Posts Tagged “language”
Posted by Eve in Clipping, tags: fish, flood, history, language, levee, Louisiana, river, town, water, writing
Several months ago the composer (and Louisiana native) Frank Ticheli recommended I read Mike Tidwell’s 2003 book Bayou Farewell: The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana’s Cajun Coast. I strongly recommend it to all of you in turn: it is a beautifully written and distressing eyewitness account of what’s happening to the wetlands of Louisiana. Here are a few clippings I copied out, but the whole book is better, lots of wonderful character sketches and a real feel for the region:
Commercial fishermen are more likely to be maimed or killed on the job than any other profession in America. The work is more dangerous than coal mining, being a cop, or parachuting from planes to fight forest fires. (p. 25)
The marsh is disappearing at a rate of 25 square miles per year. “Dere won’t be no more nothin’ left anymore, forever.” (p. 58)
The total number of birds detected by radar crossing the Gulf of Mexico each year has decreased by half within the last twenty years. (p. 62)
For help [getting out of the big ocean and into the estuarine coastal marshes], the infant crustaceans, roughly the length and width of grains of rice, turn to a spherical body 92 million miles away in outer space, a G2 dwarf star otherwise know as our sun. Twice a month this fiery body of hydrogen gas nearly a million miles in diameter joins forces with the earth’s moon, a mere 238,000 miles away, to create a combined gravitational and centrifugal force of enormous power. This force generates ocean tides on earth — so-called spring tides — which are much greater than the tides occurring daily throughout the rest of the month. Every two weeks, when the moon shows itself to the earth either as a barely visible new moon or as a blazing full moon, the phenomenon is at work: the moon and the sun have fallen into a straight line relative to the earth, reinforcing each other’s gravitational tug, pulling the earth’s oceans into two bulging masses of liquid on opposite sides of the globe. These fantastic waves, these great heaping ridges of water, are brought into collision with the earth’s landmasses twice a day as the planet rotates. this, in the simplest terms, is how tides happen, and spring tides are the bimonthly champions. So strong is the combined pull of the sun and moon during this period that even the earth’s atmosphere bends outward and parts of the continents bulge ever so slightly. (p. 144)
Among many of the fishermen whose support is critical, virtually any form of ambitious government action is seen as synonymous with the whole sorry history of state corruption and the Army Corps’s incompetence. (p. 161)
If nothing else, my time in the bayous has made me conscious–acutely so–of just how great the Mississippi’s influence is everywhere you turn, all across lower Louisiana, its presence felt even hundreds of miles from its actual course. It’s a river which, one way or another, is always calling the shots. Always.
Which is why you can never quite get it out of your mind. (p. 184)
“When God created the world,” a bayou priest once told me, grinning, “he accidentally made the Mississippi more powerful than he intended, then found his mistake too powerful to correct.” (p. 216)
If you want to see what will consume the energies of Miami and New York, Shanghai and Bombay, fifty years from now, come to Louisiana today. The future really is here. (p. 326)
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Wabasha just gets better and better! I walked into the bookstore around noon and met Nancy, the proprietor, who greeted me like a friend and told me she had noticed me at the riverfront park yesterday afternoon and thought I had been dancing. (I was just talking on the phone with my friend Cori, but that’s a fine reason to dance, why not!) Nancy grew up in Cass Lake, and like Guy, the excellent man who sold me the now-slightly-famous 17 foot kayak, has a degree in anthropology. Guy, too, spent some time in Cass Lake, so I’m beginning to feel that Cass Lake anthropologists are one of the ongoing threads of this trip. Nancy’s father was an Episcopal priest, and her mother still lives there, and Nancy has paddled many segments of the river, and went to summer camp on that stretch of land between Lake Andrusia and Cass Lake, and we agreed that there are definitely ghosts there, both good and bad.
Nancy told me her father spoke Ojibwe but he didn’t teach her the language; and of course, I have the same relation to the Armenian language, I don’t even know 300 words and the present tense in Armenian despite the fact that it was my father’s native tongue. And I am thinking that the scars of exile can be subtle as well as obvious, and perhaps the former is more dangerously destructive: something you know you’ve lost can be mourned, memorialized, and perhaps even constructed anew, but something you don’t even know you’ve lost is obliterated forever.
Anyway. I asked Nancy where we should go to church Sunday, and she recommended the Episcopal Church because it has an especially excellent Tiffany window. And she invited us to come to rehearsal of the gospel choir she sings in on Sunday evenings. And then she told us that the turtles were being born and gave me very precise instructions about where to find them crossing the road. And by this time it was clear I was not going to paddle on Sunday, that we would take the day off to follow up on all these treasures.
(And check it out fellow Interlochen campers: the music that accompanied this whole conversation was Howard Hanson’s Second Symphony “the Romantic.” OMG! I don’t think I’ve heard that piece in twenty-five years, thirty-five even? but I bet anyone who went to that camp, no matter how many years ago, can sing every note of every voice of that theme. okay, laugh, if you like, corny, yes, but it really is pretty fabulous.)
So after I picked up Mac from his kayaking day, we all headed out to the turtle road. Nancy had said they are really small at this phase, no bigger than a 50 cent piece, so we walked down the road a while, and I actually found one! And then Mac found a bigger one, a Painted Turtle maybe?, and the walk itself, on this back road in the late afternoon light that is really special and gorgeous in Minnesota, was a really excellent end to an altogether wonderful day.
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Last night Mac and I decided to take today off from paddling for the first time since our daytrip to Hibbing on 9 August, which Mac wrote about here. We’ve been alternating paddling ever since Richard left for the Twin Cities, and we’re getting too fast for our own good! Not really, but since we’ve kind of fallen in love with Little Falls, despite the gaping lack of a proper internet cafe, it seemed like a cool thing to spend the day here, an actual day off.
Since it’s Sunday, I wanted to find a church for my weekly immersion in community life. After the not-really-Lutheran church the first week, I’ve been to a very friendly Methodist church in Deer River, and a (real) Lutheran church in Palisade, where they had a really touching baptism the Sunday I was there. I considered going for a Catholic mass this week, but the church had giant pro-life billboards out front, which seemed a bit much, and I do feel uncomfortable about the whole communion question in a Catholic church. I thought Lutheran might be interesting given this week’s decision about gay and lesbian clergy. But then we passed an Episcopal church that had a sign saying ”We Expect Visitors,” so we had to go there. I’m really glad for that: the parishioners take rightful pride in their beautiful windows and sanctuary, they had a real pipe organ and good music, and the priest and all the parishioners were very warm and down to earth. The gospel reading had that excellent moment where Jesus tells the apostles they can leave if they want, and Peter says, sort of plaintively to my ear, “Where would we go?” Like if he could think of something better than following this crazy guy around, he would do it in a heartbeat.
One stained-glass window depicted Bishop Whipple, who famously went to Washington to talk Lincoln out of killing 264 of the 303 Native people who were convicted of murder in the 1862 uprising. The window had a crest at the top that had a tomahawk and a peace pipe crossed underneath the Christian cross; our host thought that maybe that’s the crest for the Episcopal mission to the Native peoples.
Afterwards we headed to the grocery store where we found real Greek yogurt, yay! So we bought a bunch of berries to go with the yogurt and ran square into Tony, who had stopped us the first time on the steps of the library Friday afternoon to expostulate about how cool our kayak was and ask about our journey. (Tony is the third schoolteacher I’ve met so far on these travels, and I’ve decided schoolteachers are just the best ever. Perhaps it’s because they have to deal with meeting and engaging with a whole bunch of really idiosyncratic new people every year (I think kids are just more individual than grownups most of the time: they haven’t yet had their edges trimmed to fit…) Anyway, it was excellent to meet up with Tony again in the grocery store, shopping with his wife on a Sunday afternoon. (Can I admit I also like that? just the idea of having the sort of calm and orderly life where the husband and wife go to the grocery store together once a week to stock up. Imagine!)
Anyway, so we headed off to the park with the nun-tended virgin pines that I so enjoyed yesterday, and we arrive and the Baptists are having their annual picnic, but that’s cool, we can share, so we’ve been spending the afternoon hanging out reading and listening to music, and suddenly there’s Karen! This is the woman Mac met Friday morning on the steps of the library, and we met her again yesterday and she told us about these cross rocks at Blanchard Dam, and then here she is at the park! Okay, this is really small-town life, no?! Three times in three days!
Another nice thing about Little Falls is that people really work on their houses: there’s a True Value in basically every mall in town, and I can see how they all stay in business! The picture above is just an example, a house right across the street from the library.
Anyway, in the park I read some more Schoolcraft and here are a couple of favorite additional facts he relates about the Ojibwe language:
Verbs, in the Chippewa, must agree in number and tense with the noun. They must also agree in gender, that is, verbs animate must have nouns animate. They must also have animate pronouns and animate adjectives. Vitality, or the want of vitality, seems to be the distinction which the inventors of the language seized upon to set up the great rules of its syntax. [Ch XVII]
Doesn’t that make WAY more sense as the core category? Life/non-life is kind of a more important distinction than male/female, after all! Similarly, the third person singular, ween, is used for both he and she: maybe we should take it up in English to solve that dumb problem in our language once and for all!
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Okay, can I just say I am particularly loving Minnesota today?! Mac and I headed out this morning to Fletcher Creek landing and stopped on the way at Little Elk River, which the sign says had been inhabited by native people since at least 400 BC. The westernmost outpost of the French fur trade was located there in the 1750′s, and more recently, Chief Hole-in-the-Day (Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig) lived there, and a mission and townsite were there as well. It’s prairie now, and Mac and I had a bit of a walk as the fog dissipated. A beautiful spot, full of ghosts.
After Mac headed off in the kayak, I drove over to Belle Prairie County Park, where I am sitting completely alone in a pine grove that the DNR map tells me is tended by the Franciscan sisters who have a convent nearby. I waved at Mac as he passed in the kayak — the pine grove overlooks the river. And if all this weren’t enough, there is a power outlet in the shelter, so I am charging up my computer as I write. Gotta love it!
I think I’m going to have to learn some Ojibwe. I finished reading Michael McNally’s book last night, and the few little threads of Ojibwe language that he explains in the book make me understand that there is huge richness in this language I would like to know more about.
For example, the verb nagamo means both to sing and to pray; ”song and prayer being linguistically inseparable.“ [p. 119] The word gashkendam ”combines in one semantic field associations with lonesomeness, grief, affliction, dejection, homesickness, and melancholy.“ [p. 119] And ”Larry Cloud Morgan closely associated the drum (dewe-igan) with the heart (de-) and with truth (debwe-) and with sound (wewe-), a morpheme that itself connotes particular kinds of wavelike or circular, returning motion.“ [p. 187]
Mac and I have also been dipping into Henry Schoolcraft’s journal most evenings: he’s this totally entertaining combination of adventurer and nerd, and you can’t help but be tickled by him. Here are a few excerpts relating to language specifically:
from late 1822:
In going out to dinner at 3 o’clock, a sheet of paper containing conjugations of verbs, which had cost me much time and questioning, had fallen from my table. On returning in the evening, I found my dog, Ponty, a young pet, had torn my care-bought conjugations into small pieces. What was to be done? It was useless to whip the dog, and I scarcely had the courage to commence the labor anew. I consequently did neither; but gathering up the fragments, carefully soaked the gnawed and mutilated parts in warm water, and re-arranged and sealed them together. And before bedtime I had restored the manuscript so as to be intelligibly read. I imposed this task upon myself, but, had it been imposed by another, I would have been ready to pronounce him a madman.
Devoted the day to the Indian language. It scarcely seems possible that any two languages should be more unlike, or have fewer points of resemblance, than the English and Ojibwa. If an individual from one of the nomadic tribes of farther Asia were suddenly set down in London, he could hardly be more struck with the difference in buildings, dress, manners, and customs, than with the utter discrepance in the sounds of words, and the grammatical structure of sentences. The Ojibwa has this advantage, considered as the material of future improvement; it is entirely homogeneous, and admits of philosophical principles being carried out, with very few, if any, of those exceptions which so disfigure English grammar, and present such appalling obstacles to foreigners in learning the language.
5th [Jan] Gitche ie nay gow ge ait che gah, “they have put the sand over him” is a common expression among the Indians to indicate that a man is dead and buried. Another mode, delicate and refined in its character, is to suffix the inflection for perfect past tense, bun, to a man’s name. Thus Washington e bun would indicate that Washington is no more.
The Chippewas are apt to connect all their ghost stories with fire. A lighted fire on the grave has a strong connection with this idea, as if they deemed some mysterious analogy to exist between spirituality and fire. Their name for ghost is Jeebi, a word rendered plural in ug.
I am hereby proposing that the early 20th century expression ”heebie-jeebies” is a rhyming expansion of the Ojibwe word for ghost. Richard, you’re the linguist, what do you say?!?!
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