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March 31, 2007

Is nature a kind of language? Home Ground, Baudelaire, and Rimbaud

Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape combines two of my obsessions, nature and words. I am drawn to words as individuals, as auditory and sensual entities in the mouth and ears. I also like to see them as artifacts of culture that march in formation with other words. At the same time, I am drawn to the peculiarities of landscape. I run my hands over the cliff wall of layered pebbles and mud by the creek near my house and wonder how the stream erodes it and how much it presses down on the sediment beneath.

At a reading, I asked Barry Lopez if he thought there was a relationship between Home Ground authors' love for words and their love for the elements of landscape. He thought there was. As I remember, he said that nature presents us with a kind of language. I am still wondering what it is that links the webs of language with the webs of the natural world. Is there a kind of ghostly mirror between the two? Saussure told us that words only exist in relation to each other: the word "chair" occupies a certain territory only because "sofa" encroaches on it from one side and "recliner" from another. So, in a way, does "muskeg," or at least the word "muskeg," exist only in relation to "bog" or "swamp."

Writers and poets have long tried to tease out the relation between nature and language. Rimbaud's poem "Vowels" enlists nature to describe language instead of the other way around. He treats vowels as entities independent of their function in words and constructs a rather arbitrary set of connotations for them. He begins with colors, "A black, E white, I red, U green, O blue," and graduates to elements of nature like glaciers, wrinkles, and flies.

Rimbaud's contemporary, Baudelaire saw a different mystical and obscure relationship between language and nature. His poem, "Correspondences" begins with this stanza:

Nature is a temple where living pillars
release vague or jumbled words.
Man passes through forests of symbols
which observe him with familiar glances.

"Perfumes, colors, and sounds correspond to each other" in "a shadowy and profound unity." (My quick translations -- here's the French and here's an expert English version. The French has addictive, luxurious, sonorous lines that I never tire of reciting. They're often the only nature poems I know by heart, so they have to serve for all occasions when I'm out on a hike.)

Words usually rub up against other words, and rocks rub up against water, dirt, or other rocks. In this age, humans usually define their lives in relation to other humans and human-created artifacts. What happens when human rub against words that rub against rocks? What happens is Home Ground.

Home Ground's project is to bring the fading boundaries between terms into focus, so the particularity of each type of terrain can come into focus as well. Thus, we relearn both the differences between terrains and the intricacies of our own historical and literary relations with terrains. We find out that a "coulee" derives from the French Canadian trappers' term for a "sluggish stream" or seasonal water in a ravine, and that it now refers to a dry, "high-walled valley cut into a hill or escarpment" west of the Missouri. A "buckbrush coulee" refers to a coulee filled with "the browse frequented by deer," perhaps "the height of a buck."

It's tantalizing to think that something as sacred and mysterious as a word could sidle up and kiss or interrogate something as sacred and mysterious as a petrified forest. Home Ground, you might say, gives us a (literally) grounded version of Baudelaire's murky vision. Baudelaire yearns to interpret the "words" we dream that nature is speaking to us. Home Ground examines nature through the accumulated scientific observation and cultural and poetic connotations. It looks at landscape features by looking at the words we've addressed to them through the centuries. Thus, we get a chance to see them as beings with their own existence. It becomes possible for us to address them in the kind of respectful "I-Thou" dynamic the philosopher Martin Buber describes.

This is heady stuff! I am off to read David Abrams' The Spell of the Sensuous, which sets out to describe the original link between early humans' words and sensual interactions with the world.

2 comments:

Chris Mende said...

Anna, have I already mentioned synesthesia to you? The assignment of colors to letters is something someone with that unusual faculty does as a matter of course. I have a very interesting old copy of Smithsonian with an article about it.

Ken said...

Your review here is beautiful and expresses the high sentiments for words and nature that are found in nature writing. I wish those high sentiments could overcome the darker side of nature and words.

We fear nature and we fear words. I think that is their connection in our immediate experience of them. Deeper than that, but related to it, is the realization, if Darwin is right, that words are rooted in the struggle to survive that is the way of nature - words emerged from the genes as a weapon, or a charm, that enabled some creatures among an ancient now extinct species to gain a slight advantage over others of their own kind in the struggle of life.

Words remain weapons and charms. The word nature is itself a weapon and a charm. Words present us now with a particularly frightening narrative. In that narrative, humanity, by the power of words allied with other human traits and means, now threatens the natural ways that brought us and all the other species to life. At the same time, we are aware that we are part of the “nature” that our kind now threatens. To destroy nature, or to transform it such that it is completely under our control, threatens us too. Now, the fears that have long been expressed in our theology, is expressed anew in this terrifying narrative found in so much nature writing.

It is hard for those of us who love words to hear the remorse of Robinson Jeffers: “I hate my verses, every line, every word.” It is hard for us to listen to his counsel: “Love the wild swan.”