Saturday, January 20, 2018

Kahlil Gibran's journey beyond borders

Jean Gibran and Kahlil G. Gibran (namesake and cousin to the poet-painter) have written a comprehensive, detailed and engaging study of Gibran Kahlil Gibran (to give his full name) that is too beautifully illustrated with the paintings, drawings and book designs. It is a worthy addition to Gibran's biographical record.

They give voice to his complexity - the boy brought up in a Lebanese village clustered under Mount Lebanon and its majestic cedars, the poor immigrant into a slum district of Boston, the gifted youth who was taken up precociously by key figures in the Boston avant-garde, returning to Lebanon to complete his education, he returns, and apart from a year in Paris studying art, becomes an exile, betwixt two worlds - Arab and Western - an important voice to both yet often misconceived by both. In the former as an exotic product of the Orient and in the latter as a protagonist of the new (and the Western) spurning tradition and its customary hierarchies. Ironically both sides contained parties that disapproved of his nudes!

The authors show how he navigated these complexities fashioning a voice in both Arabic and English and an artistic practice that, though too little attended to, especially in the drawings shows a haunting facility of evoking the balanced moment between seeing and unseeing, revelation and mystery - both in the human form and in nature. One of his favourite images was of mist that flowing hides and reveals, withholds and connects, loses and finds.

What they especially do is remind us that the poet of the exhortatory wisdom of The Prophet was not an airy mystic detached from the real but was a man bound to his time and place who had deeply suffered - not least when mother, sister and half-brother all are felled by the sicknesses of the South Side tenements where they lived as poor immigrants - and he bears the responsibility of ensuring the welfare of his remaining sister (for a time running a small dry goods store) whilst seeking to remain faithful to his multiple social and artistic callings. He was rescued both by his gathering and deepening talent and the support of the very remarkable Mary Haskell, whom he came close to marrying before she shied off because of the difference in their age - she being older. She it was who enabled him to study in Paris and it was her lifelong subsidy (provided on the basis of a future claim on his art works) that enabled him to focus on his work. It was she too who as English tutor and editor helped him to make a transition from being solely an Arabic writer to being an English one - and in writing The Prophet - the best selling author of the twentieth century.

On reading "The Prophet" a few weeks ago, I was deeply struck both by its beauty but also its profundity. Gibran was striving after 'the Absolute' and for showing how that striving can be borne in daily life. He is an uncompromising idealist but one that never loses touch with the real - how, for example, might today's 'helicopter parents' be arrested by a recognition that their children are not their own, they cannot be possessed or made safe, they must be shot forth into life, loved but allowed to realise their own paths of discovery and inevitable mistakes, that the only path of realisation is an individuated one.

Meanwhile, since the biography is a recent one there are many undertones. Gibran's seeking after a common unity, not by surrendering difference but through its embrace, people secure in their own place free to embrace; and, the recognition of how such a demand breaks against the harsh realities of his beloved Syria-Lebanon. Also, too, ironically this week a discussion of the 1924 legislation in the US that restricted immigration from the Near/Middle East with the proposing Senator, David Reed from Pennsylvania, referring in full Trump mode to the, "hordes of aliens that fill our jails and asylums" characterising Syrians, people from the Balkans and SE Europe (in this case) as "the trash of the Mediterranean"! The path towards a shared humanity is a long one unfulfilled yet hope is not optimism, as Gibran knew, but a consistent pursuit of what is right regardless of success. A pursuit of calling people, in Gibran's case, to a realisation that their are greater than they know and that they are enfolded with one another as a common humanity borne of the Absolute and a sustaining earth.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

A deeper conversion with David Jones

I recall going to an Orthodox service in Oxford where the tradition is followed of acquiring prosphora bread, shaped like a miniature cottage loaf, that is sent to the priest for blessing (not consecration) accompanied by small notes listing people (under a red cross for the living, under a black for the dead) for intercession. Adding my offering, I noticed one note, under a red cross, having a list of people after which, in brackets, it read Anglican! I was suitably shocked for what did it matter in the patterns of prayer and concern what denomination (if any) the prayed for person was?

I was happy reading in Thomas Dilworth's exemplary biography of the painter-poet, David Jones, that Jones was similarly shocked when, asking a Catholic priest to intercede for a friend crippled by arthritis, he was asked whether the friend was a Catholic!

Jones was a devout convert to the Catholic Church but as Dilworth shows, consistently, it was, and is, catholic for a reason, because, for Jones, it embedded and carried forward a universal culture of making meaning, gathering up all that was known and resolved anew within a transcending frame that was God's incarnation, sacrifice and resurrection. A transcending frame that was, paradoxically, one that was thoroughly immersed in the matter of things -including the essential need to focus on forgiveness, sunk as it is in the very felt texture of real lives, rather than the policing of morality (or of 'faithful allegiance)!

Jones was a deeply sensual painter - the world dances and flows (as here above in an apparently simple rendering of his desk and window) and speaks each of  its particular selves or objects into a world of light. Every sign of a thing is tumbling towards revealing itself as 'sacrament' - an outward visible side of grace. It was a vision that Jones held to, sometimes by the very edge of his fingernails, for his life had been through the shattering experience of war. He is, Dilworth notes, of all the famous war poets of the First World War (let alone the artists), the one who spent the longest time actually at the front, engaged in combat and the drudgery, fear of waiting for combat - and as a private soldier rather than as an officer.

He paid the price in a life long suffering of what would now be known as post-traumatic stress disorder - some of the treatment of which, unthinkingly, for a period of his life obliterated liveliness in a formidable (and futile) cocktail of drugs.

But through it all - and within remarkable bursts of creative activity - he painted and wrote - including the most beautiful and painful account in "In Parenthesis" of that very conflict in the trenches. One of the reasons that Dilworth's biography is so good is that it captures how seriously ideas matter in the life of a person. Jones' navigated his war by the light of them, embedded in the texture of living stories, living sights, that created a holding narrative of meaning. It did not, and could not abolish his suffering, but it could help bear and carry it.

Reading the introduction, I was initially somewhat put off, for Dilworth (who has devoted a lifetime of study and work to Jones) was, notwithstanding the buttressing quotes from the great and the good, claiming too high for Jones (and I still think Blake is the better poet). But as the text wove on, and the universally excellent illustrations built up with their accompanying and illuminating expositions, I was, I think, converted.

He is a very great painter, one of the finest English poets of the century; and, the possessor of a worked out and robust theory of culture that locates it within a profoundly sacred view of life.

It is a life that spills into and out of all his work - and even if one can never hope to catch all the qualities of its allusive references - to mythology, history, literature, technology, science and theology (as here in his late painting of Tristan and Isolde about to consume their poison) - you naturally respond to its vividness and its complexities by a willing journey of exploration. An exploration that goes on giving indefinitely reflecting the depths that it continually fathoms.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The Challenge of Rudolf Steiner

The veteran documentary filmmaker, Jonathan Stedall, made this documentary to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Steiner's birth; and, it is an accomplished introduction to the life, work and, most importantly, the influence of this undoubtedly remarkable man.

Wisely perhaps Jonathan begins with Steiner's influence on the practical - on bio-dynamic agriculture; communities for the learning disabled and education - rather than the philosophical and esoteric indeed the completely esoteric  - the evolution and destruction of civilizations read from the Akashic record, for example, are not mentioned at all - except possibly very allusively. This is probably wise because in spite of the happy support of respectable talking head academics, this aspect of Steiner's oeuvre is hard to swallow - even when you are not schooled in the harder lines of contemporary materialism!

We visit many examples of Steiner inspired community efforts to create a better, more lively, healthier world in India as well as Europe and the United States; much of which is quietly impressive.  Testifying to the benefits of a wholistic, slower, more listening approach to the complexities of the world and the human person. Personally I can only testify that the people that I have met that have passed through a Waldorf Education have universally struck me as balanced, emotionally mature and creative adults - and everyone encountered in the communities here, on the film, convey a welcoming impression of thoughtfulness, care and engagement, as spiritually inspired, wanting to fashion a better, more sustainable world.

What would make it better, I think, is a harder look at 'results'; however, shy we might be about reducing the world to the quantitative, quantity does matter. For example, if you are farming, as well as the care for both animal and plant incorporated in bio-dynamic farming and sustainability, you cannot help being interested in yields. After all, the world needs to be fed. And even if one is talking of qualitative outcome, what 'success' looks like could have been better delineated or shown. And, many of Steiner's insights, do stand up to mainstream perspectives - the importance of play in early childhood and starting on literary/numeracy 'late' (at 7), for example, or the real benefits to farm and countryside of richly mixed agriculture.

So too, perhaps, a more open grappling with some of the more persistent criticisms of Steiner - evidence of health outcomes for example, or some of the ways in which Steiner's notion of karma has been used in relation to the disabled; and too, Steiner's too easy ability to talk in racial stereotype. All, I think, may be addressable, credibly, if not for every body, but occasionally the film strikes you as a little too polite, too un-searching.

Nevertheless, and on balance, if one of the criteria's of a 'mystic' (whose personal life certainly appears to be borderline saintly) is you shall know them by their fruits, many of Steiner's are (quite literally in the case of the high praise reaped by bio-dynamic wine) deeply fine (though I am yet to be persuaded of the pervasive use of ethereal pastel shades in every form of decoration)! And, this film is a fine testimony to his on-going relevance; and, indeed, challenge.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Coleridge and his Ancient Mariner as our companions

What if during your creative 'annus mirabilis', you wrote a poem that became prophetic of the trajectory of your own life? Looking backward could you use that very poem to structure your life within a deepening, meaningful frame, fruitfully illuminating it? Can we, wanting to understand the poet better, do likewise?

This is the guiding conceit of Malcolm Guite's wonderful book on the poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and the poem, as illustrated here by David Jones, is 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner'.

The Mariner, as will be recalled, went on a journey that takes him to the very edge of alienation, the very bottom of despair where he confronts Death and the yet more disturbing Death in Life; and, yet, through unmerited grace, is drawn back to a life of continuous 'penance' of offering his story to those who are, in being ripe to hear it and in need of hearing it, turned themselves to a new path. The wedding guest whose path he deliberately crosses to recount his tale does exactly this at the poem's closing. The wedding guest's invitation to listen and change their lives is our invitation too.

The Mariner, to use an image from another tradition, is a Bodhisattva, his own full redemption postponed vowed to roam the earth to bring enlightenment to every one as and when they are ready. Equally, the context of that redemption, is not of isolated 'selves', for no one can be redeemed without recognising that they belong to a whole cosmos alive and all actually loved and known, brought into being by God's love. It is violating that web of life, imaged forth in the albatross the Mariner kills, that triggers his, and his shipmates, fall. Indeed the Bodhisattva vow is to remain in the world of 'samsara' (of restless dissatisfaction) until all is seen as it is, one-d in nirvana, 'each blade of grass being enlightened'.

Guite shows how Coleridge's own life trajectory mirrored his art and how reflecting on this mirroring, it deepened and extended Coleridge's understanding of his own poem, reflected in his subsequent work, his own reflections and, importantly, the glosses he added to the poem in its later editions that bring out its essential theological meaning.

One of Guite's purposes indeed, as might befit an Anglican priest (and theology lecturer), is to demonstrate that Coleridge is a profoundly Christian poet - both in thought and in practice. The second part being as important as the first. Coleridge was a poet that prayed indeed prayer frames and flows through his life - and it is prayer that is tested by the depths as it ascends to the heights.

For famously too Coleridge was an addict wracked by the opiates that he had begun to take for his lifelong rheumatic pains and which effectively destroyed him as a poet (accompanied by other insecurities, themselves magnified by the drug). It is precisely the moment, Guite shows, when Coleridge finally confronted by his own paralysing 'Life in Death' moment, trapped in a hotel, midway between abandoned home and a series of lectures that he is too ill to give, that he 'surrenders' his self possession and releases himself into higher care that proves the trigger to a pathway of 'penance' of metanoia that, as Guite also shows, allowed Coleridge a second round of life, not primarily as poet, but as pioneering literary critic, autobiographer and thinker/theologian. A life that allows him, if we listen, to share a profound understanding of human life that critically inspired others - there is a wonderful account of Keats encounter with Coleridge - and that can inspire us.

For Guite treats Coleridge seriously, as he is, as a thinker - possibly the most intellectually gifted of all English poets - who works out a remarkably coherent vision of a world born out of God's imagination in which our imagination is an active, sharing participant. It is a vision shaped by experience, by deep philosophical reflection - in Plato and the neo-Platonists, Spinoza, Kant and the German Idealists - and baptised by the Christian mystics, most especially Boehme and his English follower, William Law; and, in Coleridge's case lived out in service (not least in his secondary, but important role, as a campaigning, radical journalist) and the liturgical celebration of the Anglican Church whose institutional failures though he recognised .  One of the people Coleridge met in his (accelerated) and their old age was the poet, William Blake. Ah to be a fly on that wall! They would have recognised each other, methinks, as to the two great defenders of a living cosmos born of the divine logos, Jesus the Imagination.

The book is a tour de force - a compelling reading of one of the greatest poems in English, the celebration of a life and a defence of its subject and the ongoing importance of their thought.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year

This is to wish you a very Merry Christmas and a happy New Year with a painting, a poem and a lesson: all discovered this year.
Image result for rouault
Nazareth by George Rouault. 
This is a bit chronologically late for Christmas because it is the Holy Family back in Nazareth, growing up, after an adventurous birth and flight into exile but a reminder that of the whole of Jesus' life the vast majority of it was spent in what St. Charles de Foucauld called, 'the hidden life of Jesus at Nazareth' - daily, domestic, vulnerable, growing in learning and leaning into the life of things and their reality; and, suffused by the kind of love that the poet, U.A. Fanthorpe, captures, so beautifully and well, here in my favourite poetic discovery of the year.
There is a kind of love called maintenance
Which stores the WD40 and knows when to use it;
Which checks the insurance, and doesn’t forget
The milkman; which remembers to plant bulbs;
Which answers letters; which knows the way
The money goes; which deals with dentists
And Road Fund Tax and meeting trains,
And postcards to the lonely; which upholds
The permanently rickety elaborate
Structures of living, which is Atlas.
And maintenance is the sensible side of love,
Which knows what time and weather are doing
To my brickwork; insulates my faulty wiring;
Laughs at my dry rotten jokes; remembers
My need for gloss and grouting; which keeps
My suspect edifice upright in air,
As Atlas did the sky.
This reminds me of my favourite lesson of the year. 
One of the most instructive and moving books I read this year is 'Neither Wolf nor Dog: On Forgotten Roads with an Indian Elder". Here, amongst much else, was a description of the difference in a handshake between a 'white' person and a 'native American'. The former tends to grip hard to assert their existence and possibly the lack of security about that presence. The latter holds softly, allowing two persons to meet in the 'between'. I had noticed this myself especially in Central America amongst the indigenous Maya- and, if I gave it any thought, it was probably a quick dismissal of what a 'weak handshake' people have!!! Suitably corrected, alerted, made attentive, I modified my behaviour on my next trip in October and, lo, what a different response I received from this simplest of acts - more relaxed, open, friendlier, less resonant of the imbalances that undoubtedly remain. The good is done in minute particulars and the beginning is a deepening of attention and the right kind of curiosity; and, a vigilant maintenance within the everyday of the sensible side of love. 
And, lo, you get your photograph taken too...

Not all love offered through the Incarnation might be deemed sensible given that it will spill into the extravagance of death and resurrection and complete forgiveness but you have to start somewhere:-) on the winding road of accepting the bigger package!
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Lost Knowledge of the Imagination

When Goethe was a student in Strasbourg, he became fascinated by the cathedral which, for two centuries from its ‘completion’, had been the tallest building in the world. He would climb it as an opportunity to overcome vertigo (sic) and studied it in detail especially as it shifted its appearances in differing patterns of light. He became convinced that its tower was incomplete and before leaving the city sketched for his friends how it ought to look if it followed its ‘right form’. Unbeknownst to him, it had been left uncompleted and his drawing beautifully captured the architect’s original intention. Goethe’s practiced imagination had discerned the cathedral’s uncompleted potential.

Imagination in this compact, erudite and thoughtful book is not as the Merriam-Webster dictionary would have it, ‘the ability to imagine things that are not real’ but as the writer, Colin Wilson, put it, ‘the ability to grasp realities that are not immediately present’ and as a way of deeper engagement with the world not an escape from it.

But how did this devaluation of imagination and its accompanying knowledge come to be?

It began, Lachman argues, with the Greek philosophers whose singular contribution to thought was to discover the power of abstraction and the ability to assess the world in terms of quantity and rule. This power was deeply amplified in the seventeenth century not only in terms of thought but now increasingly in the feedback loop created by the actual manipulation of the world. Descartes, for example, was helped to think in the way that he did precisely because he had new metaphors and analogies to hand in the machinery he handled in front of him. Ironically in a sense the fruits of imagination turned on their creators.

For knowledge became increasingly associated with the language of rationality that has been shaped for analysing into parts, creating rules and disembodying knowledge into the abstract and collective: the average rainfall that yet never falls. Imagination that deals in wholes and patterns of meaning cannot easily be translated into the abstract. It requires an embodying experience that can be shown, indicated, caught but not simply explained. Though both knowledges and their accompanying languages require to be learnt whilst the former is absorbed mainly by the linear application of a given intelligence, the former requires a transformation into lived experience- what you see, hear, embody - is conditioned by who you are.

No sooner had this split emerged than it attracted its critics. Most notably Pascal responded to Descartes by reasserting the reasons of the heart that reason cannot fathom, most essentially for him the nature of religious experience - the God of personal encounter - of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob - not of the philosophers. He made a distinction between what he called ‘the spirit of geometry’ and ‘the spirit of finesse’. The former working with exact definitions, the latter with ideas or perceptions not capable of exact definition but recognized precisely nonetheless -  for example the beauty of a scene or knowing that I am in love.

But Pascal’s response is insufficient if we are to defend the place of the imagination in knowing because rather than heal a split, it accepts it, allowing for two types of knowing to part company and travel on parallel lines. To such a split was Pascal’s agonised consciousness bound. Reason needs to be enfolded back into the heart if the world is to be seen meaningfully. Geometry needs finesse if the dance of the world is to be seen whole. After all the world is a process not a thing.

Meanwhile, the more the world changed - for good as well as ill - the greater our attention was led outwards, the less purchase did we have on our inner, value setting, meaning-weaving world. Thus, we lose ourselves as isolated islands of flickering consciousness in a fundamentally inert world, stripped of any purpose other than the ones we confer on it. And, ironically, our world built on this ability to abstract becomes more and more divorced from any sustainable, habitable world we might want to live in.

Thus, we need alternative epistemologies to rebalance the way we perceive the world and what we value.

The possible elements of such an epistemology are deftly woven into Lachman’s discussion of key, post-seventieth century Western thinkers (and their older luminaries), who have defended and elaborated the place of imagination in how we come to see and understand the world.

It is a galaxy of fascinating thinkers, many familiar - like Coleridge, Goethe and Jung - less so like Ernst Junger, Erich Heller and Kathleen Raine. Nor are these thinkers ‘merely’ philosophers or poets. Goethe valued his science more than his art and Lachman too marshals more undisputed scientific giants, including Einstein and Heisenberg, in defense of the value of intuiting the imaginatively whole and discovering what you may then amplify with analysis.

What are some of these elements of an imaginative epistemology?

If we study the development of language, argued Owen Barfield, we notice that we have moved from poetic, participatory speech that sees ourselves as participating in a world to partakers in prose who see the world as ‘out there’ primarily as a place to be used. What we see is dependent on the evolution of our consciousness - our ancestors’ world was not our own - our descendants’ world might be different. Our present viewing is thus provisional; and, this separation from participation, though a wrench and fraught with risk, was a potential boon as we might find ourselves moving forward into at a more self-aware, conscious participation in the web of life.

If this is true, there must be a connection between what governs our ‘inner’ world and what rules our ‘outer’ world. The inner is not merely ‘subjective’ and the ‘outer’ is more subject to our states of consciousness than our normal, habitual mode of thought conceives. This possibility is one entertained by certain practitioners of phenomenology, including its modern founder, Husserl. Our apprehension of the world is influenced by our intentionality. We are the world’s co-creators rather than simply a passive mirror or recording camera.

Meanwhile, our manner of intentionally apprehending the world can be developed. We can step back out of our habits and attentively practise deeper forms of seeing. Goethe’s youthful encounter with Strasbourg cathedral led him to elaborate a whole approach to the natural sciences that placed emphasis on a careful, highly attentive approach to phenomena as they presented themselves in multiple conditions so that, slowly, you would identify the inherent forms framing their reality and imagine their unfolding potential states. Goethe claimed to have done this for the plant world - seen the ‘Urpflanze’ - the primal plant from which all actual and potential plants flow. This he saw - it was neither a Platonic form apprehended by intellect alone nor a sensory object but was held in an ‘imaginal’ space between idea and sense. This notion may seem remote from the actual practice of biology yet Barbara McClintock, the Nobel Prize winner for her work in plant morphology, first injunction to her students was the very Goethe like: “First learn to see”!

This ‘imaginal’ space can be elaborated upon by its dedicated explorers. It has many mansions and levels. Though as with the twelfth century Islamic philosopher and visionary, Suhrawadi, the eighteenth century Swedish scientist and mystic, Swedenborg, and the twentieth century psychotherapist, Jung, the content of your descriptions may be culturally preoccupied, their structure and patterning harmoniously resonate. Meanwhile, the deeper you go, paradoxically, the more you realise that this ‘inner’ space, in fact, may actually, enfold the outer. The outer world is a concretisation of imaginal form expressing that spaces multiple potentials. Everything in the ‘outer’ world corresponds to a form in the ‘inner’.

But, at the same time, you come to recognise that such an exploration is as rule bound as the practice of any other discipline lest you lose yourself. Imagination requires responsibility and practice in its exercise if we are not to lose our way; and, finding our way requires us to consistently link what we imagine with how we are in the world. The world must ‘answer’ our imagination in ways that resonate with the true, the good and the beautiful. The reasons of the heart are reasonable, orderly, available to canons of coherent truth telling.

Now I must confess these are my selected elements since I have a sneaking metaphysical commitment to idealism - that consciousness is the matrix from which the world is imaginatively fashioned - and to realism - that this fashioning is regular and law like.

But reading and learning from the Lost Knowledge of the Imagination does not require any such commitment - it was not Goethe’s for example - for the book is a more excellent and catholic compendium than my selection allows. Lachman’s gift is the intelligent suggestion of pathways to be considered rather than foreclosing on one metaphysical domain as his ‘own’.

Thus, there are, at least, four levels or types of imagination embodied in the text.

First, as one way in which the brain processes knowledge such as in Iain McGilchrist’s creative reinvention of the right/left brain conversation. Second as a way we can creatively adjust our perception of a world by projected meanings. See how the Romantic poets invented ‘wilderness’ and the ‘sublime’ such that we see the Alps differently from our eighteen century forebears. Third as a way of linking an inner and outer world that are different in their mode of operation yet linked. As in Goethe’s assumption that you can see the primal plant and sense how it unfolds its potential in the world yet being metaphysically agnostic about in what that linkage consists or as in Jung’s synchronicity as an acausal connector between inner and outer. Fourth, consciousness as fundamentally constitutive of the world and imagination as its primary faculty for embodying it as is implied by Coleridge’s assertion that our primary imagination is of the same kind, though more limited than, the imagination that created the world: “that eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.” Coleridge had read his Bishop Berkeley.

The great virtue of the book is that it allows you to explore all these possibilities and undoubtedly more and their related thinkers for which Lachman’s accounts are models of stimulating concision, and how they might connect both with each other and in correcting our current one sided (and debilitating) fantasy that the only knowledge that counts is the ‘language of geometry’.

This, when you consider it, is a peculiar imbalance for so much of what we actually value, in the very texture of daily life, is embodied imagining - the art of our gardening, the poetry of our loves, even the finesse of our working including, as Einstein attests, the intuitions of our discoveries.

All require knowledge of the rational kind but all transcend it, enfold it in the patterns that connect and the meanings that are revealed.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Girl who sang to the Buffalo

The final volume in Kent Nerburn's moving trilogy of books built around his relationship with an Indian elder, Dan, whose life commission has been to bridge the gulf between his own and 'white' culture, takes one into an even deeper territory of difference. For we travel into what the predominant culture would call, if being generous, the 'paranormal' and when not the merely superstitious; but, which Dan simply calls, at one point, 'Indian science'!

In the first two books, discussed here,, we follow Dan and Nerburn on two journeys. The first two are into Dan's past. The first concludes at the site of the Massacre at Wounded Knee from which Dan's parents are survivors. The second ends at the discovered grave of Dan's younger sister, Yellow Bird, whose apparent speech impediment and supernatural gift with animals had deeply unsettled her boarding school authorities (Catholic nuns). On her release from school, separated from her own family, she had acted as a house servant for a white family until her early death.

The third book, 'The Girl who sang to the Buffalo' picks up the story and travels into the future (and into an alternate view of the universe). It begins with a dream. A compulsive one that visits Nerburn on a nightly basis. Here Mary, the elderly Indian woman, that has helped him find Yellow Bird's grave, and Yellow Bird herself appear eagerly gesturing him towards a discovery. It is only after, one night, when locked in the dream once more, he is awoken by a thunderclap that no else hears that he decides to re-visit Mary. He finds that she has died (at the exact time that the thunderclap wakes Nerburn) but has left a journal with further details about Yellow Bird's life that she did not disclose (to an unknown white man) before.

Here we discover that Yellow Bird had, between school and servitude, been an inmate of the grim Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians. A name that suggests that Americans genuinely have no sense of irony. After all her speech impediment made her 'retarded' and, with yet, with cognitive dissonance, her gifts with animals made her uncanny, unsettling and 'pagan'. The asylum was a place of unremitting degradation and, in its formidable structure, intimidating colonizing power.

Nerburn travels back to Dan with this new, dark picture only to discover that the world (from his perspective) was to get stranger. One of the virtues of the book is that Nerburn, as ever, whilst deeply sympathetic to Indian culture, is a balanced, and far from credulous, observer.

Dan has a granddaughter, four years of age, who in appearance, self-containment, and gift of imaginative sympathy with the world around her is strikingly similar to his, now long deceased, sister. Her withdrawn nature, lack of apparent social gifts have unsettled her parents and the white doctors they have consulted have suggested treatment. Dan is convinced that she has come bearing 'the old knowledge', the wisdom that had sustained Lakota culture for so long and which had gone into eclipse when confronted with the knowledge of the white culture and its power. How to protect his granddaughter from a similar degradation that his sister had suffered (even if one more kindly administered than the physical and emotional brutalities of the asylum)?

Mary's journal and its account of his sister's gifts is one clue as is the man that Mary's granddaughter originally sends Nerburn too: Bernais, an old Indian, fully immersed in the knowledge and tradition of his ancestors. Can this man's wisdom and practice so much deeper that Dan's own (however cogently expressed through all three books) be of help? Thus, the trilogy ends with another journey to find the old man and confirmation of Dan's granddaughter's gifts.

And it ends beautifully. Yellow Bird II is acknowledged as an 'old one' carrying knowledge by Bernais but can this wizened, strange old man be trusted? He is, to compound things, from another tribe, not traditionally friendly with the Lakota. Though Dan is an elder (and grandfather), he has a tendency to see 'sign' and 'meaning' in everything, too much perhaps. And the white doctors carry all the power of the dominant culture. But the world speaks. Yellow Bird II wanders off into the snow, searched for by her frantic parents, Nerburn, an Indian friend and a dog. She is discovered, eventually, surrounded by a transfixed group of buffalo to whom in the moonlight, she sings a haunting wordless song. They remain still, protective, sheltering her, until she ceases, returns to her family, the spell broken, and the world falls back into its 'usual' place. Nobody there is under any doubt that Yellow Bird II is special and must be brought up in the old ways. The doctors have lost their patient.

Reading it, I realized how little I identify with Nerburn. He positions himself, rightly and beautifully, as the outsider neophyte, often bewildered by events, in deeper than he can possibly know according to Grover, Dan's younger friend and fierce protector. This is not because I am 'an Indian' nor inclined to pretend to have knowledge neither structured as theirs or as deep. But because our paths walk close by - dreams can come, and have, from others, they have even predicted the future; when sufficiently attentive and sometimes when not, the world has offered a dance of synchronicity that has overwhelmed to the point of fear (in this I can identify with Nerburn); and, rarely but really, I have found myself communing with animals in a way that speaks, to use my own tradition's language, of a restoration of paradise.

In this last regard, I remember going for a walk in a wood in Southern Illinois. It was Friday 14th September 2001 and I had been watching the memorial service on television at the National Cathedral in Washington following the tragic events of 9/11. I was on my own and stepping into my path as I pondered my feelings was a deer who held me in her look. Time flowed ever more slowly. Time stopped as she regarded me with a resignation so deep that you were judged. Later it reminded me of Muir's beautiful poem of the animals on the fifth day of creation looking out with love and trepidation at ourselves the product of the sixth.

Nerburn's trilogy is a deep reminder of that indigenous wisdom that imagines the world as sign and gift and challenges us to remember what you do with a gift is to honor it and live with it kindly and to its purpose.

Kahlil Gibran's journey beyond borders

Jean Gibran and Kahlil G. Gibran (namesake and cousin to the poet-painter) have written a comprehensive, detailed and engaging study of ...