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?

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

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.

Too Old?

greypanther
(“Gray Panthers” is a loosely organized coalition of elders who are dedicated to social justice issues. Founded by Maggie Kuhn in 1970, when she was forced to retire from a job she loved, this movement includes people of all ages, but derives its name and energy from the image of the elder as a formidable and powerful force in society.)

All of my life I have struggled with a sinister voice within my brain that insists I am inadequate. Now that I am 74 years old, that voice has arisen with renewed energy, warning me that I am “too old,” and that it is time to preserve what little strength and resources remain to me. Well-meaning people shake their heads at our “Tiny House on Wheels” and at our Quixotic-seeming hopes and dreams. Were I to heed these inner and outer voices I would end up in a small apartment nestled close to shopping centers and medical centers.  I would venture out only in the fairest of weather for the most modest of errands.

Here is the truth of the matter: The battle for the fate of the Earth and the Heart of Humanity has been raging for decades, indeed for centuries, and it has now reached a critical point. Bigotry, ignorance, and greed are threatening to engulf all of life in the shadow of death. We who have been given the gift of Elderhood must join this fight with what gifts of wisdom, experience, and encouragement we possess. We will not likely be called to man literal barricades, but our voices, our presence, our work, our lifestyles, and our willingness to sacrifice security and comfort for the sake of our people will be asked of us as surely as it will be asked of younger revolutionaries.

Culture tries to convince me that I am impotent, but nothing could be farther from the truth. To my fellow “older people” let me speak to that part of us which longs to live out our remaining time with the strength of purpose our years have given us. They tell us that, because of our age, our lives have become expendable. Well, let’s make the most of that idea. If we are expendable, what in the world are we holding on to? What need for self-protection is there? If our death awaits outside the door, why do we remain barricaded inside, stoking the fireplace and guarding our treasures? Let’s fling open the doors and ride outside to meet our fate in a manner that punctuates our life with an exclamation mark rather than a minuscule period.

And if we elders ride out to our fate, whatever it may be, what will you my younger friends be doing? Will you ride with us? Will you add the power, energy, and strength of youth and vigor to the cause? Will you give your lives to this most important of purposes? What else do you have to do that is more important?

What exactly, you ask, shall we do? Well … first we ask the question, “How can I live, from my deepest heart, for the healing of the Earth today?” We ask it moment by moment, day after day, until it becomes embedded in our consciousness. The clear presence of the question itself, will bring the answers and guide us to actions, unique for each of us, yet each action will fit together in a vast pattern that will transform culture, humanity, and the Earth.


Some resource links for encouragement and inspiration:

Rivera Sun – a poet, artist, and novelist whose deep commitment to nonviolent resistance and revolution is communicated in all her works.

Dandelion Salad essays by various resistance voices that cover a wide range of topics and points of view


If my posts and work are helpful to you, I ask you to add your support. You can do this through buying my books;  and by supporting this free blog site on a monthly basis through Patreon  or by a donation through Pay Pal. I depend on your support in order to continue writing and publishing.

Thank you.

 

 

 

Stranger in a Strange Land

PyFR4BpsTUW8UCRZalgI woke the other morning in a borrowed trailer parked by my son’s house in Hereford, Arizona, to the realization that, “we’ve actually done it!” I feel a myriad of emotions. The desert night was cold and clear and the propane was not yet hooked up so we slept bundled under several blankets. The sunrise colors that greeted us over the desert mountains were as lovely as their cousins who bid us a good sleep the night before. For all the stress of a rather abrupt leave-taking from our former life, my morning mood was remarkably calm and relaxed.

This step into the unknown has left me with somewhat of a disconnected feeling, as if I am no longer a part of what I used to call, “life.” I haven’t technically retired. I tried that and it didn’t stick. I am a writer, perhaps a teacher, and who knows what else. I must continue to do the work that is mine to do, whatever it may be. But I’m no longer doing it from familiar foundations and assumptions. It is a strange feeling, but one which I think will open new vistas.

So much of my culture appears to me as if seen through a window, out there somewhere but not really a thing of which I am a part. People are precious to me. The natural world of mountains, deserts, and oceans remains mysterious and magic for me. Love and compassion filter through my days as sunshine through forest leaves. But the noise of the machinery that drives economics, politics, media, and all the other illusions that are still trying to masquerade as life, seems to be fainter and has an unreal quality about it.

When this cultural cacophony does rise up and grab my attention I feel like a deer frozen in the headlights of a semi-truck, not sure which way to turn when confronted by this massive tonnage of power bearing down on me. As a result, I am learning to avoid the heavily traveled roadways, literal and metaphorical, and stay in the physical and emotional territory that is calling to me as Home: back roads rather than highways; outside rather than inside; silence rather than noise; direct rather than mediated; natural rather than artificial.

Yet I still find it difficult to think of living mainly out of doors in the company of the natural world. It is a beautiful day today, but the wind is picking up and the comfort of my son’s house beckons me inside. I’m forcing myself to remain on the porch – as if gazing at the blue sky and the shifting shadows on the Huachuca Mountain range is some sort of difficult discipline! Whether it is here in the winter beauty of the Sonoran Desert or the lush forests of northern California in the summer, remaining present with the land itself is an ability I have not been well-trained to master.

So many lessons lie ahead; some of which intimidate me, others of which I am eager to learn. Carving out a life that is counter to decades of conditioning remains a demanding task and I look for help from those who have preceded me on this path. Their number is much greater than you would anticipate. They populate the pages of history and they wander, often unseen, through today’s world. They live in cities and in the wilderness. They live in families, communities, tribes, and in solitude. They can’t be defined in any culturally conditioned way. Like me, they are strangers in a strange land, but when we find each other, we are no longer strangers, we are a tribe, we are at home with the Earth. If humanity is to have a future it will belong to such as these.

Traveling Thoughts

pLwvr4cZTGapFXmyqEPJzgWe’ve been on the road for four days now, taking some lovely side trips but in general heading for our son’s home in southern Arizona. We should complete that final leg of our trip tomorrow. Since we have not yet found the used motor home that will be our future house on wheels, we have been driving our faithful Subaru packed full of our stuff, staying in budget motels, and eating out of an ice chest. It’s been fun, but tiring. I have noticed several things:

  • I have noticed that as a culture we are in a tremendous hurry! Any speed limit sign seems to indicate minimum speed rather maximum speed. I’m an older person now, the sort that I used to pass with disdain thinking, “Come on gramps, get a move on.” But that older man may have been a sage, looking at me and thinking, “Oh, son, what in the world is your hurry?” It is not being older that has slowed me down. I am letting go of the cultural imperative to speed through the trip for the sake of the destination. I am learning that the trip is the destination. The drivers who ride my bumper and rush past me are not bad people. They are poor souls unconsciously caught in the paradigm that bigger and faster is better; that if a vehicle is built to go 90 mph, then it should go 90 mph. Sigh. Driving the speed limit or a bit under it may actually be an act of social protest; of cultural sabotage; of mindful rebellion; of questioning the authority of speed and urgency. Who knows, I might start a movement. There is a “slow food” movement, why not a “slow moving movement?” Obstruct the cultural machine! Go the speed limit! 
  • I have noticed that there are still countless areas of beauty throughout the western states; small county parks, state parks, national forests, national landmarks, and even national parks – though national parks have become victims of much the same crowding, hurry and urgency as the freeways. I am eager to find our house on wheels and have the ability to sit for weeks at a time amidst the seldom-visited beauty of this land.
  • I have noticed that it is very difficult to remain mindful and conscious in the midst of travel. The “destination complex” takes over and life becomes about going from one place to another. Fatigue dulls the attention and the conditioned mind slips into the spaces, generating fearful thoughts. Rest breaks throughout the day are important, and space at the end of the day for decompression is essential.
  • I have noticed that a sense of gratitude is forming within me for the lessons I am learning so late in life. Freedom, simplicity, and joy are not pipe dreams, they are waiting for us to wake up and step into their presence, regardless of circumstance.

The revolution is going to take so many unique forms. Look for your own part to play. Obstruct the machine! Disobey the cultural rules! Do the unexpected! Step off! Be simple, joyful, and free!

Tuck and Roll

somersault

The first technique I learned, long ago, in martial arts was the proper way to fall. It took me many sessions of patient instruction by my instructor to finally master the process. One day, after a particularly awkward fall he said, “You too stiff, too afraid. Not be afraid. Not brace – that break your arm. Yield to fall. Minute your hand touch mat, go soft. Tuck and roll.”

The need to control life brings about a reflexive stiffness in the mind and body. A more natural response to the movement of life is to yield, yet still be able to direct one’s movement along the most effective path. I remember that this lesson once saved me broken bones, or worse. I was an avid long-distance runner for many decades and loved to run along the desert trails near my home in Phoenix, Arizona. On this particular day I was running, lost in a sort of meditation, along the trail through a mountain park when my foot caught and I pitched forward onto the rocky ground. I don’t remember being conscious of the sequence, but my arms softened the moment my hands touched the ground, my head tucked down, my body formed into a ball, I rolled and ended up back on my feet. I stood in wonder, “What the heck happened?” I looked back at where I fell – rocks and cactus! I caught my breath and did a body inventory. Nothing broken. No scratches. No bruises. Nothing!

Over the years since then I have stiffened in many ways, yet I remember that magical moment when everything softened and flowed. I am grateful that I have recovered some of that flowing energy as events in our life have been rolling and tumbling Nancy and I along. The terrible fires around us have sent tens of thousands of people into free-fall in so many horrible ways. After the Camp Fire that destroyed the town of Paradise, California, we told our landlord that, if he found an evacuee family that would benefit from this house here in Mt. Shasta, we could be ready to move in a matter of weeks. He found just such a family – a woman with a wheel-chair bound daughter and another daughter in her twenties who has a six year old autistic son. This family barely managed to escape the fire and have been homeless, living in a hotel and caring for their multiple health needs. Now they have a new home in the mountains and we will be “on the road” come the 4th of December.

We will leave our furniture here with the house for the family and point our Subaru Outback south, eventually getting to Sierra Vista, Arizona, where my son and his family live. There we will live in a borrowed trailer while we enjoy Christmas with John, Michelle, and granddaughter Emma.  We will look around Arizona for our own “home on wheels” and then be back “on the road” to new adventures, new freedoms, new joys, and new opportunities to be of service.

If we meet the tumbling nature of life with a stiff mind and body, we will break. If we soften and roll, we will flow on to amazing discoveries and experiences without fail. Tuck and roll, baby, tuck and roll.