Making the invisible visible

Closing the gap between human and nonhuman

“There is a world alongside ours,” writes Richard Powers in the opening pages of his latest book, The Overstory. “Vast, slow, interconnected, resourceful, magnificently inventive, and almost invisible to us. This is the story of a handful of people who learn how to see that world and who are drawn up into its unfolding catastrophe.”

This world is no construct of the imagination, no occult matrix, rather something so familiar as to be—as Powers suggests—invisible. It is the forest. It is any one of the 900-odd varieties of forest that have been classified by humans, covering four billion hectares of the planet. From the tropics almost to the poles, forests are, says Powers, “Earth’s chief way of being.”

The genius of The Overstory is that the story itself is a forest. Everything is connected, everything signals to other entities, human and nonhuman, in the narrative terrain. The whole thing breathes, and breathes life.

Powers has said that it took him two years and hundreds of books to learn what he needed to know about the trees and forests he casts as characters in the book. And they are such surprising characters. “No strangeness stranger than the strangeness of living things,” writes Powers—and he populates the pages of The Overstory with a gorgeous trove of wonders.

Consider the Arbre du Ténéré, a solitary acacia in Niger what was the only tree for 400 km in any direction in the sands of Niger. So sacred was this tree that all Touarag camel caravaniers gathered around the tree before crossing the desert. In 1973, this “living lighthouse” was struck down by a drunk truck driver.

Consider Hura crepitans, the dynamite tree, which launches seeds from its exploding fruit at 260 km/h.

Consider the clonal aspens of Fishlake National Forest—47,000 trees that constitute a single genetic individual that occupies 43 ha of land in Utah, is estimated to weigh 6000 tonnes and may be a million years old. This extraordinary organism stopped growing 30 years ago due to human encroachment and interference.

Or reflect on the Achuar—the people of the palm tree—who “sing to their gardens and forests, but secretly, in their heads, so only the souls of the plants can hear. Trees are their kin, with hopes, fears, and social codes, and their goal as people has always been to charm and inveigle green things, to win them in symbolic marriage.”

Such is the strangeness and wonder of forests that when Daniel Rolander, one of Carl Linnaeus’s young apostles of the new system of classifying life, attempted an inventory of the forests of Suriname, the scale of the biodiversity he encountered drove him mad. One could almost go divinely mad devouring the crystalline detail in The Overstory—or perhaps come to one’s senses.

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In beauty, in beauty

US appoints first Native American poet laureate

Wolfgang Weber

Amidst a lot of bleak news coming out of the United States, something to celebrate: the appointment of Joy Harjo as poet laureate—the first Native American to be hold that post. Oklahoma born, she is of the Muscogee Creek Nation, and much of her writing addresses the social invisibility of America’s first people.

“My poems are about confronting the kind of society that would diminish Native people, disappear us from the story of this country,” she says.

Of the role of poetry in times of crisis, she says: “We’re at a very crucial time in American history and in planetary history. Poetry is a way to bridge, to make bridges from one country to another, one person to another, one time to another.”

Here is one of her poems to lift the spirit and inspire the reader to “take the utmost care and kindness in all things.”

Eagle poem

To pray you open your whole self
To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon
To one whole voice that is you.
And know there is more
That you can’t see, can’t hear;
Can’t know except in moments
Steadily growing, and in languages
That aren’t always sound but other
Circles of motion.
Like eagle that Sunday morning
Over Salt River. Circled in blue sky
In wind, swept our hearts clean
With sacred wings.
We see you, see ourselves and know
That we must take the utmost care
And kindness in all things.
Breathe in, knowing we are made of
All this, and breathe, knowing
We are truly blessed because we
Were born, and die soon within a
True circle of motion,
Like eagle rounding out the morning
Inside us.
We pray that it will be done
In beauty.
In beauty.

– Joy Harjo

A voice calling

Tiny Takū can teach the West about perseverance and the potency of utterance

Richard Moyle with Takū friends and a pet red-footed booby

Today E-Tangata publishes a story about ethnomusicologist Richard Moyle’s work on Takū, an atoll near Bougainville, said to be the last location where traditional Polynesian religion continues as an integral part of daily life.

The story draws on a conversation I had with Richard several weeks ago at his home on the Coromandel Peninsula, and also my reading of his most recent book, Ritual and Belief on Takū, and an earlier book, Songs From the Second Float.

Takū’s story is a fascinating one—a story of great hardship and remarkable perseverance. After surviving an epidemic in the 1890s that reduced the population to 11, the beleaguered islanders unwittingly sold their atoll to a foreign woman, a copra grower, who exercised a virtual dictatorship over their lives. She shifted the entire population from the main island, Takū, to a small islet, Kapeiatu. She merged the five island clans, abolished the privileges of clan elders and deprived them of a marae. They were denied access to traditional forms of food gathering and could not perform ritual activities.

As Richard writes, “A generation of children grew to adulthood, married and had children of their own while on Kapeiatu without participating in, or even witnessing, the exercise of traditional authority by clan elders through the complexities of religious ritual.” By 1930 the people had been stripped of much the cultural agency that bound them together as a functioning society.

Despite this huge disruption to their cultural life, the Takū islanders held to their traditions, and continue to do so, using ritual “to manage and neutralise their isolated atoll’s many vulnerabilities, contacting the spirit world through invocations, dreams, trance, singing and gifting to marshall their benign counterforces to work for private benefit and public good.”

This ritual life is not just a matter of pride of heritage and identity, but something much deeper. Without their beliefs and practices, the Takū believe they could not continue to physically exist. Without the presence and support of ancestral spirits, life would not just be pointless, but impossible.

Fundamental to their culture is the power of the spoken word. I think it is difficult, perhaps impossible, for us in cultures that prioritise the written word—as I am engaged in at this moment—to truly grasp what it is like to live in an oral culture, where utterance and invocation dominate.

Reading about Takū, I found myself thinking of something I read in the book Oceanian Journeys and Sojourns by Australian ethnogeographer Eric Waddell about the centrality of the spoken word in the Pacific. The right to speak, he writes, “belongs to all and to none at the same time. It comes from a long, a very long way away. It moves through people and generations; it changes shape, rhythm and speed, and accelerates or pauses, a little like a river flowing to the sea. It is suffused with rituals, lies on flowers, floats on the wind, hesitates a moment again, perching or alighting on the mouth of a human being. It changes and becomes the beating of drums, chants, sermons, conversations between panpipes. Both secret and shared, the ‘word’ stiffens and dries as soon as it is set down on paper, dying in footnotes, because it cannot survive as a fossilised body.”

In Takū, I hear a voice calling.

Whitman @ 200

Out of loneliness, rhapsody

Meteor storm, 1833 / Elsevier/M. Littmann

A friend has just reminded me that today is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Walt Whitman. I can’t let that pass unacknowledged. Twenty-five years ago, National Geographic published a wonderful tribute to Whitman through the photography of Maria Stenzel. She had carried Whitman’s verse in her mind and heart, making images that reflected his words. I found her work striking then, and still do today. You can see the published images here.

Here’s one of them:

Mary Oliver was also a great lover of Whitman. Here is what she wrote about his importance to her as a young poet, in her essay collection Upstream: “In those years truth was elusive—as was my own faith that I could recognise and contain it. Whitman kept me from the swamps of a worse uncertainty, and I lived many hours within the lit circle of his certainty, and his bravado. . . And there was the passion which he invested in the poems. The metaphysical curiosity! The oracular tenderness with which he viewed the world—its roughness, its differences, the stars, the spider—nothing was outside the range of his interest. But first and foremost, I learned from Whitman that the poem is a temple—or a green field—a place to enter, and in which to feel. Only in a secondary way is it an intellectual thing—an artefact, a moment of seemly and robust wordiness—wonderful as that part of it is.”

And now, hear from the man himself:

When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

– Walt Whitman

At the end of the Geographic story, author Joel Swerdlow recommended that, like the poet himself, we should “Go outside and read aloud. Adventure awaits. You may also find a piece of yourself you didn’t know was missing.”

On welcoming autumn

May absence make this heart grow fonder?

“The changes of heaven and earth are the seeds of poetry,” wrote the great haiku master Matsuo Bashō.

I’m sure he’s right, but it is not always easy to welcome those changes. I find autumn difficult. Yes, it is Keats’ season of “mists and mellow fruitfulness,” but its portents of winter to come are like a cold stare from an unwelcome visitor. And it is a season that coincides all too accurately with aging, when memories loom larger than promises.

Tennyson catches something of the wistfulness:

In looking on the happy Autumn-fields,
And thinking of the days that are no more.

This autumn season I have found helpful the words of David Hinton, a scholar of ancient Chinese poetry. In Hunger Mountain, he speaks of the seasonal cycle as mirroring the cyclic nature of Taoist thought. That cosmology centres on two elements: Absence and Presence. Presence is the empirical universe—the “ten thousand things” we see and inhabit. Absence is the generative void from which all Presence emerges.

In the seasons, writes Hinton, we see “the pregnant emptiness of Absence in winter, Presence’s burgeoning forth in spring, the fullness of its flourishing in summer, and its dying back into Absence in autumn.”

I find it easier to embrace the dying back when I contemplate the essential nature of absence—a concept which is equally strong in Māori cosmology. Te kore, the void, is the necessary precursor of all that comes into existence. There is no presence without an antecedent absence.

Thus, like Hinton, I find that “To hear autumn rain falling on Hunger Mountain is to long for autumn rain falling on Hunger Mountain.” Seeing the whole quickens my spirit to the part—even if that part consists of shorter days, cooler winds, leafless trees and the tincture of loss.

In The Divine Comedy, Dante writes of a vision in which he glimpsed the entire spiritual ecology of the universe—the interconnectedness of everything.

Within its deep infinity I saw gathered in one volume, bound by love, the scattered leaves of the universe; substance and accident, and their relations, fused after such fashion that all which I tell is one simple flame. The universal form of this complex whole I think that I saw, because as I say this I feel my joy increasing.

As do I.

Poetry for desperate times

‘Woman at War’ provokes, inspires

Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir at war in paradise

On the recommendation of a friend, I saw a magnificent film this week: Woman at War. It is the story of a mild-mannered, environmentally aware, middle-aged Icelandic woman, the conductor of an a cappella choir, who regards the industrialisation of her island—specifically the building and powering of aluminium smelters—as an act of sabotage against the natural world. So she indulges in a little sabotage of her own, and brings down the wrath of the security state on her head.

The brilliance of the movie rests in large part on the compelling lead actress, Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir, who has given a couple of insightful interviews concerning her role and the issues the movie is addressing—environmental activism being front and centre.

“We all have an activist inside us,” she says, except most of the time it isn’t active. “The question is: How do you find a way for your activist to get active? One of the reasons this character is inspiring is she plans it and does it—everything we have in our minds.”

Raising awareness of contentious environmental issues by dramatising them in a movie is a difficult artistic challenge, Geirharðsdóttir admits. In fact, within Iceland she thinks the film may have failed to achieve the kind of national dialogue the director, Benedikt Erlingsson, was hoping for.

“The film aims to help the awareness of how important untouched nature is and how important it is not to let big industry rule our decisions. Iceland is really split between right and left, green and not so green, those who take a destructive view of the environment and those with a more philosophical view. It is a big debate we have there because, of course, big industries and people that believe in making fast money, they don’t agree. They say we have to use what we have and sell energy. [We hoped] this film would be good to start a dialogue, but many people don’t want to see the film in Iceland because it’s too confrontational.

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The speaking poles of Whanganui

A river of manifold voices

Adzed pole at Kakahi marae / Kennedy Warne

I first came to Whanganui River, Te Awa Tupua, 30 years ago, while working on a story by one of the river’s great narrators, David Young, for the third issue of New Zealand Geographic.

Last December, after proposing for several years that National Geographic publish a story on the legal personhood statutes that have been passed in New Zealand (Te Urewera in 2014 and Te Awa Tupua in 2017), I returned to the river to write a short story on just that subject, which appeared online last month.

As is always the case with writing, there were innumerable other things that could have been said, and today E-Tangata has published a story based on the journey I undertook for National Geographic.

Not included in either story was a stop I made at Kakahi, situated at the confluence of the Whanganui and Whakapapa Rivers, south-east of Taumarunui. At the marae, I noticed a tall, square-sided pole that rose high and cast a shadow over the lawn in front of the buildings. I walked to the pole and ran a hand over the adze marks, recalling that the Whanganui is renowned for these pou, which have been erected to make declarations of war, peace, boundary matters and more. And today the two people who are designated to speak on behalf of the river are themselves called poles—pou tupua.

An elderly woman was weeding and tidying graves in the urupa near the marae, and I asked her about the pou. Her father had made it, she told me. It was a peace pole, a pole that spoke of reconciliation. She said that in her day when children misbehaved they were sent to the pole to reflect on their misdeeds.

I thought this marvellous, that from the earliest age children learn that not just humans speak. Ceremonial poles do, too. And so does the river.

Tears for Our Lady

Remembering the beauty of the hunchback’s home

A sad day for those of us who have known the enchantment of Notre-Dame.

“His cathedral was enough for him. It was peopled with marble figures of kings, saints and bishops who at least did not laugh in his face and looked at him with only tranquillity and benevolence. The other statues, those of monsters and demons, had no hatred for him . . . The saints were his friends and blessed him; the monsters were his friends and kept watch over him. He would sometimes spend whole hours crouched before one of the statues in solitary conversation with it. If anyone came upon him then he would run away like a lover surprised during a serenade.”

The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Victor Hugo

Breaking the heavy silence

Through a glass, brightly

I was browsing a book of Middle Eastern poetry and prose, looking for something that might lift the spirit of those weighed down by the Christchurch tragedy. Almost the last poem in the collection Tablet and Pen is by a young Iranian American poet, writer, satirist and calligrapher, Hamid Reza Rahimi. (Tablet and Pen says that Rahimi fled to exile in 1986 “because of his overt opposition to the Iranian government, which had forbidden him to write.”) I wanted to pair the poem with a photograph, and found one I had taken in Chicago, at the Field Museum, of a Marc Chagall stained-glass window. Chagall is an artist through whom beauty passes as if through a window, and his glass art, with Rahimi’s words, seem a glowing match.