The Spoken World

Author: Elizabeth Dodd

My brother’s first word was “duck.” It was a marvelous word for a baby to master — so satisfying in its powerful consonants, its one-syllable explosive force. One could, as he did, splash one’s arms in the bath, a single downward motion that both arms followed, in accompaniment to one’s exclamation: “DUCK!”

There was, of course, a plastic duck to which this name belonged. It was the same iconic yellow figure that can still be found (though perhaps composed of a different polymer recipe, and no doubt manufactured on a different continent) in toy stores — or fluorescent-lit aisles — today. This particular duck (since for him the name did not yet denote a category, it was that very duck, the one-and-only clutched in my brother’s plump hand) — I say, this particular duck was won at a grade-school carnival held at my school, East Elementary, the kind of fundraiser where stay-at-home mothers’ frosted confections were the prizes for the Cake Walk and the whole place seemed weirdly, magically transformed by long strings of crepe paper and the presence of far more grownups than one would have thought could possibly enter such familiar classrooms.

Perhaps, however, his first word was not “duck.” It was “Daddy.” But in his neophytic pronunciation, it came out nothing like the familiar “da-da” that focuses on those dental consonants which babies love, even before they have teeth enough to justify our use of the linguistic term. Instead, Hudson lolled the vowels around in his mouth, calling out to father, or responding to his presence, with something a bit like birdcall. Aaaah-yeee. Since I was then a new and devoted reader, and had just bought my first book with “my own money” (Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Books), I decided he was speaking one of the strange puddles of vowels I saw in my hard-bound Golden Illustrated Classic. Ahi! Ahai! Only much later did we — was it me? — recognize what he must have been saying.

So which was his first word? If the point is communication with others, so that we recognize what is said and build a deeper kinship out of mutual understanding, “duck” it surely was. Sometimes the word must have been howled in demand, the object of desire in another room or out of reach or out of sight. But most often (at least as I, his sister, the one he later called Ellillibah — a lovely name — remember it), the word was an exclamation of proximity: the duck in hand, the duck before our eyes, which surely — being Hudson’s Duck — deserved and received its spoken recognition.

And by that line of thinking, “Aah-yee” was, too, a successful word. Simply his self, his inner being, giving voice to thought. Making the internal external — part of the world. (And yes, eventually we came to realize what he was saying, or had been saying, since baby speech morphs so quickly into something shared, the language and accents of the clan.)

My father’s favorite bird is the broad-winged hawk. Hawk. This, too, is a fine, one-syllable exhalation, but because he is more specific, he requires the mouthful of modification, three one-syllable signifiers, not the red-tailed, not the cooper’s, not the ferruginous, but the broad-winged, which my field guide describes as “our smallest buteo” — ours, since we are inhabitants of North America. If we — we Americans — spoke far more frequently about such fellow-inhabitants, I can imagine the word-edges would be worn by frequent use, the term softened in the mouth and the mind, something like “brodding hawk.” But we don’t. I imagine most of the folks I encounter in a single day couldn’t identify the hawk that my father holds dear. And in the voices of people who do speak of birds, it’s more often referred to by its metonym, simply a broad wing.

I think now of the efforts to claim and preserve the words of native languages. My partner, Dave, donated a number of photographs, all birds indigenous to the ancestral homeland of the Ojibwe people, which have been incorporated into an Anishinaabe language instruction CD, a copy of which he received in appreciation along with a fat bag of delicious wild rice. It’s a marvelous thing — voices of various speakers (elders, mostly) of eastern and western dialects, mouthing the nouns of birds and insects and mammals and fish — fellow inhabitants of the world. Many are complicated clusters of sound I can only reproduce slowly, my own mouth unaccustomed to those combinations.

The owl, however, is delightful — utterly onomatopoetic in both dialects: Gookooko’oo, and the plural, gookooko’ook (or is that last consonant a g? I can’t quite tell even though I hit the play button again and again). The speakers of the eastern dialect retain only the general noun, owl, while the western dialect preserves more specificity with — count ’em, folks — five-syllable words, each starting with g, to name separate species. They appear to me from the CD’s photographs to be screech owl, great gray owl and boreal owl, each of which is designated in the western dialect with a sequence of sounds a bit like a very articulate pot of boiling mud. But loon is much easier. Maang. And the plural, maangwog.

The first time I ever saw or heard a loon was the year my father took us — his young son, then, and daughter — to camp in Maine, just outside Baxter State Park. We pitched a cavernous canvas tent by the shores of a rock-stippled lake called Debsconeag Deadwater, hiked on Mount Katahdin and cooked in a set of cheap aluminum pots bought new for the occasion. And so Hudson and I became yet two more in the long lineage of persons who have marveled over the expressive weirdness of looncall, a sound that lifts our vestigial pelt, those fine, blond hairs we otherwise forget we have in the mammalian skin beneath our shirts. Loon — surely, I once thought, a word taken directly from moonlight, la claire de lune collected and reflected by all that long-since melted ice, the lakewaters of the north. But who knows?

When I go hunting, I find that the earliest printed appearance is in William Wood’s _New England Prospect-, where he claims, in 1634, that “the Loone is an ill-shaped thing like a Cormorant; but that he can neither go nor fly” — preposterous stuff, suggesting Goodman Wood at best glimpsed the bird once or twice, from a distance, and imagined it purely a waterfowl, imprisoned in its lake. In the decades since, I’ve seen loons in gray-cast ocean and even in a tiny state lake in Kansas, though I realize that, like Wood, I’ve never seen them “go” on land. “Loom,” it is in the Old World, or “lumme,” a word from the Old Norse speech that stretched a linguistic rope from Scandinavia to the Shetland Islands. All those European sources for a bird I think of as “our” own, the iconic diver of the north American woods.

My brother is planning to leave this country. Exhausted by years of work as an environmental activist, enraged by our national politics (who could possibly speak of “leadership”?), he and his wife have begun planning an escape — emigration, they call it — to a different island, far, far across the pond. I cannot imagine, yet, how deeply I will miss him. Thinking of it, I suck air into my lungs and hold it there, as if to warm it inside the insulation of my flesh. (Once, when he was still a little boy, backpacking with me in the wounded landscape of southern Ohio, his small voice sounded from beside me. “Elizabeth, I’m so cold.” Yes, he was shivering. So I put his smaller sleeping bag inside mine, allowed both sets of goose down, plus my own skinny body’s furnace, to warm us.)

During the summer Dave and I fly west for a visit, since — who can tell? — it may be the last for several years. We spend a few days on Orcas Island, in the Straits of San Juan de Fuca; we eat seafood caught that morning by a family named Buck, bought at the salt-scoured shed at Buck’s Bay; we hike the island’s dwarf of a mountain, where a golden eagle seems to be doing its best imitation of a bald-headed cousin. In the evening we sit out on the deck built near the water and watch alcids diving for silver bracelet-sized fish, which they dangle from their capable bills. The rhinoceros auklet; the pigeon guillemot.

And, one night, a different bird, diligently diving though it already held two little fishlets firm in that bill. We all study it through our binoculars. Such a marbled, mottled back. No hint of the angled tilt of the auklet’s head. A vaguely duck-like profile. A marbled murrelet.

For once, Dave has no camera close at hand, so we all keep watch, training our gaze on the dimpled spot where the bird suddenly rocks into its dive. Secretive is the description given the birds in the professional literature; they’ve been called as well “the enigma of the Pacific.” Their “nests” — a single egg trusted to broad, moss-cloaked, old-growth limbs — are well inland, in the oldest, tallest conifers — trees at least as old as the constitutional structure we call our government, more than two centuries. So the murrelets pass back and forth between these realms: the coastal waters and the coastal forests, with as much as 60 or 70 miles separating those two great necessities, food and shelter. Threatened according to the stipulations of the Endangered Species Act, they’ve been observed returning to the same limb, the same huge tree, until they’re gone — tree or bird. Site fidelity, unto the death.

I secretly used to think of the marbled murrelet as a kind of totem bird for my brother, even though I’d never seen one. I’ve still never heard one call, except for a recording transmitted through my computer speaker’s tinny reverberation. Twenty years ago, when he planted himself firmly in the Pacific Northwest and set about making a life there, far from our childhood in Appalachia, far from the central plains where my own work took me, the shore and the forest became places of his heart. Old growth and sea surge. But too narrow a niche, and life becomes a rare fragility, and even though now I’m speaking of a species, not a person, I realize I’m not.

It is a bold move, to decide one cannot thrive in the landscape one loves because of the culture that controls it. It makes me weep to think of it, but — oh, little brother — how excited he is. He’s gazing, now, across the broad Pacific. And I am quiet, trying for once to say very little and wondering what to make of it all.

Elizabeth Dodd teaches creative writing and literature at Kansas State University. Her most recent book is In the Mind’s Eye: Essays Across the Animate World, winner of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment Best Book Award.