The Blackwinged Night
Chapter 2: The Living Universe
"The force that through the green fuse drives the flower". Dylan Thomas
It is too easy to think of creativity as only associated with poets, artists, composers, film makers, designers, outstanding scientists and those rare individuals we call geniuses. But, this book argues, creativity is possessed by all of us. It is deeply embedded within our bodies and extends throughout the material world from the atom to the Big Bang origin of all that is.
Think of the quotation that heads this chapter.
"The force that through the green fuse drives the flower"
This opening line, from one of Dylan Thomas's earliest poems, reveals the poet's deep and mystical sense of connection to nature. It is a theme that weaves its way through much of his poetry until his final works such as In the white giant's thigh and Poem on his birthday.
We are familiar with the image of Thomas as the drunken stage-Welshman, wenching his way across America to meet his death by booze in New York City. Less well know is Thomas the craftsman, who only wrote when he was stone cold sober and in the little wooden shed above his house in the village of Larne, in South Wales. He called this shed his poem room and its window looked over the "heron priested shore" where "cormorants scud" above the "congered waves" of Carmarthan Bay.
Like any poet, Dylan Thomas was a wordman who spent days in his poem room struggling to find just the right word for a single line of a poem. His friend, Vernon Watkins, describes the way Thomas used separate work sheets to "build the poem up, phrase by phrase, at glacier-like speed. " [Preface to In the Skin Trade] In the best of his work every word reinforces and complements every other. Take the single line above and the words force, fuse and drives. This suggests dynamism, an unrestrained potency, but it is one that must be channeled though a green fuse - an image that also suggests the need for compression into a narrow channel, the birth canal perhaps, before it can burst out into fruition.
Thomas' nature poems have no gamboling lambs or pretty sunsets. They are about the naked power of nature, that power inherent in every living thing from the flower to the poet Thomas himself. It is a power that lies beyond good and evil, for Thomas knew that, in nature, "finches fly in the claw tracks of hawks" and the "rippled seals streak down to kill". Nature is alive with this profligate power. It is the power that compels the salmon to fight its way upstream to spawn, the eagle to hunt, the root to break rocks, and fungi to force their way through the paving stones on a sidewalk.
In this chapter we shall explore the creativity of the natural world and the way we have distanced ourselves from that source. Later in this book we shall look at our own relationship to nature and the world that lives within our bodies. But first we must understand the way a certain attitude of mind that began in the 13th century has caused us to distance ourselves from the natural world.
Before we begin we should be warned. Nature absorbs all our definitions and analyses within herself. She transcends anything we attempt to define, poets to scan, or artists to limn, and still she forgives us. In the end there is no dark or light side to nature. These are the categories we create in our attempts to understand the world around us. Nature is simply there, ever present, waiting. As Camille Paglia says in the opening sentences of Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Neferitti to Emily Dickenson (Penguin, 1992) "In the beginning was nature…. we are merely one of a multitude of species upon which nature indiscriminately exerts its forces. Nature has a master agenda we can only dimly know."
Dylan Thomas came from a long tradition of English writing about nature. Or, more precisely, British writing, that celebrates our connectedness to nature. It is present in the first poems written in what is recognizably the English language. Sir Gawain and The Green Knight, from the 14th century, contains vivid descriptions of a winter travel to the dark north of England as well as boar hunting scenes at Christmas. From the same period comes the dream landscape in Piers Plowman.
Although very much an urban writer, Shakespeare was also aware of the effect of landscape on the human mind. Nature is celebrated in the writing of Andrew Marvell, Wordsworth and the Lake Poets, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Thomas Hardy and D.H. Lawrence, and on to more contemporary writers such, Ted Hughes, Thom Gunn and the Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney.
Maybe this tradition is the result of Britain's small and compact nature and the fact that, until the Industrial Revolution at least, small rural societies had existed unchanged for centuries. It is a gentle landscape, mostly farmland, without extremes of climate and terrain. People of this land are very aware of their heritage and quite ordinary people, normally unpolitical, will turn out on a wet Sunday morning to protest the cutting down of an ancient oak or the closing of a footpath.
It is a land this encourages intense and close observation of detail and its writers often display an almost mystical sense of connectedness with the land. This intimacy with nature also extends to the work of its painters, from Elizabethan miniaturists, through Thomas Gainsborough, John Constable. W.J.M Turner and Richard Wilson and on to contemporary Land artists like Richard Long, Hamish Fulton and Andy Goldsworthy.
This sense of the immanence of nature is present in the work of the 18th century painter Samuel Palmer. His early paintings are all on small scale yet curiously intense. The poet and engraver William Blake had criticized the Newtonian vision of the world as overpriviliging reason and analysis and omitting the immediacy and transcendence of our experiences.
Inspired by Blake, Samuel Palmer moved, with a group of friends called "The Ancients", to Shoreham in Kent. Shoreham became their "valley of vision" where they would paint, read together and sit talking late into the night to the point where the local villagers believed they must be magicians or astrologers.
While in Shoreham Palmer experienced nature with a particular intensity. Writing to a friend he said "Great hopes mount high above the shelter of the probable and the proper; (they) know many a disastrous cross wind and cloud; and are sometimes dazzled and overwhelmed as they approach the sun; sometimes, vext and baffled, they beat about under a swooping pall of confounding darkness; and sometimes struggle in the meshes, or grope under the doleful wings of temptation or despair; but shall scape again and once sing in the eye of morning....."
For the next few years Palmer's artistic and spiritual vision was of a world in which everything is alive. There were times " when inspir'd by art I am quite insensible to cold, hunger and bodily fatigue, and have often been surprised, on turning from work to find the fingers aching and nearly motionless with intense cold."
His sense of the transcendental fruitfulness of nature can be seen in a number of paintings of the period such as The Magic Apple Tree and Coming from Evening Church. A Hilly Scene depicts his Valley of Vision under moonlight with cornfield, tree and church spire. The field is ripe and heavy with autumn corn yet as we look we notice that the tree is also blooming - the white Spring blossom of the horsechestnut. Now we realize that all the seasons of fruitfulness are occurring simultaneously. Nature bursts with life and, for Palmer, the source of this life is the light of the divine.
Palmer's mysticism in the face of the creative force of nature is echoed in the twentieth century by Stanley Spenser. Spenser's paradise was the Thames-side village of Cookham. His painting of apple pickers evokes the fruitfulness of Palmer's own The Magic Apple Tree. As he wrote of this painting "places in Cookham seem to be possessed by a sacred presence….The people in, "Apple Gathers" are, as it where, brought forth by the place and therefore, are aware of its divinity. They are expressions of the divinity there presiding."
Through the intensity of his inner vision Cookham is transformed into a Paradise, and the New Testament miracles occur in the homely environment of the village, its regatta and churchyard. The same natural power that, for Dylan Thomas, drives though the green fuse of a flower, is for Spenser present in all manner of everyday objects. In one of his painting a group of women gather around a dustman, (a garbage collector) embracing and lifting him in praise of his everyday labor while the contents of his bin, a cabbage stalk, a broken tea pot, are treated as sacred, immanent objects
This intense contemplation of nature and its creative powers is not confined to the British Isles alone. In America one only has to think of Henry Thoreau's meditations at Walden Pond, or the close observations of Annie Dillard. From 16th century Spain come Sanchez Cotan's deeply mystical still lives. What could be more disarming than a few vegetables hanging by strings against a deep black background? But these paintings have such a powerful religious intensity that the work becomes an epiphany of what the rest of us generally take for granted. Centuries later, and on the other side of the Atlantic, Georgia O'Keefe was looking with a similar depth at cactuses and flowers, Emily Carr at the British Columbia forests and the Canadian Group of Seven at Ontario's lakes and trees. While in Holland Mondrain's identification with the tree took him from naturalism into extreme abstraction.
In all these examples nature is a living agent, a power, a presence. Moreover they have arisen out of the artist's or writer's ability to merge horizons with the natural world. This is the essence of the statement made by Paul Cezanne as he painted the motif from nature. "The Landscape becomes reflective, human and thinks itself through me. I make it an object, let it project itself and endure within my painting.... I become the subjective consciousness of the landscape, and my painting becomes its objective consciousness."
"This sense of the immanence in nature can also be present in music. The gently rolling geography of the Malvern Hills lies behind much of what Edward Elgar wrote. A tight sense of observation is present in the "night music" from Bela Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra, of expanse and mystery in Gustav Mahler's symphonies, of mystery in Olivier Messiaen's cosmic expanses and of the underlying menace of a world disturbed in the garden scene of Maurice Ravel's L'Enfant et les Sortliges.
In such works, one is opened to an immanent sense of the natural world that surrounds us. It is nature that can lure and intoxicate, nature that can repel and instill fear. In the space of a day nature can range from a breathtaking sun rise, the serenity of a soft, warm morning to a ranging thunderstorm or the terror of a tornado.
Yet in spite of its inherent power, we have increasingly separated ourselves from the direct experience of nature as a day to day experience. We have distanced ourselves to the point when we only become aware of nature when she roars in anger or cries in pain. We only seem to know of nature at times of earthquake, flood and forest fire, or when we are told that lakes, rivers, forests and entire species are dying.
Our modern feeling of separation from nature as a living being - which in the end means a distancing from the creative forces of the cosmos - is the result of a long, slow process that had its origins centuries ago. It is a process that has come to veil nature's inherent creativity from our present, industrial society. Yet the sense of the nature's inherent power is very much alive within other societies. The Blackfoot of Montana and Alberta tread gently on the earth, for they are walking on their mother's flesh. The Forest People of Africa sing to the forest to keep it happy and so it will continue to look after them and not sleep and forget them in its dreams.For the ancient Greeks, the earth was Gaia, a living being, while the indigenous people of the Hawaiian islands tell me that they should not dig too deeply into the earth for she is alive.
A similar vision of the natural world was present in Europe until the end of the early Middle Ages. Miners dug into the earth to extract its minerals. But theirs was a sacred task, for metals are born in the womb of Earth. Miner, smelter and smith alike were engaged in the common task of assisting nature to come to fruition. For centuries, and even millennia, human beings all over the world lived in intimate contact with nature. When Native Americans speak of "all my relations" they are referring not only to their blood relatives but also to the plants and animals, insects and water dwellers, rocks and trees, the sky beings and mother earth. All are equally alive and deserving of respect.
This ancient vision continues amongst the old people of the hilltop village in Italy where I now live. They recall the time of their parents and grandparents time when the earth gave them everything. A time when their medicines grew wild in the woods and beside the paths where they walked. Food could be grown, trapped or hunted. Clothing and coverings came from sheep on the hillside or the fibers woven from the ginestra plant. Heat and cooking from wood. Oil and wine from the tree and vine. At every level nature's inherent creativity were present to aid and teach human beings. Each spring nature appeared anew. Nature sustained. Nature healed. But this vision, shared by artists, poets and the people of my village, is something of an exception in the modern world. The rest of us don't really live that way any more. For most of us, the world had been objectified and distanced.
This changing view of nature did not have any one cause but was rather the result of the accumulation of many different factors that led to an increasingly secular world. By the end of the thirteenth century Europeans had begun to view space and time in a very different way from their ancestors. Formerly space and time were united into a rich matrix. Time was the movement of the seasons, of renewal and the cycles of the Church's calendars. Then the first clocks began to appear on public buildings. Soon time became quantified and reduced to number.
In the same period trades people began to keep accurate accounts. Double entry bookkeeping enabled them to think in terms of profit and loss. And so it wasn't long before business people began to worry about controlling the commercial world around them, planning for the year to come and trying to predict what the future might hold.
(Footnote: It is possible to read Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice in this light. The merchants of the Rialto are rational, Renaissance men who have learned to balance profit and loss and to invest their gold in the possibility of financial gains that would accrue from a successful trading sea voyage. The merchant Antonio, confident that on the return of his ship he will be even richer borrows from the moneylender Shylock.
Yet in the end nature, both human and as wind and rain, cannot be controlled. Antonio's ship is lost at sea and his loan must be paid back. The inherent unpredictability of an uncontrollable nature is echoed in the passions of Shylock. The moneylender represents all that is exotic, passionate and foreign to the rational Venetians. If his loan cannot be repaid then a pound of Antonio's flesh must be sacrificed. In the end Shylock is thwarted and order is restored within the state. Yet only at the expense of the exposure of its inherent anti-Semitism that lies behind its humiliation of the Jew.
In seeking to restore order and harmony the Venetian state exposes the shadow side to reason. That which has been long repressed in human nature, in favor of the illusions of reason and control, must also have its day.)
It was during this period, having its roots in the mid thirteenth century, that Europeans developed powerful tools of abstraction and ways of manipulating these abstractions as objects within the mind. The use of Arabic numerals, double entry bookkeeping, methods of surveying, ways of representing space on maps and so on, dramatically increased what people could do from within the comfort of their own minds. It was no longer necessary for the world to be immanent or immediately touchable for it to be understood.
Previously the real was equated with what could be held in the hand, with what was manifest. But now what could be computed, seen on a map, read in a book or contemplated in an engraving became even more real and immediate.
It goes without saying that the peasant in the fields knew none of this. But for the bourgeois and the Church, for those who lived in the comparative comfort of towns, palaces and monasteries, the world was abstracted, physically distanced and smoothed over.
Within the city, affairs could be managed and controlled. Outside humans were at the mercy everything from brigands to wolves and nature's every whim. Even the bear was harmless when brought within the confines of city walls to dance. The city represented civilization, order and law. Outside nature was being increasingly distanced.
In Shakespeare's King Lear, for example, the world of the court is contrasted with the storms, wildness and madness of the heath.
[Footnote: The one thing that could not be controlled, apart from human nature, was disease. It is difficult to estimate the effect of the plague, or Black Death, on Europe. Look in at the history of Italian painting and note blank space between the end of the 1340s and the start of the fifteenth century. During that period a significant percentage of Europe's population disappeared. People had more to think about than commissioning frescos.
What effect, I wonder, did this scourge have upon European consciousness? Did it perhaps shake the faith in a benevolent nature?
Something similar, but on a much vaster scale, occurred in America with the coming for the first white people as men and animals brought with them diseases for which the New World had no immunity. Some historians felt that the rapid spread of disease produced a crisis in The First People's faith in their traditional relationships with the energies and spirits of nature. Their traditional medicines no longer worked against these diseases and neither did their appeals to the Keepers of the Animals.]
It is often said that science is responsible for the way we have distanced ourselves from nature and come to view her as a controllable machine. But, as we have seen, the origins are much earlier. They lie in the abstract mental tools first developed in the 13th century that allowed educated people to manipulate the world from within the comfort of their own minds. Such tools enabled people to treat nature as an object that can be moved around in the mind. They allowed them to speculate about alternatives, to plan and control and treat nature as something exterior to themselves. By the time the Renaissance dawned this way of thinking was well established. It was to become the mindset out of which Western science would grow.
Science, as a way of looking at and thinking about nature, produced a further distancing. But it also gave human beings enormous power. Our modern world would have been impossible without it. Science has excited some of the greatest minds to produce a new type of knowledge as well as theories of considerable aesthetic beauty. Yet, at the same time, it caused a further fragmentation between the heart and the head. It is not that science as such contains some internal defect but that it, and its associated technology, simply advanced too fast for human beings to handle.
As a methodology science prides itself upon being objective and value-free. Inevitably it projects these same attributes onto the natural world. Thus, everything from rocks and trees, to stars and human sexuality becomes an object for study and analysis. What to the Blackfoot and Ojibwaj of North America is a constant flux is, for the scientist, a series of events occurring in space and time. In turn, these events can be correlated to reveal underlying orders, patterns and forms. It is because of the regularity of these patterns (patterns, moreover, that exist independent of individual wishes, beliefs and desires) that laws of nature can be posited and future events predicted on the basis of knowledge of the past.
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