The Slumbering Tongue

November 16, 2013

My tongue slept all summer but the rest of my body maintained constant frenetic motion and my senses reeled.

I left Oakland for Portland. I moved into a house I’ve lived in three or four times before. My friend was sick. I went with her sometimes to radiation therapy and we tried to stay on a schedule of taking half hour walks every evening to keep up her energy. She got better.

I took trips to the wilderness, clambered up mountains, slept in the rain. My muscles grew from exertion. Above a granite cliff face overlooking the Sandy River valley, my knife broke off at the hilt while I was digging beargrass root—probably long after it was overmature for consumption—to eat that night. The event seemed monumental, epoch-defining: after years of ceaseless anxiety about my ability to stay in one place, after years of knowing I was homesick but not being certain for where, had I now put down a root of sorts into this very mountain? I took the knife handle home with me, bereft of blade, and examined it for a very long time. It gave no answers.


I studied my surroundings intently, ate berries as they ripened throughout the summer, learned the names of many new plants—still, I did not write. It was a season of wanton, inveterate physicality. My exertions—work, wandering, music, sex—taxed only my muscles. Every muscle but my tongue.

I should qualify that I did not stop writing out of any sense that my capacities were faltering, out of any paralysis or confusion. I did not hover in terror at the precipice of the blank page’s infinite abyss. I simply made virtually no effort to write.

There is no doubt for me that words have, if not a will of their own, an innate potency, an inherent trajectory: they possess a capacity to shape their very maker as they are spoken. In the process of writing, my intentions are constantly violated, revised, and again violated. The words veer off of the course I intended to put them on. They take their own shape for which they have been inwardly longing. I only realize my thoughts on a subject by attempting to write about it.

Have you read the Finnish epic The Kalevala? It is beautiful. One could analyze its numerous and at times only loosely interconnected narratives from any number of perspectives—the archaic religious significance with which virtually every page is pregnant, subject to only the most trivial of modifications by the onset of Christianity, for instance, or the strange combination of loathing and awe with which other ethnic groups are portrayed—but I mention it only because the narrative consistently portrays words, in the form of songs, as inherently effective, capable of shaping external events:

The old Väinämöinen sang:
the lakes rippled, the earth shook
the copper mountains trembled
the sturdy boulders rumbled
the cliffs flew in two
the rocks cracked upon the shores.
(Kalavela 3:297-302)

This is as words are being deployed, spoken or written. What happens, as was the case over the summer, when they’re sleeping? Do they then still have some agency, some capacity to shape or determine the behavior of their vessel in which they lie dormant and dreaming, or the surrounding world?


Complex things emerge from the cumulative interactions of smaller and simpler things. In the most mysterious case of all, the universe emerged from an unknown state ancestral to it. From the interactions of simpler molecules came life. From life, cooperative breeding, symbiosim, territoriality, consciousness. It is hard by examining the smaller constituents of a complex system to predict the emergent behavior of the whole. I am not sure if “hard” has a scientific definition, and I know for a fact that “complexity,” despite the existence of a field of science devoted to its study, lacks a precise and generally accepted one. This is perhaps to no one’s discredit: biology has a similar shortcoming with regard to “life.”

So my question is this: do all of the actions, experiences, and sensations of the summer somehow emerge as more than the sum of their parts? Are there, within the pattern of sunlight that fell on my skin, the course of salmon I saw swimming upstream, the recurrent rhythms of the nights and days, the shapes of words emerging, even if I gave them no thought or voice? Have I been writing without setting pen to page?

Sometimes a problem with which one concerns oneself, if neglected, simply atrophies and dies in one’s mind, like so many self-strangled vines bereft of sun. Sometimes, however, a problem is somehow active in parts of one’s mind of which one is not conscious, a solution or response still precipitating in the murky depths to which the pale sun of awareness does not reach. Once, as I began to teach myself algebra years after I neglected to do so in high school, I fell asleep puzzling over a problem. I dreamed I was a Russian soldier on the front in winter during World War II, remembering the summer previous spent with his wife and young golden-haired son back home, and woke with the solution. Somewhere in my imagined child’s playful nature, in my imagined wife’s smile, was the answer.

So has something analogous happened on this larger scale of life, this wordless summer and the subsequent season of elongating shadows in which I now write? If some truth is particularly clear to me now that was not when summer began, it is that I am fervently and unrelentingly pursuing synthesis. I am intent on integrating aspects of the world that are generally approached separately into an emotional-analytical-experiential whole.

The world in which the peacock angel Melek Taus is revered as an emanation of god by the Yazidi is the same world in which the shape of a protein determines whether it can bind to the membrane of a cell; the world in which the symbiotic algae that live in coral reefs are dying as a result of global warming, leaving the reefs to crumble colorless to the ocean floor, is the same world in which the foraging lifestyle of the !Kung is disappearing from the Kalahari, the landless of Brazil are occupying the agricultural estates of the wealthy, and Arthur Rimbaud wrote “Drunken Morning”:

We have faith in poison.
We will give our lives completely, every day.

I am uncertain if the boundaries between politics, art, and science are meaningful; if they are, I wish to find that meaning by transgressing them to whatever extent I am capable.


What does the behavior of drug addicts, or infant monkeys deprived from contact with their mothers, tell us about the world-devouring pathology we call modern capitalism? What do the symbols and rituals of the long-abandoned Slavic thunder god Perun tell us of the capacity of art to transform reality? Needless to say, such inquiries will sometimes—perhaps usually—result in fruitless absurdity and hideous chimeras; on some occasions, however, systems-level truths will become apparent that could not be perceived by examining components of that system in isolation.

You and I live in a dying world. The current rate of species loss is greater than that of any of the planet’s previous five mass extinction events. The intricate interconnected web of human cultures that previously inhabited the globe is unraveling at the hands of a single worldwide one in which a tiny minority accumulates an absurd surplus of resources while others starve. In mere years, atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases may reach levels such that climate change becomes irreversible even if all emissions cease, a self-propelling apocalypse that would render a vast proportion of the planet’s species extinct and engender such severe weather, precipitously changing ecologies, and unpredictable food production that ceaseless disaster and resource wars will cripple modern civilization and cause death, displacement, and incalculable suffering for huge numbers of people. This makes climate change of paramount significance, but of course, it only encompasses in a single massive catastrophe what human activity is achieving regardless: if it did not exist, we would still be entering the earth’s sixth mass extinction and hovering on the brink of ecological and thus social collapse.

Perhaps no better question exists in the world than: why is this the case? Advanced technology and its resultant social complexity would seem, in principle, to have breathtaking potential. Could not scientific inquiry provide its unprecedented insights into the workings of nature in the context of a civilization that was not destroying nature? Could not the ever-increasing complexity of modern social and artistic forms flourish without erasing traditional ones? This modern era should be one of awe-inspiring potential, accelerating discovery and complexity, peace, and prosperity. Instead, civilization has only ever managed to brutalize people—both those external to it and its own members—and destroy the physical basis for its existence. Unless it radically alters what has thus far been its lifelong course in the very immediate term future, it will become a permanently failed experiment.

I believe it is meaningful to say a lack of experiential synthesis is partially the basis for civilization’s pathological behavior. I believe that in order to do grievous harm to the world around oneself, one must remain eminently isolated within a very limited and immediate sense of oneself. If you allow yourself to experience the thoughts and sensations of another person, can you put that person in a cage? If you experience that part of yourself that is not confined to your body but is also an Appalachian mountain, would you still blow up that mountain in order to extract coal from it?

It is good and necessary to fight civilization’s immediate assaults on life, beauty, and freedom—to fight roads into wilderness, factory farms, oil pipelines. But it is equally necessary to attempt to understand and address the radical experiential compartmentalization that is required to even think in terms as absurd as making individual profit at the expense of the earth.


This compartmentalization, these missing connections, are I believe largely the result of wounds inflicted by aspects of civilized life, aspects which are fundamental, but perhaps not inevitable. While these wounds may manifest differently in me than in others—I certainly don’t operate any massive mines or for-profit prisons—I am certain they are present in me. I am searching for the missing connections in my own body. Finding and repairing the disjunctions of my own psyche will make me better able to confront the dire peril we face, but it also, hopefully, will illuminate the very source of that peril.

The ghost flower is a plant that does not photosynthesize, deriving nutrients instead by penetrating with its roots the mycorrhizal fungi which in turn penetrate the roots of trees in symbiotic nutrient exchange. Polar bears are losing the sea ice on which they live. As the Baka, formerly a foraging people of Southeastern Cameroon, become sedentary and adopt agriculture, they nurse their children less frequently and spend less time in physical proximity to them. The rain outside is slight and steady. Everything is too beautiful and terrible to be denied. With boundless love, I wish to cross all borders.

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