Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Just Listen


Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Meaning of the Sky

I've recently been reading several books by Tim Ingold, Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen in the UK. Ingold is one of those very rare thinkers who not only has a lively and infectious curiosity (and a formidable store of knowledge as well) about pretty much everything under the sun, but who also writes with clarity and a sense of humor and a poet's sensitivity to the rhythms and sounds of words. The first sentence of his amazing book Lines is "What do walking, weaving, observing, storytelling, singing, drawing, and writing have in common?" Those of you who have followed this blog for any length of time know that I am pretty deeply fascinated by the relationships between six of the seven items in the list (weaving being the outlier), and how all of them relate to the dynamics of thinking itself. Once in a while you find a book that seems to have been written expressly for you. Lines is that kind of book for me. I'm going to be mining it for a long time to come.

Today I came across this passage in his book Being Alive, in which he discusses with characteristic elegance our default assumptions about the sky and weather, and about how these phenomena might be understood from another (animic) perspective:

Sky, earth, and the weather

I mentioned earlier our propensity to suppose that the inanimate world is presented to life as a surface to be occupied.  Life, as we say, is lived on the ground, anchored to solid foundations, while the weather swirls about overhead. Beneath this ground surface lies the earth; above it is the atmosphere. In the pronouncements of many theorists, however, the ground figures as an interface not merely between earth and atmosphere but much more fundamentally between the domains of agency and materiality… this has the very peculiar consequence of rendering immaterial the medium through which many organisms and persons move in the context of their activities. Between mind and nature, persons and things, and agency and materiality, no conceptual space remains for those very real phemonena and transformations of the medium that generally go by the name of weather. This, I believe, accounts for the virtual absence of weather from philosophical debates on these matters. It is a result of the logic of inversion—a logic that places occupation before habitation, movement across before movement through, surface before medium. In the terms of this logic, the weather is simply unthinkable.

In the animic ontology, by contrast, what is unthinkable is the very idea that life is played out upon the inanimate surface of a ready-made world. Living beings, according to this ontology, make their way through a nascent world rather than across its preformed surface. As they do so, and depending on the circumstances, they may experience wind and rain, sunshine and mist, frost and snow, and a host of other weather-related phenomena, all of which fundamentally affect their moods and motivations, their movements and their possibilities of subsistence, even as these phenomena sculpt and erode the plethora of surfaces upon which inhabitants tread. For them, the inhabited world is constituted in the first place by the aerial flux of weather rather than by the grounded fixities of landscape. The weather is dynamic, always unfolding, ever changing in its currents, qualities of light and shade, and colours, alternately damp or dry, warm or cold, and so on. In this world the earth, far from providing a solid foundation for existence, appears to float like a fragile and ephemeral raft, woven from the strands of terrestrial life, and suspended in the great sphere of the sky. This sphere is where all the lofty action is: where the sun shines, the winds blow, the falls and the storms rage. It is a sphere in which powerful persons seek not to stamp their will upon the earth but to take flight with the birds, soar with the wind and converse with the stars. Their ambitions, we could say, are more celestial than territorial.

This is the point at which to return to the question I posed a moment ago, of the meaning of the sky, and of its relation to the earth. Consider the definition offered by my Chambers Dictionary. The sky, the dictionary informs us, is 'the apparent canopy over our heads.' This is revealing in two respects. First, the sky is imagined as a surface, just like the surface of the earth except of course a covering overhead rather than a platform underfoot. Secondly, however, unlike the earth's surface, that of the sky is not real but only apparent. In reality there is no surface at all. Conceived as such, the sky is a phantasm. It is where angels tread. Following what is by now a familiar train of thought, the surface of the earth has become an interface between the concrete and the imaginary. What lies below (the earth) belongs to the physical world, whereas what arches above (the sky) is sublimated into thought. With their feet on the ground and their heads in the air, human beings appear to be constitutionally split between the material and the mental. Within the animic cosmos, however, the sky is not a surface, real or imaginary, but a medium. Moreover this medium,  as we have seen, is inhabited by a variety of beings, including the sun and the moon, the winds, thunder, birds, and so on. These beings lay their own trails through the sky, just as the terrestrial beings lay their trails through the earth. The example of the sun's path has already been mentioned. But the winds, too, are commonly supposed to make tracks through the sky, coming from the quarters in which they reside. Nor are the earth and sky mutually exclusive domains of habitation. Birds routinely move from one domain to the other, as do powerful humans such as shamans. The Yup'ik Eskimos, according to Anne Fienup-Riodan, recognize a class of extraordinary persons who are so fleet of foot that they can literally take off, leaving a trail of wind-blown snow in the trees.

All of which put me in mind of this video (which I found out about from Stephen Sparks)  illustrating quite dramatically the virtual tracks that birds make through the sky:

Seagull Skytrails from Parker Paul on Vimeo.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014


          Thursday afternoon and the library is full of rumpled, damp old-timers in retreat from the soft, steady rain falling outside. The street is shiny and slick as the cars splash by. At the crosswalk by the coffee shop, a mother and her sober-eyed daughter stand squinting, then break for their car across the street, hands on their heads against the rain. Inside the coffee shop, a bald, portly man watches the rain, sips his coffee, and works intermittently on a crossword puzzle by his plate. A woman peddles her bicycle through the puddles, leaning forward, her dark hair shedding droplets of water. 

Process Reflection:

The other day I found a collection of poems by William Matthews in a second-hand store in town. It include his translations of some prose poems by Jean Follain to which I felt an immediate, intuitive connection. Yesterday I wound up typing the whole series out, trying to get a sense of what makes them work for me. Here's the first one in the series:

            On Easter Sunday the old man puts jewelry onto the wrists, ears, and neck of a long-haired woman.  Already hitched to the black and yellow carriage, the glistening bay mare whinnies.  A sailor sings by an engraving of the end of the world with Christ in the billowy heavens, the dead caught in their shrouds, leaving their graves.  Time fills up with a future that may be fearsome.  A child goes by on the road, wearing a motionless garter snake for a bracelet.  How hot this long day beginning a century will be!  Housebound, a deformed girl closes her blue eyes.
An old man. A horse. A sailor. A child on the road. A blue-eyed girl. There's something elemental and yet mysterious about the sequence. In this poem and others, Follain seems to be exploring the gap between what can be said, what can be enumerated, and what is necessarily elusive and must remain essentially mysterious. I thought I'd try a few of these. This is the first one.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Checking In

Funny how fast a couple of weeks can slide by. Last time I posted something here was eleven days ago. I've been writing; just not here. I've gone back to my Moleskine, which confers some freedoms while making others harder to exercise. The writing I do there feels more relaxed and less fraught, maybe because I know while I'm writing that the only one who is going to see it is me. But it also tends to be ultimately more impulsive and fragmented, because the kind of patient building and layering and re-shaping that I can do over the keyboard is much harder to do with just a pen.

I also circled back around and did a drawing over two days that harkens back stylistically to the series I was doing in late summer.


While it does bear a family resemblance to some of the others I've done along the way (see below), its architecture and temperament are uniquely its own. The combination of centripetal and centrifugal forces in the composition makes the piece feel pretty alive to me.

I started it by just just drawing and connecting the generally horizontal and vertical (and occasionally curved or diagonal) lines into a loosely structured grid, just black on white. The second step was to populate each area of the grid with some kind of shadowing, either by cross-hatching or by filling in areas with black. The last step was shade various blocks with one shade or another of brown ink. Total time invested on this one: maybe five hours. It's time that I consider well spent, even when, as sometimes happens, the experiment goes awry. There's something both calming and satisfying to me about working through the challenges that a drawing presents as I attempt to bring it to life on a blank piece of paper. It's an activity, like washing the dishes or sweeping the leaves off the sidewalk, that has a clear and concretely experienced beginning, middle, and end. And the result of the process is (most if not all of the time) visible progress. You can check that one off. It's done.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Where the Fingers Succeed

Writing is saying to no one and to everyone the things it is not possible to say to someone. Or rather writing is saying to the no one who may eventually be the reader those things one has no someone to whom to say them. Matters that are so subtle, so personal, so obscure, that I ordinarily can't imagine saying them to the people to whom I'm closest. Every once in a while I try to say them out loud and find that what turns to mush in my mouth or falls short of their ears can be written down for total strangers. Said to total strangers in the silence of writing that is recuperated and heard in the solitude of reading. Is it the shared solitude of writing, is it that separately we all reside in a place deeper than society, even the society of two? Is it that the tongue fails where the fingers succeed, in telling truths so lengthy and nuanced that they are almost impossible aloud?

          - Rebecca Solnit, from The Faraway Nearby, 64

I've been aware for a long time that I'm a different person on paper than I am in person. Or at least that my mind moves differently, and that what my mind serves up on paper is not the same as what comes out of my mouth when I'm in company. Perhaps it has something to do with pace: the words appear under my fingers one letter at a time, and as I type, I am frequently in free fall: I literally have no idea what is coming next, except that it is going to have to bear some relation to what has gone before. When I speak, I usually know what I am going to say; that's why I'm saying it. But when I write, I am most often writing my way into I know not what, which is, to me, sort of the point of writing: to find out both the what and the how. That's perhaps what William Stafford meant when he called writing "a reckless encounter with whatever comes along." This particular moment in this paragraph is a good example; I did not know even one minute ago that I would be writing these words in this way. (Nor did I  know that I would be citing the Stafford until I re-read what I had written earlier, at which point his phrase popped into my head, and I had to Google it to remember who had said it, and then I went back and stuck it in.) And so the writing proceeds, not in a strictly linear fashion, but in a kind of herky-jerky movement: forward, then back, then to the side, then back, then forward again. (*) There's a rhythm to it that changes as it goes along, a rhythm which includes pauses and changes of direction which are for the reader nowhere in evidence in the final product. One such pause is denoted by the asterisk. I had been typing along at a relatively even pace, and then became aware, as I approached the end of the sentence, that I had arrived at a fork in the road: there were a lot of places to go from there, and it took me some seconds during which I was NOT typing for my brain to register that fact and then choose (if choose is the right word, it was actually more of an impulse) to continue by addressing the topic of rhythm. (Another move, considered almost subliminally and discarded, might have been to address the way that the colons and the semicolons arrived in the preceding sentences, and how they influenced the unfolding of the thoughts. In which case I would have wound up citing not William Stafford, but Lewis Thomas, whose essay "On Punctuation" includes several passages that would have been apt.)
It's true that some of those same dynamics apply in conversation: one might begin to say something and then either swerve in mid-utterance or suddenly have an even better idea and leave the opening gambit behind. But it's harder to track those moves when you are in conversation, whereas when you are writing you have more time to process exactly what you are doing and bend the direction of the thought more deliberately. It would be much more difficult to simultaneously speak and monitor my speaking than it is to write and simultaneously monitor my writing. I'm sure there are some speakers who can do that to some degree, but for most of us if we want to see ourselves in action as speakers we need to get someone to videotape us and break it down in retrospect. Whereas in writing we can engage more immediately via (longish pause here to consider appropriate phrasing) self-reflection in process. 
That phrase, as it happens, is one of the more helpful definitions of critical thinking that I have run across, one that I have often shared with my students. It might be said that what I am doing here, in this essay, is to attempt to think critically about the questions that Solnit raises above, and that I am engaging in writing in order precisely because writing, as Solnit suggests, allows me to consider those questions more deliberately and in greater detail than I would be able to do if I were just to think about them, or talk about them. One of the core tenets of my teaching, such as it was, is that writing is the most powerful self-instructional tool we have as human beings. For all the reasons that Solnit suggests, and more.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

64 x 64 (The End of the Road)

We changed the clocks last night, and though it was sunny and warm today at 3:00, it was dark by 5:30. They were playing Christmas carols at the Mall today. This is the last post in the series of 64: the end of the road. A metaphor, but then the air is thick with them: the cold, the wind, the dark. Winter is coming.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

64 x 63 (Rebecca Solnit)

I've been reading Rebecca Solnit, first The Faraway Goodbye and now A Field Guide to Getting Lost. She is brilliant at weaving threads of ideas together in a way that is surprising and yet feels fluid and unforced. She's interested in the way the stories we tell ourselves define us both by what they include and (perhaps more importantly) by what they leave out.

Sample Quote (One of many I've been typing out as I read):

Darkness is generative, and generation, biological and artistic both, requires this amorous engagement with the unknown, this entry into the realm where you do not quite know what you are doing and what will happen next. Creation is always in the dark because you can only do the work of making by not quite knowing what you're doing, by walking into darkness, not staying in the light. Ideas emerge from edges and shadows to arrive in the light, and though that's where they may be seen by others, that's not where they're born. (185)