A Response to Yodeling
A nature walk reveals the continued applicability of Emerson's essay "Nature."
“Poetry is an echo, asking a shadow to dance.” Carl Sandburg
I attended a Waldorf elementary school, so my classmates and I were introduced to the natural world before written words. As first graders, we held hands on the grounds of the National Cathedral in Washington D.C., sharing rhymes while rotating together in slow circles. We developed wonder in the stories we were told about wild animals who talked to children, and in the mazes and shrubberies of the Bishop’s Garden.
Eventually we were taught equivalencies between nouns and letters. From one of the fairy tales, we drew a green dragon, and then from the “D” of his shape, learned how to draw an upper-case D. We eventually learned to represent artistic interpretations of a Snake, of steep Mountains, and of the horizontally stretched branches of a Tree.
Years later, I was introduced to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s great 1836 book-length essay titled Nature. The chapter on language echoes principles that informed how we were taught at The Washington Waldorf School:
“Every word which is used to express a moral or intellectual fact, if traced to its root, is found to be borrowed from some material appearance. Note: Right means straight; wrong means twisted. Spirit primarily means wind; transgression, the crossing of a line; supercilious, the raising of the eyebrow. We say the heart to express emotion, the head to denote thought; and thought and emotion are words borrowed from sensible things, and now appropriated to spiritual nature. Most of the process by which this transformation is made, is hidden from us in the remote time when language was framed; but the same tendency may be daily observed in children.”
When it came to my early schooling, I lived in two worlds. At home, I learned to read from The Washington Post, and sometimes I would accompany my journalist dad to the local TV station where the news of the day was presented by anchors who during commercial breaks would ask me how things were going at school. Because my dad reviewed movies soon after the sports stars who would offer learned commentary, in the early 1970s I got to know quarterback Sonny Jurgensen (whose NFL number will be retired this year -- he’s now 88!), and Martina Navratilova.
At school, we trafficked in wonder and magic, rather than the worldly concerns that appeared on Eyewitness News on (then) WTOP or in The Washington Post. Taught to dance, to draw, and to listen patiently to stories and poems, my classmates and I were immersed in a world of play and imagination. Rather than being hurried into a world of symbols, grades, or assessments of any kind, we enjoyed art classes, field trips with naturalists, and a morning and an afternoon recess. When it came to words, we were taught, as Emerson would write, that “All the facts of nature are nouns of the intellect, and make the grammar of the eternal language.”
Although he is 21, my son with profound Autism, Jukie, still lives in such a world. He understands most of what we say to him, but he lives a life unencumbered by language, preferring instead to grasp the world by beholding a rising moon, or examining in his hand the leaves pruned from a tree he has just visited. Last night, Jukie and I dined at Dos Coyotes, the neighborhood Tex-Mex restaurant named after the two Coyote brothers who founded it. Jukie has stared up at the restaurant’s coyote art since he was a toddler, though these days he will excuse himself from our table to sit in the nearby courtyard until I finish my oversized salad (with extra Brussel’s sprouts that Jukie likes to steal).
Despite our meandering pace along one of the quiet greenbelts of south Davis, our long tree-lined walk home kept us warm on this chilly evening. I was holding Jukie’s hand as I have done for more than 20 years of such walks, and Jukie was yodeling as he does, amusing himself with sounds that a kindly woman on a restaurant patio recently said sounded like an opera singer warming up.
As I was reflecting on Emerson’s assertion that “Particular natural facts are symbols of particular spiritual facts,” I began to hear multiple distant replies to Jukie’s plaintive song. From across the fields far to the south of Putah Creek, reminding me that the story-time magic of my childhood lessons can still be available if we make room for it, we could hear that Jukie’s yodels were being answered by the howls of actual coyotes.
Every week I create a trivia contest for subscribers, and I would love to share it with you. If you would like to consider subscribing, drop me a line so I can send you this week’s quiz! In it you will find questions about the following: I hope you get to see this week’s Pub Quiz. Expect questions on topics raised above, and on the following: promises of a better life, incessant emails, attempts to save daylight, MSNBC hosts, leeches, fools and wise men, mavericks, branches of biology, cabinet secretaries, Anglo-Saxon cemeteries, empires, rhythm, gay icons, places that start with a particular letter, the Persian Gulf, people not known for their poor mercy, synesthesia and music, gangsters, blueberry jams, trail time with horses, field goals, living musicians, highways, people who are liked, current events, mottos and slogans, and Shakespeare.
Thanks to all the supporters on Patreon who make all this happen, especially the Outside Agitators, the Original Vincibles, Potent Potables, and Quizimodo. I’m always grateful to the team captains who pledge for their entire team, and thus sustain this enterprise. Please subscribe so you can share the fun of the Pub Quiz with your friends and neighbors!
Poetry Night returns on November 17 in Davis. I think we will have to move it inside the John Natsoulas Gallery. Mask up and join us! Also, please consider subscribing to my podcast.
P.S. Here are six questions from last week’s Pub Quiz:
Newspaper Headlines. About how many billions did Elon Musk pay for Twitter?
California Cities. What California city was recently listed among most “breathtaking” vacation spots in the world by National Geographic?
Halloween Movies. The most famous scenes of the film Hocus Pocus were filmed in what city?
Pop Culture – Music. In 1948, Music Digest estimated that one man’s recordings filled more than half of the 80,000 weekly hours allocated to recorded radio music in America. Name the singer.
Sports. On October 31st in what year ending in a zero did the Big Cat, Earl Lloyd, becomes the first African-American to play a game in the NBA, scoring 6 points on debut for the Washington Capitols?
Science. In biology, what T word do we use for the cellular organizational level between cells and a complete organ?