member of:Observers of the Interdependence of Domestic Objects and Their Influence on Everyday Life

This group has been active for a long time and has already made some remarkable assertions which render life simpler from the practical point of view. For example, I move a pot of green color five centimeters to the right, I push in the thumbtack beside the comb and if Mr. A (another adherent like me) at this moment puts his volume about bee-keeping beside a pattern for cutting out vests, I am sure to meet on the sidewalk of the avenida Madero a woman who intrigues me and whose origin and address I never could have known...
--Remedios Varo

(Artwork by Remedios Varo)
By believing passionately in something that still does not exist, we create it. The nonexistent is whatever we have not sufficiently desired.
--Franz Kafka

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Theodora III

As I began painting this creature, caught in the midst of transformation, first in her shamanic dress with her guiding creatures-- in the process of developing their own feathers--I came upon the book The Spell of the Sensuous and began exploring the idea that the tale of the Loss of Eden may be one of the human desire to transcend the environment, in the process losing the ability to listen to and respond to--communicate with--the environment. That painting was a gift, and so I made maquettes of the creatures to keep me company as I thought about those ideas, and in the process of putting them together, she gained some deer-like aspects and full-blown wings. In this painting, I wanted to emphasize that the environment is not separate from her, that the whole painting is one being, there is a whole, and this is just the view I have of it right now. 

As I worked on it, I discovered the book Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us about Ourselves, by James Nestor, and learned of a whole realm of language humans know nothing about and are only now trying to study, the language of cetaceans:

“Sperm whales produce four distinct vocalization patterns: normal clicks, for tracking down prey at distances of more than a mile; creaks, which sound, despite their name, like machine-gun fire, for homing in on close-range prey; codas, the patterns used during social interactions; and slow clicks, which no one quite understands. One theory is that bulls use slow clicks to attract females and scare off other males. The clicks are very similar to dolphin clicks but more complex. 
Coda clicks, the focus of Schnöller’s work, are used only during socializing and are significantly different from clicks used to aid perception and navigation. They sound unremarkable to the human ear—something like the tack-tack-tack of marbles dropped on a wood table. But when the clicks are slowed down and viewed as a sound wave on a spectrogram, each reveals an incredibly complex collection of shorter clicks inside it. 
Inside those shorter clicks are even shorter clicks, and so on. The more closely Schnöller focused in on a click, the more detailed it became, unfolding on his computer screen like a Russian nesting doll. 
An average click lasts anywhere from twenty-four milliseconds (thousandths of a second) to seventy-two milliseconds. Inside these clicks are a series of microclicks, which themselves are separated by microseconds, and so on. All these tiny clicks inside the coda are transmitted at very specific and distinct frequencies. There could be even shorter, organized click patterns within these microclicks, but Schnöller’s machines—which record at 96,000 Hz, the highest speed available on most modern audio equipment—aren’t fast enough to process them. 
Schnöller tells me that sperm whales can replicate these clicks down to the exact millisecond and frequency, over and over again. They can also control the millisecond-long intervals inside the clicks and reorganize them into different structures, in the same way a composer might revise a scale of notes in a piano concerto. But sperm whales can make elaborate revisions to their click patterns, then play them back in the space of a few thousandths of a second. 
‘When you think about it, human language is very inefficient, it is very prone to errors,’ Schnöller says. Humans use phonemes—basic units of sound, like kah, puh, ah, tee—to create words, sentences, and, ultimately, meaning. (English has about forty-two phonemes, which speakers shuffle around to create tens of thousands of words.) While we can usually convey phonemes clearly enough for others to understand them, we can never fully replicate them the same way each time we speak. The frequency, volume, and clarity of the voice shifts constantly, so that the same word uttered twice in a row by the same person will usually sound discernibly different, and will always show clear differences on a spectrogram. Comprehension in human language is based on proximity: If you enunciate clearly enough, another speaker of the same language will understand you; if you bungle too many vowels and consonants, or even pronunciation (think of French or a tonal Asian language), then communication is lost. Schnöller’s research suggests that sperm whales don’t have this problem.”

Sperm whales are apparently the loudest animals on Earth--as far as we know--and if they want to yell, their clicks will out-perform 2,000 pounds of TNT exploding about 60 meters away. That maximum sound, 236 decibels, is just 4 decibels away from boiling the water around them into vapor, and is already too loud for air, where it can’t be heard. These whales have huge brains, with very developed auditory processors and a neocortex (that higher-level functioning section humans are so proud of) about six times larger than ours. And, “in 2006, researchers at New York City’s Mount Sinai School of Medicine discovered that sperm whales had spindle cells, the long and highly developed brain structures that neurologists associate with speech and feelings of compassion, love, suffering, and intuition—those things that make humans human. Sperm whales not only have spindle cells, but have them in far greater concentration than humans do.”

So it would seem that they might be able to tell us something, if we were able to go down into the water with them, where it’s possible to hear them, and then focus our hearing processes a lot more so we could catch all those microclicks. Then, of course, would come the process of translation. 

Dolphins also use this clicking form of communication, and it was in reading about them that I was really knocked over, that I was really reminded of how Abrams had so carefully tied magic together with the ability to shift one’s perspective “sideways,” into another life-form. Like sperm whales, dolphins also use the clicking sounds as a sonar, via a melon beneath their lower jaw, which is covered in data points--thousands compared to our two ears. With the information gained, a dolphin can ‘see’ a shape up to six miles away, or a foot underneath the sand. And not just through sand, but through skin--this sonar process would allow a dolphin swimming next to you to look into your brains and heart. Some researchers, like Fabrice Schnöller, are starting to think that it’s not just that the dolphins can construct sonographic images via sound, but that they can actually share those images with each other, via holographic communication: “This nonverbal form of communication allows cetaceans to share fully rendered three-dimensional images with other cetaceans, the same way you might snap a photograph on your smartphone and send it to a friend. Schnöller believes cetaceans can share what they’re thinking and seeing with one another without ever opening their ears, or their eyes.”

So, in this method of communication, in this form of language, we have several “magical”, “superhero” abilities: X-ray vision, incredible distance vision, and telepathy. Not to mention any questions about whether those holographic images are creations of group belief--that is, worlds-- that the dolphins swim into together, meaning, maybe they are creating their “Dreamtime” as they click.

You might be thinking, well, but humans don’t have a melon with a thousand points of data-retrieval, so, you know, too bad. 

But you know better, right?

In the book, Nestor interviews Brian Bushway, a former student of and current colleague of Daniel Kish, who founded World Access for the Blind. Brian, who has been blind since he was fourteen, can be seen here as an adult, riding his mountain bike and teaching other blind people move around using echolocation:

  I first read about Daniel Kish in an article for Men’s Journal by Michael Finkel, which I also recommend reading in its entirety, where Finkel describes Kish’s abilities and his clicks, and shares part of his own brief lessons in echolocation:

“He is so accomplished at echolocation that he's able to pedal his mountain bike through streets heavy with traffic and on precipitous dirt trails. He climbs trees. He camps out, by himself, deep in the wilderness. He's lived for weeks at a time in a tiny cabin a two-mile hike from the nearest road. He travels around the globe. He's a skilled cook, an avid swimmer, a fluid dance partner. Essentially, though in a way that is unfamiliar to nearly any other human being, Kish can see.


“I listen as Kish opens a cabinet and rummages amid his pots. He returns and stands behind me. "Make a click," he says.
It's a terrible click, a sloppy click; what Kish calls a "clucky click." Kish's click is a thing of beauty – he snaps the tip of his tongue briefly and firmly against the roof of his mouth, creating a momentary vacuum that pops upon release, a sound very much like pushing the igniter on a gas stove. A team of Spanish scientists recently studied Kish's click and deemed it acoustically ideal for capturing echoes. A machine, they wrote, could do no better.

My click will work for now. Kish tells me that he's holding a large glass lid, the top to a Crock-Pot, a few inches in front of me. "Click again," he says. There's a distinct echo, a smearing of sound as if I'm standing in my shower. "Now click," he says. The echo's gone. "I've lifted it up. Can you tell?"

I can, quite clearly. "Click again," he instructs. "Where is it?" I click; there's no echo.

"It's still lifted," I say.

"Try again," says Kish. "But move your head, listen to your environment."

I turn my head to the right and click. Nothing. Then I click to the left. Bingo. "It's over here," I say, tilting my head in the direction of the lid.

"Exactly," says Kish. "Now let's try it with a pillow."

If you look at the chart below, created by Abstruse Goose, you’ll see that both our sight and our hearing make us aware of a woefully small amount of the information available in our environment.  But Finkel points out that if we translated the amount of light variety we can pick up into sound terminology, we would say we can see “less than one octave of frequency.” We hear much ‘better’ than we see, much more.

“Kish does not go around clicking like a madman. He uses his click sparingly and, depending on his location, varies the volume. When he's outside, he'll throw a loud click. In good conditions, he can hear a building 1,000 feet away, a tree from 30 feet, a person from six feet. Up close, he can echolocate a one-inch diameter pole. He can tell the difference between a pickup truck, a passenger car, and an SUV. He can locate trail signs in the forest, then run his finger across the engraved letters and determine which path to take. Every house, he explains, has its own acoustic signature.
He can hear the variation between a wall and a bush and a chain-link fence. Bounce a tennis ball off a wall, Kish says, then off a bush. Different response. So too with sound. Given a bit of time, he can echolocate something as small as a golf ball. Sometimes, in a parking garage, he can echolocate the exit faster than a sighted person can find it.
Kish hears the sonic reflections from his click even in a place teeming with ambient noise. ‘It's like recognizing a familiar voice in a crowd,’ he says. The load upon his mind is undoubtedly immense. Yet he casually processes everything, constructing and memorizing a mental map of his route, all while maintaining an intricate conversation with me. It's so extraordinary that it seems to border on the magical.”

There we are again, with that word.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Theodora and the Birds Part II

Maquettes created in the style taught by Clive Hicks-Jenkins for compositional study.
may my heart always be open to little
birds who are the secrets of living
whatever they sing is better than to know
and if men should not hear them men are old

may my mind stroll about hungry
and fearless and thirsty and supple
and even if it’s sunday may i be wrong
for whenever men are right they are not young

and may myself do nothing usefully
and love yourself so more than truly
there’s never been quite such a fool who could fail
pulling all the sky over him with one smile

–E.E. Cummings

In my previous post on fungi, I quoted David Abrams’ suggestion that shamans go about trying to expand their knowledge past what their specifically human senses can teach them by binding their perception, and then their nervous systems, to those of another animal--by learning to experience the world as that other animal, and thus obtain information otherwise hidden from them. In Becoming Animal, Abrams suggests that a big part of what we could learn from any animal would be to listen to the whole of our bodies, to even allow the information coming in through our skin and ears and noses and eyes to overwhelm and silence the voice in our heads with whom we usually spend our days.

“Never having separated their sentience from their sensate bodies—having little reason to sequester their intelligence in a separate region of their skull where it might dialogue steadily with itself—many undomesticated animals, when awake, move in a fairly constant dialogue not with themselves but with their surroundings. Here it is not an isolated mind but rather the sensate, muscled body itself that is doing the thinking, its diverse senses and its flexing limbs playing off one another as it feels out fresh solutions to problems posed, adjusting old habits (and ancestral patterns) to present circumstances.
This kind of distributed sentience, this intelligence in the limbs, is especially keen in birds of flight. Unlike most creatures of the ground, who must traverse an opaque surface of only two-plus dimensions as we make our way through the world, a soaring bird continually adjusts minute muscles in its wings to navigate an omnidimensional plenum of currents and interference patterns that alter from moment to moment—an unseeable flux compounded of gusting winds and whirling eddies, of blasts and updrafts and sudden calms, of storm fronts, temperature gradients, and countless other temperamental vectors and flows that may invisibly and at any moment impinge upon your feathered trajectory—whether from in front or above or below, shoving you from one side or the other or from several directions all at once. Flying is an uninterrupted improvisation with an unseen and wildly metamorphic partner.”

Many animals in the world’s forest will keep a keen attention to the songs and silences of the birds, using them to locate any change--dangerous or not-- in the forest’s activities, such as the arrival of a human, or a fox, or the approach of a storm, all information that can be gathered from the bird’s unique access to the sounds and scents on the breeze, to changes in its eddies and flows, and also to their brilliant perspective allowed by quick access to great heights.

So it was that Abrams’ studies with a particular Shaman in Nepal, Sonam, focused on developing a relationship with a bird: the raven. His studies, however, began slowly, and the methods recall the idea explored in my first St. Theodora post, of the story of our loss of Eden perhaps actually being one about our new focus on transcending the landscape around us and being above it; our loss, therefore, of the ability to feel the garden or paradise, and to understand the language of its parts--a loss which left us bereft, and very much alone. So Sonam first had Abrams focus his eyes on a rock, for hours at a time. Then he had him focus on a point just inside the rock, then on a point in the air somewhere between himself and the rock. Then he asked him to focus his eyes and his ears on that point in the air between himself and the rock. Each request provoked some new difficulty, as you can imagine, and took focus, and time, to accomplish.
During all this time, Abrams’ understanding of his senses and how they communicate with each other and deepen each other was developing, as was his sense of the rock, and also the air. He says:

“The strangest thing about my time with Sonam and his wife, Jangmu, was how deeply I came home to myself during those days and nights. Rather than sampling alien practices and exploring beliefs entirely new to me, it was the quality of my own felt experience that became ever more fascinating, the carnal thickness underlying even my most ephemeral daydreams. From that first evening in their house, I found myself noticing ordinary, physical sensations much more vividly than I had realized was possible. As though something in my hosts’ way of moving somehow untied and dispersed all my abstract reflections. The churning of words within my head simply fell silent when I was anywhere around Sonam, freeing my awareness to witness the unique intensities of particular textures, smells, and sounds as these registered along my skin or in the depths of my viscera. Their home, with its stone walls, had a palpable density that hunkered close as I slept on the mud-caked floor across from Sonam and Jangmu, and when I awoke in the mornings I seemed to emerge from my private dreams into the wider dreaming of this breathing house nested within the broad imagination of the bouldered hillside.
And herein was the strangeness: the more my consciousness sank into the muscled thickness of my animal flesh, the more I could feel the tangible earth around me swell and breathe and move within itself—trees, riverbanks, and boulders quietly responding to all the happenings in their vicinity.[...] As though by dissolving my detached cogitations into the sensory curiosity of my body, I had slipped into alignment with the sentience of the land itself. Awakening as this upright, wide-eyed, smooth-skinned thing, I noticed that all the other things around me were also awake.
[...]Hence I began to feel far more palpably present, and real, to the rocks and the shadowed cliffs than I’d felt before. I felt that I was known to these mountains now. This experience—this awareness of my elemental, thingly presence to the tangible things that surround me—has remained, for me, the purest hallmark of magic, the very signature of its uttermost reality. Magic doesn’t sweep you away; it gathers you up into the body of the present moment so thoroughly that all your explanations fall away: the ordinary, in all its plain and simple outrageousness, begins to shine—to become luminously, impossibly so. Every facet of the world is awake, and you within it. The deeper I slid into the material density of the real, the more I found that there was nothing determinate or predictable about existence. Actuality, this inexhaustible mystery, cannot be domesticated. It is wildness incarnate. Reality shapeshifts.”

Maquettes made by Zoe Blue

Maquettes made by Zoe Blue

This segment of his book struck me as so completely in tune with the process Katharine Butler Hathaway described, in her memoirs, as a method of releasing herself from the monstrous grip of terrors and self-destructive beliefs both as she lay strapped tight to her board, day in and day out, for those ten years of her childhood, and as she tried to develop as an adult afterwards, with the physical and emotional difficulties caused by her disfigurement. She would focus on some ordinary thing around her-- a chair, a door, a table-- focus on it, not as a superior being but in appreciation, until she began to see what an amazing object it really was, until she began to feel the object’s uniqueness, it’s aliveness. And from that feeling, she was able to realize a certain magic to all parts of the universe, and it became apparent to her--it became overwhelmingly clear--that all kinds of things were possible, that all kinds of amazing possibilities lay in front of her. And she went about them. It is true, what Abrams says. Reality shapeshifts. Nothing is determinate or predictable about existence--it’s only when your awareness barely skips over what’s around it that things seem so solid, unchangeable, and pre-ordained.

Nothing is even determinate about your own body. As his studies progressed from rock to air to raven, as he began to learn the dancing motions of the bird, and the feeling between its shoulder blades brought to him by his prolonged exercises of attention, he became able to experience things very differently. He developed his focus on the bird to the extent that Sonam finally came to him with a new request: to bring his tactile sense--his full bodily sense--into the exercise. He wanted him to focus his entire body to the place where his two eyes converged onto the body of the raven.

He explained this by talking about the fire in the hearth and the water in a small nearby brook. He wanted Abrams to look not only with his eyes, and he wasn’t asking him to reach out his hand touch the fire or the water; he wanted him to feel himself as the fire, to feel the heat building in his chest, radiating outward, to feel the easing of his muscles and the cooling of his organs with the fluid motion of the water. What he wanted Abrams to do was to approach that shamanic magic of entering the bird’s body.

“After several days of exasperated effort spent on the baffling task set for me, the fruition arrived unexpectedly, when I’d given up for the afternoon and was making my way back toward the hut. A couple hundred yards along the trail I came upon a raven crossing the dirt to peck at the corpse of a small rodent. As the bird leaned forward, I felt something inside me tip forward as well, and lost my balance for a moment. I regained my equilibrium as the bird kept pecking at the carcass, but now couldn’t help noticing a sensation in my neck every time the raven reached its beak toward the ground. After a few tries, the bird succeeded in loosening a large morsel from the remains, and swooped up onto a shelf of rock with the gore in its beak; as it did so I felt a sudden weightlessness in my chest which abated as the raven settled onto the ledge. Had I really felt that? Yes!!! I knew immediately that this was what Sonam had been nudging me toward. The sensations were subtle, but unmistakable. As if the bird outside me had somehow awakened an analogue of itself inside my own muscles. Or, rather, as if the raven were not only pulling apart that bit of blood and meat out there on the rock ledge, but was also doing so in here, within my own organism.”

After some practice, he became more able to feel most of the things he saw with his eyes, so that he was able to experience the gentle motions of a field of flowers in the breeze or the weight of a heavy load carried by a child, or even sensations related to particular types of clouds. 

Since the theories of evolution suggest that we have done much of this before--transforming from fish to lizard to bird, or stretching out deep inside the soil as seemingly endless mycelial mats--perhaps what is really happening with this kind of intensely focused perception is an entry into non-linear time: into the same Dreamtime he talked about in The Spell of the Sensuous. He explains there that the Dreamtime is not a time properly understood to be in the past, a time which is over, even though it is the time which tells the story that explains the shape of the land and the relations of the people and other animals and the plants that make it up. It is like that latent image--a story you tell yourself about yourself which then controls what you see, what you miss, what ‘happens’ around you. It is a dream, and as in a dream, all the animate and inanimate beings around you quiver with a certain magic, which physics calls potential, and which can be seen, even, at some incredibly microscopic level where the vibration of your atoms becomes apparent. That is a time which is also a place, and you can move around within it and, if you focus, feel it from a different part of your consciousness--say, that of a bird. And if you can experience the story you are a part of from a different angle, then you have loosened the chains of your own character-arc, and reality shape-shifts around you (and inside you).

Maquettes by Zoe Blue

And this brings me back to St. Theodora, to her desire for her hair to become the trees, her blood the water to feed them, and her body a church. Reading Abrams’ Becoming Animal, I begin to see that church as the temple, the space in which the different aspects of the earth meet, change one another, and disperse again:

“Was this, then, the truth of perception—the body subtly blending itself with every phenomenon that it perceives? During those days, it began to seem as though my body was not, properly speaking, mine, but rather a piece of the sensuous world—and seeing was a steady trading of myself here with the things seen there, so that this sensitive flesh became a kind of distributed thing, and the visible terrain a field of feeling. And yet, as I noted—scribbling—in my journal, there was still distance and depth. The commingling of myself with things did not dissolve the distance between us, and so the sentience at large was hardly a homogeneous unity or bland “oneness,” but was articulated in various nodes and knots and flows that shifted as I moved within the broad landscape: that round rock overhanging the cliff’s edge feels like the right knee of the valley, as that jostling bunch of trees across the river far below seems an agitation within the groin of the world, and the ribbon of water way down there is now, yes, a thread of icy clarity winding up my spine. Perception alters, and with it the earth. The magician’s body is a kind of cauldron brewing potions that alter their powers according to the precise blend of senses involved; he offers these in turn to his apprentice, whose creaturely body slowly awakens, loosening itself from societal, fear-induced constraints.”

So Theodora moves, with deer-like grace and care, through the forest. She dons her cape of feathers for a shamanic dance, and meets with her familiar, at his moment of transition between lizard and bird, and experiences the world as a flux, as a moment, briefly lucid and amazed at the precise creativity of her own dreaming mind.

Maquettes of St. Theodora and her Bird-Lizard Companion
by Zoe Blue

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

On Reading Mushrooms

Photo by Steve Axford (Blue Leratiomyces)
Mr. Axford says: "My photography has been my avenue into this world as it slows me down and allows me to look at things more closely."

All images in this post are Steve Axford’s marvelous fungi photos (VIA).

Photo by Steve Axford
He says, "While doing this [photography] I have developed an acute interest in the way things fit together (the ecology).  Nothing exists in isolation and the more you look, the more you find. "

Photo by Steve Axford (Blue Leratiomyces)

Photo by Steve Axford

The world’s largest organism--that we know of so far-- is a thousand-acre fungal (mycelial) mat in Oregon’s Blue Mountains. It covers 2,384 acres, or 10 square km, or 4 square miles. Its age estimation is based on its current growth rate as 2,400 years old, but some place it at 8,650 years. The fungi of its genus, Armillaria, produce yellow capped and sweet mushrooms, so-called Honey Mushrooms. Unfortunately, everything I found about them discussed their pathogenicity (they kill conifers), but there are some pretty amazingly helpful (in my human opinion) fungi out there also.

In the February 2008 issue of Sun Magazine, Derrick Jensen interviews Paul Stamets, saying in his introduction:
“When we think of fungi, most of us picture mushrooms, those slightly mysterious, potentially poisonous denizens of dark, damp places. But a mushroom is just the fruit of the mycelium, which is an underground network of rootlike fibers that can stretch for miles. Stamets calls mycelia the “grand disassemblers of nature” because they break down complex substances into simpler components. For example, some fungi can take apart the hydrogen-carbon bonds that hold petroleum products together. Others have shown the potential to clean up nerve-gas agents, dioxins, and plastics. They may even be skilled enough to undo the ecological damage pollution has wrought.
Since reading Mycelium Running, I’ve begun to consider the possibility that mycelia know something we don’t. Stamets believes they have not just the ability to protect the environment but the intelligence to do so on purpose. His theory stems in part from the fact that mycelia transmit information across their huge networks using the same neurotransmitters that our brains do: the chemicals that allow us to think. In fact, recent discoveries suggest that humans are more closely related to fungi than we are to plants.
Almost since life began on earth, mycelia have performed important ecological roles: nourishing ecosystems, repairing them, and sometimes even helping create them. The fungi’s exquisitely fine filaments absorb nutrients from the soil and then trade them with the roots of plants for some of the energy that the plants produce through photosynthesis. No plant community could exist without mycelia.’

Photo by Steve Axford (Snowball)

Stamets talks in the interview of a type of fungus (Curvularia) that grows on certain grasses at Yellowstone’s hot springs and Lassen Volcanic Park which allow the grasses to survive contact with water up to 160 degrees (F). After a series of laboratory surprises, scientists discovered that it wasn’t just the fungus but the fungus paired with a virus which transferred this ability to withstand heat to the grasses it was symbiotically living with. This raised the question from the interviewer of where, in the three, did one organism stop and the other begin, since the abilities of one were apparently enjoyed via osmosis by another? Stamets’s response includes an intriguing idea springing from the existence of the immense Oregonian mycelial mat mentioned above:

“Well, humans aren’t just one organism. We are composites. Scientists label species as separate so we can communicate easily about the variety we see in nature. We need to be able to look at a tree and say it’s a Douglas fir and look at a mammal and say it’s a harbor seal. But, indeed, I speak to you as a unified composite of microbes. I guess you could say I am the “elected voice” of a microbial community. This is the way of life on our planet. It is all based on complex symbiotic relationships.
A mycelial “mat,” which scientists think of as one entity, can be thousands of acres in size. The largest organism in the world is a mycelial mat in eastern Oregon that covers 2,200 acres and is more than two thousand years old. Its survival strategy is somewhat mysterious. We have five or six layers of skin to protect us from infection; the mycelium has one cell wall. How is it that this vast mycelial network, which is surrounded by hundreds of millions of microbes all trying to eat it, is protected by one cell wall? I believe it’s because the mycelium is in constant biochemical communication with its ecosystem.
I think these mycelial mats are neurological networks. They’re sentient, they’re aware, and they’re highly evolved. They have external stomachs, which produce enzymes and acids to digest nutrients outside the mycelium, and then bring in those compounds that it needs for nutrition. As you walk through a forest, you break twigs underneath your feet, and the mycelium surges upward to capture those newly available nutrients as quickly as possible. I say they have “lungs,” because they are inhaling oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide, just like we are. I say they are sentient, because they produce pharmacological compounds — which can activate receptor sites in our neurons — and also serotonin-like compounds, including psilocybin, the hallucinogen found in some mushrooms. This speaks to the fact that there is an evolutionary common denominator between fungi and humans. We evolved from fungi. We took an overground route. The fungi took the route of producing these underground networks that are highly resilient and extremely adaptive: if you disturb a mycelial network, it just regrows. It might even benefit from the disturbance.”

Panus Fasciatus Photo by Steve Axford

Where does “me” end and the Confederate Jasmine I’m inhaling begin? Is it possible that I could “bind” with another animal--say, a cat-- and somehow share, as this grass shares with that virus and that fungus, abilities and knowledges? Is that, in fact, what shamans are doing, with their animal familiars? David Abrams suggests as much in his book, Becoming Animal:

“Science has tried to push past the carnal constraints on our knowledge by joining deductive reason to the judicious application of experiment. Traditional, tribal magicians or medicine persons take a different approach. They seek to augment the limitations of their specifically human senses by binding their attention to the ways of another animal. Steadily training his focus upon the patterned behavior of another creature—observing it closely in its own terrain, following and interpreting its tracks, becoming familiar with its calls and its styles of stalking or foraging—the medicine person renders himself vulnerable to another, non-human form of experience.
The more studiously an apprentice magician watches the other creature from a stance of humility, learning to mimic its cries and to dance its various movements, the more thoroughly his nervous system is joined to another set of senses—thereby gaining a kind of stereoscopic access to the world, a keener perception of the biosphere’s manifold depth and dimensionality. Like anything focused upon so intently, the animal ally will begin visiting the novice shaman’s dreams, imparting understandings wholly inaccessible to her waking mind. She may spend a whole night journeying as that other animal, stalking her prey and sometimes killing and devouring it, before awakening in this two-legged form. Most importantly, because the young shaman is now informed by two very different sets of senses, her allegiance to her own single species begins to loosen; she begins to catch glimpses of a shimmering, ever-shifting lattice of affiliations and filamental web that binds all beings. Now and then she may catch herself pondering matters less from a human angle than from the perspective of the forest or the river valley as a whole...”
Panus Lecomtei, Photo by Steve Axford

In an interview with Scott London, Abrams suggests that in our culture, we retain this ability, but only (usually) in one way--the way you are practicing right now:

“We are the culture of the alphabet, and the alphabet itself could be seen as a very potent form of magic. You know, we open up the newspaper in the morning and we focus our eyes on these little inert bits of ink on the page, and we immediately hear voices and we see visions and we experience conversations happening in other places and times. That is magic!
It's outrageous: as soon as we look at these printed letters on the page we see what they say. They speak to us. That is not so different from a Hopi elder stepping out of her pueblo and focusing her eyes on a stone and hearing the stone speak. Or a Lakota man stepping out and seeing a spider crawling up a tree and focusing his eyes on that spider and hearing himself addressed by that spider. We do just the same thing, but we do it with our own written marks on the page. We look at them, and they speak to us. It's an intensely concentrated form of animism. But it's animism nonetheless, as outrageous as a talking stone.”

It’s a very different way to consider the act of reading-- and somehow makes it seem more possible that with the same sort of effort one put into reading a book, one could learn to see through the eyes of a cat or a bird. One could learn to look at the forest as a whole, and feel the balance or imbalance of its resources and relations. One’s brain could then press past the mere thoughts of  “man” and experience something vastly different...

Photo by Steve Axford

But for more on the miraculous nature of mushrooms, watch this TedTalk:

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Samantha Keely Smith

Mutiny, 2012, by Samantha Keely Smith

Please press the images to see larger versions.

Vestige, 1998, by Samantha Keely Smith

Alley, 1998, by Samantha Keely Smith

Samantha Keely Smith first began painting her dreams, pulling strange, overlapping worlds with gleaming or ghostly figures in natural settings. She had recurring dreams, from childhood, that she feels may have come from a past life. As she painted them, their reason for existence began to clarify itself to her, and she was less haunted by them. She then moved into a deeper place, where words and particular shapes and beings no longer seemed “whole” enough to express what she was now struggling to express. After that came layer upon sometimes destroyed layer of motion and intense color, as if she were re-forming the chaos of the psychological underpinnings (memory, fear, dream, will-to-act, fantasy, all swirling around each other, conflicting with each other, making shifting alliances) of what we perceive as the solid, physical world into a more open-ended image we could stand before and perhaps even try to understand. 

Shift, by Samantha Keely Smith--You can see "another" world underneath...
Maybe, then, from that chaos, without the authoritarian, pre-defined, concrete, unchangeable image we call “reality” super-imposed on top of it, we could re-define the outlines of the world created by those psychological underpinnings, changing the universe as we stand there, and then leave the room to discover some miraculous occurrence. The world we see is not the only world there to experience...

Kindred by Samantha Keely Smith(The sea and the sky consider a trade, the sun jumps in to join...)

“What I'm trying to talk about or discover is really this whole notion of another existence coexisting with the one we see in reality, and the possibility of past lives, the spirit world and all that--the idea of being constrained by the here-and-now and the hold that earthly things have on us, our spirit, our soul."

Cantos, by Samantha Keely Smith

She says: "... I see the images the way you see things with your peripheral vision because they're so fleeting that I can never be totally sure of what I've seen...I only know a painting is finished when I can see there is nothing 'off' about it, and that it feels like what I saw in that first fleeting glimpse."

Vessel, by Samantha Keely Smith (look closely!)

"There are two worlds that exist together, and there is one that pushes against the other, that claims the other doesn’t, or need not, exist. " --To me, those two worlds are the one we easily see and the one that is harder for us to see: the one we want to believe in, want to believe into existence. That is the one that takes work, focus, concentration, because it contradicts the version handed to us on a plate.

Surfacing, by Samantha Keely Smith


Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Earth Day Saint: The Spell of the Sensuous

St. Theodora by Zoe Blue

Happy (late) Birthday, Vesna!
“The most sophisticated definition of “magic” that now circulates through the American counterculture is “the ability or power to alter one’s consciousness at will.” No mention is made of any reason for altering one’s consciousness. Yet in tribal cultures that which we call “magic” takes its meaning from the fact that humans, in an indigenous and oral context, experience their own consciousness as simply one form of awareness among many others. The traditional magician cultivates an ability to shift out of his or her common state of consciousness precisely in order to make contact with the other organic forms of sensitivity and awareness with which human existence is entwined. Only by temporarily shedding the accepted perceptual logic of his culture can the sorcerer hope to enter into relation with other species on their own terms; only by altering the common organization of his senses will he be able to enter into a rapport with the multiple nonhuman sensibilities that animate the local landscape. It is this, we might say, that defines a shaman: the ability to readily slip out of the perceptual boundaries that demarcate his or her particular culture—boundaries reinforced by social customs, taboos, and most importantly, the common speech or language—in order to make contact with, and learn from, the other powers in the land. His magic is precisely this heightened receptivity to the meaningful solicitations—songs, cries, gestures—of the larger, more-than-human field.
Magic, then, in its perhaps most primordial sense, is the experience of existing in a world made up of multiple intelligences, the intuition that every form one perceives—from the swallow swooping overhead to the fly on a blade of grass, and indeed the blade of grass itself—is an experiencing form, an entity with its own predilections and sensations, albeit sensations that are very different from our own.”
(Abram, David (2012-10-17). The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World)

What if the ancient story of the Garden of Eden is the loss, in monotheistic culture, of this magic? What if our expulsion, our great sin is that we stopped listening to, stopped attuning ourselves with, all the other consciousnesses around us, and began to see only human intelligence as any intelligence at all? The word, Paradise, comes from the Persian term for an enclosed garden. Our loss of Paradise may have been our loss of the ability to immerse ourselves in that feel the pulse of its life, to share perception with its creatures and plants, to comprehend their communications.

St. Theodora by Zoe Blue: horns are mother-of-pearl

The author of The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram, paid his way through school by working as a magician, and later studied the plays on perception that magic used and how they might aid a psychologist, using sleight-of-hand techniques to help people who were difficult to treat via regular psychotherapy. He then went to study with Shamans in various regions of the world, to better understand the malleability of perception. What he learned there re-focused his attentions on the rest of the world--that is, the non-human parts of it--in a fascinating manner that he describes and explores in this book.

“In Koyukon belief, the other animals and the plants once shared a common language with human beings. This was in the Distant Time (Kk’adonts’idnee), a time during which all living beings 'shared one society and went through dreamlike transmutations from animals or plants to humans, and sometimes back again.' We will postpone until the next chapter the question of whether the stories told of the Distant Time by the Koyukon people depict an originary time 'long ago' in the past—as they are often interpreted according to the linear-historical view of time first imported into the Koyukon territory by Catholic missionaries—or whether the Distant Time is more coherently understood as a unique dimension or modality of time, one that is more integral to the living present than it is to the historical past. In any case, and despite the apparent differentiation of animal and human languages since, or outside of, the Distant Time, the various discourses of humans and animals still overlap and interpenetrate in the everyday experience of Koyukon persons.”

He gives wonderful examples of that overlap of languages:

“The interpenetration of human and nonhuman utterances is particularly vivid in the case of numerous bird songs that seem to enunciate whole phrases or statements in Koyukon. Many bird calls are interpreted as Koyukon words.… What is striking about these words is how perfectly they mirror the call’s pattern, so that someone [outside the tribe] who knows birdsongs can readily identify the species when the words are spoken in Koyukon. Not only the rhythm comes through, but also some of the tone, the “feel” that goes with it.
Hence the whirring, flutelike phrases of the hermit thrush, which sound in the forest thickets at twilight, speak the Koyukon words sook’eeyis deeyo—“it is a fine evening.” The thrushes also sometimes speak the phrase nahutl-eeyh—literally, “a sign of the spirit is perceived.” The thrush first uttered these words in the Distant Time, when it sensed a ghost nearby, and even today the call may be heard as a warning.”

If our loss of Eden was much like the story of Babel--an inability to comprehend the communications of other creatures, life-forms, or even other humans via a loss of ability or perhaps just willingness to take the time and effort necessary to immerse ourselves in the perceptual experience of those other forms or beings, then a return to Eden would be the opposite: Paradise would be the ability to shift our entire being to feel the world’s communications to us, thus being able to respond appropriately. Everything would fall into place: Magic.

St. Theodora's Companion, Zoe Blue

One of the suggestions the author makes towards this end comes from his study of the storytelling techniques of different tribes such as the Aborigines in Australia and their song cycles, and where a person is “conceived.”

“What, then, is the Dreamtime—the Jukurrpa, or Alcheringa—that plays such a prominent part in the mythology of Aboriginal Australia? It is a kind of time out of time, a time hidden beyond or even within the evident, manifest presence of the land, a magical temporality wherein the powers of the surrounding world first took up their current orientation with regard to one another, and hence acquired the evident shapes and forms by which we now know them. It is that time before the world itself was entirely awake...”

The above reminds me of the idea of a latent image, of the belief landscape that lies underneath every occurrence and interaction in your life. Abram then goes on to talk about how the world “got” (or gets, continuously) its form, which is a tale told by song, a song which travels the whole landscape of the country via the path of the Ancestor which first walked, creating the landscape as he did so:

"The distance between two significant sites along the Ancestor’s track can be measured, or spoken of, as a stretch of song, for the song unfolds in an unbroken chain of couplets across the land, one couplet 'for each pair of the Ancestor’s footfalls.' The song is thus a kind of auditory route map through the country; in order to make her way through the land, an Aboriginal person has only to chant the local stanzas of the appropriate Dreaming, the appropriate Ancestor’s song.”

Then comes the immersion, the sort of hypnosis, that the song provides:

“Knowledge of distant parts of one’s song cycle—albeit in one’s own language—apparently enables a person to vividly experience certain stretches of the land even before he or she has actually visited those places. Rehearsing a long part of a song cycle together while sitting around a campfire at night, Aboriginal persons apparently feel themselves journeying across the land in their collective imagination...”

In this culture, as in the others he studied, a sense of place is fundamental to being. A person feels his environment as a part of himself. Abrams gives fascinating examples from the Apache culture and the Aboriginal culture which describe a great power in storytelling, singing, and words themselves which all describe an immersion in the landscape that is very different from what most modern life experiences. But back to Eden:

“The Dreamtime is not, like the Western, biblical notion of Genesis, a finished event; it is not, like the common scientific interpretation of the “Big Bang,” an event that happened once and for all in the distant past. Rather, it is an ongoing process—the perpetual emerging of the world from an incipient, indeterminate state into full, waking reality, from invisibility to visibility, from the secret depths of silence into articulate song and speech. That Native Australians chose the English term “Dreaming” to translate this cosmological notion indicated their sense that the ordinary act of dreaming participates directly in the time of the clan Ancestors, and hence that that time is not entirely elsewhere, not entirely sealed off from the perceivable present.”

Shiny horns (and companion)
Zoe Blue

Here, Dreamtime is the “time” of the creation of the world--not the distant past, but an underlying, symbolic, living layer--something to interact with, to pay attention to, something to know. If we look for a way to see that time in space, Abrams suggests thinking of the “future” as the horizon, or the other side of the trees in front of you; the “past,” then, is the detail in the rings of those trees, the archeological finds in the soil underneath, including the type of sediment or rock that gives a precise accounting of the conditions in the area for the previous thousands of years; the present is the very air you are breathing, all the scents and textures and thoughts and songs and tiny bits of the insides of every other being breathing that same air right now. All those things are “invisible” to you, yet they are right here, right now--present, past, future, making up one landscape that you are a part of--and that you can alter.

Learning to pay such an immersed attention to all aspects of our entire environment right now is a step towards rediscovering Eden. And, just like modern psychology suggests that we would be well-served to step back, especially in tense situations, and re-view our surroundings from the perspective of a fly on the wall, “propelling [our] awareness laterally” is also a tool of the shaman:

“The traditional or tribal shaman, I came to discern, acts as an intermediary between the human community and the larger ecological field, ensuring that there is an appropriate flow of nourishment, not just from the landscape to the human inhabitants, but from the human community back to the local earth. By his constant rituals, trances, ecstasies, and “journeys,” he ensures that the relation between human society and the larger society of beings is balanced and reciprocal, and that the village never takes more from the living land than it returns to it—not just materially but with prayers, propitiations, and praise.
Any healer who was not simultaneously attending to the intertwined relation between the human community and the larger, more-than-human field, would likely dispel an illness from one person only to have the same problem arise (perhaps in a new guise) somewhere else in the community. Hence, the traditional magician or medicine person functions primarily as an intermediary between human and nonhuman worlds, and only secondarily as a healer. Without a continually adjusted awareness of the relative balance or imbalance between the human group and its nonhuman environ, along with the skills necessary to modulate that primary relation, any “healer” is worthless—indeed, not a healer at all. The medicine person’s primary allegiance, then, is not to the human community, but to the earthly web of relations in which that community is embedded—it is from this that his or her power to alleviate human illness derives—and this sets the local magician apart from other persons.”

So, again, that immersion in the landscape, that attention to the placement of objects and the interactions of the living beings around you, and the practiced ability to tune into those other perspectives--to be those other beings, at different times--, brings one to paradise: balance, and health, and magic. It is the garden, the Earth itself that is Paradise.

Throughout the book, Abrams explores the way that developing and using a phonetic alphabet has changed the human relationship with the landscape and turned our attention inward, detaching us from our environment and our surroundings in a way that has had rather extreme consequences, both for human health and for environmental health. But he is careful to point out that his point is not to blame our current situation on writing; rather it is to encourage us to pay attention to our way of thinking, and to work on it, to make “an attempt to think in accordance with our senses, to ponder and reflect without severing our sensorial bond with the owls and the wind [...] a style of thinking, then that associates truth not with static fact, but with a quality of relationship.”

In The Little Locksmith, Katharine Butler Hathaway describes the night terrors that she suffered, the times of overwhelming panic, while she lay strapped to her board, immobile and of uncertain future, for ten long years as a child. Later, when she was able to get up and move around, she still suffered these crippling panics, as she faced her extreme difference and the things that she believed it would keep her from experiencing in this world--things like social inclusion and romantic love (she was, however, incorrect about both). She talks through her memoir of the process of writing being her savior, but also says that often when she needs it most desperately, when she feels those terrors, she is unable to function as a writer, she can’t find that place. But then she discovers this method-- a method of immersion much like what Abrams suggests, though she is not particular about the type of environment:

“After I had discovered my eyes I taught myself to remember them whenever the horrors struck me. No matter what might be happening to me, no matter how crazy and frightened I might feel, there was always the great visible world before me, and I could look at it. When a moment of terror came I could look at a chair, or at a table or at a door, and by deliberately and faithfully looking at it and really seeing it with my whole attention, with the intense and humble selfless concentration of an artist, of a child, of a van Gogh, I could realize and see the chair, or the table, or whatever the object happened to be that was in front of me [thus drawing her out of herself], as I had never realized and seen it before; and it became for me in that moment an object of love, full of mystery and meaning, because the entire visible world became, when I really looked at it, lovable, mysterious, and significant. An ecstasy filled my hand and I began to work. And so I found out where I was to go. For by setting myself to work with the aim of translating my wonderful delight and realization of things into words and sentences I could deliberately cultivate the delight and prolong its visitations until it became the element within which I lived, safe at last, happy and invulnerable.”

She uses writing to extend those moments of immersion in the real world, to further their relations to her life, to imagine them outwards. Writing, then, becomes her savior, enables her to detach herself from her own perspective and immerse herself in another:

“Even in the midst of my sickness, when I had believed I never would write again, the healthy instinct began to work when one day I had reached over from my bed to get a pencil and paper out of the drawer of the night table beside me and I wrote down on a little block of pink paper an idea for a novel that had fallen like a seed into my mind from listening to my nurse tell the story of her life.[...] It filled me with excitement and anticipation. It happened that for me and my purpose it was a living seed. Out of it a story grew and kept on growing year after year, curving like a vine first in one direction and then in another, yet creating and maintaining by means of its own mysterious will its own equilibrium and design. It grew as knowingly as a beautiful and intricate shell forms itself, or is formed by its soft, amorphous, yet accurately guided inhabitant. It was mysterious and beautiful to me, not necessarily to anybody else. But that was enough. I was in love with it, spellbound. It was a story about two sisters who lived in an old yellow farmhouse on the edge of Danvers. I watched every fly that crawled over the kitchen table in that imagined farmhouse, and I smelled every cake and loaf of bread the sisters made, and I heard the stamping footsteps of their father coming in from the snow. [...] I was able to build up for myself what appeared to be an invulnerable calmness and joy, and a complete indifference to my own personal life except that it should remain empty and leave me free to live wholly in this new element which was not the real world but a kind of mirror element in which the essence and movement of the real world was reflected, as in a fortune-teller’s crystal.”

A living seed, which curves like a vine, which grows into new relations between new people, each of whom offer her other perspectives, unique from her own. And she spends time with them, develops them, heals with them--and part of her process is going out, alone (which was a startling concept in itself at the time, for any woman), and purchasing and renovating a home in Castine. That purchase was chosen because of the place itself--a certain magic she felt it had. It was a place with legends of its own which were attached to the very land, and even behaviors that were associated with weather patterns. From her time there, she went out into the world, traveling --again alone-- to Europe to become part of the Surrealist circle, an artist in her own right, and falling in love, falling out of love, recovering, and then falling in love again, this time to marry.

It is an intriguing suggestion, that immersion in place and “propelling [our] awareness laterally,” might be just the technique to practicing true, transformational magic. That, like the shaman, we might ourselves become, for the moment, a bird or a monkey or a horned beast, and then “come back” to ourselves with new, impossible information. One step closer to Paradise.

As I studied fire and firing neurons and their rhythms and the heat of dance, I also delved into the tales of St. Caterina of Bologna; as I explored the realm on the other side of the mirror or at the bottom of the lake, and the idea of having a fish-tail, I discovered the tales of St. Fevronia. I often like to have a Saint or figure that has a religious or mythological (intensely emotional and heavily symbolic) significance; the figures help to solidify ‘theory’ and emblemize ideas...they also thus serve as meditation aids. For the garden/earth ideas I am exploring, I’ve had no such figure to draw upon, not until the day I finished this painting, when I stumbled upon the story of Saint Theodora of Vasta. She was a woman in 11th-Century Greece who disguised herself as a man in order to join the militaristic defense of her city against raiding bandits. In an event that seems to me to precisely reflect the ideas above, she was, while disguised as a man and fighting with weapons, killed, and as she died, she made a request to God to turn her body into a Church, her hair into trees, and her blood into the water for those trees. A church was indeed built upon her grave, and as you can see from the below photos, trees did in fact begin to grow out of its roof. According to legend, a river re-directed itself to flow under the church; it wasn’t until 2003 that geologists were able to use high-frequency georadar to see that the trees were actually growing up through the walls--until then, there appeared to be no root system at all for the trees. It is not easily explainable how the church has survived for hundreds of years with the weight of 17 holly and maple trees growing on its roof (some of them over 98 feet high). The existence of the building at this point really begs for such a transformational mythology to explain it.

Photo of St. Theodora's Chapel from

Photo from

Interior of chapel, to show that you cannot see the trees from the inside..
Photo from

The Passionflower the monkey holds is based upon the one drawn by Maria Sybilla Merian, which was used for the cover of Amazing Rare Things. The lizard-to-bird transition comes from here. The pomegranates were at the request of the birthday recipient of this painting, Vesna.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Unwritten

by Yuko does he see?
There is a spiritual discipline in Tibetan Buddhism of a certain type of meditation in which one focuses on a being of some sort: a representative being, symbolic, who serves as a companion and as a reminder of certain concepts. This might be a fox, a fox-human hybrid, a monk, a fish-tailed, horse-hooved woman whose purity of heart is stronger than any human weapon. One focuses on this being with such concentration and such intent, that eventually the thought materializes into a physical form. He or she can begin to materialize even when not called upon, and can be seen by others, but it still will not survive long without the focused practice of the meditator.  This materialized thoughtform is called a Tulpa.

“The term entered Western literature in 1929, through the explorer Alexandra David-Néel’s “Magic and Mystery in Tibet.” She wrote that Tibetan monks created Tulpas as a spiritual discipline during intense meditation.[...]
Jack, a young man I interviewed, decided to make a Tulpa when he was in college. He set aside an hour and a half each day for this. He’d spend the first 40 minutes or so relaxing and clearing his mind. Then he visualized a fox (he liked foxes). After four weeks, he started to feel the fox’s presence, and to have feelings he thought were the fox’s.
Finally, after a chemistry exam, he felt that she spoke to him. “I heard, clear as day, ‘Well, how did you do?’ ” he recalled. For a while he was intensely involved with her, and said it felt more wonderful than falling in love with a girl.
Then he stopped spending all that time meditating — and the fox went away. It turned out she was fragile. He says she comes back, sometimes unexpectedly, when he practices. She calms him down.
The mere fact that people like Jack find it intuitively possible to have invisible companions who talk back to them supports the claim that the idea of an invisible agent is basic to our psyche. But Jack’s story also makes it clear that experiencing an invisible companion as truly present — especially as an adult — takes work: constant concentration, a state that resembles prayer.”--T.M. Luhrmann

Some say that this is the way to keep God “alive”: through regular meditative practice on the principles of that God, until He or She is accompanying you in your daily life. On a societal level--if, for example, everyone in your neighborhood is doing the same thing, and they all pretty much agree on the principles of the God-- the being could have quite a strong physical existence. In fact, if we were to go back to the story of St. Fevronia, we might say that those who can see the religious processions taking place inside the lake, those who can hear the bells tolling--the ones who are called pure of heart--those are the ones who focus on her story, her spirit, her representation with sufficient intent.  When we read the studies--like the gorilla studies-- in neuroscience which describe humans as beings who will only see what their brain thinks is important or relevant to its worldview and understanding of needs, desires and dangers, and we wonder why those perceptive blinders were put on so early in life (around 5 years of age), we could understand it to be a matter of concentration, meditation, intent. A small child has to pay close attention to make out the shapes and colors and humans around him or her, and to understand their intentions and their words. After that small child has ‘figured it out,’ the sense of urgency and focus tends to decrease, beliefs are in place, and when you meet a new person, you make your judgement of who they are and what they represent and what kind of things they’re going to say and what those things will really mean pretty much instantaneously--and what that person actually does or says will be something close to irrelevant as far as changing your mind goes. The same type of neuroscience studies are telling us that we consciously make decisions about 5% of the time--the rest of the time, we’re on autopilot, marching our way through life to a tune we can barely hear. 

How many of the religious really pray? How many people will take five minutes out of their day to blank their minds of lists and concerns and plans, and focus on an ideal, however important they may claim that ideal to be?

by Yuko Shimizu

Here’s a thought: artists do it. Readers do it. Writers do it. Brand-new lovers do it. Not all of them, of course, but when you are stopped, in your rush to get somewhere or do something, by an image, that is a moment of opportunity. What stopped you about the image? What didn’t fit in your perceptual bias, making you suddenly consciously aware of your surroundings? Don’t discard it and move on! Pay Attention. Maybe it was the colors, maybe a sense of motion, or a sense of suspension; maybe an interaction between the depicted characters struck an emotional chord or a curiosity. What is the story behind the image, and how is it different from the one you usually believe to underly the world’s events and the interactions of the people around you? When you read a book, and you don’t want to put it down to sleep, or use the bathroom, or eat, or go to work, you have sunk into another way of being and seeing. Your brain is experiencing events as if they were occurring in the physical space around you, you are taking in the feelings and behaviors and traumas and excitements as your own (so be careful). This experience offers an opportunity to alter your own perception, to see the world in a slightly different light, and if you were to, for example, when you finish the book, call up a character in your mind and converse with him or her, if you were to really visualize the character--skin-tone, scent, hair-texture, style of dress, voice-print, style of speech--and then spend time with him or her, speak with her, listen to what she has to say, could those interactions change who you are and the world around you? Could you even bring that character into physical being?

The Unwritten, Cover of Volume One by Yuko Shimizu

Cover of The Unwritten, by Yuko Shimizu
In The Unwritten, Tom Taylor is presented to us as the son of the author of a wildly famous series of books (think Harry Potter) who disappeared under mysterious circumstances. The protagonist of the series, Tommy Taylor, is named after him, and Tom himself goes around to conventions to tell adoring fans about his dad and answer questions and sign things--an existence he detests. He is always trying to point out the distinction between himself and the character, but the idea itself falls on deaf ears. At one of these conventions, a young student stands up and questions his identity as the author’s son. Public opinion swings rapidly and violently, the way it is wont to do, and Tom finds himself hiding from a variety of hateful ex-fans. Soon, his identity is re-established, but not in a way he finds pleasing at all, and not the identity he’d been living before--he goes from reviled to worshiped, from demon to messiah, and all of it through no acts of his own. It’s truly as if he is simply a pawn of a storyline his father put him in before he had a chance to have any say about it--in fact, it’s always been that way, for him, but now events are such that he is forced to do something about it. 
What the comic--which is fascinating--begins to explore is the way in which stories shape our society, our ways of thinking, and the very behaviors which we thought were most private and individualistic. The first book introduces a set of characters who shape what stories will be presented to the public by a sinister influence upon the authors. In a way very well-matched to that theme, the comic is wound with stories inside stories, and at one point, Tom’s tale is suspended for a brief foray into history (which soon ties back into his present) via the author and poet Rudyard Kipling. 

Cover of The Unwritten by Yuko Shimizu

Cover of The Unwritten by Yuko Shimizu
His very patriotic poetry, exhorting citizens to give up their youth and lives for empire and the British Way, becomes part of the tale of an author who lost his way and found himself trapped in a terrifying, soul-destroying situation. Crushed, he turns to writing again to find his way out:

Pages from The Unwritten, Volume One
The artwork on these pages is by Mark Carey and Peter Gross, who are also the authors. 

Pages from The Unwritten, Volume One
The artwork on these pages is by Mark Carey and Peter Gross, who are also the authors. 

Pages from The Unwritten, Volume One
The artwork on these pages is by Mark Carey and Peter Gross, who are also the authors. 
The whale in this story is the submerged being that tries to amalgamate all stories so that they support one ideal, but it’s impossible, which is why there will always be ways around and through the most hulking and oppressive walls. I find the idea that music and dancing would be the method, here, to find a rhythm not-in-step with the overpowering pulse of contemporary society, very attractive.

The comic is full of fantastically illustrated and developed ideas of the walls of reality and the possible doorways through them...I recommend it whole-heartedly, and am myself waiting impatiently for the arrival of the second book on my doorstep. The good news (or bad, depending on the state of one’s wallet) is that there are at least 8 books of issues already out.

And one more teaser:

Pages from The Unwritten, Volume One
The artwork on these pages is by Mark Carey and Peter Gross, who are also the authors.