I recently came across a mention of naturalist Lyall Watson's story of an encounter between a lone elephant and a blue whale swimming just off-shore from where the elephant was standing and facing out to sea. Apparently the elephant was heard to be expressing all kinds of sounds, as if in conversation with the whale. I don't know any more about this and have ordered Watson's book Elephantoms to find out. But whether true or not, the mental image is astounding and inspiring, isn't it?
It reminded me of how, as a child, I used to wonder about the voice of my pet dog Sarah. What would it sound like if she spoke to me in English? I imagined her voice as soft, friendly and female. It always felt as if this was a potential communication, just out of reach but hindered by our two very different lifeworlds and physiologies. What would it take, I used to wonder, to bridge that gap beween us?
And then there is eco-philosopher David Abrams' description of an encounter on a steep mountainside in the Himalayas. Resting on a rock, he was idly rolling a silver coin across his knuckles when he realised that the glinting metal had attracted the attention of a condor which now flew towards him:
“As the great size of the bird became apparent, I felt my skin begin to crawl and come alive, like a swarm of bees all in motion, and a humming grew loud in my ears. The coin continued rolling along my fingers. The creature loomed larger, and larger still, until, suddenly, it was there – an immense silhouette hovering just above my head, huge wing-feathers rustling ever so slightly as they mastered the breeze. My fingers were frozen, unable to move; the coin dropped out of my hand. And then I felt myself stripped naked by an alien gaze infinitely more lucid and precise than my own. I do not know for how long I was transfixed, only that I felt the air streaming past naked knees and heard the wind whispering in my feathers long after the Visitor had departed."(1)
To date, our deliberations about transliteracy have focussed on the human, but what about the literacies needed (those already used and those with future potential) for communication with the non-human world, and between its members themselves? Such a discussion would take us a long way from technology and towards a very different set of faculties. Are we ready to encompass it?
(1) Abram, D. 1997, The Spell of the Sensuous, Vintage, New York, p.24