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Excerpt from A Language Older Than Words

Feeling Again (p. 60)

From chapter "Cranes"

Just as the return of warmth makes frostbitten fingers feel like they’re on fire, this period of gradual return was in many ways the most difficult of my life, more difficult even than childhood. I was beginning to feel things again. My first new look at the unhappiness I saw blissfully accepted by those around me was shocking. I became at first deeply confused, and then just as deeply convinced that awareness, and feeling, led inevitably to decreased happiness. Scientist that I was, I came up with the following: Happiness equals one over the quantity one plus Awareness. (Yeah, I know, I was a geek.) Trying this equation on my fellow students, I received nothing but confirmation: Thank God I’m a happy idiot; You think too much; Who cares? and the ubiquitous Of course I hate it here, but when I get out I’m gonna get a red Porsche.

A friend asked, “If increased awareness means less happiness, why bother?” No answer.

Three or four nights later I had a dream. I was driving. To my right I saw baby cranes—bluegreen, all legs, beak, and wings— standing in a field. They took off and crashed, took off and crashed. I stopped the car and got out. “That looks like it hurts. Why do you do it?”

One of the cranes looked me square in the eye. “We may not fly very well yet, but at least we aren’t walking.”

I awoke, happy. From that moment, there has been no turning back.


This past weekend I taught at a nature-writing workshop. As part of a book signing, I read the first twenty pages of this manuscript. Because I had never before shared them publicly, I was excited and more than a little nervous. Afterward. someone said, “I just really wish a healing energy for you.”

I appreciated her words. and told her so, but was also in some vague way annoyed. I knew that if one week from now, or ten, or a hundred, her impulse were still to feel sorrow for me, and to primarily wish me healing, then either I did not do my job as a writer, or she was a bad listener. Immediately after she left, I wished I had pointed to the sky and repeated to her the Buddhist saying “Don’t look at my finger ! look at the moon.”

My family is a microcosm of the culture. What is writ large in the destruction of the biosphere was writ small in the destruction of our household. This is one way the destructiveness propagates itself—the sins of the fathers (and mothers) visiting themselves unto the children for seven generations. or seven times seven generations. The death of my childhood may have been dramatic, but in a nation in which 565,000 children are killed or injured by their parents or guardians each year, my childhood does not qualify as remarkably abnormal. Another way to say this is that within any culture that destroys the salmon, that commits genocide, that demands wage slavery, most of the individuals—myself included—are probably to a greater or lesser degree insane.

I wish that my childhood would have been different. I do not, however, regret what happened. This does not mean that I would gladly go through it again. But mythologies of all times and all places tell us that those who enter the abyss and survive can bring back important lessons. I have no need to merely imagine the unimaginable. And I will no longer forget. I have learned that whether I choose to feel or not. pain exists, and whether we choose to acknowledge them or not, atrocities continue. I have grown to understand that in the shadow of the unspeakable I can and must speak and act against our culture’s tangled web of destructiveness, and stop the destruction at its roots.