The heron has practised his silence longer than time has been
time. When he rises and speaks, there is no one in the cove who doesn’t
listen, there is no one in the cove who couldn’t translate what he
says, and no one in the cove who wouldn’t realize the heron had been lost
in that translation. Everything speaks for itself in this world, and everything rests in what is unspoken.
Hairy woodpecker too, mystified, miffed, or exasperated or pleased, utters
his one word and jumps or hunkers down and squeezes hard: hanging on
for dear life to what is, or swimming right through it as if it were there. And it is. And it is.
How many more words would it take to make up a language? Does
language actually have to have words? What it must have are meanings—
and some way of saying, These and not those are the meanings that stand here uncovered—or covered.
The meanings a language must have are the meanings it lacks: located
outside it, like sunlight and grass. So together with meaning there has to
be pointing at meaning. A language, in other words, has to have
gestures and speakers. One each, let us say, for a start. With a little bit
one speaker, two gestures;
one gesture, two speakers—
along with the requisite
bedrock and fauna and flora of meanings— it might make the first blunt
lurch toward a life of its own. The sounds of our speech are nothing
but gestures that reach around corners and work in the dark,
the sounds of our footsteps nothing but gestures out hunting for
There are, as you know, languages spoken by millions of humans in
which there are syllables, gestures, with dozens
or hundreds of meanings. Imagine a language
with only one
finger and five hundred moons. You are not so far now from the
woodpecker’s language, and not so far now as you were from the shuddering throat of the great blue heron or the sandhill crane. If you tried, you might cling for a moment or two to those hollow-boned fingers of air in which five million years’ worth of watching and thinking are caught like a fossilized fish in one braided, eroded, unanalyzed word.
The invisible dictionary that sits on a rickety, tilted shelf of air there in the great blue heron’s study, open to the weather, perpetually shredded and reprinted by the wind, has only one entry, a thousand pages long.
What does it mean,
this evergreen book full of one-fingered meanings?
That words are like wind
in the leaves
in the wind:
scraps of reality. And that we harness them
nevertheless, as the fishermen, far up the river harness their cormorants, horsemen their horses, and as the go players harness their stones.
That gestures are gestures only because we employ them as gestures—and gestures, like other things, are what they are. They are not what they point at and not what we thought we would get them to say, in the same way that horses are not what they pull. That the journey will tell you, whenever it’s ready, where you were heading. That meaning was here before you were, or they were, and will be long after. That gestures, like horses, are part of it, yes, but gestures can never—no matter how beautiful they may be—create what they say. What gestures give life to, and birth to, are gestures, and that is their value—the same as with cormorants, humans, and horses. And this: that what speaks from its heart is in that moment spoken—a form of the language, a part of the speech—swinging down and back up and back down on the dangling tongue in its mouth like a bell—sometimes moving toward singing, and sometimes toward walking and sometimes toward freezing and holding its breath in the presence of meaning.