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word tricks

January 16, 2012

I haven’t written much on my blog lately because I’ve mostly been off line puzzling my way through issues I can’t name. Wait, that sounds like I have secrets but that’s not the problem. My problem is words.  But beyond that, I have deeper problems. Say you set off by boat in a journey where, more or less, you knew where you were going. But there were storms that blew you off course. There were unfamiliar currents that took your boat and you to places you didn’t know existed. You met friends along the way who broadened your horizons. And then, say, your boat landed on a place you didn’t know how to describe, because none of the words you already knew seemed to fit this new reality. You want to do it justice on its own terms, not shoehorn its wonders into words and concepts designed for other contexts. But then how do you start talking about it, so that anyone else might understand you? That’s where I’m at right now.

And, along the way, I’ve realized that there are certain words and concepts that have always resonated for me that I don’t think actually mean what other people use them to mean.

For instance, ‘wild magic’, as written about in science-fiction and fantasy [such as Diana Wynne Jones’s A Sudden Wild Magic]. Okay I’m a Pagan, so ‘magic’ has a religious meaning, sort of, with the caveat that I am not Wiccan. But even the way that I understand Wiccans to use the word ‘magic’ seems to require that the user is seeking control over some forces; that the user is directing forces to do specific things, based on what the user wants to have happen. ‘Wild magic’, in the instances that I have read about, doesn’t work that way. The person who possesses it, for lack of a better term, can’t control it, can’t call it up whenever they like. They don’t know what it is, they don’t know how to use it; it just shows up sometimes. And the more they try to apply rules to it, the worse everything gets.

I don’t think that phenomenon is any sort of ‘magic’. I think it got named ‘wild magic’ in the same kind of way that certain North American grasses (genus Zizania) were named ‘wild rice’ even though they are not closely related to Asian rice grasses (genus Oryza). Naming the new grasses as a variety of rice inserts them into a familiar context, and suddenly they seem more understandable.

Since both Zizania and Oryza are distant cousins, though, because they are both members of the Oryzeae tribe in the family of grasses, Poaceae, maybe I need a better example. How about ‘red pandas’? They have previously been classified taxonomically with raccoons (family Procyonidae) and with bears (family Ursidae), but they are now in their own family, Ailuridae. Despite the common name ‘red panda’, these animals are only related to giant pandas at the taxonomic level of infraorder, which also includes all other bears, pinnipeds (walruses, seals, sea lions), and mustelids (weasels, badgers, otters, wolverines).

That was more of a detour than I meant to take (although I really love taxonomy!). My larger point was, the first people who encountered the animal now called ‘red panda’ used that name to place the animal in a larger context, such as they understood it. But they were wrong. Ailurus fulgans, per our current understanding, might just as well have been called ‘red wolverine’ or ‘red eared seal (terrestrial)’. And yet all of those names would still be wrong. The animal is its own kind. It needs its own name.

I think ‘wild magic’ is like that. It’s not ‘magic’ at all, because ‘magic’ in this context depends upon the will and control of the user.

Another related problem that I began running into years ago is how to characterize the kind of relationship I want to have with non-humans, and Nature generally. Even in conservation and other environmentally-friendly/so-called ‘green’ contexts, the word most commonly used is ‘stewardship’.

My dictionary’s primary definition of ‘steward’ is: a person who manages another’s property or financial affairs; one who administers anything as the agent of another or others.

I don’t see nonhumans or Nature as property of anybody.  Nor do I want to manage them. And I certainly would not want to manage them, for a third party. So that’s three levels of Wrongness.

Even to object in English to how these concepts treat nonhumans or Nature, all I can say is that they are ‘dehumanized’, which doesn’t make any sense, and isn’t at all what I wanted to convey. I guess I could say, the previous ‘objectifies’ them, but again, I think that term is only used for people (in the human-people sense).

I’ve been calling nonhumans ‘people’ for years now, but because the default use of the term only refers to human beings, I have to be quite explicit before it makes any difference to most other people. And then they just think I’m flaky or weird or stupid. (Especially not helpful when it happens in a professional context.)

So I’ve been using ‘neighbors’ to denote both human and nonhuman neighbors because that sidesteps personhood in a legal sense, and gets right to the heart of the real issue to me, which is that these are beings that I have interdependent relationships with.

This is not at all a reference to my religious or spiritual beliefs either. Those are in another one of their periodic flux states, so that at this moment, I’m not sure I believe anything.

Oddly enough, thinking about religious or spiritual ideas is part of the way I sidled into realizing that words and concepts themselves were a large part of my problems lately. I was thinking about how the Christians and other theists I know interact with their gods: they ask for help, for guidance, they want to know what they should do. Or they want a problem fixed. They are appealing to an authority figure to control things.

My gods don’t tell me anything. They don’t direct my actions, and I don’t ask them to do that. I suddenly wondered, maybe my gods aren’t ‘gods’ at all. I’m not sure I know what they are, beyond embodied energies (that I often can’t picture, but when I can, are rarely even humanoid) that I am in relationship to. Basically, I think we are friends. Of a sort. I don’t really understand them, and I don’t think they really understand me, but somehow we enjoy each other’s company, and we both feel enriched by our connection. Sometimes I notice that I haven’t heard from them in a while. They have lives and interests separate from mine, as I do from them.

But I don’t ‘pray’ to them, I don’t ask them for favors. If there even is anything they could ‘do for me’, I don’t know what it is.

I don’t think anybody is ‘in charge of’ the Universe, or Earth, or human beings. I don’t think there is one authority (or a panel of authorities) who are ‘running’ things. The more I learn about nonlinear dynamics, complexity, fractals, nested systems, etc., the more it seems to me that nothing can be known; nothing can be controlled. Statistical probabilities are the closest you can get to either, but all that tells you is general patterns in aggregate. If what you want to know is, what one individual human being (or one liver cell, or one atom of potassium, or one dwarf star) will do, especially if you have a specific time frame in mind, well, I don’t think anybody can know that, before it happens. Even the gods.

Me, personally? I think that’s fabulous in an awesome-and-terrifying-but-beautiful kind of way. The older I get, the less I’m interested in ‘knowing’ anything at all. Once you think you ‘know’, you start taking it for granted. It’s harder for anything to surprise you (in a good way), because you’re not really paying attention to anything but your own interests. And so, when things surprise you, you’re more likely to think it’s ‘in a bad way’ because it’s interfering with your own plans.

I don’t plan anymore. I prepare, emotionally and physically, for what I think could happen. I act, moment to moment, in the context as I perceive it. I remain aware that the context is much more complicated than I know, or can know. Before, I might have described my trail of actions as looking like a meandering river, but that’s still linear-ish, and mostly 2-dimensional. I think it would look more like the flight path of a butterfly.

Scientists used to think that butterflies ‘fluttered aimlessly’ until experiments where researchers outfitted butterflies with harmonic transponders. It turns out that butterflies fly loops to search out good foraging sites.  Their flight paths look cockeyed and erratic to our eyes, but their behavior is sensible and effective in context. I have to trust my own feeling of rightness, even when what I’m doing makes little sense to others, and so far, I don’t have a clear way to talk about it.

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