Parallel Gallery
and Journal

Between the colon & the semi-colon: or,
do we have the guts to imagine nature?

Peter Bishop

During the Dalai Lama's most recent visit to Australia I was asked to give a number of radio interviews about the Western fascination for Tibet. I spoke about the long history of this fascination, particularly the importance of Tibet's geographical position on the roof of the world; that most of Asia's great rivers have their source in Tibet and how this archetypal image of a source (ie. something pure, original, uncontaminated, expressing primal vitality) extended beyond the rivers to encompass fantasies about the source or origins of the Western race in the depths of Central Asia, or about a source or fountainhead of ancient wisdom, and so on (Bishop, 1989). A few days after one broadcast I received an unaddressed letter saying: "What difference does it make that Tibet is the source of a few lousy rivers?" The writer also sent me an article titled: "Inner Self Located". It compared the philosophy of Hindu meditation with Western neurophysiology. It concluded that the inner self was located in the thalmus, hypothalmus, mid-brain and stem. My reply, had I been allowed one, would have pointed to the millions of Hindus who worship at least one of those "lousy rivers" as a Goddess, and to the arrogance that so readily dismisses the sacred, metaphorical power of geography. This is the very process by which imaginal life is stripped from the things of the Earth. When fascination and sacred awe for the Himalayas can be reduced to activity of the brain-stem no wonder we are in the midst of an environmental catastrophe.

If we descend from the brain to the heart another window is opened up onto this relationship between nature, imagination and the body (Hillman, 1981). Through the heart we encounter a specific mode of imagining and enter a unique geography.Traditionally the heart has been considered the organ by which beauty can be perceived, as well as the centre of heroic will, of emotion, of one's secret and essential identity, plus the more recent notion of it as a mechanical pump. Can we shift our perspective down a bit further and view the world through the stomach, the guts, the bowels? I want to suggest that the bowels too, have their reasons, have their specific way of imagining and engaging with nature. That they open up to their own geography and landscapes. This gut-level reality was at the very centre of the ancient notion of the vegetable soul (Bishop, 1991). By this was meant a nutritional, digestive, reproductive intelligence which, while exemplified by vegetative life, was to be found throughout all Nature, and present in all creatures, including humans.

I've called this paper BETWEEN THE COLON & THE SEMI-COLON: OR, DO WE HAVE THE GUTS TO IMAGINE NATURE? It certainly takes guts to face the contemporary environmental catastrophe, but the heroic connotations of such an image are merely one aspect of gut-level fantasy-making.

Instead of seeking a philosophical engagement with the problem of mind, body and Nature, I want to attempt a poetic descent into the body and imagine a bowel-eyed view both of Nature and imagination; a colon-centred encounter with ecology.

It is certainly not easy nor comfortable to reimagine the world through a logic of the guts. For William Blake the material, vegetative, world of Nature was basically only a springboard for a soaring, eternal, Vision. In his great poem "Jerusalem", Blake wrote: "Greek philosophy teaches that man is righteous in his Vegetated Spectre - an opinion of fatal and accursed consequence to Man; imagination is the "real and Eternal world of which this Vegetable Universe is but a faint shadow, and in which we shall live in our Eternal or Imaginative bodies, when these Vegetable Mortal Bodies are no morel, (1977). Blake was so concerned with protecting his soaring Vision that he blamed some of Wordsworth's verses about a Natural Religion, for a bowel complaint which almost killed him (Hartman, 1987).

Blake's sickening gut-reaction to a fantasy that valued Nature's dark materiality, its disturbing corruptibility, bears witness to a profound connection. Recently, at a time when the West struggles to give a seemingly hostile and threatening material world its dues, when there is a desperate search for new ways to reimagine it, the colon was proclaimed organ of the year by the GREEN FARM magazine (Coward, 1989).

The gut-view of the world has not been highly regarded in recent years and perhaps the guts have had a gutful of this disrespect. For example, a 30 year old woman dreams she is with a male friend. They are both a bit hippy-ish and alternative, although she also has secret career aspirations. They talk in an empty room in a brand new, pretentious, hotel, decorated throughout in post-modern pastel pink. As she leans towards her companion, a 'very large tube" drops to the floor from under his sarong. "A thick green liquid" leaks out from it. She quickly points out that "the liquid was running all over the carpet". He nonchalantly apologizes and says its just his colostomy. In this dream, a worldly assertiveness and a laid-back, albeit sincere spirituality meet in a bizarre but not unexpected conjunction. In its own way each style is out of touch with 'body'; each simply uses materiality for its ideals, shunning its slow dark melancholy, its coarse earthiness. The gut-level reasserts its presence in a particularly gross way, quickly bringing the vision downward, staining the measured pastel pinks with thick, green, digestive liquid.

The cultural process itself is often imagined as a process of eliminating coarseness, of moving from the gross to the refined. We encounter this fantasy in food - rice, sugar, flour; in education and in psychological development. Yet this denial of digestive grossness returns, as in white sugar and grains, to attack the bowels. Attention is thereby brought back to this gut-level view of Nature and imagination.

In the not too distant past the intestines were imagined as the seat of determination, doggedness and courage, as the innermost core of human being. The bowels were thought of as the seat of tender and sympathetic emotions: pity, feeling, compassion. For example, in 1708 the London Gazette called on citizens: "To shew their Bowels for their country". In 1832 someone insisted: "I am a man that can feel for my neighbours. I have bowels - yes I have bowels". This is an ancient usage, for example, in 1562 a call was made to: "Close not your bowells of charity from [the needy)". In the 17th century we read of grieving to the guts; which meant deeply, to the very soul; of people being bowelled in heart, their bowels being moved with compassion. In 1658 Oliver Cromwell cried: "I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ". Note that this plea was not in the name or heart of Christ. Even late in the 19th century there was belief in "the yearnings of the bowels of tenderness". To have guts was also to have substance. The bowel signified the interior of anything; its centre (1).

How can we open our bowels to Nature? Certainly many of us grieve to the very guts about the fate of the Earth. Indeed, there are many things we just can't stomach.

The colon is not just an organ of the body but a pause in language, a pause that is too rare in contemporary comment on Nature with their crisis-speak, their action-rhetoric of urgency and time running out. Yet the pause, the colon, must be given its place in the relationship between imagination and nature - a pause through which we may descend, from bodily bowels into the bowels of Earth and earthly things, into the world of Hades and Chthon, into the very bowels, the guts, of the imagination. The stomach and gut dislike too much rush and haste. So the colon needs the colon, needs a pause, and perhaps a semi-colon is sufficient - twice the space and silence of a comma but only half that of the fearsome fullstop, so abhorred by activists. There is also a rare word "colon", meaning to till the soil, hence someone who works the soil. Gut, earth and language are poetically inseparable.

"Digestion is the root of life", insisted the Renaissance philosopher Ficino. "Take care of digestion above all else", (1980, pp 20-21) . At that time the stomach was considered a mysterious and critical organ. Through attention to its depths one could assess the well-being of body, soul, and spirit. It has been said it was a "barometer ... of an imperceptible pulse, of a dark well in which were concentrated the tensions and yearnings of generations" (Camporesi, 1988, p.138).

The stomach and gut-eyed view of the world is intricately connected to notions of food. It seeks a digestive sacrament with nature. Food and stomach are the foundation of a cosmology that seeks to explain the paradoxes of life and death, salvation and damnation, preservation and decay, health and sickness. The mystery of diet is akin to an alchemical quest - with the stomach as the alembic, the vessel within whose dark, unknown interior a strange transformation takes place.

In 1825, Dr William Beaumont, an American physician, healed a French-Canadian soldier Alexis St Martin, who had a shot-gun wound in his abdomen (Drummond & Wilbraham, 1964, pp.348-9). This healed in such a way as to leave a permanent gaping hole in his stomach covered only by a removable flap. Beaumont could look directly into St Martin's stomach and observe the gastric processes at first hand. The stomach lost its mystery, but not its ailments. The mechanical-Bourgeois stomach was born, a well-regulated plumbing system of pipes and pumps. And with this stomach came new landscapes, new visions of nature.

Rivers and marshlands were drained, canals constructed, sewerage systems and street-lighting advanced as a moral landscape of cleanliness and order pushed back the darkness. The mechanical-moral bourgeois stomach believes that nature is simple, plain, honest and frugal. When humanity lived like this, wrote George Cheyne, the great 18th century physician of melancholy madness and digestion, "there were few or no diseases. Temperance, Exercise, Hunting, Labour and Industry kept the Juices Sweet and the Solids brac'd" (Q. in Turner, 1982, p.27). The underside of this vision is depressive, cynical and ironic. Flaubert, for example, wrote: 'life is like the nauseating smell of cooking escaping from a ventilator. You don't have to eat it to know that you will throw up" - or, 'life is like a soup with hairs floating on it. You have to eat it nevertheless" (Barnes, 1984).

The mechanical-moral bourgeoisie stomach is but one gut amongst an array of stomachs, each of which has its own, unique, vision of nature. The ancient alchemical stomach of bile and fermenting gases invoked a landscape of primal, wild, mercurial spirits. Armies have been said to march on their stomaches and the martial stomach looks out onto a muscular, combatative world of nature.

Each gut-fantasy is an opening into a special landscape, especially of health, diet and digestion. For example, there is a pastoral gut or stomach. The landscape it opens onto is one of harmony, repose, the spa, taking the waters, tonics, grains and dairy foods, country strolls - certainly nothing more than a brisk walk - lots of what we could call "cottage-advice", lots of nostalgia, definitely no dramatic interventions. The pastoral stomach is invoked in an advert which shows a sensually curved woman, in black and white, with her belly full of brightly coloured wild flowers. She has just drunk some kind of herbal elixir and has literally ingested the soothing landscape into her bowels.

Other adverts show milk bottles filled with layers of coloured pills - vitamins, minerals etc, or bottles of pills backed by wheat-fields. Here one is ingesting, not flowers, nor wheat nor milk, but a chemical landscape. This is the chemical-gut. There is also an apocalyptic-gut which sees everything around as threatening to health: the air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink, wash in, or swim in, the sunshine, the clothes we wear, and so on. I saw an advertisement showing someone in a spacesuit walking down an ordinary city street. The message was that one could seek protection from the threatening environment by taking certain pills; that pills equalled spacesuit.

The frontier-gut opens into a landscape that is very active, stoic and muscular. There is an air of self reliance, but with direct and dramatic interventions into health, such as purgings. A very energy-focused gut. The exotic-stomach leads onto mysterious, distant landscapes: secret recipes from the Hunza region, gingseng, mandrake roots. At a time of ecological angst we can now ingest exotic landscapes in packaged or tablet form. The rainforests may be vanishing but, according to one advert, their essence has been captured in the legendary sacred food of the Amazonian Indians - just two capsules a day; the Inca civilization may have already vanished but a new legendary grain from the Andes holds out extraordinary promise; however, even these exotics pale into insignificance alongside a dose of ancient Ginka Biloba.

We all probably have more than one stomach and live in more than one landscape at any time. For example, some years ago after I'd been feeling very run-down, headachy and so on, I took anti-biotics that had been proscribed by a doctor, also black-strap molasses and Siberian Gingseng, all at the same time. They don't just do different things, they are from completely different landscapes. There was anti-biotics, which invokes a modern, chemical view of Nature; plus molasses, which comes from a landscape of folk-wisdom, a tonic laced with back-porch nostalgia; and then gingseng, a mysterious medicine from some distant land. Three different landscapes, three gut feelings about nature, coexisted quite comfortably.

The medieval alchemist, van Helmont saw a close relationship between brain and stomach, between nightmares, and colic or indigestion. He related certain nervous disorders to disturbances of what he called, the vegetative centres (Pagel, 1983). This close relationship between guts, nerves and vegetative centres was continued by Freud, Reich and Jung with the attention they gave to the nervous system, particularly the vegetative (Bishop, 1991). This was believed to be the oldest part of the nervous hierarchy, initially evolving to serve the gut. Indeed, the parasympathetic nerves, which regulate the muscle of the alimentary tract and the glandular secretions of digestion, are the most ancient part of the autonomic nervous system. This notion of archaic layering and fundamentally deep, unconscious bodily functions allowed the fantasy of the vegetative nervous system to play a crucial part in the mythology of depth psychology. lung wrote of dark fundamental, mysterious and uncanny depths, where distinctions between mind and matter ceased to apply. At these depths life "has to follow other laws ... quite unlike those arising from the mentality of the personal, warm-blooded life" (Jung, 1976, p.403).

An Italian folk-tale shows us this opening into the mysterious vegetative depths (Calvino, 1980). It tells of a young kind peasant woman who, after pulling up a large turnip uncovers a toad's nest containing five toads. Exclaiming with delight, she takes them to her bosom, but accidentally drops one, breaking its leg. The other toads, grateful for this unusual show of kindness from a human, reward her with beauty, but the wounded toad gives her a terrible curse. Here is a view from the peasant-stomach. In reaching out for food, another, uncanny world is revealed beneath the vegeta ble. At these depths pure, naive, good intentions are irrelevant. Other laws apply. One small slip brings a curse and misfortune. A deep unease lurks beneath the pastoral landscape, in the guts of Arcadia. There are many such tales of danger and promise in the bowels of Nature (Bishop, 1991).

The notion of "insoluable fibre" as "roughage", is part of an Apollonic/Christ-like attempt to descend into the bowels of the underworld in order to thoroughly purge it, to cleanse it of all dark-matter. The more recent Western focus on soluable fibre (a healing notion obtained from African tribal landscapes and promising a Rousseau-ian purity and vitality) takes us again into a gut-healing imaginal descent as it seeks out artery-clogging fats (Stanway, 1976). By such means, individual salvation and whole-Earth vision are united in the Rousseau-ian gut.

A new paganism is in the making. Proteins, minerals, fats, trace elements, fibre, and vitamins, are a new pantheon, at whose altars many people lay their hopes. Yet in some strange way, these dietary deities are possibly leading us into a reanimation of the world. We just need to see them imaginatively rather than literally. We just need to treat this language in a new way.

A man in his 30's dreams that there is the body of a rather heavy man in the freezer along with the packets of frozen vegetables. It is wrapped in a green plastic garbage-bag. The dreamer wants the body removed, finding it repulsive and gross. This particular dreamer was very idealistic and spiritual at the time. He had put the digestive body into cold storage. Along with the packets of homogenized, mass-produced vegetables, the body was kept under plastic wraps. Both the freezing and the plastic can suggest fantasies of immortality, indestructibility and incorruptibility. But the man's spiritual idealism had become too extreme and his body had long been kept in suspended animation. Spiritual idealism often finds something gross about the stomach and gut. The vegetable body is deemed too earthy, clumsy, slow, immobile, basic, intestinal, dull and vulnerable. There is a basic fear and distrust of the earth, which is overcompensated for by insisting on Nature's inherent goodness.

Words like - "natural", "wholeness" and "growth", trip too easily off the tongue. It reminds me of a dream: "a man and a woman ride out to check a tree on a hill. They cut the tree with a knife to inspect it and sap pours out in a spray. The woman, who is dark and beautiful stands under it like a shower. The man too is beautiful and feels the sap-spray on his face. Then their faces begin to wrinkle and deform. White fungus begins to grow on their faces. Many now long to return to nature, to bathe in its redemptive purity. But in the dream the growth, although natural, was not what was expected or desired. Nature posed a threat not just to their image of body-beautiful, but particularly to their faces, to the upper parts of their bodies. The return to nature could very well be a most unpleasant experience, more decay than wellness, the disintegration of many fondly held beliefs about health. But, hopefully, through the cracks a more imaginative or soulful life will come about.

I'd like to end with three other gut-images by which to imagine an opening of our bowels to Nature. There are the stories of Thor and the fate that befell any who harmed one of his sacred oaks. The villain would then become sacrificial victim. Disembowelled, the end of their intestine would be nailed to the wounded tree and wound around the trunk, unravelling to its full length. Healing a wounded Nature or an ecological imagination involves a gut sacrifice, albeit perhaps less draconian than that demanded by Thor. We need to wrap not just our arms around trees, but our guts.

Then there were the mysterious prophets and mediums of Ancient Greece, known as "belly-talkers". It seems as if they had a second voice inside them, a daimon in their stomach, which carried on a dialogue with them (Walker, 1979). This is akin to divination or insight through the entrails. We need more of this belly talk, more acknowledgment of these intestinal characters.

Finally, to remind ourselves of gut-level humour, we should notice the ambivalence with which breaking wind has been held around the World. For some, such as ancient Egyptians and Zoroastrians, flatulence rendered prayers invalid, indeed, for some Christians it represented a communion with the devil. on the other hand, in the Old Testament we read: "Wherefore my bowels shall sound like an harp for Mob"; in some Hindu sects flatulence was regarded almost akin to a mantra - which is surely sufficient reply to the grandiose delusions of those who worship the brain stem (Walker, 1979).

Dr Peter Bishop has written extensively on archetypal psychology, cultural geography, psychology of religion, environment, and art. His most recent book is An Archetypal Constable: National Identity and the Geography of Nostalgia (Athlone, London, 1995).

(1) See The Complete Oxford English Dictionary Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1961