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Extract from “A language older than words”

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This is an extract from the book “A language older than words” by Derrick Jensen.

THE GENESIS OF THIS book was an event. I used to raise chickens and ducks for food. After a couple of years, a pack of coyotes discovered the easy meals, and I began to lose birds. I scared the coyotes away when I happened to be home, but I knew I could not forever stand guard. One day, when I saw a coyote stalking chickens I asked it to stop. I did this more out of frustration than conviction.

The odd thing was, the coyote did stop, and neither it nor other pack members returned. I was skeptical about the significance of this. Indeed, it took quite a long time and many more interactions with the coyotes before I began to suspect that interspecies communication might be real. This created a new concern. What I was experiencing went against everything I’d been taught at school, on television, at church, in the newspaper and especially went against my training in the sciences. I began to question my sanity, which further piqued my curiosity.

Crazy or not, I soon discovered I wasn’t alone. I began to ask people if they too experienced these conversations, and overwhelmingly they said yes. Pigs, dogs, coyotes, squirrels, even rivers, trees, and rocks: all these, according to the stories I was hearing, were speaking and listening if only we too would enter into conversation. Almost without exception, the people I asked said they’d never told these stories, for fear that others would think they were crazy.

The path for the book seemed clear: I would document these stories so that others could learn through the number, variety, and dailiness of these interactions to begin trusting that their own experiences of interspecies communication might be real. I hoped they would learn that just because they speak to their tabby, or because their cocker spaniel responds to their words and intents, that they may not be crazy after all. Or at least if they are crazy, far from being alone they outnumber the skeptical sane.

What promised to emerge from this exploration was a feel good book. It seemed to have New York Times best-seller list written all over it.

I tried to write that book, and couldn’t do it. Not if I wanted to be honest. One reason is that the conversation with the coyotes was not in truth my first interaction of this kind. It was simply the most obvious I’d experienced in a long time. I recollected that as a child, I had routinely participated in this sort of conversation, listening especially rapt to what the stars had told me almost nightly. I remembered in fact that the stars had saved my life…

Between the ages of seven and nine, I often crept outside at night to lie on the grass and talk to the stars. Each night I gave them memories to hold for me-memories of beatings witnessed, of rapes endured. I gave them emotions too large and sharp for me to feel. In return the stars gave me understanding. They said to me, “This is not how it is supposed to be. This is not your fault. You will survive. we love you. You are good.”

I cannot overstress the importance of this message. Had I never known an alternative existed-had I believed that the cruelty I witnessed and suffered was natural or inevitable I would have died.

My parents divorced during my early teens. It was a bitter divorce in which my father used judges, attorneys, psychologists, and most of all money, with the same fury and relentlessness with which he had once used fists, feet, and genitals. The stars continued to foster me, speaking softly whenever I chose to listen. Time passed. I grew older. I went to college, received a degree in physics, and on my own read a fair amount of psychology. I came to a new understanding of my place in the world. It had not been the stars that saved me, but my own mind. My earlier thesis-that the stars cared for me, spoke to me, held me-made no physical sense. Stars are inanimate. They don’t say anything. They can’t, and they certainly couldn’t care about me. And even if they had cared there remained the problem of distance. How could a star a thousand light-years away respond to my emotional needs in a timely fashion? It became clear that some part of my own psyche had known precisely the words I needed to hear in order to endure, and had projected those words onto the stars. It was a pretty neat trick on the part of my unconscious, and this projection business seemed a wonderful adaptive mechanism for surviving in a world that I had come to recognise as largely insensate, with the exception of its supreme tenant – humankind…

At that point another storyline emerged, and it became dear that what I had to write, regardless of my relative youth, was a memoir: How did I later come to deny my experience in favour of what I had been taught? How and why does this happen to each of us as we grow up? Suddenly the book took on epic proportions. Question led to question, each one more difficult and disturbing than the one before. How and why do we numb ourselves to our own experiences? How and why do we deafen ourselves to the voices of others? Who benefits? Who suffers? Is there a connection between the silencing of women, to use one example, and the silencing of the natural world? I wanted to write a memoir that moved beyond the microcosm of my personal experience to the macrocosm of the world in which we live.

It became clear that this book had to be different. If I were to be honest, it could only be a cry of outrage, a lamentation, and at the same time a love story about that which is and that which was but is no longer. It would have to be about the potential for life and love and happiness we each carry inside but are too afraid to explore. The book would have to be raw and difficult, but it would also have to offer redemption.

As Franz Kafka put it, you may not destroy someone’s world unless you are prepared to offer a better one. But no redemption can be found in the avoidance of difficult issues. Redemption comes only after we have moved through the horrors of our present situation to the better world that lies beyond it. By confronting the problem as courageously as we can and at the same time presenting alternatives, our barriers to clarity, including our false hopes, may crumble to reveal previously unseen possibilities.

Derrick Jensen is an environmental activist and lives in northern California. He writes for The New York Times Magazine, Audubon, and The Sun among many others. Originally released in the USA in 2000, A Language Older Than Words, regarded as his seminal work, is now published for the first time in Australia and New Zealand.

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