Category Archives: animals and language

Near a pond, with bread by Percival P. Pennywhistle

Blake's lambs

If ducks be here, Lord love ‘em,*

For ducks** were made by Him:

Like lambs and tigers,*** sticks and stones,

Whales and whistles, broken bones,

Dogs and squirrels, cats**** and mice,

Girls***** and gimmicks, fire and ice.

And, if ducks, then children,****** too;

Which is to say, the Lord made you.*******

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* There is, as the most precocious among you will already know, a saying about ducks and lords and love which has a profound and mystical meaning at its heart, as the Professor is attempting to show, and so will not spoil by giving it away here.
** Among, as is about to become apparent, a host of other things (though not, clearly, individually), several billion of which are not mentioned here, but at least two handfuls of which are.
*** The Professor thanks his auspicious and decidedly dead colleague, William Blake, for the notion, which can be found in his haunting and intricately illustrated book, Songs of Innocence and Experience. Indeed, the image above the poem is a portion of one such illustration, which is why it is of lambs and not of ducks. (The tiger, as it turns out, is hiding on another page.)
**** The Professor has included cats against his better judgment.
***** This fact will, perhaps, surprise young male readers, but it is true, and the Professor is pressed to report that girls are not only more interesting than boys in the main, but they also generally smell better.
****** Do not, under any circumstances, allow your parents or your older brother to convince you otherwise.
******* Which is not to say that He meddled in any particular or immediate way in your making—that is entirely your parents’ fault—rather He made the system by and into which you were born, which he occasionally bumps and nudges, but only, the Professor suspects, when invited to.
Nor can He be held responsible for broken bones or other maladies and misfortunes. Such things are, we must accept, a part of life. To think otherwise is to engage something called a “theosophy,” which is box-like, awkward, cumbersome, but ultimately less weighty or important than it thinks it is.
In any event, Mr. Blake’s lamb would agree, bleatingly.
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Professor Percival P. Pennywhistle, PhD, is, as many of you already know, handsome and brilliant and hard at work at several collections of poetry for people, especially smallish and precocious ones.

Chairman Mao by Percival P. Pennywhistle

Chairman Mao

My cat’s named “Chairman Mao”:*
She’s dropped the “i” somehow.
She’s dropped the thing,
But, Marx bless Ming,**
Still has a frightful Yao.***

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The image above is a 2012 scan of a 1999 oil on oilcloth reproduction of a 1942 photograph of a late Victorian cameo of an early Victorian watercolour portrait of Chairman Mao’s maternal great-great-great-great-(yawn)-great-great-great … great-grandmother, who looked just like her, but was considerably more pleasant.

* Chairman Mao, otherwise known as Mao Tse Tung, is widely considered the founding ruler of the Chinese Communist Party, which is either revered or despised depending on the holiday and/or who’s looking over your shoulder.
The Miao people together comprise what is called an “ethnic minority,” and a fairly large one at that, which typically means they eat more interesting things than everybody else and are happy to invite you for dinner. They live in Southwest China, in Guizhou, Yunnan, Hunan, Hubei, and Hainan provinces, and in the formidable sounding Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Prefecture. They believe that everything has a spirit, even Chairman Mao. Continue reading Chairman Mao by Percival P. Pennywhistle

Tree of Life by Coyote (as told to Patricia K.)

This segment is from a longer piece, Plato’s Alcove, which won an honorable mention in Torrey House Press’s 2011 Creative Non-Fiction Contest.  You can read the entire entry here. Plato’s Alcove is about my first trip to the desert back in 1982.

In the desert one day I met Coyote, the Trickster-God.  We greeted each other and sat in the shade.  I opened my canteen and drank then offered Coyote a drink.  When he thought I wasn’t looking he wiped the canteen’s mouth.  Then he drank.

“Thank you,” he said, handing it back.

I asked Coyote, “Why is this place so beautiful?”

He laughed and said, “I’ll tell you a story that explains everything.” Continue reading Tree of Life by Coyote (as told to Patricia K.)

WIZ’s 2011 Spring Poetry Runoff Contest and Celebration begins!

800px-Western_Meadowlark_singing

Light’s rise sparks bright blooms:
birdsong, fields of it, vining–
spring’s first green flourish.

These mornings, I step outside my back door to hear the hush of winter thrown off by a clamor of birdsong–the crackle of starlings, jazzy riffs of purple house finches, a lonely two-syllable call from a flycatcher,  screeches and churrings of magpies, ravens’ gravelly croaks, a woodpecker drumming a juniper tree, jangling songs of meadowlarks outshouting everyone.  Quite stunning, this send-off of the season of low, cold light.  And I can’t help but detect in the intertwining of different avian dialects the bloom of flowery beauty and signature fragrances of meaning.

The language of the birds, or the green language, is the mythical, magical language of wisdom and divine insight thought to pass between birds and those humans with ears to hear the music of the cosmos with which birdsong is thought to be impregnated.  Some traditions equate la langue verte with the adamic or perfect language.  Many folks might consider any relation between birdsong and human utterances and comprehension illusory.  But if you listen closely, you will hear chirps in the language of many species ranging from rodents (prairie dogs’ alarm calls sound bird-ish, and the noisy grasshopper mouse chirrups constantly) to cats (chirps and trills) to amphibians (our Woodhouse toads pip at us) to insects to puppies to people–especially babies.  My nearly 19-year-old disabled daughter, who can understand more words than she can say, chirps, hoots, and trills in response to questions and other words of address.  After nearly two decades of studying her bird-like, tonal language, I think I can rightly claim that I’ve gained from it deep, magical insight–including into the quiddity of human expression.  Because of my experience with her and what I think I hear in the language of birds and other animals and insects, I’ve begun to wonder if, rather than acting as the basic phoneme of  a foreign language spoken by creatures with which we think ourselves to have little in common, the chirp might just lie at the root of human expression.

Whatever else it’s said to be, the mythical language of the birds is highly poetic, layered with multiple strata of meaning, playful, punful, sliding, gliding, beguiling to the ear when performed aloud, and, when conveyed in written interchange, deeply engaging of the mind’s inner ear.

For WIZ’s 2011 Spring Poetry Runoff and Celebration, let’s see if we can outshine the birds in their spring ceremonies.  Human language can be just as green and gorgeous, just as textured and as alluring as the language of the birds.  And when it comes to the opening of new prospects and possibilities, human language can have no rival.  Even the language of the birds lags behind the best effects of the best human language: opening-the-possibilities acts of authentic creation.  Poetry, with its multifaceted, many-leveled effects and metaphoric prowess–its strength for getting across–can create, so to speak, more world.  As John D. Niles says in Homo Narrans: The Poetics and Anthropology of Oral Narrative, “It is through such symbolic mental activities [as storytelling and poetry] that people have gained the ability to create themselves as human beings and thereby transform the world of nature into shapes not known before.”

So this Spring Poetry Runoff, let’s go green in our language.  I don’t mean Green, as in supportive of social or political movements touting environmental protection.  In some cases, that language is the least green of all.  I mean let’s go green, as in producing living, doing, being language that acts to open possibilities by virtue of its creative élan.  I mean let’s give out words that don’t just describe experience, they create experience, providing raw materials that others can recombine for their own narrative needs, thus altering, here and there, world and worlds.   Referencing John Miles Foley, Niles  calls this cosmoplastic, or “world-building” energy of human language, “wordpower.”

During this year’s Spring Poetry Runoff Contest and Celebration, we’ll not only be running the poetry contest with prizes in the Most Popular Vote Award and Admin Award categories but also an open-invitation haiku chain (a developing tradition on WIZ), a non-competing category for those poets wishing to participate in the Spring Poetry Runoff just for fun, the Runoff Rerun (re-publishing of one of last year’s poems), and other activities.

Hope you join in.  It’s spring.  Let’s sing it up.

To review submission deadlines, rules, voting procedures, and prizes, go here.

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Photo of singing western meadowlark by Alan Vernon.

Smarter than we think

I love stories like this.

The “Wow-ee!” response of the scientists involved would make for an interesting study, as well as the “maybe it’s the first example of invertebrate tool use but maybe it isn’t” facet of the story.

Everything is smarter than we think and has the prospect of becoming smarter, including us, if we could just get over thinking we’re smarter than we actually are. Continue reading Smarter than we think

The Downstream Principle of Language

I’ve cross-posted this over at the onymous blog Times and Seasons in  follow up to a three-part series I wrote there a couple years back.  If you wish to read the original series, the introduction to the T&S post contains links to all three parts.

September 17th marked the two-year anniversary of the closing of Crossfire Canyon (real name: Recapture Canyon) to off-highway vehicular (OHV) travel.  Since then, the canyon has become an even more volatile epicenter of rhetorical and legal power struggles over land use policy.  Private citizens, environmental and off-road advocacy groups, and the federal government have all entered dogs in the fight. Continue reading The Downstream Principle of Language

Setting the story free: Words as worldstuff

A few years back, after attending a local storytelling festival, I wondered in this post what would happen if I released a story into public domain.  I resolved to work up the nerve to let go what some might imagine to be my intellectual property, to “breathe it out” into the common atmosphere, where anybody might breathe it in and make use of it. 

Then two years ago, members of that same storytelling festival committee recruited me to participate.  I was assigned to write an introduction for the festival, a preamble that would signal to visitors that the storytelling was about to begin.  Another purpose for the introduction: To support the opening ceremony during which each of the evening’s participants carried a lit candle into the auditorium as they entered single file.  The candles symbolized the intentional passing of stories–heirloom narrative valuables–from generation to generation.  Continue reading Setting the story free: Words as worldstuff

Guest Post: Bart, by Cara O’Sullivan

Brown-eyed boy tosses his black head,
Pokes his nose through the corral bars
Sniffing, searching for the apple slice
He knows, he knows I hide behind me.
I laugh, he bobs his head, steps close,
Knickers softly, lowers his head near my face.
He loves me for the apple he smells,
Its dappled red and yellow skin
Hints at dusty summer noons,
Evokes grass cool and wet at dawn.
I relent and offer the fruit in my open palm.
He gobbles it in loud, happy crunches—
Now he loves me even more.
I lean against the corral.
He snorts, puts his head against mine.
A bay yearling bugles a greeting,
Runs across the field to nuzzle an appaloosa.
Brown-eyed boy twitches his ears, knickers to the others.
In the slanted light of sunset, the hairs on his black neck
Gleam iridescent with blue, purple and green.
Warm blood, muscle and bone hold us both here,
But he is sinewed to the earth in ways I am not.
Are his thoughts images wrapped with sharp smells and taste?
What feelings thunder in his chest
When he pounds across a field?
I don’t know how his animal mind works,
But here in the dusty stable yard, in the warm sun
On the September cusp of Indian summer,
His breath, sweet with hay and apple, fans across my neck,
His huge face rests on my shoulder—
We stand wordless and content.

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For Cara’s bio, go here (scroll to end).

Horse Opera, Pt. Two

In Horse Opera, I told how a silver dun (also called grulla) mare helped protect and nurture a colt born this spring to another mare in my neighbor’s small herd.  As I witnessed the social dynamics of the herd shift with the colt’s arrival, the grulla emerged to my awareness as an intelligent, loyal, and brave soul, frequently placing herself between the foal and his aggressive yellow dun father, at times driving the stallion out of the herd to stop his bullying the mare-foal pair.  The grulla helped raise the baby, forming such a close bond with him that my youngest daughter took to calling her “Nanny Horse.” Continue reading Horse Opera, Pt. Two

Got flight?

I thought it might be nice to make this Got Flight Week on WIZ’s People Month.  Posts this week will play with the question: Can humans fly?  If you’ve had a flying dream or other liberating experience related to flying, please, feel free to post it in comments to this post or others published this week or submit your flight narrative to WIZ.

One of my hobbies is collecting words carrying the meaning of “understanding” and whose root words are bound up in the metaphorical pairing of perceiving and grasping—of aligning the focus of attention on something and the physical act of laying hold upon or seizing.  The American Heritage Dictionary gives the following definition for “understand”: To perceive or comprehend the nature and significance of; grasp. See synonyms at apprehend.”  There follow three more definitions relying upon the words “comprehend” and “grasp.”  At the heart of both “apprehend” and “comprehend” lies the Latin root prehendere, “to seize.”

Here is a partial list of other words and phrases conveying the concept of understanding that contain root words set in the act of grasping or seizing: Continue reading Got flight?