The year is 2007. I am crashing over at the beach cottage of a dear friend, visiting for a short spell, while I whittle away the in-between hours on my honours research and he on his masters. I am a literature student in those days past, and he is a psychology student, and as such we are not entirely dissimilar beasts. While pouring over papers on The Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood, something piques my curiosity. Paper in hand, I go to find him.
“Hey, Ross, listen to this. Research suggests certain moths are drawn to Belladonna for the plant’s hallucinogenic properties?” We chuckle in a shared moment of disbelief, then mirth. Moths get high? The question hangs in the air, amusing us both. I wonder aloud if they would’ve been into the Beatles in the 60’s. We both laugh again and return to our work. But moths somehow mean something altogether different to me ever after. It stays with me.
The year is 2019. I am fast approaching my third manic episode, since my first diagnosis, in 7 years. All the tell-tale signs of my unravelling mind will soon mark my waking hours. But in this rare and treasured moment, before I’ve totally lost my marbles, I will think back on that article I read all those years ago. I am in the kitchen of my modest abode surrounded by milkwoods and wildflowers and my attentions are keenly enraptured by a small brown moth dancing to a live recording of ‘One Day’ by Matisyahu streaming on Youtube. As plain as the light on in my kitchen, this creature’s minute antlers are keeping perfect time to the music. For they are exquisitely delicate antlers. I know not the proper word. (Later I will look it up and find the word: antennae. I prefer antlers.) I am spellbound. And quite possibly bordering precariously on the precipice of insanity by now.
You’ll never convince me that I never saw with my very own two eyes that tiny moth revelling in the music on that balmy Summer’s eve. Soon after, when I am institutionalised for the third time in 7 years, I will never come to speak of this moment to the good doctor who only wants to help.
This moment is mine to keep. My most precious secret. Until now.
Among with many others.
There is that other day the young monkeys came out to play when it both rained and the sun shone bright above, a benevolent rainbow crowning the sky, to the blaring sounds of my ska collection, jumping up and down in a glorious joyful celebration of their youthful exuberance, still babies that they were, up and down, up and down on the green mesh that served as a shaded cover across my car port. I danced and danced in the garden, that irreducibly resplendent day, completely carefree and unfettered and effortlessly in love with them. Who can say if I was clinically insane then… Just yet. Maybe I’ve just always been the kind of crazy who dances with monkeys.
There is the day I spent my hours contemplatively collecting broken shards of glimmering glass and broken seashell and pieces of old china to build a shrine and graveyard for the many insects, geckos, and lizards who had been felled by time and well, life, praying that they might have dignity in death too. A place to mourn and be thankful for each and every creature. Admittedly, I was likely insane by that point. And a newly self-declared Buddhist. Whatever I thought that meant.
Yet another is the day I thought the heat would never end and I sat in the garden wishing and wishing for the clouds to gather and the breeze to blow to bring us all respite from the dry desolation of it all, when gather they did, and rain it did, and I continued to sit there for some time, soaked in that majestic rainfall, feeling ever so deeply and intrinsically a part of it all and it all a part of me. Feeling the spirited kiss of the raindrops on my skin. Just as Virginia Woolf many moons before me had experienced an epiphany and the call to become a writer in the single act of bearing witness to a small flower in her garden. She probably had bipolar too, so I’m in good company at least.
And how could I ever forget the day that I held my hands aloft, legs crossed in the tall grass, leading the orchestra in my own childlike fantasy, to some good ol’ fashioned jazz, for the many wild and wonderful plants that I had the privilege to call my garden, magically unkempt as it was, feeling to my very core that they too felt the music, heard the music, and were moved by each and every hand gesture I wove in harmony with their very being to the music. Safe to say, I was definitely insane by then.
And yet, still.
A firm and resolute no.
I would not relinquish these stories, these moments in my life, to that good doctor who only wants to help. Maybe to my closest inmate, as we would jokingly call each other. (When he learnt that I like to write at times, he wanted me to call him Murphy Jackson, for anonymity’s sake. He said he’d always liked that name, and I said I dug it too.) But to tell my stories to the doctor, no. And to the nurses, another resolute no. I would not dissociate. I would not let them be the stuff of cold, clinical dissection and standardised medical discussion. I was no longer the simple analytical beast I had once been. Not these stories. Not this time. Be they the stuff of my madness, they are mine, and they are sacred to me.
“Attention without feeling,” Mary Oliver once observed, “is only a report.” And I would not have the good doctor make of my stories, my beautiful memories still so vivid, the unfeeling stuff of a diagnostic report.
Language has so often failed me. More and more these days. Or perhaps I am only wiser to it these days.
“You experienced what is known as a ‘manic high’,” I was told the first time. “You have bipolar disorder,” I was told the first time. “Here is what we call a mood stabiliser and this here is an anti-psychotic,” I was told the first time. “These will help to stabilise you and hopefully prevent any further manic episodes,” I was told the first time.
I am well versed now. And I take the medication religiously today, as the good doctor tells me to. But still, well versed enough. Well versed enough to know these words are inadequate. They are not enough for me anymore. What I have experienced in the natural realm has no place on the steadied pencil line set against squiggly highs and lows to indicate mood instability that the good doctor draws in the hopes of illustrating my diagnosis. Oh so simply. Oh so succinctly. I’m not saying that the good doctor does not have her place in her world, and people to help, and for that I thank her. But I keep my stories far away from her, far away from her language. They have no place there.
I have heard nature sing back to me. She’s danced with me. She’s shown me little secrets that were there all along for anyone with the time and curious inclination to be awestruck. These miracles have no place there. Not on the good doctor’s clipboard. Not in my file. Not these keepsakes.
Maybe one day, the two may reconcile. One day.
But can they have a place out here? Out in the open? To truly breathe life? Of this I find myself so sadly unsure. In our current Anthropocene, do we have the words yet to truly breathe life back into being? For there are other words, you see, and I care not for them either. They cannot tell my stories. They speak not of the sacred sanctity of my milkwoods, my wildflowers, my small brown moth.
How can we truly speak of milkwoods and wildflowers and moths when there is another word that sits so cold and unfeeling on my tongue, that word that is ‘resource’? Or ‘natural capital’? Yet another two seemingly innocuous and yet loaded words. As cold and unfeeling as they sit, I am faced with them increasingly all too often. They have become uncomfortably familiar to me. Easy bedfellows with each other, but no friends of mine.
That day that found me, flirting so very feverishly with madness, consumed by sheer wonderment, faced with the veritable force of something so very intimately close but at the same time so very beyond me, of something so much greater than me that it could swallow me whole if I only let it, where I moved in time with nature and jazz and nature with me and jazz too until all time stood still and there was only the rhythm of the music, or so it had felt, so truly felt. So I think on that day, that sublime day, that memory that will not be extinguished, when I sound out the word ‘resource’ or ‘natural capital’ and they taste of cold, sterilised steel. They taste of cold, sterilised imperialism.
In the same way, that I would not have the good doctor rephrase my experience in the cold, sterilised steel of her best intentions, that I refused to submit, to relinquish my secrets, to have my own tongue sterilised so, so our emerging Anthropocene is found wanting of a new language, for all the seemingly best intentions in the world. Or maybe not, for whose interest does this loveless, sterilised language serve? Perhaps it is a great deal more political than it at first gives away. Such a clever sleight of hand, and casual slip of the tongue. But really just another cheap trick.
Be what it may, time has never been so pressing for words to speak anew, to breathe back wonderment and sublime ecstasy and sanctity, to breathe back into life, before it might just be too late for us. Those of us who would dare to speak wildly.
That said, there are some words in common use today, words for the defenders, facing the dramatic changes to our dear Mother Earth that we may experience in the years to come. Words such as ‘emergency’ or ‘collapse’. Words such as ‘existential threat’ or ‘catastrophe’. Those who declare these words so defiantly have been considered as heroes by some, trailblazers speaking back to the almost impenetrable scientific data that remains dauntingly uncertain for those who do not understand what such data might reveal for our dauntingly uncertain future. Meanwhile by the bias of others, they have quite plainly become caricatured renderings, ridiculed and dubbed as little more than sensationalising, attention-seeking ‘alarmists’. Time will tell if they were merely preposterous ‘prophets of doom’, or quite simply the prophets we deserved, the prophets of an unforgiveable Anthropocene. And yet, I still find myself seeking another kind of language, another wilder tongue with which to speak of the natural world. Fearful and uncertain as I find myself, I need hope. Does hope have a name in these dire times? Can it still?
And it was with this longing, this yearning inside, that I rejoiced upon reading a call to arms (or rather, a call to grammar as it were) by the American writer, Robin Wall Kimmerer. Famed author of both Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants and Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses, as one of the world’s foremost bryologists, beyond the world of science, Kimmerer also shares her heritage with the Bear Clan of Potawatomi. In her writing she brings the two worlds together with her mesmerising words, both influences in their own way serving to further cultivate and foster a love of this Mother Earth of ours in all her splendour. And a language that will not neglect nature. Not now. Not ever again. While most articles on climate change leave me feeling like the post-apocalyptic science fictions of my youth may become the unimaginable, as my reality, our reality, Kimmerer shines a light and brings me hope on the darkest nights of my searching soul.
As she so eloquently writes in “To stop the age of extinction, nature needs a new pronoun,”
Calling the natural world ‘it’ absolves us of moral responsibility and opens the door to exploitation. Singing whales, talking trees, dancing bees, birds who make art, fish who navigate, plants who learn and remember. We are surrounded by intelligences other than our own, by feathered people and people with leaves. But we’ve forgotten. There are many forces that help us to forget – even the language we speak. I’m a beginning student of my native Anishinaabe language, trying to reclaim what was washed from the mouths of children in the Indian Boarding Schools. Children like my grandfather.
As she remarks later of her native Anishinaabe and other indigenous languages, it is impossible to speak of living beings as ‘it’, instead addressing them as fellow beings as one would their own family. She begs the question, “What would it feel like to be part of a family that includes birches and beavers and butterflies?” To answer her own question, she ponders that perhaps in the end, we might “feel like we belonged.” And wouldn’t that be nice? To belong? In nature? And thus she proposes “a new language, with its roots in an ancient way of thinking.” A kindling for all things wildling.
In this pursuit, a novice in some ways still to the language of her ancestors, she turns to fluent speaker and her spiritual teacher, Stewart King, for guidance. He suggests that the word she might be seeking, for “beings of the living earth would be Bemaadiziiaaki.” But I suspect Kimmerer knows better, that it might leave some tongue-tied or slow on the uptake, and as such she offers this small but no less resounding alteration to our forlorn and failing imperial tongues. That of the simple resonance of ‘ki’ to replace the objectifying and dispassionate ‘it’. She notes, it has to be said, in a charming display of humour in the face of the challenge she meets, but also a relentless doggedness, that of course we could always save ‘it’ for the realm of “bulldozers and paperclips.” And then she brings her sage-like suggestion closer to home, reaffirming her new “grammar of animacy,” by adding that when speaking of collected lives in nature, such as a flock of birds, we could call on the word ‘kin’ to draw them ever closer to us, to insist on an intimacy with all flora and fauna.
In practising what she preaches Kimmerer also feels and lives this intimacy in her life as a bryologist as she writes of mosses that “learning to see [them] is more like listening than looking,” and far from mere “elevator music,” they are in fact, all 22 000 known species, the “intertwined threads of a Beethoven quartet.” And suddenly I learn I am not alone. I am not just ‘mad’. Nature sings to her too. It moves to the grander symphony. And when she finds herself presented with Schistostega pennata, or Goblin’s Gold, a moss that manages to survive on “the cloud’s silver lining alone,” so deep is the “kinship” that she feels with this glittering specimen that demands so very little, that she wonders in “return for such a gift,” might the only “sane response” be to “glitter in reply.”
I might never have the good fortune to encounter this remarkable and miraculous Goblin’s Gold, but I too can glitter in reply with every utterance of ‘ki’ and ‘kin’ and come each day, to know my neighbours, my reclaimed family, more and more.
From the weeds I love, the humble dandelions, or ‘tooth of the lion’ as their etymology reveals, for their bright yellow flowers, and the wild garlic I so adore for the plant’s flavour, and prettiness too, that decorate my lawn and the bees that come with the flowers in bloom after a good rain. Ki and kin. To the bumblebee who seems to rest in the broken wooden slat of my fence, whose sting can be fierce and non-lethal to her but unlikely (that is if she is a sexually undeveloped female bumblebee and not one of the sting-free male workers), a great pollinator for the bumblebee can carry a larger load than the average honey bee. Useful to know. To be grateful for. Ki. To the moth more magnificent than I have ever seen before that alighted one evening by candlelight on my finger, that once alone. Ki.
So it is, with Kimmerer’s illuminations, that I shall endeavour each and every day for those smaller sacred intimacies. I shall endeavour each and every day to call them to me, to blissfully call each and every one ‘ki’, my kin, my family. That is more than enough. For now. For now, it is as good a start as any. And I too shall learn to listen as I learn to see. And with time it will return to me and I will hear it loud and clear, and no, not elevator music, but unadulterated Beethoven. And I will come to sing wildly for my ki and my kin for I too am just a wild thing in search of the right words, a language reinvigorated, to sing my song of kinship, to feel what it is to be wild and to belong.
*This article was first published on thecutline.co.za