Books, Rants, The Sky is Falling

A Language Older Than Words

In May I read Derrick Jensen’s A Language Older Than Words

“Every morning when I wake up I ask myself whether I should write or blow up a dam.”

Although I know the feeling, I have no interest in being a writer and I don’t know the first thing about bombs; I’m not sure where that leaves me.

Jensen’s definitely an environmental activist but the book isn’t really an “environmental” book. I gave the book away so I can’t verify, but I think the book is even categorized as “Spiritual/Philosophy” on the back cover. What stands out in my mind from the book is Jensen’s use of historical references to explore the complete disappearance of once-flourishing animal populations like salmon, bison, and passenger pigeons. He quotes North American explorers who, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, remarked on flocks of passenger pigeons one mile wide and three hundred miles long, containing up to one billion birds. Holy crap, right?

In addition to depressing historical examples of our culture’s cruelty to the natural world, Jensen’s use of interviews and personal experiences to illustrate interspecies communication was powerful. The book was a little too spiritual for my taste, but recounts of how he survived his extremely abusive childhood by confiding in the night sky’s stars (and later, conversations with animals on his farm) were inspirational nonetheless. One quote in particular, from a conversation with a Native American friend of his, sums up what may be a reason for me having a hard time with the spiritual tone of the book:

“Attitudes about interspecies communication are the primary difference between Western and Indigenous philosophies. Even the most progressive Western philosophers still generally believe that listening to the land is a metaphor.” page 24

I guess that’s my problem: in my scientific view of the world there are answers to everything, and if science can’t explain some phenomenon I assume it’s only a matter of time before it can. At no point do I assume that because science cannot explain something, that spirituality can. I decry the extinction of salmon in the Pacific Northwest just as much as the next guy, but I don’t think any amount of spiritual reflection will bring them back. Maybe I should go blow up a dam.

In any case, if you care about the environment and it’s within your means to pick up a copy of this book, do it. I got mine used on half.com for around seven bucks.

One Comment

  1. Personally, I think your writing is beautiful… so if you had to choose one… :) The nice thing about it is we don’t have to choose, which is also unfortunate because then people can keep humming along without ever really being affected by any of it.

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