What if the movements and obstructions of a river, and the movements of human suffering, that which we often call “mental illness,” might actually be seen as one and the same suffering? We tend to separate that which is human from that which is nature, that which might be considered private, personal and internal to an individual brain from that which is considered ecological. What if such a separation turns out to be grossly inadequate, if not patently false? And what if the places of healing for that which is human and personal also turn out to be the same places of healing in the realm we call nature? Just perhaps this Cartesian split that has defined the modern era has now reached its limit. And, perhaps, outside of that splitting of mind and nature we are able to discover renewed places of healing – for rivers and forests as well as for souls and bodies.
With a nod to Gregory Bateson, just a few thoughts on the union of mind and nature. And, with a nod to Nietzsche, these are done in aphorism style – three aphorisms.
Flows of Life – Okanagan Lake
The wetness of the land… had no place in their grand view of the natural world, which was built on the distinction between two fixed elements – land and water. Lands that were not wholly dry, and water that was not sufficiently wet, were not understood or accepted on their own terms. Instead they were vilified, written off as “dismal” marshes, swamps and bogs.
Why is it that the forces of colonialism never have been comfortable with the shifting movements of water? Over and over again waters that would seasonally flood were dammed and pumped and controlled. The floodplains of millennia turned into farmland, industrial real-estate or other domesticated forms of city life.
I live close to the southern end of Okanagan Lake in the country of the Syilx people. I live in a small city called Penticton. The land I reside upon is flat, consistent with historical floodplains. But this land is a city now. I walk on the sand by the lake and the water may rise and fall small amounts throughout the year, but nothing as it once did. The Okanagan River, as it leaves Okanagan Lake is damned. Colonial authorities determined what waters should pass through this dam and how much should remain in the lake. These authorities made, and still make such decisions — decisions whose effects areal ways both ecological and cultural in scope. They have made it clear that they would not trust the wisdom of that intersection where ecology and culture meet. Decision upon decision, affecting the movements of water and land, the flows of ecologies themselves.
Not just the flows of water, but the flows of creatures too. This land was once salmon country. Sockeye and Chinook made their way from the waters of the Pacific, up what is now called the Columbia River (the river cries for a new name). These salmon spawned in the tributaries connected to the Okanagan River system. Recently they have started to come back. Fish ladders have been introduced where dams have been placed. There is a fish ladder connected to the dam at the South end of Okanagan Lake. But such a system is grossly inadequate. Many of the salmon cannot find the ladder. However, that intersection of culture and ecology comes back to life again as young Syilx people come down to the dam, they catch the salmon that have missed the fish ladder and take them by hand over to the entrance of the ladder so they can make their own way into the lake.
Regimes of governance, education, commerce, medicine, etc., have been built upon this suspicion of all things ecological, of all things that shift and move outside of colonial plans. Other elements of life are also dammed, blocked, removed from the movements of life. I think of a young person I know, a number I know, who are all too familiar with the damming and blocking of life. Beginning as a young woman, she finds the possibilities that she would like for her life are blocked precisely because she is seen as a young woman. Certain forms of living are expected of her and certain forms of living are denied her – simply because she was a young woman. She began to question the distinction of male and female. She decided to describe herself as “non-binary,” and chose to use the pronouns they/them rather than she/her. And the dams continue to be raised for them, roadblocks placed in their path, and there have been many who allow themselves to feel disgust in response to the movements of this young person. But she has persisted. Gender distinctions and dams along rivers, perhaps they are formed by the same forces. And perhaps the same forces that are now beginning to disrupt the building of dams and the controlling of waterways are also disrupting the rigidities of gender. Rivers flowing in response to the ecologies and genders moving according to the flows of human life.
And not just human life, Darwin himself saw that living creatures often shifted gender in multiple ways. He saw that, with barnacles and coral in particular, there were numerous sexual shifts, and there were many forms of gender, not just two. However, the dams were erected for Darwin too, for this understanding never made it past the editors and into his books. Luckily the radical ideas about gender that Darwin saw and understood were documented in his journals, and recently have been brought to light.
Thinking about the work of two French philosophers, Helene Cixous and Catherine Clement, for I hear them speaking at this moment. Long before the term non-binary was having its influence, they unfolded a provocative exploration of sexuality that pushes far beyond the confines of two.
Where is she?
Form concave, ground – where steps are taken, holding – and dumping-ground.
Cixous, H. and C. Clement
Those forces, which block the flows of rivers, sexualities and other movements of life, are, at least in part, beginning to be dismantled. This young person I am referring to in this document found their way to a protest against the destruction of old growth forest in British Columbia. They joined that protest and stayed for months. More dams and roadblocks, and the crushing force of police brutality came upon their body. The dissolving of gender distinctions, the disruption of the flows of rivers, the colonization of lands and peoples, and the destruction of ancient forests, all flowing through the body and soul of a living and non-dual human being.
Undesirables in the City –Pigeons, Ecologies and Theologies
I look back for a while, just for a moment, through the portals of ancient literature, to an idea that just might speak afresh in a living milieu, in today’s milieu. But first a bit of context.
A friend of mine, named Ward Draper, is a radical pastor who sees his work of ministry as providing service to those who are poor and suffering – those who some have called, in theological language, the Anawim. Not at all a ministry of conversion, not an effort to persuade others to think and talk and act in ways that some deem salvific. Rather, Ward’s work is a practice that touches the lives of creatures who are suffering – human and beyond. His is a work that attends and listens, that helps find housing and food to eat, that walks with others in their grief and sadness and addiction, and also walks with them in their joys. According to Gene Combs, an American psychiatrist (or perhaps I should say, anti-psychiatrist), Ward is one of those who are doing what Wendell Berry refers to as the “Real Work.”
Ward and I talk on the phone and he asks me, “When you think of a dove, in the context of biblical literature, what do you think of?” I say of peace or hopefulness, of the dove leaving Noah’s ark and returning with an olive branch. Ward says that there is much more to it than that. In the Old Testament, the sacrifice that the poor were to provide to Yahweh was the life of a dove. The concept of the dove was coming alive all over again for Ward, and for me, this time as a symbol, not just of peace, but of mercy for those who are suffering and for those who were poor. The dove which returned to Noah’s ark with an olive branch connects the suffering of all creation with the life of the divine.
However, we must think further, for the dove is too pretty a term. Think instead of a pigeon. A pigeon’s formal name is “rock dove.” It seems that the biblical dove was, in all probability, a pigeon. The pigeon, like far too many people out there, moves amidst the grit of city life. She is subject to the rain and snow, to the summer heat, to the shifting flows of cars and pedestrian, and it is there, on those streets that she finds her ecosystem. Her ecological realm is not a pristine wild place, but rather the often rough conditions of city life. She is the object of numerous prejudices. She is a flying rat. She is that creature who shits all over our vehicles. She is unwelcome in our age. Not seen as a noble wild animal, like a bear, or a wolf, or an eagle, but all too often, as an object of disgust, an uninvited irritant messing the fabric of the modern city street.
After my conversation with Ward Draper, the pigeon took on a new meaning, a sacred meaning – for the pigeon, this undesirable, becomes an image of the Messiah. Whether an unwelcomed avian creature, a young person sleeping in an outdoor stairwell, or a lonely body, considered all-too-crazy, emitting raging prophecies on the street corner, they all provide access to the divine within modern, urban life. The pigeon lives amidst such company, and constantly reminds us of those we tend to turn away from, whether people or other creatures. The city street transforms into a wild place far from our domesticated dreams. The pigeon becomes a reminder of the ways that Yahweh, the creator moves. Along with those other human creatures of the streets, the pigeon takes on messianic significance. The pigeon — and all who she shares the city streets with –becomes the Christ, the divine, our savior. The city streets cease to be an un ecological disruption but become instead the ecology itself — the eco, the home –not just of the pigeon, but for the Messiah. A clear message emerges, if we wish to approach the realm of the divine in this century, we must move among those who sleep upon our street corners, amidst those who suffer the poverties required of capitalism and those who live and move in the shadows of ecological despoilation. The Spirit who once moved upon the waters now roams along the broken pavement of city corridors.
Matthew and the River
In his short life Matthew knew suffering in a most personal way, as did his mother. Matthew was labeled as having Tourette’s syndrome, which meant, in his case, that he had to deal with this onslaught of physical ticks, accompanied by the worst of curse words, along with flying spittle. Mental health professionals often use the term “emotional management” — as if the work of dealing with affective contexts was to be modeled after the work of a CEO. Such constructions, in a spectacular way, did not work for Matthew. Bodily expressions – ticks, spit and swearwords — were not at all amenable to being managed or controlled.
When I was asked to work with Matthew and his mom, I was told to be careful. For example, I was told that, if I went for a drive with him, he might, without meaning to, grab the steering wheel and cause an accident. He was also a big young man. Not something a young person wants to deal with. However, I too am a big person – this bigness is something we shared. Matthew had been isolated, set aside, an irritant in every institutional context he touched – whether that might be education, social services, sports, etc. Even tasks like shopping were next to impossible because of his ticks.
Matthew and his mom knew what it was like to be set aside, outside of the usual engagements that young people and their families might commit to. They were fighting the current and always feeling like they were losing.
There were a few contexts where Matthew came to life. He loved art. Though he wasn’t indigenous by blood, he found connection with indigenous art. Perhaps there was some intimate connection there between what indigenous communities have had to deal with and what Matthew was having to deal with. He also wrote breathtaking poetry, sculpting words into thoughts that both cut and heal. Beautiful poetry. Dangerous poetry. Another context within which Matthew thrived was comedy. Matthew discovered stand-up. There his ticks just added to the comedic event. This gave life to Matthew. It gave him freedom to be alright with the realities he brought to the world – even if just for an instant.
And there was more — Matthew found something important and powerful down by the Fraser River. We would often go down there together. As the river flowed by us, high and dangerous in the spring freshet, low and slow in midwinter, Matthew’s spirit joined with that river. And so did my spirit. Together the powers of the river joined with our own. Joining together with Matthew – the expressions of art, the insurgencies of poetry, the rebellions of comedy, and the ongoing flows of the Fraser River.
One day I received a phone call from Matthew’s mother. She told me that Matthew had died just the night before. She described it as a fentanyl poisoning – not an overdose. He was found dead in a small washroom on the downtown Eastside of Vancouver. Another young body destroyed amidst this war on drugs. If safe supply had been available to Matthew, he would not have left us that night. The war continues… and with a vengeance.
As soon as possible I made my way down to the Fraser River. I sat on its banks in the same place I used to sit with Matthew. It was spring and the river raged in freshet. There was nothing gentle about the river at that time. The river wept in anger, as did all of us who loved Matthew. This grief sometimes flows with compulsion and power, and other times it flows with gentleness, but it always continues to flow.
Editor’s Note: Chris Kinman lives and works in the Okanagan. A pastor, therapist and university professor, he also offers interviews on YouTube of people he knows and with whom he works.