First Peoples

Fjall: The Setting Forth from English as a Colonial Language

Well, here it is, Okanagan Lake, a fjord lake over-deepened by a melting glacier and filling a gap some 1600 metres deep. The rock in the background of the image below is Okanagan Mountain, the prototype for the mythical serpent that lives in the lake — that is the lake and the mountain and manifests in the wind and current off the mountain’s snout.

This typical milky winter light is created by water rising from the lake in response to arctic cold flowing across the Plateau 1000-1500 metres above. The lake surface is, effectively, the mid-point of a balance. Sorry for the tilted picture. My specialty.

The mountain’s wall extends many hundreds of metres below the level of the molten glacier that forms the water here. This is a place of great latent energy. that takes many forms, but let’s start with just one: the rock that forms the cheek of the serpent’s head. This is a fjall (in Icelandic), or a fall (in English). The Icelandic term for this type of mountain denotes a form of energy that tears rock off a mountain with the sound of scree ringing down a slope and (especially slipping underfoot, as the echoing double-voiced ll of the fjall indicates.) It is the sound of rock scattering off one side of a gap and travelling into space in an outward (ll) extension. It is, in other words, a form of movement, and defines a form of movement called fjall — a kind of scatter with direction. The human term that matches this movement is “follow.” One follows the fall (the materialized form, or past tense) of a fjall, which embodies the fjall’s unlimitted nature outside the boundaries of time and space. It creates time, space and extension. One is led into them.

Brekkufjall, West Iceland

The energy of the original fjall is present everywhere within a fall. The sound of feet slipping as they pass across the materialization of the energy cleavage that is the fjall rings out. The image of Brekkufjall below shows how a trail cuts across the cut of the fjall, essentially repeating the fjall’s energy. In other words, human passage stirs the fjall awake. Stay on the cut! If you stray off of it, someone’s footsteps might stir the mountain into falling on your head (as it must within a fjall zone), and that is a deadly thing. Even on the trail, though, the energy of falling, waking (as an active verb) and following is present in every step forward. One balances between them. One is awake (ie, the mountain has awoken one.) The alternative is to fall asleep (ie to be completely bound by the fall). Life is this balance.

As a glimpse into how profoundly foreign this indigenous way of thinking is to contemporary thought, consider how the Quebec sociologist Jean-Philippe Warren treats of the same balance between humans and world in his preface to Gregory Baum’s Truth and Relevance: Catholic Theology in French Quebec since the Quiet Revolution:

…the work of professors, authors, and theologians is very similar: it offers meaning to what would otherwise be flat and empty. The professor must by his passion embody his teaching, which, being lived by the teacher standing before the class, takes on a new dimension. The author has a similar task of dramatizing the human condition. Finally, the theologian witnesses to something which infinitely surpasses him. Each of these professions is an endeavour in meaning. Those who practice them try to make the world speak — a world that, if left to its own devices, would never say anything to anyone.

A fine, integrated world view, but not a neutral or exclusive one. It is the application of a method but little more. For one, the world as experienced is neither flat nor empty:

Chopaka: The Centre of the Similkameen World

Not flat. Not empty. And perfectly capable of communicating outside of human “language”.

In addition, a professor does more than embody his teaching, an author does more than dramatize the human conditioning, and what a theologian witnesses is not infinitely beyond the self; if it were so, witness would not be possible. In all three instances, Warren means that in a world with humans as its primary genesis, so must the world be configured — or, not the world but language. No wonder, then, that he says:

Each of these professions is an endeavour in meaning.

Indeed. An endeavour. Not an adoption of it. Not an embodiment of it. Not its existence. Not a journey through it. An endeavour only — to re-create it in solely human identity terms. And then to say that those terms are primary. No wonder then that he says:

Those who practice them try to make the world speak — a world that, if left to its own devices, would never say anything to anyone.

As I have tried to show, even a gap or a fjall says otherwise, whether there is someone observing it or not. This silt bluff fjall across the Similkameen from Chopaka, for instance, which creates a gap, or space, that even it tries to fill.

That’s fjall, and the power of the world that is the word that is the world. The English version, “fall”, on the other hand, is an abstract energy, centred in the human body. When it is applied to the world, it is as a metaphor for the body. The feeling of falling, centred in the body’s self-awareness, is translated to the cliff, as a place where a fall may happen. It is a danger zone, because it places a body at the limits of its control. The resulting world is different than that of a fjall, and Warren’s social language is a good guide to its power. Those of us who have had our cognitive patterns shaped by the abstractions of English know this fall — know it as a passive rather than an active force, on the presupposition that active forces thrust or invade and are not made by a balance of forces together with no independent actor, and so our fjall above Okanagan Lake …

… is called a cliff, or a cleft, or a cut, signifying the breaking away. It is distinct from an empty space that faces it. It is not one with it. Forces thrust in English. They are not invited by gaps, nor are they a part of them. They are not even gaps in air. What’s more, in English’s “face” and “cliff”, this thrust is frozen, in a materialized form. This materialized form is not spirit, or, rather, it is matter that is not spirit at the same time. It is always in the past tense. Thus, the serpent’s head of Okanagan Mountain above is understood as the end of the Mission Creek Fault thrusting into the Okanagan Fault and bending it almost 90 degrees.

When I say that this action is in the past tense, I mean that in keeping with the form of social power known as English one can “fall” only by slipping out of one’s own control. One must be in control. The mountain is no longer active at all, even though together mountain and lake have created the milky light that saturates the valley: light that doesn’t fall, but like a fall, fills, floods and travels. In English, this joint saturation is seen as an obstacle to sight. Scientific explanations of air pressure and residual heat are required to comprehend it — compensations for a language that doesn’t embody bodily knowledge but is very good at human independence and will. That’s a pretty close description of colonialism. I point this out to keep a focus on the difference between language and experience. They don’t record the same histories. If we are going to relate to Earth, sticking to the limitations of English ought to get us right about where we are now, which is a place of decay. I don’t view that as adequate. It is also an unnecessary limitation, especially when our task here is to find accord with the indigenous people of this space who are calling for that limitation to be gone. They’re clear on how colonial it is. But, to continue. Note the differing geology on both sides of this fault. The mountains on the right in the image below descend almost vertically to the bottom of the gorge. The lake winds between these energies as a serpent. Those steep slopes, called uplifted faults in today’s terminology, are also fjalls.

This business of thrusting energy is a post-indigenous way of looking at an energy which is not so directly forceful. A fjall is the space where a landing, the action of a boat being lifted onto the sound of sand, a strand, as it lifts out of the surf and grounds (and thus finds ground), the space that holds one up and which we call “land”, gives way to a space where what was solid is not, where “standing” does not hold one up, because the energy of landing is not longer present, replaced with the language of absence. This lifting is the initiation of a gap and balances the fall it creates. If you enter it, you leave the energy of being held up and enter the energy of the fall. It is, for example, not that the lake is “held” in this fall-energy, but that it has dropped away and has found landing and crossing — in other words, the water fjall has found a landing and, because of that a human who crosses gaps by foot or boat, can cross it, because, after all, we are the creatures of landings and are within one. If there were no landing, we would just have a fjall, and we can’t, because humans live in the space that has fallen away. We live in fjall energy, the initiation of the crossing of a gap.

Tomorrow, I will show you the energy of the crossing and how this fall-gap-crossing can be put to use. Until then,


Puddinhead Mountain

fall away!

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