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Karel Sloane
I have no answers, I just ask questions.

I have a habit of holding onto things that are dead. I desire the feel of the familiar, even if it’s empty and no longer useful. Touch is something both open and shut: open for space to pass through and shut against any full separation. There are many dead things around me that I hold dearly. My bed is made from a dead thing. So is the top of my kitchen table.

Both books, bindings and pages alike, and the shelf they sit upon in the living room are made from things once living, although the ideas inside them are alive.
My drawing pad and pencils are made from dead things.
So is all the paper I carry folded in my pocket baring the inscription “ Novus Ordo Seclorum,” and “In God We Trust.” By holding all these things, I keep them from going back to dirt. Other dead things pile on dead things in my kitchen. Cereal containers are shadows of their former selves. Just how much respect do I have for a carton of milk? How much do I respect a carton of anything when I didn’t shape paper from tree, or grow what it contains? Convenience allows me not to assess my immediate impact. Respice, Adspice, Prospice. A Latin saying regarding the examination of past, present and future. I did not fell the tree that is now my living room cabinet. I have no idea where it came from. It stands in my living room, away from the forest floor and certain transformation. I don’t know how my having it impacts the place where it grew. The loss is outside my experience because I can’t walk through the clear cut; I can’t touch it.

Do we, more than other animals fight the turn of the key? Other animals have memories. Dogs, cats and primates, to name a few, can hold onto pain and learn to mistrust if they are ill-used. In this learning, humans have many companions. The re-learning, the deliverance, the emergence through the manifestation of art is what makes us unique. We are the only beings who emerge this way. All these dead things are not dead because someone has made them into something else. My eyes are only half open as I walk. These thoughts occupy the majority of my attention. I am forgetting to look at ferns and their resurrections, count lichens, notice newly growing moss.
Preoccupied, I am forgetting to see. My primary occupation on walks is to notice things. The world around me is shifting and I am forgetting to hold on.

Programmed for change, all these little growing things are moving on without me.
Why do I come, if it is not to watch them let go?
A co-worker, regarding a particular she has said, “ It’s my nature.” I’ve heard other people make the same comment. What is nature human? I suppose it is important to separate things in order to get a better chance to examine them, as long as all the segments are put back together upon examination.
Sometimes, as I investigate, I feel like one of the five blind men in that fable about an elephant. Each of the five stands at their separate station feeling along the animal. Using their fingers to see, each is all encompassed by their investigation. After exploration, each of the five think they know all. I’m over here. I have investigated the tail and am now convinced I know every aspect of what I have been studying, not realizing there is the whole rest of the animal yet to be explored. You are down near the trunk. We will argue if you tell me your findings are different from mine.

If everything is of nature, then nothing is unnatural. I am human, other than animal. If I am human, and what I make is separate from nature and animals, then is what I make natural? Nature didn’t make it, I did. If what I make isn’t natural, art or otherwise, does that negate my nature to be a creative being? Using this definition, human nature means to be unnatural, to be beyond nature. If I am beyond nature, why do I still need food, drink, sleep and shelter, both for skin, and a domicile to rest in? Why do I need to touch, to dream? Why am I still stimulated by what I watch, what I smell, what I hear? Are only parts of me natural and the rest artificial? What about parts I may need, like mechanical heart valves and fillings? Does having them, because they were make by unnatural beings like myself, make me more or less human? The trees don’t make ferns, lichens or moss on their trunks, roots and branches. They were made by nature. Dirt doesn’t make seeds. Plants and trees make them. Wasps build with mud and paper. Is what they make no longer natural? What about anthills and beaver dams? If a squirrel buries an acorn and it grows into an oak tree, is the tree artificial because it was planted rather than dropped? Is bark that is ground to dirt by my feet less natural than dirt that was broken down by the elements? Is consciousness a precursor for the unnatural? I have no answers, I just ask questions.

Maybe you have some. You, after all, are standing at another part of the elephant.
Dirt and animals are both looked on disparagingly, as something other than human.
The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, Second Edition, Unabridged, defines dirt as “ Any foul or filthy substance, as mud, grime, dust or excrement…moral filth; vileness; corruption.“ Animals have a duality about their definition. On the one hand, they are “ Any member of the Kingdom Animalia, comprising multicellular organisms that have a well defined shape and usually limited growth, can move voluntarily, actively acquire food and digest it internally, and have sensory and nervous systems that allow them to respond rapidly to stimuli.” On the other hand, they are, “ Any such living thing other than a human being,” or “pertaining to the physical, sensual or carnal nature of humans, rather than their spiritual or intellectual nature.”

Attributes of dirt and other animals do make them different from human. Interesting that these differences are something to disparage. If I am of the Kingdom Animalia, then would not all my attributes as a human be some aspect of the animal kingdom? It is the contemplation of attributes that are found in dirt, animals and humans that make me shiver. I don’t like being compared with something “foul or filthy.” I don’t think of myself as “moral filth;vileness;corruption.” These terms have been used to separate in a way that disparages the beauty of all concerned. I have read that the most common element found in earth is oxygen.

Hydrogen and oxygen mix to fill the atmosphere, making that mostly water. The majority of each individual human is liquid. The rest, bundles of cells. Inside, we humans carry our own weather system, eruptions and drifting. Once flush becomes arid as we slowly evaporate. Like the earth, each of us is an ecosystem. Over time, production ceases in some places. They become brittle. Others continue to crank out new product until the next phase of existence; the great roller coaster glide back to the ground. Whether we like it or not, as much as we hold on, we are pro creation. We are pro mutability. We are also more mobile than many as we shift our environment. We dig to untuck the tangible aspects of nature. Those most tangible to us are the ones we make. And yet, with this untucking, we push forth our nature to create, and make nature intangible by calling it unnatural. Tables, doors and books are no longer called ‘tree.’ Sidewalks are no longer called ‘shell.’ Lines of rock are still called ‘rock,’ with the qualifying title of ‘wall’ added for clarity. We fail to see the interface between what we do and what happens in the rest of the natural world. What we make we view as organized. What is transformed by nature’s nature we call disordered.
“…the Indian has assumed a deep ethical regard for the earth and sky, a reverence for the natural world that is antipodal to the strange tenet of modern civilization which seemingly has it that man must destroy his environment. It is the ancient ethic of the Native American that must shape our efforts to preserve the earth and the life upon and within it.”
A First American Views His Land, N. Scott Momaday

We desire dominion. Unlike the original inhabitants of this country who saw parallels and parable in everything, we see parallels and parable in almost nothing. All our knowledge is scattered in separate classifications. This separation is causing us to loose the very thing we are hoping to gain, understanding. Biological divisions progress as kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species. Using these distinctions, we can point and say, “ We are not the same as a beaver.” We can even use scientific classification for our argument.

Genetically, we are a different family, different genus, a different species. Further, we can confirm our difference through simple observation. Without x-rays our tails are invisible. Our teeth don’t protrude in a manor befitting wood chewing. Yet, we would be only half right if we made distinctions based upon these things. We share a kingdom, a subphylum and a class. We are both “Animalia,’‘Vertebrata,’ ‘Mammalia.” Beaver buildings, called ‘lodges,’ can be as wide as 5 feet and as tall as three feet. They build entrance ramps to their buildings. They build dams, reinforcing them with mud and stone. They build canals to carry the logs they fell to their construction sites. They have even been known to build on to dams humans have made.
Their dams create ponds, which can become woodland meadows. Native Americans, through observations like these, called other creatures ‘brother.’ Does not science, using different terminology, also confirm this overlap? Who is the more accurate, a Native American for saying ‘brother,’ or a scientist for identifying similarities that call us both animal mammals with backbones?

I placed a jar in Tennessee, And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness Surround that hill.
Anecdote of the Jar, Wallace Stevens

Ironically, all these classifications are a heuristic device designed to make communication flow more easily. With our one word classification system, humans have found a way to delineate what we force into being from that other elements of nature make.
Our accomplishments we call culture. We call them civilization. What nature forces into being can be called anything from nuisance to disaster.

Admittedly, I don’t feel much like a force of nature when I face the prospect of a hurricane in New Orleans or an ice storm in Connecticut. The idea of being in the presence of unseen microbes that could possibly kill me doesn’t excite me either. Faced with something that is so much bigger than I am doesn’t exactly make me feel like a force of nature. But I am. With enough of the right materials, I could move a mountain. Literally. Mining operations do it regularly, not to mention those who construct the vast tubes and channels of the interstate highway system that allows me to travel back and forth from Connecticut to New Orleans, and anywhere else for that matter. Maybe humans don’t fully grasp our force because it is difficult to see during the course of daily life. Maybe humans don’t want to see it over the course of daily living because it would remind us we are still small, life is still short and we have only so much time before we will become something that will long out last us : dirt.

We finished clearing the last Section of trail by noon,
High on the ridge-side Two thousand feet above the creek
Reached the pass, went on Beyond the white pine groves
Above Pate Valley, Gary Snyder
a soft continuous roar comes out of the valley of the six-lane highway-
thousands and thousands of cars driving men to work.

© Karel Sloan May 2002

email: "Karel Sloane"

Karel is a published poet and writer. Most recently
a publication put together by the Connecticut Department of
Environmental Protection and the Kellogg Nature Center
and THE FOURTH RIVER, an online publication of
Chatham College's Masters in Writing program.

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More to come from Karel next week.