As a culture, we have travelled a long way down the road of a mechanical misunderstanding of the world. So far that it even seems strange to think that the way we speak, or the way we write has any influence on the reality of the world.
Even that sentence, “influence on the reality of the world” immediately seems to refer to the human, social world. That we might speak and convince others to be more “aware” of soil erosion, climate chang, wildfires, plastic in the ocean.
But that is not what I mean at all. I mean we have lost a respect for the idea that the kind of language we use could have any effect on the actual reality of the world. That is could create threads of meaning that connect us to the Earth as surely as dandelion seed connects to currents of air. That our language might enable us to participate in an actual living bond with the world, rather than mark out our apparent superiority and separateness from it.
“Many people today have developed a concern for the Earth, and feel nature’s wounds as their own, but how many realise that language is involved in this eco-logy (this house logos)?”Paul Matthews, poet and author of “Sing Me the Creation”
During our “Taste the wild red rose: soul awakening through story and nature” workshop my co-facilitator Serena read out two poems, during , one by Seamus Heaney the other by Rebecca Tamas. She invited the participants to dialogue with these poems, to write one back in response. She read them on a lush green slope, punctuated by willow, pine, and branched shrubs I could not name, under wooden beams, as smoke from the glowing belly of the stove fire slipped out through the smoke hole into the sky.
We drank tea made from the camp stove, listened to and told two stories of the wild twin, that Martin Shaw works into his teaching on myth and ecology. Over the course of the day, the stories and the surrounding infused into the group’s own personal stories like the smoke from the fire.
These stories tell of a fierce, grubby being, a psychic twin to our own life, that was thrown out into the forest when we were born. Stories that tell of how we exiled the soul from modern life out to very the edges of culture. How it often comes back in symptoms, problems, a sense of meaninglessness, lifelessness, a lack of magic.
Language was magic once
Language was magic once, and the relationship between magic and language remains implicit in the words we used – a magical book or “grimmoire” is a “grammar”, and the operation of magic a “spell.” The origins of language though point to the symbolisation of felt experience of nature – the shapes of letters emerge from the meaningful experience of landscapes.
Speach has it’s origins in song and music.
Language-as-magic has it’s true origins in some deep and unknowable matrix of ecological reality. What we consider our high human achievement of languge has been unfolded out of some necessary dimension of what the world is, not just what a human can do. Our world holds a tension of betweenness, a communion between creatures, plants and elements, even when it appears hostile, dark or morbid.
The wildness of language and it’s magical origins has been captured, harvested, cast and recast back into our neocortex until it’s become tame and normal. It enchants us into a distorted view of the world. It is used to manipulate our base desires through advertising. At the same time writing is given to us as a basic task for work in our futile attempts to log and monitor our reality. On an individual level, the battle for how to speak and ways to write reflects exactly the kinds of pressures that we put the Earth itself under. We analyse and try to know, break things down to their smallest parts, monitor and record as much as we can. It’s as if our entire culture was under a kind of spell, a spell that tells us that meaning must come from a dry and objective use of language, the kind that looks at the world like we might look at an insect in a glass cabinet. And that anything else is a form of entertainment.
The weird industrial spell our culture has chanted these last few hundred years
James Hillman felt it was not through duty, but through beauty that the Earth could be “saved”. This phrase has stuck with me for years, whenever I’ve felt my inner puritan cracking the whip too hard. Not duty, but beauty. You have to love what you want to save. You have to learn you can’t possess it . And the price for love is often pain.
Beauty can strike us through through music, rapture, art, small acts of kindness, landscapes, flowers, animals, oceans.
However, beauty is also present in less obviously positive experiences; there is beauty in sadness, melancholy, the moment of loss, there is beauty in destruction even in vast burning flames, in an explosion, in a incision, in loss, even in pain. Beauty is of course personal, and related to your life; when I was 13, the band Therapy? singing “in my sleep i grind my teeth” was beautiful (actually still do love that song). When the inner world and the outer world meet, we find beauty.
Hillman spoke eloquently of the beauty present in melancholy, that the heaviness of this condition slows us down enough to to feel at all. A heaviness leadens the heart’s manic optimism, and as it does, we can sometimes perceive that within a deep sadness there is something that is not only personal, but a part of the world. We hear an underwater language that does not speak in words.
To write in abstractions means we miss an eerie quality that seems the hallmark of the kind of beauty that haunts us or stirs the soul. The beauty shown in strange moments in films, or the unexpected moment in life. Strangeness seems a better indicator of beauty and so the living world than evoking love, music art or rapture. Concepts are not experiences. For beauty to motivate and inspire, it seems it must be specific. When it is specific it becomes strange. The everyday suddenly seems eerie, as if we have crossed a threshold into another dimension.
JF Martel and Phil Ford remind us that for Jung the numinous is the strange event, the table that cracks unexpectedly just as a word about cracking has been spoken, or a large flying beetle that appears at the window just after the myth of the golden Egyptian scarab that renews the Sun had been told to his patient. This relationship between the strange and the beautiful seems odd – after all, what is strange might also be horrifying.
Illustrating the strange: Two images from films
1) The wind blows through the tall wild grass in northern Alaska, as if a spirit passes through. Then it is gone, and a stillness permeates the scene for a moment.
2) A set of streetlights hangs from a wire at a large cross road in North America at night. No one is around. The wind blows it with the kind of force that suggests a change in the weather. It changes from red to green. No one is around, still the traffic lights keep changing, red, amber, green. The pattern seems mad, and the lights swing above the dark empty crossroad.
The first is from Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, a documentary about a man called Timothy Treadwell, obsessed with Grizzly Bears. Treadwell, an outsider with no training or previous experience, spends years filming Bears very close, in Alaska. He documents them obsessively and speaks to camera like the friend he doesn’t have. He eventually forfeits his life to them. His hyper enthusiastic personality, child like and driven that comes crashing through the undergrowth to disrupt the tranquility of the wind. Yet he accidently captures that wild tranquility, even as he disperses it.
The second is from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. Twin Peaks is a film in which the safety of the everyday is continually exposed to what is unsettling. Expressions of teenage love sit are followed by images that evoke an unnamed dark force that moves in the woods, a dark force that preys on fear and desire. No one is there. The shift in light change from green to red, usually an expression of order takes on a menacing air.
Beauty then is not a calm or straightfoward a mistress as we might wish; the horrific can also seem beautiful. Hillman is keen to make a distinction between “beautifying” and an the aethetic response of an intelligent heart. Yet focusing on our own concept of beauty seems to open the gate to subjectivity. It looks like it takes us away from our original concern for a language that can articulate a deep concern for the natural world.
“what I mean by aesthetic response is closer to an animal sense of the world; a nose for the displayed sensibility of things, their sound, smell, shape, speaking to and through our heart’s reactions, responding to the looks and language, tones and gestures of the things we move among.”James Hillman, The Thought of the Heart and the Soul of the World, p113
Art as the language of nature
Except of course art has always been the language of nature. As David Kidner argues, one of the main functions of culture is to re-new the connection between the human psyche and the deeper reality of nature. The idea of a language of nature already suggests that this language is not a written language, anymore than saying “I feel sad” expresses the feeling of sadness more than the way the silent, heartsick clown Pierrot’s gestures towards his beloved Columbina, knowing she doesn’t love him. It’s a truth bourne out by experience in the therapy room that asking someone “how do you feel?” doesn’t prompt them to experience or feel anything, but rather to analyse that feeling.
Feelings are not words. Asking someone “how do you feel?” is actually a way of pulling them out of a feeling. Whilst it can be a good thing to do if someone is overwhelmed it is often not the intention of the question, which is most often asked in an attempt to ellicit feeling. Feelings move through us in the spaces in between words, like wind moves through the Alaskan grass, or makes the traffic lights sway on their wires.
One of the problems we have in our use of language as an art form is that we use it so much that we struggle to consider it as an art form. Yet the way we speak about the world around us does not just describe or analyse the world impersonally. It “worlds” it, it brings it to our attention it a particular way. The language of poetry is often considered difficult precisely because it re-formulates language away from an easy way of considering it, and turns it back towards images.
It is almost a given that strong poetry is composed of strong images.
“Go in fear of abstractions” said Ezra Pound of how to write like an Imagist poet, whose modernist love of brief clear images blew away a victorian inheritance of lengthy, overblown stanzas. Yet we rarely speak in images.
“Go in fear of abstractions”Ezra Pound
How our divided brain over-rates the importance of language
Iain McGilchrist spends some time on the subject of language in his book “The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.” His project in that book is largely to re-evaluate how we come to make sense of the world based on a re-evaluation of the brain.
Each hemisphere can operate independent of the other, such that people with damage to one hemisphere can continue to exist. However what this damage shows is that damage to one or other hemisphere leaves a person with a very different approach to life. These unfortunate patients hint at the deeper structures within us, that guide and inform our experience of life.
McGilchrist wants us to think of the two hemispheres as not as having different functions, but as offering different kinds of attention, differing ways of “worlding” the world, ways that subtley and continually shift in emphasis. In particular he wants to crown the right hemisphere as master, and to re-evaluate the left, which has traditionally been considered dominant as servant. Why has it been considered dominant? For the most part because it is the hemisphere most involved in language, logic and analysis
The Everyday Deception of Words
Heidegger once said that when we try to understand the world we make the mistake of looking at it in the same way that we look at something that is broken and needs fixing, or a nail that needs hammering into a wall. This focused kind of attention breaks apart the object from it’s context.
McGilchrist says the same of the left hemisphere of the brain; it’s evolutionary job has been to grab things, (it mostly controls the right hand), for the purposes of hunting and eating. To give focused attention to something to consume.
This, he argues, has led to it’s tendency to abstract ideas from their context in the world. When the left tries to put things back together again, it re-makes a kind of Frankenstein’s monster version of reality, glued together bits of abstraction that don’t live, and don’t include the person who is doing the experience. The left’s job is to grasp, both literally and conceptually. Yet with it alone, we can grasp nothing , despite the ability it gives us to manipulate the physical and linguistic world.
The connection between the right hand and the left hemisphere of the brain is strong; watch how people wave their hand around when talking. See for example how rappers wave their right hand as they flow. Or Trump’s flat palm to thumb-finger squeeze. Which takes us to McGilchrist’s most interesting point about language. His elegant argument leads him to conclude one of the main functions of human language, especially written language, is not so much communication; rather it is most fitted for manipulation.
Anyone interested in people knows this: words decieve but the body reveals. Our felt sense gives us far more information than what someone tells us, yet we routinely ignore it. As a therapist, it is often only in the reflective recall of clinical supervision that I become able to know what I felt when it was being communicated, so seductive are the meanings of words, especially to the left hemisphere.
The felt sense reveals. Body language reveals. Art reveals a good deal more than we expect it to or sometimes even realise. Deception, manipulation, a desire to control, a distraction technique used for personal gain ; the black magician’s toolkit. We are in the charming realm of an inflated negative Hermes, the magician and trickster god of communication. The one who travels between worlds, between realms. I have worked for many years in the voluntary sector, using the creative arts first with adults with mental health problems, then children and families affected by alcohol or drug problems, and so never needed to find an audience. As I began to develop a feeling for how to communicate my work to reach more people, I became fascinated to find out how closely selling things is linked to storytelling and creativity. Hermes the magician is also Hermes the theif, a storyteller and a businessman, who travels between worlds.
We have from Christianity the idea that Gods are supposed to be “things” or beings, that you either believe in, or are made up. Yet we can consider divinity as the personification of forces in the world, metaphors with soul. The internet looks a lot like the domain of an inflated Hermes, a hyper powered god of communication, business and image. We have all become the salespeople of our own lives, selling our lives to our friends and associates. And we have become addicted to the written word, we text and watch videos with the words at the base, manipulating each other to our own views.
The Silent Master Within Our Felt Sense
Let’s review McGilchrist’s characterisation of the tendencies of the left hemisphere when it is too dominant in conciousnes: grandiose, argumentative, delusional, convinced of it’s own worth, manipulative, obsessed with the use of language, unable to see things in context, pre-occupied with power, appearence, with functionality, with the man-made. It is familiar in a world that is connected through written texts is a world that encourages people towards abstraction and away from participation in the world.
Here is one other feature of the left hemisphere of the brain – it is unaware of the existence of the right. We know this, because patients with damage to the right hemisphere who only use the left cannot represent the functions of the right hemisphere. They draw themselves as incomplete, only the right side of things.
Yet the right can represent the left.That’s because the right hemisphere deals in all the things that have been exiled from mainstream understanding. Emotional nuance. Context. Embodiement. Image, art and the imaginal realm. Intuition. Relationship. A sense of the whole. Doubt. Music. Sadness. The new. The right hemisphere, the silent partner, evolved from a need to watch the whole picture, to keep us safe by taking in the entire environment for predators. It gathers a picture of the whole, that is and will always be far more accurate than the fractured piece by piece puzzle that the analytical left brain comprehends.
The left’s trump card is it’s use of language. However, Dr McGilchrist is at pains to point out it is not that the left “does” language; both hemispheres are involved in most complex functions, to greater or lessser degress. Rather, the origins of what we want to say we already have felt and know. They arise from our body and our felt sense.
To speak a wild rose language
This begins to build a picture of how we might use language. We can understand better when Martin Shaw tells us that the “Earth speaks in Myth” and that the key this is to “speak a red bead language” – a language where each word drops like a red gem from our mouth.
We can understand David Abram when he tells us that language originates not in the human mind, but in the poetic entanglement with branch, moon, root, hoot of owl, hunch of mountain, trail of fox. That some ways of speaking free us and others keep us trapped.
When David Kidner writes of how industrialist thought has colonised not just our world but also our psyche, we can see this has been done through a certain kind of language, a language that abstracts, breaks apart, manipulate and seeks to control.
Isn’t that something to consider, that here within the circle of your own being lies a way to affect the world – through the deliberate and entangled use of beauty in your language? That world that we contemplate, that seems so impossible to change, that is so riven with unfairness, with broken systems, with legacies of genocide, slavery, the elimination of species – all those things that seem to overwhelm our ability to change them – that a part of that change must also lie in the way we speak – the kind of world we world with our language. This is not to say that talking in a certain way will “save the world” or end these problems. It is to suggest that talking in a certain way ensouls the world and before it does so, it ensouls us the speaker. And this is needed more badly than ever.
How to lose your head and find it: the Cabin of the Wild Red Rose
Within each of us lie both possibilities – the wild red rose language and the language that constricts. The inspiration for the “soul awakening” workshop came from one of the stories that Martin Shaw tells so well, that of Tatterhood.
In that story, a girl on the threshold of womanhood loses her head. It is replaced by the head of a cow by the bony hand of a witch. The head has been placed by the witches in the Cabin of the Wild red Rose, in an event orchestrated by the wild twin of the young woman (that is her soul.) Who of us haven’t lost their head at adolescence? The woman’s head hangs on a nail in the cabin, where the smoke from the witches fires seeps into it’s hair, along with the songs they sing, the runes they cast, the rituals they create, the images they weave. The beauty they create, that strange beauty present even in a set of traffic lights changing in a deserted crossroads, suggests something dark and unconscious returning to consciousness. The traffic lights, just like the grass in Timothy Treadwells’ film, and the smoke in the cabin, are moved by the wind, and the wind has ever been that animating spirit that brings reverence for life, what Jung called the animus.
Languages of reverence
Perhaps that wind really is the breath of a living world, more than we dare or care to acknowledge. Each breathe we take draws us back into participation with the living world; anyone who has practiced breathwork discovers that breath is life, and that each breathe is not you, but a process that connects the sunlit biosphere to the dark interior of your blood.
In my wild land dreaming, when I fasted four days and nights out in the woods the idea came to me, as I lay in that altered state staring up at the movements of the clouds through the fractal canopy of oak and silver birch that wind is the origin of breath, not breath the origin of wind. The wind brings reverence, and it is this reverence that the world seems to lack most of all, in us it’s human children.
Perhaps this might be the kind of place we might speak from. A place that seeks to understand the whole through the humilty of the partial knowledge of the body, rather than the fractured giant schemes of analysis. The “integration” we seek, either within our selves or with the living world cannot come through analysis, but only after it, and only through returning to the kingdom of our images, those written on our heart and inscribed in our lives and found in silent understanding. Only through speaking the beauty of this, through the aesthesis of the heart, might some glimmer of what we have lost be found, that thread that leads to a wild rose language.
The Wild Red Rose.
Ah! the Wild Red Rose….
It’s fragrance stretches all the way
from the edge of Sussex forests
to London, Sheffield, Kenya,
It might reach you wherever you are…
It whispers in your ear
to slow your restless mind
into the same dream state as holly or yew;
To sway all night with the wild owl’s cry
amongst a tangle of roots,
ferment your soul in a dark cauldron sky.
I yearned for a tongue as articulate as hawthorn,
For eyes that flash like silver coins under the full moon at midnight
in the telling of my tale.
The wild rose longs to make your hair as wild as clematis
your skin as smooth as a young beech tree,
Longs for your speech at stretch it’s gentle vines
beyond whatever masks, shields, gates or locks you placed
to keep trespassers out,
It yearns to transform the shame of your dark abyss
into a temple of roots, leaves and simplicity.
Wild rose blows sweet smoke onto the heart’s embers,
You know, even after all these years, something smoulders in those embers…
I waited for years for the return of it’s scent,
never realising that the padlock to it’s secret garden
Had been locked only by myself.
I turned the key, heard the shackle release
pushed open the iron gate,
Walked through the garden and on into the forest.
On the edge of the trees, on a forgotten hill,
I found a wild rose entwined into brickwork of a ruined castle wall.
Her structure as intricate as blood vessels,petals proud as a flag,
I recognise her traces in the architecture of my heart,
Her twin my every breath
I had to drop my book and pen
to describe her,
Had to become speechless to speak of her,
I had to put down the black sack on my back
I’d carried twenty years to register her in my body;
I poured it’s contents out at her roots to nourish her.
She asks me to surrender my idea of what I think love should be
To learn how to really love her wild honey.
She takes the form of a panther, a deer, A wandering light, a child.
She comes to me in the form of a woman I love one night
“Come a little closer, let me touch your blue heart,
with the promise of a wild red rose;
Let me nourish you.
Let the soul’s story be your story”
Even now, especially now,
As the ragged world,flagellated by electricity and pollution
Crumbles back intoThe unknowable matrix of it’s own wild soul,
As the oceans choke and coral bleaches,
And the people cry out in seasons of desert, fire
As the stability of the seasons breaks from it’s tether into a new unknown,
A wild rose clings to the brickwork of a secret garden.
Intricate as the structure of a heart,As deep a breath,
As wild as a rainstorm
A wild rose still grows, still waits,
repeats a silent mantra:
“Let the soul’s story be your story”