). I hope beyond my knowledge other native folks still carry it for the benefit of their people, but I can’t help but wonder at how easily it may have died out.

This beautiful, majestic, system of mastery, far more than the wildest dreams of any modern hunter, any modern geologist, any forensic scientist,  and even many traditional trackers.

As I look back at the cultural world of my ancestors that crumbled under the onslaught of colonization, and then recognize my line became just one more platoon of colonizers, I think of how much we have lost, how much we almost lost, how much we continue to lose right now, and how important and precious the duty to decolonize ourselves, support the indigenous cultures all around us, and caretake that inner urge to do magnificent things and make the heart of the mothering land swell to have such children.