To the River|
by Tim Lilburn
Home and Animal
by Grant McConnell
Ecology of Everyday Life:
Rethinking the Desire for Nature
by Chaia Heller
Living in the World as if it Were Home:
by Tim Lilburn
Post Your Opinion
|Staying Put or EcoPoetics
by Iain Higgins
Asked once in an interview what people can do to help save the earth, California poet Gary Snyder offered this advice: stay put. It's hard to imagine a simpler answer, or one more uncongenial to footloose North Americans, particularly in the decades since On the Road, Easy Rider, the "temporary" oil crisis of the early seventies, and commercial deregulation of the sky. In Snyder's case, staying put has meant devoting his talents and energies not only to making poems grounded in the region where he now lives, but to two other important tasks as well: the care of his own particular homeplace in the Sierras, Kitkitdizze, and the promotion of a bioregional ethic whose natural ground is, in his view, the watershed and whose principles and practices flow into one another out of an eclectic range of Buddhist, ecological, and aboriginal North American sources.
Saskatchewan poet Tim Lilburn inhabits an altogether different terrain, both actual and intellectual, from Snyder, but he is no less devoted to the renovating work of staying put. "I moved in" to a neglected place, he says in a brief note introducing a previous book of poems, Moosewood Sandhills (1994), "planted thin gardens, dug a root cellar [which was also a hermit's cell], slept in the fields under summer stars-and looked." Out of that work of long and care-full looking in the places where he lives have come two startling, brooding collections of poems, Moosewood Sandhills and To the River, and a searching, brooding book of essays, Living, that were written alongside the poems. In the language of the Christian spiritual tradition with and against which he works, Lilburn exemplifies the contemplative life, Snyder the active. It is probably truer, though, to describe the difference between them another way: to say that Lilburn's concentrated and quasi-Christian contemplation amounts to another form of activity, to what in Living he calls "a politics of silence and solitude," which makes it maybe tributary rather than antithetical to Snyder's outspoken social activism.
In any case, the two poets clearly come at the task of staying put in quite different ways, and their differences here lead to others. Lilburn has, for instance, recently taken issue with Snyder's influential habit of taking over local First Peoples' stories in the quest to learn how to come home to where you already are. In "Summoning the Land", a brief prose meditation on an exhibition of haunting paintings by Saskatchewan artist Grant McConnell (Home and Animal, Art Gallery of Swift Current NEC, March 13-April 19, 1999), Lilburn recognizes how tempting indigenous traditions may be to the epiphytic Euroamerican, and why. First Nations' stories are powerful, he says, because they are the fruit of a long apprenticeship to the land, of countless generations of learning to listen and watch, a genesis that makes them unavailable to more recent settlers on the land: "you can't just pick up stories and songs . . . and call them yours, treat them as food." What some would call appropriation, Lilburn chooses to call "presumption", a hasty mis-taking that necessarily "deforms" something "in both the singer and the song."
Against presumption, Lilburn offers the untaking, undoing activity of contemplation, and his argument with Snyder is worth quoting from at length, since it defines the starting point for his recent poems and essays:
Europeans, helpless as we may be, have to find our own way of authentically being here, have to learn our own songs for this place. Until we learn our own songs and our own stories . . . we're not safe around others' songs. What would our songs be? Where would they come from? Keeping quiet and listening is one place. This style of singing, of getting ready to sing, comes naturally to us out of the European contemplative tradition. Having nothing and listening, leaning into what we don't know, hoping it will take us in. (emphasis added)
Lilburn's "naturally" falls a little too patly into place here, I think, and misrepresents his own idiosyncratic and revisionary relation to the contemplative tradition, whose crucial exemplars for him are the occasionally zen-like Desert Fathers of the early Christian Church and such practitioners of negative theology as Simone Weil and the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing.
In "The Return to the Garden", the third of the six essays in Living, Lilburn offers a searching critique of his contemplative forebears, singling out for attention the "troubling quickness" with which their meditative gaze "pulls away" from the world as they unthinkingly "bolt into the language of piety and praise." Like Snyder, they are rebuked for their presumption. Long looking, Lilburn suggests, should be a discipline (ascesis) of longing, should be wilder and more "helpless", undoing the inherited names, deeply unsettling the looker: "Look at a meadow long enough and your bearings vanish. . . . it is not like anything; it is not the sign of something else. It is itself. It is a towering strangeness."
Longingly coming alongside rather than imperially vaulting over the world's towering strangeness, particularly in out-of-the-way places considered "useless" by the colonial economy, is the task Lilburn has set himself in recent years. "The project to convert what is into product heaves forward almost everywhere. While this goes on, I'll go down to the river, I'll look." Lilburn's "counterproductive" activity, then, has been that of awe-filled waiting, of hungry attending, but "without expecting any spiritual candy," as Dennis Lee notes in his excellent foreword to Living, since his angle of attention is not, despite appearances, theological; it is moral and erotic. In Waiting for Godot, Beckett's Vladimir dismisses the notion that Westerners can turn again towards nature for anything anymore. "We've tried that," he says: end of story. Lilburn's idiosyncratic attending shows how such a turning might still be possible, how the story might be reconstituted, though it would cost nothing less than everything¨and be politically impossible.
Lilburn is fully aware of the likely cost, indeed is trying to live with it, then offering his experience vicariously to his readers, most of whom are unlikely to be able to follow him¨except imaginatively¨as he goes deliberately, wide-eyedly astray. His essays and poems are, like Snyder's quite different works, clearly not nature writing in any conventional sense, and it is impossible to do them justice in a short review. Part of the difficulty is that the writing, prose and verse, is as unquotable as dance or a mosaic¨turning constantly, returning, shimmying, shimmering, discomposing, transfiguring, as in these lines from "The Book of Exhaustion": "The flavour of the indifference of the bend of the iris /stem, the meal/ of its carelessness¨the small penis of light in /me stands on end and stays that way all day. /Everything thick-faced with green." Or this, from the close of "Pitch", the opening poem of To the River:
Be quiet, move up along the coyote edge, come up
along the left-hand bank to the best geese place
near the MTtis winter camp graves.
Experienced light cruises the clay banks.
You must be this without knowing you are.
The river gleaming with falling down,
gold scar of current on its back.
Sandhill cranes on the dock scruffed islands.
A bigger dark comes in from a farther place.
This book, as Czeslaw Milosz said in the opening pages of his Land of Ulro, is not for you, reader. All the more reason to read it, then.
And when you're done, you might want to take a look at Chaia Heller's Ecology of Everyday Life, not for its prose, which is undistinguished and expository, but for the sharp ideological counterpoint. Heller's angle is, like Lilburn's, moral and erotic, but the tradition with and against which she chooses to elaborate her engaging ecofeminist politics is that of social anarchism, particularly as articulated by Murray Bookchin (other acknowledged influences include Audre Lord and James Baldwin). Taking issue with the masculinist romantic cult of nature and its modern offshoots, including mainstream ecology, Heller makes her case for "an ecology of everyday life" that "speaks not just to our immediate physical needs for survival," but "arouses the desire for a world forged by social desire in all of its forms," a world shaped by "a social ecology that translates the desire for Šnature' into a politicized desire for direct democratic control." Much of her book is devoted to defining the nature and forms of social desire, and it makes for thought-provoking reading. Shot through with a certain inspiring USAmerican-inflected optimism, her work is offered as a shared candle against the bigger dark of which Lilburn speaks. As if against his solitude, she invokes the common life, the positive way¨which means that if she were a monk, she'd be a coenobite, living the common, the shared life. ˛
Iain Higgins lives and reads in Victoria.