We have come to where language begins


fox surrounded

“Fox”—though only inside that conceptual boundary.  Remove the boundary and—presto!—it is something else. Behold modern man’s great epistemological dilemma. I call it the “Great Forgetting,” after Daniel Quinn.

I am not a real writer.  I must be honest.  A true writer writes regularly, generally daily, consuming quarts of ink.  The hard stuff.  Smell their breath — reeks of ink.  Palpate the liver — enlarged.  Real writers are literary winos.

That’s not me.  I write in fits and starts.  Binges.  This makes me a dry drunk most of the time.  (Besides, what I call a book is really no more than a long meditation, which doesn’t qualify as a real book anyhow.)

There is a deeper, more disturbing reason why I’m not a real writer.  I am running out of language.  I sometimes feel like Alice’s Cheshire Cat, a bit of me disappearing with each volume.  This might seem like a paradox from someone who’s published several books.  The important thing is not that books were written, but where they have led me — to the far side of language.

My first book, “Keepers of the Game,” established my reputation as a historian, winning the “best book of the year” award from the American Historical Association.  So far so good.  Any normal person would have followed that up with something reasonable, like “Son of Keepers” or “Further Adventures of the Keepers of the Game.”  Instead I plunged into a protracted quarrel with the very idea of historical consciousness (witness “The American Indian and the Problem of History” followed by “In the Spirit of the Earth:  Rethinking History & Time”).

These two books firmly dis-established my reputation as a historian (historians lined up not to review them) — except that I was now a tenured professor of the stuff (Rutgers).

I found myself teaching something I no longer believed in. In this state of apostasy I went to live with Navajos for the better part of a summer. Something happened to me in Canyon de Chelly. I was susceptible. Susceptible to what the Navajo call “hozho” (with a lot of accent marks: pronounced “hon-zho”). Hozho is Beauty in all its mysteries and powers. I felt myself possessed by something larger than me.

Then to live on the Alaska tundra with Yup’ik Eskimos for two years and be thrust even further into the Old Ways, which, you must understand, are the birthright of us all, “woven into us, deep and magical” (Rilke). (The Yup’ik word for the Old Way is “yuuyaraq,” “the way of the human being.”)

I came back to 85-mph road rage on the Garden State Parkway and promptly resigned, taking early retirement.

Liberated, I moved to the northern boundary of the Adirondack Park (NY State) and began a long meditation on modern civilization’s alienation from Mind at Large, as Aldous Huxley put it. The state Wallace Stevens so beautifully called the “amassing harmony.” This has resulted in a book ms. which I am presently wrapping up: “Contact! Rediscovering Our Humanity through the Ancient Language of Wildness.”

It’s been rejected by Harvard, Yale, Johns Hopkins, Univ of California, Univ of New Mexico, and half a dozen mediocre independent trade presses you’ve never heard of. (Nor had I.) I have felt like a medieval flagellant trying to appease a relentless Jehovah named “Publisher.” (Oh, my former hot-shot literary agent spurned it.)

All this is of course a good omen. It means I’ve written something that threatens to upset the applecart.

Here is its beginning.

Plastic chairs. Neon lights. Linoleum floor. The meeting is being held in what looks like a classroom. Alaska state biologist Randy Kacyon is up front explaining that the state and feds are concerned about the dwindling moose resource up toward the Kilbuck Range. It’s October 4, 1994. Bethel AK. I’m sitting in on the biannual meeting of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta Subsistence Regional Council. There are maybe a dozen men in the room, most of them in green shirts — fish & game personnel. They look official. The rest, dressed in faded flannel shirts and jeans, arms folded across the chest, look inscrutable and frankly out of place, as if they know they are party to a charade. They look like they belong in the pages of a National Geographic article. They’re Yup’ik Eskimos. Four of them, Harry Wilde, Paul John, Steven White, Antone Anvil are members of the council, appointed by the US Secretary of the Interior. Their role is spelled out in one of the handouts: “The objective of the Council is to provide an administrative structure that enables rural residents who have personal knowledge of local conditions and requirements to have a meaningful role in the management of fish and wildlife and of subsistence uses of those resources on public lands in the region.”

Randy has just explained an elaborate plan, illustrated by charts and graphs, whereby state and federal wildlife managers propose to regulate the annual moose hunt to restore their population to sustainable levels. The men in the flannel shirts have been listening intently. Randy invites their comment.

I lean forward, every neuron in my brain on high alert. Randy has been speaking English; he neither speaks nor understands Yup’ik. Neither do I. Thankfully, there is a native interpreter, Sophie Evan. Like all Yup’iks, Sophie speaks quietly. (Yup’ik is notably glottal and guttural, as if one is choking on one’s tongue. Imagine seal, walrus, and caribou vocalizations coiled together into a mucilaginous mishmash — seaweed with syntax.)

Paul John, elder from Toksook Bay, stirs as if awakening from reverie. His hand floats up into the air. This man lives 50,000 years deep into time. This man refuses to speak English because it’s the wrong words for this sentient conscious intelligent place and its animal beings. This man will go out and buy bootlegged vodka and get drunk after this meeting because it deadens the pain and the memories. This man seamlessly, naturally shape-shifts into seal, moose, caribou, or walrus when he dances to the singing and the drums. This man calls himself a Real Human Being rooted within the mind and spirit and soul of this place. This man is about to participate in the “decision-making process affecting the taking of fish and wildlife on the public lands within the region for subsistence uses” (quoted from the US Dept of Interior Charter for the Yukon/Kuskokwim Delta Subsistence Regional Advisory Council).

Listen carefully, you’re about to make contact with a consciousness which is nearly extinct. Let me rephrase this. You’re about to experience the oldest language known to mankind. “We should be talking about this quietly,” he warns, softly yet earnestly, “since, as we all know, tuntuvak [moose] hear us when we talk about them.” Pause. “They might take offense at what we’re saying and not cooperate or disappear altogether.” Adding, “We know this from experience.” (I took notes.)

He’s done. I count the seconds of silence. One. Two. Three. Up to 10 or so. The biologist is grinning. He knows this is moonshine. More charitably, it’s anthropology. It’s not biology. He offers no response. Ten seconds tick by and Randy continues as if nothing — nothing at all — was said.

This is what my book is about: Contact with this language, this consciousness that to western ears is moonshine.

It’s neither moonshine nor anthropology, nor is it dead. Knud Rasmussen witnessed its still glowing embers on the Fifth Thule Expedition among the Netsilik in the early 1920s. Megan Biesele encountered it among Kalahari Bushmen. I have experienced it among the Navajo I lived with for the better part of a summer, and in two years of living with Raven’s Children (Yup’ik) by the Bering Sea.

I call it the language of wildness. It is the birthright of all humanity and, dammit, I’m reclaiming it in this book, clawing it back from the arrogance and totalitarianism of humanism, scholarship and science. (I write these words as a recovering biologist.) “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world,” writes Wittgenstein in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. (Logico, derived from Logos — Greek for “word,” “speech,” “discourse,” or “reason.” In Christian tradition it refers to Jesus and God.) This book forthrightly smashes those limits to restore the original and only legitimate and sane Logos whose name is neither God nor Reason. Its name is Wildness.

This book will appear next autumn.

It’s difficult to write a book against language while using language. To do it I have resorted to the language of poets. The likes of Rilke, Stevens, Auden, Eliot, Pound, Hughes, who are in fact philosophers struggling to restore “the essential poem at the center of things” (Wallace Stevens).

“And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time. / Through the unknown, unremembered gate / When the last of earth left to discover / Is that which was the beginning” — TS Eliot, from “Four Quartets.”