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Lions Roar : November 2011
SHAMBHALA SUN NOVEMBER 2011 56 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, ani- mate roles in the tales. Such stories provide abundant practi- cal 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 par- ticular plants as foods and as medicines, or how best to outwit certain animals when hunting. Within their layered meanings, the traditional stories commonly convey exten- sive instruction regarding interspecies eti- quette—the proper gestures of respect, tact, and deference that preserve the reciprocity between humans and the wider commu- nity of beings upon which we depend. The remarkable environmental savvy common to so many indigenous, oral peo- ples 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 ges- tures or slowly shifting shadows. Such forms of expressive speech are generally assumed to be as communica- tive, 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 posses- sion, 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 may be drawn from the more-than-human locale—inspired not only by human forms but by the tracks of bear, wolf, and ante- lope, by the flight of birds, the branching patterns of plants, the violent calligraphy of lightning against the sky. Slowly, how- ever, 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 obvi- ous 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 read- ily 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 s ay. 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 con- centrated 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 mean- ing, as an exclusively human property. Reading is a splendid delirium, and the solidarity and interchange between writ- The air flooding in and out of our lungs is continuous with the breath nourishing the frogs chanting across the creek. In meditation, we renew the conversation between our animal presence and the animate earth.