A Language Older Than Words

Paper # 1 – September 28th, 2016


Personal Reflection and Emotional Processing of  Derrick Jensen’s “A Language Older Than Words” 

by Andrew Hayward Smith


God paints swirling stories of coincidence across our lives when we walk with our Creator. The sermon given the day I left on the Arctic Ride For Dreams was based on the account of Jesus in the wilderness. As I embarked on a four-month motorcycle ride I pictured myself wandering in wild places on a journey of growth and discovery, not knowing where I would sleep next, not knowing what would come of it.

I feel like each time our Creator takes us on a journey of growth He/She seems to take us into the wilderness. The wild seems to be important to our growth. It’s a place of lament, thought, experience and reconnection with our own self and the earth. And so my new journey begins. I am being sent into the wild again– a life in community largely out of step with mainstream society, a wilderness of no employment and no defined goal or result at the end of my wandering. This new journey begins in the landscape of Derrick Jensen’s “A Language Older Than Words” on his own journey of self-discovery. As I have turned the pages I have journeyed at his side into lament, thought, experience and reconnection.

It begins with the abuse and trauma in Jensen’s childhood. I cannot relate to his experiences but I was reminded of similarities in the workplace– verbal abuse, stress, and the superiority we all attempted to place over others. It was a chaotic environment. It was a rape of the individual. We were all raping each other’s emotions. I feel emotionally raped. I share similar emotions as Jensen– fear, disbelief, shock, digust, horror, sadness, the desire to escape, a paradoxical love of a dysfunctional family, the trauma. But my emotions cannot compare to the severity of his. I am thankful, that unlike Jensen I was not physically raped and I was able to make the choice to escape and leave the abuse behind. Others are less fortunate– it is not possible to fully leave a family of origin.

Jensen moves onto to looking at society as a whole and my horror, shock and disgust continue as I read. The atrocities are never-ending. Colonel Chivington’s men killing natives, Roosevelt calling the massacre “a rightful and beneficial deed.” Shouts in the Denver Opera House of “Exterminate them! Exterminate them!” I felt sadness. Disappointment. Nothing has changed. Congress, big business, and police brutality are still shouting the same slogan. I sincerely don’t understand it. No trauma is any excuse for these kinds of actions.

I learn of horrors I’ve never heard of before. I am disgusted and ashamed of my own country, England, perhaps for the first time in such a way. I am made aware– we have been just as guilty of destruction and murder as a nation. I want to hide in denial. I simply don’t understand the rationale of my own people.

I don’t want to read any more pages. It’s all feelings of shock, denial, lament and disbelief and I realize that our modern society is just the same as the others before it. We all stand by and allow the atrocities to continue. I realize I have been blinded all along, immersed in a culture of murder. I feel hopeless to change anything. Humanity is on an unstoppable path to horror. If we are this beholden to production over relationship then this is the moment in the wilderness when I want to give up. It often comes when we’ve only just set out and we begin to realize how vast the journey ahead of us is.

I want to forget, hide, disassociate, and disavow all of these horrors but I see in Jensen’s family what denial and forgetting do– they perpetuate the violence. Jensen tells us we must begin to be honest and face our own acts and our own trauma. I know the trauma exists in me. I don’t know to what level it exists or what it is or where it stems from. I’d rather not find out. This is a place I’d really rather not visit. I’d rather life was easy but I’m beginning to realize that I must delve into it if I am to grow. I feel a certain resolve.

Jensen writes of isolation, which causes fear and trauma. I felt like I was in a prison in the workplace. Isolated. Work, home, work, home in a never-ending cycle of nothing much at all. I was an isolated hamster on somebody else’s wheel. I sympathize with Jensen’s desire to never earn a living wage again. As I read I have a desire to leave our culture and live indigenously with a big stereo system and a library of books and music. And be lazy. ‘There’s not much of importance in our life that makes economic sense,’ Jensen writes. I’d rather learn to be a better kisser, guitarist, husband and father. I’d rather be in love and spend my time on that. I’d rather simply be. Jensen’s alternative, of connectedness and community scare me. I fear where it is going to take me emotionally and monetarily. I fear my inherent selfishness. I am happy in my isolation. I like my space. I also realize that I desire community immensely. I realize, ironically, that the lack of community is my trauma.

Jensen intersperses hope and beauty throughout “A Language Older Than Words,” educating me on interspecies communication and indigenous ways to live. I feel immense relief in the knowledge that we have helpers in the fight and there are guardians posted at our side– trees, plants, animals, and the wisdom of indigenous peoples. I feel cared for. I begin to want to protect and care for my family, which amounts to all life on this planet. Hope is not lost. Hope flickers inside me, like a pilot light waiting to ignite.

With mention of Barry Lopez’s Of Wolves and Men, wolves and prey are in conversation, in ceremonial exchange, and finally in acquiescence as the prey gives its life for the good of the community. I sense the beauty and become more aware of the nobility in the dance of life and death. I begin to wonder how much I would give of myself to protect the planet. I don’t know the answer.

I wonder, is the Earth’s patience running out? Has the time come close when the Earth will give up supporting us and begin to fight for its own survival? The Earth is like a body. It has a disease within. I am saddened to know that humans are the disease and the prognosis is much worse than I anticipated before walking with Jensen. Now the Earth and humans must learn to live and work together, or the disease will kill the body– the planet and community within which we live. I feel a certain resolve again, to fight.

I feel an immense gratitude for the insight. I spoke to my mother and she understands. She tells me we should have listened to the indigenous peoples long ago. I feel gratitude that she understands. I am not alone. But I am also aware that she has never done anything to make a difference and nor have I. It’s our resignation in “that’s just the way the world is” and the disassociation from the problem. The problem is out there somewhere. It’s not in our home or garden or in those of my friends. We all are without a personal attachment to the destruction. But Jensen tells us “it only takes one person to take down a dam” and encourages us to be individually accountable, to perceive the personal fault in all of this madness. So personally, I want to focus on the good and the beauty Jensen describes at the end of the book.

I read the last fifty pages in the dark, all alone standing on the dock in Silverwood Lake Park. The moon shines. The leaves of the trees rustle in the wind. I’m the only person around except for the fish who splash in the water beneath my feet. I think they are frightened of me. I try interspecies communication and tell the fish, “shhh it’s okay,” but they keep on splashing.

I pause. I am reminded of 4am strolls at the ripe old age of nineteen, up to the gazebo on top of the big hill overlooking the sea in Wales, sitting quietly, looking at the water and listening to the wind. I reminded of times of walking along the pitch-black roads, through the dark forests towards home during my teenage years. These are my happy times, quiet and immersed in nature. I am reminded of the reason why I gained US citizenship– to love, serve and protect the landscape. Yes, I would like to protect all of this around me. Yes, I’d like to talk with the animals, birds, trees, plants and fish.

I am in the wild. In Silverwood Lake Park. It’s dark. The moon is shining on the water. I am content and know what I must do, as Jensen says, “… at night, we will talk to each other, and talk to the moon, who looks down not quite so sadly, and we will talk to wolves, and to bears and to porcupines and weasels.” We will live in community. I will learn to. I will face the trauma head on and dance the dance of life and death.

After a while I realize that the fish beneath my feet are not frightened. They are playing happily. I think they are telling me this. They are as content as I, slapping their tails against the water. And I think, “let’s travel the wilderness together and wish each other, ‘Godspeed.’”