Friday, January 27, 2012

Water flows inward underneath a cottonwood tree

In the video clip embedded above the environmental philosopher David Abram talks about the way landscape no longer speaks directly to us.  In his book The Spell of the Sensuous, he writes that in oral cultures, ‘human eyes and ears have not yet shifted their synaesthetic participation from the animate surroundings to the written word.  Particular mountains, canyons, streams, boulder-strewn fields, or groves of trees have not yet lost the expressive potency and dynamism with which they spontaneously present themselves to the sense.  A particular place in the land is never, for an oral culture, just a passive or inert setting for the human events that occur there.  It is an active participant in those occurrences.’  These conclusions come after a description of the importance of location for Western Apache storytelling.  An ‘agodzaahi narrative always begins and ends with a statement explaining where it happened, using one of the language’s evocative place names (which read like compressed poems).  Abram cites the work of linguistic anthropologist Keith Basso, who found that these place names occur with remarkable frequency in Apache discourse.  I was intrigued by this, so I looked up the original Basso article (in Cultural Anthropology, May 1988), where photographs of specific locations are reproduced to demonstrate how well their Apache place names fit: “Water flows inward underneath a cottonwood tree”; “White rocks lie above in a compact cluster”; “Water flows down on top of a regular succession of flat rocks.”

According to Basso, ‘the great majority of Western Apache place names currently in use are believed to have been created long ago by the “ancestors” (nohwizá) of the Apache people.  The ancestors, who had to travel constantly in search of food, covered vast amounts of territory and needed to be able to remember and discuss many different locations.  This was facilitated by the invention of hundreds of descriptive place names that were intended to depict their referents in close and exact detail.’  What's particularly interesting about these names (for readers of this blog) is that they assume a specific point of view, like a landscape:  'Western Apache place names provide more than precise depictions of the sites to which the names may be used to refer.  In addition, place names implicitly identify positions for viewing these locations: optimal vantage points, so to speak, from which the sites can be observed, clearly and unmistakably, just as their names depict them.  To picture a site from its name, then, requires that one imagine it as if standing or sitting at a particular spot, and it is to these privileged positions, Apaches say, that the images evoked by place names cause them to travel in their minds.’ This travel is both “forward” (bidááh) into space, and, following the memory of their ancestors' wanderings, “backward” (t’ aazhi) into time.

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