In Langscape Magazine Articles

Editorial | Taking the Dance

December 20, 2016

Voices of the Earth, Part II

Langscape Magazine Volume 5, Issue 2, Winter 2016


Am I ever so lucky! As Langscape editor, I sit in my Salt Spring Island office and, looking out of the window, I not only get to see the stunning beauty of the coastal rainforest all around me, I also get to see the entire world in its full biocultural glory. I see it vividly through the eyes of the revolving cast of diverse, thoughtful, and eloquent contributors whose poignant words and images grace the pages of our magazine. What a privilege it is to listen to this chorus of voices of the Earth, and what a joy to share those voices with you, our readers!

In the second of a two-part series devoted to the theme of “Voices of the Earth,” we again travel across continents to drop in on some of the myriad peoples and places that, like weft and warp, form biocultural diversity’s tightly woven fabric. And we again hear stories of connectedness and resilience, challenges and struggles, re-emergence and resurgence. But first we travel for a while through the more rarified world of ideas and reflections  —  through a tapestry of thoughts that help us delve deeper into a concept that, intuitively appealing as it may be, is often hard to define and comprehend: biocultural diversity.

To start off, in this year that marks Terralingua’s twentieth anniversary, we bring you a second article in our Special Feature “Biocultural Diversity at 20.” The guest writer for this issue’s feature is Ken Wilson, biocultural diversity champion extraordinaire and a close Terralingua friend of many years. A visionary in the world of philanthropy, Ken recognized early on the value and promise of the nascent idea of an “inextricable link” among cultural, linguistic, and biological diversity. In a fond retrospective look at the birth of biocultural diversity out of several decades of intellectual gestation, he skillfully traces the ideological and political changes that made it possible for the concept to emerge and take off when it did. As he puts it, he was fated to throw his life “into loving this golden child.” So, too, was he bound to throw his support (and that of the foundations he was involved in) behind that child. And the world, I might add, is a far better place for it.

In the “Ideas” section, Peter Bridgewater also pursues some historical musings about the rise of ideas that, like that of biocultural diversity, intimately link the cultural with the biological. He revisits the concept of “linguasphere”  —  a concept that he and his linguist daughter proposed nearly two decades ago, on the model of Teilhard de Chardin’s idea of the noosphere, or Earth’s “thinking envelope.” Similarly, the linguasphere can be seen as a planetary “envelope” of languages and cultures that overlays and interacts with the biosphere. In what is now coming to be known as the Anthropocene  —  the epoch of global human impact on Earth  —  Peter finds the linguasphere to be as relevant a concept as ever. Maintaining the diversity of languages within the linguasphere along with the worldviews they embody, he argues, is key for us to survive and thrive in the Anthropocene.

On a related note, Joseph Lambert points to language as “both a reflection and an agent — a mirror and a maker” of societal attitudes and perceptions toward Mother Earth. Reflecting on a series of “Harmony with Nature” dialogues that the United Nations has been conducting for a few years, Joseph finds that the dialogues  —  propelled by the UN’s “‘brute-force’ ability to bring language, and the associated social change, into the global psyche”  —  may have the potential to shift mainstream discourse about humans and nature away from prevailing anthropocentric views of humanity as fundamentally separate from and dominant over nature. That is especially the case, he argues, insofar as the dialogues bring to the fore a diversity of voices, including Indigenous voices, to share alternative ideas and radical language that can help steer global society onto a more sustainable Earth-centered, bioculturally focused path.

The links between language, landscape, and custom  —  and the way in which those links shape understanding, identity, and memory —  are the object of both essays in the “Reflections” section. In a heartfelt and poetic recollection of his years as a teacher in Newfoundland on the east coast of Canada, Patrick Howard brings us the world and words of children from that rugged land sculpted by wind and waves, which was once home to a thriving cod fishery. That fishing way of life, gone now for over three decades after the fishery’s collapse, still formed an essential element of the children’s sense of belonging, which for them was inextricably and powerfully tied to water. The classroom allowed Patrick’s students to give voice to that sense of belonging. That experience taught Patrick that “it is to language that we can turn to better comprehend the relationship between our defining human capacity  —  language  —  and the living Earth.”

But how can a language teach us about the relationship of humans and the environment even when we may lack the ability to understand the language itself? That is the conundrum that Marilee K. Gloe confronts in the second “Reflections” story. She ponders a past event through which she gained deep insights into people and place in a foreign land whose language she didn’t know. Chance and quasi-dream encounters in Petra, Jordan, unexpectedly allowed her to break through the language barrier by sheer immersion in the flow of sights and sounds reverberating from and molded by that particular place. In her captivating prose, Marilee weaves language, landscape, and custom together as inherent shapers of intuition and memory.

The thread of language, culture, and land also runs through the six essays in “Dispatches,” which take us zig-zagging from South America to southern Siberia, East Africa, the Pacific Northwest, Oceania, and then back to the southernmost tip of the American continent. The first three stories share a focus on Indigenous worldviews and the ways in which the sacredness of life that is imbued in the landscape, and especially in sacred natural sites, is upheld by local people through reverence, reciprocity, and respect.

Amy Eisenberg introduces us to the cosmological vision of the Aymara people of northern Chile, who live in one of the world’s most forbidding environments, the Atacama Desert. Their vision is “one in which humans, environment, and the entire cosmos work together simultaneously and cooperatively within a network of reciprocal relations.” Through the performance of their agricultural practices and of their rituals to Pachamama (Mother Earth) and to the ancestors, the Aymara strive to maintain that spiritual balance against the age-old challenges of their environment and the new challenges of contemporary “development” in the Andes. They believe that only through constant dialogue with both the human and the more-than-human world can conflict be resolved and the world be made a good place for all.

Joanna Dobson takes us along as she revisits one of her first trips to the Russian republic of Altai, in southwestern Siberia  —  a region that would become her home for a whole decade. Her memory goes back to encounters with three extraordinary members of the Altai Indigenous people: a knowledge keeper and sacred site custodian with a profound capacity to listen to the voice of the Earth; a young poetess with an innate ability to see and express human kinship with nature; and a throat-singing storyteller whose voice and music flowed and permeated the landscape as if “ceremoniously blessing all that it encountered.” In Joanna’s perceptive words, each of these remarkable figures brings us closer to an emotional understanding of the spiritual link between people and place and of the sense of reciprocity that resides at the root of that link.

Kagole Margret Byarufu, a member of the Bagungu tribe of western Uganda, is another sacred natural site custodian, who inherited that role through her family lineage. That inheritance comes with a strong responsibility to protect and care for such places of special cultural and spiritual significance, which often are also of great importance for nature conservation. “These sites,” she explains, “are instrumental in promoting co-existence and living in harmony because they help in protecting the spiritual connections between us, the people, and Mother Earth.” And that is the task that she and other women have dedicated their lives to. In so doing, these intrepid women are also helping preserve traditional seeds, wild foods, and medicinal plants  —  often working against the tide of religious conversion and acculturation that leads local people to abandon ancestral beliefs as pagan and backward, and to then damage or destroy sacred sites for which they no longer have respect and care.

Sometimes, though, a sacred natural site can be as popular as ever and yet become degraded. That is what Sheetal Vaidya and Asha Paudel find in the case of the Dakshinkali sacred grove and temple in the Kathmandu Valley of Nepal. In the first photo essay of a two-part “Louder than Words” section, they illustrate the transformation that this site, traditionally cared for by the local Newar and Tamang peoples, has undergone since road building has made it easier for worshippers to get there  —  leaving behind non-biodegradable waste and polluting the sacred water in the temple’s pond. The road has also been a boon for the illegal trade of rare and endangered species found in the grove. Construction of the road itself, without proper environmental assessment, has damaged the grove’s biodiversity. With limited means, some of the local Indigenous youth are seeking to restore respectful stewardship of the site. Sheetal and Asha issue an urgent call for larger-scale and long-term interventions to address the situation.

Good stewardship, of course, depends crucially on maintaining or reviving nature-centered values and traditional knowledge. You can’t care for what you don’t know and respect. The next three “Dispatches” stories chronicle efforts to reawaken and reinvigorate Indigenous languages and the place-based knowledge and wisdom that they embody. These efforts also aim to bring those rich stores of knowledge and wisdom to bear on recreating interconnectedness and interdependence between people and nature, reaffirming traditional ways of sustainably managing the environment, and rebuilding Indigenous identity.

Andrea Lyall, of the Kwakwa̲ka̲’wakw First Nation of coastal British Columbia, Canada, recounts her personal journey to gain fluency in her ancestral language, Kwaḱwala , and to compile a dictionary of plant names and related ecological knowledge. Kwakwa̲ka̲’wakw knowledge of forest trees and plants is of special relevance to her work as a forester. That knowledge reveals not only “how the forest works,” but also what the Kwakwa̲ka̲’wakw have considered sacred in their relationship with the land  —  a bond that has been traditionally upheld through the performance of stories, songs, and ceremonies. As Andrea and other researchers learn more about age-old Indigenous management practices that were successfully applied along the coast, the importance of learning from Indigenous knowledge for wise environmental decision making and stewardship becomes ever more apparent.

Similarly, He̅mi Whaanga and Priscilla Wehi delve into their Ma̅ori oral traditions in search of gems of ecological and cultural wisdom whose meaning had become lost to the younger generations, but which is now re-emerging from the past to illuminate the future. Ancestral sayings in the Ma̅ori language offer clues to ecological knowledge while metaphorically conveying observations and precepts about human behavior. The wisdom of their tīpuna  —  their ancestors  —  emerges vividly from He̅mi’s and Priscilla’s examples. That wisdom suggests, as they put it, that at a time in which “humankind is at a cultural, linguistic, biological, and spiritual crossroad,” we need to resort to all forms of knowledge in all languages to address our real-life problems. “As Indigenous Peoples have realized,” they add, “all parts of the story matter.”

Whatever parts are left of the “story” of the Tehuelche language of Patagonia, Argentina, Javier Domingo is at work to help rescue and revitalize them. Working closely with elder Dora Manchado, one of the last speakers of this language, Javier seeks to recover as much as possible of the language “in order to return some depth to the identity” of this Indigenous community. To him, that is “the nicest job on earth”  —  and it shows: his is an at once deeply tender and humorously unglamorous account of the daily ins and outs of the work of salvaging and reasserting a language. His story is a loving portrait of Dora, sitting in her kitchen as she strives to remember words in Tehuelche that she hasn’t uttered in ages  —  because to whom? It’s hard work, but when surprise greets them at the local kindergarten, they both realize it’s all worth it.

The topic of language and knowledge revitalization continues with the “Action” article and the remaining two “Louder Than Words” photo essays. Ajuawak Kapashesit goes straight to the nuts and bolts of documenting and reinvigorating “vanishing voices.” What does it mean for a language to be “endangered”? How many levels of endangerment are there, and what kind of situation does each level correspond to? And what can be done to reverse endangerment and re-establish the intergenerational transmission of language fluency? Ajuawak gives useful answers to such practical questions, while warning that the work is indeed difficult and slow. But the reward, he says, is like that of growing a flower: with the right care, you see it bloom.

Clint Carroll and the Cherokee Nation Medicine Keepers in Oklahoma, USA, understand the challenge of restoring intergenerational transmission  —  especially at a time when youth’s attention is captivated (and distracted) by a “dazzling array of technology.” Mindful of that, the Cherokee elders chose to harness video technology to create a documentary in which they convey their views and values about language, land, and health. Their photo essay presents a series of stills from the documentary, along with excerpts from the elders’ commentary. The full video can be seen on Vimeo.

If there are challenges in language revitalization, none of them seems to have been daunting enough to the six Australian Aboriginal women who launched the “Yamani: Voices of an Ancient Land” project celebrated in the final photo essay, which is brought to us by Faith Baisden, Thomas Dick, Carolyn Barker, and Kristina Kelman. Those six forces of nature (and culture) came together around the idea of using contemporary song to re-instill pride in Indigenous languages and cultures and rebuild the strength of identity. The outcomes are a CD of songs in five different languages, a companion video, and rousing live performances. The photo essay gives us an intimate glimpse of the process  —  and the video and other audiovisual resources are not to be missed.

This issue of Langscape continues online with some “Web Extra” content. The essay by Katherine Dominique Lind tackles a different approach to “listening to the voice of the Earth”: the approach taken by Conservation International with its “Nature Is Speaking” video campaign. A critical look at this campaign leads Katherine to conclude that it misses its target and may actually end up being counterproductive, obfuscating “the stark truth about ecological collapse.”

We do live in times of ecological collapse  —  and of rising social unease and uncertainty. The tide appears to be pushing us in the opposite direction from all that advocates of diversity in nature and culture stand for. But we need to take a longer view and heed what Ken Wilson in his opening essay urges us to do: “Take the dance”  —  the joyous and life-affirming dance of biocultural diversity. And so I hope you will. Step onto the biocultural dance floor, tune in to the music, and enjoy. The more of us who sway to that rhythm, the greater our hope will be for a truly sustainable future.

Bioculturally yours,

Luisa Maffi

Langscape Magazine, Editor
Co-founder and Director, Terralingua


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