Standing on the shore of this lake wrapped in early evening. The water is calm in the gentle rain. I reach up and turn off the headlamp to stand in darkness. Suddenly I am fully here with this lake and its powers. Suddenly I am susceptible to this place.
This is precisely where I wish to be. In the dark I shall tell you that I am a fugitive from civilization. It is why I canoed across ponds and lakes and beaver dams to this spot this evening. It is why I resigned my professorship and moved to this wilderness far flung from the metropolis.
I am scarred by civilization’s words. Wounded by its speech in the news and in its literature and in the press of the throng. I could tell you that I am conducting scholarly research on language, hoping to find better words within the flasks and smoking test-tubes of a laboratory, or digging an ancient tomb to uncover lost powers of speech. But that would not be the truth of it. The truth is I am a desperate man who abandoned research and dismissed the class and shook hands with colleagues, to be here tonight in a spring rain. To turn off this light and listen. Continue reading
. . . this is unfinished
I am not a real writer. I must be honest about this. A true writer writes regularly, generally daily, consuming quarts of ink. The hard stuff. Smell their breath: reeks of ink. Palpate the liver: enlarged. Real writers are literary winos.
That is not me. I write in fits and starts. Binges. This makes me a dry drunk most of the time. (Besides, what I call a book is really no more than a long meditation, which doesn’t qualify as a real book anyhow.)
There is a deeper, more disturbing reason why I’m not a real writer: I am running out of language. I sometimes feel like Alice’s Cheshire Cat, a bit of me disappearing with each volume. This might seem like a paradox from someone who has published several books. The important thing is not that books were written, but where they have led me—to the far side of language. Continue reading
… published as the foreword to Gay Bradshaw, Elephants on the Edge: What Elephants Teach Us about Humanity (Yale University Press, 2009).
With appreciation to Nick Brandt Photography
Elephant breakdown, the subject herein, disturbs me. It says my own was inevitable. Recall Nietzsche’s crackup, triggered by the sight of a tradesman flogging a horse, and you begin to understand what I’m talking about.
We are all susceptible. Descartes in dressing gown before his hearth, demolishing, as if brick by brick, his rational mind—one of the more famous crackups of history. The cloak of composure we wear carries its own unraveling—the bit of thread lying exposed. Sometimes, as with Nietzsche, it happens in a thunderclap of shattering dissonance.
Whether swift or slow, this is how we grow. “By being defeated, decisively,/by constantly greater beings.” Continue reading
. . . “The Great Forgetting” (above) was abstracted from this longer, more developed piece.
Once in springtime I stood upon a grizzly bear track huge and fresh in new snow. As I did, “a streak of reality/ broke in upon this stage through that fissure.” No, not fear. I want to be clear about that. The sensation was not entirely comfortable—let me be clear about this too. It was a force ancient and essential to the shaping of human nature that suddenly engulfed me. I was standing on the sacred ground of wildness, within the precincts of a consciousness vaster than my own. Undulating loose-limbed wildness had passed this way just moments before, leaving its clawed imprint to devour me with the terrible, ancient question, What is man if not the handiwork of wildness? Continue reading
. . . this is incomplete
“She glided beautifully along and sat down,” a San (Bushman) woman is quietly telling an American with a notepad. (We are standing in a dusty, parched village in the Kalahari Desert, eavesdropping on the ethnologist Megan Biesele as she interviews a woman about Python Woman. Python Woman, G!kon//’amdima, happens to be the beautiful, sensual daughter-in-law of the creator Kaoxa. It would not be too much of a stretch, I believe, to call her the Bushman equivalent of the biblical Eve crossed with the Virgin Mary. Like the Blessed Virgin among the devout, G!kon//’amdima is considered the ideal woman and very real.) “She glided beautifully along and sat down,” the woman is saying, “because she was a person, an elephant girl. Because a python is an elephant.”
Something isn’t right here; what we just heard is nonsensical. “How can that be?” protests Biesele. “I thought a python was one thing and an elephant was another thing!” (Listen: The river of language is about to be restored to its original direction.) “Yes, that’s true,” cheerfully agrees the woman—“but people say that a python is an elephant anyway.”
This is not a good answer. It gets worse. Continue reading
Be forewarned, this is very much rough draft. If you get the nagging impression it’s incoherent—you’re right, it is. Currently it’s a mosaic of thought-pieces, clumsily stitched together and lacking an ending—in a word, confusing. Whenever I revisit the chapter and fix it, some of the text, below, will be thrown out and I will add the (now missing) transitions plus proper ending.
“The ear of language rests/ on the breast of the world,” writes the poet Robert Bringhurst,
unable to know and unable to care
whether it listens inward or outward
I am convinced the ear of language is formed in the womb, this chamber where life splits itself and as it does all conceivable need is met. Call it the discourse of grace. A river of grace through a cord, a basin of grace cradling the form—consciousness awakens within this conversation from which words will someday ring forth.
“The world is immense,” marveled Rilke, “and like a word that is still growing in the silence.”
The Word growing in silence in the universe we call womb.
In a brilliant riff on “therolinguistics” (the language of wild things), novelist Ursula LeGuin gives us a feel for this uterine Word. (In this instance not uterine, but avian—the Emperor penguin of Antarctica cradling its single egg.) Continue reading