Friday, June 18, 2010

Re-membering the human by K.L.Kivi

"In the confusion of modern overstimulation it is not easy to know what is essential, what is radically simple and to the core. What is my deepest understanding?" Stephanie Kaza

Small puffs of clouds hang over the mountains that descend in a dark blue swoop to the water’s edge. The paddle’s rounded edge cuts the shining surface, the pull leaving swirling eddies. My hands bring the paddle around again to dip and draw. Again and again. My muscles echo the movements of my companion in the stern and this too is, somehow, part of the core, the radically, wonderful, all consuming simplicity of this moment.

I stop paddling and gaze over the edge of the canoe. My paddling partner keeps the motion alive and we gradually veer toward the forested shore until she too lifts her paddle. The sun shines through the green water revealing the sharply sloping bottom. Among the timbers of a sunken steam boat that once plied this lake, fish linger, probably kokanee, a land-locked salmon. Their speckled flanks gleam in the penetrating sunshine. Is water invisible to the fish, as air is to us? It sustains, upholds and defines their very motion, but what do they perceive of their undulations, water and sunlight through which they move?

What is the movement, what are the substances of my placement on Earth? Air, yes, that is easy to say, but what else defines the context of my being? What are the ways in which I most fundamentally inhabit the substances of home? I catch only glimpses of it, like now, canoeing down Slocan Lake in the sunshine, and reach for words to describe it, the unnameable something when all of me is engaged, all of me aligned with the place and instant at hand: body, heart, mind, spirit. How often does it happen? Here in my home among the Columbia Mountains, it is no longer a rare occasion but, nevertheless, one I always notice and savour. The simplest of sensation, like the part of the paddle shaft where the varnish has worn away and is rough against my meaty pad of my thumb, become me. What is.

Although in retrospect, I’m sure it happened many times before, probably when in bed with a lover, the first time I truly was aware of it happening out in nature, was not here in the landscape with which I am most familiar. My full engagement with place occurred the first time I visited my parents’ homeland of Estonia. It happened precisely twice during that emotionally tumultuous “return” to the homeland that the substance of that place met the gesture of me.

My cousin had taken me berry picking. It was late August or early September and we entered the sun-speckled pine bog with wicker baskets swinging from our hands. Elvi had to show me how to spot the red jewels from among the emerald moss but from there on in, it was as if I was repeating a very ancient gesture. Initially, I crouched but eventually found myself sprawling in the thick moss to get down to eye level with the berries. There the earthy odour of moss added to the pungency of pine. The larger cranberries were easy to distinguish from the smaller lingonberries that hung on stems like ruby lilies of the valley. Lost in some idyll, my fingers danced my basket full. When Elvi returned from her own wanderings - which involved more mushroom hunting than berry picking - she had to repeat my name before I noticed her. And leaving the forest, I lagged behind. When I noticed she was far ahead of me, I decided to take a short cut across a small ditch. It wasn’t until I was in full stride into the ditch that Elvi cried out a warning. But it was too late. I sunk into what had looked like solid green, up to my hip. I instinctively had splayed my other leg across the surface to keep me from sinking deeper. Elvi and I linked arms and she pulled for a full minute before my leg came free in one great sucking sound. Elvi was particularly happy that I’d managed to bring my gumboot up as well, rubber boots a precious commodity in Soviet era Estonia.

As we float quietly, letting the slight breeze carry us down this mountain cleavage that is lake, I think: the land had laid claim to me. And I was – am – so happy to be claimed, each time it happens. Land does not belong to us, but we belong to land and in recognizing that, we reciprocate and that is where the magic happens. The need to be nowhere else but here, where ever here might be.

The second time it happened was while harvesting potatoes. It was a warm September afternoon and I had eaten well at my friend’s parents dinner table. I was loaned boots and work clothes by Eero’s mother. Feasters were greeted by neighbours outside and we walked to the potato field nearby chatting, some a little too merry from drink. One of merry, a round-bellied, red-nosed man followed with an ancient chugging Soviet tractor with Lenin’s head as the gearshift nob. He turned the rows while the rest of us followed, spreading out to gather the uprooted tubers. Again, something about the motion of stooping and gathering potatoes from the soil, planting footfalls in the dark loam and repeating the gesture was as natural as a baby’s mouth groping for a milky breast. People called to one another across the furrows and laughed, stopping from time to time to straighten and stretch their backs or carry their full baskets over to the trailer where we dumped them into the growing pile.

In my book, The Inner Green, I attempt to describe these experiences, writing that it was as if “I uncovered the passageway home”. But what home are we talking about here? Not a home I have known in my lifetime. These two incidents lead me to wonder about sources, because it’s unlikely that my parents stories of berry picking or potato harvesting, had there been many of them, could inspire such a sense of resonance with a physical act. Or could there be some other explanation for these moments of rightness that I experience from time to time? An evolutionary anthropologist might see some genetic root. Some indigenous cultures may interpret such moments as ancestral memory, others might see them as manifestations of past lives; in any case, the why remains a mystery.

How much of what it is to be human is invisible and unknown to us, I wonder as we take up the rhythm of paddling again. Does the fish know when it has left the water? Is its flopping and flailing in the bare air known to it or does it only remember fluidity when it is righted by water? A fish not righted dies. What happens to us humans? What is the cost of living outside our rightful context, of not being at home in the world? What is the price the individual pays, what is the price the collective pays? What is the destiny of a human culture that is not rooted in place?

As humans, I think we seek that moment of connection, yearn for it without knowing precisely what we are pining for. We seize upon it in whatever form we find it. Maybe the profound draw of sex in Western culture is due to the fact that a union of two bodies may be one of the easiest remaining connections to that sense of physical rightness. That sense of being fully present and completely engaged. Maybe we are always looking for the ultimate partner, being manipulated by its promise, because it is one doorway to our essential selves that we still know how to walk through. Another might be the most banal gestures involved in caring for our children – reaching down for uplifted arms, bringing a baby’s mouth to the breast, clearing snot from a small upturned nose. These are doorways to humanness that we still need.

What gestures of humanness are in the process of being forgotten? The long walk to move camp. Stalking an elusive deer. Carrying wood. Resting one’s head against the flank of the farm animal. Climbing the tree. Digging for roots. Plucking a fowl. Casting a log upon the fire. When my body encounters one of these gestures, it re-members. My limbs and torso think and speak and rejoice. Our bodies do not keep up with time, time creates our bodies. We have evolved for specific tasks, because of specific tasks, in response to specific places. Desert people are often tall, rainforest dwellers often small. Seafaring people do not get seasick, even after many generations of no longer going to sea. And our hands: they need their work and though we provide some, it is often not a re-membering kind of work. I doubt the carpal tunnels of our wrists will begin to want keyboarding after a few generations. So much of what we do now, is de-membering, a forgetting that we are born of generations who knew a specific air, a specific water and a precise place on Earth.

Though I have found my way into these densely forested mountains and made my home here, it is clear to me that the rise and plunge of the land are irrelevant; my fundamental home is among trees and interacting with soil. As an adventurer, I marvel over and even love the tundra, the mountain peak, the prairie, the ocean, but the feeling of rightness that I have chosen to call home is the screen of trunks, limbs, lichens, mosses and fauna upon which the story of growing and gathering food unfolds. It is the odour of coniferous sap, the tang of wild berries, a shaft of wood in my grasped palms, a chorus of wind and birds or the persistent quiet of snow. How would I live without these things? Who would I be?

Could our cultural fascination with vampires and zombies and horror be a reflection of a de-membered culture, trying to understand where bodies lost from their primal context go? What replaces the sense of connection that de-placed people do not experience? I write de-placed, not dis-placed, because displacement implies that there is a place to return to. So many of us are generations lost to a multitude of places that “return” is not an option. Re-membering requires a new process, a modern day quest for that sense of rightness that I have seen many friends and acquaintances embark on. Without being able to articulate precisely what they are looking for, they nevertheless try on places with the persistence of a mountaineer looking for a new pair of boots. As if their lives depended on it. Perhaps this is because their lives, our lives, do depend on it.

I dip my paddle in after a lull and pull. This is who I am. Here. Now. This is my deepest understanding, one of radical simplicity.

Monday, June 14, 2010

June Diary: by Luanne Armstrong

June Journal:

At the beginning of June, even though I had promised people I was coming, I resisted going to Kaslo and Nelson to teach, even going so far as to email the organizers to see if they would cancel. But no go.

And then I left the farm, got to Nelson, had a good time, and realized that leaving the farm, periodically, is a good thing. Five days of talking and visiting and home again. And of course, things are fine.

The garden is in; the ground is weeded, three weeks of rain soaked everything and the fir and cedar have responded with lush electric green tips on their branches. The hot weather plants, tomatoes and eggplants, are sulking and yellow but their turn will come now the sun is back. Right now, they are pushing their root tips into the soggy fertile ground and getting ready to produce mountains of fruit. I planted only the large, purple-black eggplants this year. The smaller eggplants are more productive but I love the colour of the big fat ones. Every year I pick them and stare at them; how can a purple be so black, a black be so iridescent? I have never seen a colour like it anywhere else.

Plus Nelson is a mini-city. So I bought five books, several magazines, looked at hemp shirts and some other lovely and very expensive clothes I would never buy. But I did buy puzzles and toys for Tiger Lily and Tallulah. And I took home a bag of expensive organic food I can’t get in Creston; ate brilliant lunches and even did some writing. What’s not to like? But it’s hard to leave the farm, especially at this time of year. There’s always something that needs doing, something to plant, something to weed, something to water, even something to pick. Even though it is the middle of June, the garden is bursting with spinach, radishes, lettuce, onions, Chinese cabbage, Swiss chard, and even broccoli. Every morning, I wander with my coffee. There is always a new flower opening. When I am there, the farm becomes the world.

And too often, late at night, unable to sleep, I read. I read about the oil plumes in the Gulf of Mexico, albatross chicks starving to death after their parents feed them plastic, mistaking it for fish. I read about peak oil and possible food shortages in the future, about global warming, ice sheets melting in Greenland. This fall, I will fill the shelves again with canning, jars full of dried fruit, and a freezer full of vegetables, fruit and meat. Life continues here as it has for ten thousand years.

And yet I am planning on running away from it all again. Not for long and not soon, but the need to finish the two books I have been slowly working on. So I will try to spend some time in the city in the fall. The essays on land are almost done but the ethics book needs some concentration and time. The farm is a difficult place for a writer. A farm needs to be a community; it needs people, it needs parties and dinners and planning and work. And I need solitude and time to walk and think and write. So I will run away again to the smelly city where life is too easy and the grocery story full of expensive fruit that I would never pay for at home and the library is just down the hill and all the tools I need and want as a writer are there; my friends, books, my writer’s life and all the time my heart will be crying, go home, go home, go home.

The weekend after I got home was full of people: sons, friends, and a lovely long leisurely Sunday morning with all sorts of people dropping by, eating raspberry pancakes and apple cake, then coffee or lemonade and sitting in the (finally) hot sun. Then I drove to Creston and did an exhibition ride at the Therapeutic Riding Centre. People cheered and applauded and my riding instructor asked if I would think about going to the National Therapeutic Riding Centre Dressage test sometime in the future. I immediately said yes, even though I have no idea what this means. But it is a goal to ride towards and a new vision of myself, at 61, as a ‘disabled athlete.’ Hilarious. But fun.

The farm has now acquired an old wood cookstove that will eventually become part of the summer kitchen-shower-bathroom building we will one day build at the beach and a relatively new tractor that will be used for many, many things.

Today the clouds are rolling in a bit but the tomatoes are in flower as are the intensely blue Chinese delphiniums, the purple delphiniums, the white miniature roses, and the pink poppies are ready to ‘pop’. I feel like getting a chair and sitting beside them, quietly cheering.