Speaking with Animal Tongues
by David Abram
Slight of hand magician and eco-philosopher
David Abram has conjured up a new way of viewing the roles, styles,
and magic of language. We here join him in a few of the sections
of his book The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Lanugage
in a More-than-human World that explore the places where human
language and the soundings of our local landscapes begin to move
Humans are tuned for relationship. The eyes, the skin,
the tongue, ears, and nostrilsall are gates where our body
receives the nourishment of otherness. This landscape of shadowed
voices, these feathered bodies and antlers and tumbling streamsthese
breathing shapes are our family, the beings with whom we are engaged,
with whom we struggle and suffer and celebrate.
For the largest part of our species' existence, humans
have negotiated relationships with every aspect of the sensuous
surroundings, exchanging possibilities with every flapping form,
with each textured surface and shivering entity that we happened
to focus on. All could speak, articulating in gesture and whistle
and sigh a shifting web of meanings that we felt on our skin or
inhaled through our nostrils or focused with our listening ears,
and to which we repliedwhether with sounds, or through movements
or minute shifts of mood. The color of sky, the rush of wavesevery
aspect of the earthly sensuous could draw us into a relationship
fed with curiosity and spiced with danger. Every sound was a voice,
every scrape or blunder was a meetingwith Thunder, with Oak,
with Dragonfly. And from all of these relationships our collective
sensibilities were nourished.
Today we participate almost exclusively with other
humans and with our own human-made technologies. It is a precarious
situation, given our age-old reciprocity with the many-voiced landscape.
We still need that which is other than ourselves and our own creations.
We are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not
human. . . . We need to know the textures, the rhythms and tastes
of the bodily world, and to distinguish readily between such tastes
and those of our own invention. Direct sensuous reality, in all
its more-than-human mystery, remains the sole solid touchstone for
an experiential world now inundated with electronically-generated
vistas and engineered pleasures; only in regular contact with the
tangible ground and sky can we learn how to orient and to navigate
in the multiple dimensions that now claim us. . . .
If we listen, first, to the sounds of an oral languageto
the rhythms, tones, and inflections that play through the speech
of an oral culturewe will likely find that these elements
are attuned, in multiple and subtle ways, to the contour and scale
of the local landscape, to the depth of its valleys or the open
stretch of its distances, to the visual rhythms of the local topography.
But the human speaking is necessarily tuned, as well, to the various
non-human calls and soundings that animate the local terrain. Such
attunement is simply imperative for any culture still dependent
upon foraging for its subsistence. Minute alterations in the weather,
changes in the migratory patterns of prey animals, a subtle shift
in the focus of a predatorsensitivity to such subtleties is
inevitably reflected not just in the content but in the very shapes
and patterns of human discourse.
The native hunter, in effect, must apprentice himself
to those animals that he would kill. Through long and careful observation,
enhanced at times by ritual identification and mimesis, the hunter
gradually develops an instinctive knowledge of the habits of his
prey, of its fears and its pleasures, its preferred foods and favored
haunts. Nothing is more integral to this practice than learning
the communicative signs, gestures, and cries of the local animals.
Knowledge of the sounds by which a monkey indicates to the others
in its band that it has located a good source of food, or the cries
by which a particular bird signals distress, or by which another
attracts a mate, enables the hunter to anticipate both the large-scale
and small-scale movements of various animals. A familiarity with
animal calls and cries provides the hunter, as well, with an expanded
set of senses, an awareness of events happening beyond his field
of vision, hidden by the forest leaves or obscured by the dark of
night. Moreover, the skilled human hunter often can generate and
mimic such sounds himself, and it is this that enables him to enter
most directly into the society of other animals. . . .
If one comes upon two friends unexpectedly meeting
for the first time in many months, and one chances to hear their
initial words of surprise, greeting, and pleasure, one may readily
notice a tonal, melodic layer of communication beneath the explicit
meaning of the wordsa rippling rise and fall of the voices
in a sort of musical duet, rather like two birds singing to each
other. Each voice, each side of the duet, mimes a bit of the other's
melody while adding its own inflection and style, and then is echoed
by the other in turnthe two singing bodies thus tuning and
attuning to one another, rediscovering a common register, remembering
each other. It requires only a slight shift in focus to realize
that this melodic singing is carrying the bulk of communication
in this encounter, and that the explicit meanings of the actual
words ride on the surface of this depth like waves on the surface
of the sea.
It is by a complementary shift of attention that one
may suddenly come to hear the familiar song of a blackbird or a
thrush in a surprisingly new mannernot just as a pleasant
melody repeated mechanically, but as active, meaningful speech.
Suddenly, subtle variations in the tone and rhythm of that whistling
phrase seem laden with expressive intention, and the two birds singing
to each other across the field appear for the first time as attentive,
conscious beings, earnestly engaged in the same world that we ourselves
engage, yet from an astonishingly different angle and perspective.
. . .
From such reflections we may begin to suspect that
the complexity of human language is related to the complexity of
the earthly ecologynot to any complexity of our species considered
apart from that matrix. Language, writes Merleau-Ponty, "is
the very voice of the trees, the waves, and the forests."
As technological civilization diminishes the biotic
diversity of the earth, language itself is diminished. As there
are fewer and fewer songbirds in the air, due to the destruction
of their forests and wetlands, human speech loses more and more
of its evocative power. For when we no longer hear the voices of
warbler and wren, our own speaking can no longer be nourished by
their cadences. As the splashing speech of the rivers is silenced
by more and more dams, as we drive more and more of the land's wild
voices into the oblivion of extinction, our own languages become
increasingly impoverished and weightless, progressively emptied
of their earthly resonance.
The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-human
World, Pantheon Books, New York, 1996. Used by permission of the
The Place Where You Go to
Listen - A complementary, more poetic look at similar themes.
The Eternal Story in its
Original Language - Further explorations of the social implications
of our distance from the soundings of our world. [WEBPAGE]
The Big Picture - Peruse
more writings on soundscapes. [WEBPAGE]