Voices from the threshold: listening for and telling other-than-human stories

2014_8.28_620w-2In his 2009 book about climate change, Down to the Wire, environmental science professor and visionary green building pioneer, David Orr, describes a thought experiment he once gave to his students. He asked them to act as lawyers representing Homo sapiens before a congress of all beings. The charges read like this:

“Over many thousands of years humans have proved themselves incapable of living as citizens and members of the community of life, and in recent centuries have become so numerous and so hazardous to other members of the community and the biosphere that they should be banished from the Earth forever.” ~ David Orr, Down to the Wire, p. 138

He goes on to describe the trial and what the various parties might say about whether or not humans deserve to remain here. Orr charged his students to consider how the trial might turn out, to ponder what’s so special about humans anyhow. “Is there a better defense than one based on a promise to improve?” This question has stayed with me since reading it over two years ago. I also have returned many times to Orr’s suggestion of a possible overlooked purpose for Homo sapiens.

“Against the vastness of cosmic evolution, the ‘universe story’ diminishes our pretense of mastery while raising the importance of humankind as the storyteller in an otherwise silent universe. . . . [W]e need a larger story for certain, but we also need to begin with something closer to hand and heart, which is simply the sense of gratitude for the gift of life itself.” ~ David Orr, Down to the Wire, p. 145-146

It strikes me as particularly hopeful that we would have such a noble role as storyteller. A fanciful piece of writing along those lines came to me about six months later. We are the storytellers, yes, and also the singers, dancers, writers and artists. We are the celebrators in as many varied forms as it takes to express the gratitude and awe we feel about the gift of life. I must disagree with Mr. Orr on one point, though: the universe is anything but silent. It is an infinitely multi-voiced symphony of ongoing creation and wonder. I would like one day to sit down with him and hash this out over a beer.

I turn the phrase around in my mind—otherwise silent universe—and a question emerges. What if we are the storytellers for our fellows who have forgotten this amazing truth, for those among us who do believe the universe is silent? Anyone with ears and a heart can experiment with listening to the many voices from the threshold between worlds—the beguilement and hubris of our technology-mediated modern civilization, and the living world that we tend to think of as “everything else that’s not us.” The land gives us that access, if we have the imagination and humility to listen with all our senses, to go to the timeless places between cultures, between eras, between dreaming and reality.

Our Restorying retreats offer this opportunity. The old, old land rolling between the Appalachian Trail and the Shenandoah heightens our felt sense of being on thresholds, allowing us to feel our own bodies as doorways between worlds. Contradiction and paradox and enigma prevail. I was once asked by a giant triple tulip poplar to use my cellphone to take selfies. Of the tree, not of myself.

“Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment. Cleverness is mere opinion. Bewilderment is intuition.” ~ Rumi

Janus, the god of the threshold, has two faces. One looks back to where we have been and one looks forward to where we have yet to travel. Everyone who has a body is equipped with the capacity to tune in, to observe both the outer world and the inner, real and imaginary, to embody a place of both/and: intuition and logic; madness and reason; certainty and bewilderment; past and future.

David Abram, author of The Spell of the Sensuous and Becoming Animal, says that he writes to find—and invent—language to express the truth of our ecstatic embedment within the natural world. The poets Pattiann Rogers and Gerard Manley Hopkins had similar aims. (Find links to several of their marvelous poems here.) How can language, which is used mostly to keep us separated from the non-rational and the mysterious, speak for our wild, magical, intuitive encounters?

I have been experimenting with writing steeped in wonder that shimmers with the magic of the living world, such as the italicized passages in this essay. Often, words flow in this spare, honest language out of encounters with beings in the natural world: a mountain stream, that poplar tree, a meadow, butterflies, hawks. It’s as if the living land wants to speak to us, to tell us stories. David Abram teaches that ancient human cultures have this sort of connection with place. Their ancestral stories live within the features of the land, alongside the stories of badger and elk, slug and stone.

I have to think that part of our way back to kinship with the living world involves listening for her stories. We could think of ourselves as curators, as caretakers not only of the land but of her stories. And we could tell them to each other.

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