Do animals experience samsara?

“Art is solving problems that cannot be formulated before they have been solved. The shaping of the question is part of the answer.”  Piet Hein

Today during a visit to the Art Gallery of Victoria, I was captivated by Nicholas Vandergugten’s work “What Comes First,” a series of four monitors showing nine looping films of artists’ hands as they worked. The film focuses on process, not product, calling attention to the practice of creation—the incomplete, the unpolished, the fits and starts. We see artists’ hands doing and pausing and making. Hands turn the pages of an art bullet journal, hands etch and paint, hands turn over found objects: bones and feathers. Hands rest on the paint-flecked table as if considering their next move. Here, I document the process/progress of making eight pennants in a similar spirit.

In the last several days, I finished “loss,” then “fame.” Three pennants are complete. I enjoyed creating “fame.” The steps leading up to it included an hour wandering through Fabricland, searching for deer-themed fabric. To my surprise, there was a lot to choose from.

Yet soon discomfort seeped in. Not about the materials themselves, but about the concept. When I created the first pennant, “gain,” I arbitrarily used a tiny deer puppet that I had hanging around my studio. It was part of a set of knitted finger puppets I gave IMG_0546to a little girl, but somehow the deer got away from the set and I ended up with it. It seemed a perfect way to make the abstract concrete: to have someone or something experiencing gain. So my deer was soon cosseted by silks and feathers, zipped into a cocoon of wealth. A narrative emerged: Rainer the reindeer enjoys his gains, not realizing he’ll soon experience loss.

Unwittingly, I had committed myself to a story about a deer, a narrative that  would need to continue through all of the eight worldly winds to maintain coherence. For loss, I represented the biggest loss—death—inside of an empty purse. Fame was fun and whimsical—deer of the year.

But a problem emerged. Animals do not experience the eight worldly winds in the same way humans do. Perhaps they feel pleasure and pain, but can they be famous amongst themselves? Or can a deer be disreputable according to other deer? What about praise and blame—do animals feel these? I doubt it. (Buddhist texts depict those in the animal realm as driven by impulse and instinct, and thus living a life of mostly suffering.)

In using an animal to represent how humans experience samsara, I unintentionally introduced irony. Now I had the problem of how to show Rainer experiencing the eight worldly winds without being too cute in my anthropomorphism (for example, replicating a Disney version of Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer). Could Rainer stand in for human experience and at the same time retain his essential deerness?

I seemed to be throwing the heaviness of human subjectivity over the antlers of a proud autonomous deer. Oh dear… there I go again. “Proud” is the inevitable human perspective—I cannot escape it.  When I think of disrepute I conjure up Rudolph’s red nose. When I think of a famous deer, the mythical white stag comes to mind. As soon as I, human subject, try to imagine deer subjectivity, I colour deer as object.

I remembered a poem I wrote about meeting a stag.* Inevitably self-referential, the speaker soon slips from confrontation with an alien creature into being Susan in Narnia. The stag becomes C.S. Lewis’s literary creation. How to stay in a space that respects difference?

But then again, I am not sure it really matters. Ultimately, continuing to work on a series is to have faith that everything will hang together eventually and that there is some kind of value–if not in the product, then in the process. As I work on the next five pennants, I will continually reshape the question of how to show a deer stuck in samsara and probably wish I’d never started it.

The Stag
(for Elizabeth Bishop)

I faced a stag
in the darkening light,
felt his animal breath
warm, familiar
looked into his glassy
dispassionate eye
felt  a whoosh of joy
to share the earth.

There was a moment of
recognition. How did
you raise forty points
on urban marigolds?
I wanted to ask, and wanted
him to answer, plunging us from
Oak Bay to Narnia.

I could be Susan,
Archeress,
Surefooted older sister,
gentle, strong,
doubtful at first, but
then devoted to Aslan.

Stag, turn white and take me there,
let me blow danger with my
magic horn before I get
beguiled by the material world.

But suddenly
mind flings back to body,
yours— pivot of bone branches,
smooth quivering hide,
and mine—sagging on two legs
in this sad outlandish standoff.

*This is a modified version of the original poem published in my book Birth of the Uncool

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Suffering?

 

 

 

Memories and Mad Hatters

By Michael Carpenter

IMG_0371Bidding adieu to Cranbrook Ed, we crossed the border into Alberta and our sojourn to Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump.  This world heritage site tells the story of the Blackfoot nation and their skilful and meticulously planned hunting process which drove herds of stampeding buffalo to their death over a carefully chosen cliff. Accessing the site from the west required us to drive over 30 km of gravel roads (we will come back to this shortly).  We arrived in time to watch the dancing demonstrations, which were truly amazing, and were well explained by the emcee.  The nobility, grace and skill of the dancers, combined with the dazzling ceremonial garb made for one continuous photo opportunity, and Madeline joined in a circle dance at the end.

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IMG_0395The exhibit spans five archeological levels and was beautifully illustrated.  I found myself deeply humbled and moved by realizing that these peoples first used this buffalo jump site 6000 years ago.  We are newcomers indeed!  Everywhere like an echo or a refrain is the message that the sacred earth provides—and the realization that we are abusing her bounty.

Lethbridge was the gateway to a couple of magical and fairly emotional days for me-rich with memories.  I lived in Lethbridge from 1987 to 1990, with my sons Aaron and Alex and with Alex’s mom Donna.  Alex, tragically killed in a backwoods motor vehicle accident in 2016,  was born in Lethbridge in 1989.  I was awash with emotion and memory, triggered in part by the vivid and happy memories of the time we spent there, so while our visit was enjoyable, I was grateful to hit the road for Medicine Hat.

Just before we left Lethbridge I noticed a stone chip on faithful Rudy’s windshield (Rudy is the name we gave our little red Hyundai Elantra GT).  As is often my wont, I decided to ‘wait and see’ about getting  it repaired.

“He who hesitates is lost” was one of my mother’s favourite sayings, and by the time we got to Medicine Hat we were looking at “Windshield Smashed In Buffalo Jump”, as the stone chip had become a nine inch crack.

I must admit, I was upset.  And hungry.  With Madeline’s great equanimity holding me down, I managed to phone our insurance company while feverishly gnawing on cold chicken legs, and swearing when my grease-laden fingers failed to make my touch screen respond.  Turned out that Speedy Glass could do a replacement the following morning, so we decided to spend the afternoon visiting the Medicine Hat Museum and Southern Alberta Art Gallery.

The art gallery featured an exhibit called Terrestrial Beings.  From the curator:

At once sublimely elegant and ruthlessly daunting, the lush intricacies of the natural world have delighted, nourished, intrigued and wrought havoc upon the human race since time immemorial. Occupying a place between reality, dream, memory and myth, Terrestrial Beings presents strange and wonderful works in which representations of the body and the land intersect physically, psychologically and metaphorically. Through sculpture, painting, drawing, and cut-paper, twelve contemporary artists from across the country embrace their connection to the earth as fertile ground for deeper spiritual and intellectual exploration.

 I’ve included a couple of examples.  One that I found particularly moving was This Creeping Feeling, a polymer clay sculpture of two figures laying a third to rest. It was created while a family member was dying, and the gallery note says it is about human entanglement and the unstoppable passage of time.  The figures are covered with coral, organisms which both war and co-operate, and leave the record of their lives on the earth and on each other. The other is of a shape-shifter, which I chose to be photographed with on my shape-shifting mad-hatter day.

The Medicine Hat Museum contained many fascinating artefacts-an anachronistic reference to settling the Indians, paired with honestly stated welcoming to diversity and the many stories that different people bring to the region.

I found myself wandering around laughing one moment and crying the next.  As Madeline and I strolled down to the river and then out for coffee, we talked about how lovely the afternoon had been, and how it never would have happened but for a broken windshield.  Then, in a little coffee shop, we found the Pour It Forward board.  People could buy an extra coffee and then write on a cup sleeve who it was for, and put it on the board.  Sometimes a person was named, sometimes not.  One said, “For someone who has had a bad day, and needs a hug in a mug.”  I am realizing that the world is simply filled with magic, so often missed by my busy or cantankerous mind.

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We began the trip across Saskatchewan and Manitoba. I love the vastness of the prairies-endless plains in quilts of emerald and dusty tan, ochre and acid yellow—with fluffy clouds hanging silently in the aquamarine sky.  I found myself feeling simultaneously tiny and expansive-open to and not separate from the world.

By Madeline

Sunday. Kenora. We wake to the bleak sun muffled by smoke and cloud. Many fires burn north of here. Three more days of driving until we arrive in Toronto.  I finished Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You on Friday, and then started Kenzaburo Oe’s Death by Water last night.  How is it that I randomly chose, one from a yard sale, one from a thrift store, two novels that are linked by drowning? Coincidence? Oe’s title is taken from Eliot’s The Wasteland, so I re-read the shortest section of that poem, Death by Water, and remembered Phlebas the Phoenician, drowning: “As he rose and fell/ He passed the stages of his age and youth/ Entering the whirlpool.”

I think sometimes this road trip, RARE 5, with its spaciousness, time to think and ruminate–without projects, to-do lists, a home to clean, people to see, objects to fixate on–has allowed us to pass the stages of our age and youth, allowed us to enter the whirlpool of a heightened awareness. We can think in big-picture ways about our lives, about the past.  We are silent, then we talk. We listen to Stuart McLean, Pema Chodron, Allison Krauss, the Decembrists. In between music and voices we enjoy long spaces and quiet times, the varied landscapes of Canada outside the window. Then we converse and share our own thoughts and stories, and most of all our feelings. A journey of the mind and heart.

On to Thunder Bay today, through green wilderness.