Loving the Mutilated World: An Email Correspondence with Kathleen Jamie
I am writing to you after taking a long walk. Here in Eastern Austria, we’re currently experiencing a weather phenomenon called Föhn: It’s a wind originally named after the most gentle of the Anemoi, the wind god Favonius (Zephyrus in his Roman variant). He is said to be a harbinger of spring and it feels strange to experience his warm breath, which causes headaches and tiredness, already in January. One of the nicer effects of the Föhn is that I can see the Alps as if they were only a few kilometres away (they’re actually around 150 kilometres from where I live). It’s a beautiful illusion. It makes me understand that mountains can be moved without conquering them. While walking through the hilly woodland, I would stop and rest whenever these distant mountains apparated on the horizon. I grew up with this strange effect but it still baffles me how clearly I can suddenly see the snow blanketing their peaks. Sometimes, when I look at them long enough, I even imagine that I can see fearless goats searching for their way up the rocks shimmering in the sun.
However, on my walk today a strange fear took hold of me and I felt that I had to write to you. Your writing has taught me a lot about my own misconceptions about nature and I fear I still don’t know how to look at it. Today I couldn’t cope as easily as I normally do with the fact that distance seems to be changed by the wind. I think I grew up with an understanding of nature as something under threat but stable, a word in the singular, something I can look at whichever way I prefer. But, looking at these mountains, formations that are often used as metaphors for reliability and persistence, I understood that I couldn’t do that. Nature seems to be escaping me and my limited gaze all the time. When walking further and passing a field in which dozens of great egrets (probably attracted by the warm wind) rested in perfect stillness, it registered that I won’t ever be able to see them migrating. The deer are always running away from me and I will never know how this stone got right next to that old birch here in the forest. There are concepts of time and space at work in the world surrounding me that I can’t comprehend.
I can only glimpse unknown life forms, all my emotions towards them seeming volatile. Sometimes what I imagine their lives, their shapes and sounds to be like seems merely an illusion. I know I have to accept this but I’m afraid of not being able to. I’m afraid of being too arrogant or too enthusiastic about my discoveries, too convinced of things that I read or wrote down or thought to be true, and then I am just a fool standing in a clearing and looking at the mountains.
Do you understand what I mean? Can you share with me how you meet the living forms around you, how you look at what seems to be ever-changing in a rhythm vastly different from human perception?
I love the fact that some winds have names. Our Scottish winds are nameless, and mostly come from the Atlantic west. Last week a gale brought down one of the ancient plum trees in our garden, the loss of an old friend.
I live on the Firth of Tay (‘Firth’ is Scots for an estuary). If I look westward, upriver, I too can see snow-covered mountains that come and go with the weather, but they are only about 50k away. I love to see them in the winter snow, austere and beautiful. Not high, not like the Alps, but important to us, nonetheless. I love your idea that the mountains are, somehow, moveable.
I am 60 so I grew up with a certainty about the natural world. Back then – so recently! – we could still believe that although our human lives were transitory, the mountains, the oceans, the seasons would remain. We could turn to the natural world when we were grieving. We could find consolation in those eternal, natural cycles. Nature could be damaged, but we thought it could always recover. Now, this certainty is breaking down. Our poor children do not know that solace.
We are probably the first humans ever to understand that nature does not over-arch us, if I can put it so. We begin to understand that our planetary systems, the climate, the biosphere, can all be altered, harmed – and by our own actions. This is a huge understanding. An evolutionary leap. As you say, the mountains of certainty are moving.
As to the ‘limited gaze’ – it doesn’t worry me that I can’t be all-seeing or all-understanding. Who can? I tend towards the biological: we are all products of a vastly long evolutionary journey on this planet, all of us. I mean humans and our companions: all the living species around us.
Because of this journey, we humans are adapted, by nature, to see, hear, notice in certain ways. I don’t see this as a limitation, although it is – we can’t see flowers as an insect can. That’s ok. I like to know the world is deeper, stranger, more fluid than we are! When I talk about ‘noticing’, I mean simply using the senses that our Paleolithic ancestors used; adapted as hunter-gatherers. I mean simply stopping to notice the egrets, or hear the wild geese flying overhead, as happens here. Everyone can notice, it’s very democratic!
In fact, I wrote a short essay about ‘radical noticing’. In the essay I asked whether this ‘noticing’ of the natural world, with the equipment nature has given us, could be a political act, even an act of resistance. If a reckless refusal to notice brings destruction (which is what global capitalism is doing), can the simple act of noticing be the start of recovery? The essay is here, if you are interested: https://www.littletoller.co.uk/the-clearing/lissen-by-kathleen-jamie/
So I say: if you’re a fool standing in a forest clearing looking at the mountains, then a) you’re not a fool and b) if more people did this the world would be a better place.
With all good wishes,
I am writing to you while snow is falling. It is covering everything I told you about in my first letter. Today, I can’t see the mountains at all and there are no more egrets in the fields (and even if there were, I couldn’t see them, for they are as white as the sky and the trees). The snow really amplifies what you wrote about accepting limitations. Suddenly my gaze focuses on what’s right in front of me, new shapes and forms emerge, everything is in constant state of metamorphosis. I’m part of this and I neither want to reign over it nor escape from it. I know this. It’s something I feel deep inside me.
Like a cloud / I am clarified / in sunlight (Giuseppe Ungaretti).
However, I do escape all the time. I forget about this need inside me, this need to be in touch with the natural world around me. I’m also afraid of it sometimes. Strangely, I almost wrote that this escape comes ‘naturally’ to me. My escape is fuelled by dozens of screens and the so-called tasks occupying me. Very possibly it’s also related to what you wrote about in your essay: It’s too difficult to pay attention in a world that seems built for our senses to perish. ‘Paying heed’ really is an act of resistance.
There is an aspect of this act that I’m often confronted with, and I would like to know your thoughts on it… It’s about the instruments, the tools, the media we employ in order to pay more attention. In your writing, you sometimes use photographs, and you describe all kinds of instruments that help us to perceive the world around us: screens, compasses, binoculars, cameras, satellites and so on. There are millions of apps for identifying plants or bird songs; digital maps guide us to remote places. All of these instruments give me the feeling of being able to control things to a certain extent – they classify and name, and they are not necessarily democratic in the sense you used the term.
I am torn here because I think this knowledge sometimes helps me perceive more, and to better understand my limitations. For example, it bothers me that I don’t know the names of many birds or trees. Whenever I see one, I want to find out what it is. In order to find out, however, I look at screens again, or take a photo. At the same time, I’m always reminded of Paul Valéry’s remark, “Seeing means forgetting the name of what you see.” It’s true – I’ve always perceived more when just walking aimlessly, or at least without knowing the path that would lead me to my destination; walking with my ears for hearing, my eyes for seeing, my hands for touching. But again, at the same time, I also feel that I’ve always been able to see more, hear better, feel deeper when I know what I’m looking for.
Is there a kind of knowledge in nature that has nothing to do with understanding? How does this work for you? I recall your text about visiting St. Kilda and how your perception changed because of the people you were with, who pointed out details that you would have missed on your own. Do you take photos when you go out? Do you have apps? Do you try to learn the names of the plants and insects you discover?
I think my difficulty with finding a true way of gazing at nature stems from growing up and living in a world in which not only is paying attention to the natural world an act of resistance, but also, I feel, an activity; an attitude I have to invent, to a certain degree. Sometimes I envision a few knights scattered around the globe with their minds set on something very real, but everyone else is telling them that they’re just imagining it. Some of these knights might have a Sancho Panza with them. I’m just not sure if Don Quixote is a tragic figure or a hero, I guess he is both. Yet I fear not many follow his example.
It’s true that my most treasured possession are my binoculars! Svarovski – an Austrian make, I believe. They were super-expensive; my gift to myself when I received royalties on my first non-fiction work, Findings. I finally made some money and blew it on binoculars! That was 20 years ago. They are beside me on my desk here and will last me all my life, unless I drop them off a cliff. They open up the world to me. I never go on a trip without them. Even walking the dog, I take them.
And my life and work has certainly been enhanced by experts: pathologists, archaeologists, ornithologists, directing my attention, showing me how their trained gaze guides them. Painters, of course, know how to look. And radio producers and sound recordists know how to listen.
I also wear glasses and wouldn’t hesitate to get hearing aids if I needed them. But I do find cameras a nuisance and apps intrusive. That said, if I see some bird or insect that’s new to me, I try to find out about it. I have many bad camera phone pictures of flowers and bugs!
For me, this is just being-in-the-world., just being alive to it. The immense good fortune of my life is a touch of leisure. I’m not trapped in a grinding poverty. I don’t see this appreciation or interest as an ‘escape’, though. It’s interesting you talk about ‘escaping’ into screens and tasks. For many, escape is figured the other way: They talk about ‘escaping’ from screens and work into nature.
It puzzles me, all this need to ‘escape’. How did we get into a state when we needed to escape all the time, we who are not poor, not imprisoned or oppressed?
People do seem to be tying themselves in knots, about how to do nature, or how to be in nature. It’s a strange border. Where does nature begin? When so we say, right-oh, here I am among nature, I better start looking and appreciating. I better adopt the correct attitude.
I don’t recognise that border. We are nature. The table-top, even the plastic pen all had their origins in the biosphere.
Should we know, or worry about, the names of things?
What does it mean to ‘gaze at nature’? What is the right attitude?
It should, as you say, come naturally.
Talking about escape: the escape plan we fell for, was the idea of endless growth. In the West especially. We believed we could escape the limitations of living as biological creatures on a finite planet – and we have! Modern medicine has triumphed over many of the ‘natural’ hazards we faced, which killed us and our children: Bacteria, viruses, cancers, etc.
I have written about this is an essay called “Pathologies”. We are indeed able to ‘escape’ from nature – when nature arrives in the form of smallpox.
But we thought – especially in the West – that we could extract natural wealth and resources and create markets and burn fuel forever. Now we are coming to understand that we cannot. We can no longer escape into nature because nature is exactly where the most frightening changes are taking place. This is what our experts are telling us, with their measuring devices and computer modelling and screens – and binoculars.
As Adam Zagajewski says, “We must love the mutilated world.” We must also address our desire to escape it.
Or maybe Pascal was right when he said, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
But not a room, necessarily. A wood. Or a beach, or a hilltop. And not always alone, of course! We are a social species.
With all good wishes, on this damp Saturday morning.
Kathleen Jamie is a poet, essayist and editor. You can find out about her writing on her website: https://kathleenjamie.com/
Patrick Holzapfel works as a writer, film critic and curator. His articles and stories are regularly published in numerous publications in German and English language. Currently he is working on his debut novel and a translation of stories told to him by a stone.