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Melissa Kwasny And Theodore Roethke Reflect On Consciousness And Nature's 'Echo-System'

"I have been thinking about consciousness, who has it and who doesn’t," writes poet, essayist and editor, Melissa Kwasny. "'Consciousness: to have a sense of oneself as apart from others.'  Science has discovered that even plants can distinguish between a self and a not-self, halting their growing roots in contact with the foreign. Carl Sapina, in a recent book called Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, says we share basically the same nervous system—wolf, coyote, even the worm. To grant them consciousness is to wake, not to a dream world, but a greater reality that requires a different navigation and a far different morality. 

The late William Tall Bull, a Northern Cheyenne historian, ethnobotanist, teacher and leader in Montana, told a story of how in 1956 he and a relative  visited his uncle, already an old man.  Right away they could see he was troubled. After a few days, he disclosed that a message had come to him.  He said: “The birds and animals are going to leave.” The visitors were, of course, stricken by this news and asked what they could do to change the minds of the birds and the animals. The uncle suggested they gather food and gifts, which he would take to a sacred site of their people. Tall Bull writes:  “So if we had not done these things in 1956, the animals and birds would have gone."  He calls this an “echo system” but does not elaborate. Implicit in this story are a number of beliefs intrinsic to many indigenous world views that I have been privileged to encounter here in the West: the idea that the natural world is responsive to human care for it, and that all actions have consequences for the co-habitants of the earth." 

Theodore Roethke

Kwasny pairs her reflection with a poem by Theodore Roethke, who won the Pulitzer prize for poetry in 1954.  The title poem to one of his collections, “The Waking” has been one of the most anthologized American poems of the 20th century.  In it, Roethke considers the conscious learning and deliberate care of the natural things around us.

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.   
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.   
I learn by going where I have to go.

We think by feeling. What is there to know?   
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.   
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Of those so close beside me, which are you?   
God bless the Ground!   I shall walk softly there,   
And learn by going where I have to go.

Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?   
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;   
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Great Nature has another thing to do   
To you and me; so take the lively air,   
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.   
What falls away is always. And is near.   
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.   
I learn by going where I have to go.

(Broadcast: "Reflections West," 6/22/16 and 12/28/16. Listen weekly on the radio, Wednesdays at 4:54 p.m.)

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