[originally published A Sense of Place, 11/28/13]
There was a time, not so long ago, when information was shared by word of mouth. Most of us were illiterate. That word has such a nasty taste in the mouth now, doesn’t it? It conjures all sorts of images, from gross ignorance to the cruel acts committed by those same ignorant individuals. I don’t like those conjurings, so I’m going to make-up my own reference phrase (which may have been thought of already by scholars who also ponder such things). Let’s begin again…
There was a time, not so long ago, when information was shared orally, when we were all Other minded, and animatedly literate. We saw the world in pictures: a tapestry of sound, vision, taste, texture, all woven into a unified, and sacred, whole. During this time, my vocal sounds blended and joined the vocal sounds of the Other animals that lived around me, along with the verbal sounds of the environmental Other: the wind, the trees, the water.
All auditory stimulation combined to communicate something to those who listened.
My ancient ancestress would have been acutely aware of the water listening to her. The rain that fell outside the house heard her mumblings and hummings and murmurs and sighs. The water paid attention, and knew. The trees also. They looked in at her, through the door opening, and heard her speak words out-loud to herself, or to her children. They listened, and knew. Oh, how careful was she in what she said. How deliberate was her choice of word and phrase. All of the animate, living World heard her. What would they think? What might they do?
During this time of animate literacy, information was shared from human to human by way of Story. These beautiful mnemonic techniques, used to pass important knowledge, allowed for abundant creativity and ingenuity. Shared around a toasty fire, over a hearty meal, they were comforting entertainment and essential reminders. Most of the world’s indigenous population told these sacred stories—which very often involved warnings and wisdom about the natural world—during the winter. It may seem they were told during winter for purely pragmatic purpose. What else was there to do? It was dark and cold and we were all indoors, under a skin flap or in a wood hut.
Ah…but why else might winter have been the time to share stories about the living world?
That world was asleep! The tree who peeks her knowing eyes into my hut during summer, sleeps deep within her trunk in winter. She does not hear the warnings shared about her nuts and leaves, thus the humans do not offend her. She rests, and we respect her by not gossiping within ear shot! Yes… I like that notion.
So, we communicate in order to share valuable information, to pass on customs, express affection, request help, process emotional pain, and pass the time. All those are important reasons to communicate but it seems what I want to say has nothing to do with that; rather, I seem concerned with the power of our communication. Namely, why it is vitally important to use words respectfully. As a witch, I work with the natural world as both part and parcel. I am the natural world. I am one with it, and I am a component of it. Just as I hear the Grackle whistle, perched high in our native Pecan, she likewise, hears me. Just as I hear the south wind sing through the corridors of living buildings in downtown Austin, he likewise, hears me.
Mutual respect and strong relationship are important to my work and life as a witch, and as a human.
I need a harmonious relationship with the elements, and all other-than-human-persons. What in the world would the north wind think if she heard me bad-mouthing her? My word! She wouldn’t be any more desirous of working with me than I would if I heard a friend gossiping behind my back! And let’s not forget the rain! He eventually winds his way back to the ocean, and I certainly would not wish to offend Her! A wise witch minds her words and communicates to ALL beings with respect and courtesy, never speaking more than is needed, and remembering the wisdom of the ancestors: some secrets are best woven into Story and those Stories are best shared when the world sleeps. ssssshhhhh