Unknowable

While reading up on some recent theories on evolution and reading for the first time (other than in excerpts) The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex by Charles Darwin, I have returned to mulling over the problem of consciousness. What fascinates me is how this topic (consciousness) overlaps with philosophy, physiology, evolution–how and why we developed the brains we have with their attendant egos, theory of self, what-have-you–and with human constructs such as art and religion and morality, which I value for complicated reasons.

And out of curiosity, I took up Barbara Ehrenreich’s Living with a Wild God, which seemed to me a departure from her books until I realized that I was unfamiliar with her earlier work.

Ehrenreich’s book stems from her inquiry into a period of her own late adolescence when she experienced a kind of awakening that defied expression. For another sort of person, this might have been a spiritual encounter; but she was a self-described solipsist atheist who wanted explanations. The why of the world mattered to her–she was headed toward an education in science at Reed and Columbia University, though she did not know that yet when she had her ecstatic sensation. Reading Living with a Wild God reminded me of watching an animal tear and tear and worry at a carcass, not quite able to let go. The author fumes at her younger self for being so unforthcoming with details and suggests she may have been having a dissociative event, a small psychological break. Yet there were no symptoms of such a problem in her diary or in her memory.

She writes a bit about psychology, human consciousness, adolescent daydreaming, rational thinking versus imaginative beliefs, systematic or otherwise. After considerable wrestling and intriguing memoir, she admits that all she can do is speculate about what she felt:

There were no visions, no prophetic voices or visits by totemic animals, just this blazing everywhere. Something poured into me and I poured out into it. This was not the passive, beatific merger with “the All” as described by the Eastern mystics. It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once, and one reason for the terrible wordlessness of the experience is that you cannot observe a fire really closely without becoming part of it…you will be recruited into the flame and made indistinguishable from the rest of the blaze…the only condition was overflow. ‘Ecstasy’ would be the word for this, but only if you are willing to acknowledge that ecstasy does not occupy the same spectrum as happiness or euphoria, that it participates in the anguish of loss and can resemble an outbreak of violence.

In the Bhagavad-gita, when Arjuna sees Krishna-manifest-as-All, the experience is not beatific, any more than Moses’ encounter with God as the burning bush relates an enmeshing with the One; the sense of merger with the energetic being remains absent–there is awe and a sensation that the human consciousness has been irrevocably rattled, altered, changed, but not that the human consciousness melds with that unknowable and indescribable Other.

What drew me to this book is that I had similar, though briefer, experiences when I was young. They tended to occur in flashes, and I associate them now with daydreaming and with a “losing of self”–I really have no words for it, though Ehrenreich’s “overflow” seems about right…one reason Bachelard’s writings on childhood and reverie resonate with me. It’s heartening to find another person, a well-known author, who also has found the experience impossible to formulate in language. I especially appreciate her suggesting “that ecstasy does not occupy the same spectrum as happiness or euphoria, that it participates in the anguish of loss and can resemble an outbreak of violence.” I identify deeply.

Some meditative practices aim to erase, temporarily, the boundaries that keep us from being truly in the world. Some religious practices aim to make the faithful “one with” the deity. Ehrenreich does not possess the kind of mind or personality that seeks answers in those ways. She’s frighteningly intelligent, well-educated, worldly, scholarly, sensible, socially and culturally aware, fiercely atheistic. Yet she cannot quite believe that what she felt, saw, knew, in her body and in her mind, was “simply” something her brain invented. After 50 years, she continues to wonder. I sense she is still tearing obsessively at the unresolved.

Maybe that is enough, to wonder. At any rate, wondering may be as far toward why as any of us human beings will ever get.

Let me remember joy

A good companion

A good companion

Excerpts and links to some vivid poetry as a kind of consolation, thanks to The Poetry Foundation and Poetry magazine, and to some wonderful writers:

Alicia Ostriker’s celebration of animal exuberance in Poetry:

…Pursuing pleasure
More than obedience
They race, skid to a halt in the wet sand,
Sometimes they’ll plunge straight into
The foaming breakers…

~~

A Dog Has Died” by Pablo Neruda

…all his sweet and shaggy life,
always near me, never troubling me,
and asking nothing.

Joyful, joyful, joyful,
as only dogs know how to be happy
with only the autonomy
of their shameless spirit…

~~

Bob Hicock’s “Unmediated Experience”

She does this thing. Our seventeen-
year-old dog. Our mostly deaf dog.
Our mostly dead dog, statistically
speaking. When I crouch.
When I put my mouth to her ear
and shout her name. She walks away.
Walks toward the nothing of speech.
She even trots down the drive, ears up,
as if my voice is coming home…

~~

Mary Oliver has a recent book of dog-related poems. Critics have derided it as sentimental–but that’s part of the role dogs play for us humans. Only part, though. There’s more, I think; but at present–no intellectualizing. Emotion–feeling–is fundamental to the human physiology.

Here’s my favorite photo of her.

524860_10200306585091559_756123494_nLooking out. Living in the moment.

~~

“Because of the dog’s joyfulness, our own is increased. It is no small gift.” ~Mary Oliver

Dogs & lions

By chance, I encountered the poem “Thorn Leaves in March” by W.S. Merwin (1956, Poetry magazine) a day ago and felt levels of resonance such as poems can evoke. The powerfully “clear expression of mixed feelings”–thank you again, W.H. Auden–converges with seasonal details in this early Merwin piece and merges, completely by happenstance, with events in my current life.

Walking out in the late March midnight
With the old blind bitch on her bedtime errand
Of ease stumbling beside me, I saw

At the hill’s edge, by the blue flooding
Of the arc lamps, and the moon’s suffused presence…

My elderly dog stumbles beside me on these late-winter nights; I do not think she will see another full-blooming spring. Resonance.

alicelamb

Rescue of an orphaned lamb.

“As a white lamb the month’s entrance had been…” Well, that has certainly been true of this year’s weather. And the lamb allusion makes me think not just of the old saying about March but about my daughter, who is spending this month’s last two weeks working among ewes on a farm in Scotland as lambing season progresses.

Merwin’s speaker refutes the aphorism; his March comes in like a lamb because it is white, and goes out in white, as well:

…as a lamb, I could see now, it would go,
Breathless, into its own ghostliness,
Taking with it more than its tepid moon.

The lion, he claims, is “The beast of gold, and sought as an answer,/Whose pure sign no solution is.” No lion in this quiet, late-winter/cusp-of-spring snowfall–the light is silvery, the budding leaves of the thorn trees translucent and cold. The speaker stands beneath the “sinking moon” and wonders, questions, listening for something he knows he will not hear.

The old dog, domestic companion (neither lion nor lamb), completes her mission; the man lets go of metaphysical thoughts; the earth inexorably turns toward summer–despite the snow.

I’ll keep this poem in mind as the next snowstorm heads my way on the equinox.

 

Roadkill

As the spring equinox approaches and creatures rouse from dormancy, the number of roadkill incidents spikes. Yesterday as I made a left turn into my driveway, I noticed a groundhog carcass lying in the middle of the street. I was stopped to retrieve my mail anyway, so I figured I should move the body off.

And then it moved–bloodied mouth opening and shutting, one heavily-clawed forepaw shuddering slightly. It wasn’t quite dead.

Poems about road kills sprang to mind. I thought immediately of Stafford’s “Traveling through the Dark” and that moment of swerving, replete with caesuras, in the last couplet; Billy Collins’ “Ave Atque Valealso skittered into my thoughts, that bloated woodchuck waving “hail, Caesar” to the passing vehicles.  As I pulled a plastic bag from my car, one of my own poems resonated–“Burials,” which is in my collection Water-Rites (available through this link and posted below).

I made a glove of the bag and grasped the poor beast by its tail, a precaution: it might have been lively enough to snap at me. Not the case this time. A car running over the body would have put the groundhog more quickly out of its misery, but by daylight drivers tend to avoid road kill; it gets smashed during the night hours. So I left it on the embankment to gasp out its last breath with the birds larking about above it and some damp wintry weeds under its dark body.

This sort of experience feels oddly metaphorical…obviously, not only for me but for people like Stafford and Collins. I am sure one could put together an anthology of very lovely roadkill poems.

~groundhog-day-groundhog

BURIALS

1.
Last week the neighbors’ dogs eviscerated a woodchuck,
left it, stinking, at the perimeter of our woods

which is how we found it, by the smell—
body bloated, partly hairless:

a scientific demonstration on the rapidity
and absoluteness of decay, the brief time it takes;

but today my daughter cannot bear the stray cat’s
road-killed stillness, the soft, domestic body,

the pet, which isn’t hers—she begs to bury it.
The schoolbus arrives with my promise

to give the cat some cover. Under mulberry I scrape
a shallow grave, in thin and gravelly roadside soil,

cover it with fallen leaves, an autumn prayer—
nothing more, because I know burial does not forestall

death’s swell, its stink, desiccation,
absoluteness; I do what I promised,

disguising the body’s inevitable progression
from the eyes of my grieving child.

2.
Shall I cover my gray hairs
with dry leaves, shall I layer
my wrinkled hands beneath clay,
hide my own departure—

or shall I teach my children
to understand the truth of maggots,
which consume equally
the treasured and the stray—

which arrive unasked,
fulfill their contract with the earth,
never seeking recognition
or time, more time?

~

© 2012 Ann E. Michael

 

March, march

March has been a busy month for me. Instead of composing posts on my usual topics (poetry, nature, education, philosophy), I am going to refer my readers to other sites or other writers…a treasury of riches on the web.

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, I ask my readers to check out my father’s memoir of the Selma to Montgomery March, here, and to consider this heartbreaking poem by the late Jake Adam York:

~~

For Reverend James Reeb
     9 March 1965, Selma, Alabama

The ministers rise from empty plates like the steam
of chicken and greens and puff into coats, prayers,

and then the unlit streets, the night, ready
for tomorrow’s march or gathering or prayers,

and then the dark is beating Hey niggers
though only their coats are black and the night and everything

so they cannot see what’s coming, what hits them,
what clubs or pipes, what feet are kicking

at their ribs, who’s saying Now you know,
now you know what it’s like to be a real nigger.

No one can see what lands, what cracks Reeb’s skull.
No one can see the hairline fracture

or what’s nesting, what’s beating there,
what wings are gathering in his eyes.

      by Jake Adam York

from the Blackbird archives.

Biography of Reeb here.

Hawks & fragments

When I take the commuter bus into New York City and back, I prefer daytime trips because I can count hawks.

I’m not a birdwatcher; but I have noticed, over many years of traveling the route (Interstate 78 Pennsylvania through New Jersey), that the highway offers good predatory-bird landscapes. The bus has large windows and elevates the passengers above the usual traffic lanes, so even though I’m traveling 70 miles an hour, I have a panoramic view through eastern Pennsylvania and north-central New Jersey, where there are scrims of woodlots behind the noise barriers, scrubby undergrowth on medians and embankments, a few cornfields, many high-density housing communities, railroads, creeks, and small county park lands.

I seldom get a close enough look to identify a bird positively; yet from my motor-vehicle perch I can tell a buteo from a harrier or an accipter. The fairly small kestrel is difficult to note, being about pigeon-sized (and pigeons are legion in NJ &NY) but I’ve identified them by their flight pattern. The buteos are most common around here, and from a bus I can’t usually discern a broad-wing from a redtail. But I see them roosting at dusk, or perched, or soaring over the fields and the strip mall parking lots. Twice, I have even spotted a great horned owl in trees along the route.

There are important raptor flyways along this path and into the region just west of where I live: Hawk Mountain is a big birding attraction along the Appalachian Trail. I have counted as many as 18 raptors along an 80-mile stretch of road. The commute takes just under two hours; I am probably the only person on the bus who spends most of her time looking out the windows at what is, admittedly, a rather uninspiring and predictable landscape.

redtail

See below for a link to raptor id at Hawk Mountain

~

51YVrgMy9sL._.jpg

Hawks have been very much on my mind because I recently read Helen Macdonald’s quite wonderful memoir, H Is for Hawk, which I highly recommend.

~

Here are a few fragments of notes I wrote in my journal while I traveled home last Sunday.

what could be a hawk. but isn’t–

paper wasp nests     squirrel dreys (nests of food for hawks!)     leaf clumps      plastic bags[tangled in boughs]

big crows. until they fly.          traffic cameras. the particular angle of them, perched (as it were) above streetlamps.

without binoculars, and in motion. not birdwatching. I scan for raptors.

frozen swamp–The Meadowlands–

snow. out of which phragmite grasses emerge, brown, russet brown. color of redtail feathers.

cranes/high tension wires. canadian geese–also in snow, feeder creeks & streams frozen, Hudson frozen, Delaware frozen.

raptor count NJ 10, PA 4. Four in 16 miles, Pennsylvania.

And yes, I composed a couple of poems during the trip.

But only one of the poems featured hawks.

~ Link to a great page for Eastern US raptor identification

Barnacles, finches’ beaks, art

Cirripedia, the barnacles, occupied Mr. Charles Darwin for many years, even though his extensive studies of the class are not what he’s famous for (except among cirripedists). The average layperson knows Darwin as the man who came up with the theory of evolution–though that is not strictly what he did, and none of his books bear that title. After the publication of On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man, and the subsequent and ongoing controversies that followed, pretty much everything in the world could be–and has been–examined “under an evolutionary lens.”

The original “lens” involved finch beaks, pigeon-breeding, and early geology studies. It was fueled also by taxonomy, anatomy, and barnacles, by a member of the landed gentry who stayed at  home, more or less, for 45 years after his five-year journey on the Beagle. A scholar, an “armchair naturalist” by today’s standards; a genius.

finch beaksMany people who interpreted what evolution suggested went off the deep end one way or another, which is what happens with ground-breaking ideas. Both critics and supporters re-interpreted and often misinterpreted Darwin and the implications of his work, as well, all of which means he accomplished something truly significant. Why not, therefore, examine fundamental human traits to see whether evolutionary currents can be discerned? Certainly Darwin and a few of his contemporaries speculated that altruism might have an evolutionary basis, a concept that was taken up, debated, and temporarily dismissed in the 1960s-70s; recent neurobiological and genetic studies have brought the possibility of a biological basis for kindness back into discussion (see also Damasio).

There is also the question of art (and aesthetics, though taste seems more likely to be social than biological–but who knows?), which brings me to Denis Dutton’s delightful book The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution.

Rather than summarize my responses to his thought-provoking and rather convincing arguments, I’m posting some quotes. These are ideas I find juicy to consider; perhaps other readers will feel similarly.

~

Wondrous aesthetic experiences are possible in the absence of a sense of larger community: the response of an individual to a beautiful landscape, for instance, …or to a recording of the Goldberg Variations heard in solitude. If the arts were intrinsically social in the way that social-cohesion theory claims, people…would prefer standing in a crowd to see a painting in a museum, rather than standing alone.

Because of sexual selection, the arts retain an incorrigible sense of being made by one individual person for another…the motives of art, as even Darwin knew, are ancient and complicated–directed toward a community perhaps, but also created to captivate an audience of one.

~

The artist…probes the content of human emotional life with an eye toward articulating, or making clear, a unique emotion, an individual feeling.

Can you imagine taking [a] pill to save the expense of concert tickets, or even the time spent in listening to a recording of the piece? The answer is very likely to be no, and the reason tells us something about the nature of artistic expression. It is not just the emotion as bare feeling we want from art, it is the individual artistic expression of emotion–how emotions are revealed in the art, through technique, structure, balance, and the blending of sounds….Yes, we want feeling from art, but not as an end for which the art is a means: with art, the means is the end itself.      [italics mine]

~

Extending Darwin’s original suggestion, I believe this intense interest in art as emotional expression derives from wanting to see through art into another human personality: it springs from desire for knowledge of another person….talking about art is an indirect way of talking about the inner lives of other people.

~

All of the above excerpts are from Denis Dutton, The Art Instinct, 2009.

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