Tuesday, December 20, 2005
Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Chapter 7, Spring
“When I was quite young I fondly imagined that all foreign languages were codes for English. I thought that ‘hat,’ say, was the real and actual name of the thing, but the people in other countries, who obstinately persisted in speaking the code of their forefathers, might use the word ‘ibu,’ say, to designate not only the concept of hat, but the English word hat…. Each foreign language was a different code, I figured, and at school I would eventually be given the keys to unlock some of the most important codes’ systems. On the first day of my first French course, however, things rapidly took an entirely unexpected shape. I realized that I was going to have to learn speech all over again, word by word, one word at a time – and my dismay knew no bounds….
Some reputable scientists, even today, are not wholly satisfied with the notion that the song of birds is strictly and solely a territorial claim. It’s an important point. We’ve been on earth all these years and we still don’t know for certain why birds sing. We need someone to unlock the code to this foreign language and give us the key; we need a new Rosetta Stone. Or should we learn, as I had to, each new word one by one? ….Sometimes birdsong seems just like the garbled speech of infants. There is a certain age at which a child looks at you in all earnestness and delivers a long, pleased speech in all the true inflections of spoken English, but with not one recognizable syllable. There is no way you can tell the child that if language had been a melody, he had mastered it and done well, but that since it was in fact a sense, he had botched it utterly….
…we have been asking the wrong question. It does not matter a hoot what the mocking bird on the chimney is singing. If the mocking bird were chirping to give us the long-sought formula for a unified field theory, the point would be only slightly less irrelevant. The real and proper question is: Why is it so beautiful? …Beauty itself is the language to which we have no key; it is the mute cipher, the cryptogram, the uncracked, unbroken code. And it could be that for beauty, as it turned out to be for French, that there is no key, that ‘oui’ will never make sense in our language but only in its own, and that we need to start all over again, on a new continent, learning the strange syllables one by one.”
I read that in the laundromat Friday as I waited for my clothes to finish the spin cycle and it has sat pounding around in my head since. It was a new Rosetta Stone for me for why I am doing what I am doing. I thought I understood the river pretty well since I’ve spent so much time with it - I started paddling down rivers when I was 13. But the more I see it from different angles, with different eyes than a paddler, the more I realize I am only understanding the river at the level of the infant who botches speech utterly. I have found that new continent right in my own backyard and am now spending my days trying to learn the strange syllables one by one.
Last night I picked up a book that I had borrowed from a friend long ago because I liked the title, yet I had never before opened it, The Secret Knowledge of Water, by Craig Childs. In bed before falling asleep I read the introduction. Craig Childs was in the Utah desert sleeping next to a flash flood bursting through a slot canyon. In the morning he heard human voices – a woman in her forties – questions posed – questions answered. He rounded a corner in anticipation of surprising the people only to find there was nobody there. Only water. “The voices were part of a complex language, a language that formed audible words as water tumbled over rocks, and one that carved sentences and stories into the stone walls that it passed. I would grow older with this language, tracing its meanings like working back through genealogy. I would study its parts, how different types of canyons varied their conversations. When there was no fluid, as was most often the case, with my hands on the water-carved walls I would read the language like some sort of seer.”
Twice in one week I stumbled upon people writing about the same language I have heard and not yet understood clearly. For a decade Craig Childs follow the source of that voice. He chose to study the language of the water in the desert because that’s where the water is strong and free. There are no dams or diversions muffling its voice. I have chosen a river that many consider to have the most complex plumbing system in the state, and possibly the entire country. I am excited to see where our language study paths cross.