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The Path as a Fissure

A small contribution toward an animist ethics

By Accipiter Nisus

Many of us who are concerned with reclaiming alternative visions of, and access to, our local landscapes regularly practice some form of path-forging; whether that be through the dérive or drift, urbexing, hiking, mushrooming, or foraging. And, naturally, practitioners of most of these discourses or activities have gradually developed ethical codes such as the urbexer’s ‘Take only pictures, leave only footprints’, or the mushroom hunter’s ‘Don’t over-harvest’. It strikes me though that such ethics – though not without merit – are primarily concerned with materially and outwardly focused considerations; such as ‘the law of the land’, common sense, conservation, and basic courtesy. What is lacking, from the animist perspective, is a consideration of the relationship between space and form, and the land as body.

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This subject came to mind recently when I re-visited a spinney which runs along two edges of the local municipal park. A few years back when I was working in a rather dull but stressful job, detouring through the park on my way to and from the office was a precious time of rebalancing and healing. As I put it in my diary after a particularly trying day; ‘Received back my sanity from the trees-wind-greenlight-birdsong matrix.’ Yet this ‘matrix’ wasn’t something I knew intimately from the start when it was more of a ‘green space’ within which I noticed occasional events and changes; the movements of a woodpecker or the fall of beech mast. It only deeply opened up to me on the day that I noticed a person or people had cleared away a bramble entanglement around the edge of the park and forged a path between the trees. Curious I walked down this new trail and found myself suddenly secluded in a world of fine detail; wide cushions of wild violets, the spiral shells of white-lipped snails on tree trunks, and snake’s head fritillaries emerging ghost-like from the leaf litter.

tumblr_mx6bhfemUN1resmcxo1_1280In the past decade the park has twice been shrunk by the local council in order to create car-parking for a new supermarket and other commercial premises. The path through the spinney, it turned out, was a reaction to this and part of a wider local grassroots initiative to reclaim the park as a place of commun-ity; which also included the creation of a guide to the park’s trees and wildlife, and the construction of an outdoor ‘story-telling area’ at the boundary between the library and the park itself.

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Eventually a change of job curtailed my regular walks in the spinney but I managed to visit again twice this summer and found the place sadly changed. On the first occasion, in June, I noticed a pile of woodchip had been left at the entrance to the park but didn’t think much of it. The wood itself seemed unfriendly and darkly brooding in a way I had never felt before. A month later I returned and discovered why. The local council, taking a good idea and running with it in the wrong direction, had spread woodchip throughout the spinney; ostensibly to make a less muddy trail. The single path through the undergrowth had been replaced by a sprawling multi-tentacled space in which all the undergrowth was erased and the trees marooned in small, isolated stands. The ground was strewn with litter and people had been lighting fires with the dead wood intended as insect habitat. There was no atmosphere and no presence. The spinney was a coherent being no more – it was literally de-spirited.

tumblr_mn50kgHqD21resmcxo1_1280This was the moment I realised that a path is a fissure. This sounds rather negative but it needn’t be. In many cases fissures are what allow life and communication to happen; orifices facilitate respiration, consumption and excretion; the air in the spaces between us allows sound – songs, signals, calls and words – to travel from one being to another; and so on. In that sense spaces and passages are necessary to our existence, and certainly essential to animist practice which is about developing communication and intimacy with the Other-s. But still, a path is a fissure. This means that if we create a path without due care and reflection, or if we create too many paths, we can unduly fragment a landscape or land-being such that it can become vulnerable to damaging incursions or infections. In the worst-case scenario an excess of fissuring can even amount to butchery.

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A single narrow path had opened up the spinney just enough for it to become a place of communion and communication between local people and the Other-s (trees, plants, birds, spirits), yet many paths – forged only with utility in mind – had dispirited it. I am only just starting to process the implications of this experience but when out in the landscape I already find myself asking questions such as, ‘If there is no path here now, what are your motives for making one, and what might be the implications?’ Among other things it has changed how I physically approach the being-fields of local genius loci, and it has altered how I approach the practice of drift-walking.

20150825_122033This week I found myself at the boundary between a cemetery and a wood. There was no path between the two but there was the possibility of forging one. Usually I let drift-walking take me along without self-consciousness as much as possible, but in this case I paused. It is hard to describe what I felt but it was a little like that sensation when you are swimming in a lake and your feet contact a colder layer of water than the rest of your body is feeling. I could have used my body to draw one side through to mingle with the other, but to what end and with what consequences? In this case it felt wrong and I held back, turning my footsteps in another direction.

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, there is the famous passage; “there was only one Road […] like a great river: its springs were at every doorstep, and every path was its tributary. ‘It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door’”. There is considerable value in recognising the inter-connectedness of existence. Much damage has been done in my local area by the false notion that you can place ‘nature’ in a box and expect it to survive. To slightly belabour Tolkien’s metaphor, however, the water-cycle is far more complex than springs, tributaries and rivers. There are puddles, standing-pools, marshes and deep aquifers, all of which behave and interact in different ways and within radically different timeframes. A pond in the woods, though ultimately part of the whole water-cycle, may on a day-to-day basis effectively be a distinct being and not a tributary at all. As such to create a passage between it and another water-body might be to drain it or to fill it until it became an entirely different type of entity. ‘Going out of your door’ then is not simply dangerous to the self but also to the Other-s. This is not to say we shouldn’t do it – as I’ve said creating pathways is existentially necessary and desirable – but it asks of us (especially those devoted to the cultivation of relationship and intimacy with the Other-s) to exercise a certain ethic of attention and care.

As for the spinney … even if it recovers its structure I don’t know if it will recover its spirit-s. On a visit this morning I noticed fruiting bodies of fungi dying on an unused pile of woodchip and was lost between sadness and hope.

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Accipiter Nisus, 26th August 2015

11 Comments »

  1. Important observations here. This is why when I go out “drift-walking” as you put it, I usually bring offerings for local wights, and tools of divination. Both helpful in such situations. And of course, listening to your gut the way you did is equally important. Not every place is meant to be entered, not every path meant to be forged.

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  2. PSVL and Dver, it’s a real honour to hear from two people whose writing I’ve benefited from for a long time.

    PSVL, thanks for the link. I’m away travelling and had missed it. ‘Path’ as metaphor, as well as the term ‘practice’, are both things I’ve been pondering a lot lately. I will enjoy digesting your reflections. Thank you.

    Dver, yes thanks for that important point about divination. There is a particular local Other who has made it very clear that paths to hir door should only take a certain route, only be trodden on specific occasions, and after leaving offerings one should not look back. (I think sometimes people see offerings too much as a transaction that automatically licenses access. I have been guilty of this in the past.) Perhaps it is slow-wittedness on my part but it took me a while to understand these communications (I tended to over-interpret) so I suppose an embracing ethic of ‘why am I making this path?’ might have helped me get there sooner and avoid those errors.

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  3. Some of this hits painfully close to home. There is a “natural area” in a local park here where I’ve been doing volunteer restoration work, most of which means cutting down blackberry and traveler’s joy (a clematis), removing it from small trees and opening the space more. I have a relationship with the land spirit, who often directs me where to work on a given day.

    Earlier this summer, a group of homeless people camped in the end of the park where I’d done a bunch of work at the beginning of the year, and on a recent visit of my own to that spot (the campers were all gone), I noticed that several of the saplings I had cleared vines off of and away from had been hacked down, or had limbs cut off. A big red alder, which used to be unreachable because of the blackberry thicket had some fresh cuts into the surface of its bark, too.

    I feel (extra) conflicted about doing the work now. The vines *are* bending the smaller plants – some of the saplings were bent to almost 90 degrees by the weight! – and basically preventing anything else from growing up – they block sun hitting the ground – but they were also protecting the trees simultaneously, and by removing the vines/brambles, I made that corner more appealing to people who found cutting some of the trees appropriate.

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    • I feel your pain on this one Fjothr. A lot of the beautiful natural areas in my city are being destroyed by homeless campers. At the same time, I can’t really blame them for camping there, as they don’t exactly have anywhere else to go. And our city refuses to create shelters as an alternative, or even put out port-a-potties and trash cans in those areas to help keep them clean.

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      • Yeah 😐 I’m technically supposed to report people camping in the area, but I don’t always do it, because they need to sleep somewhere . . . and the land spirit gave me a pretty ambiguous/non-committal response when I inquired as to whether the harm the people had done was a problem, or whether the spirit minded them staying there, so I think I am much more concerned than the land itself is.

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  4. Thanks for sharing Fjothr. It’s very difficult for us to know the impact and consequences of our decisions isn’t it. Who knows, maybe the space you helped create saved a few lives on the night those people chose to sleep there rather than somewhere else where they may have met with violence.

    If we approach these situations with a questioning and listening mind I don’t think we need to become paralysed by a rigid code or from a fear of making mistakes. The richness and diversity of the Other-s is such that we are pretty much guaranteed to produce less than optimum conditions for some other whatever we do. It’s not something to shrug off nihilistically, or run away from, but is one of the key doors to appreciating the complex nature of relationship. The salutary realisation that we always leave a ‘footprint’ of some kind can itself become the starting point for the expression of gratitude, devotion, and reciprocity.

    Liked by 4 people

    • *nod* Yeah. I suspect people were camping there for several weeks on and off (and there may have still been a small group on my last visit – it’s hard to tell what items I find there are in active use and what has been abandoned or dumped) – the first big group I noticed, I reported, and I was told the park rangers went in to tell them to leave, but I’m not sure that lasted long.

      I’ve also been reminding myself that people have been cutting down trees for millennia, so it isn’t like they were doing something particular new wrt human interaction with a place. But I feel personally protective of the place because that’s my “job” there.

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    • “we are pretty much guaranteed to produce less than optimum conditions for some other whatever we do”

      Well said. In a world informed by animism and polytheism, there is not just one spirit of any place that we interact with, there are a plethora.

      “An it harm none” is impossible. But a balance of relationships is still something to continuously work on.

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  5. Accipiter much gratitude for your post and to all the commenters for a deep discussion that will enlarge my interactions near my home in Chicago.

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  6. Hi Elder. I’ve been appreciating your comments on various sites for a while now (especially on not having ‘one way’, and on a ‘grammar of ecstasy’) so this is a nice opportunity to thank you too.

    It’s many years since I visited Chicago, 1999 it was I think, but I remember it fondly. All the best with your life/work there.

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