A World of Shape and Texture: American Sign Language and Navajo

To continue the conversation started earlier, about ASL’s animist/indigenous roots, I want to point out another really beautiful connection.

But first, to sum up: I believe strongly that indigenous languages prioritize observation of action/behavior, skillfull mimicry, and the illumination of relationships and roles. This stands in stark opposition to modern languages that possess the verb “to be”,  languages which purpose to fit the world into static categories (“he is a carpenter”), distract/disconnect actors from consequences (“mistakes were made”), and prioritize abstract value judgements (“that’s evil”) over concrete observations (“I feel scared when I see that”).

Both ASL and Navajo (along with all the other Athabaskan languages of North America) use a system of classifiers that purpose to communicate the shape and texture of objects, and thus the behavior of the object in space.

Navajo speakers modify the verbs (for example, “to give”) they use, according to the following list of shape/behaviors (thank you Wikipedia):

Classifier+Stem Label Explanation Examples
-ʼą́ SRO Solid Roundish Object bottle, ball, boot, box, etc.
-yį́ LPB Load, Pack, Burden backpack, bundle, sack, saddle, etc.
-ł-jool NCM Non-Compact Matter bunch of hair or grass, cloud, fog, etc.
-lá SFO Slender Flexible Object rope, mittens, socks, pile of fried onions, etc.
-tį’ SSO Slender Stiff Object arrow, bracelet, skillet, saw, etc.
-ł-tsooz FFO Flat Flexible Object blanket, coat, sack of groceries, etc.
-tłééʼ MM Mushy Matter ice cream, mud, slumped-over drunken person, etc.
-nil PLO1 Plural Objects 1 eggs, balls, animals, coins, etc.
-jaaʼ PLO2 Plural Objects 2 marbles, seeds, sugar, bugs, etc.
-ką́ OC Open Container glass of milk, spoonful of food, handful of flour, etc.
-ł-tį́ ANO Animate Object microbe, person, corpse, doll, etc.
[it tickles my funny bone when I see that ice cream, mud, and drunks all fall into the same category]

ASL does the same! When referring to a subject after the signer has signified it as the topic, the signer uses stand-in classifiers, like pronouns, according to the subjects shape/behavior, to modify the signed verb. You can see that a signer uses, non-inclusively (please follow the link for what the classifiers actually look like):

1 Cl for single individuals walking or standing, a pencil lying on its side…

2 Cl for two people walking or standing, one person sitting or standing, a snake tongue…

3 Cl for vehicles, or three people walking or standing…

4 Cl for four people walking or standing, stripes, a fence, bars, teeth bared, bangs, whiskers…

5 Cl same as 4 Cl, plus five people standing,  falling leaves…

A Cl for stationary objects, such as statues, bottles on the shelf, objects on a table…

B Cl for surfaces, walls, floors, roads, shelves, clothing, flat objects

And so on, for eight more classifiers that delineate shape and motion.  Do you see the incredible similarity between the two languages? If anything, it looks like the Athabaskan languages evolved to accomodate all the wonderful information communicated by a primary, signed language. In any case, signed languages like ASL demonstrate the remarkable power of illuminated relationships, roles, form, and behavior, when communicating. Imagine what kind of poetry you could create, if you related to the world in this way! Imagine the kind of poetry that native ASL speakers create right now, because of the strength and beauty of their language, and I think you can understand the profound pride and identity possessed by the Deaf community.

Violence, Nonviolence, Protection, and Play

From my own community practice of movement and martial-arts, that we call SHIFT, I’ve discovered some fascinating things about how I experience assertive, risky, action.

I hesitate to call such action by its much more recognizable name: Violence.

My dictionary defines violence as “behavior involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill”. When I box with my friends, during our SHIFT workouts, we hurt each other often. Joyfully so! At the end, we feel invigorated, relaxed, a bit of communion, and have acquired a few new aches and sensitive spots on our bodies.

From my past experience practicing and learning the traditions behind Aikido, I  have long pondered the concept of “the life giving sword”: a sword only drawn when needed, and used in accord with the furtherance and affirmation of the community of life. I may die, the other may die, but whatever the moment dictates, it results in a benefit to my family, village, and land.

I add this to what my naturopath tells me: that activities that increase testosterone levels in men (boxing, for one), increase their cardiovascular protection, bone density, and overall health balance.

I stand strongly in my center, in the place where I practice martial skills for protection, health, and the benefit of all life in my community.

Yet recently, while daydreaming at the 2008 World Open Space on Open Space in San Francisco, something struck me: what if one of my fellow SHIFTers and I had a session on boxing, somewhere in a suitable distant corner, and knocked some sense into each other for a period of time? How would the other participants react?

Certainly Open Space allows for all kinds of activity, music, dance, conversation, games. But how would the community react to boxing?

I ask this in part because we finished the entire event, inspired by one participant who broke into a song, by singing of peace and holding hands in a circle.

This both accords with my deep values, and also causes me to pause and wonder if I understand peace differently than the rest of my community in that particular Open Space.

As a youth, I proudly inherited a philosophy of pacifism from both of my parents. On the playground, and in the neighborhood, I knew where I stood on “violence”. This resulted in many, many mixed experiences. Recently my mother and I had a conversation on how we had revised our perceptions of peaceful action; it now included protection! And I see it in a far more textured, nuanced way.

I’ve also talked to her about its power as something to affirm one’s own health, and the health of the partner. That the…

Oh. So, in a grounding note, a few minutes ago, at about an hour before midnight here, I heard gunfire on the street corner – a couple of folks just shot someone to death. Screams, running feet, and calls of “they shot Snake and his bros – y’all shot the wrong guys! y’all shot the wrong guys!” echoed down the street.

I don’t know why, but gunfire and my cross-streets seem to go together like bacon and eggs.

When this happens the police cruisers like to park in front of my house, and coruscate their lighting arrays while quietly chattering on the radio.

As the cruiser continues to warm its engine a couple feet from the baby fig tree in my front yard, I realize that I’ve lost interest on writing about violence tonight. I hope Snake, or the one of his brothers that died, receives the grief he needs to build his raft of tears and ride the night swells to the next place for him.

And, though I heard a lot of shots, with some luck only one of their families will need to face the difficult task of providing such tears for them. From the chatter and panicked gossip outside, I think only one young man died tonight, on this particular street corner.

Open Space Technology as Culture, Tradition, Identity

I’ve just finished up three days attendance at the 2008 World Open Space on Open Space, here in San Francisco. “Open Space Technology” refers to a method of coming together, having conversations, and moving forward with action, first developed by a fellow named Harrison Owen, over 20 years ago. Open Space Technology gatherings depend on 4 Principles…

Whoever comes are the right people

Whatever happens, is the only thing that could have

When it starts, it starts

When it ends, it ends

And one Law, the Law of Two Feet:

If you are neither learning nor contributing where you’re at, use your two feet to move somewhere where you can.

And an assortment of other understandings:

Be prepared to be surprised

Open Space works on passion, and responsibility

More on all this later.

My first thoughts coming out of this particular event involve the notion that ironically, “Open Space” does not describe an event at all! Rather, “Open Space” describes a culture of people who act and think in accord with its guiding principles, law, and understandings. In particular, Chris, Caitlin, Aine, and Finn’s description of how they unschool (or lifelearning, as they term it) as a family using the culture of Open Space, really opened my eyes to the possibilities. Both Chris and Caitlin described how their increasing understanding of the Open Space culture determined their ability to have a satisfying unschooling experience, as a family.

This means that we could say, that with Open Space Gatherings, as events, we take baby steps, opening up temporary spaces where for a short while participants try on this new culture for a while, seeing where it can go, and acquiring ever deeper accord with the cultural understandings that drive it.

Eventually though, if the space we create with Open Space truly vitalizes and nourishes us, at some point we may ask: “why ‘end’ the space?”. Does “Open Space” describe an event, or does it describe an ever-renewing process? What does it look like when entire communities and families act in accord with Open  Space, in this way?

And what does this say then, about the emerging identity of people who live  in accord with this evolving tradition?

And if “Open Space” does not describe an end-point (an event, a place, a static state), since we (as participants and facilitators of the space) perservere in acting in ever deeper accord with the principles and law of Open Space…

How does this differ from “Becoming Traditional”?

I would say it doesn’t differ much at all. In fact, during this Open Space more and more, I feel that deepening one’s accord with the culture of Open Space will naturally bring one to the same ever renewing processes of Rewilding: following one’s own heart and authority, withdrawing consent from institutions and obsolete political systems, acting out from a deep sense of belonging to one’s Land and Family, seeing the profound personhood and participation in Open Space among all the other-than-human members of one’s place: trees and clouds, stones and water, animals and plants. Passion, and Responsibility!

I feel really worn out from this experience, and later may take another, more successful crack at articulating this particular epiphany, but for now it feels good to get this out there. These past few days have really enriched my confidence and understanding of Open Space. We’ll see where it takes me, my Family, my Village, and my Land next!

Dreaming Q&A

Penny Scout emailed me some questions about issues of Dreams and Dream Interviews, and I thought it a good idea to answer them here, for everyone’s benefit. To wit:

Some of my questions about dreams are:
If you wake up to an alarm does it ruin the end of the dream? The ones that are interrupted are usually the ones I remember the best. Even the dream we did yesterday was interrupted by an alarm I think.

Well, if you interrupt a dream, you interrupt it! I noticed the shortness of the third Act of your dream, but I didn’t realize that it literally stopped when the alarm went off. Who knows what the rest of the third Act might have told you? Having said that, even a fragment of an image contains valuable stuff, and even moreso almost three full Acts of the dream in question. We do the best with what we get. Other options do exist for helping to recall dreams on waking, besides the interruption of the alarm. We can talk about those if you’d like.

When the dream changes scenes in a major way how do you know if it is a different act or an entirely different story? For example the dream of the fortune teller was preceeded with a dream of wandering in the woods which was preceeded by a steve kane (this guy from high school I have recurring dreams about) dream. I remember them bleeding into eachother without a pause, but they were significantly different. How much do you choose to interpret?

I’ve experienced “separate dreams” which turned out as Acts I, II, and III of a whole arc! The only way to tell involves looking/interviewing each in turn, as best you can.

Then what if all you recall is one particular fact out of what you know was a whole dream but it seems highly charged, like all I remember I was cuddling with Emilee Danielson, who I hate in real life? Is it possible to interpret at all?

Absolutely!  If nothing else, it makes for good practice to even go after the fragments. But I have had great realizations from single images or situations.

What about filling in the gaps when things are fuzzy. Lets say from example, i think the beagle girl had dark hair and glasses and looked like bookstore girl in the urban scout but it’s so faint I could be making it up now that I’m awake. Make it up or leave it out?

Well, I suspect you know more about that girl than you think. Why would your dreamself choose a whole character that it didn’t bother to actually use? In those situations, you can tease it out of yourself, by trying to get a negative reaction from yourself. You or the dream interviewer can do this. For example, you gave me just a description of a brunette girl, no more. What if I had said, “well, brunette like Angelina Jolie, or brunette like Betty Boop, or maybe she had no face at all, totally faceless, just brown hair…?” I bet you’d have an extreme reaction to those. In that way you can clear up from around the edges till you have a good sense of the person/thing/etc.

How important is it to write down the dream in as much detail as possible. If I dream of shoplifting from a store is it worth noting the light quality, that it was muted, the placement of the items that the shampoo was on the right, or what? I tend to think no, especially because i can visulize the scene in my head still, and recall those details if need be. I do think it was important that I went out the backdoor since I mention this later in the dream.

In the end, you know best how much you need to write to recall the dream. As you already experienced, you write the dream down as an anchor for remembering it. But the writing doesn’t remember it – you do! So, write as much as you need to help you reenter the dream when the interview starts.

I hope this helped. Thanks Penny Scout for the questions! And good luck.

The Dream Interview

In this episode, with the help of celebrity rewilder Penny Scout, I provide a real life, unabridged example of the Dream Interview, as Penny and I walk step by step through her dream. I didn’t edit it at all, because I wanted to communicate the very real struggle that even a (somewhat) experienced interviewer undergoes. If you pay attention, you’ll notice the hallmarks of the Dream Interview process, as I ask essentially the same questions over and over: “What is this? Who is that? I’ve never seen/heard/experienced that/them before. Tell me what it is?” [sic]. By doing so I elicit the Dreamer’s own words, which illuminates the metaphors by which they experience the world. Also, Penny’s dream follows the familiar three Act structure. I mention the “bridge question” in this episode several times, a question you ask when you have just enough of the Dreamer’s language that you want to see if you can identify a piece of the dream’s correspondence to waking life. It often sounds like, “in your waking life, is there a situation where [insert dreamer’s language]?” [sic]. Bridge questions make the dream come together. At the end, we then go over the whole dream to see if the answers to the bridge questions still make sense.

Also check out the extensive blogging I’ve done on this topic:

Dreams and Story

Dreams, Aha!’s, and “I think I know what it means”

Dream Interpretation for Anarchists

The Subtle Task of Helping Dreamers

The Dreamtime, MythicSpace, and ‘the Time Before History’


Gayle Delaney’s Dream site

Donations from Eric and Robert made this podcast possible. Thanks guys!

Natural Teamwork

I did a free presentation on (my version of) Agile Teams at the Village Building Convergence here in Portland, about two months ago. I value the dispersal of this knowledge to folks that will put it to good use.

Lo and behold, yesterday one of the attendees came up to me and told me that she and her friends had put all that info to work to get their grassroots herbal apothecary off the ground. She said, “We’ve never been so organized before! It’s so simple!”

She seemed really happy and energized about it, and I asked her, if she got a chance, to write up how it went to further boost for this particular team approach to work.

Anyway, it felt really affirming to hear that.  I wish I could blog about this more here, but honestly it seems to work as one of those oral tradition things, person to person (with the aid of a whiteboard!). Maybe I’ll post a video sometime – that might work. Why I didn’t just video the VBC  talk, I have no idea. They asked a zillion fantastic questions, hard, challenging, and aimed right for the throat (in a respectful way!). We even had a couple moments where I had to step up my facilitation skills to deal with energy and behavior that didn’t belong in that space. Good stuff.

The Toxicity and Vitality of Rightness and Wrongness

Much of what keeps us imprisoned in modern civilization amounts to unarticulated webs of shoulds and oughts, rights and wrongs. I’ve written about this before, in terms of the Grave of Right and Wrong (and podcasted too).

But the more I understand my own path of Rewilding, the more I understand a certain process underway in my life.  Namely, in order to abandon old  models of “rightness/wrongness”, and old uses for the models, I need to create newer ones that affirm life.

If every culture has their own Right way (including healthy indigenous ones), it means that when faced with a “wrong” way, you can meet a dialogue like this:

A: “We just don’t do it that way.”

B: “Why not?”

A: “We just don’t. A sensible person doesn’t do that.”

B: “But have you ever tried it?”

A: “No, only a foolish person would.”

Think of a traditional animist’s reaction to someone saying “hey, try treating everything as unliving, dead stuff, devoid of personhood”. They would probably laugh, walk away, scowl, or shake their head at such a proposal.

This indicates unarticulated wisdom; wisdom acquired through immersion in a culture, not through lectures, information, or questioning. It doesn’t need explaining; you can feel it in your bones.

I can imagine it surprising a reader to discover that I support this kind of almost unreflected “wisdom”, but it would only surprise a member of civilization, the sole culture in human history against which its members must defend themselves by deconstructing its fiendish paradoxes, traps, and devil’s bargains.

Traditionally, you could depend on your culture to unthinkingly protect you, to back you up, because time had tested and shaped it.

Only now do we find ourselves the slave labor force for the cultural monster bent on devouring the world.

My point? Abandon the Rights and Wrongs of this culture, walk away from that way of thinking for a goodly while. Use new measures (“does this action affirm life? create more of what I want – stronger family, healthier land?”) with which to evaluate the results of your actions and behaviors.

At some point, you will naturally discover that you don’t articulate these “new ways” anymore, and I guarantee you that your ways will differ from mine. But embrace these, just as you would embrace the unblinking adherence of an indigenous adult to traditions that affirm life. You will naturally find that you have a “Right Way” for you and your people again, without planning or ideology, and without discussion or enforcement.

Importantly, more and more, I see unarticulated wisdom as the most powerful, and long-term surviving, form of culture. If you participate in a discussion about your deeply held values, experiences, or relationships, you may discover that suddenly they seem less real, less important, less alive. You may begin to doubt them.

You may have already heard of the common tradition of  “not discussing sacred things or ceremonies”. This means these things go directly into that realm of protected, powerful, unarticulated cultural forces, that will survive and protect you and your descendants. Articulation with the wrong people, in the wrong environment, can kill this powerful, unarticulated, unintellectualized wisdom. Engaging in a conversation with the colonizer can sound the death knell for a traditional person, whether a new rewilder or one belonging to an animist culture that goes back to the dawn of time.

We live in a bottlenecked time of danger, where we may lose many things, many of us suffer spiritual (once again, I have no better word, still working on it) injury, many cultures and languages will disappear, much rewilding will suffocate or homogenize back into the colonizing power of civilization.

Treat your animist relationships and traditional values as priceless treasure, and sacred things. Perhaps work to someday allow them an unarticulated influence over your life, a silent courtship that provides constant companionship.

For those like myself, foolish enough to articulate the better-left-unsaid, I confess to the danger. Setting aside even that my story may simply not apply to your rewilding in any case, putting out there provides room for critique, the microscope of intellect, the razor of mind.

I’ve adapted to this by no longer “discussing” the reasonableness of my experiences, or relationships. I don’t engage, evangelize, or debate when it comes to the animism side of my rewilding. I’ll tell my Story, but I won’t make time for a critique of it. In this way I do the best I can, because for whatever reason I’ve acquired the passion to wake up as many fellow animists as possible to what they already experience and long for.


Author Daniel Quinn once wrote, “There is no one right way to live” [sic].  He doesn’t articulate its corollary however, “and every renewing and healthy culture has their own right way”.

Without the corollary, “there is no one right way to live” sounds like more, new-agey, “it’s all good”, “we’re all one” (no, the profound lack of e-prime in those catch phrases did not escape my notice) sentiment.

What happens when you have one group, with a lively and profound sense of their own “right way” (tested by time and partnership with their land and each other), and this group bumps into another? You have conflict, affirmation of identity, diversity. I don’t experience conflict negatively at all, though I know the modern civilized culture does. Even moreso, conflict does not mean violence. An inability to resolve conflict leads to violence. Conflict itself, just means energy!

Also, these (let’s call them) cultural groups, use this energy to build belonging and solidarity when they bump into members of the other group. A tightening of community, in response to (quite literally) foreign bodies, like an immune response. But one person’s foreign bodies, belongs natively to another organism.

Without a sense of in-group (native belonging), and outgroup (strangers and rough-mannered foreigners), organisms, whether social or specific, die.

Our culture places a taboo on this kind of thing, this “clannishness”, in-group/out-group dynamic. All hail the “Great American Melting Pot”, the loss of language, tradition, color, diversity, into (ideally) one monochromatic swirl of humanity with an american flag on it. Ironically, this monochrome will look pretty brown, thanks to the influx of central american indian families (otherwise known as “mexicans”, “migrant workers”, and “illegal aliens”). But I digress. Only civilization would think highly of such a goal, that of homogenization, loss of identity to the greater colonizing culture.

The simplest way to reconnect to tradition, family, and nativeness to the Land, lies in our willingness to create our own identity, to reestablish our own in-group (and corresponding values and goals), and feel no guilt or shame at how we treat those with out-group values and goals.

Think of it this way. You need money (or barter, or whatever) to deal with people in the out-group, buying and selling things. For people in your in-group, support flows between members. Money that passes between in-group members occurs as a flow of support, not buying or selling anything, but helping others to trade with members of the out-group.

For the vast majority of those reading this, this may sound like an impossibly ideal situation. Or perhaps you’ve tried it experimentally, and it didn’t work so well. So goes the death of family and tribe. So how do we build it back up again?

First, I suggest a ruthless practicality. Self-honesty, on the risks you can actually take. And deep reflection, on who this works with, and who it doesn’t. Use this as a goal to work toward, not a measure of your rewilding. Build your in-group one member at a time. Treasure people you can trust and rely on, as more valuable than a mountain of gold and silver. Shower them with support. Do what you can to start with family; if you can’t start there, start with dear, old friends. Share food a lot. Think of the implications of this in-group, out-group issue, as a beginning of understanding native traditions of adoption. Perhaps adoption means “growing your in-group”, in exactly this way, with exactly these benefits and sacrifices?

In the end, I myself have no clear answers. I have to rebuild all of this too. But I know it matters. Good luck!

The Mythweavers: A Storyband

How could I have forgotten to mention this? Some geographically diverse friends (Jason, Guili, Matt, Fen) and I have all connected up to storyjam over the internet, using skype audio. We’ve named our band “The Mythweavers”, and have chosen to record the jams so that other folks can get a good idea of how a storyjam works and sounds.

Currently we have two episodes up of our ongoing jam, “Howl of the People”, where we use the story-game Primetime Adventures to create an episodic storyline about a dysfunctional family of wolves in the Eagle Cap  Wilderness of NE Oregon.

We  have completed 3 episodes of our storyline, not including the first podcast which contains casting and setting creation. So far we only have one episode of the storyline up (“episode two” of the podcast, if that doesn’t confuse you too much).

For those who still don’t  understand the power and  potential of storyjamming, and resuscitating our own  oral/spoken traditions, the Mythweavers  offer up our humble effort at taken those first baby steps to telling stories about things we care about, and having a good time doing it.

Mythic Cartography: An Overview

In this episode I get chatty and try to pull together all the disparate skills of mythic cartography and rewilding into a coherent whole. Join the conversation…with myself.

Riddle Me This!

Learn the nitty gritty of making and solving riddles, and listen to me come up with a 10 minute riddle (while scratching my head and stalling for time!). Also, I talk about the possibilities that the poetic paradigm opens up, in terms of craftsmanship and experimentation.

“The Making of A Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms” by Mark Strand and Eavan Boland

Podcast: Rewilding the Body

What steps can we take to rewild our movement? What do indigenous peoples have to tell us about the use and expression of our bodies? How has civilization handicapped us to moving freely through other-than-human landscapes? Lets start the work that will create more satisfying lives, and safer communites, by rewilding our movement.

“Ki in Aikido: A Sampler of Ki Exercises”, C.M. Shifflett

“Aikido and the Harmony of Nature”, Mitsugi Saotome

“The Way of Energy”, Master Lam Kam Chuen

“The Way of the Scout”, Tom Brown, Jr.

Animism: A Survival Skill

How we relate to the world determines our level of awareness and our ability to move through it. This impacts every aspect of our lives – from obtaining food to avoiding injury. Yet it all comes down to empathy, respect, and personhood. How can a simple choice have such profound impact?

“Mammal Tracks and Sign”, Mark Elbroch

The Sacred Question

Rewilding our innate ability to observe and ask questions of the world comes down to a very simple, but profoundly powerful choice. We all too easily pass it by…

Tom Brown, Jr.

Also see here:

Rewilding your ability to reason

Reality Therapy