earthweal weekly challenge: THE LANGUAGE OF THE WILD


Greetings all — it is becoming increasingly difficult to find wild shelter here, what with all the sound and fury coming at us now from Ukraine. Some of you find yourselves very close to it; all of you have responded with your best.

Hard to not be affected by the news, at levels disturbingly deep. I don’t know what else to say about that other than we must live at the border of two worlds, one wild, one all too human, and find a way to speak of both. For this forum, our work as I see it is to become citizens of the wild we share with the world.

“To be native to a place we must learn to speak its language,” Robin Wall Kimmerer writes In “Learning the Grammar of Animacy” (collected in Braiding Sweetgrass, Milkweed Editions, 2013). She continues,

I come here to listen to nestle in the curve of roots in a soft hollow of pine needles, to lean my bones against the column of white pines, to turn off the voice in my head until I can hear the voices outside it: the shhh of wind in needles, water trickling over rock, nuthatch tapping, chipmunks digging, beechnut falling, mosquito in my ear, and something more — something that is not me, for which we have no language, the wordless being of others in which we are never alone. After the drumbeat of my mother’s heart, this was my first language. (48)

How are we to write a poetry of earth if it we have difficulty speaking it? Our attempts to proximate that “first language” with our own is conditional and faulty at best. Science gives us precise names, but it can only characterize the object, not sing its soul.

Listening in wild places, we are audience to conversations in a language not our own. I think now that it was a longing to comprehend this language I hear in the woods that led me to science, to learn over the years to speak fluent botany. A tongue that should not, by way, be mistaken for the language of plants. I did learn another language in science, though, one of careful observation, an intimate vocabulary that names each little part. To name and describe you must first see, and science polished the gift of seeing. I honor the strength of the language that has become a second tongue to me. But beneath the richness of its vocabulary and its descriptive power, something is missing, the same something that swells around and in you when you listen to the world. (48-9)

When the world is alive, there is a wild animacy to language:

A bay is a noun only if water is dead. When bay is a noun, it is defined by humans, trapped between its shores and contained by the word. But the verb wiikwegamaa — to be a bay — releases the water from bondage and lets I live. “To be a bay” holds the wonder that, for this moment, the living water has decided to shelter itself between these shores, conversing with cedar roots and a flock of baby mergansers. Because it could do otherwise — become a strem or an ocean or a waterfall, and there are verbs for that, too. To be a hill, to be a sandy beach, to be a Saturday, are all possible verbs in the world where everything is alive. Water, land, and even a day, the language a mirror for seeing the animacy of the world, the life that pulses through all things, thorugh pines and nuthatches and muschrooms. This is the language I hear in the woods; this is the language that lets us speak of what wells up all around us. (55)

That animacy is also intimate: “in Potawatomi and most other indigenous languages, we use the same words to address the living world as we use for our family. Because they are our family.” (55). As Thomas Berry writes, “we must say of the universe that it is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.”

Intimacy is a homecoming. “To become native to this place, if we are to survive here, and our neighbors too, our work is to learn to speak the grammar of animacy, so that we might truly be at home.” (58)

It is the language of the heart, and that is where we hear it best. Kimmerer concludes,

I remember the words of Bill Tall Bull, a Cheyenne elder. As a young person, I spoke to him with a heavy heart, lamenting that I had no native language with which to speak to the plants and the places that I love. “They love to hear the old language,” he said, “it’s true.” “But,” he said, with fingers on his lips, “You don’t have to speak it here.” “If you speak it here,” he said, patting his chest, “They will hear you.” (59)

Here are some poems which feel writ in wild language.


Theodore Roethke

I strolled across
An open field;
The sun was out;
Heat was happy.

This way! This way!
The wren’s throat shimmered,
Either to other,
The blossoms sang.

The stones sang,
The little ones did,
And the flowers jumped
Like small goats.

A ragged fringe
Of daisies waved;
I wasn’t alone
In a grove of apples.

Far in the wood
A nestling sighed;
The dew loosened
Its morning smells.

I came where the river
Ran over stones:
My ears knew
An early joy.

And all the waters
Of all the streams
Sang in my veins

That summer day.

(from The Lost Son and Other Poems, 1948)



Mary Oliver

cries for three days, in the gray mist.
cries for the north it hopes it can find.

plunges, and comes up with a slapping pickerel.
blinks its red eye.

cries again.

you come every afternoon, and wait to hear it.
you sit a long time, quiet, under the thick pines,

in the silence that follows.

as though it were your own twilight.
as though it were your own vanishing song.

(from House of Light, 1990)



William Stafford

Evenings, after others go inside,
my glance quietly ascends through leaves,
through branches. The night wind sighs once
and bends over. Far beyond my glimpse of sky
those friends now gone begin their chorus.

There’s a reason for whatever comes,
their song says. Released into light one star
appears, another, and those patterns affirm
where they have been waiting dissolved in blue
but holding their place inside of time.

Every evening this happens, an arch and promise
renewed. Nobody has to notice: a breath
crosses the lawn, or outside the window
a spirit roams, as mysterious as any wander
ever was. And it was only the night wind.

(from Who Are You Really, Wanderer? 1993)

Let’s learn more about THE LANGUAGE OF THE WILD this week!



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