We all learn our first language in a way as old as the species, total immersion. We are born with no language at all but, after a few years of copying everyone around in making strange noises, manage to catch on. It is surely a labor intensive endeavor, but so is learning to walk and getting spoon to mouth without poking the eye. It helps that little ones' minds are very pliable. New concepts and understanding are an every day, every hour, every minute affair; it is all they know of living. It is also before they learn to remember things very well so, as adults, most never think of how hard it must have been.
A lucky few grow up in families where two languages are spoken at home or who, as children, get to live in a culture that speaks a different language than the one spoken at home. They learn a second language with near the same ease as the first. Those not so fortunate, if they want to master a second language, usually end up working through hours and hours (and hours) of carefully constructed lessons, each building on things learned in the lesson before. It can be a daunting task for those whose minds are no longer very pliable and who, this time around, will remember the effort. Some, in an effort to repeat the apparent ease with which they mastered their first language, try total immersion once again. I talked with some folks from our old Spanish group in St. Louis who had made such a plunge. One cast the effort in a colorful way with a single sentence; “At the end of each day my brain hurt.”
I spent a lifetime flying and, as a part of that discipline, “learned” some of the language of Mother Earth in much the same way as most “learn” Spanish or French: hours of carefully constructed lessons building a working knowledge. It was sufficient to get me safely home (with an admitted scare or two along the way) and I can certainly speak the language of weather better than those who did not spend a career in the sky. But I am not a native speaker. There are subtleties and nuances of meaning that I miss. I know so because, as a person living and traveling full time on a small sailboat, I am taking the full immersion path to being fluent in speaking Mother Earth. And, at the end of many days, my brain hurts. Sometimes also my butt from the thrashing taken, hands from the sheets wrestled with, shoulders from grinding away on winches, and stomach from heaving over the side for a couple of hours.
I grew up in an industrialized society that has managed to push nature a step or two away from everyday living. “Every day” weather, the normal variances of wind, precipitation, temperature, and length of day, pass by almost without notice. A five minute blurb of the TV while downing the last sip of coffee before heading out to the car is all the “weather” most people experience. It is only when massive winds blow out of hurricanes or tornadoes, or equally massive amounts of rain or snow fall, or truly extreme temperatures overwhelm an area, that the goings on of the earth have much impact on the day of most people.
On a small sailboat every change in the weather is noted at least, and often changes the very course of a day. The language of the goings on of the earth is continuous, but the language of Mother Earth is more than just the weather that is coming. This is the environment in which we evolved. It is a part of us, we are a part of it. All of our perceptions are based on this environment. The colors we see, the temperatures we find comfortable, the shape of our bones and the density of our muscles, the sounds that we hear and the food that we taste, all are based on being creatures evolving in this tiny corner of the universe in this particular stretch of time. The language of Mother Earth is the foundation for our very being, but we have lost the ability to understand.
There are rare moments, sitting at anchor as the sun sets or keeping a night watch out in the big, when whisperings in that ancient, original, language ghost across the water. Having lived “out here” for more than two years now, I know there is meaning and wisdom in the whispering, but the words are indistinct. My untrained ear stumbles over meanings that are subtle, like those found in verse and song and art. My command of the language isn't enough to catch more than a hint of the encouragement being offered, but the hint is enough. Turning my ear toward the sea and sky, being immersed in the language that defines our very existence, trying to catch a bit of the wisdom that lies behind a self aware being who is as much a part of the cosmos as any star – there is a draw there, a longing, that cannot be denied.
It is best to leave all convictions aside when the whispers come for, as JBS Haldane reminds us, “the universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.” It is a time to listen, not speak; to learn, not pontificate. It is a time to balance all of the work, effort, discomfort, and distance from loved ones this lifestyle entails with a touch of acceptance and place and meaning.
The language of Mother Earth will never come naturally to me. I spent too many years learning a different tongue, the coarse dialect of modern man; one of envy, greed, power, violence and domination. It is a language that breeds nuclear weapons and terrorists around every corner, where killing is a sacred act and the god of War the only acceptable deity.
But at least I am learning to tilt my head in a different direction, to catch some words from a different language.