Art and Life, Lift as Art
Bioregionalism is about making community and living in balance with eco-community, an endeavor that is in itself an art. Additionally, the arts – in bioregionalism and in all cultures and history – show us who we are, and how we can live. This page is offered as a gathering place for sharing bioregional arts that help us learn more about how to live in our home places, with one another in sustainable and sustaining community, and in growing awareness of the earth, sky and more-than-human life forms around us. The Arts & Culture section is divided into 3 parts. Please scroll down to view each section
BIOREGIONAL POETRY: We are delighted to feature these poems that focus on that essential bioregional question: how do we live. We invite you to submit bioregional poetry from your region.
BIOREGIONAL PROSE: The following excerpt from Stephanie Mills’ book, Epicurian Simplicity, is a powerful example of bioregional prose. We invite you to submit bioregional prose from your region. Please email CBCX@thefarm.org, subject titled “Art Submission”
A DO-IT-YOURSELF BIOREGIONAL WRITING WORKSHOP: Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg shares her ground rules and writing exercises for this do-it-yourself (or with friends, local bioregional groups or communities) writing workshop (scroll down and click on one of two workshops).
Planting Initiation Song
an Osage Women’s Initiation Song
I have made a footprint, a sacred one.
I have made a footprint, through it the blades push upward.
I have made a footprint, through it the blades radiate.
I have made a footprint, over it the blades float in the wind.
I have made a footprint, over it I bend the stalk to pluck the ears.
I have made a footprint, over it the blossoms lie gray.
I have made a footprint, smoke arises from my house.
I have made a footprint, there is cheer in my house.
I have made a footprint, I live in the light of day.
– (from Women in Praise of the Sacred, ed. by Jane Hirshfield, for educational purposes only)
In Response to a Question
The earth says have a place, be what that place
requires; hear the sound the birds imply
and see as deep as ridges go behind
each other. (Some people call their scenery flat,
their only picture framed by what they know:
I think around them rise a riches and a loss
too equal for their chart – but absolutely tall.)
The earth says every summer have a ranch
that’s minimum: one tree, one well, a landscape
that proclaims a universe – sermon
of the hills, hallelujah mountain,
highway guided by the way the world is tilted,
reduplication of mirage, flat evening:
a kind of ritual for the wavering.
The earth says where you live wear the kind
of color that your life is (gray shirt for me)
and by listening with the same bowed head that sings
draw all into one song, joining
the sparrow on the lawn, and row that easy
way, the rage without met by the wings
within that guide you anywhere the wind blows.
Listening, I think that’s what the earth says.
– William Stafford
(from Stories That Could Be True, for educational purposes only)
Is it the eagles returning to Lecompton, Old Eagle Town,
that stretch of lookout cottonwoods on the Kaw River,
or is it those rivers we measure towns by,
where we wait for flood and drought tides?
Or finding my grandfather during a storm,
clouds and lightning and his face by the window?
Is it the house I grew up in,
the way sun slanted through the front window,
warm bars of winter dust and light?
Is it a locus inside a muddy muscle,
the heart squeezing rivulets of bloods
again, again, again?
– Denise Low
(from Spring Geese, for educational purposes only)
Epicurian Simplicity and Stephanie Mills: An Excerpt
Stephanie Mills, in addition to being a long-time founder and participant in bioregional congresses, is author of many articles and many fine and life-changing books, including: In Service to the Wild, Whatever Happened to Ecology?, Turning Away from Technology, and In Praise of Nature. She lives in the Great Lakes Bioregion in the Upper Midwest, and speaks and writes on all manner of issues related to ecology and social change. She was also named by Utne Reader in 1996 as one of the world’s leading visionaries.
The air seems to be vital tissue this morning, entirely alive with mayflies and countless other insects darting or arising in the sunlight, with airborne cherry petals marking the direction of the breeze and of gravity. The chirping of crickets merges into a soft, ubiquitous jingle. The spring air is their sounding board; the whole country is their guitar. Then there’s birdsong, certain presences announcing themselves. Four and twenty blackbirds are chucking and chucking. Jays are dipping low through the pine branches. A mourning dove is cooing. A starling is giving its raffish wolf whistle. Some goldfinches, among them a male with an unusual black eye mask, drop by to investigate the hummingbird feeder. The sky is washed in blue. The breezes are sweet, moist, and cool. What more do I need to know of heaven? Life is the absolute. Today the whole of existence feels like a gift.
To live in a seasonal climate is always to be facing change and often to be carping about it, protesting the revolving, discomforts, a little uneasy with the implications of time’s passage. It is equally to be confronted by the grand symbolism of the stately turning round of the year. Here, the trees strongly body forth the seasons. In the woods most vividly, every year is an allegory of life’s changes. Spring in its infancy, summer its flaming youth, autumn its maturity and fulfillment, winter in its ebbing, the end that contains the beginning. It’s as foolish to prefer one season above all the rest as it is to hold a preference for a certain time of life. I notice that whatever season we’re in is usually my favorite. Perhaps that’s an autumnal mind-set.
Although the Sonoran Desert, bioregion of my childhood, is a realm where cacti, not trees, are the charismatic megaflora, Phoenix had watered itself into oasishood, and the yards in our suburb had trees big enough to bond with. The native saguaros, chollas, octillos, mesquites, barrel cacti, and paloverdes were mostly to be seen on the rapidly receding outskirts of town or in date-palm pastiche desert-style landscapes at the old Scottsdale and Paradise Valley resorts. The desert and its cacti were with some justification regarded as hostile; park-like yards with lawns and elms were the conventional habitat of Anglo-American families such as mine.
In the yard next door, there were leafy chinaberry trees where our little gang of kids could clamber into the cool shade. Behind the subdivision was a citrus orchard. With their low, smooth, elephantine branches, the grapefruit trees were friendly to small climbers. My family’s yard had eucalyptus trees that were worthless for climbing but impressively tall, and shading the west side of the house were American elms. The elms’ lowest branches were too high for a little girl to reach but made a good bandstand for the mockingbirds.
Like any healthy, normal young primate, I became intimately acquainted with trees, if not forests, during my childhood. As most of us do, I outgrew that intimacy. As a young adult, my feeling for trees persisted but became a rhetorical relationship. Trees, especially redwoods, along with all the other conspicuous features of the earth’s imperiled ecosystems – sequoias, bristlecone pines, condors, gray whales, snail darters, Furbish’s louseworts – became objects of my general concern. Before the timber wars got going in earnest, I had left northern California. Now, courageous acts of civil disobedience have become a way of life for hundreds of human beings whose relationship with redwood trees and old-growth forests goes beyond rhetoric to a sacrifice of their days, their flesh, and even their lives.
In the mid-1980s, when I moved to the North Woods, I came to a landscape that had been logged repeatedly and yet still grew trees. Dwindling tracts of second- and third-growth hardwoods, mixes of sugar maple, beech, bass, ironwood, ash, poplar, yellow birch, red oak, and hemlock, persist in different combinations and proportions, depending on soil and slope. There are a few white and red pines and white birches here and there, and near wetlands and flowing water, different forest communities: cedar, fir, spruce, and tamarack. Some ecologists are saying that the combined stresses of acid rain, drought, insects, disease and genetic impoverishment that results from cutting the best trees for the market may not be survivable by the forests, despite their current appearance.
Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, much of this land was cut over and kept cleared. Now it grows corn and hay and golf courses. The uplands are good for growing cherries and other fruit, and for sitting half-million-dollar trophy homes on with views. Then there’s all-but-defeated land such as mine, which was farmed to the limit. In our glacial terrain, the limit was reached after a few crops of potatoes, and the soil began to blow. Now it’s parked under pine plantations, where Christmas trees and timber are raised as crops. On my acres, the Christmas trees have been left to their own devices and have grown tall and gnarly, shading and sheltering numerous hopeful cherry, maple, and beech saplings. Our local mosaic of second-, third-, and fourth-growth woodlots, orchards, suburbs, woodburbs, oat fields, and cornfields is picturesque but lacks ecological integrity. None of it adds up to forest, but the robust remnants of the real thing are beautiful for now.
When autumn comes to these woods, the green alchemist chlorophyll, having worked with earth, air, light, and water to grow the trees through spring and summer, ceases its labors. Then every single leaf reveals some different color, pattern, and intensity of pigmentation, going from green to gaudy. There’s a spectacle wherever there’s a patch of hardwoods. The sugar maple’s eye-dazzling range, from plangent yellow to blazing orange and gleaming ruby, makes that tree’s transformations the dominant feature of this most scenic season. After fifteen years of gaping at the sugar maples’ leaves, I have begun to see past them to the other trees in the forest and their less insistent but no less beautiful hues. The fall colors of the white ash’s compound leaves grade from butter yellow to garnet and burgundy, deep radiant tones that quietly invite the eye’s appreciation. Pien cherry leaves are among the earliest to turn and glow deeply as embers. Hope hornbeams and basswoods range from chrome yellow to citron. Beech leaves phase through sunny yellow on their way to paper-bag brown.
The sugar maple’s millennia of upstaging the rest of the fall foliage may be coming to an end. Acid rain threatens these trees, and global climate change may drive their range northward. Whether the trees themselves will be able to migrate as quickly as the weather changes remains to be seen. The Asian longhorn beetle, an alien invasive species recently established in the United States thanks to the expansion of world trade, having arrived in the wood of crates containing goods from China, is likely to infest and decimate this tree species unless unprecedentedly successful vigilance against the beetle’s spread is undertaken and maintained. The sugar maple’s fellow dominant in these woodlands, the American beech, is even more immediately imperiled. Beech bark disease may eliminate as many as half of the beech trees. The possibility that the beeches and sugar maples could all but vanish from the woods, as did the American chestnuts and elms, which succumbed to alien organisms, signals change of quite a different kind from the movement of the seasons and their variation from year to year. These shocking final changes confront us everywhere these days, asking insistently, “How are we to live?” and “What are we to do?”
If we live simply, attentively, and gratefully, it will go better. There is always beauty to see if you have an eye for it. Looking is a practice. Seeing is a gift that comes with practice. The light is autumn is so rich, warm, and romantic, tinted with all the bright colors of the land. Did it rejoice the hearts and souls of the old-times who lived here, engaged in subsistence farming? Were they amazed, grateful? And how did this glowing atmosphere with its rustle and snap strike the Odawa people, when the trees were many and great and the woods offered meat, furs, and medicine and the dangers of wolves and bears? Has it always been a great wonder to be here as the seasons hasten along, and has it always been a vexation to fend with the whipsaw weather that is fall?
BIOREGIONAL ARTS: REINHABITING, RESTORING/RESTORYING, RECIPROCITY
In writing about our connection to place and places, inside and around us, we can do three vital things that help us cultivate a life of connection and awareness: We can use our writing to REINHABIT our home places more fully; We can practice the art of cultural and personal RESTORATION through the arts; and we can foster a greater sense of RECIPROCITY between our individual selves and the living life.
REINHABITION: Peter Berg, one of the key founders of bioregionalism, writes:
If the life-destructive path of technological society is to diverted into life- sustaining directions, the land must be reinhabited. Reinhabitation means learning to live-in-place in an area that has been disrupted and injured through past exploitation. It involves becoming aware of the particular ecological relationships that operate within and around it. It means understanding activities and evolving social behavior that will enrich the life of that place, restore its life- supporting systems, and establish an ecologically and socially sustainable pattern of existence within it. Simply stated it involved becoming fully alive in and with a place. By writing our way toward reinhabiting our bodies – which are our personal piece of the earth – as well as our home communities, we can become more “fully alive in and with a place.”
RESTORATION: Stephanie Mills writes, “In the land we may find solace for our wounds, privacy for a developing intimacy with a natural surround, an occasion for acting out healing processes that effect inner healing as well; or we may remain unconscious of and oblivious to the living community of the land. Numbed and paralyzed by the degree of damage that has been inflicted on the land, we may be domineering and exploitive toward it, or even blindly destructive. Our behavior toward the land is an eloquent and detailed expression of our character, and the land is not incapable of reflecting these statements back. We are perfectly bespoken by our surroundings. Imagine a world where the life of the Earth and of the human spirit could go on, evolving, diversifying, adapting, changing, and surprising, fearlessly: if it can be imagined, it can come to be. If it can be recalled, it may be restored.
Drawing upon our imagination and our memory, we can help recall “the life of the Earth and of the human spirit,” which is the key to restoring and sustaining the earth, as Mills so eloquently explains.
RECIPROCITY: David Abram writes, “Our bodies have formed themselves in delicate reciprocity with the manifold textures, sounds, and shapes of an animate earth – our eyes have evolved in subtle interaction with other eyes, as our ears are attuned by their very structure to the howling of wolves and the honking of geese. To shut ourselves off from these other voices, to continue by our lifestyles to condemn those other sensibilities to the oblivion of extinction, is to rob our own senses of their integrity, and to rob our minds of their coherence. We are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human.”
Writing in a directed way – our eyes and ears and all our senses aimed toward the natural world – is a way for us to more consciously experience the reciprocal relationships we have with the ‘animate earth.’ Using our words – and reinhabiting our own language arts – can help us come to our senses.
Poetry as powerful means of using our senses because that’s how poetry works: it evokes sensory experience that wakes us up and brings us into the place of the poem. As Abram also reminds us,
“A story that makes sense is one that stirs the senses from their slumber, one that opens the eyes and ears to their real surroundings, tuning the tongue to the actual tastes in the air and sending chills of recognition along the surface of the skin. To make sense is to release the body from the constraints imposed by outworn ways of speaking, and hence to renew and rejuvenate one’s felt awareness of the world. It is to make the senses wake up to where they are.”
Language can help us connect with what’s beyond language: As Tomas Transtomer writes,
“Tired of all who come with words, word but no language
I went to the snow-covered island.
The wild does not have words.
The unwritten pages spread themselves out in all directions!
I come across the marks of roe-deer’s hooves in the snow.
Language, but no words.”
As Bruce Chatwin states, “An unsung land is a dead land.” The same is true for us: we know that all kinds of health problems – physical, emotional, psychic, mental – are soothed and sometimes even healed by being able to transform what we feel through telling our story, through being witnessed, and through the very life-giving act of merely making art. We must, and we can, sing ourselves in poetry, and sing the earth. Think of the Aborigines – the way each place has a song. Listen to the places in yourself, and what song those places sing to you and for you.
Some writing workshops you can do on your own:
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