The Grammar of Animacy

braiding sweetgrassRobin Kimmerer’s powerful and beautifully written book, Braiding Sweetgrass, contains a wealth of inspiration in every chapter. It is worth actually spending money to have it available beside your chair or on your bedside table. It is a marvelous combination of modern science, indigenous science, and traditional stories.

In a section titled, Learning the Grammar of Animacy she talks about her native language of Potawatomi and informs us that there are only nine living speakers left. She attends a session where some of these Elders are teaching a bit of the language. It is a very difficult language to learn and she soon understands why:

“English is a noun-based language, somehow appropriate to a culture so obsessed with things. Only 30 percent of English words are verbs, but in Potawatomi that proportion is 70 percent which means that 70 percent of the words have to be conjugated and 70 percent have different tenses and cases to be mastered.”

Though she can master only a little of this difficult language, she understands its tremendous potency. Like most indigenous languages, it perceives and attempts to communicate a living, rather than an inanimate, world. Such a language helps break down the separation from the natural world that has plagued Western Civilization for centuries, even millennia.

“… a world where everything is alive. Water, land, and even a day, the language a mirror for seeing the animacy of the world, the life that pulses through all things, through pines and nuthatches and mushrooms. This is the language I hear in the woods; this is the language that lets us speak of what wells up all around us.”

She continues this thread with the assertion that this is a grammar of intimacy:

“In English, we would never refer to a member of our family, or indeed to any person, as “it.” That would be a profound act of disrespect. It robs a person of selfhood and kinship, reducing a person to a mere thing. So it is that in Potawatomi and most other indigenous languages, we use the same words to address the living world as we use for our family. Because they are our family.”

Not only are plants and animals considered animate, but so are rocks, mountains, water, fire, and places – all are beings that have spirit and our interactions with them must therefore be seen as relationships, not simply as resources to be exploited and used. She tells of one of her field ecology students who, upon considering this difference in language, realized that speaking and thinking in English could easily allow us to disrespect all of nature. He wondered what things might be like if nothing was considered an “it.” This artificial distinction between persons and things shuts us off, not only from the wisdom of other species, but also from anyone somewhat different than ourselves. It becomes all to easy to subtly consider other cultures as less worthy of our respect, even as less than human.

She remembers Elders telling her to, “Go be with the standing people (trees).” or “Spend some time with the Bear people.” Imagine what new possibilities could open to us if we saw the whole world populated with teachers and companions?

“We American people are reluctant to learn a foreign language of our own species, let alone another species. But imagine the possibilities. Imagine the access we would have to different perspectives, the things we might see through other eyes, the wisdom that surrounds us. We don’t have to figure everything out by ourselves: there are intelligences other than our own, teachers all around us. Imagine how much less lonely the world would be.”

Kimmerer speaks the language of poetry, of science (She is Distinguished Professor of Environmental Biology at the State University of New York), and of indigenous peoples. She brings these three languages together in a beautiful blend of story, science, and social analysis.

From the Latin, anima, meaning “spirit” or “life”, Animism offers a powerful and necessary perspective for the healing of the Earth. This healing will come to our planet only when we reconnect with the Indigenous (including Taoist and Buddhist) teachings of the “aliveness” of all things. Being a “tree hugger” is not a cynical and crazy appellation. It is a appropriate name for one who sees the world as it truly is. All things are animate. If we treated them as such, I wonder what would happen?

Continuing Transformation

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Nancy had a hitchhiker along the trail. He must have sensed that she is a “vehicle for transformation.”

It is another beautiful morning in Northern California. As I sit in the quiet space of the library at the College of the Siskiyous, avoiding work on my novel, I am conscious of the many blessings I experience. Our old motor home, Brego, is sitting in a beautiful location on property that has been in my family for decades. It is property that has been a bit under my radar all these years. My sister now owns it and Nancy and I get the benefit of being next to the old unoccupied cabin that still has electricity to which we can attach, giving us benefits of microwave oven and air conditioning. We’re grateful. We will remain here until the winter snows arrive and then perhaps look for a near-by non-snow environment where we can spend a few months before returning home again.

I am settling into a deeper and deeper sense of freedom, simplicity, and joy than I ever thought possible. Slowly, but patiently and surely, we are untying the threads that have bound us in a life-long addiction to the dysfunctions of our culture. It is not a, “cold turkey,’ process. We will never be completely detached from some aspects of this dysfunction, but we are going in the right direction and we feel the sweet relief of a profound transformation.

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Us on the PCT

The tiny house aspects of our home encourage us to spend most of our time outdoors for meals, reading under the shade, doing our work, and walking in beauty. Yesterday we took a wonderful hike along a section of the Pacific Crest Trail a few miles from the little town of McCloud. We were with members of our hiking group for most of the walk. On the way back to the car we met a young woman who is hiking the Pacific Crest Trail this summer. She needed a ride into town to pick up some items at the post office. She ended up having dinner with us and spending the night in the old cabin, grateful for the warm shower and hot food.

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Our new friend, trail name, “Shuffles.”

She is from New Zealand and has trekked in Nepal and Argentina as well as some time last summer here on the Pacific Crest Trail. What a delight to spend this time with her and see her off on her way this morning. As a New Zealander, she has trouble believing the politics of our country and is committed to living her life in Earth-centered simplicity. Meeting a young person like this and hearing her talk of her friends and their commitment to a new and sustainable Earth gives me an injection of hope.

Since we settled back here in Mt. Shasta, our plumbing has been broken and we have had to use a hose from the well to bring water to our door, then fill up containers for washing. We discovered that a small amount of warm water in a washtub can provide a luxurious foot-soaking at the end of the day. Finally, I figured out a way to fix the problem, and after a few trips to the hardware store and only one bout of swearing, we have hot and cold running water again! We feel as if we’ve stepped into a new world of luxury and convenience.

The flow of finances is still an issue in the background, but we are well and happy and have a trust in our ability to not only survive, but thrive, as we find our authentic work. It has been a wild ride but we are where we have always longed to be and are sinking ever deeper into a dedication to the healing of the life of this Earth. I have no doubt that my future writing will reflect this.

I must now return to work on my novel. I know you are eager to find out what the characters from my first novel, The Happy Frog, are up to. So am I.

Blessings,

Recovery Continues

civaddictI wrote in earlier posts about the addictive nature of humanity’s relationship to Western Culture. (Addicted to Western Civilization and I Can’t Do It Alone) Each day that passes reinforces my belief that this basic addiction to distraction, ownership, and wealth accumulation that began with the agricultural revolution several thousand years ago has become a process that is in imminent danger of destroying us. I have come to consider myself as a recovering addict from this process and am dedicated to deepening this recovery and to encouraging others in their own particular journey of recovery.

It is not a clear-cut sort of recovery such as an alcoholic might experience. Alcohol is a definite presenting issue and the decision to abstain from it is well-defined; one either takes a drink, or doesn’t. Simple sobriety is charted by days, months, and years of abstention. Long-term psychological sobriety is a more difficult thing and requires day by day dedication to clearing up the issues that lurk behind the addiction to alcohol.

We who are addicted to Western Civilization do not have the obvious beginning point of abstention. What in the world do we abstain from? The tentacles of our culture are overwhelming in their number and unbreakable in their tenacious hold on our subconscious minds. We can’t just drop all ten thousand of them cold turkey. We don’t even have conscious awareness of most of them. Yet I have found that my longed-for journey into freedom, simplicity, and joy cannot be truly taken without facing this pervasive addiction.

It is this recovery I would like to share with you. It is a complex and difficult process that I am just beginning to understand. It doesn’t have simple rules like: “You can do this but you can’t do that.” We must discern our guidelines as individuals, but we must also be in community because we can’t do it alone.

I would like to facilitate this recovery for whoever wishes to join me. We can work by email, by phone, in local workshops, or by whatever means present themselves. I am willing to travel a reasonable distance to hold workshops. I am willing to set up workshops here in Northern California this summer. I am pretty much open to whatever it takes to initiate these first steps.

Like the alcoholic, I can’t pull myself out of this by my bootstraps. I depend on a Source greater than myself. And I must be in community with other people in recovery from Western Civilization so we can affirm and support each other.

Please write to me with your interest and your suggestions.  Contact Bill re: Recovery

Blessings,

Bill

Back Home Again

%AVzymv5SpmGZVjmwYzxYwWe have journeyed about 1400 miles from the southern Arizona desert to the beauty of our “home turf” in Mount Shasta, California. The view in the background is of the Eddy Mountain range. We are parked on property owned by my sister and will remain here through the fall.

It was quite an adventure to navigate that big motor home all that way, but I am now a “steely-eyed motor man.” However, being on the road is not our purpose for having the home on wheels. It is too expensive to be traveling that way and we bought the home to be a simple tiny house so we will be in-place most of the time and will not travel long distances using all that gas.

Both of us have undergone many transformations that I will write about in the coming days. Much of it can be illustrated by the T.S. Eliot quote, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

We are back in Mt. Shasta and feel like we are seeing it and knowing it for the first time, as well as seeing and knowing ourselves for the first time. Much has changed internally and I look forward to sharing in the future. I am open to speaking and corresponding with friends/readers in whatever venues might open to us.

More later, my friends.

Bill

Resting in the Desert

restingThe frenetic activity of the past four months has come to a halt and I am coming to terms with the stress and loss that my wandering path has brought about. Freedom, simplicity, and joy remain as the guiding current in the river of my life, but the stream has gone underground for the time being. The starkness of the high Sonoran Desert has brought me an unexpected gift – an unavoidable period of fatigue and depression.

Our home on wheels is parked, “docked,” to use motor home language, at my son’s house in southern Arizona. The weather is lovely. The family is supportive. And I am absolutely exhausted. Plans to roam about the area have been shelved and replaced by plans to read lots of books and take frequent naps. Quixotic notions of slaying windmills have faded for the moment and I find my mind slipping into a spacious place of healing and recovery.

I had underestimated the psychological and physical effect of leaving everything behind. I don’t regret it at all, for I can sense the spaciousness that is now slowly taking shape. It remains, however, a profound loss of all familiar things, places, and routines that are associated with “home.” These things cannot be immediately and off-handedly replaced by an entirely different way of living without a grieving process.

Continued stress greatly reduces the body’s production of Serotonin, a neurotransmitter among whose complex functions, is enabling the ability to feel optimistic and enjoy a sense of well-being. Aging, wouldn’t you know it, also slows down the production of Serotonin. So this aging, tired, and depressed man has been clearly told by all of his advisors, seen and unseen, material and spiritual, to Rest! The adventure is an authentic and important one, but for the next two or three months… Rest your body and mind!

It is very helpful for me to be able to frame the coming months as a “resting in the desert” experience. Many spiritual traditions see the desert as a place of cleansing and renewal. One returns from the desert having experienced the burning away of the extraneous and inauthentic. The desert is not a place of bustling activity, it is a place where roots must burrow deep for water; where rest occupies the greatest part of the day; where stillness brings insight; and where beauty is found in hidden places.

So, this is me… resting. I might not write as often for a bit, but will do so when it seems congruent with the healing process. My invitation to you is to pay attention to your own stress and fatigue. It builds up silent and hidden, repressed by the need to produce and be active. These are stress-filled times. Make rest and healing a non-negotiable part of your life.

Tiny Houses and Small Choices

Cabin-BillI have been presented with some interesting questions about our choice to purchase an old Winnebago Motor Home to be our residence. Most of the questions arise from the assumption that we are embarking on a “Recreational Vehicle” lifestyle. An increasing number of people, especially seniors, are turning to various styles of RV living because they find it an affordable alternative to fixed housing. Some are choosing it as a full-time way of living. Many more are using RVs part-time to enjoy seeing sights while feeling self-contained. These are valid choices, although they involve some trade-offs and considerations.

For us, the choice was not about nomadic living or becoming recreational travelers. It was about seeking what felt, for us, to be an appropriate way of living an Earth-centered life. We wanted a “Tiny House” – one that would help us limit the amount of our possessions, decrease our use of non-renewable resources, keep us more mindful on a daily basis of the essentials of existence, and allow us to be more directly involved in the seasons and moods of the natural world.

We found that the typical “Tiny House” was quite expensive, unless one could build it oneself. We considered doing that, but found it to be impractical for us. Most Tiny Houses run into zoning problems unless they are on a trailer bed. After a couple of years of thought and exploration, we determined that an older motor home best fit our understanding of a “Tiny House.” Their size is usually around 200 or so square feet. The units are self-contained and flexible – able to be off the grid entirely for periods of time yet also able to connect to electricity when appropriate. And an older model motor home costs much less than a classic “tiny house” and fits our limited budget.

We do not really consider it an “RV.” It is our home – with the advantage that we can (carefully) move it to various locations. Its carbon footprint, despite the use of gas when moving it, is to our advantage – much less than a typical house. It drastically limits our accumulation of possessions and keeps us mindful of every purchase of food and clothing. It keeps our attention on every use of water, lights, stoves, heaters, and coolers. It invites us to spend much of our time outdoors. We have to spend more time and care on personal issues like showers, bathroom use, dish washing, house cleaning, and laundry. We are finding that these activities become mindfulness exercises rather than automatic tasks to be hurried through. All of life seems to be settling down to a more basic level.

Living in a small space also brings a new depth to our relationship. Personal quirks that larger homes have allowed us to ignore over the years now become doorways into deeper understandings of each other and of our own psyches. An already intimate and joyful marriage has been offered an invitation to evolution and awakening we would never experience otherwise.

Nancy recently got verbally slapped by a stranger on Facebook for talking about how her cold helped her gain insights into her life. She was told that a simple cold was nothing compared to the suffering of so many in the world and that perhaps she should examine these issues for herself. Nancy let it roll off her shoulders, understanding that this woman was dealing with her own unique situation and emotions. I was a bit defensive on Nancy’s behalf, but soon let it go as well. The incident served to remind me that, in a culture that is on the knife edge between disintegration and transformation, the urge to take some sort of action can actually be immobilizing, especially when we become narrowly focused on a tiny element within the array of possible actions.

We each experience the disintegration/transformation that is occurring from our own unique vantage point, one that is based on our personal history and conditioning. This personal history and conditioning also puts us in a position to make unique contributions that are based on who we are and where we are at the moment. Amid the multiple layers of embedded choices which face us, it is important to see clearly the Taoist ideal of,  “one small step,” which is ours, and only ours, to do in the present moment. Taking that action will lead us to the next vantage point and to the next step.

There are many alternatives to business as usual. Tiny houses are only one of the options for the creation of a new society and a new way of living in harmony with each other and with the Earth. Many of these options will be shaped by family situation, economic circumstances, and health. For instance, the ability of a middle-income family to choose organic food and other Earth-friendly options may be far greater than that of the family living below the poverty line. One person may have the ability to politically organize, while another is better working quietly on personal and family transformation. It does not help to assume what another person can or should be doing. It is enough to mindfully determine what is appropriate for our own small, next step.

Shared housing, urban and suburban gardening, community supported agriculture, tool libraries, and hundreds of other creative ideas are emerging and more are popping up all the time. Each person is responsible for mindfully considering, thinking, meditating, evaluating, and ultimately choosing among a multitude of competing voices. The choices of action will be different for each individual, but they will be equally important. They will be based on the unique circumstances in which each person finds themselves. They often seem small and insignificant to the conditioned mind and a little voice will tempt us to think, “this won’t make any difference.” But it will make a difference! Each little mindfully considered choice will contribute to tipping the balance – one way or another. Our world will take a small step toward transformation, or toward disintegration. It’s always our choice.

Depression

depressionOne difficulty of writing a blog is the way my conditioned mind will lock into a particular image of itself that it needs to present, then hijack my writing so that it conforms itself to that image. To be confused, unsure, afraid, or depressed is unacceptable to this conditioned part of my psyche and such states must never be revealed in the blog. The story seems to say, “People are looking to you for encouragement so you must keep yourself centered and confident. For heaven’s sake, don’t write anything if your can’t be positive and wise.” Yet, why communicate at all if I can’t communicate the full range of my experiences of life? Without that freedom my writings, my books, and my essays over the past 30 years would be a waste of words – mere facades woven with language to cover rather than reveal my soul.

At the moment I am discouraged and depressed. I acknowledge that both Nancy and I have been sick with a severe cold for the past week and we all know how that affects mood and outlook. Yet this current discouragement, though it will pass, is real and should not be dismissed by that part of me which is so terribly concerned with image.

I feel as if I have foolishly stepped off the edge of responsible behavior. I am assailed by the very voices I wrote about in a previous blog, Do You Know What You’re Doing? I reread that particular blog and found encouragement from my own words. Yet the feeling remains that I am somehow a foolish and naive man who, at age 74, is throwing away his life in Quixotic tilting at windmills. We have very little money. Our motor home is “docked” at my son’s home but we can’t remain here indefinitely. I have no idea what my contribution can or should be to the healing of the Earth. I am judging myself by all the standards that I actually don’t affirm to be true, but they feel true right now.

I write these discouraged thoughts because they are real to me at the moment. They are not the only reality. They are merely conditioned thoughts firing through the synapses of my brain. I write because I believe that a full-on acceptance of the transient moods of life is far more healthy than the effort of trying to pretend they do not exist. Acknowledging depression and discouragement is the first step toward moving through and emerging into the daylight. Our conditioned mind uses depression as one of its major weapons to resist transformation. It also hits us with the double-whammy of, “You’re depressed? What’s wrong with you? You shouldn’t be depressed? Buck up?”

“Buck up!” is a common refrain in life, but there are times when we long to hear, “Buck down for a bit.” There is nothing wrong with depressive and discouraged moods. Life is full of challenges and we are not always at our physical and emotional best to face them. That’s OK. We’ll find our way through. Compassion and acceptance, despite the insinuations of the conditioned mind to the contrary, are the strongest forces available to the human soul.

Lao Tzu remains my most compassionate guide, reminding me that, “The only step necessary in the thousand mile journey is the small one right in front of you.” It is raining and the Huachuca Mountains just south of us still have a bit of snow on their peaks. Nancy is napping. Kleenex tissues form their own small mountains by the chair, bed, and couch. I’m going to, “buck down,” and take a nap myself. That’s the next small step. It will be enough.

Bless our hearts, all of us.