There is a very real, center-of-the-world spot lurking in an unknown valley of northeastern Kansas, where chalky old growth trunks of sycamore trees and a slow moving stream exist alongside the nests, the souls, and the lives of great blue herons. This is a book of both fact and fiction, of myth, sense-of-place, spirit, and magic. A venture of shape shifting and real life observation. Reader’s will embark on a literary and visual journey unlike any other; will (re)discover a wild and captivating realm full of lore, hearsay, myth, and spirit. The late, environmental book reviewer with Orion magazine, Peter Sauer, commented on this book’s earliest version in a beautiful and insightful way:
Soul External is a combined effort of author and artist seeking to express their mutual sense of the significance and sacred in the natural world. Through a narrative centered upon the great blue heron scripted words play with graphic arrangements punctuated by drawings. All culminate in producing a fuller meditation having semiotic and aesthetic significance regarding this perfect circle of life.
View more work by Andrew R. Driscoll.
High and Mighty Praises:
“Herein is a shudderingly strange manuscript. Is this a natural history of the great blue herons, or a spiritual history of one curiously feathered creature, Steve Semken? The cumulative effect of these pages is uncanny, calling to mind the art of certain backwoods visionaries who, blessedly free of all schooling, work with found objects and non-sequitors and their own inspired madness to create an exemplary throne for the Holy.”—David Abram, author, Becoming Animal and The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World
“Life viewed through a blue heron rookery in Northeast Kansas . . . a poetic tribute to an ancient, noble, and mysterious creature whose fate is inseparable from our own.”–David W. Orr, author of several books including, The Nature of Design: Ecology, Culture, and Human Intention
“Soul External — Rediscovering the Great Blue Heron is a lovely meditation on one of our grandest wetland birds. The wonderful illustrations by Andrew R. Driscoll offer a deep and thoughtful visual counterpart to Steve Semken’s text, melding Driscoll’s own intuitive love of place with some of the playfulness of the artitst’s acknowledged mentor, the late John Talleur of the University of Kansas. Soul External will be appreciated by all who care about our nation’s wetlands and the complex ecosystems they sustain.”–Stephen H. Goddard, Associate Director/Senior Curator, Spencer Museum, University of Kansas
“The world has many openings into wonder — and it seems that Steven Semken has found one of them among the great blue herons in northeastern Kansas. Drawing on a great range of natural history and literature, and aided throughout by the illustrations of Andrew Driscoll, Soul External finds its own soul most deeply in the author’s extended visits with these beautiful birds. Approach in silence. Take only what you can carry in your two hands. Be prepared for mystery.”–Doug Thorpe, author, Rapture of the Deep
The title is striking, the illustrations subtly enchanting, and it is fascinating to see what the herons evoke in the author as he becomes alternately naturalist, mystic, awe-struck devotee. and myth-maker. A manifold pleasure! —Shierry Weber Nicholsen, author, Exact Imagination, Late Work: On Adorno’s Aesthetics and The Love of Nature and the End of the World: The Unspoken Dimensions of Environmental Concern
“To apprentice yourself to a single teacher in nature–giving it your attention, your imagination, and love–can prove to be an amazing thing. A wonderful book!” —Belden C. Lane, author of The Solace of Fierce Landscapes.
“The evocative images created by Andrew Driscoll and the diversity of typographies used throughout Soul External gives an additional sensual dimension to your wondrous words and your transcendental narrative. The incantatory words, which reveal and revel in the magic of your encounters with the Great Blues, provide sound for the alchemy of your creation; the images provide the sight. And hence, the bright herons lift from their colonies of dense sycamores and come into being in the mind’s eye, the heart’s haven, the heavens above.”–Elizabeth Schultz, Professor Emerita 19th Century American Literature (Melville)
“If Steve Semken were offered a cup of Heron blood to drink, he would do so without hesitation.If you read this book, you’ll know why.” —Wes Jackson, President, Land Institute, Salina, Kansas; author, Becoming Native to This Place
“Derrida famously wrote that one should not use the word ‘animal,’ since, by equating such a large and varied range of beings, the label obscured their particularity. I was disappointed, however, when, immediately after the passage, Derrida went on to use the word almost obsessively, and in extremely vague ways, for the remainder of his essay. Soul External, however, is one book about animals, in which, unless I somehow missed it, the word ‘animal’ does not even come up. Neither do the words ‘human being,’ and the vocabulary of literary theory is also completely absent. This is a prolonged meditation on the relation of the author with the great blue heron, a large bird that nests high in trees above our primeval wetlands. Perhaps Derrida was right, at least in what he said, for author Steven Semken speaks of great themes such as God, death, and magic, while staying focused on one amazing creature, which is not subordinated to any creed or philosophy. The images by Andrew Driscoll blend so harmoniously with the text that it seems inappropriate to speak of them as ‘illustrations.’”–Boria Sax, author, The Mystical Zoo: Animals in Myth, Legend, and Literature
“To read Semken’s intimate musings about his fourteen-year study of the most private lives of these reclusive birds is to be brought into what he described as a ‘wild liturgy’ in which even the trees seemed to prophesy. Mystery and magic are conveyed through his stories of serendipitous encounters with needed information and tales of odd characters who had sought the heron’s secrets before him. The sense of enchantment is enhanced through Driscoll’s images and cryptic lettering, which seems to still the mind and invoke ancient secrets.”
From Midwest Book Review:
Synopsis: There is a very real, center-of-the-world spot lurking in an unknown valley of northeastern Kansas, where chalky old growth trunks of sycamore trees and a slow moving stream exist alongside the nests, the souls, and the lives of great blue herons. “Soul External: Rediscovering The Great Blue Heron” is a book of both fact and fiction, of myth, sense-of-place, spirit, and magic. Reader s will embark on a literary and visual journey unlike any other; will (re)discover a wild and captivating realm full of lore, hearsay, myth, and spirit. “Soul External” is a combined effort of author and artist seeking to express their mutual sense of the significance and sacred in the natural world. Through a narrative centered upon the great blue heron scripted words play with graphic arrangements punctuated by drawings. All culminate in producing a fuller meditation having semiotic and aesthetic significance regarding this perfect circle of life.
Critique: A fascinating read that is both thoughtful and thought-provoking, “Soul External: Rediscovering The Great Blue Heron” offers an extraordinary literary experience that will linger in the mind long after the book is finished and set back upon the shelf. Of special note are the occasional quotations from a variety of sources. Certain to be an enduringly popular addition to both community and academic library collections, “Soul External: Rediscovering The Great Blue Heron” is very highly recommended and contemplative reading.