I’m pleased to offer this excerpt from the preface to the new book Earth & Eros: A Celebration in Words and Photographs, edited by Lorraine Anderson. I interviewed Lorraine for “Drawing Closer,” an essay on women poets and nature in the third millennium published in Her Circle. Lorraine and I share a curiosity about what it means to experience intimacy with the world through breathing, moving, speaking and listening.
Earth & Eros brings together prose and poetry by nearly seventy authors—including Gary Snyder, Terry Tempest Williams, Pablo Neruda, Diane Ackerman, D. H. Lawrence, and Louise Erdrich—to celebrate the sacred erotic dimension of humans’ relationship to the earth. Foreword by Robert Michael Pyle and photographs by Bruce Hodge.
Eros. The irresistible siren of desire. The red cord of passion. The hunger that cries to be filled, the thirst that must be quenched. The mysterious force that propels every life form, pushing roses to bloom, hummingbirds to migrate, and salmon to swim upriver to spawn. The force of life seeking to fulfill itself, reaching, surging, expanding, unfolding. The life force that connects us to ourselves, to other humans, to all other living beings on the earth, and to the earth as a living being.
Eros encompasses our sensuality and sexuality, yes, but it embraces so much more—the deepest longings of body, heart, and soul, our deepest roots in earth. “Eros is the bond in the ecological communion within which we live. It is not primarily an emotion, a decision, or the result of an act of will. It is the mutuality linking cell to cell, animal to environment, without which we would not be,” writes philosopher Sam Keen in The Passionate Life.
Eros in our world is most often narrowly understood as romantic and sexual love and lust between humans. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the earth is so often treated as an object to be bent to our own uses rather than as an intimate partner to be loved, respected, appreciated, and revered. Perhaps there is a relationship between our limited concept of eros and our narrow valuing of nature solely for the “resources” it provides us with. We have forgotten the intimate, erotic relationship between our bodies and the earth, and the consequences are all around us.
. . .
“Oh, what a catastrophe, what a maiming of love when it was made a personal, merely personal feeling, taken away from the rising and the setting of the sun, and cut off from the magic connection of the solstice and equinox! This is what is the matter with us, we are bleeding at the roots, because we are cut off from the earth and sun and stars,” wrote novelist D. H. Lawrence. Is there a different way of inhabiting our bodies and the earth? Eros, the force of desire, says yes.
Stop and take a deep breath. Breathe the air down into your heart, into your pelvis, into your toes. Feel your body as the earth of you, as a part of the larger body of the earth; feel yourself as a wild creature connected to a wild longing for health, wholeness, communion. Experience your deepest cravings. Know that the well-being of the earth depends on your passionate pursuit of what you most deeply desire in your cells, which is life abundant and overflowing.
Patti Smith’s M Train shows how writers accrue experiences as images and how those images become raw material for our work. She explains,
Images have their way of dissolving and then abruptly returning, pulling along the joy and pain attached to them like tin cans rattling from the back of an old-fashioned wedding vehicle.
A black dog on a strip of beach, Fred standing in the shadows of mangy palms flanking the entrance to Saint-Laurent Prison, the blue-and-yellow Gitane matchbox wrapped in his handkerchief, and Jackson racing ahead, searching for his father in the pale sky.
After the abolishment of California’s Arts-in-Corrections funding in 2009, inmates facilitated their own arts groups, relying on volunteers to infuse fresh ideas. From 2010-2013, I volunteered as a poetry teacher at California State Prison-Sacramento (New Folsom Prison). The maximum-security facility housed about 3,000 men at the time I worked there.
Offering up experiences within the framework of writing, the guys and I learned from each other about perspective, environment, language, rhythm, time, friendship, justice, illness, empathy and responsibility.
In that stark setting, we drew from memory for images to turn into phrases. When asked to construct metaphors using animals or natural imagery, the students were often stuck. Their experience of animals beyond a neighborhood cat or dog was limited. Most had never visited a wildlife park or even a zoo.
Having grown up under street lights, they’d never seen a dark sky brightened with stars.
I’d filed my essay away in the cloud; I’ll share it now. This is what I wrote after my final visit.
One afternoon, in a small group gathered at New Folsom Prison to discuss writing, a young man lifted the lid on his stockpot of stories.
At 20, he was three years “down.” In those last few teenage years, by listening and paying attention he’d gathered a writer’s skills, developing in English and Spanish a storyteller’s sense for detail, dialogue and pacing. I suggested he could write in both languages, maybe for people who have no way to tell their own stories; he could bear witness to events.
“I never thought of it that way before,” he said.
Through the room’s window on the hallway, he watched his younger brother being led in chains by officers past a gate. That brother’s twin, he said, was in another state prison. “We’ve disappointed our mom.”
They grew up with their mother (their father lived close by, but not with them) in a small Central Valley town bound on four sides by orchards. The town’s children had a pond for swimming–when it wasn’t emptied by irrigation–and a community center where he hung out with the kids, even after he was inducted into a gang.
“One time,” he told us, “the center was having a drawing contest for the little kids, something about our town.” One boy drew the bird that symbolizes the United Farm Workers. The boy included the name of the town and proudly showed it to the teacher.
“Oh, man,” the storyteller said, “I thought, ‘He doesn’t know.’”
The boy didn’t know that the symbol he saw on t-shirts, banners, and posters, had been co-opted by a gang. The boy’s drawing could not be entered in the contest.
“That was when I realized that up until a point you can be a little kid and then you can’t.”
He told us about working beside his father in the fields and how pickers would trade rows so everyone had enough. He laughed as he remembered out-of-town relatives arriving to glean nectarines from trees edging the streets. His favorite times were riding in the car to the Wal-Mart in a neighboring town before his town had its own store.
On those trips he could look out the window at the scenery passing.
He told more. About the time a bird struck the windshield when his mother was driving. The time he pushed his teacher for grabbing his headphones, and the man fell, and he was charged with assault.
About when he stopped smoking weed and how stupid his friends looked when they were high but how they passed the blunt, skipping him, without giving him grief.
He told us how he could look at a math problem and see the answer arise without touching a pencil. (“I don’t know how it happens,” he said.) He told us about a girlfriend who mentioned a test he could take for college entrance and how no one could believe it when he scored so high.
“People with scores like mine. They go to MIT,” he said. He shook his head. “I wish I had known. I wish I had known that I could go to college and all that.”
I wish I had known is a phrase I heard often from inmates.
One man, upon writing his first poem, told me, “I wish I had known earlier that I can do this. I wouldn’t be here. I didn’t know I had this in me.”
On one visit, we used a simple Venn diagram to compare how we perceive in “artist mode” with how we perceive in daily life. An inmate observed, “This is weird. Thinking about my mind in two ways.” He stuck with it, then commented, “I can bring these together. I can be my ‘artist self’ more often.”
Another writer spent more than a year revising the same wonderful poem of numbers that held a pattern he perceived. He was dealing with schizophrenia and a brain injury. Beautiful and complex, his poem operated outside of any recognizable linear progression, any expectations of a “healthy mind.”
At first, the poem was no more than sounds. Over time, the sounds stacked up to make meaning.
One day, he delivered the poem to the room, reading from a creased piece of lined paper. After a moment of stunned silence, everyone applauded. With persistence, he had made sense. He had untangled a portion of his thinking through effortful experience.
In the introduction to the 1921 Modern Library Edition of Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, Carl Sandburg points out,
Throughout “Leaves of Grass” there recurs often a wild soft laughter carrying the hint that it is impossible for a poet to tell you anything worth knowing unless you already know it and no song can be sung to you that will seem a song deeply worth hearing unless you have already in some strange, far-off fashion heard that song. An instance of this wild soft laughter is in the closing lines of “Song of Myself,” where it is written:
The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains of my gab and of my loitering.
I too am not a bit tamed, I too am unstranslatable.
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.
The last scud of day holds back for me,
It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any on the shadow’d wilds,
It coaxes me to the vapour and the dusk.
In every work of art and every conversation we respond to there’s that feeling of recollection. It’s the marvel of connection. It’s embodying metaphor, from Greek metaphora, to transfer; it’s the conveyance of meaning between one living creature and another over the broad valley of experiences and genes that make our dispositions and keep us from being all the same, too tamed.
Experience is related to experiment. All experiences begin as experiments, don’t they?
Greeting an inmate, I’d say, “It’s nice to see you.”
“It’s nice to be seen,” he’d respond.
Toward the end of M Train, Smith’s ellipsoidal gift of black and white photos, flavors of black coffee and brown toast, her shared beauties, fantasies and phantasms, she observes,
We seek to stay present, even as ghosts attempt to draw us away. Our father manning the loom of eternal return. Our mother wandering toward paradise, releasing the thread. In my way of thinking, anything is possible. Life is at the bottom of things and belief at the top, while the creative impulse, dwelling in the center, informs us all.
Reading an interview with Naomi Klein in Tricycle, I was reminded of this quote from Richard Rosen in his book Original Yoga.
Again we see the close relationship between asana and the natural world. It doesn’t seem far-fetched to imagine that the world itself is ensouled and practicing yoga; that it, too, is searching for its authentic self; and that humans are playing along, matching the world’s asanas.
Klein had said,
Part of what fuels manic consumption is the desire to fill gaps in our lives that emerge because of severed connections of various kinds—with community, with one another, and also with the natural world.
We tend to think about connections to nature as something you have to get out of the city in order to build. We’ll say, let’s take urban kids to the wilderness. I think doing that is really valuable, and I believe everybody should be able to experience that. But I also think that we have to be able to engage with the fact that we are still profoundly dependent on nature even when we are in urban environments.
I had a yoga teacher for years who was really good at getting large groups of people at the YMCA to think about the earth beneath the concrete, to connect with the fact that animals all over our world were breathing the same air as us. These practices are critical for us to realize that especially in our protected, air-conditioned bubbles, we are dependent on the natural systems that are being destabilized by climate change.
A challenge for me in moving to D.C. from Sacramento has been adapting to the “air-conditioned bubble” of the apartment house that is now my home. In my unit, I open the windows. They face north, toward an abandoned and re-wilded section of Klingle Road in Rock Creek Park. The gravel-topped roof of the parking garage keeps the treetops out of reach. I hear birds. Occasionally a sparrow, cardinal, mourning dove or white-breasted nuthatch lands to rest.
In other posts, I’ve mentioned the treasure of the garden conservancy Tregaron–amazingly and generously maintained for the public by a private trust–, and Rock Creek Park where one sees white-tailed deer and the stylish-looking black squirrels. Thanks in part to my grandmother, Kay Mergen, a Nevada transplant who had a large hand in raising my brother and me in D.C. in the 70s and 80s, I know to seek the non-human, that wilder things share the city.
Monday night, I left for an evening walk rattled by unexpected news and feeling out of sorts. The sun was setting. I stayed outside in Tregaron through dusk and into darkness, watching the little brown bats darting through the blue-purple sky. Who can watch a bat and not be transformed?
A few weeks ago, sitting by the frog pond as evening arrived, Matt, Tucker and I were startled by the POP POP POP POP of what we thought was a tree branch cracking. Before us, about 150 yards away, an entire oak tree smashed to the ground. When we investigated, we saw the tree had been over 100 feet tall. Fresh-wood smell enveloped us.
This morning, one of my students practiced her yoga lesson mostly supine. She’s recovering from a toe injury and an infection. We began in mountain pose, her feet against the wall. Then she entered tree pose lying on her back. As I listened to her breathe, I remembered the Rosen quote, and the interview with Klein.
The world is practicing yoga. When we choose to devote a little time to asana practice, meditating, reflecting on our actions and noticing our breath, we join with it.
Reading “What More Can You Do?” published today in Radius is a little discombobulating. I wrote the poem when I dwelled in a cottage in the tree-lined neighborhood of Elmhurst. I was a bit of an urban hermit, writing a lot, staying close to home in my garden with my old dogs. In eight years there, I got to know just about every neighbor on my walking route, including non-humans like the turkey hen of the poem. Now I live in an apartment a frisbee’s throw from Interstate 80 and am out and about, teaching yoga classes and meeting with editing clients. Birds visit the balcony–a magpie daily drinks from a water-filled basin, hummingbirds sip at blossoms of potted sage, through the second-story window I view crows tossing pecans from the tree–but I don’t know birds in the same way.
While in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia last week, Matt and I stopped in the Appalachian Trail Visitor Center. I shared with Pamela, the volunteer on duty, a story inmates at a maximum security prison had told me: a pair of Canada geese laid and hatched eggs and raised their young right in the prison yard, surrounded by concrete and barbed wire. The experience of nature remained one of the most memorable of the prisoners’ lives; it was the first opportunity they’d had to observe animals so closely. I also told Pamela of a poet from Richmond, an industrial city across the Bay from San Francisco, describing the first time she experienced a dark sky full of stars. She was an adult, already a mother, visiting Arizona on a scholarship. She had not known such beauty existed. Pamela pointed out that if we don’t protect open space we will lose it and children coming up may never have the experience of simplicity that can be found away from society.
The other day, I asked some of my yoga students what the physical practice of asana is to them. More than one responded, “making space.” I spoke with an artist friend this morning about giving away possessions, “making space” for the next idea, the next project. She noticed how few items I retain–books go to Little Free Libraries, clothes to Goodwill, housewares to the SPCA thrift store. I’m realizing as I’m writing that I gave away my belongings–all that I owned when I owned the house where the poem in question came to be–to deepen a sense of belonging. I seek to (moment-by-moment) settle into whatever space exists within a poem or a pose, a conversation with a stranger, or physically, hand-in-hand, for example, while walking with a friend. Because truly everything changes, everything is connected and if human beings have a purpose it’s to pay attention.
As I reread them, these lines puzzle me. The sensation of writing them, sitting on the sofa, notebook in lap, remains but I don’t remember having done so. Who was I then?
“…Like love, like hate, loneliness
can be measured by many methods, as a solid or liquid,
in inches or cubic yards. To think it’s impossible to know
another’s mind. It’s enough that all life seeks pleasure,
avoids pain; suffering at best can be managed. The tree’s
branch stays strong in the wind. The bird is hidden.”
The act of creativity, in whatever form, gives us the space to be without needing to be.
So, how do observations about a turkey hen in the city turn into a poem about perseverance? I don’t know. But wondering is why I make space to receive poems, why I read and listen to them, and why I like to be outside among birds.
Maybe creating a poem is a game of pick-up sticks, requiring concentration, daring, patience, an awareness of the singular and the whole, a desire to both be part of something and to stand apart, all the while knowing outcome depends on skill and chance and an end result may be order or disarray.
Feelings of discomfiture let us know we are growing as we change, simultaneously living and being aware of being alive.
We call vrksasana a balancing pose. But to enter it, we briefly unbalance ourselves, moving away from our bilateral status to find moments of steadiness on one leg. We become like the poet’s one-winged day beneath the breeze, and we join the trees.
In a class, savasana sometimes carries a feeling of transition, a mark between the preceding practice and the pending reentry into “regular life.” These pauses amid what was and what will be are the present, and can be bittersweet when lived and, as the poet does, recalled.
Recalling a Past Excursion to Wang Convent: Sent to Zaisheng
The day eight years ago that I read a news story ago about these little creatures called waterbears, or tardigrades, living in moss and lichen, I also had Dolly Parton in my mind. They came together in this poem. More about seeing in art and science here.
Dolly and the Tardigrades
When I used to hear Great Smoky Mountains
I’d think on Dolly Parton, ageless idol, my blue bird
of happiness in her coat of many colors
riding on a peace train.
Now I’ve seen a sketch of tardigrades,
dot-sized creatures found in only those mountains,
those same ones Dolly’s from.
Dolly, do you wonder as you sing, voice
like a stream over sun-spotted rock,
of the sweet-faced life within a water drop
splashed over and pooled on a grain of bank sand?
Little water bears, do you hear Dolly on her barefoot mossy walks,
hilly music drifting like streamy clouds? Do you cluster in a water-film world
hum hum hum along and nod your tiny heads?