Speaking to the Blind
Aboriginals could not believe the country existed until they could see and sing it - just as, in the Dreamtime, the country had not existed until the Ancestors sang it.
`So the land', I said, 'must first exist as a concept in the mind? Then it must be sung? Only then can it be said to exist?'
- Bruce Chatwin, The Songlines
Every morning on our backpacking trip through the wilderness canyons of Utah, some time in the middle of breakfast, Katie and I stop and do this exercise. We put down our mugs of coffee where we are sitting on the cold stone near our tent and take turns closing our eyes while the other describes something he or she is looking at: a nearby bush, a distant cliff, a pinnacle on the canyon's rim, a shadow, a pool in the stream, a seam in the rock.
The goal of this exercise is to describe as accurately as possible, as if the other person were here but could not see anything. For this is just how a person experiences wilderness who can only read about it. In distant cities, enclosed in rooms, they cannot see the desert. Instead, they hang on every word which we, as writers, might include or omit; and whatever version of 'desert' comes to exist in their mind's eyes will similarly depend on our descriptive ability. If we do not mention the lizard sunning on the rock, that lizard will not exist. If we do not explain how the sand piles up around the boulders, in their desert the sand will not do that.
So, set with this imagined task of faithfully rendering the reality of a red and gold stone wilderness to distant readers, we take pains to describe in detail, freely using poetic metaphors to add power. The shape of a blackbrush plant suggests a wave of twigs breaking against the cliff in which it is growing. The pinnacle above us catching the first rays of sun becomes a castle overlooking its still-dark fiefdom below. Our companions over there camped on a rock surface surrounded by dirt appear to be standing on a lake of stone. The leaves of this yucca are about 20 centimeters long and the color of the paint on an old, green, Dodge van. The sense of loneliness in yesterday's side canyon was like a deafening jackhammer.
To our surprise, this exercise does much more than its intended goal of making us better describers. Speaking the place aloud deepens and changes our essential experience of it. Each wall of stone, or bend in the tiny intermittent stream, which is rendered in words acquires a new dimension, as if we were making a version of it in a parallel word-world, a world empty when we first come here but now rapidly filling with our verbal creations. Being aware of this increasingly rich story-layer which we are building around us and yet exists only in our heads, we walk in wonder on the landscape, where each object or piece of light now potentially represents a poetic idea. It is a mind-bending experience, as if you were able to take a walk across your own imagination.
For example, describing to Katie I might say:
There is an ominous pile of rubble ten yards away at the end of the gray, limestone shelf on which we are camped. The pile is about three feet high and ten feet wide, consisting of reddish stones, as though a small, brick house there had been blown up, or a series of balconies on the cliff above recently collapsed. There is no rubble at all right over here where we sleep. Maybe it has been cleared away, or perhaps it is just about to arrive.
Because I do not make a purely technical description of this mound of stone, because I allow that it has an ominous quality and a possible, mysterious history of being manmade, I invite an imaginative element to enter the landscape. I know I have been successful if a cloud of lighthearted questions arises excitedly in the mind of the listener. Who, one suddenly starts wondering, might have owned that house on the limestone shelf that was blown up? What would the explosion have sounded like in this narrow canyon? Were the balconies that collapsed ornately carved? Who might have cleared away the rubble on our end of the shelf, and how can we thank them?
Or Katie might give a description like this:
There is a shadow positioned on the sunny cliff face across the stream. The shadow is rectangular and perhaps twenty feet across and forty feet high, the shape of some great tower above and behind me on the canyon rim. It looks like a Great Horned owl, as if travelers here are being served notice that we have entered the domain of an Owl god.
Clearly, in order to craft these descriptions, we open the door to our imaginations, and given this opportunity they kick out powerful, fantastical images to attach to the landscape. Perhaps they do this at home as well and we are not aware of it-but here the forms which we are trying to understand, like this shadow on the cliff face, are so new to us that we are prepared to paste onto them any suggestion floating up from the deeper levels of the psyche. The images, like the owl, are frequently large, ancient and archetypal, and by including one of them in a description, it gives a mythic cast to the landscape and to our presence in it. Poetic description, in this way, has the effect of allowing us to enter a kind of Dreamtime.
The experience of participating in mythic time is one consequence of our daily exercise which we have named "Speaking To The Blind;" another is that as each thing around us is drawn in the word-world, we are too. We inevitably become characters in the story we are narrating. For example, consider this description, which, after a day's hike, I record in my journal and read aloud to all of us:
Past this point, the canyon widens again for a while, and then constricts even more tightly into a slot barely twenty yards wide, its walls rising sixty or more feet on either side of us. Nicole and I enter this place, hopping from boulder to boulder, making our way up canyon in a hurry. But we are arrested by the sight of streams of water frozen motionless on the rock walls, and we stop to gaze about this still, serendipitous natural freezer. It is November and I doubt the sun will rise high enough to shine in again here for months. There are Douglas firs and spruce growing, but at this time of year they are simply being refrigerated until the spring. There are pools of thick ice in the sand, and as we walk among them we encounter still pockets of alternately warm and chill air waiting for us by the rocks where they live.
To hear ourselves described in the account of the journey is to understand that on one level we are now fictitious characters, not actual people in bodies, but constructions in a word-world. This is a ticklishly delightful and liberating feeling. For a person of our civilization, who consumes such a tremendous amount of words every day, to be fictitious, I discover, is to feel important and powerful, full of potential to live exciting adventures and do compelling things. To find oneself in a story is an unexpected privilege, tantamount to momentary fame.
The act of description also satisfies the hunger to participate in the beauty around us, to somehow play a role in this place which we find so mysterious and compelling with its wind-sculpted alcoves and hidden chambers choked with sand, its quiet, twisting, eroded waterways and its plants specially adapted to the lack of rain. Where an artist might join with a place through sketching it, studying the details to see how they build the whole, we can create the same connection by describing in words. Consider, for example, the intimacy I acquire with a small, clean stream of water by attempting to capture its sound:
From the main pool the stream becomes complex: water begins to flow through a series of small parallel falls, each about 10 cm high, which lead into other parallel pools, connected among themselves by other falls. Every tiny, pouring fall makes its own small sound; together, like birds in an aviary at the zoo, they have an anarchic, collective voice. If I close my eyes I hear forty different taps, each turned on at a different volume, each pouring into its own half-filled basin of a different size. There is no other sound in this quiet place. I wonder how it affects our minds to hear this clatter all night as we sleep here. I wonder how it would sound if the stream flowed in milk. Or honey. Or whiskey. Or nothing at all.
Living like this, deep in a stony maze and with one foot in the word-world, we find, as days turn into weeks and we have covered scores of miles, that the description of each new place we come to is as important as the place itself. In those where we do not have time to describe, we are keenly aware that we are only knowing a sort of beginner's version of the landscape, that there is a dimension missing now, that of a word-world which might underlie the face of what we see. The possibility is always teasing us to pause and describe. It seems that in speaking to the blind, we have discovered a way to speak to a part of ourselves that has no eyes, a part keenly interested in news of the world outside. We find it is an essential partner: when the inner rooms are dark and unilluminated by imagination, the outer world remains flat and dull.
Wilderness is perhaps the best place to exercise our imaginations in this way, a place where no one will tell you that your poetic ideas are impractical, too dreamlike, unfounded, or nonsense. In the isolation of the backcountry, where you might not meet another party for days, these almost-indulgent personalizations of landscape have the time to remain unchallenged, become true, and be experienced as a persistent, magical potential dwelling naturally around you. As a result, it becomes second nature to look at things speculatively. Here's a description of what might otherwise pass for an uninteresting slope of soil:
To get up and out of the canyon I climb up a slope of pulverized rock. Not rock alone, but flakes of rock fallen down from the cliffs over the years on top of the golden dirt, as if, season by season, small, silent explosions keep happening up there. Special plants grow in this rain of rock and thrive upon it, yuccas, sagebrush, the occasional grass, dodging the large pieces coming down and feeding on the nutrients from the smaller bits.
Without reporting aloud our imaginative descriptions to each other, we would experience the same sensory input but not share anything of these possible interpretations. Consider the following, all of which is inherent in a single pool of water which one could easily walk past and fail to notice at all:
The water surface is glassy, dominated by the reflection of the sunlit, glowing, yellow, sandstone wall across and up the canyon. There are tiny waves gliding back and forth across the pool, proceeding from the base of each of the little waterfalls that feed the pool, course after course of waves, moving in echelon, like colliding marching bands seen from high in the stadium. Although the waves from some waterfalls predominate, they all interfere, so everywhere the pool is a chaos of tiny waves heading in different directions. The sandstone reflected in these becomes little, colliding ovals of deep gold. Because of the blue sky and the shape of waves, some of these are gold rings filled with slate blue centers, running and bumping, joining together and pulling apart. At the lower edge of the pool the ovals and rings fall apart and float downstream.
There is a sign that poetic description has become firmly entrenched as habit among our group, and this is that there is an epidemic of naming things. It begins with similarities. "That shadow looks like a gargoyle," someone says, and shortly we find ourselves referring to "the Gargoyle" as a landmark, as in "Let's stop and have lunch when we get to the Gargoyle." "These trees look like bonsai," is an idle comment, but it is not long before someone confirms it as a name, saying, "I hung my socks out to dry on one of those bonsai trees."
Naming eventually proceeds to the automatic and unconscious labeling of everything we deal with. There is an unknown species of flower which we name "Cheap Date" because you get so many blooms on one stalk. There is the constellation which is dubbed "The Tomato," a dome of sandstone which becomes "The Puma Palace," a meal served on Thanksgiving Day which is presented as "the Modified B-Factor Casserole" and one of us who acquires the nickname of "Mr. Greased Lightning."
Rampant naming is a significant event in our transition to being able to travel with one foot in the word-world. It shows that we are always looking at the word-world, that we recognize it as rich and as an essential part of our enchantment in this vast, pristine and natural setting. It also shows that we are aware of our power in the word-world-a landscape which we can increase and enrich at our whim. A group in the wilderness which is fluently and unconsciously naming things has made the final step into living in poetic dreamtime.
But why do this? Why encourage on-the-fly poetic description on a wilderness trip? We could justify it as a way to "process" the trip, but "process" is a disturbingly mechanical word, as if the experience needed to be chopped up and made uniform. Instead, the result of making a habit out of sharing poetic description is to raise up the high points, and lower the dips, to exaggerate distinctions and to differentiate elements. It causes the landscape and one's one actions to jump into high relief. Describe one pool in a stream and you can simply no longer entertain the simplifying fiction that each of the other pools is essentially the same. Their intricate and detailed differences stand ready to be described.
The other and final benefit of conducting a descriptive journey is the record we take home with us. If we do not write our descriptions down, we allow them to get away, with no chance of their coming back to be for us, in some future day, the places we have been. But if we record them, in letters to friends or journals we ourselves will reread years in the future, they become the windows into the reality and fantasy of who we were, where we went, and what we thought we were doing. In the end, the "blind" to whom we spoke turns out to be ourselves, our memories dulled by time. If we wrote our descriptions down well, they continue to deliver all aspects of the experience: a sense of the place, a suggestion of its meaning, and how much love, outrage, fear, joy and exultation it took to be there.
-Youngs Canyon, Utah, November 1990
Smithers, BC, January 2000
© Copyright 2000, Morgan Hite