“The last one was killed in 1959, but there was no funeral and no one cried. I don’t know where his tomb is to put flowers on it. I can only wail and mourn his passing in my own way.”
– Naeemeh Naeemaei
For this issue of Dark Matter, we put out a call for material focusing on “devotion”—and yet much of what’s here also revolves around the theme of “extinction.” The paintings of Iranian artist Naeemeh Naeemaei are a stunning case in point. Other striking examples: Beverly Naidus’ extinction altars, Megan Hollingsworth’s work with ex•tinc•tion wit•ness, Sara Wright’s witnessing of her beloved trees in “Tree Holocaust.” In fact, extinction could be said to haunt most of the material in this issue—perhaps not surprising considering the journal’s mission, but also, as I came to realize, the intimate relationship between extinction and devotion, the way they are braided, the way one tends to nourish, inspire, give birth to the other. After all, this journal itself, which has been very much a devotional practice for its editors, was birthed by awareness of extinction. Installation artist Lily Yeh, interviewed in this issue, puts it this way: “…the beauty that moves comes from the broken dark places.” All this is to say that though we’ve divided the issue into two parts, “extinction” and “devotion,” almost every piece in it could go in either one.
The words in the epigraph above refer to the Caspian Tiger, depicted in Naeemaei’s series Dreams of Extinction which appears in this issue. Her tiger is surrounded by weeping women who are giving him the proper ceremonial farewell he deserves. There’s an interesting parallel in Nora Jamieson’s recently published Deranged, reviewed in this issue, where a woman holds a funeral service for a coyote who was poisoned by her neighbour. She even puts an obituary notice in the paper: “Eastern Grey Coyote died on February 10th from an acute illness after suffering excruciating convulsions and suffocation.…She will be dearly missed by those she leaves behind, her family pack and Anna Holmes of Mountain Road who is holding calling hours on February 12th from 9p.m. to midnight.”
I read somewhere that death rituals and ceremonies are what distinguish human from non-human animals. But to say this is to ignore the fact that there are also categories of human beings whose deaths go unacknowledged—by ritual, ceremony, or even markers. In “Ghost Dance: the Poetics of Loss,” also featured in this issue, Melissa Kwasny writes of the obscene disrespect for sites of Indian genocide in the U.S.“ A bus driver smokes a cigarette in the parking lot at Sand Creek. The effect is devastating. The lack of monuments, plaques, or any sign of public recognition in some of these places bears witness to a total disregard for what happened, as well as to the people involved.” And in poems that for this reader evoke the almost 1,200 missing and murdered indigenous women here in Canada, until very recently stubbornly ignored by our government, Debra Earling writes of the disappearing of native women: “No one speaks about the woman/dying in the frail rising of a killing day./A woman hard-frozen in the field…”
This journal arose in part out of my own distress over the horrific unprecedented loss of animal and plant life on this earth due to human activity. However the question of human extinction has never been far from my mind. Two days after launching the first issue I was on a plane to Poland to spend five days in Auschwitz-Birkenau bearing witness with Zen peacemakers. On both of my trips to Auschwitz (this was my second) I met Palestinians who’d braved objections and sometimes rejection by friends and family to come and bear witness with us. I remember one of them saying he could no longer face these ruins every day, they were too much like the landscape he awoke to every morning at home (Palestinian poet Lena Khalaf Tuffaha writes in this issue that what Palestinians have endured for decades is “a project of erasure that leaves no human being, olive tree, or square meter of land unscathed”). On one of the last days of this second trip to Auschwitz, I asked a young Palestinian woman what she would take home from this experience. She said: “At home we have no museums no monuments no archives, no way to remember our dead. I will create memorials.”
The poems of Tuffaha and Naomi Shihab Nye in this issue are both asking questions about the politics of perception. Who gets seen? Acknowledged? “What does it mean,” Nye writes in “Netanyahu,” “when one person thinks/others deserve nothing? What is that called? If you know what it is called why keep/doing it?”
In an interview in the Huffington Post about her recently published book Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs, theoretical physicist Lisa Randall says something similar about the implications of dark matter for the nature of human perception. Though dark matter is not visible to the human eye, she writes, it’s “essential to the structure and formation of the universe.” This fact helps “to illuminate the gap between our limited observations and the many barely perceived phenomena that permeate our reality…Race and class differences call for empathy largely because of our difficulties in understanding what we can’t experience or see, including the often hidden cultural forces that animate other people and their communities.” The “Black Lives Matter” movement had been in existence two years when Dark Matter was launched last November and it seemed to me at the time there was a strong subliminal connection between the two. Randall’s words make that connection explicit.
In recognition of the fact that when it comes to erasure and extinction, the line between the human and the nonhuman animal is not always easy to draw, that there are categories of humans who are still treated like nonhuman animals (see Tuffaha’s poem “Arrest”), our focus broadens with this issue to include extinction in the human realm. Our primary dedication, however, continues to be to the more-than-human world that is bearing the brunt of our civilization’s industrial and technological success—a fact that tends to be ignored by humans, even spiritually developed humans dedicated to social justice. In Auschwitz, my attempts to bring up the parallels to ecocide that kept presenting themselves to me were often met with indifference, if not resentment. (Which is why I was so happy to learn of Buddhist nuns who have taken on the issue of humans’ warped relationship to the earth – see my interview with Ayya Santacitta in “Listening to Natural Law.”) The astonishing inattention of the rest of the world is the driver of George Monbiot’s article in The Guardian about the “eco-apocalyptic fires” that have been raging across Indonesia since July: “The fires are destroying treasures as precious and irreplaceable as the archaeological remains being levelled by Isis, clouded leopards, sun bears, gibbons, the Sumatran rhinoceros and Sumatran tiger…” Monbiot writes that there are thousands or possibly millions more threatened species being driven from their habitat. The title of his article is “Nothing to See Here.”
“…aching for—seeking a word, some word(s) that might bear what we are knowing, and what we are yet desperate for. Desperate for safety? For peace? For better memories? Of course. What word will make our lives safe? I’m trying, as you are—to find it.”
– Margo Berdeshevsky
The above words are from notes to the poem-collage “Our Safe Word” which appears in this issue. They, and the poem, were written by a poet who lives in Paris— and they were written before the Paris attacks in November. Often, the most important part of our knowing, as human beings, is not conscious. Is dark matter. Even consciously, it seems we all know a whole lot more than we did just over a year ago when the first issue of this journal came out—and much of “what we are knowing” often seems difficult if not impossible to bear. Some days that knowledge seems to be pouring in, like the refugees at our gates, who also remind us at what cost we in the industrialized West have lived and continue to live the way we do.** For anyone willing to look, the dots are being connected. Here in Canada the just-released final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission determined that the residential school system established in the late 1880s caused the deaths of over 3,000 aboriginal children and the loss of countless languages, amounting to a “century of cultural genocide” whose legacy continues today. In the U.S., greed, racism and xenophobia have erupted to the surface like an angry boil. And, in reporting on the recent Paris climate summit, even mainstream sources were not denying that “Her Body is Burning.” (See Mary Sutton’s piece in this issue for a harrowing account of the way cultural disease can take up residence in a human body.)
Knowing what we know, how do we live? (“Knowledge and understanding are not remedy, we came to understand…” writes Deena Metzger in “Our Radiant Lives.”) This more than anything was the question that gave rise to this journal. Sharon English asks the question another way in her review of Taiaiake Alfred’s Wasáse. “How do we non-indigenous, who have no cultural connections outside of an imperialist system and thinking, recover an indigenous consciousness? What does it even mean for us to come home to this land? To root?” As if in answer to her question, Anne Bergeron writes, in “Calling out the Names”: “….saying all the names of the things I love is the beginning of breaking a deafening silence and rooting myself in my home, the earth.”
There are so many beautiful responses in this issue, so many forms of offering: setting out food, sitting in silence, singing, waterwalking, dancing, carrying story. Paying attention. “There are,” Cynthia Travis writes, “endless ways to show gratitude, or to notify the Spirits of our heartfelt commitment to live in active alliance with the natural or unseen world.” Most of these ways involve surrendering to what we don’t know: to dreams, to nonhuman intelligences. To dark matter. Even, in the case of Nora Jamieson in “I am Nothing Without my Dead,” to the voice of the “pitted earth”: “…the test pits, the uranium pit, the mined earth gouged with our longing. Out of the throat of the keening woman comes everything you did not know you longed for. Out of the throat of the keening woman comes everything we destroyed in our innocent desire for a good life.”
“Who is prepared to walk into darkness?” asks Lily Yeh. She is speaking most especially of Rwanda, where she built a genocide memorial. “There is unknown. You don’t know what’s lurking there. One doesn’t know whether one has the capacity to deal with the unknown…Yet when we are guided by our heart, when life beckons us, and when we are sensitive to the inner voice, and when we are brave enough to follow life’s calling, then wonders happen. Things unfold…” Ayya Santacitta and Megan Hollingsworth, in their interviews, also speak of leaving comfort behind, and safety, of entering the unknown. And of following their heart.
“When you’re lost,” Yeh says, “there are birds talking to you. There are animals pointing directions. There are people along the way helping us. We just have to be brave enough to listen to our heart, which has that wisdom, intuition, that evolved through millions of years. Nature’s evolution. A lot of time we don’t pay attention. We lose touch with that.”
How do we know? How do we live? In this issue, as has been so in every issue of Dark Matter so far, there are animals pointing directions. Perhaps nowhere more beautifully than in the only piece in this issue with a nonhuman narrator (Mei Mei Sanford’s “Serach bat Ascher speaks”): “We are so big and we touch each others’ mouths so gently with our trunks, we touch the songs in each others’ mouths.”
Montreal December 2015
\With this issue of Dark Matter, Kristin Flyntz steps into the role of Assistant Editor. Some of you know her as the author of “Grieving with the Elephants,” which appeared in our first issue. In what follows she makes her editorial debut, writing of extinction and devotion and what this journal has meant to her.
July, 29, 2015
It is night and a gusty wind blows. I am on my front porch, trying to get into the house, but the small silver key I use doesn’t fit the lock. I look behind me and up. Above the tops of the tallest pine trees, an elephant trunk waves against the night sky. I cannot see the elephant, only its trunk, but the elephant must be enormous for its trunk to reach so high. Simultaneously, to the left of the elephant’s trunk, there are pictures/images in the sky, as if a film is being projected onto the backdrop of darkness. The ground shakes… something huge is coming. I am taken by the sight of the trunk. My stomach clenches at the trembling of the earth. I see a small stack of books wrapped in waxy brown paper and string; they have an “old” feeling about them.
The next evening, I saw a Facebook post announcing that on August 1, images of endangered species would be projected onto the Empire State Building as part of a project called Racing Extinction. The creators hoped the scale of the event would raise awareness about the illegal animal trade, which is driving many species to the brink of extinction. It would take place during a week when the world responded in outrage and grief to the unconscionable murder of Cecil, a beloved African lion, by an American dentist. In Kenya, President Obama had spoken out against the illegal ivory trade that is decimating elephant populations.
After a day of anticipation, I watched the event via live-stream on my computer. Cecil’s image lit up the south side of the building, and was followed by numerous others: elephant, tiger, whale, snow leopard; birds whose names I do not know, frog, insect, coral bloom; creatures of land, sea and sky. Caught in a roving spotlight, an ape, reminiscent of the iconic scene in the film, “King Kong”, climbed the building and set off a psychedelic display of light and color in which the painted faces of indigenous people seemed to shapeshift and dissolve into animal visages. It was audacious, in its way, and a spectacular technical feat. Yet it left me unmoved, really, but for my gratitude for what its creators were trying to accomplish on behalf of the animals.
The next day, I told the dream to friends, and said I believed it was connected to the event in NYC. Animals often come to me in my dreams, and it is not unheard-of for me to “get the news” in my dreams before I receive it in waking life. I believe the animals want us to know what is happening—to them, to all life. I spoke of the small, simple bundle of books in the dream, bound in brown paper and with string. Books used to be our source of knowledge and wisdom, and now we employ high-tech, computer-generated, visual feasts for the eyes (“weapons of mass instruction,” according to the event’s creators) to engage and expand our minds. How things have changed.
Later, I thought again about the bundle of books, and replayed the dream in my mind. It occurred to me that long before we learned from books, our wisdom came from being in and of the real world, the natural world, with all its teachers and lessons seen and unseen—with its dreams, signs and experiences, lived and felt. And then there was the key that would not grant me entry to the house, mandating that I stay out in the night and wind. Only outside could I see the enormity of the elephant, which was not part of the “projection,” but the real thing, larger than life. A friend with whom I shared the dream said her first reaction was to the key, which she saw not as a key to the house, but “to the kingdom”—the wild kingdom, the domain of all creatures great and small.
What does it say, or mean, that in order to capture collective attention and raise awareness of what is at stake, we must resort to tactics such as a digital display on the Empire State Building? Is not the reality, which seems to find new and more horrific ways to express itself every day, profound enough? The exhibit’s images were powerful, but they were representations of the endangered animals, flat and one-dimensional, shot through with interior lights from the building’s offices, taken out of their natural context, and dimmed by the ambient glow of an overpopulated city powered by fossil fuels. They were largely viewed through the lenses of cell phones and cameras that further distance us from the animals and our complicity in their jeopardy, as well as our own.
What might we feel if we were to witness the lone silhouette of a real elephant, a great giant, trumpeting against the night sky—whether out of grief or pride or love for his mate —and know, really know, that he is one of the last of his kind? What would it be to stand with our bare feet on the earth, and feel the ground tremble with the heaviness of each step as he walks away forever into the fog of our memories? How long would it be, in our current world and our current minds, before we forgot him entirely? What reverberations would be caused by his loss? Can we even begin to imagine? I cannot.
Elephants can communicate with each other across many miles, through vibrations that travel through the earth. Underground. They can feel each other, speak to each other, even if they can’t see each other.
This is what Dark Matter is to me—the essential, visceral, heartfelt connection that was missing from the display on the Empire State Building. It is a pulsing, underground communication, an energetic resonance—the signal of a movement, an affirmation of life and lives moving toward the possibility of restoration—and they are not all human. It is an ear to the ground, nostrils flared to catch a wind-borne scent, a full-throated cry into the night sky seeking someone or something to receive it. It is the cellular memory of whale song, the darkness that makes visible the light of the full blue moon, a smouldering ground fire that torches illusion and ignites remembering, a wind that carries stories like seeds and sows them in unforeseen places under the cover of night.
I pray that the elephants and all our kin know we are listening for them—and for each other—in all the ways we know to do, and in hopes of learning other ways, perhaps with their help. Even as my heart breaks, again and again, for the state of the world, it is full of gratitude for the inspired vision and sacred offering that is Dark Matter. I am equally grateful to and for the women who are bringing such difficult and beautiful contributions to the circle that has been cast. I read them as they come in, and marvel at the tapestry of voices, images and stories they weave. It is also a web, a web threaded with stunning and terrible truths, grief and love—a web that can help to hold all that needs holding. It is certainly holding me.
West Granby, Ct.
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