Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Be Kind, Read Wild

On a completely different note, my friend Alison talked me into adding iRead to my Facebook page yesterday -- I was waiting for books in the British Library and bored, so not so much with the arm-twisting. It made me realise that I hadn't written a thing on this blog for ages, hence the guilt-induced double post.

Particularly shamefully, I forgot to post a book launch for Horse: How the Horse Has Shaped Civilisation, a book that seems far from my normal beat, but is a) written by one of the best teachers I ever had, Ted Chamberlin, and b) is actually a book about the entwined history of humanity and its companion species that offers a horse's eye view on colonialism, agriculture, war, poetry and just about everything. It was held in the lovely new branch of Daunt Books in Holland Park, the latest flowering of the fiercely independent travel bookstore whose musty attic galleries of antiquarian maps and books in the original Marylebone High Street branch suffused my teenage years with a wanderlust that has been largely bookish. Books and travel are natural partners in my mind, two ways of exploring, two kinds of journeys. Ted's books - not only Horse, but also If This Is Your Land, Where Are Your Stories? - are ideal travel companions: anecdotal, erudite, political and passionate in equal measures.

Horse is not the only book currently fanning the fires of summer wanderlust (the execrable air in London is also doing its bit - yesterday it was, I swear, brown by 7pm). Chamberlin points out that part of the horse's fascination for writers/riders is its double signification of wildness and domestication - the promise of mobility and the promise of home. It's a paradox that would, I think, delight Jay Griffiths, author of Wild: An Elemental Journey, who lights out for the homes that EuroWestern thought sees as wilderness (the Amazon basin, Nunavut, the Australian outback, West Papua), and finds there that a sense of wildness is instrumental in making home for the people who live within and with it.

I absolutely fell in love with Wild from the first review I read in the Observer, followed by a fortnight's wait to have the book in my hands - during which I read everything I could find about the author: an interview in G2, an old Utne cover story that sets out the philosophy of wild time that lies behind the book, and some loopy, goofy, charming, playful writing for magazines like Resurgence and Aisling.

The web - its very name suggesting stuck, caught, constrained - is not the best place to meet Griffiths, although searching for her work does point to the wilds of the web, the way it brings small magazines to a wider community and allows them to connect with one another. Its webbiness is taken back from Spiderman and returned to Spider Woman, to Anansi, and to the increasingly uncommon garden spider as a labour of love, of storytelling, of subsistence.

That wild style isn't mine, but an imitation in tribute of Griffiths. Her wor(l)dplay is reminiscent of the wise, wild Mary Daly and another Spider Woman, poet Cecilia Vicuña, the title of whose English-language collection The Weaving of Words and the Unravelling of Water could also serve for Wild. As the Independent's review points out, Griffith has found wildness within an English paradoxically domesticated by globalisation. She returns frequently to the roots of words whose wood has been transformed into bland flatpack furniture.

One such astonishing etymology, that threw even this Inga Muscio reader, was Griffths' connection of "cunt" not only to "kenning" and other words for knowledge, but to "kind." Hello! I once spent an entire semester studying the use of the word "kind" in a Coleridge poem (I can't remember which poem, instructive in itself) with the archetypal eccentric professor, and although spiralling into all sorts of places - Japanese woodcuts, Roma songs, Saussurean linguistics - to explore the full menaing of "kind" as an animist Brotherhood of Species, not once was sex, gender or sexual difference mentioned. Even though (through the haze of memory) I think that the poem was about fatherhood and lacked more than the shadow of a mother.

Similarly, the reviews I've read of Griffiths' book (four so far) have all conformed to the notions of suburban, patriarchal, disembodied deathliness against which she sets the lifeforce of wildness, by glossing over the thread of kindness through her book, focused as it is on womankind, women's kindred to the wild, and particularly the kindness and kenning of cunts. While some of Griffiths' country business (in Shakespeare's pun) is the useful stuff of travel literature (how do you change a tampon while canoeing up the Amazon? hiking through West Papua?), there are passages of prose dedicated to the interconnections of interior and exterior wildscapes. Rather than sublime unknowability inspiring feats of phallic conquest, Griffiths learns and shares an indigenous sense of respect for the necessary mystery, an unknowing that is the basis of true knowing.

I'm tempted to quote whole chapters, but that would be like turning the Rockies into ski-chalet subdivisions: this is a book whose (argument is that) wildness is in its wholeness, and that wholeness is in wildness. To read it is a kindness - a gentling of the spirit, a sense of affinity, an erotic learning and an elemental call to action.


Alison Croggon said...

Hi Soph...a wave from the wilds of Melbourne...

I love that etymology, though it makes me reflect on the idea of kindness construed as obscenity.

Delirium's Librarian said...

As in Lady Macbeth's revolt at the "milk of human kindness"? KIndness as a feminine weakness and therefore obscene? Say more!