Hello my friends. Greetings again from the Escherian threshold, from the dilating here-in-between at the silver height of spring. As I write this the waxing crescent moon and Venus are setting in tandem against a delicate evening sky. Maybe you see them too?
I choose as a symbol for this liminal time the marsh. We visited it briefly last month, and since then its significance has only grown. The marsh is an obscure symbol: it confounds human travel both by foot and craft, its depth is likely unknowable, it ebbs and floods by its own meter — but in its obscurity it beckons. At the same time, the marsh is an unruly communal bed of boisterous living and dying, and here at the height of spring it expresses that unruliness in such sweet profusion. Just try to hold back the lusty swell of a rising marsh!
Step out into the evening with me, we’ll pick our way down to the edge of the marsh waking up under the new moon. The frog chorus is in full form already, singing in ever-rising tones from the cold water, and from the branches overhead blackbird uncoils and hauls on sterling lines. As night comes the frogs grow louder, and are joined by owls corresponding across the diameter of the marsh. From beyond the wooded moraine on the horizon coyotes add their sociable song to the layered scape. The intermittent sweeps of tires on pavement are fewer and farther between these days, and in the luxurious gaps we can really submerge in the sound of flourishing.
And the marsh is flourishing indeed; it has flooded two roads already and is at work on a third. The marsh rises with the rest of the water-body enveloping this peninsula, helped along by beaver’s blessed and unflagging program of reclamation. This is reclamation not in myopic favor of settler alone, but in favor of all, including frog, blackbird, beaver and human. Why does it feel like there’s something promising beneath the rising water, bearing it upward? Why are we so strangely compelled to join hands/paws with beaver and see how big this marsh can get?
We see a pattern in the marsh that is consonant with a pattern surfacing right now in our communities here on higher ground; the marsh beckons because it is self-organized. The connections woven through the marsh are lateral, decidedly non-hierarchical, and thus tease and delight the human imagination. From the margins we yearn to participate, but, as discussed, the marsh is utterly confounding to human locomotion. And that’s why I choose it as a symbol for this time — it offers a consonant pattern while maintaining an abiding otherness. Only literacy (through practice, patience, repetition; the technologies I’ll continue on about in these letters) will allow us to comprehend the pattern and lend the energy of our human communities toward a larger flourishing.
I’m surprised to be able to say this with a straight face, but at the moment we’re off to a decent start. The pattern surfacing right now in our communities is also a pattern of self-organization. Its expressions propagate laterally, person-to-person, they dance past wheezing bureaucracies and leave the dull mantle of charity where it lies. Taken together they express the pattern of solidarity, of participation, and that pattern offers a brighter hope than we’ve seen in some time. The work, as ever, is ready.
But there is a countervailing narrative present now also, masquerading as pattern, and it is the invocation of war. It’s nothing new, of course — the story of our era contains one continuous invocation of war — but right now the narrative is being imposed more brazenly than usual. And let’s be clear, it is being imposed; this is no pattern surfacing among the rushes, but a fine mist (like DDT) falling from an airplane. The presently unfolding human–virus assemblage is being adamantly characterized as war, war against a virus, as if viruses aren’t messengers, teachers, symbionts. To wage war on messengers and teachers is a fanatic’s crusade, and to wage war on a symbiont is to wage war on oneself. Auto-immune disease emerges at all levels in our era.
War isn’t the root, though. War is just one expression of a big underlying story, one that goes by many names, but we’ll call control. Central to the story of control is the imperative that pattern be tamed, fixed, subjugated. We’ve seen it ascend in our era through settler colonialism, lumbering, homesteading, petro-agro-pharma-culture and industrial tourism, on up to the present push to totalize control by totalizing war. Our assemblage with this and other viruses to come is ongoing; to perceive it as war blankets war beyond the horizon.
So, shall we declare war on the story of war then? No, we won’t fall into that snare again. The beauty of story is that it is self-organizing, lateral, person-to-person; a story persists because we tell it. The story of war, of control, ends when we lay it down, which of course is easier said than done. Still, we can begin humbly by reorienting the mind to pattern, to its unruly ebb and flood; by turning toward literacy.
As I understand it, pattern gives shape and substance to this physical-psychic-spiritual plane we inhabit. It underpins the familiar forms all around us; pattern is what’s really going on here. The human mind, for one, is exquisitely tuned to encounter pattern, to glimpse it amid the kaleidoscopic wash, and to progress fluidly toward some kind of literacy. These are encounters with meaning, meaning which exists in the world independent of the human mind. The mind, after all, is not a sense-making tool as the old materialists would have us believe, a bulldozer for setting the kaleidoscope to some brutalist order — but a sense-finding tool; a compound eye for pattern, a patient, pliant processor for reading the tumbling lines of meaning and following wherever they may lead. And in this moment they lead toward participation.
Pattern is the water and winds that shape a pebbled point of land out in the lake, it’s the echo of that shape in the wing of the gull who plies the winds and lays her eggs among the pebbles. Pattern gives mysterious rise to those shapes, and is thus uninterruptible; move the pebbles and others return to re-form the point. The marsh is just the same; drain it for farmland and it will return to swallow your roads a century later. Again, but from a different angle, this is why I choose the marsh as a symbol for this time. The pattern surfacing among us right now, of self-organization, cooperation, mutual aid, is likewise uninterruptible. Self-styled authorities have tried and will try again to set us back to order, to keep the story of war going, but just look to the marsh: pattern flourishes in the yawning gaps left by hubris. Such is my bright hope for this moment. Each time we will patiently rise just a bit higher than before, until at last the margins flood the center.
And here we are. Can you hear the frog chorus from where you spend your evenings? Or maybe you live in the southern hemisphere and things are moving toward winter? I’d love to hear about it all, and I’ll extend an invitation in a moment, but first a quick bit of news: I’m excited to share that three poems I wrote will appear in the May volume of Reliquiae, which is a wonderful journal of writing about landscape, nature and mythology based in the UK. Check out Corbel Stone Press, they do very good work, and if you enjoy these letters from me, you’ll certainly find consonance there.
Taking the auspices
Finally, I invite you to join me for a loose, far-flung divinatory experiment. For the next three letters (and maybe more?) I’ll include at the end your responses to a simple question: what do you see or hear or feel around you right now? What gestures are unfolding in the land? Just a few words about something pretty or puzzling will do, in whatever style feels groovy, or no style at all. I’ll credit you by name or pseudonym (whichever you prefer).
Here are a few lovely ones that have come in for April, to get things rolling:
Seedlings working through the mould;
This year’s leaf cuts through last year’s leaf.
— Worm, Somewhere behind Frog Hollow
the wood-stove remains
— Ash Cleaver, The Drumlins
bossy burly rowdy wind harrying fumy white clouds before laden violet roil seething to fling stinging rain spatters
— S. Mills, Tamarack City
Four wings chase four-legs;
Wings black, legs has coat the color of evening sunlight.
— Rooting for Trickster, Manicured Hills
crescent moon, near treetops
clear dawn and vibrant
— First Rise, Birch Tower
Squelch squelch squelch,
squelch squelch squelch squelch
— Elf Friend, Alder-Chew Marsh
Do send yours along! You can just drop them here. Until next month, take heart in the unruly flourishing of May.