“Then the magic happened. … Listening and really recognizing the language gave me a little taste of what was important.”
The impact books have on our lives is not limited to the words written between the covers. Some books inspire new thoughts and send us to unexpected places. Follow me Down the Rabbit Hole in this recurring segment.
This book will change you.
That was the gist of the book review that finally made my mind up after vacillating for several weeks.
As the selection deadline for Book Interrupted Season 2 approached, I was on the fence about choosing What the Robin Knows by Jon Young. Don’t get me wrong, I had wanted to read the book for a long time, but put it off because it wasn’t available at my local library. Season 2 seemed like a guilt-free excuse to spurge on buying the book, and find out what all the hype was about.
Ok, maybe there wasn’t “all that” hype. In fact, I don’t think any of the other members had even heard about it. The hype was in my head. The book kept surfacing in my life, referenced in books and podcasts and conversations. It wanted me to read it, and so I thought maybe others might want to, too. The more the merrier.
The book was a departure from the others we read in Season 1. It is about deep bird language. If you don’t give two hoots about birds, bear with me. The point I’m making is not really about birds. It’s about us.
The question is: who is us?
In Braiding Sweetgrass author Robin Wall Kimmerer speaks about the influence of language on perceptions of the natural world. She writes, “In Potawatomi and most other indigenous languages, we use the same words to address the living world as we use for our family. Because they are our family.” She later points out that “In English, you are either human or a thing.” Values and ways of thinking are embodied within language.
Learning another language changes how one perceives the world. Apparently, it also alters our experience of time. This is basically the plot of the movie Arrival. More of a sci-fi rather than scientific example, I know, but it’s more exciting and gets my point across. Plus, I wanted a reason to watch it again, which I did.
Arrival is about a linguist whose perceptions of space and time are changed while she learns an alien language. Did learning the language change her perceptions, or did she have to change her mind to learn the language? Is it a chicken and egg thing?
Which brings us back to how a book about deep bird language could change me. Because it did, just the like the book review promised. First, I was required to exercise my learning skills—patience, curiosity, focussed attention, and perseverance: virtues worth practicing for their own sake. Then the magic happened. As my knowledge grew, the bird’s values and perspectives came along for the ride. Listening and really recognizing the language gave me a little taste of what was important to a bird. Call it experiential learning or call it bird empathy. It was a stepping stone to expanding that sense of ‘us’ from a humans-only one to include all the earthlings.
Then another realization.
Their priorities—situational awareness, interspecies cooperation, energy conservation—were all things humans needed to care about. Urgently.
This was the kind of change I was looking for. Not just for myself, but for our collective, earthling self. Our home teeters on the brink of ecological catastrophe, and it’s going to take some intensive self-help to get us through alive. Empathizing with the natural world is a step towards treating the living world as family. Then like any family, we can take care of each other.
The crisis facing the world sometimes seems insurmountable. It’s not going to be easy to give up consumption for conservation, abundance for necessity, and status for relationships. Perhaps the human feeling of helplessness stems from being disconnected from everybody else. We need nature connection more that we care (or know) to admit.
Luckily, we are not alone. The non-human parts of ‘us’ have lots to teach if we’re willing to learn.
Have you built a relationship with a non-human earthling? What did they teach you? Has learning another language changed the way you perceive the world?
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