In Langscape Magazine Articles

Editorial  | Listening to the Voices of the Earth

June 29, 2016

Voices of the Earth, Part I

Langscape Magazine Volume 5, Issue 1, Summer 2016


It’s 2016, and that makes it two decades since Terralingua came into existence, with a unique (back then, some might have said “quaint”) mission: to sustain biocultural diversity  —  the interconnected and interdependent diversity of life in nature and culture. Hard to believe, but true: it was 1996 when we were registered as a nonprofit, so this year we officially turn 20! And, while to us it may still seem like yesterday when we were taking our first baby steps in the world, we do feel as if we have now come of age.

“Biocultural diversity” may not be a household name quite yet, but the term and the concept it stands for have certainly penetrated not only academic discourse but also the ways in which many of us act in the “real world.” The idea of biocultural diversity is helping transform how we view our place in the world: we are part of nature, not separate from it, and our cultural and linguistic diversity is as crucial to Earth’s vitality and resilience as our planet’s diversity of plant and animal species and variety of ecosystems. Increasingly, we think of the web of life as a biocultural web, in which biological, cultural, and linguistic diversity are mutually supportive and act synergistically to sustain the life systems that sustain us and all other life forms. When the biocultural bond is strong, the Earth is healthy, and so are we. When we lose that bond, the Earth is weakened, and we are weakened with her.

That also gives us a profoundly different and inescapable view of our responsibilities toward the web of life of which we are a part: if we do care for our future and the future of all life, we must radically rethink our activities, which have become so destructive of biocultural diversity, and redirect our energies toward supporting and enhancing our life-giving systems, in both nature and culture.

Terralingua co-founder David Harmon reflects on these very issues in his article for the Special Feature “Biocultural Diversity at Twenty.” with which we celebrate our “big birthday.” Looking back at our serendipitous (or call them fated) beginnings, Dave ponders the intellectual, emotional, and ethical implications of the biocultural perspective. Among the achievements of that perspective he cites the fact that, by its very nature, it provides a framework in which people “can come to their own understandings about the significance of diversity in nature and culture” and to their own recognition that “a thriving interplay between nature and culture is essential to a good and vibrant life.” In his trademark philosophical mode, Dave also poses some thought-provoking questions about biocultural diversity as an “elemental gauge of the livingness of earth  —  the amount of life that we feel to be around us.” Life in both nature and culture, he muses, is an amazing paradox: the emergence and persistence of an always fragile and precarious order in a universe that tends toward increasing disorder. To recognize this paradox is to become aware that destroying diversity in nature and culture means disabling life at its very core. In many ways, and from many sources, we are learning to be wiser than that.

Another way in which we are marking our twentieth is by “going back to our roots” with this issue’s theme: “Voices of the Earth.” In 1996, we chose the name Terralingua to suggest two things at once: the language of the Earth —  the voice of Mother Nature; and the languages of the Earth  —  the many voices of the world’s diverse peoples, which have evolved through intimate interaction with the Earth in each specific place. We wanted to hear from and about the Voices of the Earth, and so we did! Without a doubt, that’s one of the things that make my task as editor so deeply satisfying: to find myself immersed in a chorus of voices from all over the globe  —  all singing the same song, but in many different languages and with many local variations. A song of praise and reverence for life, a song of connectedness and reconnection, a song of reaffirmation and reclamation of our unity in biocultural diversity. That song runs like a musical thread through all of this issue’s articles, tightly binding together the intellectual, the emotional, and the ethical  —  the dimensions of biocultural diversity that Dave Harmon identifies.

In the “Ideas” section, a linguist and budding biocultural conservationist and an anthropologist and long-time biocultural conservationist offer complementary perspectives on a crucial issue for our understanding of biocultural diversity: how language and the environment are connected through the expression of traditional ecological knowledge, and why that link matters. The linguist, David Stringer, guides us through the ways in which different languages encode local knowledge in their “mental lexicon,” as well as through myth, story, and song. He belongs to the vanguard of linguists who “are coming to realize that the revitalization of languages is intimately bound up with the preservation of the environments in which they are spoken”  —  and he is taking action on that realization. Together with his students, he is bringing the message to elementary school children, and the children are taking the message to heart. That gives him, and all of us, reason for hoping that our “current social apathy can be overcome.”

From his vantage point in the lush rainforest of southeastern Mexico, the anthropologist, James D. Nations, delves into the social and ecological changes that are threatening the Lacandon Maya’s way of life and putting their language at risk of slipping away. While working to help maintain the language and the cultural knowledge it embodies, Jim reflects on why keeping this (and any other) indigenous language alive does matter: as an inherent right of the speakers; as a reminder that there are many diverse ways of looking at the world that we should all respect and learn from; and as a way of preserving an invaluable store of knowledge about the forest and how to live sustainably in it. That is knowledge that the Lacandones themselves and the world at large can benefit from for the conservation of this remaining richly diverse corner of tropical forest that the Lacandones call home.

But how do we, in our busy everyday lives, develop and nurture this primordial awareness of our inextricable link with nature? How do we learn to filter out the noise and hear the voice of the Earth speaking to us in its multifarious place-based tongues? The writers in the “Reflections” section all establish or renew that bond and attune their ears to listening by moving deliberately through the land, or by reminiscing about times past in which moving through the land gave them the language to connect with place. Aran Shetterly travels along remote paths in the Chinantla region of Mexico in search of “unspoiled” nature, only to discover that nature is with and within the Chinantec people every step of the way. Linguist Dawn Wink and biologist Susan J. Tweit converse about the ways in which both languages and plants are the “native tongues” of place — tongues that early immersion in their places of home taught them to understand and speak. Geneen Marie Haugen walks through the landscape opening herself up to “the images thatarise unbidden when we are wholly present to the wilder world.” In so doing, she seeks to reawaken the language of imagination  —  the language, she muses (and rightly so, I think!), “whose disappearance may have greatest consequence for the human relationship with Earth.” And, through his poetry, Lee Beavington invites us to “embrace a contemplative receptivity” that alone can allow us to receive “other-than-human words”  —  including the words of the “last vestiges of urban nature,” words we can hear if, in the midst of urban commotion, we only still ourselves long enough to pay attention.

And then there are those human voices that are so connected to the other-than-human as to make the human/non-human distinction melt away  —  something increasingly rare in this brave new world of ever-growing human-to-human and human-machine electronic connectivity and mounting disconnect from nature. Which makes it all the more precious and touching to hear such timeless voices in the first two stories in “Dispatches”. Rarely, in fact, have I myself met people who are more intimately “of the Earth” than Marcello and Emma, an elderly farmer couple from the central Italian region of Umbria. My photographer sister Anna Maffi is their neighbor, and in a loving tribute in words and images she gathered their memories of de prima  — a time gone by in which the farming life was hard-won, yet humanly rich and full of love and respect for the land that nourished you. Rooted in the land like their old olive trees, Marcello and Emma are living reminders that a place-connected life is not only possible; it is indispensable.

From the “green heart of Italy” to the wind-swept reaches of Tierra del Fuego in southern Chile, Cristina Zárraga introduces us to the moving life and words of her beloved grandmother, Cristina Calderón, known around the world as the last fluent speaker of the Yagan language. But granddaughter Cristina refuses to accept the self-fulfilling prophecy that when Grandma goes, the language (and much of the place-based Yagan culture) will go with her. Together, the two women are hard at work to document Yagan and the cultural knowledge the language conveys  —  bearing in mind, the granddaughter says, that “if a language can die, many times it can also be re-born in generations down the line.”

Language revitalization is indeed what we see at work in the next two “Dispatches” stories. Both stories focus on the remarkable revitalization experiences of First Nations in British Columbia, Canada, and both point to the power of reclaiming indigenous place names to reconnect people with the land and with the lived experience and ancestral knowledge that place names inscribe on the land. Ask “what’s in a name?” and indigenous peoples will tell you “a lot”. Alice Meyers and Earl Claxton Jr. introduce us to the renaming of home  —  “home,” in this case, being the traditional territory of the W̱SÁNEĆ Coast Salish people of southern Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands, including Salt Spring Island from which I am writing this. Their article teaches us the central importance of revitalizing the language and renaming culturally important places for indigenous self-determination and for intergenerational transmission through place-based learning.

We see that very process in action in Graham Richard’s account of an eventful three-day sea voyage that a Haida-language team undertakes around the northwestern edge of Haida Gwaii, the magnificent archipelago off the north coast of British Columbia that is the Haida people’s homeland. Armed with the traditional knowledge stored in the minds of expert elders, they brave the turbulent waters their ancestors once plied with large sea-faring canoes to match up those mental maps with the actual lay of the land (and sea), and to then translate those matches into the contemporary high-tech language of geo-referencing. Land and sea teach them about place names, and place names teach them about land and sea. Thus, concludes Graham, “each renders a more complete version of the other, and both are teachers.”

That and similar conclusions about the link between people and the land would resonate with the authors of the last three pieces in this issue. In the first of two “Louder Than Words” photo essays, Thor Edmundo Morales introduces us to the experience of two indigenous groups of northwestern Mexico, the Yaqui and the Seri, who learn to use and then teach participatory video techniques to address with film what matters to indigenous peoples the most: territory  —  “a simple word that embraces culture, nature, history, dignity, land, food, dreams, landscapes, mindsets.” Their story is another uplifting example of how indigenous peoples are taking charge to reclaim their identities, their languages, and their connection with place.

“Place as teacher” is the central theme of Dario Ciccarelli’s essay for the “Action” section. Dario’s visceral love for his own territory, Cilento in southern Italy, transpires as he takes us on a bold cavalcade through several millennia of history of this area of Magna Graecia, the region of Italy that was deeply influenced by Hellenic civilization. Along the way, we learn what the illustrious Magna Graecian philosopher Parmenides has to do with the traditional Cilentan farmers’ dish known as ciccimmaretati  —  the link going back to place as a master of biocultural wisdom. Viewing some “persistent connection to place” as an essential “seed” of civilization, Dario laments the disconnection that has arisen from and is fueled by place-less academic, political, and economic institutions. He envisions alliances among place-based and place-sensitive institutions to reverse the “business-driven and technology-driven processes [that] threaten to irreversibly devastate, in only one generation, an outstanding diversity ‘menu’ compiled over millennia.”

A “persistent connection to place,” the second “Louder Than Words” photo essay reminds us, doesn’t have to be a sedentary one. Drawing from the internationally acclaimed photography exhibition On the Move, Liza Zogib, Divya Venkatesh, and Sandra Spissinger celebrate the lives of mobile pastoralists in the Mediterranean, who in their diversity share a common language: the language of the landscapes through which they move with their animals over the seasons, and whose diversity they consciously maintain and enrich. Their mobile ways of life are threatened by the same forces that threaten the nature through which they move, and the authors wish for a future in which the rights of pastoralists will be valued, respected, and protected.

Will we see a diversity-friendly future for these and all other Voices of the Earth? Here a word I learned from Thor Morales comes into play: marabunta. Marabunta refers to army ants that swarm in the millions, unstoppably taking over the land. It also is the name that the Seri and Yaqui participatory video team gives to the army of indigenous filmmakers they aim to train. In my more hopeful (or perhaps more subversive) moments, I see a marabunta of diverse place-connected peoples forming, and unstoppably taking back the Earth.

Bioculturally yours,

Luisa Maffi

Langscape Magazine Editor
Co-founder and Director, Terralingua


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