The Places that Speak Us

We live in place. Place surrounds us, informs us, defines us. We are exquisitely tuned to whatever place we inhabit. Our deepest layers engage every detail of form, motion, and pattern. Each presence is a voice, whispering or wailing in a language of their own, telling misty grey stories. From this rich intricacy and mystery, we draw threads of meaning. We weave the meanings into our own language. And the language tells our own story. Place speaks us into being.

A thousand human generations ago, every place was unique. Countless intersections of wind and water, soil and sun, mountains and microbes gave rise to endless specificity. Endless stories. Endless languages. Endless voices. A savanna spoke different humans than a forest. A shoreline spoke different humans than a desert. And even for one group of humans, their nomadic places had unique stories. The summer territory spoke them differently than the winter range. And even any single place had its rhythms and nuances. Its spring dialect was different from autumn. The north side of the hill had a different accent than the south.

This infinite diversity was always an ocean of Other. The voices that spoke humans forth were explicitly non-human. They were stones and rain, plants and insects, beasts and stars. They were each alive. Each moving with purpose, each possessed of vitality, each knowing their ways. And they were all mysterious. Only ever partially revealed, their tongues never fully known, always as shadowy as understood. Neighbors and aliens at once.

We live in place. But our places are now oh so very different. We have crafted, cultivated, and contrived almost every part of our places. We inscribe human stories upon every surface. We place human-shaped masks over every substance. We give every object a human voice. And every mask speaks the same story. Across every continent and through every season, every voice says the same thing: this is a human place. Where places once spoke us into being, we now speak them.

Or so we have convinced ourselves. We told a story where we are gods, and we made our places tell that story back to us. But place is still our source. We remain tuned to its voices. And it remains the creator of our threads, regardless of how insane the meaning we weave from them. Overwhelming our places with human-voiced objects is not a demonstration of mastery. It is the creation of a cognitive prison. It is an echo chamber where we only hear human voices, and those voices all tell us that our voice is the only one that matters.

Perhaps the way out is to allow our awareness of Other to return. We can’t simply leave the human voices. We’ve made far too many masks and spread them far too widely to truly escape them any more. But fortunately, there’s nothing to search for. Our places never actually became human. The human voices we hear come from the masks we created, not from place itself. The voices of Others never left. Whatever place we are in, it has been a place of Other all along. It’s just hard to hear them over the din of human masks. We’ve just forgotten that there’s anything else to listen to.

While the masks remain, we must try to see through them. We must try to tune out their ceaseless chattering. We must soften our focus and allow it to drift below the surface. Be careful not to look for something. To look for something is to suggest both that it’s not already present and that you know what you’re looking for. The voices of Others are right here, right now. And all the things we could imagine to look for almost certainly came from a mask, and so never existed to begin with. It’s about noticing what is already there. But mysterious. Unexpected. Grey and misty.

Can we look at a sidewalk and not see it? Can we listen to an airplane and hear something else? Can we walk through our front door and have no idea what’s on the other side?