What if these yellow asparagus ferns in the fall were not wild? What if there were no wilderness? That’s no far-fetched, really. In Nu-chal-nuth culture, on the long beaches and rocky islets of the West Coast, between the uplifted sea beds of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula and the uplifted volcanoes of Alaska, there was no word for wilderness. There was only one word, really: home. There still is. If you have a language like that, then this old woman’s peach tree, the one she fights a bad hip and failing health to maintain, because this is her life, to live freely with trees on this land and to bring life and a living from them, would not be a ruin. It would be a place worthy of tending, and not just be a lone woman and her memories, as contemporary Canadian culture might put it, however compassionately.
In the speech I gave to the Haig Brown Society in Campbell River three weeks ago, I talked about language and its capacity to change resource policy. Here’s some of what I said:
In English, the words for the physical world are ones in which the earth is alive and its energies are transferred into things and back into energies. The place they pass through, like the shared relationship between men and women, or between women and their children, is the commons which I’m talking about. Without that space, the energies wouldn’t pass. Without a language for it, that space would be invisible.
Much like this, I think:
Smoke Bush Burning in the Autumn Light
Yes, the light, the decorative beauty, all these things have a voice in Canadian life, but the old name for smoke bush, Valanidh, the smoke of the dragon that created Albania out of the ancient wars between Athens and Turkey, at the beginning of Western Culture? The healing herb of Bulgaria? Economic potential? Not imaginary potential. Bulgaria manufactures this stuff into all manner of products. Those are all invisible in Canada, because the light of beauty is just too divorced from action and is just too bright. We who are artists bear some responsibility for this, and at least in part responsibility, for returning human life to the earth. Maybe it’s up to us to reunite science and art, and to once again make the earth a place of doing rather than of contemplation. Maybe we need to choose life.
It’s Not a Weed in a Roadway
It doesn’t need eradication. That is just a cultural language. This plant is showing us the future, as well as how to grow outside of the warm season.
When I say we need to humanize the wilderness, I don’t mean obliterating the natural world. I mean re-entering it. I mean including it in the family of humans, and according it the ethical rights which naturally accrue to it. As I mention in the essay:
Life does not find living channels if spoken of in a language not its own.
I’m not, however, talking about anything complex or pie-in-the-sky, here. I’m talking about words. This is not a word:
Okanagan Lake on an October Afternoon
It is an image, though, carved from a living lake and living hills.
As my essay explains (with a little space, in respect of this electronic medium):
To begin to give the earth a voice, then, consider these important words: lift, flow, fly, run, bridge, stream, blow.
Now, consider them again, with their Old Norse voice revealed:
the air that enters lift lifts and is a wind;
the water that enters flow begins flowing and flows;
the insect that enters flight flies, becomes flight and is a fly;
the man who enters running, runs and is on a run;
the man who takes a breath has a breath and is breathing breath;
he blows it out, and his blow, blowing, blows above the sea.
Hundreds of words like this exist in English. They move energy, concentrate it for a moment, animate objects with it, and then dissipate again into the universe.
That is our language. It has that.
Earth Evaporating into the Sun; Sun Condensing into the Earth
No, that’s not scientific or artistic, but such language can live where the people are, in a way in which science or art on their own can only create wilderness and alienation and beauty, because that’s what they are for: to divide, to contemplate and to study in pieces, at great technical depth.
Against that, though, we have the physical, unified gift of our ancestors, and as I point out in my essay, Land for the People,
That’s a good place to be — a place in which breath is not a thing a man or woman or horse takes (that is to say possesses, makes private, harvests or owns) but a quality of the universe, like cadmium, hydrogen peroxide or gravity. Such a breath is something you pass on. It gives the universe’s energy to a thing for a moment, brings it to life, and then passes to another life. Instead of humans being the centre of this universe, they are a commons, in which the energies take on living form, and from which they then leave to go back into the world and more living forms. A resource policy based upon this principle wouldn’t be one that sees the earth as a pool of elemental, abstract objects which can be turned to profit, with the accompanying risk that they won’t be returned to the commons to recharge.
And here, the essay refers to a long section which you don’t have before you, about humans and dogs evolving together, above humans becoming human in the process, and about the four women in the deep human past, who accepted four neanderthal-homo sapiens mixed-species children as human, and their tribes who accepted them as well and made humans who they are today.
The essay continues.
Rather, in the spirit of those ancient homo sapiens mothers who made us human, such a resource policy would see the earth as a storehouse of elemental energies, to be drawn into social space and then returned unharmed, then to be drawn from again, in the same way an Icelander keeps a pile of rusty farm equipment beside the road, where its creative energy can be harnessed (not harvested) again and again.
Ah, that equipment. Here you go:
Creativity Bank (Not a Capital Bank as Known in Canada) in Iceland
Until the last bit of creativity is mined from this created object, its debt to the land has not been repaid.
That’s an economic system based on humans in place, rather than humans exploiting place. So is this:
Horse Facing the Sun at Dawn at Easter, Skriðuklaustur, Iceland
Where men spend the summer making hay, to keep their women’s horses through the winter, because everybody knows that the horses are their souls. It works. It is work.
Back to the essay now:
To create such a resource policy through words won’t happen overnight, but if many people use such words, change will be inevitable, even if managers and lawyers try to bend it to different ends. As an example of this principle, I offer the State of Washington, which administers the other half of my valley, the Okanagan. When Washington Territory began to be settled after the American Civil War, the generals of the US Army enacted a two-part program to ensure that the new territory would follow the political structures of the New England states. First, indigenous peoples (such as the Nez Perce) were removed, so their forms of egalitarian social organization wouldn’t contaminate the new settlers. Second, the earth was cut into private plots — turned into land — because once it was subdivided and privatized no other outcome than an Eastern American model would be possible. And so it has been: no matter what forms of politics have washed over Washington, they have all flowed through those words for the land. However, it has only been 140 years. The process is far from complete. We can still reverse it.
Well, in fact, some parts of it are still here.
The Horses of the Okanagan Indian Band on the Communal Reserve Pasture in April
When US settlers came to the Yakima Valley, in Washington, in the 1870s, they found huge herds of horses like this, and captured the lot, sold them or butchered them as pet food, because they considered them wild. They weren’t. They lived in a free relationship with people. The Yakima Nation.
The essay continues by mapping out English (as I have done here in the last couple weeks), as a community of languages, including Old Norse, as described above, and this one …
The second language in English is Anglo Saxon. Anglo Saxon was a language of things. Sun, moon, life, death, man, woman, pig, cow, rock, earth, house, home, love, birth, and thousands of other words that we speak daily, the words we use to speak of world, are largely Anglo Saxon. Combined with Old Norse, it gives us a language with two capabilities: in one, verbs move energy; in the other, things are solid and have their own identity.
And importantly for the discussion here today, this administrative language, the one that gives us the language of contemporary Canadian and American resource policy and social policy, the kind of thing that leads to this …
The Proud and Creative Botanical Garden of the University of Jena that Created the Modern University …
… becomes a salt-poisoned decorative garbage pit at the University of British Columbia, due to a failure of knowledge, language and intelligence.
And that leads directly to this, because young people aren’t stupid, and learn their lessons well …
Flower Planter at the University of British Columbia …
… given a contemporary use.
This distortion of language through the lens of private ownership, like this (you are looking at a short series of images from the slideshow that punctuated my talk):
Do you want to live on a poisoned planet? This farmer earns money from fees for GMO tests, and poisons nearly all living things to death in support of the contract. If you think that’s too personal an example of how the language of resource policy is influenced by the language in which it is written and learned, how about this:
Rainwater, the vital stuff of life, captured not to be used but to be removed from the living community. You can go to university for years, or be embedded in the traditions of a government bureaucracy and work honestly and with dedication for your whole life, and this can go on for generations, and what comes out of it? This:
The Smoke Pit in the Alley
This is called “The Outdoors.” It’s where you go to keep air inside buildings clean — not where you go to keep outside air clean.
Against all of that, though, we have a language that falls in three levels. Here, let me essay take it away…
The third language in English is French. In 1066, it was the language of a new administrative class — but not the language of the commons. The French weren’t numerous enough in England to mingle. Nonetheless, under French influence the language gained structures of rationality, administration, government and logic. The resulting hybrid, English, is one in which Old Norse energies move Anglo Saxon objects within French administrative structures. Because this three-level process needs conversation to hold it together, the English invented a shelter for parley, a parliament, a talking house — a tun — as the doing, the fertilizing dung through which objects, administration, and energies could join in the body of the people.
When that tun is turned into a management, as is the case in British Columbia today, the people the tun represents are reduced to the viewpoint of the French legislative level. Common rights become social rights. Humans begin to be seen along Darwin’s model, as lone individuals, defining their society through a random process of aggressive competition. Such a separation of governmental language from its commons allows for people to speak one meaning of a word and means another, or to shut down debate about sea lice…
Oh, that’s a touchy point in Campbell River, because of the prominence of salmon farming in the region, as well as scientists and environmentalists who maintain that the sea lice populations in crowded net pens of Atlantic salmon are obliterating the common resource of the people, the wild Pacific Salmon. Back to the essay …
…by changing mid-speech from Old Norse to French, or French to Anglo-Saxon, or to prorogue parliament one too many times. Such energy directed against the foundation of the language makes everyone frustrated. Everybody knows that something’s fishy.
Lawyers make their living by shifting the language around in this way, and most poetry in English today is mostly about negotiations between these levels of language, rather than about living things in the earth and finding a way in which to directly speak to them or of them, as our ancestors did, and still do through the words we speak. The thing is, though, if we, the common people, with our heritage, the common earth, which is the foundation of our system of law, use our Old Norse language again, and replace governmental regulations with the language of the people, change will be inevitable. It may be slow, but like the paradigm set up by the Generals of the US Army after the Indian Wars of the Columbia Plateau, it will continue to develop, despite any effort of government or industry to subvert it. We, the people, have that power. This is where it comes from …
Big Bar Lake, September
That’s right: our power comes from the energy of the universe. It doesn’t come from government regulations. Rather, it gives them life. Here’s how I put that in the essay:
Roderick Haig-Brown spoke of the health of a resource policy being measurable from the health of the people. I think we can take it further. We can speak of the health of the people being measurable by the health of the language. Even further, the health of the people and the environment can be measured, and transformed, by improving the health of the language. In the case of English, that means that whenever we speak of the land in parliamentary processes, we need to return to our Old Norse and Anglo Saxon vocabulary. We, the people, have this voice for the natural world. If we don’t use it, we will lose the earth it represents. Nobody wants that.
The essay continues with an experimental revision of some British Columbia Governmental Resource Policy. If you would like to see some of that on these pages, let me know. And do, please, drop me a note if you’d like a copy of this essay in full. Until then, here is a pink salmon, come home to the Eve River on Vancouver Island…
and at home on the earth.