EDITORIAL: Buried Seeds in Burning Times*

From our Call for Submissions: We are living a moment in which planetary concerns converge acutely with the concerns of this journal. It’s a moment that feels dark to many of us and is uncertain for all of us, that has exposed much that was buried before, a moment in which we can no longer deny that we live in bodies and that the health of our bodies cannot be separated from the health of our social and eco-systems Dark Matter: Women Witnessing was made for this moment of knowing and unknowing.

We want to know: What is coming up for you in this moment? What buried thoughts/feelings/knowings are rising to the surface? Perhaps re-emerging? What dreams? In this new time-space, what is stepping forward?

On August 27, seven of the authors who responded to this call and appear in this issue came together for a ZOOM conversation.

Lise: Maybe we should start with some context. The confluence of events occurring in this moment. The historic hurricane that’s bearing down right now on Louisiana and Texas, record wildfires in Northern California1In issue #10 Leonore Wilson wrote of her refusal to leave her beloved ranch when fires threatened it in 2017. We are very sorry to report that it has fallen victim to the Hennessy fire., “an overwhelming fire siege” someone called it, and it’s just the beginning of the fire season there, the horror show of the RNC which is finishing up tonight, and the series of events in Kenosha: yet another black man shot at by police for no reason, two protesters shot by a Trump supporter… All that’s just in the U.S.. Am I leaving anything out?

Jane: The pandemic.

Lise: Oh yes, the pandemic. The reason we’re all gathered here tonight. What on the surface, at least, prompted all of the writing in this issue. For some of you the writing happened mostly before the pandemic, but you were writing about it without knowing it…

Kristin: It has been a long time since an issue has so affected me emotionally. Every single one of the pieces moved me deeply. Really took me some place.

Lise: I love that each of them is in a completely different register if not genre. And Jane’s Call your Mutha which came in at the end and which is so scholarly, so stuffed with sources, just rounded it all out. Sometimes it felt as if you were all saying the same thing in different languages.

Jane: I’m moved and proud to be involved. Anne wrote about her dream of the women in the trees. “…they spoke a language I knew but didn’t know.” I’ve had similar dreams since childhood and in my book I write, “…they spoke a language I didn’t know, but I understood what they were saying.” A confirmation that this reality is right here, we’re just blocked from it…

Andrea: That’s the beauty of an assembly like this. You feel everyone has taken a pearl dive way down deep and brought up jewels and when we’re together we have a chance to feel the collective call that prompted all our writing. I was so moved by every piece it was just like another voice of the Great Mother or the earth. The last thing I read was my own piece—and I read it differently after reading all of you.

Anne: Lise, I want to thank you for the catalogue of the things we need to witness that are happening at this time. The forces out there that run counter to a lot of our perceptions and intuitions and dreams and desires. I felt as I was reading… whether it was the beautiful folding of the paper cranes and the story of Sadako (1000 Gifts of Decolonial Love), which I knew but hadn’t thought about in so long, or the story of Lilith (Lilith’s Return)… to be able to witness horror on the one hand and then to find this other counterpoint of great beauty in dreams in poetry in divination and in exciting new academic realms…mystic somatic pairings. I feel our capacity to hold it all is enhanced by our witnessing of each other.

JuPong: I echo a lot of what you said. Just today I was asked to give feedback on marketing for an event I’m helping to organize “Creative Women Leading Climate Action.” The colors were kind of the colors of fire but the images didn’t call up the energy of fire. What’s really striking to me in this moment is that fire in the natural cycle is healthy it’s regenerative, it’s how the forest retains its own ecosystem and health. It’s humans’ inability to see that property of fire. We grew up with Smokey the Bear, fearful of fire. There’s this thread I see in the writings —embracing the fierce duality of natural forces that are both constructive and destructive. One person used the word “de-structuring” which I really love. It’s that duality and the ability to stay in that place of contradiction and accept that that is life. Life. Death. Love is fierce. I loved that in the Lilith piece and in the Muthafucker piece.

Kim: The piece I wrote (Shelter) began because of a hike I took in the Cascades up to a fire hut that’s been in the National Fire Service since the Second World War. We tried to control the wildfires and stamp them out and it’s actually rebounded because naturally occurring fires have helped to clear spaces and new plants come in, and that speaks to Shante’’s piece: the seeds need some kind of death to germinate. Then there’s regeneration. The governing metaphor for the piece I wrote is serotiny: some seeds will germinate only if they encounter some kind of severe force. Again, a kind of death that leads to a new kind of life…

Lise: Anne’s pandemic diary also ends with seeds.

Anne: I was with a forester friend and she asked if I’d ever eaten a seedling. I ate one, tasted it. It’s that little slip of thread and stem and two tiny leaves that first pop out of the maple seed that flutters down in the fall. It struck me, in the midst of all this emerald ash death, that a strong understory could really make a difference. What’s beneath the ground, what we don’t see, could make way for new life.

Shante’: Anne, I was crying reading about you and the ash tree. The space that opened up. And also I was really struck, Kristin, by the time on the porch and just that looking and being with the land there. What does it mean to look again at where we are?

Lise: Yes…as in the end of Kim’s poem: “I mean attention as a moral act. To see/the radical alterity of things which are ultimately dark and withdrawn/O blue clay of flesh. O dark-eyed junco… To be vigilant./To know what it is possible to know of this other being/apart in its own being…”

Andrea: One of the things that was a theme for me throughout these pieces was ritual. Organic ritual. Anne, one of your rituals was stacking the wood in your grief (Pandemic Diary). In JuPong’s poem, the folding of the cranes, the 1,000 cranes, for prayers—and then telling us where those acts of specific attention and intention were going. And Shante’, your body rituals—the curling in you described in referencing Liz Koch’s work (Collapse as Medicine…) And Kristin, your time on the porch (Imagined Letter from COVID-19). It’s as though we are writing from the place where the ritual is happening and that’s what gives strength and authenticity to the writing.

Kim: In Alexandra’s Quarantine Lamentations there’s an element of liturgy with the repetition of words at the beginning and end of each stanza. Dust, waves, salt, ash and lilac. Dirt and roses, silver, grease and skin— it reminded me of liturgy, ritualistic language.

Lise: Yes! In her working notes she says she would hear lists of earth words on her walks, never in sentences. Just lists. Those were the seeds from which the poem sprang.

Kim: In Kristin’s imagined letter, the virus is not something negative necessarily, but something natural that has stepped forward because of our incursion into wild spaces. Viruses are really interesting. There are debates over whether they’re alive. They exist on the cusp of life. They don’t generate their own energy and have to reproduce in another body. But they’re also capable of horizontal gene transfer—not only from one generation to another—so they can regenerate and respond in a very rapid away across species. So I’ve been thinking about SARS CoV-2 as a seed in its own way, which can generate new life forms which may or may not be sympatico with humans because it evolves rapidly in ways humans don’t. That model of horizontal gene transfer is so interesting—it suggests to me that we might also be able to leap sideways and evolve in ways that are necessary. Because we’re clearly coming up against a very hard wall.

Lise: What’s so interesting to me about that imagined letter, which came through Kristin one morning in a matter of minutes and then went on to have such tremendous circulation, in the millions, on social media—is that if you read that letter and then hear what Kim just said or if you read, say, Jane’s working notes about the virus: the science completely backs up the poetry!

Kim: I was thinking, Jane, about what you say in your notes: that “pandemics, climate change, and extinction…are the planet’s intelligent response to disruption and violation, a kind of rebalancing, albeit one that alters the patterns that have sustained human existence.” I was thinking about the “Mutha” and wondering how you link it or not to something like Lovelock’s Gaia or earth systems.

Jane: It’s definitely connected, although I don’t think they really grant Earth the kind of autonomy or intelligence that we do. The Gaia idea just never really moved me in the same way that thinking of the Mutha moved me. What’s happening now is absolutely evidence of man’s depredations, but it’s also the planet withdrawing energy. It’s not because the destroyers, the ones I am calling the motherfuckers, are so godlike and powerful. It’s because the planet has turned away and is no longer so committed to maintaining the systems that sustain human existence. This is because so many humans, especially those of us invested in radical individualism and Western ways of doing and thinking and feeling, are not putting our energies back into the Earth. We’re supposed to be paying moral attention to the Mutha – replenishing the source as Wangari Maathai puts it—or as I put it, “feeding the green that feeds us.”

Lise: You write at the end of your notes: “To call the ‘Mutha’ is to call as in to cry out… to tell the truth about what is going on, to attract attention, to ask forgiveness, to implore help, to pay what we owe…” But in Lilith’s Return there’s a different twist. Lilith says she needs someone to listen to her—as Andrea did—that she actually needs human consciousness.

Andrea: Yes…what I understand from Lilith is there is a deep desire to merge with human consciousness. There is a spark in our human consciousness that she’s calling forth out of us. In your piece, Jane, you’re talking about conjuring the connection. She’s pulling, we’re conjuring. There’s a meeting, a forceful intention on both sides. But it’s not at the level where our consciousness currently is…

Lise: Oh, but it’s where the writings in this issue go… no?

Andrea: Yes, we are strengthening the web of that consciousness so it has more tensile integrity.

Jane: I love the line, “I am breath and rotting mould.” It’s our consciousness but it’s also our unconsciousness. We have to resist these binaries, when so much of our writing comes from the dark.

JuPong: I’ve been aware of holding the idea of interbeing (Thich Naht Hanh) I mean on a very practical level. Our voices are just grasping for that sense of interbeing, which is the real world—what is underneath and in between and holding us together. But we spend most of our conscious lives thinking the Republicans are horrible…I know I do. If we truly felt we were interbeings it would be like we were shooting ourselves in the leg or cutting off an arm. We are they and they are us and the task is to get to the place where we actually believe and can somatically feel that.

Lise: You mean we can’t just stay with us and the earth? We really have to go there?

JuPong: (laughs) It’s my big challenge.

Lise: But isn’t the problem that they’re closed off? The ultimate acorns—to use Shante’’s metaphor.

Shante’: My sense is that it’s through the connections to the depths, to the wider body of the earth that we can then bring that ground to people. Again and again in my life lately there’s this theme of urgency—people needing things because there’s an urgency. That ability to lean back into slow time and this other way of moving and sensing opens up… not this choice or that choice but what is the tension between them. Or Andrea with Lilith: that fluid state she’s inviting. I’ve been really enjoying Liz Koch’s work. She writes about fluid movement. Before the nervous system, there’s the fluid system and it has a completely different kind of intelligence and a way of reshaping things that isn’t fully material. Something else is happening.

Anne: We’re not even really humans, we’re these atomic beings like every other atomic being and the separateness we feel from a tree or a mushroom or a petal or a leaf is not real. It’s not out there, it’s in here.

Jane: Thich Naht Hanh would say if the bombs were not inside us they wouldn’t be out in the world, so I have to ask if Mike Pence is in me….

To me there is something about the motherfucker word itself that’s a seed that bursts open—with these two seemingly distinct but parallel intertwined-like-DNA strand paths. It both explains the basic motivation or drive—the sexual violence—behind the destruction, but also the indomitable force that is beyond that destruction: the Mutha. And how the word changed to evolve that definition. I find that kind of stunning.

Anne: I kind of have always loved that word and I didn’t know why.

Lise: As someone who has convened these gatherings now several times, I have to say that She, the Mutha, has never been so much the center of it. Lately I am hearing from many different sources that this is the time of Her return.

Jane: Well, my book is saying she’s gone away.

Andrea: Both things are true. Shante’ writes about the third body: “the relational field emerging between bodies is the soul of the relationship.” I think we’re coming to know how that really feels. It is really the glue the Muthafucker’s working on. I think all we have to do is surrender to the fire of that as writers, as thinkers, as dreamers. Let it use us in marvelous ways.

Kristin: I was thinking back to the early days of the pandemic and how we were learning so much so fast and seeing how the virus affected everyone differently. I almost feel there is a similar level of infection or manifestation happening for us as writers. The virus infected us—maybe not in that it took us down with illness—but things were manifested as a result, and it was very different for each one of us. So the potentiality of what the virus is ushering in sits right alongside what is being brought down through illness and death.

Andrea: I love the question in JuPong’s poem: “for whom do you fold?” For whom do we fold?

JuPong: A lot of that poem felt like prayer or ritual. It’s been evolving for several years. Now I’m doing a series and the first two have instructions for folding canoes or boats. I fold them with joss paper which is paper that’s burned in honor of ancestors in Asian cultures (showing us her folded canoes). I’m really interested in ways that artists are trying to visualize data—how to embody data so it’s not just a bunch of numbers. I’ve been wondering…how many rhinos are there left? How many cranes of this type? This is my way of commemorating these species that could go extinct. Then after the installation they should be burned in honor of our animal ancestors.

Anne: At the end of Andrea’s piece, Lilith says, “I serve the unmaking.” When I hear you’re going to fold these in honor of the rhinos—and those canoes are exquisite—and then burn them, unmake them, what is the power one unleashes when a creation can then be unmade? Not “destroyed” but “unmade.”

Andrea: I think it comes back again to “for whom do we fold?” Because that’s the power that drives the unmaking. I’ve been doing “Burning Time” consultations with people. The first question I bring is “what is your core passion? What is the non-negotiable burning in you right now? What you cannot turn away from?” The second part of is “What is readying in you to be burnt away?” If those are not both burning freely then there’s no power for real transformation. It’s interesting because some people don’t know what the non-negotiable thing is: for whom do you fold? And without that you’re just snarled. It’s what’s really burning you that undoes the rest.

Shante’: I was thinking that the practice of folding is honoring the long body and all the entanglements that get left out in this culture. That piece around polarization….when we get stuck in that small point we don’t feel the long body. So there’s something gorgeous about the ritual of folding. Burning to release it back to what is invisible. Make it visible for a moment and then release it again.

JuPong: Kristin observed in a way we’ve all been infected. That really struck me. How differently this virus shows up in each person. It just made me think—it’s very relational. Almost like this virus is out there making really different relationships with whomever it encounters. Some of us, though we haven’t been infected in a medical sense, have been infected by the all-pervasiveness of this being. I’m taking away from this conversation a real curiosity about where that’s going to take me.

* As of issue #6, our editorials have been edited versions of conversations between the principal contributors to the issue.

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