The Way of Language and Stories

Naturally, I also easily related to the two chapters entitled the “Way of Language” and “The Way of Stories.” In fact, Halifax took me back to one of my earliest loves in literature, mythology, particularly Indian mythology, especially the stories of the Pacific Northwest Indians, though I don’t think I ever consciously saw them in the same light she discusses them.

She even quotes a favorite author in support of her interpretation, one of many times that she does so.

Thomas Berry, in The Dream of the Earth, has said that most of us suffer from a kind of autism when it comes to communicating with anything other than our own kind. The Holy Wind has been stilled within our lives, and we live in a cultural atmosphere that does not confirm the mutuality of creation. Even when we recognize our kinship and intimacy with other forms of existence, we remain mute before them. Their language has been forgotten. We are enclosed in a psychocultural cocoon; the outer world no longer flows into our being. Those voices remain unheard, and we are unable to speak in response. The winds of communication with creation are dying. Yet Earth and language meet and metabolize in the zones of dream and visions, in story, poetry, song, and prayer, and in direct communion with untamed beings. These zones comprise the boundary lands where cultural constraints and social habits are overridden, where tribal folk, shamans, and children, the mad and inspired, are caught in the holy wind of creation.

Being a city boy I have felt “ kinship and intimacy with other forms of existence,” but have seldom felt capable of communicating with them. The closest I’ve come to this kind of communication is with the many dogs I’ve had throughout my life, but the longer I bird the closer I come to thinking I can actually understand some birds. I talk to all the birds, if only to say hello, but at times I think I even understand their calls, particularly the crows who live in my neighborhood.

Halifax argues that until we are able to share our story with other species that we are cut off from our world and from our true selves.

The true language of these worlds opens from the heart of a story that is being shared between species. For us to be restored to the fabric of this Earth, we are bidden to enter this tale once again through its many modes of telling, to listen through the ears of others to the mystery of creation, with its continually changing patterns, and to take part once again in the integral weave of the narrative. Might we not hear our true names if we learn to listen through the ears of Others? Through language, one can exchange one’s self with other beings and in this way establish an ever-widening circle of existence.

Shamans can help restore us “to the fabric of the earth.” Since they live closer to the earth than we do, it seems to go without saying that they would have a better understanding of nature and its creatures than we would. If we want to restore our bonds to the earth, what better place to look?

In the next chapter, “The Way of the Story,” Halifax suggests that the best way to reconnect is through the stories of shamans and native peoples.

Yes, stories are also protectors. Like our immune systems, they defend us and the people against attacks of debilitating alienation. My good friend Steven Foster says that people erect symbolic stories around themselves like houses. These stories are “circles of protection and purpose that bodily carry our spirits all the way to the gates of death.” For stories and myths are the connective tissue between culture and nature, between self and other, between life and death that sew the worlds together in their telling. And in the protective and connective body of story the soul quickens. It comes alive.

I wish I’d read this quote while I was still teaching. I’m sure it is one of the reasons I majored in literature. There seems to be plenty of reason to be alienated by modern life, but contemporary literature does help to transcend, or at least ameliorate that alienation. I’d like to think that the nature poets I read help bridge the gap between city life and the natural world.

Though she cites a few modern authors like Wendell Berry and Aldo Leopold, it’s really the stories of more primitive people that she suggests present the best chance of healing the rupture between modern people and nature:

Stories and their ceremonies weave our world together: the story of corn maiden and mother, of salmon’s death and rebirth, of bear’s human wife, of coyote’s foul tricks and lynx’s loneliness. These stories of ecological conscience are a council where the voices of all species may be heard. It is through these stories that the Earth can be restored, for these eco-narratives are an ilbal, a “seeing instrument.” Looking through the eyes of others as their ways are told, we may hear and understand the voices of our relatives.

It has been awhile since I’ve read these kind of native stories, but perhaps it’s time to go back and read some of the sources she cites in her book.