Today, another passage from David Abram's Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology. Like Robin Wall Kimmerer (in last Thursday's post), David argues for a "language of animacy" to better reflect the interrelation between us and the natural world. Our conception of language as a purely human gift is much too limited, he says:
"All things have the capacity for speech -- all beings have the ability to communicate something of themselves to other beings. Indeed, what is perception if not the experience of this gregarious, communicative power of things, wherein even ostensibly 'inert' objects radiate out of themselves, conveying their shapes, hues, and rhythms to other beings and to us, influencing and informing our breathing bodies though we stand far apart from those things? Not just animals and plants, then, but tumbling waterfalls and dry riverbeds, gusts of wind, compost piles and cumulous clouds....Our own chatter erupts in response to the abundant articulations of the world: human speech is simply our part of a much broader conversation.
"It follows that myriad things are also listening, or attending to various signs and gestures around them. Indeed, when we are at ease in our animal flesh, we will sometimes feel that we are being listened to, or sensed, by earthly surroundings. And so we take deeper care with our speaking, mindful that our sounds may carry more than a merely human meaning and resonance. This care -- this full-bodied alertness -- is the ancient ancestral source of all word magic. It is the practice of attention to the uncanny power that lives in our spoken phrases to touch and sometimes transform the tenor of the world's unfolding."
The sense of inhabiting an articulate landscape, David notes,
"is common to indigenous, oral people on every continent. Like tribal people I've lived with elsewhere, most of my Pueblo friends here in the [American] Southwest are curiously taciturn and reserved when it comes to verbal speech. (When I'm with them I become painfully aware of how prolix I can be, prattling on about this and that for minutes on end.) Their reticence is not due to any lack of facility with English, for when they do speak their phrases have an uncommon precision and potency. It is a consequence, rather, of their habitual expectation that spoken words are heard, or sensed, by the other presences that surround. They talk, then, only when they have good reason to, choosing their words with great care so as not to offend, or insult, the other beings that might be listening....
"Few of us today feel any such constraints in our speaking. Human language, for us moderns, has swung in on itself, turning its back on the beings around us. Language is a human property, suitable only for communication with other persons. We talk to people; we do not talk to the ground underfoot. We've largely forgotten the incantatory and invocational use of speech as a way of bringing ourselves into deeper rapport with the beings around us, or of calling the living land into resonance with us. It is a power we still brush up against whenever we use our words to bless or to curse, or to charm someone we're drawn to. But we wield such eloquence only to sway other people, so we miss the greater magnetism, the gravitational power that lies within such speech. The beaver gliding across the pond, the fungus gripping a thick tree trunk, a boulder shattered by its tumble down a cliff or the rain splashing upon those granite fragments -- we talk about such beings, about the weather and the weathered stones, but we do not talk to them. Entranced by the denotive power of words to define, to order, to represent the things around us, we've overlooked the songful dimension of language so obvious to our oral ancestors. We've lost our ear for the music of language -- for the rhythmic, melodic layer of speech by which earthly things overhear us.
"How monotonous our speaking becomes when we speak only to ourselves! And how insulting to other beings -- to foraging blackbears and twisted old cypresses -- that no longer sense us talking to them, but only about them, as though they were not present in our world. As though the clear-cut mountainside and the flooding creek had no sensations of their own -- as though they had no flesh by which to feel the vibrations of our speaking. Small wonder that rivers and forests no longer compel our focus or our fierce devotion. For we talk about such entities only behind their backs, as though they were not participant in our lives.
"Yet if we no longer call out to the moon slipping between the clouds, or whisper to the spider setting the silken struts of her web, well, then the numerous powers of this world will no longer address us -- and if they still try, we will not likely hear them. They withdraw from our attentions, and soon refrain from encountering us when we're out wandering, or from visiting us in our dreams. We can no long avail ourselves of their perspectives or their guidance, and our human affairs suffer as a result. We become ever more forgetful in our relations with the rest of the biosphere, an obliviousness that cuts us off from ourselves, and from our deepest sources of sustenance."
For further reading on this subject, see these previous posts: "The Language of the Animate Earth" and "The Logos of the Land (living, working, and writing fantasy while rooted in place)." I recommend both of David's books: The Spell of the Sensuous and Becoming Animal, his Alliance for Wild Ethics website, and Robin Wall Kimmerer's lovely essay The Language of Nature.
Words: The passage quoted above is from Becoming Animal by David Abram (Pantheon Books, 2010). The poem in the picture captions is from Alive Together: New and Selected Poems by Lisel Mueller (Louisiana State University Press, 1996). All rights reserved by the authors.
Pictures: The photographs are of Dartmoor ponies grazing at the bottom of our hill. They are semi-wild, coming down from the moor to give birth in our valley every spring. I counted six foals among the herd -- some of them bold and some of them shy -- plus plenty of pregnant mares, so there are still more foals to come. The ink drawings are by British book artists Honor Charlotte Appleton (1879-1951) and Helen Stratton (1867-1971).