20 May 2006


One of the great dreams of man must be to find some place between the extremes of nature and civilization where it is possible to live without regret.[1]

If you view everything as connected—us as part of, perhaps an attribute or emergent property of our entire, complex, astonishing world, then it cannot be possible to view any part of it as something to be exploited, despoiled, or polluted. Such an attitude in no way conflicts with attentive, respectful use; indeed, that’s a natural process. You trim your nails, you cut your hair; you don’t cut off your feet or tear out your hair.

(Based on a note from November '02)

[1] Barry Lopez; p. 178 in Crossing Open Ground. New York, Vintage. (1989). 209 pp. ISBN 0-679-72183-5. This quote fascinates me, not because I think it's perfectly true—I have some reservations about it (e.g., the dualism)—but because it encourages me to wonder. (I admit I'm often leery of aphorisms that seem to be undeniable: a thing said beautifully and forcefully can be deceptive and dangerous.)

Photo 1: Entrance to the Whangai–Whenua—Ahi ka exhibition at Te Papa Tongarewa, the Museum of New Zealand. This is the first long term exhibition to open there in the last eight years. If you get the chance to visit, do so. [Click the photo for an enlarged view].

Photo and words © 2006 Pete McGregor


Clare said...

Lopez is such a gifted, evocative writer isn't he? I especially like his writings on place, Arctic Dreams being a monumental work in my eyes, responsible in part, for my love of the polar regions. I like this quote of his on place.. Over the years, one comes to measure a place, too, not just for the beauty it may give, the balminess of its breezes, the insouciance and relaxation it encourages, the sublime pleasures it offers, but for what it teaches.

- Barry Lopez

Part of the conflict of course is that we have different ideas about what is exploitation and what is respectful attentive use. Much of it is finding that place where it is possible to live without regret and with as small a footprint as possible.

KiwiSoupGirl said...

A quote I wrote down years ago, and forgot to note the author *duh*....

"A footprint in snow remains for many decades...a footprint in sand can be washed away in an instant. Be careful where you place your feet."

We are so much a part of this world, and it a part of us, that at times I think human beings are blind to it - as we become blind to things that are simply always "there". Its way past time to take our blinkers off.

Thank you, Pete - some truths simply are.

pohanginapete said...

Clare: yes, I agree about Arctic Dreams. I couldn't read it straight through, but kept returning, reading passages, connecting them, building a sense of the book... like an exploration I suppose. Crossing Open Ground is a collection of his essays; a wonderful book.

You're right about the source of some of the conflict. However, sometimes the differences of opinion arise from sincerely held views; sometimes those views seem to me like convenient rationalisations.

KSG: Another thought-provoking quote: thanks. If you remember the source, please let me know. Yes, there's an unfortunate truth in the old adage about familiarity breeding contempt, but I remain optimistic about the capacity of that to be overturned easily. Whether the resulting appreciation lasts is — sadly — another matter.

butuki said...

When I was still living in the States and making my first attempts to become a professional nature writer I met and spent time with many of Lopez's contemporaries (like John Elder, Robert Finch... still one of my favorite nature writers... Scott Russell Sanders, Walter Wallace, and Ann Zwinger). I just missed meeting Barry Lopez because he was away on an expedition. It was truly inpsiring and exciting meeting these people who I believe are doing some of the best writing to come out of the States in the last 50 years. Their words and visions challenged my own view of myself in the world and helped to shape the amorphous sense of living in intimate awareness of the natural world that had awoken in me when I was very young. And to be included in their midst and invited to enter into their dialogues (twice I was invited to a gathering at a backwoods lodge in New Hampshire) remains to this day one of the highlights of my life.

But I always felt like an outsider. Inevitably, though they always listened to what I had to say and never made me feel unwlecome, their discussions always seemed to focus exclusively on the States and always from the point of view of upper middle class white America. The whole nature writing movement in the States (does it exist elsewhere? I've never seen a Kiwi nature writing genre represented in bookstores. Keri Hulme is the closest I have seen) was spoken from a Christian point of view that lacked language for understanding ourselves as animals or for alternative ways of expressing comprehension of the natural world outside of literature and a certain kind of music. I never saw a black in the discussions, nor a Native American or Asian or Latin American. In the bookstores all the nature books rang with wisdom and intimate knowledge of northern climates, but no one seemed to know anything, really, about the rain forests or southern islands or rain shadow lands of inland Asia. It was as if a certain clique had stepped into the limelight and made the nature publishing world their territory and no one else really existed.

And, as you observed, so many of the discussions hovered around talk about "duality", a very western concept that enters nearly all western dialogue.

I've since then very deeply wanted to find writers from alternative points of view, writers in other languages, other spiritual traditions, other concepts of nature, dancers, musicians, oral storytellers, masters of bushcraft, lifestyles. There is so much in the world that is not presented in the diaogues we have in books and the internet. As long as those voices are silent and assumptions are made about how we ought to live (though by keeping the conversations continuously centered around a "human vs. nature" duality answers never seem to come forth at the end of so many of the books I've read... just more questions) there is no way that we can come to terms with living on the planet as a whole community.

Some other writers I love:

Gretel Ehrlich: "This Cold Heaven", "The Solace of Open Spaces"
Robert Finch: ""Outlands"
Edward Abbey: "Desert Solitaire"
Reg Saner: "The Four Cornered Falcon"
Robert Michael Pyle: "Walking the High Ridge"
Kim Stafford: "Having Everything Right"
David James Duncan: "My Story As Told By Water"

Beautiful, beautiful writing, but no one from outside the States. Very frustrating.

robin andrea said...

To live without regret must be concomitant with having one's senses open to the world. One can not even begin to regret a single footprint without being aware of having placed their foot down. Having just now considered it, I think feeling regret must precede learning to live without it.

I am reminded by kiwigirlsoup of one of my favorite footprints of all time, those left by Australopithecine afarensis at Laetoli.

Lulu said...

Interesting that you quote Lopez today Pete, as a few posts back I almost commented that you remind me of him sometimes -- but new mom brain kicked in and I couldn't think of his name.

pohanginapete said...

Butuki: That’s a very interesting point. A couple of years ago my sister gave me a collection of essays of “nature writing”. Most were well worth reading, some were wonderful, a few made me question the label “nature writing” — and I’m still averse to the label (as I am to perhaps all labels, tags, and attempts to set boundaries around activities). But after reading your comment, I checked the authors of the essays: I counted 43. As far as I could tell from the brief biographical statements, about three quarters were from the U.S.A. The rest were from the U.K., with a small proportion from elsewhere. Whether this amounts to an hegemony depends, I suppose, on the extent to which other voices feel overwhelmed, but whenever one voice is much louder than others, one of the real dangers is that others end up responding (opposing, agreeing, clarifying, etc.) rather than speaking in their own way about what’s important to them.

One of the reasons for the rarity of other voices in this area might be because the languages of some of the cultures are predominantly oral; for example, Maori was exclusively an oral language before pakeha colonisation. Now, ironically, many of our most accomplished writers are Maori — internationally, Keri Hulme is probably the best known, but I immediately think of Witi Ihimaera (author of Whale Rider and other marvellous books), Patricia Grace, and poet Hone Tuwhare; the list goes on... Read these and you’re never far from the land. There’s a very good reason for that, but I don’t feel comfortable attempting an explanation. I’m not Maori and there are already many people speaking on their behalf — not all of them Maori (sometimes this is welcome, sometimes it’s not). I will point out that the word for land — whenua [1]— also has other meanings, including ‘placenta’.

You already know Keri Hulme’s work; if you include her work in that nature writing category then try the other writers I’ve mentioned. Also, try Geoff Park’s books: Nga uruora: The groves of life, and the just-published, Theatre Country: Essays on landscape and whenua. Include writers whose preferred form is poems and you have real riches: try to locate a copy of the nature of things: poems from the New Zealand landscape (a beautiful book of poems edited by James Brown and complemented by Craig Potton’s photos), but in the meantime, explore Glenn Colquhoun’s poetry [2].

[1] Whenua is pronounced (roughly) “FEN-ooh-uh” or “WEN-ooh-uh”; there may be other regional pronunciations.
[2] No kudos to the NZ Book Council’s proofreaders, who asked this question of Glenn: “What advice would you give an aspirating your writer?” The mind boggles.

Robin Andrea: I agree — if you're not aware, how can you regret? But how often must you regret before you learn to live without it? Seldom, I hope. In any case, I'm not a big fan of regret; I try to learn my lesson and move on.

Lulu: Thanks! :^D Although, I do hope there's more humour in my writing than Lopez's. I can't recall any in his — while it's sometimes sublime, it's always deadly serious, sometimes depressingly so.
Interesting you should refer to 'new mom' brain — I often find myself unable to think of things... I suspect I'll have to find a different name for the syndrome, though ;^P

Anonymous said...

...Transformation; a short Post with big comments.
Here is mine:

…men, often viewing themselves as the summit of goods creation, with the childish demand to get attention by what they do or possess to show others always forget that they are not able to exist without all the other things on earth.


Anonymous said...

...sorry, made a mistake:
god's of course and not goods

pohanginapete said...

Hi W: actually, "the summit of goods creation" works rather well ;^D

Your observation is apt — try to imagine humans existing in isolation and the ridiculous nature of our misplaced arrogance becomes immediately apparent.

(And I did think of turning this comments thread into a post, hence the footnotes in my reply to Butuki's comment).

butuki said...

Pete, reading your comment brought up the thought that it is strange that I haven't seen a "nature writing" category outside of the States and Britain. And then it occurred to me that in many cultures precisely because "nature" is seen as inseparable from our own perceived, "human world" there is no distinction made that would define a "nature" category in literature and other art forms. Here in Japan, for instance, the word "nature" (shizen) is represented by the Chinese characters for "self" (shi) and "complete" (zen), meaning, basically, "wholly in and of itself". When you read or sing or dance or recite or even do business in Japanese, always a powerful awareness of the physical world around you, especially with such icons as seasonal flowers or celestial bodies, imbues the expression. Even manga and anime carry these themes. Though today much of it is ritualized (I know very few young Japanese today who would know where to look for a higurashi cicada or to be able to name even such very common birds as the azure-winged magpie or dusky thrush) there is still a sense of human beings existing as animals within a natural community. There is no word for "it" in the language and the Japanese have never had a problem with the whole concept of evolution that still so incomprehensibly plagues the discussions in the west. Even sex is viewed in a very different way, with both men and women being much more at ease, though by no means accepting of the injustices often associated with the behavior, with the whole notion of women and men being fundamentally different pschologically. I don't think people in the west have really ever come to terms with the idea that we are well and truly ANIMALS, beyond intellectual discussion into profound realization of our place in the scheme of things.

Your list of writers is very refreshing and I will look into them. If you know of other books from other places please let me know. I'd like to expand my library. As you stated language is of course a hindrance to cross-cultural reference... makes you wonder what is available in Chinese or Hindi or Arabic... all very deeply nature oriented.

And last, I loved your comment about Lopez, about his lack of humor. While I try as much as possible to blend into the landscape and walk with soft footfalls, at times I want just to emulate a crow or kea and let my laughter loose, until the woods echo with the sound of my laughter. WAh-HAH-HAH-HAH-HAH-HAH-HAH-HAH-HAH! It is sad to think that humans can no longer just stand in a place and be themselves without worrying about making a destructive impact.

pohanginapete said...

Butuki, thanks for those insights; much appreciated. I only had a few days in Japan, mostly in Hokkaido, but even that fleeting time was something special. If I could afford it, I'd love to return.

I'm certainly not demeaning Barry Lopez — it's why Lulu's comparison is such an honour. But I'm just as certainly on the same wavelength as you when it comes to that sheer joy of being caught up in the moment, the present, untempered by worries about my possible future influence on where I am. However, I think I can do that because of a sense of respect and humility arising from the knowledge that the artificial distinction between "me" and everything else is just that: artificial, a culturally inherited construct.

butuki said...

Oh, I hope I haven't come across as demeaning Lopez! Let me just get that in here very quickly. Lopez is one of my favorite writers of all (I have all his books and as many articles as I have been able to find). I had the opportunity of exchanging letters with him once when I wanted to ask him how he got started. His reply came back hand-written on New York Museum of Natural History stationary. He was kind, thorough, encouraging, and... quietly humorous. Quite different from his books, actually. (^J^)/" I would love to get a chance to sit and talk with him once (and actually you, too, Pete) just to share the wonder of the living world with someone who can voice it with such elegance.

Have you read his book "Resistence"? He's altering course these days.

pohanginapete said...

Butuki: Good to hear he does have a sense of humour! Thanks for mentioning "Resistance" — I didn't know of it, nor his change of direction, but will try to track down the book.

Lulu said...

Yes, never fear, you've infinitely more humor than Lopez! Also, I defy him to write a poem about a child and crayons.

Thinking of starting a PohanginaPete fan club,


pohanginapete said...

Um,..., er,... *blush* Thanks Lulu.

Actually, I'm not so sure about his possible inability to write about that — have a look at the photo of him with his family, on his website at http://www.barrylopez.com/bio.htm

It would be nice to see that come through in his writing occasionally, but when you're as articulate and gifted as he is in other ways, maybe any additional brilliance would be too daunting...?

Now from the sublime to the ridiculous... I'm off to meet friends to see THAT FILM about THAT BOOK (you know, the brown one).

Lulu said...

That's a lovely photo (and a lot of girls, oh my). I like your theory. I suppose it might be gilding the lily a bit, like if Leonard Cohen had been blessed with good looks. ;-D