You are about to enter an experiment. This retrospective issue and the editorial that follows are part of an attempt to align this journal more fully with its original mission—to be a gathering place, a seedbed of conversation, and a living breathing organism. (For more about why this format and this issue see the letter that went out to subscribers in our Nov 14th, 2017 email.) A condition of publication for each of the pieces collected here was that the writer had to acquaint herself with all the other material in the issue and then participate in a conversation with the other contributors. There were eight of us on the line when we convened via Zoom on a Sunday afternoon in late November—the six authors, Kristin and I.
In the course of that conversation, for the first time since launching the journal in 2014, I could feel each of the articles in it receiving the attention and the enthusiasm it deserved. But not only that: it felt as if we were all participating in a process that mirrored the kinship theme to which these two issues of Dark Matter were devoted. One of the contributors wrote afterwards: “It felt to me like being in a chambered nautilus or a linguistic gyroscope. There were clear threads, lines, vibrations, winding us out and back, out and back, again and again…we were part of an interconnected web of living, breathing ideas, linking all animate beings.”
What follows is an edited version of our conversation. We began by identifying some of the common themes that unite these seven pieces.
Lise: I am struck by the affinity between the first and the last pieces in this issue. One of the things I admired so much about Great Tide Rising is the way Kathleen Moore manages to break through the layers of denial, of oblivion, of collusion that sit in all of us, and get us to feel with her about what we are all witnessing—the losses we are sustaining on this planet: “the places and creatures that will never return.” And in “There’s a Wilding Inside: Theater: Ritual and Biophilia,” Karen says something similar about her plays—that in them she is trying to get us to feel, to wake us up: “In the back-and-forth exchanges between characters facing the extremes of modernity, an intensity of thought and feeling might be reached that allows expulsion from the collective mind of wearying numbness, a breaking-through to a vision, momentary, fragmentary, nevertheless real and embodied…”
Andrea: All of us are ringing a real wake-up bell with many different tones. Although the styles are different, all the writings come from a sense of our passionate heart-centered connection with the earth. All of them are inviting people to something richer and deeper in themselves.
Anne: After having read all these pieces I have not only the writers’ voices in my being but also a frog, the starry skies at night, the whales, the Solomon seal plants, the cat who awakened Nancy at such a young age. I think of the characters in Karen’s play (Extreme Whether, excerpted in “There’s a Wilding Inside”) watching the night sky and reacquainting themselves with the constellations or the crab devouring the human body in Sharon’s dream (“Nourishing the Future”). I just found the kinship with the nonhuman world very profound. Also this idea that what we feel called to do is simply to be present with it and open to it and understand when we’re being communicated with. Made me think of needing to fine-tune my perception on a constant basis because there is so much experience I’m missing.
Jaime: So often when we’re trying to connect with the natural world the first or the easiest step we take is to anthropomorphize everything and then to love it because it feels like us. I felt all of these pieces in one way or another were moving beyond that. To see a stone as a stone—or, at the end of the chorus in Karen’s play: “.. bees live the same way in captivity or in the wild…” (The Beekeeper’s Daughter, also excerpted in her essay). I loved that so much. Humans aren’t that way, you know—we adapt to our place, for better or worse. There is so much to honor and respect about unhumanness that we could actually learn from if we could absorb some of it.
Karen: Over Thanksgiving people were at our house, close writer friends, and I was telling the story of the grey whales in Nancy’s piece (“Saved by Whales”), how they come to the boats, in the very same lagoons where they were once trapped by whaling boats, and how according to Nancy they have chosen to forgive us. I was so moved by this. One of the guests, a longtime feminist activist, said “how does she know?” She’d been reading about the destruction of indigenous settlements in California, and had been feeling very unforgiving about the white settlers. Well I didn’t have an answer.
Lise: I had a similar experience with my family at Thanksgiving. I brought up the whales, the trip I was on with Nancy to Baja last March, and when I mentioned some of the messages Nancy got from the whales my sister, who`s an animal studies scholar, wanted to know if she got them online.
Nancy: I hear that kind of skepticism commonly in my work. I feel it comes from our sense of separation as a species from the rest of life. And even though it comes with an aggressive “how could you know” or “how does she get that?” underneath it I think there’s a longing. That sense of separation is actually very painful. I try to remember this when faced with those kinds of challenges. As for the specific question about forgiveness, I think it’s a good question. How do we know? The fact is that some of the whales who approach humans in this way, who bring their young and invite this kind of contact, have harpoon scars on their bodies. They’re whales who were physically alive during whaling times and they know what was done to them. It’s also possible that forgiveness in the way we understand it as humans is unique to our species. It may be that nonhumans don’t experience the level of resentment and guilt and those kinds of emotions that humans do.
Anne: I was struck by the word “refugia” in Lise’s writing about Great Tide Rising. And what Moore said about aligning our ethics with the ways of the earth and changing our ideas about what it means to be human. When I think of an animal scientist not wanting to go into the realm of animal communication, that’s an old (as in outmoded) way… whereas these ideas, though they return us to our ancient roots, are so young. Maybe what we need to do is create these little “refugia,” little pockets in the blast zone, to nurture them, shelter them.
Lise: I love thinking of it that way. Because these thoughts do need sheltering, they’re vulnerable when we’re around people who are more cerebral.
Andrea: When I’ve held workshops on communing with nature I’ve asked people to introduce themselves by sharing an experience of their connection with nature that stands out for them. The shyness with which people speak about something that many of them never put into words before because they would have felt shame at saying it in a public arena brings an immediate feeling of sacredness in the room. It’s our whole culture that doesn’t allow us to speak of the luminosity of nature. It’s a shamed, hidden part of most of our psyches. Which is one of the reasons Dark Matter is so precious.
Sharon: Andrea, one of the things that struck me about your piece (‘Listening for the Long Song”) was at the very end when you write of the power of witnessing each person’s communion with nature, and how important that is to strengthening their confidence in speaking what they know. We live in a culture where we’re scoffed at for what we know, what we’ve experienced. It’s outrageous that we’re all made to feel this kind of repression and shame for what’s really our way of being part of the diversity of a world in which everything is always in communication. I inhabit an academic world much of the time and am constantly silent about things I don’t want to be silent about.
Jaime: I’ve been nodding my head as you’re talking, Sharon. Many of us work in universities or in academia and we’re subtly and sometimes not so subtly encouraged to not trust intuition and to believe that logic is superior to emotion. It’s a cerebral space. It’s also a very masculine space that honors technology over nature and a lab over a walk in the forest. Whereas…. we can learn a whole lot scientifically from that walk in the forest.
Nancy: I want to say two things. First, how much this way of being with the natural world is actually our birthright; the shame is around something that is innately ours. I do think it has to do with ways of knowing that at least in our culture are repressed. And there’s a female way of knowing that is particularly repressed by our dominant patriarchal culture which is why it feels so important that this is a women’s journal. Second, I’m so struck by all the different ways each of you has found to be in resonance with the nonhuman world and then the different ways you’ve found to share that through your writing. There are so many different ways that we can listen, and hear.
Karen: I hear what you’re saying about women’s ways of knowing but I also think love of nature is a way of connecting across patriarchal lines. In my environmental justice classes I always start with a chapter from Thomas Berry’s The Great Work called “The Meadow.” Berry understood that what was good for the meadow was good for the world. That became his bedrock ideology. And James Hansen, possibly the most important climate scientist in America, when he saw Extreme Whether, which was inspired by his life, his response was: “The most important thing about it is the love of nature. You can’t expect people to understand these longterm effects that will unfold over decades unless they love nature.”
Lise: That’s just the heart of everything isn’t it? And at the beginning of your essay, Karen, you talk about tragedy being born from our communion with nature. Somehow I graduated with a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature without ever having learned that.
Anne: Hansen’s comment makes me think of what Andrea writes at the end of her piece about yin listening: “Whatever is not witnessed with love tends to wither.” I was really interested in that concept of listening as an ancient human capacity we’ve lost, and which might be part of a more present state of being.
Karen: I find listening and forgiving both so difficult and so important.
Jaime: This summer I did a ten-day silent retreat in nature and one of the things the teacher said almost daily was “We can tell you how to be silent and listen forever but you won’t get it until you experience it.”
Karen: Well that is what art is. Jaime’s poem about singing to the seedling (“The Seedlings”) helps me have that experience for myself. The poem gave me the experience. Art is not about trying to change people’s minds, it’s about trying to give people an experience so they say “yeah I’ve known that,” or “I want to experience that.” I think that’s where art and nature are connected…
Kristin: Recently a friend and I were talking about how polarized we’ve become in the U.S, how intractable in our views. My friend said “You’re never going to change a world view with evidence. You can only change it with stories.” I think the experiences you’re talking about can be the gateway to new stories about how to live in relationship with the earth and nonhumans. For me, some of the most profound experiences that have really facilitated a change in my own thinking have come through dreams.
Also, when I think of Karen’s Thanksgiving conversation and Anne’s comment about scientists who are not willing to go into the realm of animal communication, it’s interesting to me that such a conversation would occur on Thanksgiving day— when for most of us in white Western culture there is no acknowledgement of what was extincted, or nearly so, so that we can enjoy the lives we’re giving gratitude for. I’m talking of course of indigenous cultures but also an indigenous way of living that understood what it means to be in communication with animals… I think some of what is emerging from Dark Matter is a remembering of what it is to be a true human being. There’s an element of restoration, of reclamation.
Nancy: What Sybil says in Karen’s play The Beekeeper’s Daughter: “In times long ago, people used to understand the language of bees but now we’ve forgotten how to understand them.”
Lise: Right. I do think that’s a lot of what Dark Matter is about. And to go back to what Jaime and Karen were saying about experience, I have to say something about Anne’s essay “Winter.” I love winter so much and it’s just not what it was when I moved here (to Montreal) twenty-seven years ago. Oh did this piece make me experience that. Both deep winter and the loss of deep winter. She writes “I feel this loss as grief, as for someone I love, with whom I feel intimate.” Exactly.
Sharon: Yes, and at the end of the essay Anne writes about ancient people knowing they had to participate in ensuring that the sun would return. That reminded me of Andrea’s “Whatever is not witnessed with love tends to wither.” It’s something that comes up over and over again in these writings. Love is the glue, the life force, the way communication happens. In Nancy’s piece there’s a line about love and awareness being the same thing. I think this is just terribly important as we “unmake ourselves,” to use Jaime’s phrase. Maybe that’s why we don’t understand how whales can forgive. Maybe it’s part of the love/awareness we’ve lost.
Lise: So interesting—“unmaking” is Jaime’s term, but it’s what your dream enacts in such an astonishing way. Unmaking and then making.
Sharon: I see dissolution of boundaries between the human and the nonhuman happening in all of the pieces.
Lise: Yes but perhaps not as graphically as in your dream. And in your commentary you write: “Our sacred task now is to dissolve pride of ‘first place’ and lordship, to give over our old identities on behalf of the law of creation.”
Andrea: In Jaime’s poem “Yaquina at Low Tide” she says there’s no word for the distance between the natural urges of the sea creatures around her “and my urge to pitch into their world/and unmake myself.” I love that. I found it, like all your poems, achingly beautiful.
Nancy: “You are alive in a way/ I am not alive/ so I sing to you.” That line (In “Seedlings”) makes me want to weep every time I read it. “And so I sing… ”
A long pause here…
Lise: Well that pretty naturally takes us to “Listening for the Long Song.” I have to say this essay truly restructured me. I know I listen way too much to cacophony and static. Anne was talking about the need to fine-tune our perception and listen in, and that’s exactly what this piece helps us to do.
Jaime: I was so moved by this: “Whenever I feel heartbroken about the state of the world I try to remember the wisdom of the ancient Georgian Bay stones. The web may be broken but the long song continues.”
Lise: “Things that are broken apart are still connected.” Those are the words Andrea hears from those stones. And it’s just now occurring to me that it`s the language of kinship, of connectedness, that we’re made fun of for speaking. That’s part of the reason it’s so hard for us to see that thread of connection.
Nancy: I keep going back to the message that comes from the whale in Andrea’s dream: “We need your hearts and brains, you need our ways of knowing.” It seems they need us also.
Sharon: Ah yes… back to what it means to be a human being. The gifts we have to offer to all life. There’s such shame around what humanity has done to the earth. So the idea that we might really have something to offer the world that isn’t just another tech product for ourselves… is novel.
Lise: All of you in these pieces are trying to find a different way to be human. It’s the desperate task before all of us now, isn’t it. And we learn it from nonhumans.
Jaime: I just have to say something about Sniffley the frog who dies in Karen’s play (—Extreme Wheth/er—). The irony of the humans digging a pond for him when he obviously once had one of his own until we poisoned it. The cycle of destruction and repair. I loved Sniffley.
Anne: I loved the uncle’s idea that we’re breathing him in, that he’s now of us and we’re of him. It clearly flips on its head the cultural idea of what death is. “We are no more alone. We become. Enough. Being is.”
Nancy: What I get from Karen’s essay is a deep current of understanding that how we show up for each other, other humans, other species—for suffering, horror, destruction, death—is also what unites us… being willing to cultivate the capacity to be with that which cannot be spoken or held in full consciousness in so much of our world.
Lise: And what Annie says about Sniffley in her eulogy is so close to what you, Nancy, say you learned, first from your cat, and then from the whales, about dropping down into a place of awareness and presence…
Maybe we can give Annie/Sniffley the last word?
“Sniffley listened. This is a quality of soul most rare in humans. Sniffley looked out at the universe with a clear gaze. He wanted nothing more than to be. This is what I learned from Sniffley: I was seen and I was heard. I was. I am. Sniffley was. He/she/me/birl/Sniffley-boy-girl, the world is far more precious for you lived.”
Montreal, January 2018
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