Purchase A Language Older Than Words
Read more

Excerpt from A Language Older Than Words

Listening To the Land (p. 24)

From chapter "Coyotes, Kittens, and Conversations"

I called my friend, Jeannette Armstrong. A traditional Okanagan Indian, she is an author, teacher, and philosopher. She travels extensively working on indigenous sovereignty and land rights issues, and helps to rebuild native communities damaged by the dominant culture. I told her about my interactions with the coyotes and said, “I don’t know what to make of this.”

She laughed, then said, “Yes, you do.”

A few weeks later we took a walk, and sat on the steep bank of a river. I leaned against the reddish dirt and played with the tendril of a tree’s root that trailed from the soil. In front of us an eddy whirled in circles large enough to carry whole water-soaked trees in lazy circuits. Each round, the logs almost broke free only to fall back toward the bank and slide again upstream. Beyond the eddy the river moved slow and smooth, and beyond the river we could see cottonwoods and haystacks dotting broad meadows, interspersed with fields of alfalfa hemmed by barbed-wire fences. In the distance, the plains gave way to mountains, low and blue.

Jeannette said, “Attitudes about interspecies communication are the primarydifference between western and indigenous philosophies. Even the most progressive western philosophers still generally believe that listening to the land is a metaphor.” She paused, then continued, emphatically, “It’s not a metaphor. It’s how the world is.”

I looked at the river. It would be easy to observe the eddy and make up a half-dozen lessons I could learn from it, for example, the obvious metaphor of the logs traveling in circles, like people trapped in a confining mindset that doesn’t allow them to reenter the free flow of life. There’s certainly nothing wrong with fabricating metaphors from the things we find around us, or from the experience of others—human or otherwise—but in both of those situations the other remains a case study onto which we project whatever we need to learn. That’s an entirely different circumstance than listening to the other as it has its say, reveals its intents, expresses its experience, and does all this on its own terms.

Certainly it would be a step in the right direction if our culture as a whole could accept the notion of listening to the natural world—or listening at all, for that matter—even if they thought that “listening” was merely a metaphor. I once heard a Diné man say that uranium gives people radiation poisoning because the uranium does not like to be above ground. It wants to remain far beneath the surface of the earth. Whether we view this statement as literal truth or metaphor, the lesson is the same: digging up uranium makes you sick

But to view this metaphorically is to still to perceive the world anthropocentrically. In this case the metaphorical view expresses concern for the people poisoned by uranium. The Diné man’s observation, on the other hand, is a comment on the importance of maintaining the order of things.

I told Jeannette about this, then sat silent while I considered a pair of conversations I’d previously engaged in, one a couple of years before, and one much more recently. In the former conversation I’d been sitting on the floor of my living room, speaking with a scientist friend of mine who insisted that the scientific method—whereby an observer develops a hypothesis, then gather data to rigorously test its feasibility—is in fact the only way we learn. One of my cats walked into the room, and my friend said, “Hypothesis: Cars purr when you pet them.” She scratched her finger on the carpet, and the cat trotted over to her. She ran her hand along the cat’s back. The cat purred. “Hypothesis supported,” she said. “Sample size, one. Where’s another cat?”

I knew I disagreed, but it took me a while to articulate my reason. Finally I said that whether we are electrifying a kitten or petting a cat, if the purpose is specifically to collect data we’re still objectifying the cat. “What jf”, I said, “I pet her because I like to, and because I know she likes it? I can still pay attention, and I can still learnfrom the relationship. That’s what happens with my other friends. Why not with the cat, too? But the pointis pursuing a relationship, not gathering information.”

She hesitated, looping strands of hair around her index finger, as she often does when she contemplates something, and then she said, “I guess that would change the whole notion of what knowledge is, and how we get it.”

I nodded. The cat, for her part, reached up on her hind legs to push her head against my friend’s arm. Absentmindedly, my friend stroked the cat’s back.

The other conversation was shorter, but then trees can be rather taciturn. I was walking the dirt road that leads to my mailbox, which intersects with a paved road. I noticed an old pine tree just on the corner, as I had noticed it many times previous, and I thought, “That tree is doing very well.”

Immediately I heard a response that did not pass through my ear but went directly to the part of my brain that receives sounds. I heard a completion of my sentence that changed its meaning altogether: “For not being in a community.” I looked around, and though there were other trees nearby, this was not a full tree community. The tree’s nearest neighbors included the mailboxes and a telephone pole coated with faded creosote. I began to think about this lack of community, and from there began to think of all the times I had moved, from Nebraska to Maine and back to Nebraska, then Montana, to Colorado for college, Nevada, California, months spent living in my truck, back to Nevada, Idaho, Washington. I thought about the people I had left behind, my grandmother, my brothers, one sister and then another, friends. The irrigation ditch behind my old house. The aspen trees outside the front window, the Russian olives, the immense anthills in the pasture. These were my associations, not what I heard the tree “say.” That’s the crucial difference. The tree merely expressed one phrase. Everything else came afterward. Try it yourself. Listen to someone, and pay attention to where your thoughts take you. It actually feels different to hear than to think.

I told Jeannette about these two conversations. We talked some more, about the river, about her activism and my own, about what it will take for humans to survive. As we talked, a mosquito buzzed around her face, then stopped to perch on her arm. She waved it away. I told her about the dogs, and how they had stopped eating eggs as soon as I asked. I can’t believe how easy this is. “Yeah. That’s what we’ve been trying to tell you now for five hundred years.”