Deborah J. Haynes

Negative Capability

I have long known the phrase “negative capability,” and it remains a powerful way to reflect about what continues to be required of me. The phrase was coined by the young poet John Keats, in a December 1817 letter to his brothers George and Thomas. Keats, a great admirer of Shakespeare, wrote: “At once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties. Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

Negative capability means to be able to live amidst uncertainty, mystery, and doubt. In my own language, it means to face the impermanence of all phenomena without grasping for something solid. And that is a challenge without parallel, a challenge I accept every time I enter the one-acre site that I called "Ivydell."

So many changes have been wrought on the land, and aspects of our place are unrecognizable. Last week I observed the removal of nine willow trees that formed The Sisters outdoor sanctuary—a place of quiet and contemplation developed over the 15 years David and I lived there.


I asked the machine operators to put aside two of the root balls from these trees for an as-yet-undetermined project.

For years I saw the trees as female bodies planted in the earth, legs in the air. Now I am considering planting the short remaining trunks so that the roots are in the air: a literal visualization of uprooting.

On the western end of the place the land itself is gone, replaced by massive rocks that hopefully will protect the area from further flooding. I have already climbed around on them—down to the widened creek and back up again. I no longer think of stone as permanent or immovable or unsusceptible to change—this awareness is part of my practice of negative capability--but their sturdy presence is calming nonetheless. Those multi-ton stones inspire me in an inchoate way. I begin to feel the desire to work with stone once again.

This desire was amplified recently, when one of the large front-end loader operators found a fragment of my WATER stone in the sandy creek bed where he was dredging downstream from our place. The stone, which originally weighed about 50 pounds, is now about half its size, but the word is intact. I’ve been wondering whether to put it into the creek again, where it functioned as a reminder to me that we live in a dry mountain environment where drought is always a possibility. Now the resonance is more about the unpredictability of this magical element.

Our house is once again fully habitable. Snowpack in the high mountains is greater than normal, and spring runoff is now underway. No one knows what will happen.

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