Humans Explain Things to Me

Nature once tumbled through our language. There are practical ways we can bring it back.

THE OTHER DAY my six-year-old daughter, Clea, stopped during our walk through a eucalyptus forest to her school and said: “Daddy, the trees are talking to us.”

I stopped too and listened along with her to the trees’ rustle. “It’s the wind Daddy,” she exclaimed, then blew a puff of air onto the back of her hand. “The trees talk through the wind.”

photo of flower in bolivia
When you consider the deep structural problems within the dominant culture, it’s hard to escape language as a principal culprit. What would be more satisfying than making changes to our language to create something more Gaia-centric? Photo by Carling Hale.

Another time she said to me on a hillock on our five-acre permaculture homestead in Bolivia: “When I die, Daddy, I want Pachamama (Mother Earth) to turn me into a flower. And you will be a petal in my flower. So will my sister.” She added that Mommy will be another flower growing next to her, “a friend.” The wind’s soft static in the pine trees above and the air fragrant with pine, Clea added more softly: “But we don’t decide what we are after we die. Pachamama decides.”

Such awareness drifts out the atmosphere in which Clea dwells, a space of, more often than not, language that is but little-toxified by an unseen “speciest” bias that reduces the generative Earth (Gaia, or Pachamama) to the limited and narrow human lens. Clea dwells in a more biocentric world partly because of the unorthodox way my wife and I have been attempting to raise her.

A big part of her upbringing at home, and also at the alternative school which ourselves and a group of our Bolivian and expatriate friends and neighbors have shaped, centers around de-throning the conditioned ways we modern humans speak … and, indeed, think. Language itself, as mainstream society conditions us to employ it, diminishes our own flourishing as well as society’s overall well-being. Through the thousands of words and sentences we speak aloud, and to ourselves, each day, we are no less than colonized, our autonomy and uniqueness shackled through each articulation.

Too sweeping a claim? Let’s investigate it.

We all have a general sense of the power of language: how sympathetic words sooth and unkind ones constrict; how politicians and corporations employ just a few phrases to condition the minds of millions. We also know that mainstream thinking and talking at once reflect and buttress power structures such as patriarchy, racial superiority, and ecocide. Others have written articulately about how to become aware of and adjust our language so that it is more respectful, egalitarian, and generally caring.

But here I’d like to go deeper still, into what language essentially is … and then suggest how we might make specific practical changes in our thought and speech to enhance our well-being and harmony within Nature. When you consider the deep structural problems within the dominant culture, it’s hard to escape language as a principal culprit. What could be more satisfying than to look at how you individually — and within your family or community — can begin today to make changes to that deeply conditioned aspect of culture and create something new, inspiring, and Gaia-centric?

BEFORE WE GET TO the practical actions and solutions, it is vital to delve into the depth of today’s language conundrum.

Pioneering cultural ecologist David Abram, in his book The Spell of the Sensuous, goes to the headwaters of human linguistics and discovers nature communicating with itself. Human beings, until quite recently in our evolution, lived within a bigger-than-bi-ped background where anthro-talk was but one of thousands of sounds, along with the babble of a brook or the crick of a cricket. Human language was, of course, utilitarian — hunting, courtship, fishing, and “grooming” others of our species through greetings and sharing information. But so too were — and are — other species’ calls, songs, and cautions. Consider Ishmael, the great literary classic that pointed so powerfully to anthropocentrism as we had never before heard it. The gorilla in the book says not a word. Everything exchanged between a human and the gorilla is communicated through a radiating form of communication that intentionally denies the verbal language.

In the epochs before writing, when people were far fewer and better balanced with four-leggeds and wingeds, Gaia tumbled through our lexicon. A residue remains in the gush of a waterfall, the whoosh of air, and gurgle or splash of a river; what we today call onomatopoeia used to be, essentially, language itself. Language was once a petal in a large flower, a balanced portion of a bright living circle growing in a particular soil. To imagine what our voice used to be, picture an ancient evening bonfire. In the glow, one of your distant ancestors is telling a tale, her larynx trilling sandpiper and rumbling mule deer as those creatures listen in beyond the fire’s edge, to their own echoes emerging from us. That “wildlife” then re-seeds those echoes into their own evolving voices, or into what novelist Jean Ginot calls “the song of the world.”

The supreme shift, some five millennia ago, from language as oral to written brought along a kind of Babel. That particular tale told by your ancestor around a particular bonfire with particular animals listening in — in other words, Nature-enfleshed speech — became extracted from Gaia and ossified into symbols, letters, and text. Innocently at first, on the wall of a cave, then in stone, then mass-produced on paper, words became disembodied, discordant, omnipresent.

No mere breach, this was a chasm: Language no longer breathed and entwined with wilderness. It was no longer here and now. Abram shows how, as language morphed into an abstraction, the human mind became ripe for management by distant power. Gaia-centered livelihoods and the “pagan” worldviews undergirding them in particular locales became gradually eclipsed by “religions of the Book” — Islam, Christianity, Judaism — which distributed mass-reproduced written language, thereby threshing a thousand localized, rather anarchic relationships with unique environments into a single basket. Imperial political organizations and ideologies arose in a similar and parallel fashion.

Beauty, to written language’s great credit, was also mass-produced: literature, poetry, liberating treatises. But these, too, became decontextualized, so that while creating — for those with access to such texts either through reading them directly or listening to them being read aloud — more cosmopolitan human beings, people simultaneously became increasingly less connected to the more-than-human matrix. Thus, our ancestors became distanced from the natural environment within which people find deeper well-being and happiness, distanced from our innate biophilia, or love of the living world beyond the myopia of humans-alone.

Today, disembodied language and its control by powerful interests has hit hyperdrive through the information technologies to which ever more of us around the globe hitch ourselves. Personal devices like smartphones and tablets are sold as granting individuality and freedom. They do provide that, to an extent, at least when viewed within today’s limiting productivity logic, but they also embed us ever more deeply in abstracted, mass-produced language through text, voice, and video, thereby strip-mining, ever deeper, the once sacred resource of our solitude.

Let me give you a concrete example of what all of this means from a dinner party I attended before the Covid-19 pandemic in a large American city. A woman in her early 40s, a successful professional, held a phone in her hand through the meal, updating our group every ten minutes or so on the tallies in a close national election in a particular European country. And each time any uncertain fact would bubble up in the larger group conversation, she’d promptly ask her phone the question and erase all ambiguity — along with the pleasure of creative speculation in conversation.

During the meal, as this particular individual and her smartphone held forth, my thoughts went to cultural critic Rebecca Solnit’s essay “Men Explain Things to Me,” in which she rightly posits that powerful men tend to hold forth at parties and in meetings, demeaning women by constantly explaining things to them. It began to occur to me that Solnit’s point is correct, but that there’s also a broader conundrum: Homo sapiens explain things to me.

Men top the pyramid that organizes humans, and there is no lack of intra-species sexism. But both male and female humans top the grand inter-species pyramid, together dominating the rest of the planet’s species. (Scientists estimate eight million species, all told.) The former pyramid, called patriarchy, and also the latter one, called anthropocentrism, have been invented by and are reinforced through the thoughts, speech, and actions of, well, you-know-which-species.

Homo sapiens have even come up with a rather narcissistic term for our current geological era — the Anthropocene — suggesting a sort of epochal inevitability to our present Earth-sacking. A counter-term — the Ecozoic — drawn from environmental theologian Thomas Berry, has also come into the lexicon, thus employing language as creative dissent. The “Ecozoic” suggests that global warming, biodiversity loss, and the mass pillage of Gaia might really be a kind of alarm bell that wakes Homo sapiens up to the need for a culture of Earth care over the long term. What is the effect of speaking about ourselves and our world in such different ways?

FORTUNATELY, the apparently indelible task of re-imagining a culture, through speaking differently instead of merely arguing well, can be broken down into quite doable actions. The key entry-point is perhaps surprising: metacognition, or stepping out of one’s talking and thinking in order to view them as a neutral observer might.

For starters, try listening to yourself for a day. Each time you speak, hear the words you use. How often do brands slip into your speech? What about cliché, a sure sign you’re in others’ thought grooves? Examine the words you write, in emails, in texts, and in posts. What of you is in those words?

Listen too, to your conversational partners, not only to the meaning being conveyed, but the vehicle of language used to convey it. Begin to see your own language as an anthropologist might. One novel way to do this is to stream online a radio program in a very different dialect of English (try Liberian English, for example, or Krio, from Sierra Leone). Sink into the reality that to outside ears, your dialect is exactly as foreign — and as captured by a larger culture — as theirs is to you.

As your observer-mode is honed, take it to work, recalling Thoreau’s musing that he sells only his bodily labor for cash, not the workings of his intellect and language. Thoreau considered intellect and his own language to be sacred. Whether your job is using words to sell a certain product, or to forward an official line, or even, more subtly, as teaching through a particular curriculum, or lawyering through a lexicon learned in school, simply be aware of your words. Do you use those words, or do they use you? Does your speech and writing respect your wild inner-acre of freedom?

Next, go into your head. Find a comfortable spot, preferably outside or, if indoors, in a calm space without distractions and simply focus on your breath. When a thought pops up, name it as thinking. Then let it go and come back to your breath. Do this meditation for ten minutes each day for a week, or better yet two. Begin to notice, without any judgment, the patterns of your thoughts. How many of them are the same ones you had the day before? How many are conditioned thoughts, comparisons, and so on?

What happens naturally as you do this is sort of like what happens when you go on a good diet. Just as dieting may help you shed extraneous weight and come back to a healthier form, metacognition helps you shed extraneous thoughts and return to your mind’s natural, healthier form.

By doing some of the above, you’ll become more aware of your thinking, the handmaiden of language. Now play with it. If you notice a cliché emerge — of the life-is-hard or growth-is-good or Thank-God-it’s-Friday varieties — interrogate it. An advertised corporate slogan slips into your speech? Smile and use your own language instead. In my family, for example, we sometimes have fun with Spanglish, allowing the two tongues to blend and taking us out of muy americano talk-ruts.

Use abundant air quotes (“Progress.” “Nature.”) to liberate from straightjacketing terms. Doing this with children helps them intuit the anthropocentricity of language; so too does the fun practice of making up languages. With both my daughters, I’ve spent time, especially when they were in the two- to four-year-old range when their minds are most free, making up an entire language, conveying weird thoughts through gestures. Or try the Buddhist practice of telling a child “We call this a tree,” instead of “This is a tree.” After all, it’s not a tree. It’s not ink scratches, nor is it two consonants and two vowels. This so-called “tree” — an olive-green oak on that hillock — is at once utterly unique and utterly unified with “the ten-thousand things.”

IF THE ABOVE PRACTICES give enough healthy distance from conditioning language, the following ones go bodily and tap into language’s original freshness.

Notice life’s soundscapes. The campfire’s crackle. The wind’s whoosh in the treetops. The pitter-patter of rain on a roof. Can those sounds flow into yours? A pianist friend of mine allows birdsong to enter his piano compositions; when he later plays them, those particular avian species come back to sing as the ivory tickles. If you like to write, unleash a non-speciest free-write, allowing some of the soundscape to whishhh into your words.

I’m aware of the irony that I use words to convey the images and concepts that you are reading right now. However, while this form does not completely de-throne language — in fact, that’s its very body — there is nevertheless an invisible background here. Gaia is behind this. Though I’m using 26 letters and a bunch of punctuation marks here, I spend part of each day in silence, listening, in order that this page might be a membrane between language and the song of the world.

Which brings us to another approach: don’t do anything. We humans have a natural urge to share what we have seen or learned, and to label it. Sometimes when I’m about to label a mystery, I WAIT. (In other words I ask myself: Why am I talking?). The most powerful use of language, sometimes, is the power not to use it. Instead, I sink into the sky, a breeze … and also into my inner weather. Something interesting usually happens: The moment aligns. Life doesn’t always need my brain. A hawk overhead wings stiff-as-a-kite! This is far from the nervous, more-is-better chatter that helps fuel over-consumption and grows the divide between us and the rest of nature. Instead of anthropocentrically narrowing reality, WAITing allows us to be more biocentric, tuning in to surrounding sensory stimulus.

A final practice is a simple, profound one we learned from my sister. Before meals in my family, one of us rings a bell and we all bring our hands into prayer position and breathe in silence. After a while, somebody rings the bell again and we look silently, even sensuously, into each person’s eyes before eating. We express our gratitude in silence, not through words.

WAITing, silence-rituals … small, powerful valves on the unconscious flow of words into the world. Only a tiny sliver of humanity lives in silent monasticism. Most of us use words all the time. When we do use them, let us choose mindfully, within broad presence. What delicious basil. How beautiful you look right now.

It brings us back to the simple moment of my six-year-old daughter observing, on the walk to school, that the trees talk to us through the wind. Clea woke me up, and I remembered that I was a creature among myriad other creatures embodied in a world woven through with beautiful languages of larynxes and syrinxes, of waves and branches. Trees, indeed, explain things to me. Might we rediscover this broader, fresher place, telling stories by a campfire or in a sun-dappled meadow, to friends and kin, as our words and silences pattern into a song that — rather perfectly — explains things to us and through us?

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