Getting Wyrd with the Earth Songs of Paul Kingsnorth
Updated: Feb 22, 2019
I recently obtained a copy of Paul Kingsnorth’s collection of poetry, Songs from the Blue River, which sought to give the land and its inhabitants a voice. Mostly written in Patagonia in Chile, the book celebrates a recent campaign to protect the Baker and the Pascua rivers from being dammed which would have flooded 15,000 acres of farmland and forest – after years of protest this government scheme was eventually shelved and these poems serve as a reminder of this triumph and the importance of inspired action.
Image from Kingsnorth's article: https://dark-mountain.net/the-secret-opinions-of-rivers/
A former editor of The Ecologist and co-founder of the Dark Mountain Project, Paul Kingsnorth is well known for his environmental work, his poetry and his fiction. He now lives in the West of Ireland with his family where he runs The Wyrd School – an unusual writing school designed to crack open the strange old soul with some heart-warming activities including making hand-made books, walking up a mountain in silence, playing the harp, sharing stories around a fire and the school’s teachers include storyteller Martin Shaw as well as artist Caroline Ross.
The Anglo-Saxon word Wyrd, means fate or destiny – fate being that sense of things being out of our control and predetermined by powers greater than ourselves, for example karma or past actions. Destiny seems to have more of a positive connotation – there is a sense that this is the power associated with the divine events which will unfold in the future when we are in alignment with these powers. This idea of falling into harmony, with the earth’s story for each of us, lies at the belly of Kingsnorth’s work and it is clear that he has done a lot of soul-searching out in the wilds.
His poetry collection, Song from the Blue River, holds a quandary that many environmentalists may encounter – in the face of so much destruction, do we open hearts by talking about the pain we see or do we inspire an audience to love the forest by focusing on how much the land means to us? This quandary is presented in his poem Inquisition whereby he meets a giant with an Indian-beaked face who tells him that instead of writing about the horrors of the world, he wishes him to write love poems instead:
- I would like you to write love poems
to the quil quil fern, which was young
when you were nothing, and to the yellow lichen and the hairgrass
which will spot this Earth whatever you do.
I would like you to write love poems which settle
in the hearts of women and men who see what you see
and live with it. And I would like you to know
that the love which kills you also feeds you
and that you have already arrived where you are trying to go
and that you should pay attention,
because I will not be saying this again.
Kingsnorth’s poems flow between these two extremes of despair at the seemingly endless destruction of the forests and the beauty of what remains and all of its philosophical implications for what it means to be human in these times and how to live in a balanced, heart-centred way.
"Our stories can help to evoke a sense of wonder; they can allow animals and trees to speak and give voice to the silent world of rocks and mountains; they can put us back in touch with the seasons and the turning of the year; they bring the possibility of a more soulful connection with the communities and the places in which we live; they can celebrate the diversity and richness of many cultures and societies; they have the power to remind us of our history and our roots and thus - paradoxically - to understand that we have a responsibility towards the future...The stakes are high and it is easy to become dispirited and overwhelmed by the difficulties that surround us. It is so much easier to pretend that the difficulties do not exist or to believe that it is not worth doing anything because nothing we can do will make any difference. But we need not lose heart; it is better to make a modest contribution even if we cannot measure its effect," wrote storyteller Geoff Mead in his book Coming Home to Story, in which he continued to explain that our work as storytellers may not be measurable but it may have far-reaching effects and bring people closer together in a more enchanted and inclusive world.
More giants appear in the poem In the Beginning – a mythical contemplation of the universe in which it is explained that in the beginning there were giants who made the stars and they sat back and watched a man slowly plough the earth with straight lines. The giant’s daughter asks:
But they are so small
and they make straight lines.
How will they manage?
And her father said only:
they will have to.
His poems are steeped in mythological imagery – enabling nature to speak and drawing the land and human psyche together as we see pictures of hills as sleeping dragons, singing trees and people as “solid bands of light” in his poem The Chain. These images seem to bubble up from the well of the earth, from the blue river tongue and the mythological resonance seems to strengthen the words and anchor the poems. American professor of comparative mythology, Joseph Campbell, wrote the following in The Inner Reaches of Outer Space:
"From the outer world the senses carry images to the mind, which do not become myth, however, until there transformed by fusion with accordant insights, awakened as imagination from the inner world of the body...These mythic figurations are the "ancestral forms," the insubstantial archetypes, of all that is beheld by the eye as physically substantial, material things being understood as ephemeral concretions out of the energies of these noumena...Temples and the narratives of myth are hermetic fields within which those apparitions known as gods and goddesses, demons, angels, demi-gods, incarnations, and the like, typify in the guise of charismatic personalities the locally recognized vortices of consciousness out of which all aspects of the local theater of life derive their being."
A Jaina Purushkara Yantra of a cosmic figure made in the 18th century - it symbolises the deepest levels of the psyche and the voices of the world, with the circular Middle World Jambudvipa at its centre.
“The symbol is a living body, corpus et anima; hence the “child” is such an apt formula for the symbol...The deeper “layers” of the psyche lose their individual uniqueness as they retreat farther and farther into darkness. “Lower down,” that is to say as they approach the autonomous functional systems, they become increasingly collective until they are universalized and extinguished in the body’s materiality… Hence “at bottom” the psyche is simply “world..." The more archaic and “deeper,” that is the more physiological, the symbol is, the more collective and universal, the more “material” it is. The more abstract, differentiated, and specified it is, and the more its nature approximates to conscious uniqueness and individuality, the more it sloughs off its universal character," wrote Carl Jung in The Archetypes and The Collective Unconscious.
The realms of despair are encapsulated firmly in his poem Necessary Murder in which we see the innocence of the branches of the tree who live only to serve the universe compared to the ways of men who often serve their own agendas:
- branches of trees, are mechanisms
for facilitating photosynthesis, as arms
are mechanisms for facilitating strangulation
and chemical warfare...
Yet despite mankind’s arrogance, Paul Kingsnorth sees clearly that despite the dishonouring of the land, the real power remains inside nature – something humans are being reminded of as more natural disasters happen across our planet. In his long poem, Songs from the Blue River, it feels as if we are guided on a boat with Kingsnorth through time as he shares with us a deep heart-felt space of rhythmic energy, bubbling like the powerful waters themselves. Here, Kingsnorth takes the role of a deep listener - this poem is not easily assimilated and moves over vast distances - it is as if the earth is speaking herself and this poem will take time to integrate:
He said there was a time
when the river was blue and the stars swarmed
upon it. He said there were hills
on a birdhazed horizon, often seen,
never reached. He said the abyss
was deep and ferocious as the mind.
The power in the waters went unharnessed then,
but there is no moving away from the new songs.
Their harmonies span the seven worlds,
we sing them to a sun that rises
on glass deserts.
Perhaps my favourite poem is Dawn, in which we are introduced to a forest goddess, a naiad perhaps, since she rises at the riverbank, who is “translucent like the canopy” and guides the reader deep into the forest, deep into the light. It is a small poem, yet full of crystal-like energy and is very mysterious at its core.
The journey of the poems perhaps mirrors the real-life stories of the two rivers as they faced potential man-made destruction from their natural ways and their return to safety as the people boldly stood up and declared the need to protect these two songs, these two flowing veins. We move through emotional mountains, meandering past plateaus of despair and catharsis, to fields of inspiration and hope and finally back into the sunlight of optimism, where the book ends with the poem In Which:
One day, it will all come back.
For more information about The Wyrd School’s course and events, please visit: https://wyrdschool.ie/