Today we bring you the fourth instalment of our series about learning to listen to the myriad other voices beyond the human. Inspired by In Other Tongues, a three-day creative summit held this summer in Dartington, UK, we invited six contributors – artists, writers, academics, poets, performers – to explore the ways in which language and culture are influenced by the non-human, and more-than-human, voices that permeate and shape our world. The series continues with Christos Galanis on language as a form of spell casting, and how our culture’s ‘inanimism’ might be eroding the coherence of reality itself.
You, my friend, are alone, because
We, with words and pointing fingers,
gradually make the world our own
The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘Language’ – in part – as: ‘the method of human communication, either spoken or written, consisting of the use of words in a structured and conventional way.’
As a troubling of this definition of language, I would suggest that language is more than a medium through which humans communicate. Further, I’d like to suggest that language goes even deeper than the broadest notions of language as a medium for communication, such as body language, or birdsong.
I’d like to trouble the very ontological underpinnings of language – ontology being the field of inquiry that has to do with the fundamentals of being itself, whose practitioners circle round questions of what exists, and what does not exist. I suggest that language might be thought of instead as spell casting; spells whose enactment themselves allow for the conjuring of particular realities and relationships to co-emerge into the world. Where David Abrams reminds us that ‘spell’ as in magic, and ‘spell’ as in writing share the same root, the understanding of language as spell-conjuring offers a relational landscape within which to consider methods of communication between ourselves and non-human beings that are not limited and impoverished by understandings of language as a blunt unidirectional instrument for naming and categorising; in other words, an inanimist’s appropriation of language as a taxonomic tool for slicing up and measuring an external, objective composite of dead matter.
By slightly re-working a standard definition of ‘animism’, I propose that inanimism could be defined by:
• a belief that the vital principle of organic development is exclusively materialistic
• a denial of conscious life to objects in – and phenomena of, nature – or to inanimate
• denial of the existence of spirits separable from material bodies¹
Within such a comparison, the difference between ‘spelling’ as labelling of parts, vs. ‘spelling’ as a co-emergent conjuring, becomes clearer when one considers the roots of the word.
The etymology of ‘spell’, from its Proto-Germanic roots, means something like: ‘to tell or utter a story or a myth’. It also means ‘to enchant the thing of which you speak’, where enchantment, from the Latin incantare, means ‘to sing’. The formal greetings of ‘enchanted’ in English, enchenté in French, or encantado/a in Spanish, retain their original pre-inanimist understandings of being and relationship. In a pre-inanimist Europe, ‘enchanted’ did not function as a polite way of saying: ‘it’s my pleasure to meet you.’ Rather, it was a gesture of humility and acknowledgement that one’s own being relies upon the other for its existence. ‘Enchanted’ literally means: ‘thank you for singing me into existence.’ And if a song might be understood to be a way of telling a story, then thank you for spelling me – thank you for conjuring me.
‘Conjure’ – from the Latin com, ‘together’, and iurare, from which we get the word ‘jury’ – means to swear an oath. And ‘swear’ means to speak, or say or tell, while an oath is a solemn appeal to a deity to witness a truth or a promise. So to conjure is to swear – together – to a truth or a promise in the presence of the divine.
Taking this spiralling route to consider what this thing we call language is, I would suggest that what we call language is a conjuring in which the divine, or great mystery, or that which dwells beyond our capacity for understanding, is invoked in the enchantment of a story that is true. Malidoma Somé explains that among his people, the Dagara, there is no word that translates directly as ‘the supernatural’. Rather, he describes the word that they use – Yielbongura – as ‘the thing that knowledge can’t eat’. For him this word suggests that ‘the life and power of certain things depend upon their resistance to the kind of categorising knowledge that human beings apply to everything.’²
Each language – each tongue, each assemblage of communicative protocols and citational iterations – is itself a unique bundle of spells whose conjuring is attended to by the animating force of life itself, which by its very nature can never be known but only invoked through the co-mingling of the immaterial with the material.
In all Indo-European languages, which include, among others, English, Latin, Greek, Sanskrit and Persian, it’s not possible to utter a sentence without locating it within either the past, present, or future. In these languages, reality itself cannot be conjured anywhere outside of a linear, progressive spectrum of time.
In just one comparative example, when describing an event or condition in Hopi – an indigenous language of north-eastern Arizona – you must use grammatical markers that specify whether you witnessed the event yourself, heard about it from someone else, or consider it to be an unchanging truth. Hopi speakers are forced by Hopi grammar to habitually frame all descriptions of reality in terms of the source and reliability of their information. I offer the possibility that certain realities, certain bundles of spells, are beyond one’s capacity if one doesn’t have the ability to know and integrate the language, or the articulated tongue, that conjures those particular spells; spells which require their own particular protocols or grammars, and whose conjuring allows for particular relationships to potentially co-emerge.
It’s in this context of language as a co-conjuring that I want to introduce two individuals that I’ve been working and studying with. Michael Dunning is a native of Glasgow who now lives in the state of Massachusetts, and Jaki Daniels left her birthplace of England as a young child and has lived in Calgary, Alberta ever since. Their respective journeys are unique and wholly their own, however there are overarching similarities between them which are the reason why I’m choosing to draw on both their experiences to better observe, understand, and describe the qualities of non-human communication which greatly shape their lives.
The full extent of Michael and Jaki’s journeys are well beyond the scope of this post. What’s similar is that neither had any previous experience or priming for entering into a mutually communicative relationship with yew trees or mountains and each in their own way were initially confronted and called into these relationships by the tree or mountain themselves. What subsequently followed these initial contacts, once accepted, was a process of initiation, teachings, and preparation which was both physical and intellectual, extremely demanding, and repeatedly pushing them to the very limits of their capacities. For Michael, it began when an acquaintance brought him to an ancient yew tree, guiding him through the thick bramble and into the cathedral-like understory of this thousands-of-years-old tree, in whose presence Michael experienced a kind of ecstatic quickening which initiated a process of healing him from severe illness. Upon subsequent visits, he would come into apprenticeship to the tree itself, returning to it ceaselessly over a period of nine years in which his physical and energy bodies were deconstructed and restructured in a manner to allow him to act as a conduit for the kinds of teachings and medicines which the tree was offering to impart through him. Without any guidance or contemporary context for his deepening relationship with the yew tree, Michael dug through history and mythology to make sense of what he was experiencing, and eventually uncovered a wealth of long-forgotten knowledges that were once thick throughout these very British Isles. What Michael was discovering along his journey was the ancient cult of the yew tree; an indigenous spiritual tradition which was spread throughout Europe, and most concentrated in the British Isles. Among these indigenous British cultures, being apprenticed to a sacred yew tree to become a healer was likely a significant event, yet nothing strange or unusual within the ontology, or beliefs of the culture itself.
Some of the yew trees in Britain are thousands of years old, with the Fortinghall Yew in North-Central Scotland estimated to be one of the oldest trees in Europe; perhaps 5,000 years old. While the possibility of having a tree communicate and act as a teacher and guide has essentially disappeared from modern inanimist cultures, the memories of some of our same contemporary yew trees themselves would know human cultures that communicated with them regularly; who knew and understood and practiced the bundle of spells with which they were able to be in profound relationship with such yew trees. From the tree’s perspective, Michael may potentially be but one more individual in this ancient lineage of inter-species apprentices.
For Jaki Daniels, her initial contact came while out for a leisurely hike with a friend in the Kananaskis mountains outside Calgary, during which she was rendered speechless by the voice of the mountain itself – inaudible to her friend but experienced as a booming voice inside Jaki’s head – which simply stated: ‘I have a story to tell.’ Jaki said nothing to her friend, nor to her husband when she returned home, and tried to dismiss the experience as an oddity she couldn’t explain, and had no context for making sense of. When subsequent similar experiences continued in the presence of the same mountain – which she eventually referred to as Grandmother Mountain for its role as an elder and teacher – she finally sought the guidance of indigenous elders, and it was through these First Nations’ understandings of being called into the role of a Medicine Woman by a sacred mountain itself that Jaki began to build an understanding of what she was being called into.
Through the support of an elder Cree woman named Pauline, acting as her human guide in these ways, Jaki was similarly initiated and instructed by the mountain itself, and through that primary relationship has been able to build up considerable skill in not just communication with this mountain, but a wide range of animals, plants, and weather-beings. Unlike Michael and these British Isles, Jaki had recourse to seek the knowledge and instruction of local indigenous cultures that still retain some semblance of this pre-inanimist reality, and who keep alive the protocols and traditions that have been gifted to them from their ancestors and the land itself.
Last summer, some of us were gathered around a fire in Jaki’s yard in Calgary on a chilly night, sharing tea and stories about mountains in both Canada and Scotland. At one point, the energy shifted and became dense as Jaki shared an insight that had been given to her by an indigenous friend. What had begun to happen, in communities around North America, was that indigenous peoples were reporting to each other how some of their sacred mountains themselves were, for the first time ever, starting to show symptoms of perhaps something like Alzheimer’s; a lack of coherence, a confusion setting in, with the consequences being that they were sometimes having a hard time giving protocols and teachings to the human communities who looked to them as sources of wisdom and inter-species elders. What the various communities suspect is happening is that as the earth’s living systems are increasingly destabilised and compromised, the ability of the very land itself to maintain coherence and lucidity is starting to show signs of unravelling. It’s perhaps not such a stretch to be able to imagine that, in a time of ‘alternative-facts’ and ‘fake news’, all forms of information, even those held in the land, are suffering for a lack of coherence and integrity. It’s possible that ancient grammars are fragmenting under the burden of inanimist culture; totemic tongues may be growing thick and slow, their articulatory capacities calcifying as the land itself strains to remember its own name and its own tongue. And, perhaps, our own forgetting and unravelling is not separate from the land itself, but is yet just another expression of the land forgetting its own nature under the conjured onslaught of inanimist spells. It’s possible.
And wondering on the nature of Jaki and Michael’s experiences, it’s also possible that their processes represent a remarkable capacity for the land itself to initiate individuals into tongues and grammars that our culture has denied and denigrated for centuries. The modern trinity of church, state and science have done much to delegitimise the tongues that many of our ancestors knew well — the spells that animated relationships between human and non-human in a dialogue that seems unbelievable to many today, and yet continues below the surface, like the subterranean streams of some deserts that are utterly invisible by the harsh glare of daylight. But come the cooling darkness of night, the waters seep to the surface in gurgling spurts, until a steady babble flows across the sands, bringing life with it and sustaining those beings that are called to its mysterious edges.
I myself am not a whisperer of mountains or yew trees. The quality of communication that Jaki and Michael relate has not come to me in any comparable way. And yet, being with them and learning from them does much to trouble and interrogate the narratives that were imparted to me by my culture. How does one reconcile two stories of reality that are seemingly at odds with each other, and what is at stake when one opens oneself up to the possibility that the conjuring of particular spells allows for dialogue with a mountain or a 5,000 year-old tree? What might a pedagogy of non-human whispering look like, and what stories need to be crafted to foster the capacity for such languages?
There is much to be grieved within the unravelling times we are living through. And perhaps the grief itself is a way through – a gathering to the edge of dark flowing mystery, beyond the hope of struggling on in the same impoverished means that brought us here. And from beyond the obsidian horizon of our capacities for understanding, perhaps the whispered traces of long un-conjured grammars and protocols may be redeemed and recovered, and from which we may once again come to know the articulation of languages that serve to honour, and speak to, and nourish, that which sustains our days.
1. The original definition of Animism reads as: 1) a doctrine that the vital principle of organic development is immaterial spirit 2) attribution of conscious life to objects in and phenomena of nature or to inanimate objects 3) belief in the existence of spirits separable from bodies: ‘Definition of ANIMISM’. 2017. Accessed 27 June.
2. Somé, Malidoma, Of Water and the Spirit: Ritual, Magic, and Initiation in the Life of
an African Shaman, Penguin, 1995
Christos Galanis is an artist, researcher, and teacher who enjoys migration, facilitated by Greek/Canadian passports. A PhD candidate in Human Geography at Edinburgh University, he is researching practices of walking and belonging within the Scottish Highlands. He holds an MFA in Art & Ecology from the University of New Mexico. christosgalanis.com
In Other Tongues continues on 25th August with Wendy Wheeler’s piece on biosemiotics and the death of meaning…