Issue #12 - “HOW DO WE KNOW?” Part II
Issue #12, March 2021

Deena Metzger

The Imagination is a Real Place: from La Vieja: A Journal of Fire, a work-in-progress

Let’s pretend you’re hearing a story. Because you like stories, let’s pretend this is one. Maybe you like stories because they inform and entertain, but also because they can be dismissed. After all, this story is only about a few people, a few of billions, and the characters aren’t even real, are they? Custom asks you to think that it’s a story and the writer imagined it and it’s arbitrary.

But maybe it isn’t. Maybe some stories are living entities.

The imagination takes us by surprise. Sometimes a story appears out of the blue, relating events orconsidering issues for which we have no experience and yet, somehow, what appears on the page is accurate, frighteningly so. Sometimes, the writers don’t know the characters at the beginning, or what the characters know. The writers don’t know anything about what will be appearing on the page, what will be relevant from their own lives or experiences to inform their characters’ lives, don’t know where the story is going or why it’s been given to them to tell. And yet they write, not foolishly but informed by awareness from other realms. They are compelled.

A character enters one’s mind, a stranger; a guest appearing like the wanderer who is a prince or a god in disguise, or the beggar who is really an angel. A knock and the writer opens the door to company she will keep for years. She has no choice. There was an agreement maybe before she was born and, accordingly, something wants to enter. Someone. From the other side.

That’s what we’re in. We. Since you’re reading this, we’re in this together. Even after being at this for so many years, I am being schooled as I set this down. I have been given a gift; this story is coming alive in me. But not as if it were planted there. It arises from a dynamic, constantly changing, common field of knowing, an analogue of the original primordial soup or the process of abiogenesis from which creation emerges.

This story, this putative fictional event, is appearing as a strong memory just seconds after the episode has occurred. The event occurred somewhere where I was and was not consciously and I experience it as memory. Now, try to put these fragments together in a coherent whole!

When I review my life as a writer, I recognize an original edict to correct the assumption that the human is separate and autonomous, that creativity is inherent in an individual and belongs to that person, was born in him by chance and is his property. Increasingly, those who hold this belief also believe they have a right to profit from this gift and also from whatever else they are clever enough to get their hands on.

Over the years, I gradually understood, no, over the years I was gradually given to understand, that there are other ways of knowing that arise from the heartmind which is the primary form for all beings and includes the human except for that dominating segment that withdrew from the natural world and, grievously, has brought us to this impasse where all who have succumbed to this way threaten all life by their ways of being.

I began my last novel this way, and the one before, and others, where I also tried openly to fathom the mystery of being a writer, wanting to set our relationship, mine, the writer, and yours, the reader, straight, having received a story, and been obligated to transmit it. Then I abandoned these impetuses in order to align with conventional expectations and distastes. Only Doors: A Fiction for Jazz Horn, survived the reflex to conform and there I had no choice but to open the sluice gates to other realms given the nature of that text which, ultimately, arose from active literary cooperation, with the writer, Julio Cortázar, twenty years after his death, and who was also a significant character in the book.

To speak of this changes the nature of a text just as our origins dictate who we will become. There is no reason for these energies or forces to be invisible except to enhance the false notion that the writer is an autonomous creator who owes nothing to anyone but herself. And so we must open a path in the direction of interdependence even, or especially, while engaged in this singular activity of creativity.

Rather than beginning in limitations that reify the activity of separation, including adhering to a series of exclusions that define a genre, that insist that a novel must be only this but not that, or a text must be this and not that, La Vieja asserts her intention to yield to other voices and other realms, without pretending otherwise. There are no familiar words for this phenomenon because secular culture confines literature to a realm outside the reality of the marvelous, avoiding the spiritual and cosmological implications of such events, denying the substantive relationship with the universe beyond.

Even though I am writing an eighth novel or imaginal text, I am still perplexed by the obdurate mystery of these visitations and accordingly it is as much my task to relate the path to the story as the story itself.

Mind, memory and story, all are outside us. The imagination is not within, is not mine, is an instrument of perception or discovery, like having a good eye. I wish I could make things up, but I don’t have the skill. What I am able to do is listen, listen deeply and try to fold the inexplicable into language. And if this is the last, or one of the very last of my novels, fictions or texts, then you see how essential it is to speak of a lifetime trying to understand what I have written, thinking I understood it. But while old enough to live by it, I was not fully able to comprehend the meaning and implications of it: The imagination is an instrument of perception or discovery and also the imagination is a real place.

And who am I? I am the writer and so the narrator. The writer is always the narrator whether disguised as another persona or not. And I am relating the story as it makes itself known.

[Note: These words and modifications of these pages are being written in May 2020, thirty-two months after the book first came to me. As novels often take me many years from first note to publications, it is inevitable, especially since the computer, to go back to revise the first pages which also means the entire book is changing each day, a boiling, writhing form, until it is fixed in its final form by the act of publication.]

Sometimes the book seems to have its own energy, almost its own will, but why say almost when that is exactly how it is: story is both autonomous and independent. Interestingly enough, because the story or stories have agency, I am slightly removed from them, an observer, even, of the character La Vieja, who is not myself, though we resemble each other despite our distinct perspectives. I observe her but she does not observe me. She is embedded in her life, in the story, and I am outside, watching. She is autonomous and I am intertwined. This is not fantasy or science or Clifi, this is realism. Call it magic realism if you wish, this is how things are.

Again, why speak of all this? Because how the story appears is as important as the story. The way thes tory manifests is also the story.

From La Vieja: A Journal of Fire

La Vieja walked round and round the cabin. This morning, she saw the sunrise while looking toward the mountains. She will see sunset later. Red sky at dawning, sailors take warning. Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. And even though she is desperately concerned about the Earth, she is confident the sun will set and will rise in the morning and she can predict the time. She knows the sun will die ultimately, will retract into a neutron star or a black hole billions of years from now and that will be a minor event compared with the end of the universe itself by endless expansion, accelerated expansion, irreversible retraction or some sudden and catastrophic event like vacuum death. Don’t ask me to explain it even to myself, she thinks.

Sometimes these cosmic futures strike terror in her heart but they are distractions from the real, current, present terror from which she must not look away, what brought her to the Lookout originally: everything she loves could end soon, if not in her lifetime, then within calculable time, within a few generations and by our own hands. She had come seeking understanding that could help two-leggeds change course…


Today is August 9, 2020, Nagasaki Day. Seventy-five years since the American people dropped a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima and another on Nagasaki. Let us pause in horror, shame and regret. No animal would commit such a crime against all life.

And just to note, fire season has begun.


She is not walking, but pacing, the way she did as a child, when she tried to understand something and walked and walked, inside her house, up and down the hallway, and then when she was older, round and round the neighborhood, along the ocean and bay paths until she had puzzled it out or set it aside. There is no way to dismiss the current enigma.

La Vieja has come here with a singular purpose: to look far, to see what was possible when separated from her ordinary California life. She was searching for fires, not only to give warning, but to bear witness. It was baffling that so many millions could follow the news of the ongoing fires, the Amazon, Australia, the American west burning more relentlessly year after year, and still turn off the television or step away from their Twitter titillation and go to sleep as if they had been watching daily reruns of an apocalypse movie.

Ladybird, Ladybird, fly away home, our house is on fire. Yes, in fact, our houses, our Earth house, is on fire.

The Ladybirds are burning, those tiny black and orange beings who might land so gently on the back of one’s hand.La Vieja had been hiking, not far from here, years and years ago and came upon what seemed like the birthplace of the Ladybirds—great mounds of them, covering boulders and flat surfaces, then rising up into the air and going west together, with some sweet purpose, tiny little suns with tiny spots from which we can imagine a miniature solar flare will emerge, radiating a dark kindly greeting. How was she going to protect the Ladies’ home? It was her responsibility to protect it as she had endangered it.

La Vieja remembered a moment that had led to her decision to come here. She was seated in a circle of her students on the patio, before the Eucalyptus trees, the ones so many wanted to take down because they were immigrants like the pines and should have been stopped at the border, sent back to their places of origin.

There were twenty-five or so students of various ages, some in their twenties and thirties and some into their seventies. She sent them out for an hour to walk the land and feel the danger which was coming upon them, the increasing heat, the sense that all could burst into flame in any moment, and everything could burn: the grass, Spiders, Lizards, Gophers, Mice, Rats, Raccoons, Skunks, Bobcats, Deer, Coyote, Mountain Lions, even the Birds if the fire exploded as increasingly it might. When they returned, they spoke of their experiences and responses, and she felt dismay. Like everyone else, it seemed to her, they hadn’t understood the gravity. “Climate change,” she had said, “is like a fire coming down the hill at us right now. How will you meet it?” They were removed from experiencing the coming impact and, worse, they hadn’t felt the imminence. Climate dissolution was still vague, remote, incomprehensible. They were tired, hadn’t had lunch, didn’t comprehend and resented that she had said they had all failed to meet the moment, were still all living the way they had always lived—the same desires, the same assumptions, the same ambitions, the same future plans.

She sent them out again, at least to imagine what they couldn’t see. “Climate change is like a fire coming down the hill into this narrow eleven-mile long canyon. Eleven thousand people. Only one road from the ocean to the valley.”

Reluctantly, they stood up and began to gather their things. A young man who had recently apprenticed at an organic farm and so was more attuned to what is occurring than the rest, exited the turquoise gate first. A moment later, he flung open the gate, shouting to all of them in shock and wonder, “There is a fire coming down the mountain toward the road! There is a fire coming down the mountain, just as you said.” He was shaking with fear as, indeed, fire leaped up into the sky and slid down the hill at the same time.

They went out the gate, dazed. Each went to their respective cars. Within an hour, all had evacuated. It would be close to a week before she could return home. She would evacuate again several weeks later and that time for eight days.

Walking from East to West, from dawn to nightfall, from then to now, round and round the boardwalk, as if walking the rotations around the sun, walking time and space, hoping the momentum, the passage from past to present, might help her reach the necessary insights for this time when she had given up everything in her current life, and sequestered herself to listen deeply. She had to keep her focus, the ongoing inquiry, her desperate and perhaps naïve assumption that if she kept asking questions, kept looking farther and farther, further and further, where both knowledge and the past, even the far past, resided as one, she would get an answer, that ancestors would answer, whether it was a short-faced Bear who eleven thousand years ago might have walked exactly where the Lookout is now, or her own equally unknown great-great-grandmother; someone or another from the other side to guide her, some voice, some communication beyond herself would finally arrive, some explosion to illuminate these times like light arriving finally from the ring of fire we call the Big Bang, our own birth throes. Wisdom. Might she hope for wisdom?


At every place on the Earth outside of human domination, all the vast multitudes of living beings interact and support each other’s welfare without needing a king, a parliament or a police force to regulate their behavior or enforce any laws external to their being. Benevolent interconnection is their very nature. They are all unalterably interconnected. It is instinctual and complex. This made her laugh, as her colleagues considered living by instinct a lesser form of being and complexity a higher form. How were they going to reconcile their belief we are higher forms from the evidence that we are not?

Now the wonder of self-regulation and cooperation struck her as she focused on the increasing chaos, violence and detachment among humans and the antidote of beauty that presented itself from everywhere outside the human realm. Outside of human control and appetite, sky, earth, Yes, she knew this intellectually but that didn’t mean she, or anyone she knew, not the wisest of her companions, understood this. It was an abstract thought for it was not in her body mind that she and the tree were one organism breathing each other and so cutting down a tree was like cutting off a limb, and one did it only if one were desperate, a bear caught in a trap chewing its leg off. The relationship between people and trees was an abstract thought to her and thoughts were arbitrary and could, actually, inevitably would, change.

Away from humans, life thrived. Indeed, life and the body of Earth thrived on their own. Needed to be free of human intervention to thrive. Because humans, two-leggeds, or maybe only non-Indigenous two-leggeds, had separated themselves, were no longer aligned by their intrinsic nature. Is this what was meant in the Bible that humans had been thrust out of Paradise? Her Native American friends laughed at this.

We live in Paradise, they said, and always have, despite you settlers who are always hunting us down, trying to herd us off our land until there will be no land left. Then, some added, we may have to leave this dimension the way the animals have, until we can return to live our rightful lives. Having lost the essential connection and relationship, the invading two-leggeds used everything for their own individual purposes, saw everything outside themselves as objects, and placed everything outside themselves; the danger to all life followed directly from that.

She looked down to the Pine, Fir, Spruce below. It was more than knowing that they were linked, one organism, breathing each other. It was every organism interdependent with everything else. She knew what happened when Wolves were hunted almost to extinction, the ways the Deer and other ungulates increased and forests diminished and then all the animals as well until desert conditions took over. Then unexpectedly, a few years after the restoration of Wolf packs, a cascade of returning life forms resulted in the restoration of streams and rivers, until finally all the life associated with the rushing waters returned too.*

Yes, she had known this. It was not about knowing. There was another level of cognition, distinct from thought, knowing and mind. It was not feeling. It was not intuition. It was not instinct. It wasn’t different from them. They might be incorporated in the experience, but these categories did not explain the irreversible shift in consciousness that occurred when such awareness became part of oneself. One was altered. She had come to the Lookout to be altered and she was being altered.

She had been standing on the deck looking into the trees and she had grokked what she had come to understand. In that moment, her mind was entirely empty of thought and filled with awareness, a non-verbal event. She could only hold on to it for a moment. In that moment, it was so much a part of her, she would have responded from that awareness to anything that came her way, because nothing that came her way was a thing. And so to respond was to incorporate without devouring. Oh, she was trying to understand again. She breathed. It left.

She had fallen back into thinking. Left to itself, the non-human world flourished though contemporary humans often judged it differently as they couldn’t avoid seeing everything according to human time and Euro-American standards. To her kind, it looked like the elephants were destroying the forests and then moving on to the next victims of their hunger, but it appeared differently to those who were able to encompass the 200-year migration cycle of consumption and restoration. Everything in its own time. Everything     in       its         own           time.

She paced back and forth and round and round on the narrow deck. She was thinking too much. She was thinking and so she was thrown out of the Garden. The damned Angels had come to get her. For eating an apple! Really! For wanting knowledge. Really? Oh my god! Maybe yes, for wanting knowledge, mind, thinking and its disconnections. There could be so much more to the story than had been understood.

And if so? Well, first, she had brought too many books which only encouraged her thinking. Why wonder what other two-leggeds had to say when the species is the problem and she had come to observe the Others. To observe and then to contemplate what was revealed was the path she had come here to follow. If she wanted to continue to gorge herself on what humans thought, she could have acquired an academic research card at a major library and settled into a comfortable study to use it on line. Why, indeed, had she carried so many boxes of books up these stairs? She had to reconsider everything. Might it be that the act of eating an apple, open to all that apple is and nothing else, rather than reading about, or thinking about it, might drop her right back into the Garden now. The real Garden where the real Apples grow.

She seated herself on one of the wood kitchen chairs she had placed in the Northwest corner of the walkway, her preferred view at this time of year. The sun would begin to set soon, darkly shadowing the bases of the conifers as their upper branches took on brush strokes of amber and golden light. What could explode dangerously were now simply green candelabras swaying in the gentle wind that rose as the temperature fell. Constant movement, steady and shifting, giving and receiving of life. She had had to come away from her own kind in order to know the holiness of connection. She had known she had to retreat but hadn’t anticipated what, if anything, would fill the void.

There was just a hint of a coming sunset, a familiar view, summer light, a few clouds that would soon smear shades of pink and pale rose across the sky. How tender a finish to the day it was and equally how unexceptional. As the light dimmed tonight, it would not become noteworthy. But if one were not ranking, it would provide a soft entrance into dusk. After so many months here, she was beginning to marvel that every aspect of natural life from the seemingly silent and teeming worlds between the roots of the trees she was watching and further down to the solar heat of the molten core of the Earth, to the magnetic energies that determined the relationships between the stars and planets, the visible and the hidden dark, the known and unknown of the universe beyond, from weather to material structure, including the millions and millions of different vital forms and the myriad staid minerals and stones, each unique, organic and inorganic, changing and unchanging element from which the world is constituted and on which it depends, each innate connection in time and space, form and movement is in vibrant relationship with everything else. This ordinary day, which thankfully revealed no lightning strikes, no trees exploding into fire, no wisps of smoke, no signs of danger, opened itself to her. How simple.

She dropped on her knees in awe. Then as if struck by an electric current, she rose up, threw open the trap door, rushed down the stairs to the green world below, weeping and laughing, wanting to be enclosed in it, by it, to know what it is to be integral to such wonder.

About the Author

Deena Metzger

Deena Metzger wrote her first poem, The Plant, in 1939 and is currently working on a novel, excerpted in this issue, La Vieja. She was present when the lightning bolt struck Lise Weil and Dark Matter was conceived and is pleased to have been in the first and subsequent issues and this one. Her latest book of poetry is The Burden of Light and her latest novel is A Rain of Night Birds. The second edition of Entering the Ghost River: Meditations on the Theory and Practice of Healing has just been released. She regularly counts the number of books she published but she can’t remember the total and there are too many essays to count. She has introduced and convenes the 19 Ways as forms for changing our minds in order to preserve creation. She also introduced Daré to North America in 1999 and has convened ReVisioning Medicine since 2004. She is imagining a Literature of Restoration to create a culture that reverses extinction and other violences against the earth and all life.

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