In Other Tongues: Conjuring Yew Trees and Mountains

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.

Yew Tree communication workshop with Michael Dunning, 2016

Yew tree communication workshop with Michael Dunning, 2016

You, my friend, are alone, because
We, with words and pointing fingers,
gradually make the world our own
– Nietzsche

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
..objects
• 
denial of the existence of spirits separable from material bodies¹

wild animals

chicken


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.

 

Detail of the Rosetta Stone

Detail of the Rosetta Stone

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.

 

 Michael Dunning

Michael Dunning

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.

 

Jaki Daniels

Jaki Daniels

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.

 

Grandmother Mountain, Alberta

Grandmother Mountain, Alberta

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.

 

Edward Burtinsky: Deda Chicken Processing Plant, Dehui City, Jilin Province, China (2005)

Edward Burtinsky: Deda Chicken Processing Plant, Dehui City, Jilin Province, China (2005)

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.

Colorado River, Arizona

Colorado River, Arizona

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.

Notes

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…

Sign up here to get an email alert when a new post is published on the Dark Mountain blog.

12 thoughts on “In Other Tongues: Conjuring Yew Trees and Mountains

  1. Thank you this article is invaluable. I communicate with trees. It started only a few years ago when one Solstice I became inconsolable and unexpectedly grieving vocally for the loss of all the great trees and forests. I live in Australia by the Southern ocean and by forest where there are a few remanants of original forest…five trees.
    The trees in my garden have each given me messages regarding the needs of humans
    I visit Chiang Mai in Thailand. And I have found that the old trees in the city, two in particular are suffering this ‘alzeihmers’ and recoil in shock when I gently introduce myself. One I have been making offering g’s to and it is slowly relaxing and embraces me in her energy.
    Another ancient tree in a temple grounds is not like this, as I am sure it is communicated with by generations of monks. It gave me great knowledge regarding ego and the divine energy that sits underneath this.
    Thanks again . Your article has brought a wealth of further knowledge to me and I will certainly be aware that like any old person, love and understanding and care and empathy is needed in our animist relationships.
    PS in Thailand and other Buddhist countries ordination of trees is carried out. Both to preserve and protect them.
    All is not lost.

    • Thanks so much for this Susan, much of what you relate resonates with me as well. I actually spent some time in Chiang Mai, I did have a connection with a few trees but now I’m really curious and wish I knew which ones specifically you’re alluding to! Wow — the thought of being able to actually count the number of trees left of an ancient forest there – FIVE – brings much grief. I had the experience of spending some time in the Ariundle Wood on the west coast of Scotland, one of the very few patches of old growth Caldonian forest in the country — it was like being in a whole other country — not as large, but similar in energy to the forests of British Columbia, with a high and well-defined canopy, and soft green mosses and foliage covering the ground everywhere. Can you speak a bit more about what the ordination of trees looks like? Michael Dunning and others have done a lot of work on ancient yew trees here in Britain and make a strong case than in lineages of monarchy, the very earliest sovereigns were not actually humans, but Yew Trees — similar to the Totemic relationship retained in many Indigenous cultures around the world still today. Cheers,

  2. Beautiful, Cristos. Thanks for this. I think one of the reasons this culture doesn’t recognize or feel what it is doing to the earth is our language doesn’t recognize or feel the earth. True on political left and right. You’ve “conjured” up a real challenge here to what we take to be language.

    • Cheers Rob — Indeed, I’m pondering much these days on whether or not language, in and of itself, determines the capacity for quality of relationship with the non-human. I haven’t gotten very far in tracing the development of the neuter gender/pronoun in Germanic languages including English (i.e. It) but am very curious what happens when all beings go from being either He or She and become It.

  3. Thanks Christos. Timely indeed. I have long felt almost the need to re learn how to speak.The poet Tony Hoagland speaks thus ” The cravass between speech and matter is nothing less than a metaphysical wound to the human soul, it is identical with the split between human nature and nature itself, the wider the gap , the greater the very real sense of not belonging to the world.If language itself is a broken bridge, humanity is caught in a permanent condition of exile and alienation”. The poet’s have there ways with language and often there’s is the speech of praise, cast from the soft pointed wands of their tongues. And this has become a doorway for me , To walk out into the world and praise generously ,each and all, from the solitary cloud to the gnarled root of the snow gum. And yes , the inseperable sister of praise seems to be greif.
    Thankyou for this writing, this spell you have cast upon us .

    • Thanks so much for this Simeon, that’s a great insight from Hoagland. I study with Stephen Jenkinson and much of his teachings are about what qualities of relationship our utterances actually conjure — certainly speaking from a place of both grief and praise in relation to the non-human (and fellow humans) develops an incredible shift in perception and relationship that I can attest to. I’d like to think that no language, no people, and no culture are beyond redemption, and that language can be an articulation of both deeper relationship, and deeper alienation. Go well.

  4. This made be think of an interview with a Native American (Vine Deloria) To Quote – ” . . . although most of the greatest scientists dabbled considerably in spiritual matters and believed that mystical and intuitive experiences provided them with knowledge. . . Heisenberg, Einstein an Bohr all had sudden insights, what’s the difference between that and the Indian performing a ceremony and hearing the plant say “Do this.””

    It would appear from this the difference between the two different types of knowledge is not so great, as your two examples show. Anyway the interview is called Where the Buffalo go: How Science Ignores the Living World: An Interview with Vine Deloria (It’s by Derrick Jensen) July 2000.

    http://www.derrickjensen.org/2000/07/where-the-buffalo-go-interview-vine-deloria/

    • Cheers Thomas — I love Deloria’s work, and Jenson — hadn’t come across this interview between them before.

  5. You might enjoy “the wakeful world : mind, animism and the self in nature” by Emma restall Orr…. If you haven’t already encountered it :-)

      • Such a deep and informative piece. I will read it again as it has provoked a strong gut reaction in me. With relation to trees, a few years back my husband took me to an old Oak tree, called The Queen Elizabeth Oak, on the Cowdray estate in Easebourne, West Sussex. It is thought that the tree is between 800 and 1000 years old but in 1591 Queen Elizabeth 1 sheltered under it on a visit to Midhurst. I spent time near the tree, part of it was enclosed and protected but I managed to get close and after some time I heard the tree speak to me. On my return home I wrote down what I had heard and some months later my piece was published in an anthology celebrating the South Downs. Essentially the tree was simply saying that I needed to be more in touch with nature, that there is a deep magic in trees, in the earth and the air if we only were to stop,sense, listen. The tree said that ancient trees are like temples, giving respite to those in need of peace and healing. Thank you for reminding me of this important truth.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *