On language and mystery
Thursday, April 22, 2021
From "Learning the Grammar of Animacy" by Potawatomi author, educator, and biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer:
"I come here to listen, to nestle in the curve of roots, in a soft hollow of pine needles. To lean my bones against the column of white pine, to turn off the voice in my head until I can hear the voices outside of it. The shhh of wind in the needles. Water trickling over rock, nuthatch tapping, chipmunks digging, beechnut falling, mosquito in my ear and something more, something that is not me, for which we have no language, the wordless being of others in which we are never alone. After the drumbeat of my mother's heart, this was my first language.
"I could spend a whole day listening. And a whole night. And in the morning, without my hearing it, there might be a mushroom that was not there the night before, creamy white, pushed up from the pine needle duff, out of darkness to light, still glistening with the fluid of its passage. Puhpowee.
"Listening in wild places, we witness conversation in a language that is not our own. I think now, that it was a longing to comprehend this language I hear in the woods that led me to science, to learn over the years to speak fluent Botany. Which should not, by the way, be mistaken for the language of plants. In science I did learn another language, of careful observation, an intimate vocabulary that names each little part. To name and describe you must first see, and science polishes the gift of seeing. Science is a beautiful language, rich in particulars, revealing the intricate mechanisms of the world. I honor the strength of that language which has become a second tongue to me. But, beneath the richness of its vocabulary, its descriptive power, something feels missing, the same something that swells around you and in you, when you listen to the world. The pattern of its surface hides an empty center, like a gorgeous tapestry over a scarred wall. Science is a language of distance which reduces a being to its working parts, the language of objects. The language we speak, however precise, is based on a profound error in grammar, which seems to me now, a grave loss in translation from the native languages of these shores.
"My first taste of the missing language was the word puhpowee, on my tongue. I stumbled upon it in a book by Anishnaabe ethnobotanist Keewaydinoquay, a treatise on the traditional uses of fungi by our people. Puhpowee, she explained, translates as 'the forces that causes mushrooms to to push up from the earth overnight.' As a biologist, I was stunned that such a word existed. In all its technical vocabulary, Western science has no such term, no words to hold this mystery. You'd think that biologists, of all people, would have words for life. But, I think in scientific language, our terminology is used to define the boundaries of our knowing. That which lies beyond our grasp remains unnamed. In the three syllables I could see an entire process of close observation in the damp morning woods, of the mystery of their coming, the formulation of a theory for which English has no equivalent. The makers of this word understood a world of being, full of unseen energies which animate the world. I've cherished that word for many years, a talisman, and longed for the people who gave a name to the life force of mushrooms. The language that holds puhpowee is one that I wanted to speak. The word for rising, for emergence, became a signpost for me, when I learned that it belonged to the language of my ancestors."
I recommend reading Kimmerer's essay in full, first published in The Leopold Outlook magazine (Winter 2012) and available online here. These ideas were developed further in her remarkable book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants (discussed on Myth & Moor here) -- and also in a number of talks and essays such as "Speaking of Nature" (discussed on Myth & Moor here.)
I believe Kimmerer's work has relevance to those of us working in fantasy and mythic arts, for we, too, must learn to speak a language suited to describing Mystery: a language woven from myth, folklore, symbolism, poetry and dream. The fantasist's world is an animate world, shimmering with unseen energies. The grammar and gramarye of its language is every mythic artist's birthright, for the world of Story welcomes us all. It's a tongue that any of us can learn. Enter the forest, or the tale, and listen....
The imagery today is by Alexandra Dvornikova, a contemporary folk artist and illustrator from Saint Petersburg, Russia. She studied print-making, graphics, and art therapy at Saint Petersburg Stieglitz State Academy of Art and Design, and now creates books, cards and prints, fabric designs, animations, and more. She finds inspiration in the Russian fairy tales she heard as a child, as well as masks, music, ritual, nature and ecology, the folklore of animals, mosses and mushrooms, venomous plants, and lonely cabins deep in the woods. To see more of her art, please visit Dvornikova's website and Instagram page.
Words: The passage quoted above is from "The Grammar of Animacy" by Robin Wall Kimmerer (The Leopold Outlook magazine, Winter 2012). all rights reserved by the author.
Related posts: For another look at the language of science contrasted to the language of Story, go here. Other posts on the interesection of science and art are archived here.
Pictures: The paintings by Alexandra Dvornikova are Forest, Fungi, Mushroom Pattern, Lost Land, Forest Treasures, Fire Fox, Mushroom Dress, Mushroom Hat, Mushroom Bed, and Magic. All rights reserved by the artist. Dvornikova's work also appeared in a previous Myth & Moor post: Stepping into story.