Robert Bringhurst, Wild Language

Bless the good folks at Vancouver Island University, for still fulfilling the assorted and diverse mandates both for the Institute for Coastal Research and its somewhat related Gustafson Poetry Series. All by itself, the Gustafson series (with its Gaspereau-issued keepsake talismans) is almost enough all on its own to make me want to live in Nanaimo.

Now, I don't get everything that poets say about their work, or about others' work, or I would've been able to finish the lovely wee Gaspereau-issued Gustafson chapbook by Daphne Marlatt.

But as weak as my mind is, I'm comfortable with how greatly I admired Robert Bringhurst's Wild Language:
It appears to me that what wild actually means is the opposite of undisciplined and crude. It means extremely sophisticated. It means capable of living under the most demanding conditions, with minimal tools and housing and clothing. It means self-sufficient in a high degree, and yet part of the fabric, a full working member of the ecology. Could language live up to that standard? (p.17)
In Wild Language, Bringhurst moves from speculations about the relative wildness of the place where his home is located on Cortez Cortes Quadra Island, through speculations about mapping and fences as objects and as technologies, into some remarks on the potential for wildness in language. He persistently succeeds in having it both ways in this short text, using "wild" and the notion of wildness literally as well as metaphorically. It's a fine and sparkling essay, Wild Language, arguing that in the end it all comes down to the function of language, especially the job of "understanding":
Understanding is something humans do for fun, the same way ravens do aerial somersaults and rolls, and squirrels play chase, and otters and penguins go tobogganing. But the time comes, as any raven can tell you, when you have to straighten up and fly right to avoid crashing. (p.30)
Bringhurst recognizes, of course, that what he's calling "understanding" isn't quite what the scientifically minded would call "understanding," and that we humans are nonetheless able to achieve quite a lot with language (that our frail and limited grasp is relatively potent, though still frail and limited). It's just that he can't leave well enough alone, and that he doesn't want us merely to leave things be, either. The ecological crises are a social crisis, in Bringhurst's twinned senses of ecology and of society, so he wants us to take language (to be taken by language) somewhere new, and his code word for this is "wild."

I remain firmly on the side of William Cronon on the troubles inherent in the notion of wilderness, and I think I read in Bringhurst's wildness an overlap with Cronon's use of the same term. But I distrust both writers' utopic uses of the term, indeed in any sense that salvation can come from words (or indeed, perhaps especially, from The Word). Materiality. Teaching at the intersection of literature and environment used to feel rewarding, but I'm so aware these days of my distance from the barricades, and in some ways this distance is best understood as the spaces jammed inside that confining, cute word "wild."

And yet I loved reading Wild Language. So there.


Anonymous said…
Cortez or Cortes or Quadra?

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