The Living Language

Language is not a uniquely human possession. Ultimately, says David Abram, it is not we who speak—it’s the earth that speaks through us.

David Abram
4 October 2011

I have a friend, a native man from one of the Pueblo villages that sprout from the high desert of northern New Mexico. On various occasions Jacob and I have wandered out across this red land, trekking among the sparse, knotted shadows of juniper and piñon, letting the ultramarine of the desert sky roll across us in waves.

Usually we walk in silence, allowing ourselves to be led by the track of hare or coyote, or by the widening banks of a meandering arroyo. Now and then we fall into conversation. Yet I have noticed an odd contrast between us. If we are pondering some question as we saunter, and I happen to be visited by a new insight, I tend to announce that idea straightaway, with no interruption to our dialogue or the rhythm of our walking. When a fresh insight strikes my friend, however, he first halts his steps in order (so I’ve learned) to listen inwardly to the thought. But then he gazes around him, noting where he is on the land, silently questioning the nearby trees, or the sandstone cliffs, or the clouds drifting overhead, in order to discern which entity it was that gifted him with that insight. Only when he has settled his attention upon a particular clump of sagebrush or noticed the ghosting presence of a small whirlwind stirring the dust nearby, and has matched the character of that presence, somehow, to the quality of the thought that just found him, only then does Jacob relax back into our walk, and maybe tell me something of that insight.

This happens often enough for me to realize that there’s nothing unusual about it. It’s perfectly normal for him, nothing special. When I’ve asked him about these pauses, these moments when our conversation suddenly seems to open, quietly, on to a field of intelligence vibrating all around us, Jacob has told me little more than I’ve told you just now. It’s just his way. Yet it lends to our reflective walks a quality of resonant attention to the world, an attunement to surrounding shapes, sounds, and textures usually absent from the mental reveries to which most of us are accustomed.

There is something in this very simple and ordinary habit of my friend that astonishes me. Jacob’s outward listening, in response to the inward arrival of an idea, suggests an entirely different notion of mind, and intelligence, than that to which I’ve been educated. At first I surmised that Jacob felt he had no hand in these thoughts, that they came entirely from the other beings around him—from that many branched juniper, or that swooping magpie, or from the moon rising silent above the ridge. Soon, however, I learned that my friend’s understanding was subtler, that for Jacob the insights belonged no more to that juniper than they belonged to him. Rather, they were born of the encounter between them—between his mindful presence and the gnarled intelligence of that tree, between his sentient body and the earthly sentience of that place.

Meaning, according to my friend, arises from meeting, from the felt contact between oneself and what is not oneself. From the encounter between oneself and another person, or a river, or the surging wind. From, ultimately, the ongoing interaction and intercourse between oneself and the rest of the earthly cosmos.

This curious understanding—this view of meaning as something that exists only in meeting—is an understanding that has gradually come to inform much of my work as an ecologist and author.

Jacob’s attentive response to the surrounding landscape, and the implicit assumption that lies behind it—that the material presences experienced by our senses are also sensitive and sentient in their own right—is an assumption common not just to the Pueblo culture of his ancestors, but to most indigenous, tribal cultures that still exist, whether in the desert southwest of North America or the archipelagoes of the Pacific, whether in the wooded plains of Africa, or the Australian outback, or the dank and dripping forests of Amazonia. Some form of this animistic assumption has likely been an instinctive aspect of every tribal, subsistence culture that has thrived on this planet since the emergence of human sociability. Yet over the course of the last three millennia, this ancestral supposition was successively overlaid, in various populations, by other ways of structuring experience. And during the last three hundred years, most of the remaining participatory lifeways were displaced, destroyed, or finally absorbed by the onrush of technological civilization, with its abundant blessings and its curses. By the start of the twenty-first century, those few groups still informed by the experience of an animate, wakeful landscape have had to submerge or stifle this aspect of their lives, accepting the basic assumptions of commercial civilization, with its highly objectified view of nature, simply in order to survive into the new millennium.

Nonetheless there are many reasons to suspect that the older belief in a world all alive, awake, and aware simply cannot be eradicated. It can be submerged and paved over, but it cannot be destroyed. For a few people of European ancestry, the felt awareness of a living, expressive terrain may have been buried for some forty or fifty generations, yet it has never been vanquished: even at that depth it moves and stirs, exerting its influence upon our bodies and our dreams, waiting patiently for the moment when it will rise like a bubble from the depths, expanding rapidly toward the surface as the pressure upon it decreases, until it bursts into the open air of our experience, and we breathe of it once again.

Writing about such deeply participatory forms of experience is always an odd and paradoxical endeavor, and I admit to some frustration at the apparent necessity of affixing these thoughts on the surface of the page. I’m never entirely happy about this—about having to take these visceral experiences, these carnal encounters and hunches and sensorial reflections, these intimacies, and pry them out of the loamy soil of my body in order to flatten them between the pages of a book or magazine. It feels like tearing off pieces of my skin and pasting them to the surface of the paper. I have no wish for these reflections to become stuck here, drying out between these pages like pressed flowers. I don’t want these notions to desiccate and die for lack of water.

Many of my thoughts have been shaped by the forest and the tides; they have sprouted like lichen along the trunks of trees and on the mottled surface of certain stones. If they become isolated within a purely human language, enclosed within a disembodied field of signs and abstract cogitations, well, then those insights are not likely to forgive me. Originally invoked by the rhythmic thudding of a raven’s wings paddling the air overhead, or by the late afternoon sunlight spilling across the splintered stumps of a clear-cut mountainside, such reflections are already suspicious of me for offering them up as a set of symbols printed out in lines upon the page or the screen. They would much prefer that I offer them to you while we are sitting together among the ferns at the edge of a creek, or perhaps while walking in the rain along a city street late at night, with the radiance from the streetlamps gleaming upon the wet pavement, and every now and then the hissss of tires joining the rise and fall of our voices as we ponder and gesticulate and gaze silent into the electric dark.

It is a risky process, this writing things down. There remain various cultures that still listen for the voices of rivers and stones, various peoples who know that language is not the exclusive property of humankind. But most such cultures still conversant with the animate earth are traditionally oral cultures, cultures that evolved and flourished without a strong reliance upon the written word. The tribal, subsistence cultures native to North America, like most of those indigenous to other continents, traditionally sustained themselves (often for millennia) in a fairly reciprocal relation with the living landscapes that they inhabited. They did so, commonly, without any dependence upon written-down words. To be more precise, they flourished without a formalized system of written signs that were tightly bound—like the printed letters you are now reading—to the spoken language.

Oral cultures are cultures of story. In the absence of written records, linguistic knowledge is most effectively preserved in an easily remembered spoken form, in a style of speech that engages the imagination of the senses. For humans the world over, storytelling always was and remains the most engaging of such forms. Reliance upon spoken stories, moreover, seems to encourage a keen awareness of processes afoot in the surrounding terrain, including the habits of the local animals and the proclivities of the local plants. In part this may be due to the way the stories of a deeply oral culture inevitably root themselves in the specifics of the immediate landscape; local animals, like Raven or Coyote, often figure as central characters within the stories, while common trees and herbs, particular weather patterns, specific boulders, mountains, rivers, and even whole forests may play active, animate roles in the tales.

Such stories provide abundant practical information regarding the elemental, earthly surroundings. They may function, at times, as maps for orienting within that expansive terrain, as well as compendiums of instruction about how to prepare particular plants as foods and as medicines, or how best to outwit certain animals when hunting. Within their layered meanings, the traditional stories commonly convey extensive instruction regarding interspecies etiquette—the proper gestures of respect, tact, and deference that preserve the reciprocity between humans and the wider community of beings upon which we depend.

The remarkable environmental savvy common to so many indigenous, oral peoples is also due to the way that language is experienced by cultures without a formal writing system. While persons brought up within literate culture speak at great length about the earthly world, indigenous, oral peoples often speak directly to that world, and experience animals, plants, weather patterns, and landforms as expressive subjects with whom they sometimes find themselves in conversation. Obviously, these other beings do not speak with a human tongue; they do not, that is, speak in words. They may speak in song, like numerous birds, or in rhythm, like the crickets and the ocean waves. They may speak a language of movements, of gestures or slowly shifting shadows.

Such forms of expressive speech are generally assumed to be as communicative, in their own way, as the more verbal discourse of our species (which, after all, can also be thought of as a kind of vocal gesticulation, or even as a gruff sort of singing). Language, for traditionally oral peoples, is not a uniquely human possession, but rather a property of the animate earth, in which we humans participate. Ultimately it is not we who speak, but rather the earth that speaks through us, and through the countless other styles of existence that buzz, whistle, and howl across its surface.

As the magic of writing moves into a previously oral culture, a new kind of experience begins to emerge: that of the human community in dialogue with its own signs. At first these signs maybe drawn from the more-than-human locale—inspired not only by human forms but by the tracks of bear, wolf, and antelope, by the flight of birds, the branching patterns of plants, the violent calligraphy of lightning against the sky. Slowly, however, the imagistic origin of the written signs is forgotten. A new layer of language begins to spread itself across the world, a layer of discourse that seems inhabited by humans alone. The storm clouds, the saplings bending in the gusts, the winged and the four-legged creatures, have little place in this discourse. They have no obvious part in this new conversation carried on solely among ourselves—between us and our own human-made symbols. Our invented symbols soon seem to speak with such compelling power that the eloquence of rivers, trees, and mountains, like the expressive articulations of other animals, begins to fade from our awareness.

Consider, for example, the printed letters upon which you are now gazing: how readily they capture your attention, and how directly and unambiguously they seem to speak to you. When you look at these words, you instantly see what they say. As soon as we focus our eyes upon these ostensibly inert bits of ink, we hear a flood of words, and feel ourselves addressed, spoken to. Such is the power of the alphabet, the grip that these human-made signs have upon our senses! In a culture without formal writing, however, it is not the visible letters but rather the whole of the visible landscape that retains the ability to speak. Every bird, every rock face, every bend in the gushing stream carries the capacity for meaningful expression, the power of speech!

Reading, we might say, is a highly concentrated form of animistic participation, one that eclipses all the other kinds of participation in which we once engaged. The self-reflexive interaction with our own scratches and scripts short-circuits the old, spontaneous reciprocity between our senses and the sensuous earth.

Only as the alphabet spreads into a previously oral culture (often brought by missionaries teaching their Holy Book) does the animate landscape begin to lose its voice. Only as the written page begins to speak do the forests fall mute, the bears and the bobcats fall dumb. As though, under the influence of spelling, a strange enchantment descends upon the land. Or as though a kind of spell is cast upon the human senses, rendering them oblivious to anything that does not talk in words, impervious to all that does not speak with a human tongue. Only under the spell of the printed word can a whole civilization come to conceive of language, and meaning, as an exclusively human property.

Reading is a splendid delirium, and the solidarity and interchange between writers and readers is a pleasure that feeds all who participate. It deepens our cultures. But human language lives first in the shaped breath of utterance. It laughs and stutters on the tongue long before it lies down on the page, and longer still before it arrays itself in rows across the glowing screen. Oral language gusts through us, our sounded phrases borne by the same air that nourishes the cedars and swells the cumulus clouds. Laid out and immobilized on the flat surface, our words tend to forget that they are sustained by this windswept world; they begin to imagine that their primary task is to provide a representation of the world (as though they were outside of, and not really a part of this world).

Nonetheless the power of language remains, first and foremost, a way of singing oneself into contact with others and with the cosmos, a way of bridging the silence between oneself and another person, or a startled black bear, or the crescent moon soaring like a billowed sail above the roof. Whether sounded on the tongue, printed on the page, or shimmering on the screen, language s primary gift is not to represent the world around us, but to call ourselves into the vital presence of that world—and into deep and attentive presence with one another.

This primary magic of language, this ancient and ancestral poesis, underlies and supports all the other roles that language has come to have. Whether we wield our words to court a lover, to explain how some gadget works, or to analyze the data regarding a rapidly destabilizing climate, not one of these roles would be possible without the primordial power of speech to make our bodies resonate with one another and with the other rhythms that surround us. The bugling of elk every autumn does this, as do the echoed honks of geese vee-ing south for the winter. This melodic, often rhythmic layer of meaning—the stratum of spontaneous, bodily expression which oral cultures steadily deploy, and which literate civilization all too easily forgets—
is the very dimension of language that we two-leggeds share in common with the other animals.

We share it, as well, with the howling of wind through the winter branches outside my house. In the spring the buds on those branches will unfurl new leaves, and by summer the wind will speak with a thousand green tongues as it rushes through those same trees, releasing a chorus of rustles and whispers and loudly swelling rattles very different from the shrill, plaintive tones of winter. And all those chattering and gossiping leaves will feed my thoughts as I sit by the open door next summer, scribbling and pondering.

When, in meditation, we bring awareness to our breathing, we gradually undermine the ready distraction of the literate mind, with its propensity to wander far from the present moment. But we also accomplish much more, since the air flooding in and out of our lungs is continuous with the breath nourishing the frogs chanting across the creek, and both are laced with exhaust pouring from a coal- fired power plant outside town. The air we breathe is continuous with the salt spray of waves breaking on distant shores, with the wind rippling the fur of an endangered lynx stalking its prey, and with the dwindling respiration of drought-stricken pine forests. Escalating wildfires surge through those forests, infusing the atmosphere with the tang of smoke. To bring awareness to the air as it rides in and out of our nostrils is to dissolve our detached thoughts into the ongoing exchange, the meeting, the reciprocity between our body and the rest of the biosphere. We renew the conversation between our animal presence and the animate earth. Meaning lives in this meeting. And meaningful action grows, precise and powerful, from the replenished exchange.

This article contains a brief excerpt from Becoming Animal by David Abram, © 2010 by David Abram. Used by permission of Pantheon Books, a division of Random House Inc.