A friend recently sent me this quote from Scott London’s interview with David Abrams (http://www.scottlondon.com/interviews/abram.html):”…the alphabet itself could be seen as a very potent form of magic. You know, we open up the newspaper in the morning and we focus our eyes on these little inert bits of ink on the page, and we immediately hear voices and we see visions and we experience conversations happening in other places and times. That is magic!
It’s outrageous: as soon as we look at these printed letters on the page we see what they say. They speak to us. That is not so different from a Hopi elder stepping out of her pueblo and focusing her eyes on a stone and hearing the stone speak. Or a Lakota man stepping out and seeing a spider crawling up a tree and focusing his eyes on that spider and hearing himself addressed by that spider. We do just the same thing, but we do it with our own written marks on the page. We look at them, and they speak to us. It’s an intensely concentrated form of animism. But it’s animism nonetheless, as outrageous as a talking stone.
In fact, it’s such an intense form of animism that it has effectively eclipsed all of the other forms of animistic participation in which we used to engage — with leaves, with stones, with winds. But it is still a form of magic.”
Like most of David’s words, I find this all interesting and true. He is conflating a couple of things though. It is all magic and miraculous. But, reading is not the same as conversation. Reading is mediated communication and flows in only one direction. It often occurs in isolation and has little context. It is difficult to judge its truthfulness. Communicating with a person, rock or spider is direct reciprocal communication, often in deep context and personal relationship. Its truth is verified by its context.
On first hearing of written communication, Tecumseh is said to have asked, “How do you know if the words are true, and how do you know that they [the writers] have not been listening to bad little birds?” The written words’ power and problem is that it can communicate entirely outside of context in both time and space. We can hear from long-dead people, but how do we weight their words? How do we place them?
As poet and typographer Richard Bringhurst has pointed-out, written words are the tracks of the writer’s thoughts. A text is a trail. When we read, we are tracking those thoughts so that we see them moving in our mind’s eye. This is the work of a tracker in the field.
Each track is only as revealing as a single letter. It is the pattern of tracks in the context of one another that can be read. Just as we breeze over individual letters, reading the patterns of letters and words to see the movement of thoughts behind them, so does the tracker track. Reading the patterns of tracks, the story of what took place shines in the tracker’s mind. Like a movie, the stories unreel to the inner eye. Context in a pattern provides meaning to the tracks.
“Everything is a track,” says John Stokes of The Tracking Project. Geologists read the movements of plates, eruptions, and erosion from the tracks of the hills, valleys and rocks. Historians recreate waves of migration and settlement through stories, written in ink, words, and relics. Acupuncturists read life processes from pulses, and athletes, plays from movement and positions. We are all tracking all the time, even if just to know when to broach a subject, pass a car or the ball, or go in for a kiss.
Tracks speak of the lives and minds of their makers. To track the deer, see as she would. Put your eyes at her level. Look for her favorite plants and hidden resting places with broad views. By learning to see as they do we enter their minds, their thoughts and lives appear. Just as when you read these words.
Trackers say that tracks never lie. The earth faithfully records what has passed. Untruths arise only in misreading. Kneeling to view the tracks from the side in the low-angle light of morning or evening adds depth and detail to the reading. Crossing trails help place tracks in time. Parallel tracks help verify likely interpretations. Context and perspective help in reading tracks truthfully.
Though tracks don’t lie, words do, particularly written words. There are no expressions to read in the writer’s face or body. No tone to verify or bring into question. No context to clarify or deepen.
The written word is presented as a single trail. There are no other signs to corroborate. No rubs or chews, no landscape features give it perspective. Page and screen both are flat. They are shadowless plains where anything can be written.
For depth and perspective, text requires context. We need to delve for layers of subtext. Words live in an ecosystem of stories. Some of them written on paper, some in the world. They need to be read in that way, one trail amongst many, to read their truths in meaningful context.
As a young man I spent four years reading Great Books. With little life experience, I had little perspective on what I read. As Hafiz’s teacher reassured him after pushing all his books into the fountain, “Don’t worry, text is always dry.” The written word becomes meaningful in the light of day, when it takes on flesh, warmth, and depth provided by the perspective of real lives. Held up to that light, I can see where to place it. The living world is the prime text against which all others are measured. This is where truth is revealed, as when a bright-backed fish in deep water appears when the morning sun finally clears the tips of the pines.
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