“Shapeshift Threshold Reverie”- Interview with Maila T. Davenport PhD, AltarPlaces, Portland. By Willi Paul, planetshifter.com
“Shapeshift Threshold Reverie” - Interview with Maila T. Davenport PhD, AltarPlaces, Portland. By Willi Paul, planetshifter.com
“I am so pleased that people are bringing story and myth back into active culture – they have been stowed away on dusty library bookshelves for too long! We live in a world whirling in story, and most often anymore they are held in a solitary word – word as hologram, code, oral image. Who says we no longer use pictographs?”
-- Maila T. Davenport PhD
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Interview with Maila by Willi
What is the “spirit of the land?”
In the English language we do not have a word for “spirit of the land.” I think this is because our language by its nature separates and isolates phenomena. A great word for this is iworu that comes from the Ainu of ancient Japan. It is not really a personal noun as much as a “field” in motion, the kind of motion of a place that is the confluence of environment, mythline, and life force. Imagine a three dimensional Venn diagram where each of these features are represented and overlap; that ellipse is the new whole that is created when all these dimensions are valued and tended. This is a place’s integrated intelligence and it exists beyond the technological mind.
Can we create new myths? If yes, based on what?
Actually it operates the other way around: myths create us anew. Here we get into the meaning of myth, but this is not a game of semantics. Instead, it is the inquiry into the landscape of myth – where is myth local? We must go to that place for initiation, bring our communities there through ceremony. Ceremony is a group map really. A map does not create the place but reveals it. For example, I live in Portland, Oregon and use a street map that identifies the greenways and bikeways. Let’s say my neighbor uses a different map that shows only motor vehicle streets and highways. Is either map “wrong?” No, they each show a different level of transportation “reality.” My green map did not suddenly make alternate routes appear magically, only shows them available; neither do eco-pathways suddenly disappear just because my neighbor uses her map.
My point is that we live in layers of reality, and the mythic realm is still very real and available. The concern that I have is when people look for new myths by drawing whatever they want on a map they have in hand, to extend my metaphor. The risk is triggering utopian myths, and George Orwell and Edward Scissorhands remind us that utopia is just another toxic, incomplete “map.”
Old myths require destruction, but not violence; they require dismemberment, but not torture. What does that look like? Dis-integration: unbinding, unfolding, unraveling, opening, releasing, a deathing of what no longer serves. A powerful community deathing ceremony is the All Soul’s Procession held annually in Tucson, AZ. Twenty thousand people of all ages, gender identification, religions, ethnicity, and cultures don fanciful calalcas regalia to mourn loved ones, violent acts, environmental atrocities, and political oppression. The community grief ritual lasts for 4 hours or more into the night. At its end, all stand in the threshold between destruction and creation and witness the mysterious, unexplainable motion of re-integration – and new stories are born. Myths are local at thresholds.
Please offer a brief critique of my recent vision plan: Journey to Cascadia: Building a New Global Mythology. For 2012 Study of Myth Symposium Work Shop -
I offer the idea that we already live in a post-apocalyptic era. In the last 50 years, we have lost 3,000 cultures; they become extinct with each language we lose. We only have 3,000 left. Wade Davis, anthropologist and ethnobotanist, explains “Each language we lose is in itself and ecosystem of ideas and intuitions, a watershed of thought and an old-growth of the mind.” When a culture becomes extinct, all peoples lose viable ways to: make peace, heal others, parent, invent new things, lead, be in community, and grow food. For Tibetans, their world is coming to a violent end because the Chinese government systematic genocide. On the other side, since the 1990s with the fall of the Soviet Union Mongolians have been working to re-generate their culture after decades of oppression and annihilation.
The myth-of-the-monomyth is very powerful and all encompassing. It is the egoic narcissism of our US adolescent society that only sees a threat to it. The end of the world has come already for too many and they are living through it on reservations, in ghettos, suspended in high rises in urban cities that overtook their land and way of life. I think the movie industry’s images of “post-apocalyptic world” distract from the living images of the mythic reality of being displaced and erased that surround us now.
Also, I believe the era of the Hero’s Journey monomyth is passing by. This is not to say that this archetypal pathway is unnecessary, but that at this point in US history we are in need of additional archetypal forces. Within the Hero archetype is a unilateral, progressive bias: defeat obstacles, go alone, right wrongs, and unity through oneness. Animals such as lion and cougar express this modality. In my work I am calling forth the Pilgrim archetype that can be expressed through creatures such as caribou and gray whale. Within the Pilgrim archetype there is a reciprocal, communion bias: unbind obstacles and reweave anew, interdependence of the group, build resiliency in the community, and unity is an ecosystem.
What is The Power of Place Initiative?
“We believe that places are alive. We suggest that when human beings believe that, and act in ways that respect and value what places bring, the partnership becomes a powerful force toward great good in the world.
We have established the Powers of Place Initiative to gather, organize and make visible knowledge, people, organizations and places already working in ways that demonstrate the power of the partnership and to share what they know with others.
We are a network of people with diverse perspectives, experiences, and backgrounds brought together by the Fetzer Institute to catalyze a new field of study and practice based on the premise that right relationship between people and the places where they gather and inhabit offers the potential for transformative action toward what is needed at this moment in history.
Our work falls into three main areas of activity - research, or exploring new frontiers, resources, or providing tools, and connection, or amplifying the field. “– POPI
How do you see the permaculture community? What is holding us back?
In all honesty, I see the permaculture community caught in the monomyth of Eden. The collective myth of “ordered nature” where landscape is edible, no animal harmed, dirt as a nurturing mother, and everyone negotiating differences calmly is very un-natural actually. In the wild, plants poison, trees fall on unsuspecting rodents, earth quakes and swallows villages whole, and territories are fought for with very real sacrifice. Mythic material, like the Eden complex, is very pervasive and mercurial, that is how it is so powerful!
The whole idea of “nature” is steeped in both the edenic complex and the scientific myth of being. “Nature” is measured, observed, protected, captured, maternal, managed, surveyed, counted, tagged, and biodiversified– and somehow still does not include humans and certainly has no dynamic presence. Many have written on this and I recommend: Paul Shepherd, Max Oelschlager, Jack Turner, Charlene Spretnak, and Gary Snyder. Some of these are “classics” from a few decades past, but do not let the myth-of-progress held in fresher publication dates seduce you, pull them back off your shelves.
I think the permaculture community would benefit from what I call wildness practice. Wildness as a method follows a very different logic pattern that nature which has become quite domesticated. The Wild is nonlinear, self-organizing, unpredictable, complex, playful, surprising, unstable, self-willed and best described as blanks on a map. Importantly, it is not defined by the absence of humans, but by the relationship of those humans to the place (thank you Jack Turner). So how do we meet wildness? From our wildness: in the body, speaking story, traveling deep imagination up and out.
I give some examples in your question about “organic process.”
Can you explain what transmutation is and your experience with this force / process in Nature?
In culture, myths become threatening when they are no longer life sustaining. This can result from some part of the story being left out or forgotten, when mythic material is literalized, or when its meaning is reduced to a solitary message. As a result, communities and cultures stagnate. Notice I do not use the word/story “die” because to die is an organic motion and force in both the natural world and myth. Things that die get to compost, or merge with earth, or be digested and become a facet of a new being, or spread seed and be re-born. “Stagnation “ is chronic anything: expansion, consumption, violence, progress, poverty, erosion, betrayal, and excuse-making – it is apparent the US is in a state of stagnation, yes?
Transformation is about merging and shapeshifting. In the wilderness dying is decomposition, re-incorporation, and reconstitution. This happens both when plant life withers and when prey eats predator. Everything becomes something else. In an old myth when a mouse becomes and eagle it is not a “fantasy of a simpler people” as the contemporary bias teaches. Instead it is a critical phase of transmutation. I find it fascinating in this time of the science monomyth what scholars and culture omits even when it is “documented” and thus “real” – but that is exactly how myth works.
The re-incorporation phase is the middle phase, the in-between, and is the threshold. This is where the mystery enters and somehow the life force breaks down “completely” yet is able to merge and then shapeshift into a complete other form. This is a mouse becoming an eagle. This wild and mythic motion of re-incorporation is an unbinding. A stagnate culture is bound and requires unbinding so that their myth is rewoven anew. Annual ceremonies in indigenous culture provide this critical function. The story here is not a quest, but a communion. Ceremonial placemaking is this organic process made available for any community who wants to change our world.
Can you share several permutations of what you call “organic process?”
I am fascinated by seed germination in the wild. The seed process is a metaphor for new beginnings and new ideas most people are most familiar with and so comfortable to explore as a starting place for a mythic invitation. Commonly, the seed process follows a pattern similar as follows: prepare soil, open pack of seeds, carefully press each seed the correct distance apart, cover with moist earth, return to water and fertilize; wait for sprouts. Some variations can be harvesting seeds from a friend’s garden or homemade compost to fertilize with or share the duties in community, but the overall pattern remains cogent.
We then apply this model to our human endeavors: a project at work, a hint “planted” for some new behavior we want to see from our spouse or teenager, a new idea for a community. This is the story of a seed in Eden. I have no complaints about the model and certainly have applied it myself, but the risk is the myth-of-the-monomyth. A monomyth is more of a recipe than an organic process because there is no place for the unknown, no uncertainty, no threshold and the result is predictable sameness.
But this is not a time for more of the same; it is a time desperate for the radical otherness of ideas because our world is stagnating. Here are a few other seed models from the wide world that by their very process guarantee uncertainty and thus thresholds:
1. The Jack Pine: the cone holding the seeds catches on fire and then winged-seeds are ejected out onto the wind and carried forth; they root best where there is less than .2 inches of organic material because they will wither in too much shade, they need direct sunlight to establish themselves.
2. The Rosette Lichen: a grazing gastropod (snail) devours it, digests it, and disperses the seeds in its feces.
The italicized words in these methods are threshold motions and opportunities to open up, unfold, and animate an idea or a decision. Each step is provided and required – this is an organic process of transmutation – this is ceremony sourced from wildness. Setting a decision “on fire” appears across many cultures: the Plains Indian sweat lodge as part of council meetings, the Finnish sauna as part of community building, and the Japanese mushi-buro as part of medical health.
Fortunately, or not, the logistics from these traditional cultures are not required to benefit from this wildly organic seeding process – they do make great retreats though! It is possible to meet this wild teaching in our wildness: tribal imagination. This place of the margin of daily consciousness is known by many names: Dreamtime, collective unconscious, the realm of the ancestors, akashic records, world soul, spirit lands, reverie, deep imagination. This is where myth is local. I lead groups through these ceremonies, and others; more importantly I teach community members to bring these living ceremonies back to their own communities so that transformational myth work informs and reforms our world more quickly.
The idea of a threshold is intriguing. Please give us examples.
Thresholds are openings, the places in between. At the threshold the bottom drops out and the eternal has the opportunity to enter and transform. I emphasize re-storying urban areas because that is where most of the people are and it is most needed. Examples of thresholds in neighborhoods and communities: empty lots that attract nuisance crimes, a street where a violent assault occurred, places where chronic car accidents occur, a place of a sudden death; forgotten places such as abandoned buildings, and alleyways.
Do you practice geomancy?
I never had heard of geomancy before. I did Google it – do you practice it? I listen to the spirit of the land and teach others to through story, ceremony, and tribal imagination.
What is a mythologist anyway?
Great question! It depends on the kind of mythologist, just as a Scion XB and Maserati are technically both “cars” but each provides a very different experience for the driver. I specify myself as an archetypal mythologist and when people looked perplexed I add that I am a cultural psychologist. Myths are the dreams and symptoms of culture; they are active, directive, and alterable. I choose to work out of academia and in community where the mythic realm is as active as it ever has been but at a time where it is least understood. My job is to track deep stories; I read environments for signs of something that is momentarily invisible but very much present. I teach others to track as well. Another difference in kinds of mythologists is what one does with the story; I choose to have a ceremony, meet the myth where it is local, and witness what happens next.
What are some of your favorite songs, symbols and myths?
The World Tree is the symbol and myth with the most juice for me now. This fall I am opening a movement “Unleashing 10,000 World Trees” – that’s all I will say at this point – watch for it!
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About AltarPlaces –
Altar Places helps people see, appreciate and honor their role in the ongoing creation of this web, specific to the way we encounter and engage in the places around us.
We encourage individuals and groups to seek active re-engagement with the places that no longer fortify them in order to recreate, reshape and re-story the energy and power the place holds.
Through the engagement of individuals, groups and communities, we can begin to connect with this energy, celebrate its potential, and reshape the present and the future of a place.
We believe all places, from the most metropolitan to the most rural, possess inherent, transformative powers.
Our goal: To help people engage, exchange, reshape, and make way for the new story of a place, wherever and whatever that place may be.
Our belief: Through active engagement with place, people provide a new palette where the place can retell its story, and create the foundation for the restructuring and reshaping of their own stories.