Repeating What the Deer Have Said
Time was when a person could make poetry just by walking.
This sounds a little strange to us. We are seldom accustomed to thinking of our steps as words, or our tracks as statements. But the Ancient Greeks named the repeating syllabic patterns that made up their poetry "feet." And animals, who through a mysterious mixed blessing of Nature are mute, seem well aware of the connection between movement and expression.
No elaborate schooling is required to read the poetry of animals. Each species has, in its tracks, its own literary tradition that weaves and branches and rejoins itself all over the landscape. Consider the writings of deer. There are statements made by many: wide trails that lead across rock passes and down to water. (Passes and water are two of the basic and universal tenets of deer reality, and many of the things deer say involve them.) There are the more personal opinions of lesser-travelled paths, that lead to or from specific groves or thickets, which are different positions from which to view the world. And finally, there are the single tracks of statements made but once. Made but once as far as we can tell, for the landscape is an odd sort of library where the volumes are periodically erased by the blind editors of wind and rain. This inherent obsolescence affects the character of all animal literatures: there are no celebrated authors and instead we read only what can be easily generated and regenerated by the populace at large. Animal literatures thereby resemble more oral folk traditions than the great human classics.
I find myself musing over such ideas while walking on the rim of a canyon in Southeastern Utah. It is a place far from trails - at least far from trails made by man. The system of trails left by the deer however is intricate and thorough. I use them, and thereby find myself repeating what the deer have said. It is necessary to step as they have stepped, and walk as they have walked, over roots, around boulders, and in and out of the shade; although my two legs give me a slightly different voice than they have with their four.
Continuing on carefully, appreciating the balance and muscle cooperation which are the unique statement of this path, I see four or five deer start from a clump of trees just ahead. They bounds and trot away, hooves making quiet popping sounds on the rocks. Their steps are efficient and bold statements, such as I myself might make if my life were in danger. And they say only enough to get the job done, pausing when I am safely distant but still in sight. They conserve their energy. They do not mince words.
We might do well to take a lesson from such behavior. Equipped with tongue and vocal cords, I find it all too easy to keep on talking long after what is necessary has been said. But I cannot imagine the deer heedlessly continuing to bound along for the sheer enjoyment of expressing themselves; they would clear the territory of one predator, only to babble into that of another. Such extraneous expression is a behavior without good survival value. It is a luxury.
But why should we not permit ourselves the luxury of unlimited expression? We have no predators, and our food supplies, at least in North America, are plentiful and unthreatened. Is there anything inherently wrong with profligate expression?
I consider again the parallel between stepping and statements. Homo sapiens, as a species, is as liberal and unconscious with the production of its tracks as it is with the production of its words. Yet it is concise and accurate to say that the laying down of too many tracks upon the landscape is the primary crisis of our day. The daily footprint of American society may be said to be a new shopping mall, a new parking lot, a thousand new cars or a certain amount of new gasses in the atmosphere. Collectively we rejoice in using our energy to run riot over the earth. It is unquestionably more than is necessary "to get the job done." But we enjoy our production of tracks and we enjoy our production of words. We are so pleased with most of our artifacts that we make them permanent and even the rain cannot wash them away.
If we are concerned about this crisis, we must realize that none of our forms of impact is unrelated to others. If we wish to scale back in industry, we must scale back in chatter. They arise from the same habit of unthinking self-expression. Though it may seem odd, the first step that one must take in respecting the planet is to learn how not to talk all the time. We must literally start to shut up; or one day in the not too distant future we may step out to find that the "library" is full, and that we have filled it with "statements" of drivel. I, for one, would not like to see the remaining volumes of deer poetry erased for the last time, and removed to make room for the mindless doggerel of another supermarket.
The parallels between walking and talking are many. As with words, I cannot hope to go back and erase unwise tracks I have just made. At best I can walk over the same place again with a different emphasis, a different feel, or a different intent. But once I enter the dialogue which is the surface of the earth, some trace of my passing will always remain.
There are some footprints which, like some statements, are better left unsaid. In this desert there are areas of algae-encrusted soil so fragile that a single track may remain in the black, lumpy surface for years. Such dirt is akin to a state of mind so tenuous that even to make a suggestion is to destroy it. Yet given enough time, it may mature into a plant community capable of better withstanding my foot, a more resilient attitude. Such soils, I have heard, are ignored by many as worthless. It seems very unlikely that a person who does not value such terrain could ever value silence in his or her day.
I was hasty in suggesting that the time for making poetry by walking is past. It may lie just ahead of us, for any person can experiment with esthetic locomotion. A necessary prerequisite is a distrust of the principle that to travel is to go from point A to point B. The tracks left in such a trail read like a technical manual: efficient and correct, but not life sustaining to the spirit. In contrast, the tracks of the walking poet take advantage of every possible spatial relationship to the land. Something beautiful is created: the specific curve down across a hill, the angle taken through a grove of trees, the exact point chosen to leave a gully. The way is rarely longer, but the act is far more perfect.
As I discover that the words I speak are as deserving of attention as the steps I take, I will surely talk less, though perhaps I will say more. And the steps which I choose to forego may give rise to silences in my speech. And there are many things to be listened to and observed when I am no longer always walking or talking.
Now certainly all signs do not indicate that we are about to enter an era of elegant and esthetic global terseness. The joint assault upon both ears and earth in fact increases monthly. There has not been much of a tendency to leave other than fairly prosaic marks upon our limited, orbiting library. But I feel it is fair to say this for myself: I have recently heard some kind of call, to forego the many mindless steps for a few that are well-chosen.
Gypsum Canyon, UT, 4/89
© Copyright 1990, Morgan Hite
This piece was originally published in Camas (University of Montana) Winter 1994-1995.