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Excerpt from A Language Older Than Words

Jim Nollman (p. 68)

From chapter "The Safety of Metaphor"

Jim was waiting for me near the dock, and he drove me in his old yellow pickup to the home he shares with his wife and their two daughters. He showed me his garden, a beautiful patchwork of herbs, fruit trees, berries, and vegetables, set off from the pathways that weaved through them—like the Sound through the islands—by small boulders he’d moved for borders. He took me to a one-room cabin across the garden from his house.

We talked about his garden, how every day he walks the paths for an hour or so, stands in front of the bushes and talks to them. He observed that whenever his family leaves, the plants look listless on their return, even if they’ve been well taken care of. “The plants know when were here, he said, “or when we’re not here. How do you verify something like that? It’s pointless to even try. He continued, “I know this about my garden in the same way I know my hat is made out of cloth. To be able to surrender to the knowledge that the garden and I are connected nurtures my soul. I wish more people could know this connection more often, and I believe people did know it before we became so dependent on machines and jobs and time.”

Away from the Sound, the afternoon grew warm, and in the sunny cabin, with its wide windows and the line between sun and shadow sliding slowly across the floor, it became warmer still. Jim said, “People laugh up their sleeves at anything that defies the industrial explanation of our lives, anything that is spiritual. But these experiences are grace. Interacting with nonhumans doesn’t have anything to do with gathering information; it has to do with being blessed. And wanting to be blessed. It has to do with that intersection of communication and communion.

I nodded in agreement, and then changed the subject. “Do you ever wonder if you’re projecting?”

“There was a time, when I was thirty-five or forty. I was working intensely with orcas, alongside scientists, and I worried about that all the time. But I don’t really care anymore. I’m content to set up situations where ‘those things,’ whatever they are, are likely to happen. The meetings themselves are so remarkable— whether they involve ‘interspecies communication’ or not—they justify themselves.”

The tape recorder hummed and ticked on the table between us. Jim continued, “I couldn’t do what I do if I had to count on results, because too often I don’t have any; in terms of what our culture or magazines or editors would believe. In the late 80s I was doing a film every summer, and we’d have these incredible interactions with whales, but the filmmakers never got them. It’s like they never happened. Finally I had to walk away.

I looked at him, puzzled, and he continued, “I had to find a new reason for my work, for my art, or I would have had to stop doing communication with nonhumans. Then I realized that art doesn’t really need to have a reason to exist. It’s like what John Cage said, ‘Art is whatever you can get away with.”’

I liked so much of what he’d said earlier, but I found myself on a slippery slope of damp squib. I tried to pin him down. I had to know if he thought these experiences were as real as the hat on his head. “Being an artist, everything is just metaphors.” He paused. “It’s safe. If I came out and said these things as pure energy—I’d get in trouble. That doesn’t happen if you talk about them as metaphors.”

“But are they true?”

“It doesn’t matter. It just matters if they’re interesting. If you’re going to last, you can’t take any of it very seriously; yourself, the universe, anything.”

“Why not?”

“You won’t have a voice. I wouldn’t be able to publish. I wouldn’t be able to speak. This summer I get to work with some world-famous marine biologists; we’ll be doing stuff with humpback whales. Ten years ago these guys wouldn’t have touched me with a ten-foot pole, and now they’ll work with me straight on. And you know why? Because I’ve never made any sweeping statements. I’ve never said that whales are intelligent. I’ve never taken a stance….

“Everything we’re talking about here,” he continued, “is very threatening, to the culture, and to people’s basic ideas about how the universe works. The trick is to talk about it without shutting people down. How do you breach their defenses? What is your trick to be able to get them to listen, and to make it so you can continue? I’m trying to change the culture, trying to change the way people perceive their place in the world, but I’m also trying to make a living. How do you do that? It would be very easy for me to get lumped into a box, as somebody who just plays music with whales. And I don’t want to get lumped there.”

I understood where he was coming from, but the same phrase kept popping into my head: We’re screwed.

I stepped away from the conversational fire, and asked, knowing well the answer, why the notion of communicating with coyotes, whales, plants, is threatening to the culture.

“If the Earth is dead, it feels no pain. If the Earth weren’t considered dead, we couldn’t build the Empire State Building, because we couldn’t bring ourselves to hurt the planet so much just to make a big building. The entire culture is based on the belief that the earth is inanimate.”

I stepped even further away, and, because the seminal experience of his life had come in a barnyard in Mexico with a turkey, asked what has caused him to continue to listen to the natural world, at least metaphorically.

“We need to distinguish between listening and hearing. I believe I listen better than many people, but I still don’t hear very well. I have a lot of friends around the world who are able to actually hearthe natural world. Still, whether or not we hear, listening is important. Until we start to listen—and, I hope eventually hear—the natural world for ourselves, nonhumans will be regarded as objects. Just the act of trying to listen can change a lot of our perceptions about nature, and that can change the way we live.”

We talked through the afternoon, and eventually I turned off the recorder. After dinner, and after going with him and his wife to a reading in town, I returned to spend the night in the cabin. There, I fell asleep listening to the rustling of the stalks in his garden. About three, a cock began to crow. I shut the window and covered my head with a pillow to stifle the noise, then, fell back asleep.

The next day, riding the ferry back, I stood on the bow and watched the houses float by on islands like so many pieces of beached wood. I wondered how much this trip had really helped. I had no need to be convinced of the metaphorical efficacy of listening to the natural world. The mess of houses, seaplanes, and boats—never mind the floating styrofoam and tiny oil slicks— were sufficient evidence that we’re not listening. But this had more to do with listening to our own detritus.

None of this is to diminish the importance of listening as metaphor. Nor is it to diminish the importance of listening to our trash, which clearly is just as crucial to our survival. If we were paying any attention, would we be making plutonium, jet skis, mink coats, protein drinks, breast implants, satellite surveillance systems.

The problem with viewing this metaphorically is that metaphors don’t take down dams. Metaphors are not inescapable. “That’s a nice metaphor,’ says the vivisectionist, the politician, the factory farm owner, the scientist, “but you’re wrong.”

“It’s a nice story,” say the rest of us, “but now it’s time to get back to work.”

I went inside the ferry and sat down. I was no longer that interested in the question of my own sanity; Compared to what we’ve done, and what we continue to do, even to this little corner of the planet, the whole notion of making a deal with coyotes no longer seemed so crazy. Questioning myown sanity amid all the unspoken insanity of our culture seemed like the craziest idea I’d everheard.

Of course I also realized I was making an unfair leap of logic: the fact that some people make satellite surveillance systems doesn’t mean coyotes understand a damn thing. They might, but there’s no connection.

I went back outside, and found the fins of orcas gliding above the Sound’s smallish waves. At first only a few people saw the black triangles, but more and more noticed, until virtually everyone was leaning against the fern’s railings, gasping in unison as we saw the black and white and black of their bodies, all of us straining to see this bit of nature gliding through the pollution of this well-traveled stretch of water.

Most everyone I know speaks openly about the clear and present collapse of industrial civilization in one-on-one conversations. This is true not only for my friends, who are mainly writers, activists of one sort or another, or revolutionaries, but also for people I encounter on buses or planes, in airports, and so on. It’s also true that almost without exception the people I know most intimately speak of the certainty that unless it is stopped, our culture will destroy every living being on the planet. Once again, they say this only in private.

I once stood behind a woman and her little boy in line to board an airplane. He looked up at her. “What if the plane crashes”

“Shhh,” she said, “we don’t talkabout that.”

There is a sense in which Nollman was right. The price of admission to public discourse is an optimistic denial pushed to absurd lengths. I live less than three miles from the Spokane River, which begins about forty miles east of here as it flows out of Lake Coeur d’Alene. Lake Coeur d’Alene, one of the most beautiful lakes in the world, is also one of the most polluted with heavy metals. There are days when more than a million pounds of lead drains into the lake from mine tailings on the South Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River. Hundreds of migrating tundra swans die here each year from lead poisoning as they feed in contaminated wetlands. Some of the highest blood-lead levels ever recorded in human beings were from children in this area. Yet just last summer the Spokesman-Review, the paper of record for the region, wrote that concern over this pollution is unnecessary because, in their words, “there are no human bodies lining the Spokane River.”

The resemblance between this behavior—a steadfast refusal to acknowledge physical reality—and my own denial as a child is frightening. I see myself at the kitchen table, bringing the spoon to my mouth with a mechanical precision that would have made Descartes proud. I see my father by my bed, a dark figure on a background nearly as dark, and in that one so-brief instant of awful recognition, I feel my consciousness slip away— This cannot happen. This cannot happen to me—quickly, like running footfalls down a distant corridor, or like the last bit of water sucking down an open pipe. As my consciousness disappears, so, too— poof—does my father. Poof, no more father, no more rape. Poof, no more clearcuts, no more lead, no more crash.

Suddenly for all our claims to rationality we are, each and every one of us, as much out of our minds as we are out of our bodies. Poof.


Just today a friend told me she used to date a man who hunted. She hated the fact that he killed.

“Do you eat meat?” I asked.
“Yes,” she replied, “but I don’t have to see them die.”
A moment’s pause, and she added, “I can’t believe I just said that.” Another pause, and we both laughed.



A few weeks ago I participated in a conference of about twenty-five environmentalists and small farmers. For three days we attempted to name values we hold in common and in opposition to each other. The purpose was to begin a dialogue between these two beleaguered groups, which may lead to better working relationships as we both try to stop the destruction of family farms and farming communities by transnational agribusiness corporations.

One of our exercises was to pretend that the year was 2018, and that somehow our culture had undergone a revolution in values such that we were now living sustainably. We wrote what we believed sustainable communities and farms would look and feel and smell like, what technologies would be used, and so on.

I don’t know whether it broke my heart more to perform the exercise or for the group to share the results. This was due in part to the fact that no mention was made, either in the setup of the exercise or in the answers, of the nearly insuperable physical difficulties we face—for example, the fact that those in power control guns, tanks, airplanes, biological and nuclear weapons, as well as all major media outlets, and have shown themselves time and again more than eager to use these various tools to destroy any perceived threat. Nor did anyone mention the probably unconscious and certainly irrational imperative that drives all of the destruction. My discomfort arose primarily because even when we spoke of technology; no one mentioned the crash. We spoke much of “appropriate” or “friendly”’ technologies, but we did not define either one, nor did we mention how or why people would implement these technologies. Finally I could hold back no longer.

“Everyone here knows industrial civilization isn’t sustainable. We all know that any technology that relies on the use of non-renewables is by definition not sustainable. We also know that by definition, any technology or activity that damages any other community— human or nonhuman—isn’t sustainable. Finally, everyone here knows that there’s no way within the next twenty years we’ll make a transition to a technologically sustainable culture. The best we can hope for is that we begin to throttle down our overblown technology, to bring ourselves to a soft landing instead of a full crash.”

Everyone seemed to agree, and it came clear to me that while these thoughts had probably occurred to nearly everyone in the room, no one else had been willing to speak until someone broke the ice. Poof.

When dams were erected on the Columbia, salmon battered themselves against the concrete, trying to return home. I expect no less from us. We too must hurl ourselves against and through the literal and metaphorical concrete that contains and constrains us, that keeps us from talking about what is most important to us, that keeps us from living the way our bones know we can, that bars us from our home. It only takes one person to bring down a dam.

There are times the lies get to me, times I weary of battering myself against the obstacles of denial, hatred, fear-induced stupidity, and greed, times I want to curl up and fall into the problem, let it sweep me away as it so obviously sweeps away so many others. I remember a spring day a few years ago, a spring day much like this one, only a little more sun, and warmer. I sat on this same couch and looked out this same window at the same ponderosa pine.

I was frightened, and lonely. Frightened of a future that looks dark, and darker with each passing species, and lonely because for every person actively trying to shut down the timber industry, stop abuse, or otherwise bring about a sustainable and sane way of living, there are thousands who are helping along this not-so-slow train to oblivion. I began to cry.

The tears stopped soon enough. I realized we are not so outnumbered. We are not outnumbered at all. I looked closely, and saw one blade of wild grass, and another. I saw the sun reflecting bright off the needles of pine trees, and I heard the hum of flies. I saw ants walking single file through the dust, and a spider crawling toward the corner of the ceiling. I knew in that moment, as I’ve known ever since, that it is no longer possible to be lonely, that every creature on earth is pulling in the direction of life— every grasshopper, every struggling salmon. Every unhatched chick, every cell of every blue whale—and it is only our own fear that sets us apart. All humans, too, are struggling to be sane, struggling to live in harmony with our surroundings, but it’s really hard to let go. And so we lie, destroy, rape, murder, experiment, and extirpate, all to control this wildly uncontrollable symphony, and failing that, to destroy it.