Tag Archives: lost culture

Using our Language-Shadows

We are capable of great creative and regenerative actions, as well as destructive and futile ones. Many recognise the increased power of our creativity and destructiveness as stemming from the so-called ‘industrial revolution’, when we began, at an unprecedented rate, burning much of what had previously been the ground we walked upon and the forests whose air we breathe. Yet how we came to be the complex web of human society, technology and machinery we are today has roots in a much more subtle event.

Buckminster Fuller, in his exploration of the history of human culture, mentions the invention of technology as a key component in shaping our societies. Yet he also points out that ‘technology’ refers to any tool which we create for our use, and that the first piece of technology we ever invented was the first word (1).

Power of words

Just because one has a tool, does not necessarily mean one knows how to use it in the most beneficial way. Our words can shape, twist and bend reality; we have created abstract concepts and ideas and with this, extended the reach of our human influence far beyond our own sensing bodies.

From some angles, we can see that all of the destruction, disregard for other species and mismanagement of our own home, the Earth, which we engage in is the result of a single factor: our extraction of ourselves from the natural world around us. Such an idea of separation can only even be conceptualised by the kind of language which many modern cultures use – language which has lost its roots in the surrounding world.

As Abram (1986) comments on, much of animistic, metaphorical culture relies on a deep linguistic connection with the non-human world, whose ties can be seen as having been broken by the advent of phonetic and written language (3). For example, the English language is made up of phonetic sounds which have little or no direct connection to what Abram and others term the more-than-human world, and so we have a much higher tendency of taking literally those symbols which are always only ever meant to point to a deeper truth, rather than being the truth itself.

We can also use words to artificially separate ourselves into ‘nature’ and ‘humans’: a separation which is only possible in abstract thought and which when applied to our sensing bodies and the world around us does not make any sense at all.

Walls of Words

Having identified that our use of phonetic language is a key factor in our disregard for the more-than-human world, should we then stop using this most dangerous and powerful of tools?

Perhaps it would be better for the planet if our method of communication had stayed in total connection with the more-than-human world around us, and therefore we can feel more readily the tearing pain of the mountain being sliced into quarried rocks; the stifling horror of the toxins pouring into the rivers and oceans, or the senseless mutilation of the millions of chickens who are born and die in the same tomb, all too often for their bodies to simply become discarded.

Yet the fact remains that we have invented phonetic language, and with it, abstract thought and the idea that we can harm and kill the other living beings which make up our world without causing detriment to ourselves. As Ursula K LeGuin puts it,

“You cannot take things that exist in the world, and try to drive them back into the Dream—to hold them inside the Dream with walls and pretences.

That is insanity.

What is, is.

There is no use pretending now that we do not know how to kill each other”. (3)

When considering that the more-than-human world, or web of biodiversity, extends to include all, “each other” has a very broad definition. Yet to condemn our actions is to waste energy in trying to will into non-existence what is already here. This is the same whether we are talking about the global ecosystem, the human species, or each individual soul. When applied on a personal level we can see that if we attempt to deny or escape parts of ourselves which we do not like, we usually end up sooner or later being controlled by those same aspects.

Psychologist Jung conceptualised this as the idea of the “shadow self”: that part of us which we may not necessarily be aware of, have fear of, or actively attempt to get rid of (see for example 4). Yet if we are to have healthy relationships with ourselves and others it is beneficial to at least be aware of our shadows, even if we do not exactly make friends with them. For it is from the darkness that we can gain more light; by accepting what we are and what we do we can learn from it and evolve.

Darkness and Light

The conceptualisation of the world as a balanced equilibrium between the two forces which can be roughly divided into dark and light is present in many cultures, from the Yin-Yang of ancient Chinese philosophy to the Incan God Viracocha, whose tears of sadness at the suffering of the world are the very rivers and lakes which provide the nourishment for all life (5). We cannot have one without the other;

“Only in silence the word,

Only in dark the light,

Only in dying life:

Bright the hawk’s flight on the empty sky.” (7)

Acceptance and Action

In accepting and even embracing those aspects of ourselves and the world which seem repugnant we can reach a new way of perceiving where we regain lost connections. However, this does not mean that there is no point in trying to change what we see for the better. Whatever we feel we can do to improve the quality of life of those around us, both human and more-than-human, if we feel it is right then it should be done. Yet the only really effective way of creating these improvements is from a starting point that allows for all perspectives; or at least as many as you, with your one human body and mind, can cope with.

In this we need to become fully aware of our situation and the brilliant potential power we have to shape our own destiny, and therefore the destiny of the world around us.

Magic words

Much of this power resides in the words we use. Perhaps we have not always used them in a way which is beneficial for us or those around us. The first way to change this is to become aware of how we use language. Are the words you use creating boxes and divisions in your mind, storing up emotions, or derogating yourself or other beings of the universe? If so, maybe we can think about changing the way we use them.

Words are indeed powerful tools; keys, if you like, to open the boxes and release all the power inside you. Words are not the only power. But if we wish to act together with other humans, using words in a conscious and considerate way will certainly be of some use.

Photo by David Ashwanden

References

  1. Fuller, Buckminster R, 1981. Critical Path. St Martin’s Press: New York City
  2. Abram, D, 1996. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World. Random House: New York City
  3. LeGuin, Ursula K, 1976. Hainish Cycle No. 6: The Word for World is Forest. Tor Books: New York City
  4. Jung, C.G, 1938. “Psychology and Religion.” In CW 11: Psychology and Religion: West and East. P.131
  5. Campbell, J, 1949. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. New World Library: New York City
  6. LeGuin, Ursula K, 1968. The Earthsea Cycles: A Wizard of Earthsea.

On Christmas Trees

Now once again the time to take down christmas decorations is upon us, as the Northern world spins inexorably towards the springtime. According to an old English tradition, it is bad luck to keep your decorations past the Twelfth Night of Christmas, or January 6th. Other traditions say otherwise; and from a practical viewpoint, the local council where I live has set the deadline for throwing away your Christmas trees as January 29th.

It is whilst walking past the council collection points, where dozens of bedraggled conifers are left, or seeing their even more forlorn companions in some skip or alleyway, that the actual tradition of christmas trees and their rather careless fate begins being called into question. There are older traditions from which Christmas Trees originate; ones which speak of fire and passion, and though we may be seen by some to live in more ‘civilised’ times nevertheless speak of a more honest and authentic connection to one’s surroundings.

All of this musing culminated in a vision one evening which I shall share with you below.

A Tale of Real Christmas

I.

The evergreen symbol of a renewing world

The needles resplendent in shiny green

In times gone by, a potent story told

And now, as frost takes hold again, what does it mean?

II.

We used to cut the trees (not many) down

And use one or maybe two per town

To sacrifice as burning offering of light

A recognition of winter’s dark grip of night

And how we overcome this with fire, merriment, and delight.

 III.

The burning Yule log – that’s the Christmas Tree

The burning of our old fears setting us free

Welcoming New Years and filling us with glee…

Now come and see the sad reality…

The trees cut down, as in the old tradition

But each house takes one, and for every taken, a dozen unsold

The decorations sparkle and the tree’s condition

Is celebrated, until it starts to get old

Then thousands, millions make their way out to the streets

To landfills, incinerators, far away from those who tossed

Them away with all the other Christmas treats

A culture writhing in a story lost?

 IV.

Last night I passed one such pathetic pine

Sitting forlornly, bedecked with ice and dust

Beside a church. Yet as I watched, it reared its needled top, still fine

Raised itself, and began to move inside the house of the divine

The congregation, sparse and few, turned their heads in surprise

Their faces frozen, as the tree began its cries:

 V.

“If you will cut me down like this, think on!

Why did you take me from my snowy homeland

To reject me now your ‘festival’ is gone?

You should be respecting the trees and lives of your own land

But since I am here now, finish what you have begun!”

 VI.

So saying, the bedraggled thing came up the central aisle

(The vicar rushing forward, attempting some kind of authority)

And, still moving all the while, shouted

“So you want the celebration? Then burn me!

Take me and consume me with the fire of joy

The flames of warm acceptance of the season’s cold!

Take me now and set the fires together!

Before your indifference stops all stories being told!”

VII.

                                     And the people, numb with shock, took the tree

And did as they were told, though they made it outside for safety

And something happened as the branches began to blaze,

The faces of the congregation subtly changing

Each meeting each other’s eye with clear and honest gaze

And with the earth and sky

Once more engaging.