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

(Slideshow is of 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

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