Monthly Archives: February 2016

For Val, With Love

I wanted to do a bit of sorry business to commemorate the day. Val Plumwood died on February 29, 2008, and although we only get to mark the anniversary every four years, she is certainly not forgotten. The impact of her feminist, ecological philosophy continues to grow, year in, year out.

Val Plumwood, photo by Kumi Kato
Val Plumwood, photo by Kumi Kato

In Aboriginal English, sorry business refers to the social process of grieving. It includes not only the actual funeral, but also the on-going work of remembrance and of cleansing and renewal. The term sorry business can also be used in re-establishing peace after violence, and can thus refer to rituals of remorse and restoration.* As a writer, I often turn to the written word to express my feelings, and this year I revisited Val’s essay ‘Journey to the Heart of Stone’. The essay is pro-stone, so to speak, and rests on the point that stones and other ‘inorganic’ matter have not been well-served in western dualistic culture. In her words: ‘The culture that refuses honour to stones refuses honour also to the great earth forces that have shaped and placed them. The eviction of spirit and honour from stones and from the earth is one of the greatest crimes of modernity.’

Toward the end of her life Val was increasingly interested in forms of writing that would help readers think beyond and outside the ‘sado-dispassionate rationality of scientific reductionism’. Her question as a writer was: ‘How can we re-present experience in ways that honour the agency and creativity of the more-than-human world?’ Her stone essay offered two fascinating stories of her relationships with stones.

Val's home at Plumwood Mt.
Val’s home at Plumwood Mt.

The first story tells of how she got to know stones in the course of building her home with foundstones. As she walked the country around the mountain looking for stones, she also contemplated another dualism: between respect and use. The logic of this hyperseparation is that things which are used (by humans) are positioned as mere matter or, in the case of stones ‘dead matter’, and thus are placed outside the realm of respect. Val learned both to respect and to use the stones. She writes: ‘The foundstone worker must be sensitive both to the individuality of stones, in shape, for example, and to their membership of a kind, to differences in parent material indicating strength and malleability.’

Arnhem Land stone country, Darrell Lewis
Arnhem Land stone country, Darrell Lewis

In the second story Val writes about bushwalking in the ‘stone country’ of North Australia. She had great respect for Aboriginal culture and country, and while she detested appropriation, she was keen to move her thought closer to Indigenous ways. Through her own philosophical lens and lived experience, she was seeking a practice that would free us western folk ‘to re-write the earth as sacred, earth exploration as pilgrimage, earth knowledge as revelation.’

The ’stone country’ story woke up vivid memories for me. My most profound engagements with stone have taken place during decades of living with and learning from Aboriginal people. In the course of travelling in country, and in the course of working on land claims and documenting sacred sites for registration, I have witnessed the respect with which Aboriginal people engage with country and with sacred sites. I have been privileged to visit many sites, many stones.

Jasper Gorge
Jasper Gorge

Sacred sites are non-ordinary places, and most are places where the evidence of creation endures. I’ll share a brief example from one of my most beloved places. In Jasper Gorge (NT) the brilliant sandstone cliffs were formed by the Dreaming (creation ancestor) Black-headed Python as she came travelling through the country. The shape of the gorge is identical to the tracks snakes leave in the ground, but of course much larger. Throughout the gorge there are individual stones that show evidence of her actions. A split stone, for example, was formed when she cut it with her string belt.

Split rock in Jasper Gorge
Split rock in Jasper Gorge

Here and at many other sacred sites throughout Australia stone does what it is so well known for – it endures. In a world where living beings have short life-spans, coming into life and leaving again like ripples on water, stone holds the stories and the evidence from generation to generation. My Aboriginal teachers were very explicit about this. Someday we’ll be dead and gone, they’d say, but look! That stone [or that hill, or that cliff face] will still be there. People said that Dreamings came out of the ground, and that the Law is in the ground. Creation’s bedrock stands as foundational and enduring testimony.

Cliff face, Jasper Gorge
Cliff face, Jasper Gorge

The most iconic stone in Australia is, of course, Uluru. Formerly it was known as Ayer’s Rock and now is known colloquially as simply ‘the rock’. It is near the centre of Australia in the midst of arid, red-soil country with dusky green and yellow spinifex. Uluru’s dignity and presence, the profound wonder of its size, and the striking country that surrounds it, combine with the fact that it is a major sacred site. The legal status of the rock is testimony to an era in which Aboriginal people’s aspirations for self-determination were taken seriously. It was claimed under the Aboriginal Land Rights Act (NT) 1976; Uluru and surrounding area was returned to Aboriginal Traditional Owners, Anangu people. They agreed to lease the area back to the government as a National Park, and to retain joint management of the Park. This happened in 1985, and the area now also has World Heritage listing.

Uluru, melalouise (CC)
Uluru, melalouise (CC)

Uluru is awesome in every way.

People come from all over the world to visit. Uluru inspires reverence, and while reverence is experienced in much the same way by all humans, it can be acted upon in different ways. Anangu have asked people not to climb the rock. They regard the practice as disrespectful and irreverent, as well as dangerous. And yet, many visitors actually want to express their reverence through climbing. There has been no resolution to these conflicting views about climbing, but Anangu people have invited visitors to walk around Uluru rather than climb.

Walking trail, Dot W (CC)
Walking trail, Dot W (CC)

Many visitors souvenir a small piece of the great rock. No one knows how many pieces of rock and baggies of soil are taken away each year; people don’t announce that they are doing this. It is illegal, and large fines apply. But it is known that this happens, because every year stones and soil are returned. Often the person includes a letter expressing their regret at having taken a piece of the rock. Some people state that they had bad luck after having taken a piece, but many others simply say they felt sorry about what they had done and wanted to return the piece of rock.

The returned fragments are called ‘sorry rocks’. The term is a local invention. Sorry rocks arrive from all over the world. And then there are the offerings. No one knows how many pieces of crystal or other offerings are buried around Uluru. Whether people take fragments of the rock away or bring offerings to the rock, they radically testify to the power and presence of the great rock, and undermine the idea that this stone is ‘dead matter’.

A French visitor took away two stones. They returned 220 grams of material, along with a letter addressed to the rock itself:

“I wanted to take away some of your magic with me for the rest of my travels, for the rest of my life even. I realise it was wrong to do so, therefore I am sending both pieces back to you. Forgive me for being foolish and thank you for letting me spend time with you and absorb your beauty.”

The term sorry rock taps into remorse and a desire to put things right. Sadly, sorry rocks can’t be returned to their precise place of origin. No one knows exactly where they should go, and in fact some of the material people return hadn’t come from Uluru in the first place, according to geological analysis. Anangu people don’t want unsourced fragments dumped at the rock, and there may be quarantine considerations, so sorry rocks are used in road building. They end up as rubble. It seems that aabout 350 parcels are returned each year, an unknown fraction of the amount that is taken away. The largest stone to be returned was 32 kilos (70 pounds). But numbers are not really the story.

Uluru, sue10749 (CC)
Uluru, sue10749 (CC)

The gleaming presence of Uluru draws visitors to itself and sends them away feeling profoundly moved. You don’t have to be Aboriginal to know that here you are at a source, a foundation. Uluru, and all such sacred sites, are bedrock from a western philosophical perspective as well as from Indigenous perspectives. I am drawing on recent work with the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, and his insight that ethics is at the foundation of everything. When people are moved by the presence of the rock, they are summoned into relationship and thus into the realm of ethics. Creation – the coming forth – is already an ethical call. It is a summons to consciously recognise the power of creation, and it offers no justification. There is nothing subtending it,  as Ed Mooney and Lyman Mower write: ‘Nothing is beneath – not objects, Gods, force fields, or language – not knowers, actors, beliefs, or doctrines.’ One cannot go deeper than this.

People come face-to-face with Uluru, and something happens. Here one is acted upon. The face of the stone summons  people, and they are  touched. How beautiful it is to sit quietly at the base of the rock; to know that here is the deep of the deep, the foundation of the foundation. From creation until now and for generations to come, here is life’s meaning, its power and beauty.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2016)

*In Australian national life, the ‘Apology’ for the suffering of the stolen generations has merged Indigenous uses of the term ‘sorry’ with public issues of apology for past wrongs. Feeling sorrow and saying sorry seem to have been conflated, and I agree with the view that the practice of saying sorry is not large or generous enough to re-establish peace.

Resources:

To gain a better understanding of Val’s work, a good source is Eye of the Crocodile, a collection of her essays that was assembled and edited after her death by Lorraine Shannon. It is available online (read here) and includes an introductory essay telling more about Val’s life and thought. Her heart of stone essay is published in 2007 in the book Culture, Creativity and Environment, edited by Fiona Becket and Terry Gilford.

A recent book of short essays, also available online, owes a lot to Val’s philosophical work (read here).

Two essays of mine give in-depth accounts of Jasper Gorge and of the interplay between the ephemeral and the enduring (read here and here).

To hear one of the Anangu Elders tell some of the Dreaming story for Uluru, watch here. A ‘fact sheet’ about ‘sorry rocks’ is available online (read here).

My words about creation and ethics are inspired by Jim Hatley’s work, for example , his essay ‘The Original Goodness of Creation: Monotheism in Another’s Voice’, published in 2012 in the book Facing Nature, edited by William Edelglass, James Hatley & Christian Diehm. The quote from Ed Mooney and Lyman Mower comes from their essay ‘Witness to the Face of a River: Thinking with Levinas and Thoreau’, published in the same book.

Val’s analysis of the respect-use dualism is discussed in recent comments by Russell Edwards and Jim Hatley, and will be the subject of a future essay.

Russell Edwards’ comment (below) contains a link to a remembrance article that Jackie French wrote in which she describes Val’s house building skills (read here).

 

Thinking Like a Mantis?

Is it appropriate to be finding goodness in ecological systems? Many people say ‘no, absolutely not’. ‘We can’t look to nature for guidance in human values’, they say. ‘We are humans, nature is different.’

Mantis, Jaybird (CC)
Mantis, Jaybird (CC)

I had a colleague once who was very keen on this point. He was utterly convinced of his basic view that we cannot and must not try to derive values from nature. His clinching argument was the praying mantis. The reason: because after sex the female kills and eats the male. His shudder was thoroughly genuine!

Well, I have to agree that this is not a good model for human life. From a biological point of view, though, it tells us something interesting about mantises. There are over 2,000 mantis species (Mantodea) on Earth, and in all of them the female lays her eggs and then walks away and leaves them. There is no nurturing of the young. She puts all her effort into building up her strength so that she can lay lots of healthy eggs. And given that a female can lay up to 200 eggs, a lot of food has to pass through that little body.

Gustavo Fernando Durán (CC)
Gustavo Fernando Durán (CC)

Females can eat, for example, sixteen crickets per day, and in addition to their preferred insect food, they are known to eat mice, frogs, birds and newts. In the time of egg-formation, the female has two main needs: to develop her own strength and to attract a partner to fertilise the eggs. Once that is all in place, death is the next step: lay the eggs, walk away, die and be done with it! After eggs and sex both partners are expendable.

There is no way humans could live like this even if we wanted to. Our young require years of care. It is true that a child can be raised without a father, but it is equally true that it takes a community to raise a child. We are not alone in requiring social co-operation to raise the young. Many mammals do likewise, and so too do many birds. None of us creatures who care for and socialise our young for long periods of time would be wise to take lessons from mantises.

The meaningful division in this context is not between humans and ‘nature’ but between high levels of care and low levels of care of offspring. Both strategies are viable, but they are in no way interchangeable. Scientists refer to them as the r and K selection strategies. One involves large parental investment and few offspring (K), the other involves large numbers of offspring and little parental investment (r).

The r/K difference positions humans as a ‘K’ type of creature; we are like some creature and unlike others.

To return to the joy of sex mantis-style, recent evidence offers a more complex and therefore more interesting story. For a start, it turns out that female mantises only eat their sexual partners if they are hungry. The experiments that showed cannibalistic females ripping into their mates used mantises that were starving. Research outside the lab in fields and gardens did not discover strong evidence for cannibalism.

Males want to copulate every bit as fiercely as females want to lay strong eggs. If there is to be a new generation, the female needs both nourishment and sex. It is rather a happy adaptation that males can, if necessary, provide both. They actually can continue their sexual activity, and may even copulate more rapidly, when their head has been bitten off!

Mantis sex, Larry Miller (CC)
Mantis sex, Larry Miller (CC)

Most creatures are choosy about who they mate with, and mantises are no exception. Females put out a pheromone to announce that they are ready for males, and then it is up to the guys. Male mantises do approach females cautiously. Scientists describe courtship rituals for some species in which the male comes toward the female waving his antennae and wiggling his abdomen. The two of them stroke each other and then mate, perhaps for up to six hours. However, other species take a fly-in-fly-out approach, with the male arriving, having sex, and departing as rapidly as possible.

Mantis in action, Mike (CC)
Mantis in action, Mike (CC)

Out in the garden mantises are doing what mantises do, but inside a high-powered research institute a scientist shudders at the thought of ruthless and predatory females. The insect femme fatale is a prevalent gender stereotype, and apparently a fearsome one. In her human form, she is a beautiful ball-breaker, intent on destroying men while taking all she can from them. Thanks to feminist analysis we now understand that such gender stereotypes are part of patriarchal power. They rationalise control over women, excluding us from full humanity, and they embed the imagery in the realm of nature where it can seem to be incontrovertible.

There is always a fine balance between prejudice and humour. Character types and popular imagery are a significant part of our cultural lives, and a lot of them can be quite funny. I’m rather taken with the kinds of lessons we could share based on male mantis behaviour. Most of us will be aware of the fly-in-fly-out type, of course, and who could fail to recognise the brainless guy who would go on fucking even if his head did fall off!

We learn a lot about humans by examining the stories we tell about nonhumans.

Surprisingly, though, there is actually a lot of positive mantis lore in the human world. In a completely different frame of reference, a northern Chinese style of martial arts known as Tang Lang models itself on mantises. It recognises that mantises are fierce little predators. They are swift and precise, shift from immobility to action instantaneously and take their prey completely by surprise. According to Wikipedia, ‘One of the most distinctive features’ of Tang Lang ‘is the “praying mantis hook”: a hook made of one to three fingers directing force in a whip-like manner. The hook may be used to divert force (blocking), adhere to an opponent’s limb, or attack critical spots (eyes or acupuncture points).’ The basic idea is to work with the principle of overcoming weakness with strength.

Praying mantis training, © Kungfu-Republic
Praying mantis training,  Kung Fu Republic (CC)

So, is there a problem with finding goodness and other blessings in nature? The question goes beyond stereotypes and joking. There is a lot to be learned from the natural world, but learning should not be confused with mindless mimicry. The fact that some females kill their sexual partners is no more a guide to human behaviour than is the fact that some males take an f-i-f-o approach to sex.

The most interesting examples, like Tang Lang, show humans carefully observing and translating other creatures’ knowledge and behaviour into forms that are suited for human life.

Along with martial arts, let us think about translation arts.

When poets translate poems from another language, they have to think about the meaning of the words in the poem and about how to bring that meaning across. At the same time, a poem has sound, rhythm, tone and other characteristics that are part of its power as a spoken form of art. The ‘soundscape’ or ‘music’ is integral to its overall poetic effect. Can a soundscape be brought across from one language to another? Is it better to have a literal translation that closely follows the words but loses the music of the poem? Or should the act of translation try to recreate the music, perhaps changing the poem radically in order to do so?

There are no absolutely right or wrong answers to these questions. Each poem in translation is a unique event. The main point is that translation is itself an art, and thus requires thought, creativity, passion, and strong understanding.

Thinking like a mantis requires far more creativity than simple copying. Interspecies translation is like poetry translation.  When humans seek to learn from nature, we need to work like poet-translators and think in terms of art, not imitation.

Think of Earth creatures and systems as poems in languages that are foreign but not entirely incomprehensible. Our task as humans is to translate: to find the meaning and the music, the ways of life and life’s poetry. For we are part of the music of Earth and our capacity to join in harmoniously depends on both the accuracy of our knowledge and the skill of our translations.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2016)

Keith Kissel (CC)
Keith Kissel (CC)

Resources:

There is a highly informative documentary about mantises, and although the narration is astonishingly anthropomorphic it is nevertheless fascinating (view here). It describes itself this way: Published on Aug 26, 2015. Taking a close look at almost hundred days of a Praying Mantis’s life, the movie tries to bring about some incredible images of the creature’s lifestyle, as well as eating and reproducing habits. It covers the whole cycle of laying the eggs, hatching and growth of the insect. This feature changes a lot of theories that have been set about the Mantis.

To learn a bit more about the feminist analysis of mantis-stereotyping and to see some hilarious cartoons, visit this site.

To see ferocious predators in action, watch Nature’s perfect predators.

Wikipedia has two articles on praying mantis martial arts, northern and southern. The quote is from the article on the northern style. For more detail see the Kung Fu Republic.

The field of translation is huge. I have learned something of the arts of translation from my partner Peter Boyle, a poet who also translates. For analysis of translation issues, a classic text is the 1921 essay by Walter Benjamin in which he worked with the idea that translation is itself an art (read here). Willis Barnstone provides an interesting and accessible overview of poetry translation issues (read here).

There is a fascinating field of biomimicry which finds technological inspiration in the natural world; it is not the focus of this essay.

r/K selection theory has undergone numerous critiques and refinements since it was first posited. It remains a useful tool for drawing broad comparisons.