I want to keep this clarity as long as I live says the deluded friar Marcos de Niza as he slips a Zuni fetish stone into his wallet. Irony – or higher truth?
Of course, this Marcos is largely a fiction of my own devising [.pdf file]. What little we know of the historical figure does suggest a touching naivete: the anguish at the cruelty of the conquistadors in Peru (as recounted in his letter to Bartolome de las Casas), the unbridled enthusiasm in his Relación for the riches of the North which, if they ever existed, eluded Coronado’s flint-eyed vision. And we glimpse the terrible loneliness and disgrace that must’ve been Marcos’ lot after his final return to the horror scene that was New Spain, as witnessed by his plaintive letter to a friend requesting a shipment of wine from his beloved Provence.
Last night I had a vivid dream involving a young boy who seemed either to be possessed by a god or demon, or to have strongly charismatic and psychopathic tendencies. I half-woke and pondered the novelistic possibilities for a while. Much as I like mystery novels, I am always disappointed when the mystery is solved and tawdry human emotions – almost always greed – are revealed to be the chief motives. Would it be possible to write a satisfying novel where the mystery remained a mystery? I don’t mean so much at the narrative level; I’m more interested in the unknowability of motives than in the difficulty of figuring out what “really” happened a la Akutagawa’s story “In a Grove” (the basis for Kurosawa’s movie Rashomon).
But I guess I already tried that in Cibola, where scholarly disagreement about the reason for Esteban’s death provided the initial spark of inspiration. And regardless of the merits of the final product (concerning which I harbor considerable doubt), there’s no question that my decision to preserve the integrity of the central mystery was key to maintaining my enthusiasm for the project, and may even have prompted some valid new interpretations of events, themselves still under dispute.
In Friar Marcos I saw a modern, conflicted, Charlie Brown-type figure. True to the canons of literary fiction (as opposed to oral epic), Marcos changed and deepened over the course of the poem. The line quoted above was his last; subsequently, the “other Marcos” – a completely fictional Indian oblate who accompanies him on his journey to “Cibola” – gives his own, more worldly take on things. But even if this Marcos knew the real score – that Indians would always be second-class Christians in the view of Church authorities – his Christianity is nonetheless genuine. He rightly senses an equivalence between the scorned “idols” of the old faith and the treasured symbols and fetishes of the new:
The land lives within me
like a nest of nails.
I know what they want from me,
these hypocrites: to renounce
the world, the flesh,
all Indian thoughts.
as much about God as they do,
possibly more: which is to say,
nothing. A night wind,
an obsidian mirror
that fogs with your dying breath.
No prayers, no ticking glass beads
can you take . . . even
the crucified Christ
gets left behind. Why linger
in the doorway, clinging
to the empty frame?
I was born with a caul–
singled out for service to Tlaloc,
rain-god & gourmand.
Cortez came just in time.
The friars say I was given to the church
through a misunderstanding:
it seems my parents were among
the first few thousand converts,
heeded the exhortation to plunder
their former idols.
It seems they were hoping
to save their own skins
from the pox.
Imitatio Cristi indeed–a lamb of God
before I even reached the age of reason.
Now turned scapegoat, put out
to find forage in the desert.
Free to harangue
But I don’t have a quarrel with the Lord
of the Close-at-Hand,
only with you who brandish
the law of Love.
You who flaunt
your stylized poverty,
patched robe & cowl
I’m forbidden to wear.
Telling yourselves that more virtue accrues
the more wealth & privilege you’ve had
to give up.
Or if sincerely humble–like this
haunted Frenchman, Marcos–unsuited
for battle. At the mercy of storms
& currents he can’t
This is an Order where bullies flourish,
men poisoned by envy of our own Founder.
They say the fighting started
while he still walked the earth,
too saintly to understand
the ways of vipers.
They say he preached to birds,
to unschooled fish.
throughout the world to spread
the gospel. So
we who have gotten
all our news of Heaven
what do we need these friars for?
Ah, but–says the Saint
in my dreams–
they need you.
Pursuing a separate line of thought, an hour ago I pulled an anthology of Islamic writings off the shelf: Windows on the House of Islam, edited by John Reynard (University of California Press, 1998). Opening at random, I encountered a rather startling analysis of idolatry, Commentary on Shabistari’s Garden of Mystery, by Shams ad-Din Lahiji (tr. Leonard Lewisohn).
Since behind the veil of the determined form of each atom of existence the sun of divine unity is latent and concealed, [Shabistari] remarks:
If Muslims knew what idols were, they’d cry
that faith itself is in idolatry.
This means that if the [formalist] Muslim who professes divine unity and disavows the idol was to become aware and conscious of what the idol is in reality, and of whom it is a manifestation, and of what person it is who appears in the idol’s form, he would certainly comprehend that the religion of the Truth lies in idolatry. Since the idol is a theophany of the absolute being Who is God, therefore in respect to its essential reality, the idol is God. Now, considering that the religion and rite of Muslims is Truth-worship and [as has been explained above] idolatry and Truth-worship are now seen to be one and the same thing, therefore true religion is in idolatry!
Since so-called blasphemy of the idolaters arises from their ignorance of the idol’s inner reality, he adds:
And if polytheists could just become aware
of what the idols are they’d have no cause to err in their faith.
. . . And since the ‘heresy’ of the idol worshipper consists solely in his attitude and attention, which is focused in the wrong direction toward the outer form of the idol, the writer observes:
The graven image they have seen
is but external handiwork and form.
And so by Holy Writ their name is ‘infidel.’
. . . Likewise, if you who make claims to Islam and orthodoxy perceive naught but the idol’s visible form and do not envision God hidden behind the veils of its determined form – and it is this particular form which is a corporeal receptacle for God’s theophany – you properly and legally cannot be called a Muslim! In fact, you are an infidel because you have veiled God’s theophany appearing in the idol!
So much for the Taliban! Lahiji adds that a true mystic should become “disillusioned with the false metaphorical Islam, based on the premise that possible being is absolutely distinct and separate from necessary being, God.”
I’m intrigued by the suggestion that metaphors themselves may be idols of a sort. I’ve always felt it’s impossible for a poet not to be an animist on some level. It’s a risky profession. Like Marcos, we may find ourselves lost in admiration for things whose original purposes were far from what we suppose – but does that make the insight any less genuine? If every “truth” is really a lie, then how can we approach Truth except through willful blindness?
Are you a blog whore?
The semi-coherent weblog Burning Bird defines “blog whore” thus:
wannabe Blog Diva. one who inveigle other bloggers to link to their blogs. Blogger that succumbs usually referred to as a Blog John (thus the blogroll)
However, a Google search suggests a much broader application. At least two other behaviors – quoting extensively from other people’s material, and leaving lots of comments on other blogs in the hope of attracting readers to one’s own – also seem integral to the blog whore gestalt. But wouldn’t that make virtually all bloggers “whores” in some sense? Let he who is without sin . . .
But wait! Is blog whoring actually considered a sin? Well, heck, nobody sins anymore. That’s just beyond retro, even. It’s hip to be bad, to push the envelope, to surf on the bleeding edge, to subvert the dominant paradigm. (I’m sure there are newer, hipper terms than these, but you get the drift.) My search revealed that in the vast majority of cases, “blog whore” is a status writers claim zealously for themselves. In other words, many, many people seem eager to qualify for the status of blog whore; few seem willing to extend this exalted status to others. In the highly competitive world of blogging, the feeling apparently is that if one can’t be a diva, one can at least aspire to whoredom.
Now, what are we to make of the fact that most of the bloggers fighting for the rights to the titles “diva” and “whore” are male? Is the so-called blogosphere actually modeled on a prison?
Perhaps my fellow bloggers are simply avid Bible-readers. Because, really, it’s the King James Bible that makes the most extensive use of the term “whoring” to denote any broadly transgressive behavior.
And yet they would not hearken unto their judges, but they went a whoring after other blogs, and bowed themselves unto them . . . (Judges 2:17)
And thou take of their daughters unto thy sons, and their daughters go a whoring after their blogs, and make thy sons go a whoring after their blogs. (Exodus 34:16)
And they transgressed against the Blog of their fathers, and went a whoring after the blogs of the people of the land, whom Blog destroyed before them. (1 Chronicles 5:25).
Well, Lord forfend! No whoring in this blog! Henceforth, when I “borrow” from others, and when I drop comments hither and yon, I will refer to it instead as cross-pollinating. Isn’t that a much more couth term than “blog whoring”? Yes, I think it is.
Cross-pollination: that’s what we’re all about here!
Of course, I am blatantly stealing this term from Gary Paul Nabhan, whose excellent Cross-Pollination: the Marriage of Science and Poetry (Milkweed Editions, 2004) I’ve just finished reading. But I’m sure Gary wouldn’t mind.
Sunt hic etiam sua praemia laudi,
sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt.
(Here too we find virtue somehow rewarded,
tears in the nature of things, minds altered by what humans have to bear.)
Virgil, Aeneid (adapted from the translation by David West)
From an interview with Staff Sgt. Jimmy Massey, recently retired from the U.S. Marine Corps:
Q: I would like to go back to the first incident, when the survivor asked why did you kill his brother. Was that the incident that pushed you over the edge, as you put it?
A: Oh, yeah. Later on I found out that was a typical day. I talked with my commanding officer after the incident. He came up to me and says: “Are you OK?” I said: “No, today is not a good day. We killed a bunch of civilians.” He goes: “No, today was a good day.” And when he said that, I said “Oh, my goodness, what the hell am I into?”
I was like every other troop. My president told me they got weapons of mass destruction, that Saddam threatened the free world, that he had all this might and could reach us anywhere. I just bought into the whole thing.
Q: What changed you?
A: The civilian casualties taking place. That was what made the difference. That was when I changed.
Q: Did the revelations that the government fabricated the evidence for war affect the troops?
A: Yes. I killed innocent people for our government. For what? What did I do? Where is the good coming out of it? I feel like I’ve had a hand in some sort of evil lie at the hands of our government. I just feel embarrassed, ashamed about it.
En alguna parte, en estos momentos,
confusamente complacido escribe en pulcro idioma
la ciencia de la mentira.
(Somewhere or another, at this very moment,
in confused complacency
is setting down in beautiful language
the science of lying.)
Roberto Sosa, “La puerta única,” El llanto de las cosas (adapted from the translation by Jo Anne Englebert)
Three Stanzas from Goethe
translated by James Wright
That man standing there, who is he?
His path lost in the thicket,
Behind him the bushes
Lash back together,
The grass rises again,
The waste devours him.
Oh, who will heal the sufferings
Of the man whose balm turned poison?
Who drank nothing
But hatred of men from love’s abundance?
Once despised, now a despiser,
He kills his own life,
The precious secret.
The self-seeker finds nothing.
Oh Father of Love,
If your pslatery holds one tone
That his ear might echo,
Then quicken his heart!
Open his eyes, shut off by clouds
From the thousand fountains
So near him, dying of thirst
In his own desert.
([Translator’s] NOTE: These three stanzas are from Goethe’s poem “Harzreise im Winter.” They are the stanzas which Brahms detached from the poem and employed as the text for his “Alto Rhapsody” of 1869.)
The German original for Brahms’ text is here. For background on Goethe and Brahms, music critic Herbert Glass has a nice essay on the Alto Rhapsody. It seems that this dark text represented a turning point for both the author and the composer, who positively wallowed in the gloomy grandeur of his composition:
In the words of Brahms biographer Jan Swofford, “He loved it so much that he slept with it (metaphorically) under his pillow. He took it to his bed, in other words, like a bride.”
Thanks to my brother Steve for the link to the interview with Massey.
People are always talking about “militating against.” When was the last time you heard about someone militating for something?
Well, maybe those valiant Coalition Forces in Iraq, who are militating for Democracy – along with (according to a widely circulating e-mail) fresh drinking water, vaccinations, and education for women!
Of course, one does sometimes also hear the unfortunately maligned alternative, “mitigate against.” I say “unfortunately,” because here in the Keystone State – and probably in many other parts of America the Beautiful – the Army Corps of Engineers tends to approve the destruction of natural wetlands as long as artificial wetlands are constructed someplace nearby. This is called wetlands mitigation, and it’s premised upon what are now generally recognized as faulty assumptions about the ability of human beings to recreate fully functioning ecosystems (cf. “Biosphere II”). Every study I’m aware of shows that artificial wetlands fail to replicate the originals; many of them aren’t even self-perpetuating.
However, in ordinary political discourse it’s considered in very poor taste to say things like, “the new highway will obliterate over 100 acres of valuable, spring-fed seeps.” How can you say “obliterate” if the DOT intends to construct replacements? Those seeps will simply be mitigated against.
I wonder if Dubya understands the difference between “militate” and “mitigate”? I mean, going after Saddam because you can’t catch Osama does have a certain whiff of mitigation about it. But if he isn’t careful, skyrocketing prices at the pump will militate against public support for further oil wars. An alarmingly large segment of the electorate clings to the view that expensive oil does not mitigate the loss of blood – which is, of course, quite cheap (especially Iraqi blood).
The unfolding prisoner abuse scandal might seem to militate against further adventures prescribed by the Project for a New American Century, such as the invasion of Iran and/or Syria. But many of the deep thinkers in the “imperialism with the gloves off” school must welcome news that can be slanted to place all the blame on ordinary “rogue” soldiers. If they have their way, human soldiers will all eventually be replaced with machines, a la “Terminator.” That is to say, they’ll be mitigated against.
Who needs the military anyway? It is the one, surviving vestige of the welfare state (even if pay has fallen to such low levels that many military families need food stamps to get by). The Ivy League chicken hawks in the Bush regime have to hate the G.I. Bill almost as much as they hate the economically disadvantaged folks who comprise over three quarters of enlisted men and women in the U.S. armed forces. And for the designer wars of the future, general issue (G.I.) just won’t be good enough. High-priced mercenaries are a much better deal, because they aren’t subject to courts martial or congressional oversight. The C.I.A. has been outsourcing for years. You don’t want your own guys turning the thumbscrews. Adhering to the letter of the Geneva Convention and giving our allies diplomatic cover militates against that shit.
One good piece of news that you rarely see in the headlines is the effort to restore the vast marshlands of southern Iraq, in which our old friends, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, are playing a leading role. Last year, when I first wrote about the unmitigated destruction of these wetlands – a case of simultaneous ecocide and genocide – the prospects for recovery looked grim. Since then, I’ve read a few reports in the environmental press indicating that Iraqi villagers themselves have been taking the lead in destroying drainage canals and refilling the marshes, and the Army Corps guys entrusted with oversight (along with the private consulting firm DAI, Duke University, the Iraq Foundation, the AMAR International Charitable Foundation, and the University of Basra – see here) seemed genuinely committed to ecological restoration. Perhaps there’s hope for the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers yet!
Unless, of course, the Army Corps views the restoration of the Tigris and Euphrates as the world’s most distant wetlands mitigation project. I must admit, there is a certain, warped symmetry to it. Levees, dams and dredging here; roadblocks, walled compounds, arresting and interrogating every fighting-aged male over there.
But with the latter policy in ruins, perhaps the best way to check the power of militant groups is simply to extend formal recognition to them – give ’em new uniforms and get the hell out of the way. Let the militants militate against someone else for a change – like, say, Iran. Nothing like a war against your neighbors to mitigate internal social discord! Hey, it worked for Saddam . . .
“Suddenly, subtle variations in the tone and rhythm of that whistling phrase seem laden with expressive intention, and the two birds singing to each other across the field appear for the first time as attentive, conscious beings, earnestly engaged in the same world that we ourselves engage, yet from an astonishingly different angle and perspective.”
David Abrams (see extended quote at end of post)
Living out here in the woods as I do, it’s sometimes easy for me to forget just how strange I’ve become. I read the above quote and thought, “What does he mean, ‘for the first time’? Doesn’t everybody hear bird songs that way?” But apparently most people’s first reaction is to think of birds as pre-programmed music boxes – when they hear them at all. Many folks, of course, don’t have the luxury of waking up and falling asleep to the songs of birds as I do (although there is an interstate highway right over the ridge, and it can be pretty loud sometimes). I guess it also helps that I spent my teenage years listening to 20th-century and avant-garde classical music, which was probably pretty good preparation for appreciating natural sound. The really weird thing is that I used to be a total music junkie, but over the last several years, without ever consciously intending to I’ve become so attuned to natural sounds that I find it difficult even to listen to recorded music for longer than a half-hour at a stretch.
For a fan of natural soundscapes, the months of May and June represent the year’s musical climax. Many mornings I’ll forgo an extra hour of sleep just so I can be out on the porch by first light. The dawn chorus begins a few minutes after 5:00 with the first tentative calls from song sparrow, titmouse and cardinal – the same birds that anchor the avian chorus in January. Almost immediately, however, a wood thrush tunes up, joined by a great-crested flycatcher and a common yellowthroat. Over the next two hours, these calls will be blended with a number of others: phoebe, red-bellied woodpecker, field sparrow, catbird, red-eyed vireo, Baltimore oriole, scarlet tanager, towhee, pileated woodpecker. A background of more-or-less continual chips and buzzes from chipping sparrow, worm-eating warbler and other more distant, interior forest species such as the cerulean warbler and ovenbird, makes up a sort of sonic horizon or drone effect.
But it’s the wood thrush’s song that, for me, provides the main focus of musical interest. Though less ethereal than the call of its close cousin the hermit thrush, the wood thrush’s song is variable enough to hold my attention for many hundreds of bars. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website – which include a wav file of the sound recording – describes it as follows:
Wood Thrushes are justly famous for their beautiful flute-like voices that may combine two notes at one time. The song is composed of three distinct parts. The first, often inaudible unless the listener is close, consists of two to six short low-pitched notes such as bup, bup, bup. The middle part is a loud phrase often written ee-oh-lay, and the final part is a sometimes ventriloquial, trill-like phrase made up of nonharmonic pairs of notes given quite rapidly and simultaneously. Each bird has a repertoire of songs based on combinations of variations of the three parts, and the songs are often repeated in order. The bup, bup, bup phrase is also heard as a call, which is given louder and at a greater frequency when the bird is agitated.
I’m not sure I agree with the cliched comparison to a flute. What they call the second and third parts combine woodwind and bell-like qualities. Setting aside the introduction and considering the rest of the song as one unit, I particularly admire the way the thrush modifies the bittersweetness of the main melodic lines with a shifting array of grace notes. These strike me as more light-hearted afterthoughts. A rough translation of thrush song might be something like, “The world can break your heart, you know. Drink up!”
We are blessed with the presence of this archetypal Neotropical migrant for barely three months of the year. Like the scarlet tanager and the cerulean warbler, its population has been steadily declining in recent years, due mainly to the loss and fragmentation of suitable nesting habitat by roads, highways and suburban and exurban sprawl. Last year, especially, thrush numbers seemed to be down here in Plummer’s Hollow, but this year they appear to have rebounded – at least around the houses. The old tenant house where I live apparently straddles the border between territories of two male thrushes, which means that I always have one if not both singers well within earshot.
It was bioacoustician Bernie Krause who first documented the existence and integrity of natural soundscapes, which he likens to symphonic compositions. (I prefer to think of them more as jazz improvisations, given that neither a composer nor a conductor is in evidence.) Krause discovered through studying sonograms that every song or call occupies a distinct aural niche. He hypothesizes that, as part of their adaptations to (and alterations of) specific habitats, species adjust their calls so as to complement rather than to compete with the calls of other species. This seems highly plausible, especially where passerines are concerned, since there is such a high degree of flexibility in the way they learn and transmit calls. As Krause and other birdsong collectors have found, calls can vary considerably within a species, displaying not only regional and local ‘dialects,’ but individual signatures as well. (The better part of these differences will be inaudible to humans.) One can easily imagine subtle shifts in songs as new aural niches open or close due to slow, bioregional shifts in ecosystem composition.
My friend the Sylph e-mailed late last week with a query about the mockingbird that had kept her awake the night before. (I’m not quite sure why listening to the mockingbird go on and on and on prompted her to think of me!) “What’s the source of their ‘creativity’?” she asked. “Do they remember songs of other creatures? Or are they just wired to improvise or mimic? The various riffs were in mostly threes and twos and the songs were not just of other birds but also frogs. So what’s up with the mockingbird?”
I said it’s uncertain how and whether creativity is “wired,” for mockingbirds as for other sentient species (including humans). There’s little doubt that some birds possess good memories – far better than humans, in fact. Although a few scientists do still believe that episodic memory is unique to humans, behavioral experiments with seed caching species such as Western scrub jays “show evidence in birds of mental time travel both backward and forward,” as Science News reported back in February. (Susan Milius, “Where’d I Put That? Maybe it Takes a Bird Brain to Find the Car Keys,” Vol. 165, 103-105.)
As for mimicry, the term itself carries unwarranted connotations of mechanical imitation, denying the considerable role of intelligence in shaping the calls of highly innovative species such as mockingbirds, catbirds and brown thrashers. And if we accept recent findings about mimicry, it seems to me that almost all passerines may be considered mimics to one degree or another. That is to say, everything they sing has been learned, not simply inherited, though it’s true that most seem predisposed to learn the songs of their own species. One set of experiments with juvenile white-crowned sparrows showed that they will learn the songs of whichever species they are caged with, which included tutors from a quite distantly related, Asian species, the red avadavit (yes, that’s really its name!). One of the birds most prized for its ability to mimic human speech in captivity, the hill mynah, doesn’t imitate other species in the wild at all. However, its calls do display distinct variations in dialect over quite short distances, which leads me to suspect that its extreme vocal flexibility represents an adaptation to a highly variable native soundscape.
Other experiments have substantiated fears about the effects of anthropogenic noise on birdsong transmission. The harmful “edge effects” of the interstate on the other side of the ridge from me include not only increased depredations of edge-dwelling predators, but severe impairment of avian soundscapes, as well. For many songbirds – especially interior forest specialists with relatively quiet calls – highway noise can disrupt courtship and territorial singing for hundreds of yards in either direction. And even when courtship and breeding are successful, researchers have discovered, quite often the young adults can’t properly learn their species’ songs. Birds raised near highways may be unable to defend a territory or attract a mate, because their songs are too incomplete – or may be missing altogether.
The Acoustic Ecology Institute website archives a number of great essays on soundscapes. (However, the site evidently hasn’t been updated for some time; it contains a few broken links.) I’ll close with a fairly lengthy selection from David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World (Pantheon Books, 1996) – an excellent read, by the way. According to Abrams, human beings are mimics par excellance.
Humans are tuned for relationship. The eyes, the skin, the tongue, ears, and nostrils–all are gates where our body receives the nourishment of otherness. This landscape of shadowed voices, these feathered bodies and antlers and tumbling streams–these breathing shapes are our family, the beings with whom we are engaged, with whom we struggle and suffer and celebrate.
For the largest part of our species’ existence, humans have negotiated relationships with every aspect of the sensuous surroundings, exchanging possibilities with every flapping form, with each textured surface and shivering entity that we happened to focus on. All could speak, articulating in gesture and whistle and sigh a shifting web of meanings that we felt on our skin or inhaled through our nostrils or focused with our listening ears, and to which we replied–whether with sounds, or through movements or minute shifts of mood. The color of sky, the rush of waves–every aspect of the earthly sensuous could draw us into a relationship fed with curiosity and spiced with danger. Every sound was a voice, every scrape or blunder was a meeting–with Thunder, with Oak, with Dragonfly. And from all of these relationships our collective sensibilities were nourished.
Today we participate almost exclusively with other humans and with our own human-made technologies. It is a precarious situation, given our age-old reciprocity with the many-voiced landscape. We still need that which is other than ourselves and our own creations. We are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human. . . . We need to know the textures, the rhythms and tastes of the bodily world, and to distinguish readily between such tastes and those of our own invention. Direct sensuous reality, in all its more-than-human mystery, remains the sole solid touchstone for an experiential world now inundated with electronically-generated vistas and engineered pleasures; only in regular contact with the tangible ground and sky can we learn how to orient and to navigate in the multiple dimensions that now claim us. . . .
If we listen, first, to the sounds of an oral language–to the rhythms, tones, and inflections that play through the speech of an oral culture–we will likely find that these elements are attuned, in multiple and subtle ways, to the contour and scale of the local landscape, to the depth of its valleys or the open stretch of its distances, to the visual rhythms of the local topography. But the human speaking is necessarily tuned, as well, to the various non-human calls and soundings that animate the local terrain. Such attunement is simply imperative for any culture still dependent upon foraging for its subsistence. Minute alterations in the weather, changes in the migratory patterns of prey animals, a subtle shift in the focus of a predator–sensitivity to such subtleties is inevitably reflected not just in the content but in the very shapes and patterns of human discourse.
The native hunter, in effect, must apprentice himself to those animals that he would kill. Through long and careful observation, enhanced at times by ritual identification and mimesis, the hunter gradually develops an instinctive knowledge of the habits of his prey, of its fears and its pleasures, its preferred foods and favored haunts. Nothing is more integral to this practice than learning the communicative signs, gestures, and cries of the local animals. Knowledge of the sounds by which a monkey indicates to the others in its band that it has located a good source of food, or the cries by which a particular bird signals distress, or by which another attracts a mate, enables the hunter to anticipate both the large-scale and small-scale movements of various animals. A familiarity with animal calls and cries provides the hunter, as well, with an expanded set of senses, an awareness of events happening beyond his field of vision, hidden by the forest leaves or obscured by the dark of night. Moreover, the skilled human hunter often can generate and mimic such sounds himself, and it is this that enables him to enter most directly into the society of other animals. . . .
If one comes upon two friends unexpectedly meeting for the first time in many months, and one chances to hear their initial words of surprise, greeting, and pleasure, one may readily notice a tonal, melodic layer of communication beneath the explicit meaning of the words–a rippling rise and fall of the voices in a sort of musical duet, rather like two birds singing to each other. Each voice, each side of the duet, mimes a bit of the other’s melody while adding its own inflection and style, and then is echoed by the other in turn–the two singing bodies thus tuning and attuning to one another, rediscovering a common register, remembering each other. It requires only a slight shift in focus to realize that this melodic singing is carrying the bulk of communication in this encounter, and that the explicit meanings of the actual words ride on the surface of this depth like waves on the surface of the sea.
It is by a complementary shift of attention that one may suddenly come to hear the familiar song of a blackbird or a thrush in a surprisingly new manner–not just as a pleasant melody repeated mechanically, but as active, meaningful speech. Suddenly, subtle variations in the tone and rhythm of that whistling phrase seem laden with expressive intention, and the two birds singing to each other across the field appear for the first time as attentive, conscious beings, earnestly engaged in the same world that we ourselves engage, yet from an astonishingly different angle and perspective. . . .
From such reflections we may begin to suspect that the complexity of human language is related to the complexity of the earthly ecology–not to any complexity of our species considered apart from that matrix. Language, writes Merleau-Ponty, “is the very voice of the trees, the waves, and the forests.”
As technological civilization diminishes the biotic diversity of the earth, language itself is diminished. As there are fewer and fewer songbirds in the air, due to the destruction of their forests and wetlands, human speech loses more and more of its evocative power. For when we no longer hear the voices of warbler and wren, our own speaking can no longer be nourished by their cadences. As the splashing speech of the rivers is silenced by more and more dams, as we drive more and more of the land’s wild voices into the oblivion of extinction, our own languages become increasingly impoverished and weightless, progressively emptied of their earthly resonance.