The ways that we hold our unknowing are at least as important as the ways that we hold our knowing.
Something has happened to the
Afon Goch, it has stopped running, and when
you investigated you found that
a hole had opened up in the shale,
and the stream is funnelling away into
the earth. You
bac went close, looked
in even, and understanding something about
what had happened, the collapse, backed
very slowly away. Which is of course the
proper response. Or to get go down
on your knees and pray. What else
can be done? Nothing.
A video, you made it on 7 June, Jo’s birthday,
ste stream running in th its bed,
in the place just below its disappearing hole.
It is still running, but running underneath.
Slow down and listen…
a pulse of life in my belly, edge-balancing,
grainy, uncertain. Tightness over the heart,
closed like the wings of a beetle, cased.
Cradle of pelvis, trunk of spine, weight of head.
Flickering flame, can I hold my hands out
to them, feel the warmth of my life burning?
To go to a place where water goes
back in, where the earth is showing its
wounds. Why was this shown to me?
What can I do with this?
There is, at that place, a great oak tree,
tall and standing over. Guardian.
In the down-below, under roots and hanging ivy, the stream disappears. I approach upwards along the stream bed, following a trickle of water, flickering light, shinings. A blackbird startles a warning, chack-chack-chack-chack-chack-chack-chack. I stay back today, taking in what is right here.
Defeated rounds down the shoulders. Defeated
bows the head. Clenches around the heart.
Why do I feel this? The world opens itself up to
me, children are laughing, playing in the
park. There are flowers in the edges, butterflies.
Maybe a small blue, earlier in the
l ritual. What are the ingredients and
methods for a ritual? I do so few. Bill
Viola would know. The main thing is
to get the mind right. A listening
open-ness. Gratitude and generosity of spirit.
I find the passage, in Bill Viola’sReasons for Knocking at an Empty House:
“The trip to the desert is one of discovering the deep common roots of beauty and pain, of sensitivity and death… To be sensitive to all frequencies at once, to be overwhelmed and delirious with sensory experience… The articulation of the self through the extreme sensitivity and heightened awareness (right mind) is the great work – the true medium. There is no other… Where to put the mind is the primary question of composition, and of the creative act.”Bill Viola, Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House, writings 1973-1994. Thames and Hudson 1995. , “Note 1986”, p.183
Earlier I went down to the place where the water
comes back out from the open cast. From
not-running to running in a few steps. I had to
climb down through tangled growth, soft ground,
a slippage of land. And I saw the water
coming out and staining rust red and away. It was
a hard place to get to and to be in,
to witness this. It should be a monument,
lest we forget. But of course it is hidden,
unimportant, covered over…
I do not feel strong enough, but it seems that this is not relevant, what is relevant is that I have been called. To witness? To be witnessed? One, the other, both.
I suppose the thing is, the thing I
cannot hold in balance is the joy, the
life-force, against these bleak hard bones
of facts. That they co-exist. The yellow
flowers of the ^
Oxford ragwort on the open-cast. With
the black scoured body of the earth,
the wound seeping red.
and How they
go together. The boy with the sign for free
manure and the fly-tippers at the bridge.
A woman comes onto the radio, it is
the programme about numbers. A child has
asked whether there are more bees or
stars in the galaxy. The answer is bees. But
the woman is a respected astronomer, and
she also says something treacherous. Listeners
write in, appalled…
In giving the number of stars in the galaxy (a hundred billion), the astronomer went further, went too far perhaps, and commented on the number of stars in the universe. The best theories we have, she said, tell us that the number of stars in the universe is infinite. Many radio listeners do not want to hear this, and they google it, uncovering a number. The astronomer must be wrong. She is recalled.
The astronomer clarifies: there is something that we describe as “the observable universe”. It is the area which is defined by the limits to our perception, in the sense that it is limited because the past is finite and the speed of light is constant: the area of the observable universe extends as far it is possible for light to have travelled (to reach us and our instruments) since the beginning of time. The astronomer explains, however, that she was not speaking about the number of stars in the observable universe; she was speaking about the number of stars in the universe. It seems that she was including the places in the universe which are always going to be outside of our sphere of possible observation, because light cannot under any circumstances reach us from them.
This radio programme happens as I am in the car, finding my way home from walking at the Afon Goch. I wonder about the listeners who wrote in to the programme to put the eminent scientist right with their googlings. Like myself, they were feeling uncomfortable. There they were, sitting at home eating breakfast, listening to an innocent-sounding question from a small child, and then came an astronomer, and she broke into their day and this was brought to their attention: that the universe is uncountable and weird, vaster than vast, unknowable.
The estimated number of stars in our galaxy is a hundred billion. To write it down, write a one followed by eleven zeros.
The estimated number of stars in the observable universe is 10 to the power of 24. To write it down, write a one followed by twenty-four zeros.
The best theories that the astronomer has tell her that the number of stars in the universe is infinite. To write down the symbol for infinity, write a number eight, lying on its side.
These are unthinkably big numbers, and they are being used for things that are themselves unthinkably big: suns, worlds. Why then, are these numbers less appalling than the mention of an infinite number of stars and worlds? Perhaps it has to do with infinity. Infinity makes a nonsense of counting, and this is a programme about numbers, its listeners like numbers. And again, it has to do with knowing and mystery. We hear numbers and we are fooled into thinking that we know something, and have fixed down at least one of the loose ends. We confuse writing down the number with finding the meaning.
As an artist and a sometimes-picture-framer, I think a lot about framing. It has to do with what we select to look at, and with where we claim to be looking at it from. In an essay called Video Black – The Mortality of the Image, Bill Viola describes the discovery in 1425 of the vanishing point:
“What Brunelleschi achieved was the personification of the image, the creation of a “point of view” and its identification with a place in real space. In doing so, he elevated the position of the individual viewer to an integral part of the picture by encoding this presence as the inverse, in absentia, source of the converging perspectival lines…
In the dialogue between viewer and image, there were now three entities where formerly there had been two, or possibly even one. (One in the sense that most images, as thoroughly two-dimensional diagramatic and/or schematic representations, were previously used as a sacred vehicle to achieve a state of union between the viewer and the divinity.)”Bill Viola, Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House, writings 1973-1994. Thames and Hudson 1995. p201
And when the moment comes, and we realise that we never will find meaning by trying to orient the entire universe in relation to ourselves, then we may remember that we still have the option that we have always had, the option of finding meaning by re-orienting ourselves in relation to the unknown.
Meanwhile, all of the estimates about bees and starts are still impossible to comprehend, and I cannot comprehend them. Instead, I recite the names of the flowering plants that I saw on my walk: common centaury, knapweed, selfheal, gorse. Because of the flowers, I find myself drifting back to the bees. No-one complained about the estimated number of bees, but counting bees is impossible. For example, I would not think of trying to count the bees that are in my garden (5 metres by 25 metres) in one quarter of an hour of one summer’s day.
And I think about one bee, a bee called Bee. There is a short YouTube video in which a woman called Fiona Presly explains that she found a bumblebee without wings. She fed the bee from her finger and in doing so, realised that she had a responsibility. She made a home for the bee, nurtured her, made friends with her, loved her. She explained that coming to know Bee changed something meaningfully for her in her life, in her world. The video showed Bee nestling on Fiona Presley’s hand asleep, exploring her face, delicately supping sugar from her finger, eventually dying of old age, curled up in her palm. The video showed us love. Love between one woman and one bee.
I feel creatively frayed, pulled in
directions. There isn’t time to read, to sit,
to draw, to garden.
The sky is always wider outside than I
remember or feel it from in here. And
there is so much air, so much world.
I look out of the window. Great pilings of
pink-edged cumulus cloud in the blue-grey
dusk. More grandeur than I can
take in, witness, hold my attention to.
If time is related to consciousness, is that
why time is related to attention? How is
it? We fragment, fray, unravel.
What would Beuys do? Something magnificent
and pregnant with meaning. Something provoking,
aggressive almost. Something bold and grand,
a gesture, a trace of meaning on the arc
of the dark
sea sky. Something with warmth,
and smells of earth, fat, wool, chocolate.
Something to sit in people’s hearts, ferment.
He would wear his hat, like a show man.
He would use thousands of words in his
clunky and germanic English. He would find
stories, myths to pull the threads of. Healing.
He was all about healing. And about
human warmth, divinity.
I feel like there is a wound in the earth,
here in my valley, and the water is
running away, and I don’t know what to
do. I feel called to do something but
I don’t know what…
I have read an essay on mystery by the mythologist Martin Shaw. In it he has articulated a question that has been drawing me towards itself for several years:
“What would Joseph Beuys do?”Martin Shaw, Navigating the mysteries. Emergence Magazine May 2022. https://emergencemagazine.org/essay/navigating-the-mysteries/
What would he do? Joseph Beuys worked for shape-shifting and transmutation, for warmth, for healing, for human creative divinity. I am feeling my way with my work, into the not knowing. Not knowing is so hard, so uncomfortably lumpy; and meanwhile I keep feeling the shock of seeing the Afon Goch disappearing into rock and mine shaft, being swallowed back down by the ground.
Today the last day in June, heavy rain in the
night, all washed clean. In my body I
feel the heaviness of sleep; some sweetness
I was pulled away from, sticky and
resisting. The drag of trolley wheels in a car
park, skittering, jumpy.
What would Joseph Beuys do? Beuys acts from
the place of unresolved conflicts, this
is where his strength comes from…
To return to Joseph Beuys, the chaos and disturbance is the source, the place from which the power arises. Meanings become physically manifest in his work, which is an alchemy, a poetry of substances. I look again at the pictures that I have of his vitrines and their softly coloured objects, and notice the spaciousness, the correspondences between materials. It is these silences in the work which allow for the resonances, the poetry.
Why do I love to hear Martin Shaw’s question about what Joseph Beuys would do? I think it is because it is such a personal question for me. In this moment, I very much need some guidance, in what I must do. The word do in the question is troubling me though, and I find that I am moving carefully around it, as though it contains shards of glass. What would he do? I return, handling the word with care, feeling myself sitting here in my room, in the house, with the valley surrounding me. Much has been done here. Too much. I do not claim to speak for the valley, but I am pretty sure, if it could speak its longings, it would speak of having a rest from having things done to it.
What can I give to the valley that the valley does not already have? The thing that I can claim as my own is my attention, and here I am walking and I meet the river falling into a hole in the ground, and I am being asked to put my face, my attention, towards the unknown and unknowable. Of course it is something that I do not like, that I feel as pain. Pains of all kinds are messages from our bodies, but moving away from pain is not necessarily the right response. This is the life-learning: distinguishing between types of pain, sifting for the ones that we must go towards. Can I sit here? Not trying to solve things, not trying to cover and hide the pain in my feeling body with a quick deflective action, for now only sitting?
I feel a flash of irritation with someone who says that perhaps we have to learn to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. Stop speaking. Stop speaking of comfort. Solace is allowable, perhaps. But right now, stop speaking. Be present to the huge, the impossible, the painful. It is, after all, where we are living. Stop speaking until you have less words. I will listen to you again when you have a poem to recite, one that uses only words that you yourself have carved from black rocks from this riverbed.
I am completely unreasonable, unfair to the person who has tried to articulate a difficult thing. Nonetheless, this is how I feel it. We have so many things to learn now. We must learn courage, and how to tell stories responsibly. We must learn how to sing hymns together around kitchen tables, and how, when we find ourselves crying unexpectedly in public places, we can recognise it as a good sign. We must learn how to bring orphaned children into our homes, how to see beauty and how to praise, how to speak of love and loss.
Talking with Finn about making things,
making the thing that wants to be
made (through us). This is quite a
forgiving and very useful way of
describing what it is that is
What would Joseph Beuys do? I think he
would assume that he was right. I
think that he would know that complexity
and specificity are gateways to the
universal, the important. He would not
worry that the world is dead clockwork
matter and our lives unimportant. He
would know that this is not true.
He would say where your spirit is
burning, throw a log on the blaze.
He would be ambitious. He would carry
certainty, confidence. Where did he get
that confidence from? Let us assume that
he did not always have it. He got it
through his travels to the underworld. He
came back knowing that the bell had
rung, it was time
for the fight to start
^ to fight.
I walk up the path by the stream in the
bright shade the green shadowing dancing
light along the path and under the
ash trees, oaks, hazel. I come to
the place where I can turn down the
narrow chute of a path and to the
stream. Endless murmur whisper and
I turn and follow it down to the
dark place, opposite to a fountain, anti-
well, running away of the waters
into the stone and where does the
water go to, what is its secret heart, its
dark purpose? Nothing and everything
happens. An endless flowing away…
The river’s running is our metaphor for our hours, days, years; but in this backward place it is swallowed and covered, the stream bed runs dry. The body of the land just here is wounded, so torn and distressed that the river cannot not run down the valley, not even for our security of metaphor. Meanwhile, there is nothing about it that is inexplicable. It is only consequences. It is only physics, geology, exploitation, damage, abandonment. It is only the soaking earth and the silence, and the weight of all the things that I do not know. It is only one threshold to infinite mystery.
Today more moving of compost, finishing up from yesterday’s job. And I also found and took lots of bags of manure that a man puts by the side of the road for people to take, with a sign that says ‘free manure’… he is doing a lot better than very many of us, looking after his animals which he clearly loves, and giving away the manure to gardeners. From what he said I think that for him this is his work, and it is at the level of vocation, which I found humbling – the simplicity and pure generosity and clarity of purpose.
I went up to the stream … I had not been up for perhaps three or four weeks. Despite the heat wave and “drought” the stream is still running straight over the full sink hole and on down its bed…
I go to the Afon Goch. Mudgy-cool and dim light, low golding sun, rocks washed black. Above, the stream is singing into shelving pools. Further down, the water is running again over the entrance to the mineshaft underworld. There is a strange tremor on the surface. I am after-covid, and my legs are not as strong or steady as I would like, I fear to come too close. I lean down and cup my hands, taking a little water from the river into them, and let it pour back down onto the rocks. Standing back, I hold roots in the steep bank and lean forwards, using my other hand to throw in pieces of black coal that I have picked up from the path and all of the silver coins in my pockets, not many. Standing on the rocks in the stream bed, I speak a few small words of seeing and unseeing. It is not much and it is not enough, but it is what I have and I give it back as an offering to the dark places of unknowing.