The phrase “Lady and the Tramp,” like the title of the Disney film, sung to the tune of “Bennie & the Jets”: such is how I begin my morning. I wake to a lovely quiet hour in the tent, sun rising in front of me. There’s a conversation among crows in those trees there — the ones beside which I slept. It’s good to be back in Syracuse, camped in my sister-in-law’s backyard, listening to crickets and birds, music discernible from the park across the street here in Westcott Nation, a sister nation of sorts to the nearby Onondaga Territory. The Westcott’s persistence gives me comfort. To know better where we are, let us listen to Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Kimmerer’s book has me wanting to enter into caring relation with the pecan trees in my yard — indeed, makes me want to honor all beings, including those crows parked in the branches above my tent. Geese, too — like those in the story of Skywoman. Kimmerer shares this tale: the great Potawatomi creation story. “Skywoman Falling” will pair well with texts I teach this fall, thinks the Traveler as he reads. We have been given this gift. Let us share it with others. Let us fit it in at semester’s end. Let it resonate with Silko’s Ceremony and Snyder’s Turtle Island and Butler’s Parable of the Sower. Kimmerer’s cosmology “places” all of the others. Skywoman transmits “original instructions,” tells us where we are, how we got here. It suggests as well what ought to be done. It sets us within cyclings of a vast cosmic gift economy: one that conceives and receives numberless generations of Skywoman’s daughters — for Skywoman is the Great Mother, bearing life despite the story of her fall.
Craftspeople need studios, workspaces, benches, tabletops, tools. When I look at my desktop, I see wires, devices, stacks of books. Time to invest in bookends. Make ’em or buy ’em. I struggle, though, with guilt, shame, fatigue. A deer lies dead on the side of the road — struck by an automobile last night, I suppose — crows munching its corpse as it festers in the sun. The sight unsettles me — and the feeling lingers even after a truck comes and removes the deer’s remains. Let us assign in the creature’s honor Gary Snyder’s poem from Turtle Island, “The Dead By The Side of the Road.” (Re-reading the poem again at dusk, I mourn the fact that I failed to offer the creature cornmeal by the mouth. I pray to its spirit and try to make amends.)
Sarah looks into how we might remove bats from beneath a section of our attic. They’re endangered and they’re cool to have around, in the sense that they eat thousands of insects per day; but their poop isn’t something we want collecting next to our house. Perhaps we can arrange for them a small bat house. Build them into a workable permaculture. Jonathon Engels is one of many who recommend that we “utilize wildlife.” Create good habitats for frogs, lizards, birds, rabbits, deer, bees, butterflies. Add fertility, spread seeds, create compost. Bats are skillful pest eliminators — pests that could otherwise endanger crops like corn, tomatoes, and beans. Bat guano can then be recycled back into the land as fertilizer. Bats are also pollinators. So let us build or buy a bat box. Mount it on a post in a sunny spot in the yard. The box should perch about thirteen to sixteen feet off the ground. Let us do our best to provide all creatures with homes. Scale up the ladders of the allegory; apply the principle more broadly. In all cases, it means overcoming fear of otherness. Build a culture that uses narrative to occasion imaginative identification with all of nature as kith and kin, while also responding lovingly to difference. Think of this as an alternative to the relationship to Otherness proposed and imagined by Thomas Nagel in his famous essay “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?”
A squirrel hops into a field of grass after a rainstorm, most of the ground around it covered in fallen leaves, the whole still wet from the storm. I relax with potted cacti and other indoor succulents, all of us reaching toward windows wanting sunlight. Honoring this demand shared across ages, Sarah and I rouse ourselves for our walk. Along the way, we converse with neighbors, some of them with dogs, one couple expecting like us, plus a woman I know from a sangha that used to meet here in town. A weird record turned up in the bins today: Harry Partch and His Strange Musical Instruments.
A recent book features an essay by music scholar Mina Yang calling Partch a “Hobo Orientalist.” He composed music that was to be played upon unique instruments, using scales of unequal intervals. Partch was one of the first twentieth-century composers in the West to work systematically with microtonal scales. An interesting find — but not where my head is at. I’d rather be licking bits of cranberry curd.
Crows and helicopters fly overhead on a sunny but chilly afternoon. Squirrels scramble along branches of trees, pausing, waving their tails in greeting. I sit with them for a while, the neighborhood’s lawnmowers and leafblowers heard in the distance. Afterwards I join Sarah for a walk, the two of us visiting a colleague along the way. We talk again about names and the weeks ahead, pausing now and then beside piles of leaves.
What sense might we make of the cover of Ram Dass’s spiritual cookbook, Be Here Now? Twelve satellites poised in a circle, linked to one another in orbit around a sitter, so as to announce, “YOU ARE A TOTALLY DETERMINED BEING.” What matters, the book says, are the vibrations that emanate from us. Owl eyes, islands, stars free like cotton candy. I recall the weight in my arms of my dog Daphne, a neighbor’s dog reminding me again of how it feels to live with an animal companion’s presence. Sarah and I miss that — but there are many narratives, the imagination able to enter and exit vantage points in countless parallel worlds. To write “literature,” however, say the theorists, one has to disguise one’s stake in the story one is unfolding. Shape time, seed dreams with positive vibes.
Sarah and I went for a lovely evening run last night, listening with shared expressions of wonder as a triangle of barred owls hooted at one another from the treetops above our heads. Old-school beat, MC says “Do it!” Only it’s that bearded longhair Jerry Rubin declaiming Scenarios of the Revolution. In my ascent toward a center of light, the song of a cardinal. I open my eyes and see beautiful animal friends eating and singing from branches in the sky above me. One sends down signals, so I grab and place out for it an offering: a pair of blackberries. I place them out for all who come here wanting.
A hero, and by that I mean a utopian, a eudaimonic individual, wouldn’t begin a level by making what in retrospect seems the mistake of carrying a soda to the zoo rather than a water. This figure would know better how to navigate the horns of the dilemma, or would exist beyond the contradiction as such. Why must the denatured proletarian subject’s desire to encounter a broad diversity of lifeforms terminate in the tragedy of captivity? The zoo is set up so that visitors, upon purchasing admission, donate a plastic token to the Sawfish Conservation Society and similar such organizations. I spend most of my afternoon in the zoo’s aquarium. Angelic stingrays, sharks, a moray eel. A father asks his young daughter, of the shark: “Is he happy, or is he sad?” The daughter says, with mounting resolve, “I think he’s happy.” I fuse minds with a pair of garden eels and several glowing purple jellyfish. I bear witness to the travails of a tank containing pregnant male seahorses. A giant pacific octopus swims near and reaches toward me with its tentacles. Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.
Cats are higher-dimensional beings who come and go as they please. The ones featured in the movie Kedi are like people, only nobler. Humans in Istanbul have developed a collective co-evolutionary dialogue with an alien species. Whereas my own country prefers to destroy all that is wild and free. We fail still to realize that interacting with people is not enough. We have our parks, our birds, our wildlife, certainly, but from them we extract cruel ideologies of territoriality, manifest destiny, kill or be killed. From Huxley, I’m led down a rabbit hole, the rabbit at the bottom (in a sense, my destination) being none other than Thomas Carlyle and his parody of German Idealism, the 1836 novel Sartor Resartus. While monstrous in many ways (as the author, for instance, of the dismal essay “Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question”), Carlyle nevertheless remains an author whose work intrigues me. Book tucked into my knapsack, I fix my gaze on the trail ahead. Somewhere in the distance stands Mdou Moctar, a singer-songwriter from Niger who plays Tuareg rock.
Tinariwen came to mind as I watched Moctar perform last night at a nearby bar in town. Dead arcade cabinets lined the walls, where in other times might have stood taxidermied bears and ancient suits of armor. I regard hunters and warriors, with their camouflage and their automatic weapons, as the most repulsive members of my species. All would be well but for them. That show last night, though: that was quite an experience! Hypnotic, like waves of heat at the point where a desert highway meets the horizon. We must charm the snake that has taken residence in the heart of the Western subject. Filling out the bill were Brooklyn’s premiere California Raisin snake charmers, Drunken Foreigner Band.
What can I say? A few days out from fall break, and already the world is conspiring to lift my spirits and/or get me high! I’ll take it.