Category Archives: Thought provoking readings

A Not-So-Ordinary Walk in the Woods

To what degree do we view the world with mental patterns that may hinder our awareness of the world around us?

I am reading The Genius of Birds (Jennifer Ackerman) and listening to an audiobook of The Hidden Life of Trees (Peter Wohlleben). Increasingly I am interested in epistemology–the study of the nature of knowledge, and in particular, the nature of truth and belief.

As I read,  I am struck by the fact that most of us go through our days with a surface understanding of the natural processes happening around us.The writers of these texts ask us, quite frankly, to evolve.

I generally had viewed birds as pretty oddities. I found it difficult to relate to these creatures with their quick, robotic movements; such a sharp divide between Mammalia and Aves.

But I have started to think that I have been limited in my observations–limited by deeply ingrained beliefs. For example, I did not recognize the cognitive abilities of some of the plainest looking birds, who have the ability to hide up to 30,000 seeds and remember where they are several months later. I had never thought about their social abilities–“They deceive and manipulate. They eavesdrop. They give gifts. They kiss to console one another. They blackmail their parents. They alert one another to danger. They summon witnesses to the death of a peer. They may even grieve.” There are birds who give a certain number of calls to indicate the size of a predator.

In “my neck of the woods” (a small farming village located along the Rio Grande), there are acequias (an irrigation system that is over 200 years old) lined with cottonwood trees. A wonderful place to stroll, walk, ride. Yesterday, as I was running there, I passed closer to a flock of Sandhill Cranes gathered in an apple orchard. The birds became agitated, trumpeting loudly. I wondered whether they were communicating to one another about the level of threat that I posed . . . I wondered about them and their relationships.

Perhaps that’s the beauty of opening the mind to new information–wondering; a richness of awareness.

Some insights from Ackerman’s book:

–Birds’ “intelligence” (which involves memory, problem solving, social skills, and other cognitive abilities) seems directly related to the complexity of tasks they must complete in order to survive. Even the same type of bird living farther north or in mountain (snowy) altitudes develop greater cognitive abilities than others who live in places where inventiveness or memory is less necessary.

–When large flocks of birds seemingly read each others’ minds and maneuver quickly as a unified group, really each individual bird is reacting to the several birds directly around it. No mind reading involved. Why I find this interesting is it isn’t telepathy (as I had thought), but it does involve the bird integrating direct experiences into its memory. Just like when we learn a skill so well, we can do it in our sleep.

Slow down a minute and let’s also think about the “intelligence” of trees, which looks a little different than the cognitive abilities of birds and mammals, because, well, trees don’t have brains. Or in a way, do they?

Here are some insights from Wohlleben’s book on trees that relate to our consideration of intelligence (the bolding and italics are mine):

In conjunction with his colleagues, Frantisek Baluska from the Institute of Cellular and Molecular Botany at the University of Bonn is of the opinion that brain-like structures can be found at root tips. In addition to signaling pathways, there are also numerous systems and molecules similar to those found in animals. When a root feels its way forward in the ground, it is aware of stimuli. The researchers measured electrical signals that led to changes in behavior after they were processed in a “transition zone.” If the root encounters toxic substances, impenetrable stones, or saturated soil, it analyzes the situation and transmits the necessary adjustments to the growing tip. The root tip changes direction as a result of this communication and steers the growing root around the critical areas.

Right now, the majority of plant researchers are skeptical about whether such behavior points to a repository for intelligence, the faculty of memory, and emotions. Among other things, they get worked up about carrying over findings in similar situations with animals and, at the end of the day, about how this threatens to blur the boundary between plants and animals. And so what? What would be so awful about that? The distinction between plant and animal is, after all, arbitrary and depends on the way an organism feeds itself: the former photosynthesizes and the latter eats other living beings. Finally, the only other big difference is in the amount of time it takes to process information and translate it into action. Does that mean that beings that live life in the slow lane are automatically worth less than ones on the fast track? Sometimes I suspect we would pay more attention to trees and other vegetation if we could establish beyond a doubt just how similar they are in many ways to animals.
Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries from A Secret World

Wohlleben presents the fact that in well established old growth forests, trees communicate through a network of roots, fibers, mosses, fungi. They adjust water intake to support weaker trees; older trees deprive saplings of light, monitoring the slow growth of the others. At first thought this seems stingy, but in reality ensures the strength of the young ones. The slower a tree grows, the stronger the tree. He says that you do NOT see the same level of communication and social development in a planted forest. Trees seem to need much more time to develop their quiet strength, to develop an ecosystem that ensures resilience.

I encourage you to explore a seemingly mundane topic, something you encounter in your daily life, in a way that inspires you to “see with new eyes”, outgrow rigid mental patterns. One of the joys in life!

 

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Uncommon correspondence

 “That’s it—this poetry is the Earth with its atmosphere // as it lies in us, in the poet.”

-Lorine Niedecker on Jean Daive’s Decimale Blanche

When Jean Daive’s Decimale Blanche was first published in 1967, it was a significant leap from previous writings in France. The words on the first page (translated):

white decimal

 

 

 

 

                                            at the edge of space

 

Pow! White decimal. White decimal . . . on a page? or at the edge of space (what space, what understanding will we ever have of this “space” of Daive’s?). Forget “write what you know”; Daive writes a new landscape (or concept of a landscape).

As an experimental poet, Daive writes into what none of us knows how to articulate. Adhere to rules of writing, and you inhabit a limited space. Plunge forward into new, unknown spaces and you write poetry like this:

I wandered
between refusal and insistence
looking on the ground

snowing
name unmakes form
the thaw the avalanche

remakes absence

*

Consider the poet Lorine Niedecker, homegrown in the Wisconsin marshland, working menial jobs and reading and writing poetry. Words like humble, homespun, ego-less, have been used to describe her. Intellectually curious, connected mainly through correspondence to the Objectivist group of poets centered in New York, Niedecker read and wrote voraciously. Like other Objectivist-labeled poets, Niedecker had read the Imagist and Surrealist poets, and from the remote Wisconsin marshland was in indirect intellectual correspondence with French writers in general.

Daive later learns that Lorine Niedecker wrote about her impressions of Decimale Blanche in her letters to Cid Corman. “Nothing new matters after Daive”, she wrote.

20 or so years after reading her comments about his work, Jean Daive visits Niedecker’s Wisconsin cabin. He “absorbs” the places she embodied in her poetry. Then asks San Francisco avant-garde poet and translator, Norma Cole, to translate une femme de quelques vies (a woman of many lives) utilizing Niedecker’s vocabulary. From a woman of many lives (2009):

She is
in a corner of the room

Night is
falling.

Please
God
is not in her plan.

But
prevailing
on humility.

With this smile
of modest

abandon.

How thoughtful, and enobling, to devote 170 pages to a serial poem in Niedecker’s style and sense, her world.

I am particularly intrigued by the deep rootedness of Niedecker in her lifelong place, her cabin in the marsh lands of Wisconsin, and the pull toward “abstractionism” as she called it. Daive’s creation of unembodies spaces in his experimental poetry, is unrooted in any particular place or earthly space. Niedecker uniquely and obliquely is a poet of place, while venturing on original adventures into abstractions of her own creation. A poem from the early 1960’s, pre-Daive, but a lovely pre-echo of an indirect correspondence to come:

In Leonardo’s light
we questioned

the sun does not love
My hat

attained
the weight falls

I am at rest
You too

hold a doctorate
in Warmth

You are my friend—
you bring me peaches
and the high bush cranberry
you carry
my fishpole

you water my worms
you patch my boot
with your mending kit
nothing in it
but my hand

Niedecker, Lorine. Lorine Niedecker: Collected Works (p. 189). University of California Press. Kindle Edition.

Excerpts from Daive:

trans. Norma Cole. a woman with several lives, Jean Daive. La Presse, 2012.

trans. Norma Cole. White Decimal, Jean Daive. Oakland, CA: Omnidawn Publishing, 2016.

George Oppen: The Pursuit of Clarity

George Oppen: The Pursuit of Clarity
“Truth is also the pursuit of it.”–George Oppen

More than anything, the best advice there is for aspiring poets is to read. Read, read, read. Read poetry dissimilar to your own, pick up one end of a daisy chain of poets and follow the links to poetry movements, poets whose work will eventually influence your own.

George Oppen (1908-1984) is generally known for his association with the Objectivist group, Modernist poets who collaborated starting in the 1930’s and were influenced by Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams.

Williams’ effort to write in an “American” vernacular is significant, and created openings for poets like Oppen to express ideas that prior to 1920 would not have been expressed. Williams (as contrasted with T.S. Eliot) preferred a colloquial voice and spare, open style with a natural rhythm, with the intention to take poetry “out of the classroom”. Oppen and his contemporaries like Luis Zukofsky and, later, Lorine Niedecker share the philosophy of “looking clearly at the world”. Their work is sincere, intelligent, approachable, honest, but also demonstrates inventiveness that inspired later groups of poets.

(As a parallel in visual art, I suggest studying  Cy Twombly’s work; though he was not a contemporary of these poets the philosophy, style, and approach is similar, as is his allusion to ancient history, expressed with modern sensibility; analogies such as this lead to deeper understanding.)

Oppen’s published work (written between 1934 and 1978) is fiercely individual, human, and skeptical of the values and structures in place during his time. My interpretation of his work is that he is constantly aware and accepting of an overarching unity or “original state of being” while “present in the immediate world”. I see a tension in his work between collaboration and solitary reflection, individual and political/communal, and above all a meta-cognitive awareness (and critique—including self-critique) of conventional reality.

From: Of Being Numerous (1968):

1

There are things

We live among ‘and to see them

Is to know ourselves’.

 

Occurrence, a part

Of an infinite series,

 

The sad marvels;

Of this was told

A tale of our wickedness.

It is not our wickedness.

 

‘You remember that old town we went to, and we sat in the

ruined window, and we tried to imagine that we belonged to

those times—It is dead and it is not dead, and you cannot

imagine either its life or its death; the earth speaks and the sala-

mander speaks, the Spring comes and only obscures it—‘

 

7

 

Obsessed, bewildered

 

By the shipwreck

Of the singular

 

We have chosen the meaning

Of being numerous.

 

17

 

The roots of words

Dim in the subways

 

There is madness in the number

Of the living

‘A state of matter’

There is nobody here but us chickens

 

Anti-ontology—

 

He wants to say

His life is real,

No one can say why

 

It is not easy to speak

 

A ferocious mumbling, in public

Of rootless speech

 

32

 

Only that it should be beautiful,

Only that it should be beautiful,

 

O, beautiful

 

Red green blue—the wet lips

Laughing

 

Or the curl of the white shell

 

And the beauty of women, the perfect tendons

Under the skin, the perfect life

 

That can twist in a flood

Of desire

 

Not truth but each other

 

The bright, bright skin, her hands wavering

In her incredible need

 

(and on, there are 40 sections total)

From George Oppen: New Collected Poems, 2008; ed. Michael Davidson.

In short, read! Find the poets who opened new paths, so that now you can write freely. Write in context of the poets who came before, and write Yourself. Oppen’s sincerity, humility, and intelligence is personally inspiring to me. I hope that you will read his work. Coming soon, I will write about a very different poet, Federico Garcia Lorca, one of my uber-inspiring influences.

Enjoy!