Confronting with Passion (1)

An Interview with Heathen Chinese by Accipiter Nisus 

No Masters

AN: For me the ‘No Masters’ element of the Gods & Radicals by-line qualifies the ‘Many Gods’ clause (notwithstanding the demonstration of mutual respect or the existence of opportunities for cooperation). What are your own feelings about ‘No Masters’ in the polytheistic context?

HC: I don’t have a problem with my gods being emperors and kings: I don’t think that human societies “create” the gods in their own image, because I don’t think that humans “create” the gods, but it’s inevitable that we interpret the gods’ power in terms that we understand. In societies without kings, many Powers might be understood better in terms of “mothers,” “fathers,” “grandmothers,” “grandfathers,” or other familial terms. Or “good neighbors.” In Imperial China, on the other hand, there are not merely monarchs in heaven, but there is a concept of a divine bureaucracy paralleling the human bureaucracy on earth (note that the word “parallel” does not definitively state whether one gave rise to the other or not). Bureaucracy inherently depersonalizes, but I’ve found it easier to relate to the individuals said to operate within the “divine bureaucracy” than to individuals within human bureaucracies.

My synthesis of “Many Gods” with “No Masters” lies in a slightly different emphasis than yours. Namely, I read it as speaking to the difference between pride and hubris. Thus, I will joyfully ketou to my gods, but will abase myself before no man. Anti-theists will find this to be an arbitrary distinction, proponents of hierarchical social organization will find it to be insubordinate and rebellious. But I think a willingness to honestly examine the reality of power differentials, rather than either burying one’s head in the sand by pretending they don’t exist or unquestioningly accepting them as “natural,” is crucial.

NDNM

Nietzsche’s Influence

AN: Over at The Wild Hunt you recently described Nietzsche as “’quintessentially’ pagan’ in his values and worldview”. In Beyond Good & Evil Nietzsche cites Blanqui’s slogan ‘Ni dieu ni maître!’ when criticising the socialists and anarchists of his day as inheritors of the ‘herd morality’ of Christianity. He seems to suggest that the attitude embodied in the slogan has a levelling effect that prevents the development of new human possibilities. Do you find Nietzsche’s work informs your paganism and, if so, how comfortably does that influence sit alongside your involvement with community-building and social activism?

HC: For many years I’ve asked myself these same questions, but as the syncretic Nietzsche-Dionysos himself no doubt willed it, his philosophy sits alongside others extremely uncomfortably, his books take up arms against their neighbors on the shelf. There is no easy reconciliation, only strife and a going-under. “Have you understood me? Dionysos against the Crucified.” The paganism is blatant, but I’m highly skeptical of anyone who claims to have fully “understood” Nietzsche, especially when it dovetails neatly with their own personal ideology.

I find that these two maxims go hand in hand, and are relevant to the conversation at hand: “In every party there is one who through his all too credulous avowal of the party’s principles incites the others to apostasy,” and “Whoever thinks much is not suitable as a party member: he soon thinks himself right out of the party.” So it’s not a matter of fervently avowing Nietzsche’s principles instead of Marx’s or Bakunin’s, but rather of continuously thinking one’s way out of the party. I would say social activism isn’t a very accurate descriptor for anything I engage in, and any community that I seek is a community not just of principle, but of value. “With his principles a man seeks either to dominate, or justify, or honor, or reproach, or conceal his habits: two men with the same principles probably seek fundamentally different ends therewith.”

Nietzsche’s misogyny is highly problematic, of course. I also find that he needs to balanced against James Baldwin describing black children in America as coming from “a long line of improbable aristocrats—the only genuine aristocrats this country has produced.” Nonetheless, Nietzsche explicitly framed his ideas about nobility in reference to the distinction between polytheism and monotheism: “For many who are noble are needed, and noble men of many kinds, that there may be a nobility. Or as I once said in a parable: ‘Precisely this is godlike that there are gods, but no God.'” The phrase “of many kinds” strikes me as deserving especial attention here.

1024px-Nietzsche_Archives_in_Weimar
Nietzsche Archives in Weimar by DWRZ. Licensed under CC.

The Melian Dialogue

AN: Nietzsche famously admired Thucydides for his supposed “stern, hard matter-of-factness” and “Courage in the face of reality”. Much commentary on this has focused on the Melian Dialogue in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. In light of your theological work on god-human alliances (such as in Are the Gods on Our Side?) – is there anything we can learn from this famous classical dialogue?

HC: The Athenians claim that “divinity, it would seem, and mankind, as has always been obvious, are under an innate compulsion to rule wherever empowered.” The Melians, slyly referring to the Athenians own victories against overwhelming odds when fighting the Persians at Marathon and Salamis, observe that “warfare sometimes more of impartial fortune than accords with the numerical disparity of two sides. For us, to yield is immediately hopelessness, but in action there is still hope of bearing up.” The Melians also “have faith that we will not go without our share of fortune from the gods, as righteous men who stand in opposition to unjust ones.”

I plan on doing much more research into polytheist theology around conflict, but for now, I will say that the Melians’ refusal to yield did not win them the battle, but it has won them what I call “heroic immortality:” the life after death that comes with being remembered and honored for one’s deeds. We anti-capitalists and rebels today are the spiritual descendants and heirs of the Melians. It is our duty and our responsibility to see that they did not die in vain, to vindicate their decision in our own struggles. The Melians used the language of “hope,” which I have criticized elsewhere, but ultimately I think they displayed “courage in the face of reality” by choosing to fight despite knowing full well the consequences should they lose.

All Things Shining

AN: As a Classics student and polytheist I’m guessing you’ve read All Things Shining by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly which could perhaps be characterised as an attempt to develop a solution to contemporary disenchantment from Nietzsche’s notion of the ‘profound superficiality’ of the Ancient Greek world. I’m always surprised this book doesn’t get discussed more in contemporary polytheist circles but perhaps it’s because their suggestions are already taken as self-evident?

HC: I’m liking what I’m reading so far! Given that I hadn’t heard of the book until you recommended it, I would guess that many other polytheists (well-read though they tend to be) haven’t come across it yet either. I know that certain Polytheist writers have recently taken umbrage to what they perceive to be attempts to “politicize” Polytheism, and yet I think that one of the core strengths of polytheism’s resurgence is in it’s ability and willingness to challenge modernity. I think we should be talking and writing about this a lot more.

Anomalous Thracian recently wrote, “Western Society — from a Polytheist standpoint pertaining to Polytheistic religious process and practice and undertakings — is fucking broken, and has broken off inside of basically everyone, leaving behind awful fucking splintery septic shrapnel even in attempts to wrench it bodily the fuck out of one’s heart.” That about sums it up, I think.

‘Saint Genet’

JeanGenet-HansKoechler1983
International Progress Organisation (CC)

AN: From your tumblr it looks like you’ve been reading Genet lately? Sartre famously ‘sainted’ Genet by writing a hagiography celebrating the way he lived “all the social curses” and “transformed them into a work of art.” (Cohen-Solal) But Sartre’s celebration of his subject as a sort of Nietzschean ‘re-valuer’ had the effect of turning Genet into a ‘monument’ (Genet’s own word) and arguably robbed him of a voice. Sartre’s biographer Annie Cohen-Solal even characterised this treatment as ‘nearly a rape’. Obviously Genet was still alive at the time, but do you think this saga raises any ethical implications for how contemporary polytheists and pagans engage in hero cultus?

HC: The ethical implications are incredibly important, especially in a polytheist context, which stresses the agency and will of the hero as well as that of the cultist. And in polytheism, we have the understanding that death doesn’t change that agency and will. The modern conception of hero cultus is still very different from the ancient: in ancient Greece, it was understood that the spirits of cult heroes are dangerous, propitiated to avert their posthumous wrath as much as honored for being “inspiring” (and certainly not for being moral exemplars, in many cases).

I haven’t read the Stalinist-existentialist’s Saint Genet, but Genet himself wrote of it, “I saw myself naked and stripped by someone other than myself. In all my books I strip myself, but at the same time I disguise myself with words, choices, attitudes, magic. Sartre stripped me without mercy. He wrote about me in the present tense.” Especially when speaking of a writer, I prefer to read Genet in his own, explicitly magical, words. The distinction that Genet draws is subtle, but crucial, and I absolutely think it applies to hero cultus as much as to biography.

Approaches to Anti-Capitalism

AN: Erik Olin Wright has modeled anti-capitalist approaches into a four quadrant diagram consisting of: smashing capitalism, taming capitalism, escaping capitalism, and eroding capitalism. Where do you primarily see your own energies directed?

Wright also talks about how capitalism can look very monolithic and unassailable but is actually “prone to disruptions and crises [that] Sometimes […] reach an intensity which makes the system as a whole fragile, vulnerable to challenge”. Have you witnessed such moments of intensity in your own life and what are your reflections on them in terms of opportunities grasped or wasted by anti-capitalists?

HC: Capitalism cannot be tamed—those who seek to do so show only their own domestication, for capital and domestication are synonymous. It cannot be escaped, not materially—the tentacles of what Fredy Perlman called Leviathan have encircled the world, though that does not mean it actually is everywhere at all times. And it cannot be eroded faster than it reproduces itself: “Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.” Alas, precisely because this undead monstrosity is notmonolithic, it has no central heart that can be staked by some hero. But there is still a need for heroism and the heroic ethic.

Those prisoners who carry escape in their hearts, those saboteurs who labor at the truly Sisyphean task of erosion, those modern day Melians who refuse to yield the field of battle…perhaps in moments of disruption and crisis, they can realize their goal as a microcosm—for a moment, in the moment of kairos or messianic time. Sympathetic magic and the ethic of direct action are the same thing: the means contain the ends within them.

The most intense moments of revolt I’ve seen have been uprisings in the names of the Dead, specifically people of color killed by the police. While it is tempting to declare in hindsight that anti-capitalists should seized those opportunities and acted more boldly to challenge all repressive, recuperative and reformist attempts to suppress those moments, “Riding seems easy to every warrior while he is indoors/and very courageous to him who traverses the high-roads/on the back of a stout horse.” Though what Walter Benjamin called the “memory” of revolt may be possible to take control of on a microcosmic level “as it flashes in a moment of danger,” the macrocosmic is, as far I as I can tell, in the hands of the Gods. If we’re to place faith in a “historical subject,” we’re in the realm of religion anyways.

Closing Thoughts

AN: What words would you use to convey the general feeling of your polytheism. I’m thinking of a succinct phrase along the lines of Flaubert’s ‘melancholy of the ancients’, or the ‘Shining nothingness’ of Kabir’s poetry as characterised by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra.

HC: In the opium-induced words of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Ancestral voices prophesying war!”

AN: What, if anything, makes you optimistic about the future?

HC: Optimistic might be a bit strong of a word, but I look forward to the continuity of family, of friendship, of joy. To the certainty that the struggle will continue, and that me and mine will carry ourselves with dignity within it. In the most literal and value-neutral sense of “looking forward,” to the certainty of death, when the time is right, and to joining my ancestors.

AN: Thanks for taking the time to share these reflections. I think the other readers and contributors of Gods & Radicals would agree with me in saying that your work has greatly contributed to deepening and extending the range of contemporary polytheist thought in recent years.

HC: Thank you. I’m honored

Look out for part two in the New Year where Accipiter Nisus and Heathen Chinese will dialogue further on some of the issues raised above.

_________________________________________

Accipiter Nisus is a writer and Mahāyāna-influenced animist, based in the U.K. East Midlands. His practice is eclectic but particularly emphasises divination, drift-walking, and mandala offering.

Heathen Chinese is the son of Chinese immigrants. He is a diasporic Chinese polytheist living in the San Francisco Bay Area (stolen Ohlone land). He practices ancestor veneration and worships (among others) the warrior god Guan Di, who has had a presence in California since the mid-1800s. He writes sporadically at https://heathenchinese.wordpress.com.

 

 

The Cutting Edge

“The fragmentation and decay of global industrial civilization could also encourage the revival of [technologies…] discarded along the path of capitalist development but highly applicable on a small scale. These considerations could inform the construction of the alternative material and social spaces that anarchists construct in the present tense — from eco-farms and occupied factories to urban squats and community gardens. [This would be a] “subversive micropolitics of techno-social empowerment” that experiences it “in an open and participatory process that seeks social conflict and technical difficulty as spaces in which to construct ourselves for ourselves.” ~ Uri Gordon

Recently I found myself in the unlikely position of learning how to use a scythe.

Where I live in suburbia, a group of local volunteers have been turning a stretch of disused railway line into a wildlife reserve. At first glance such a narrow strip of land seems an unpromising place for this type of project, but the steep gradients of the railway embankment have protected it from development, while the shape of the space creates an important wildlife corridor. Already it has started to become a remarkable local habitat and I can pretty much guarantee any of my walking companions that I will be able to show them birds such as the beautiful Eurasian bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula); a species otherwise in rapid decline in England as whole.

The railway track also has meaning to me as the path that I take when headed out to visit some of my tutelary Others. To put it one way, it’s a place where ‘the unity of self-benefiting and other-benefiting’ is very tangible for me. So I wanted to do something to say thank you and, a couple of years back, began to get involved with maintaining the reserve.

Bullfinch_male
“Bullfinch male” by © Francis C. Franklin / CC-BY-SA-3.0.

About three-quarters of the railway line is high up on an embankment covered in a wide-variety of trees, shrubs and plants including feral rose and honeysuckle (escaped from nearby gardens) and silver birches which seem to love the bed of old grey ballast stone in which the rails used to rest. Further along, the track declines and runs through a cutting with a narrow area of meadow either side which merges into bramble thickets and steep tree covered slopes. This meadow has to be cut or it becomes rank, loses bio-diversity and reverts to scrub. Using traditional tools such as a scythe to do this work avoids reliance on fossil fuels and can also prevent the indiscriminate damage that powered machinery such as strimmers cause to certain plants and young trees.

 

A body full of life & consciousness of its own

Like any tool, a scythe can be hard work and easy to damage if you don’t have the right technique down. As I worked my way along the meadow I could easily see and feel how I was improving as time went on. One morning of work is not enough to allow me to speak with any confidence on the subject but as far as I could tell the main rule is to trust the blade.

A scythe is to a machete as a violin is to a toy drum. As you find the right angle for the blade, and the perfect arc of the scythe around the body, the effort involved reduces enormously and it becomes about rhythm rather than force. Every ten minutes or so you stop and sharpen the blade with a whetstone – which you actually wet, something I never knew before – with a couple of pulling movements of the flat of the stone on the cutting side, and then brush the ‘burr’ off the near side with the edge of the stone.

Niittomiehet
“Niittomiehet by Pekka Halonen

“The longer Levin mowed, the oftener he felt the moments of unconsciousness in which it seemed not his hands that swung the scythe, but the scythe mowing of itself, a body full of life and consciousness of its own, and as though by magic, without thinking of it, the work turned out regular and well-finished of itself. These were the most blissful moments.”

~ Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

Embodied experience that is held in common

I picked up the scythe as an offering and act of gratitude, and for no other reason. When using it, though, I couldn’t help thinking of all the people who have used that venerable tool throughout time; from the Swiss that I still see using scythes to cut their meadows, way back to the Roman period when the tool is thought to have been developed. I say ‘thinking’, but it was more ‘feeling’. When we wield tools we immerse ourselves in an embodied experience that is held in common. The beauty of this was that I wasn’t engaged in ‘re-enactment’. Rather I was communing with an aspect of the physical experience of our human ancestors, and to an end that was not nostalgic or recreational, but practical, educational, and reclaiming.

“Tolstoy was not so foolish as to pretend that a day’s mowing could be the making of fallen mankind. But at least it is real, direct experience…” (Source)

I don’t think any readers of Gods & Radicals need reminding of the myriad causes for despair and alienation that surround us, and yet with a will – especially a communal will – it’s still sometimes possible to find opportunities for re-embodiment, ancestral communion, and creative wholeness in the cracks and interstices of suburbia.

Either way, if systems such as Capitalism try to turn us into tools, while others such as Communism use the symbolism of tools as manipulative propaganda, perhaps reclaiming our bodies and minds must start with intimately knowing the tools which we use and engage with in our daily lives.

What tools do you use and how do they shape your experience of embodiment, or your engagement with the Other-s?

———

Accipiter Nisus is a Mahāyāna-influenced animist, based in the U.K. East Midlands. His practice is eclectic but particularly emphasises divination, drift-walking, and mandala offering.

On the Wings of Birds

The phrase ‘Gods & Radicals’, was something of a koan to me when I first considered submitting material to this journal. I’m wary of the term ‘radical’ which so often slips from its original meaning of ‘seeking change from the root up’ into the values-empty ‘change by whatever means necessary’. On a recent walk, however, I found the two words ‘Gods’ and ‘Radicals’ suddenly coming together very naturally …

'Nature Reserve' by Accipiter Nisus (C)
‘Nature Reserve’ by Accipiter Nisus (C)

Making Space for the Other-s

Sometime ago I made a small contribution to a fund-raising campaign to save a gravel pit near my home from commercial development; the intention being to turn it into a wildlife reserve and public space. Amazingly, even in this time of economic austerity, the appeal raised the full amount needed; including £90,000 ($13,7228) from the local community. Then, within mere months of the local Wildlife Trust carrying out the initial habitat creation work, many previously unrecorded or rare species quickly began to arrive; including over a 1000 spiritually iconic and critically endangered northern lapwing (Vanellus vanellus). That, I realised, is radical! And the fact that so many lapwing arrived so quickly got me to thinking about the status of other displaced beings, including gods, and how they may be wandering and dwindling for want of a place. 

Diversity is a hallmark of Gods & Radicals, and a happy one, but I suspect that a common value we may well all share is the certainty that just as we are embodied beings in need of a tangible life-world, so too – in a different but parallel sense – are the gods. One of the definitive phases in the history of disenchantment was surely when people were successfully sold the idea that we need only make a shrine for the sacred ‘in our hearts’.

'Nature Reserve' by Accipiter Nisus (C)
‘Nature Reserve’ by Accipiter Nisus (C)

Not only is there now a new place for a much wider-diversity of beings to exist in my immediate area but local people have gained access to a 115 acre space were they can interact with those beings and with the elements. This again is radical since nearly every other sizeable green space in the area is a private golf course (and our one public local wood is threatened by development). You could say that it is a win for local people’s mental health as much as it is for wildlife.

From a polytheistic point of view it is also, I believe, a small strategic victory in the long-term project of acknowledging the gods and Other-s. A 2014 BBC survey found that two thirds of the British public could not identify the songs of common garden birds such as blackbirds, sparrows or robins. Another 2014 survey by the British Wildlife Centre found that 95 per cent of young children were unable to identify UK animals such as squirrels and otters. If people are unable to identify, are unaware of, or fail to pay attention to other beings such as these; how will they ever apprehend the gods and spirits (especially those which are elusive and reticent after centuries of neglect)? Gradually extending people’s opportunities to encounter the Other-s is a vital step in the process of reenchantment.

What could be an agalma for today?

I think that my comments above make a pretty strong case, but consider this also  …

In many historical polytheistic religions, and some modern ones, we find the concept of making gifts or forms to attract and woo the attention of the gods and Other-s. In Hellenic polytheism – at one time – such a gift, often a votive statue, was called an agalma (άγαλμα).

Back then producing something like a bronze statue would have demanded a considerable sacrifice from an individual or community and so it was a highly meaningful gift. [1] While I am not claiming that producing such an item would be cheap nowadays, the fact remains that what constitutes a sacrifice to us now is very different. Although I’m currently between contracts, the public servant’s wage that I earnt for a decade (which was several thousand pounds below the national average salary) put me in the richest 4% of the world population. In such circumstances, for many of us, what constitutes scarcity is not material goods but space and so-called ‘free time’. These are the two things that are hard for us to access and therefore some of the most precious things we can give.

Another illuminating thing about the history of the agalma is that Lacanian theory borrowed and psychologised this term, allowing Slavoj Žižek to make the striking observation that:

‘What characterizes European civilization […] is precisely its ex-centered character—the notion that the ultimate pillar of Wisdom, the secret agalma, the spiritual treasure, the lost object-cause of desire, which we in the West long ago betrayed, could be recuperated out there in the forbidden exotic place. Colonization was never simply the imposition of Western values, the assimilation of the Oriental and other Others to European Sameness; it was always also the search for the lost spiritual innocence of our own civilization.’ [2]

Considering what might constitute an agalma for today, I’ve suggested that this is time and space. Bearing Žižek’s comment in mind, it then becomes clear why we fall so easily into the activity of colonisation, and it also becomes clear why the careful creation of common spaces within our own societies is so important as an anti-colonial activity.

Equally important to note is that when engaged in both of these activities, colonialism or anti-colonialism, we tend to fill the spaces and time that we claim or reclaim so as to constitute what we – in our loss and yearning – imagine would be a suitable divine lure. In other words we are impatient and assume too much, creating a mirror of our own wants rather than a habitat for the Other-s. As such, excited though I am about what beings I may encounter, I’ll not be preemptively anticipating the presence or attention of any specific deities at the site of the new nature reserve; instead heeding the advice of the poet and anarchist Gary Snyder who says in his book The Practice of the Wild:

‘There’s no rush about calling things sacred. I think we should be patient, and give the land a lot of time to tell us or the people of the future. The cry of a Flicker, the funny urgent chatter of a Grey Squirrel, the acorn whack on a barn roof – are signs enough.’ [3]

Given time and space – both reclaimed in an ethical way – displaced gods may return and new ones arrive; their coming heralded by the wings of birds.

~ Accipiter Nisus

Sources:

  • I could not find an average cost for an agalma type image but Judith Swaddling states on a BBC history article that “Statues of bronze or marble [commissioned by Olympic athletes] could cost up to ten years’ wages for the average worker” (and would often have to be sponsored by the state). Today a 21 cm tall lost-wax bronze statue imported from Nepal via an ethical company costs around one to two months average UK discretionary income (what’s left after paying for food, utilities and travel).
  • Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild, (Counterpoint: Berkeley 1990, pp.102-103)
  • Slavoj Žižek, From Western Marxism to Western Buddhism (Cabinet Magazine, Issue 2, Spring 2001)

Being good storytellers isn’t enough

The milieu of Gods & Radicals is full of people who are great storytellers and communicators. Many have been brought up on the ‘mother’s milk’ of sagas, epics, spirit lore, the voices of plants, or whispers out of Faerie. I suspect a high proportion have degrees in creative writing or work in a creative field. So, if we choose to work for common causes, this is one of our major strengths. And yet, as the bards and diviners know, telling a good story isn’t always the whole picture; often what matters is sharing an appropriate narrative for the situation. This holds especially true when it comes to activism.

These days many campaigners have started to try and get heard and to access power by talking in the language of the antagonists. ‘You’ve got to use language they understand,’ goes this argument. An example would be conservation charities engaging with the corporate-political archons by speaking of woodlands as ‘natural capital’. It’s a fatal mistake. As George Monbiot notes, ‘you can never win by adopting the values of your opponents’. This is because once you concede to your opponents’ values, all you have left is facts and unanchored emotion, both of which are much more easily manipulated – especially when media ownership is dominated by a narrow capitalist elite who have the means to live nearly anywhere and therefore little to no interest in issues of local concern.

You can’t put ‘nature’ in a box

Recently I took a walk through the fields around my local wood. Six years ago the Planning Inspectorate gave permission for this area of Green Belt to be built on, in the face of strong local opposition, on condition that the land to the west of the wood is transformed from wide open fields into meadows, copses and hedgerows. Since then, however, development plans have been altered so that the proposed community park will be reduced to a third of the originally agreed size.

Setting aside the question of the role of the park as a community ‘amenity’ (on which more below), many of the species that live in the woods – such as badgers and buzzards – rely on the surrounding fields as an area of food supply, but this seems to be entirely forgotten. It’s as though planners and developers think that you can simply detach a wood from its surrounding landscape and expect the biodiversity it contains to remain unharmed. Or maybe they just don’t care.

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Field with poppies. (Photo by Accipiter Nisus)

Sadly such is the power of the housing development lobby that many conservation organisations seem to be starting to give in to the false narrative that nature can be packaged up into parcels. For instance a conservation society I’ve been a loyal member of for nearly my whole life, the RSPB, not long ago adopted the horrendous slogan ‘Giving Nature a Home’. It’s precisely this paternalistic attitude to ‘nature’ (the ecosystem which actually sustains us) that has got us into this mess in the first place.

The failure of the Labour government at the last UK parliamentary election was to meekly acquiesce to the Tory’s austerity narrative despite the fact that history contains many examples of successful alternatives to deep cuts to public services. In a similar way we are being sold a false narrative that ignores and denies the fact that life is characterised by reciprocity and interdependence. We are not separate from some abstract ‘nature’, and neither we or the natural world have a long term future while we think that a few shoeboxes full of ‘wild’-life set amongst sprawling housing estates are going to be adequate to the holistic well-being of humans, or the Earth processes and systems on which we depend.

It’s not all doom and gloom

A small digression to cheer you up before I continue …

While by no means perfect (they’ve used the ‘natural capital’ frame from time to time), one organisation making some positive moves toward a more holistic approach in the UK is the Woodland Trust that has been working to mitigate the impact of ash dieback on 12 million trees outside of woods which risks the loss of vital wildlife ‘corridors’ across the landscape.

I should also mention that the RSPB, despite their terribly misguided slogan, are actually doing a great deal of good work in the field of environmental connectivity too; such as in their support of the Fair to Nature food label which requires accredited farmers to put at least 10% of their production area (i.e. the area of land on which they produce crops, livestock, milk, etc.) into five types of wildlife habitats.

And finally, while speaking of environmental connectivity, having cut a hole in my garden fence as per the advice of the Hedgehog Street project, I now have an enchanting visitor every evening — and with little to no cost or effort am doing something to help a local endangered species.

Effective Framing

‘A frame is a story, composed of ideas, memories, emotions and values attached to and associated with a given concept. Framing is a communication tool, that we use (consciously or unconsciously) to provoke a particular kind of reaction to that concept.’
~ Bec Sanderson

Earlier I briefly mentioned the question of community ‘amenity’. I’ve been reflecting on this concept a lot since filling out a recent survey by a conservation charity. In the survey, a question asked was, “How often do you use a park (urban green space) or wood for any of the following activities…” and one possible response was: ‘Escapism / spiritual connection with nature’.

I found this an odd pairing. Most people I know who interact with woodlands and ‘natural’ spaces for ‘spiritual reasons’ do so to engage rather than to escape. I don’t want to make too much of one little survey answer of course (I suspect that enduring supporters’ pedantry is one of the main occupational hazards of charity survey writers) but it can serve as an important illustration of a bigger issue, namely effective ‘framing’. The careless elision of the two non-identical motivations illustrated above accidentally plays into a ‘frame’ that woodlands are best protected by promoting them as as leisure amenities: a place to escape so-called ‘real life’. It also implies that the ‘spiritual’ is ‘otherworldly’ which need not be true, and is – in my experience – particularly untrue of the spiritual understanding of many who are passionately engaged with their local woodlands and environments.

Frames and Values Diagram (© Common Cause)
Frames and Values Diagram (© Common Cause)

These seemingly small framing errors can however be easily hijacked by developers and government who often use them to argue that they are ‘only being pragmatic and realistic’; offering them an excuse to overlook the uniqueness of woodlands and of specific woodlands in particular. It allows them to argue that the ‘escapism’ and/or ‘spiritual connection’ sought in a specific woodland can just as easily be found in another ‘amenity’; perhaps a leisure centre, shopping precinct or local churches or mosques (Since for most architects of monoculture all spiritually and religiously inclined people must practice their devotions communally, indoors, on designated days, and in socially acceptable ways that do not disrupt the wheels of work and commerce!)

Effective framing is also vital in campaigning not only in terms of ‘winning’ short-term goals, but because there are many unintended longer-term consequences that can flow from a poor choice of frame. Take as an example the term ‘Bedroom Tax’. The widespread media adoption of this phrase has been celebrated as a winning frame by people campaigning against the benefit restrictions set out in the British Welfare Reform Act 2012.  However the ‘under-occupancy penalty’ isn’t actually a tax, so the frame is open to a defensive attack, and much more seriously it suggests the idea that ‘Tax = Bad’. Considering that the ‘Bedroom tax’ campaign is one against cuts to state welfare, which is funded from taxation, the implication that taxation is an evil could well prove to be a longer-term strategic error.

So to sum up, it can be worth asking if the way an issue is framed corresponds to one’s values. Sometimes another frame might seem more likely to gain support or get a short-term win, but what will have been conceded in the bigger context?

For more information on ‘Frames’ check out the Common Cause Handbook.

~ Accipiter Nisus

Article based on material originally published by Accipiter Nisus at: http://vernemeton.tumblr.com/

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