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General · 8th October 2012
Ray Grigg
A writer and thinker of substance should leave more questions than answers. This is the case with Robert Bringhurst, the author of The Tree of Meaning: Language, Mind and Ecology (Counterpoint, Berkeley, 2008). Some of his questions are explicit and obvious, easily and quickly answered after moments of consideration. Others are implicit and subtle, reverberating silently and unanswered beneath the surface of the reader's consciousness. But all these questions are relevant because each one is personal.

Even if these questions don't have answers, they are still important in clarifying, growing and refining who we are. Do I understand these new ideas? Are they credible? How do they compare to what I already know? Do they make me feel comfortable or uncomfortable? How are they meaningful to me? How do they define me? How might they change me? These are some of the questions that arise from reading Bringhurst's book.

Bringhurst is a linguist, typologist, poet, philosopher, historian and academic who thinks and writes in a crisp, insightful and precise style, a man who invariably leads readers into new and challenging but rewarding territory. This happens with particular poignancy in one chapter of The Tree of Meaning, “The Persistence of Poetry and the Destruction of the World”.

Bringhurst posits that a world war has been raging for two millennia. This war, which reached the New World with the arrival of the European colonialists, is between two kinds of people: “...those who think they belong to the world and those who think the world belongs to them.” The former are the polytheists, the poets, the native and pagan cultures that perceive the world as complex, organic, changing and mysterious. The latter are the politicians, bureaucrats, industrialists and theists, “all the devotees of the number one — one empire, one history, one market, or one God — and who nowadays insist on the preeminence of everyone for himself: the smallest number one of all.”

Everyone who encounters this idea should be asking questions — many questions about our personal values, our culture and our relationship with the natural world. Even more questions should arise from Bringhurst's assessment of the essential problem confronting the world today. “The great danger is single-mindedness,” he writes, “reducing things to one perspective, one idea, one overriding rule.” Such a malaise is the systematic process of “reducing the world to human terms.”

This is our conquest of nature, the imposition of a single purpose in which the gods of complexity and mystery are displaced and replaced by the “homes and garages of human beings” — US housing starts fell from 2,000,000 in 2006 to 430,000 in 2012, the measure of a worrisome recession which fails to consider that all these homes mean occupied landscapes, levelled forests, consumed resources, and evicted species of resident plants and animals.

The etymology of “humanism”, Bringhurst points out in the chapter “The Vocation of Being”, seems to have come from “an archaic Indo-European word for earth. Latin humanus is related to English humus. A human is an earthling.” Bringhurst notes, “We are not the centre of the universe,” as we like to think, but are “earth-surface people” in the Navajo language. In Haida, we are also “surface people” and in their poetry become “ordinary surface birds”. If we were capable of diving beneath our surface understanding of nature by shedding our superficial capabilities and our self-centredness, we would “enter the world of myth,” writes Bringhurst, “and come back speaking poetry.”

Many may remember the question, “If a tree falls in the forest with no one there to hear it, does it make a sound or not?” Bringhurst's answer is unequivocal. “The question is demented. If a tree falls in the forest, all the other trees are there to hear it. But if a man cuts down the forest and then cries that he has no food, no firewood, no shade, and that his mind can get no traction, who is going to hear him?”

“Poetry,” Bringhurst reminds us, “is the language of being: the breath, the voice, the song, the speech of being. It does not need us. We are the ones in need of it. If we haven't learned to hear it, we will also never speak it.”

This poetry is the magic of life, the unanswered and unanswerable questions that are the mystery of being alive in the most incredible place in the universe. “And what does this poetry say?” Bringhurst asks. “It says that what-is is: that the real is real, and that it is alive. It speaks the grammar of being. It sings the polyphonic structure of meaning itself.”

Bringhurst quotes William Faulkner, the American novelist who, in his address upon receiving the Nobel Prize for literature in 1949, noted that, “Mankind will not only survive, he will prevail.” Bringhurst respectfully begs to differ. “I think that his prediction is logically impossible. I think that if humanity survives, it can only be because it does not prevail, and that if we insist, like Ozymandias, on prevailing, we will surely not survive.”

So we return to Bringhurst's statement about the world war that has been raging between two kinds of people for two millennia. Do we think we belong to the world or do we think the world belongs to us? Our answer to this question is becoming increasingly obvious and crucially important. Every time, without exception, that we have attempted to cast nature in our own image and turn it into the exclusive service of our needs, we have failed miserably — causing ruin to our surroundings and to ourselves. Or, to reiterate Bringhurst's words, “reducing things to one perspective, one idea, one overriding rule” has invariably been a strategy for disaster.

Any questions?