Language as wilderness

This piece is more journal-like in its musings than most of my posts.   In fact, parts have been  lifted from my hiking journal.   I hope this doesn’t  render its structure or possible meanings  confusing.   Also,  this post  plays around with several rather  strenuous threads, like I do commonly when I’m out walking alone.    I thought I’d just throw these ideas out there for fun today, but if you have a headache or are looking for something less troublesome to start or end your day on, you might want to skip this one.

Last year(ish), Moab Poets and Writers solicited a bit of writing that would fit compactly into one of the columns of their newsletter.   I’m not happy with the piece I wrote for them; it wasn’t quite focused and in places the language fumbled badly.  

As underdone as it was, it apparently stirred up some folks.   Earlier this year one of the group’s representatives contacted me.   MP &W was designing a brochure laying out membership information and other goodies.     They wanted to include a few lines from that earlier piece in the brochure.   I was delighted to hand it over €¦ more or less.   Like I said, the passage does contain some serious flaws.

This is the line MP &W selected for their brochure (again, forgive my clumsiness):

Suppose, for a moment, that prevailing evolutionary theories are on course, and human beings are, in fact, offshoots of the natural world.   That suggests that human language is part of nature; in fact, we could consider language a great wilderness in its own right, an extension of this planet’s striving.   But let’s not stop with humans: From the dozens of expressions one sees in hummingbird flight to the tonal utterances of my brain-injured daughter, to my students’ reaching through words for something to hold on to, something beyond a grade, something meaningful, a way out or a way to, language erupts, blossoms, evolves, and erodes like other features of life and landscape €¦.

This passage represents some of my early thoughts about language’s role in the natural world.   The original piece went on:

€¦ it’s perhaps time to drop the idea that language is a tool that we pick up, use to accomplish a task, then set aside when we’re finished (an idea that may hearken back to hunter-gatherer times when all forgings were done to secure survival).   We should investigate the possibility that language has moved past its fashioning to capture experience.   Instead, in the vein of other natural forces and effects, it acts to create experience.  

So any efforts we make to improve our behavior toward the natural world ought to include efforts to improve behavior in the natural environment we call language.   Viral human behavior seeking its next opportunity blossoms in language and sustains itself with language, relying on the easy rhetoric of pedestrian forms of Manifest Destiny.

Lest readers fret my language above reflects a bias toward evolution and against traditional Christian origin narrative, let me put your mind at ease.   Both evolutionary and Christian origin narratives open to the mind broad spectra for belief from which other language might arise. I like them both; in my opinion, it little matters whether we’re speaking about the amassing evolutionary tale or the beloved account of our coming-to-being where God speaks, €œLet there be light. €   At the heart of either storyline stirs the power of the Word.

Playing further with this idea that language is a wilderness, and that the full creative power of whatever is going on in this world resides in some way in human expression, let’s tease out a further possibility.   Back on February 12, which was Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday (belated Happy Birthday, Chuck!), I was out walking, thinking about how language might be a special creative striving on the creation’s part, and that in chronicling what they imagine to be the state of affairs natural scientists like Darwin are not unlike youngsters keeping journals as they struggle to find and form identity.    

Always, the LDS church has urged its members to keep journals, which I did faithfully for thirty years.   During that time, the focus of my journal writing has switched from the €œWho am I? € question of rising self-awareness to consciousness of Others whom I imagine my narrative efforts might affect.   As I walked over the ATV trail rising and falling through the pinyon-juniper forest, I thought, €œMostly, with science,  including natural science, it’s the male child keeping the journal. €


4 thoughts on “Language as wilderness”

  1. Patricia,

    I hope it’s still okay to give just a bit of a nod to ol’ man Manifest Destiny, though I realize he’s personna non-grata most everywhere.

    All the more fun to include such a brutal bludgeoning past legacy in our quiet reveries of today, no?


  2. Nod away, Jim!

    Do you read “pedestrian forms of Manifest Destiny” as meaning the same as “Manifest Destiny”?


  3. Patricia,

    I don’t want to sound off on your blog. Manifest Destiny is the title the English gave to their rationale for erstwhile cruel and tyrannical monarchy of an empire that tried to establish benevolent global domination. “The White Man’s Burden” it was sometimes called. It is fun to discuss, but perhaps does not belong here.

    As an afterthought, Manifest Destiny relates strongly to the mistaken religion of early white settlers, and their treatment of this precious land. So, on the other hand, it is important backgrounder.

    As you wish, m’lady.


  4. Jim,

    In looking up quotes from Man Made of Words for another thread, I came across this from Scott Momaday, whom you may know is part Kiowa:

    Although the first Europeans venturing into the continent took with them and held dear the Bible, Bunyan, and Shakespeare, their children ultimately could take words for granted, throw them away. Words, multiplied and diluted to inflation, would be preserved on shelves forever. But in this departure was also the dilution of the sacred, and the loss of a crucial connection with the real, that plane of possibility that is always larger than our comprehension. What follow such loss is overlay, imposition, the distorted view of the West …

    The connection, for Momaday, between poorness of language and the unfortunate impositions of “early white settlers, and their treatment of this precious land” is quite direct.

    Just thought you might find that interesting.


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