(I recently gave my Wednesday Writing group the poem Marsh Languages, by Canadian writer and activist, Margaret Atwood. Spend some time with it, I suggested, see where the poem takes you, what it stirs in you, then write. I read the poem aloud to them and I felt a quiet fall over the group. A week later I found my way out to the country for a solitary and ceremonial walk in the lap of a wildish place. I let the words of the poem whisper to me as I walked. Once I spoke it aloud to the soft, greening world. Mostly I listened. This essay is my response. I’ve left you a link to the whole poem if you’d like to read it first)
“The dark soft languages are being silenced
Mothertongue Mothertongue Mothertongue
Falling one by one back into the moon….”*
I went out to the Spring woods to listen for the marsh languages, to listen in for the mother tongue. The day sparkled with sun and wind and the twittering of bluebirds over the fresh greening prairie. The grasses only a short fringe now over the dark moist ground where they will be thick and three feet tall in a month or so. In the small algae-covered pond by the trail, one flat-backed black turtle dozed on the sunken log where I saw a crowd of them last year and the long sleeping water snake dull as mud. The forest floor was covered with wildflowers: Wild Sweet William, Bluebells, tiny white Dutchmen’s Britches, wild Violet, and purple Trillium. The language of flowers is mostly blue these early days of spring. The trees all in their soft clean Spring green. Once my father gave me a gift in noticing how varied the greens are this time of year that will all blur together into the same deep tone later in the season. The language of green this day was rich and dense with clear soft overtones, subtle and various. Thru trees the wild white Dogwood shimmered in the morning sun as it glanced thru from the east, rising, here and there the shocking pink of the Redbud. Overhead the sky was one long note of piercing blue.
I found my way up the trail and out onto the spread of prairie, down the white curve of gravel road to the wetlands, to the boggy marshes, the ponds and lagoons. I wanted to find my way to the low place of the land, to listen in there to see what I could hear. As I walked I listened too to the mothertongue of my own body, breath in my lungs, the vaguely creaking hips, the slightly aching joint in my left foot that had surgery last year, the beginning whispers of hunger in my belly as I had not eaten since noon the day before. Fasting I’ve found is a way to clear the head, hopefully the ears as well, for cleaner listening.
“Languages of marshes,
language of the roots of rushes tangled
together in the ooze…”*
As I walked I let the slippery words of Margaret Atwood’s poem, Marsh Languages, rise and fall in my thoughts: this cautionary tale of earth’s lost Mothertongue. At the first pond the tiny tree frogs known as peepers were calling as I approached but fell silent at my crunching footsteps on the gravel path. I waited. They tuned up again. Fell silent as someone else passed by. I walked on. Behind me I heard them calling again. An airplane flew over drowning them out. We make so much noise with our big feet, our loud machines. No wonder we can’t hear them, much less learn the language any more.
On a grassy bank between two lagoons I sat on a bench in the warming sun and listened. To my left a group of Canada geese were in raucous conversation about some goose issue that had arisen among them. To my right another goose drifted alone on the quiet water. Down the way, a great blue heron flew in and perched on the branch of a snag at the water’s edge. The wind played thru my hair, against my skin, thru the reeds and rushes along the lagoon, loosening the stillness. Now and again something breathed under water and let bubbles rise to the surface rippling around the lily pads, maybe the ooze itself sighing in its dim, decomposing dream-sleep. A few humans passed down the path chatting between themselves. We humans do so much better in our own language, compulsively chatting, its no wonder we think the other languages are gone, we don’t seem to know how to listen much anymore.
“The mouth against skin, vivid and fading,
Can no longer speak both cherishing and farewell.
It is now only a mouth, only skin.
There is no more longing.”*
Even my solitary, intentional listening, I realized, was full my own thoughts, my own interpretations, imaginations, translations . But the poet had warned me: translation was never possible…only conquest.
Even as I pushed my imaginal toes down into the pond muck to feel the roots of rushes tangling in the ooze, I sensed the subtle violation I did to the things themselves. I pulled back into myself and listened.
It was then I began to feel a longing arise in me, the familiar longing I so often find when I’m alone in the wild world. Its in my belly, breathing around my heart, aching in my throat for a song I don’t know how to sing: a longing for intimate connection with all this wildness; a longing to meet and be met; a longing for some nameless, wordless thing that sings in the warm core of my bones. This longing has always been tinged with grief for what isn’t, for what I don’t have, can’t see, or touch or feel or hear. A longing that seemed to be all about separateness.
It was then I felt it, felt more than heard it, the language of hunger, of longing all around me: The hunger for procreation, pollination, hunger to produce; hunger to green and flower and fruit and crawl out of the muck and to fly. The hunger of Life; the longing for life; The longing to pass it on, to press it deep into the lap of the mother, toss it into the wind. And as I sat listening into the hunger and longing in my body, the longing in the marsh life around me I knew the poet was wrong: there is still longing and it’s a wild holy hymn. There is still the wet kiss of suckle and skin. There is still the terrible cherishing that can’t help but whisper of farewell, tho on this Spring day burgeoning with new life, all that seems a long way and seasons off. There is still, hidden behind the layers of words I live in, a word for “I” that doesn’t mean separation. But its not translatable into any civilized tongue I know of. And the grief edge to this longing, the terrible possibility of farewell, is the way we humans are systematically working to forget there is any language but the one of conquest, the one we wield over the natural world with such unrelenting power, drowning out all the others, so we don’t have to feel the depth of our own longing.
I wake up in the mornings now well before first light to the voices of birds. The songs are faint, far off at first but soon fill the air around my house with vibrant singing. I float on the sound out of dreams into the waking hours: the long sweet chant of the robin, the warbling house finch, the fluting wren, the creaking hinge of the grackles opening the door of the day. My day begins with listening in to languages I will never understand in words, but only with my body as I sink into the sound like a cradle.
*from Marsh Languages by Margaret Atwood