I have always thought it a shame that we humans will contort ourselves to fit into prefabricated forms. It occurred to me long ago, that I prefer to draft forms that fit individuals. We have all heard that we should "think outside the box," ad nausea. Subtly, this only serves to reinforce the false notion that there is in fact a box. If one must have a box, build it yourself the way you want and then go into it when you feel like thinking. Then come out and share your thoughts. That is when things get interesting. Just ask Giordano Bruno.
It must be born in mind when reaching an audience that there are so many demographics that a balance must be struck between universal language and targeted language. It is helpful to think of a grandparent, a colleague and a child all sitting at a table with you. Can you speak truth in such a way that they all can comprehend accurately what you mean to convey? If you can do this for the particular information to be imparted, it is a wonderfully wrought speech. In certain situations, it would be more expedient to speak to each of these three separately, conveying the same truth in three different vernaculars, intelligible to each.
The child's version would be easily understood by the other two, as would the grandparent version because it speaks to common sense. The colleagues' version would likely be understood only by the colleagues due only to the words chosen, not from the concepts being too difficult. Children (of any age) have to be simply shown what to do to keep safe and they will adopt the practice. This area amounts to a mission of the highest caliber, as we are supposed to be looking after the little ones not throwing potential dangers into their hands and wishing them good luck.
A picture can truly be worth a thousand words as it is not bound by language or vernacular. For concepts that are to reach across wide swathes of the possible demographics, graphics is, in my opinion, the way to go.
Men and women, old and young along with specialized groups of professionals make for very many permutations of potential audiences and this is further complicated by cultural and religious differences. To make the task of communicating important messages such as warnings of danger somewhat simpler in the face of such multiplicity, it is well to remember that all women are smart enough by their natures to adopt things that keep them and their loved ones safe, once shown that such aids exist. Men are better suited to denying that problems exist for as long as possible and finally they must be gently led into thinking that they thought of the solution themselves to assuage their pride. Telemarketers and politicians learn this truth while still in the crib.
Communication must be differentiated into various forms of auditory grooming. Thus, there is a difference (on the animal level) between the metered caws of a crow and the lowing of cattle. On the human level, there is a difference between the sharing of individual mind (oration) and the repetition of undigested data that has come from any source other than the first hand experience of the speaker. All forms of human communication have their places and purposes. All forms of human communication have been kept in their places for sometimes less than noble purposes.
Much time and effort has been put into making communication unintelligible for all but a chosen group. This is the realm of cryptology. The impetus can be noble, such as coded messaging in times of war but can also be nefarious in the way that cant, slang, jargon, gang-speak and many specialized professional vocabularies purposely exclude the public at large from understanding in order to either make them dependent or to victimize them.
New ways of speech continually creep into our vocabularies via popular media and are propagated throughout the world. This can be amusing or it can be annoying. A case in point is Starbuckian. In most cities of any size with any Italian population there have always been espresso shops and their simple menus long ago introduced any customers who weren't Italian to a few words in that language. Then the boys from Washington state went a step further. They introduced new terms for the sizes as well as their individual concoctions that still prove confusing for many people after all these years. Somehow ordering a "tall" to designate a small and a "vente" to designate a large will likely prove to be counter-intuitive for many people for many years to come. There are many ordinary folk who would prefer to order a small plain black coffee instead of a tall americano.
This created a new class of "coffee snobs" among the denizens of these shops. It also created a new class of low-paid, self-righteous servers under the new moniker of "barista." The snobbery cuts both ways and many is the ordinary young man or woman who is racked over the coals for not understanding the caffeinois used by the discerning customer. Conversely, there is the soggy feigned pitying glance of the seasoned barista cast upon the poor construction worker trying desperately to find the words "large coffee to go" on the cryptic menu.
I was in my local coffee bar the other day after a long hot day of farm labor. My clothes were dust-covered, sweat soaked and the straw of my battered cowboy hat was roasted brown in my own grease. I was greeted by a lady I know after ordering an iced americano from a tall tattooed young man who worked the cash register. She was part of a three woman team who together prepared the drink in carefully coordinated stages.
This lady, a Filipina, asked me how things were going that day and by way of reply I answered in Spanish, “Mucho calor!” and waved my hand like a fan for dramatic effect.
“Oh yes, mainit!” She replied using the Tagalog word for hot and fanned her own face.
At this point, the young man who was not a party to this exchange asked me as I turned to him for my change due, “Did you use the Spanish word because you speak Spanish?”
I am fairly certain that the combination of my white beard, farmer’s tan and dirty Western clothes had triggered a Pavlovian response in the young fellow that he probably picked up in college somewhere. He didn’t continue his inquiry to ask, “or did you use the Spanish word because the barista was a woman of color?
He didn’t have to. I have two sons who did stints in college and picked up all manner of new things to worry about, be on guard for and to hate. Luckily, they managed to find their way back to reality once out of the indoctrination center and pub masquerading as a place of learning.
I didn’t treat him to the first two replies that flashed into my mind, partly from fatigue and partly from recognizing a chance to wipe a little of the grime off the window of his young mind. The first reply not given was, “Is your coffee menu in Italian to justify your high prices or because your Asian employer thinks everyone in the Fraser Canyon speaks it along with the Aussie tourists?”
Instead, I gave him the third reply, “I used the Spanish word because to say the words ‘it sure is hot’ does not even approach painting a picture of what I am trying to express.”
“Oh, I guess when you think of it, there are some words in other languages that are much better than English to convey a particular meaning,” he said in a tone of voice that would have not been out of place underneath a plane tree on the island of Crete three thousand years ago. One tabula rasa at a time.
Archaic words sometimes get recycled into modern speech and propagate widely as populations migrate across new ground. A wonderful example of this came to my notice recently while working as a farm hand. It was a three acre hops operation carved out of the pine covered bench land near my home. In front ran a mighty river and behind was a wall of multicolored rock about six thousand feet in elevation.
Some of the equipment we used had generic names and some was specialized for this type of cultivation and bore a variety of brand names or names coined by workers in this particular endeavor. At a certain stage in the Spring the young and vigorous shoots of the hops plants must be trained by hand onto ropes that are anchored into the soil at the base of the plant clusters. These ropes rise up eighteen to twenty feet and are attached to overhead wires.
An experienced grower came and held a little session for the purpose of educating us workers as to the proper and accepted way of accomplishing this task. During the informative and educational practical demonstration we were taught and cautioned to always spiral the shoots in a “sunwise” manner. This was explained as being a clockwise direction as viewed from above.
Immediately, I felt the antiquity of this term, although I had never heard it before that morning. I also detected the salt of an Atlantic crossing still clinging to the term. Everyone took to using it almost exclusively. Saying the word made one feel part of something old and time honored for some reason and besides it rolled off the tongue in a very pleasant way.
I looked up the term sunwise and found it to be attributed to Scottish folklore and Druid in origin. The meaning is simply given as designating a clockwise direction around an object. A counterclockwise direction is termed widdershins. In Scottish folklore, sunwise, sunward or clockwise was considered the prosperous course, turning from East to West in the direction of the sun. The opposite course, counterclockwise, was known as widdershins or tuathal. In the Northern Hemisphere, sunwise and clockwise run in the same direction because sundials were used to tell time and their features were transferred to clock faces. Another influence may have been the right-handed bias in many cultures.
This is descriptive of the ceremony observed by the Druids, of walking round their temples by the South, in the course of their directions, always keeping their temples on their right. This course or deiseal was deemed propitious, while the contrary course is perceived as fatal or at least unpropitious. From this ancient superstition are derived several Gaelic customs which were still observed around the turn of the twentieth century, such as drinking over the left thumb or according to the course of the sun. This distinction exists in traditional Tibetan religion. Tibetan Buddhists go round their shrines sunwise, but followers of the Bonpo religion go widdershins. The former consider Bonpo to be merely a perversion of their practice but Bonpo adherents claim that their religion was indigenous to Tibet prior to the arrival of Buddhism in that country.
The Hindu pradakshina, the auspicious circumambulation of a temple, is also made clockwise. A similar preference may inform the left-hand drive found in England, India and Japan. Any temple or shrine in the middle of a road must be passed to its left.
Martin Martin who died on the 9th of October 1718 was a Scottish writer best known for his work, A Description Of The Western Islands Of Scotland (1703; second edition 1716). This book is particularly noted for its information on the St. Kilda archipelago. Martin's description of St. Kilda, which he visited in 1697, had also been published some years earlier as A Late Voyage To St. Kilda in 1698. Martin graduated with an MA from the University of Edinburgh in 1681. Nothing seems to be known of him in his later years, except that he entered Leiden University in 1710 and there graduated with an MD, afterwards residing in London until his death. He was unmarried and died of asthma in Knightsbridge. Both Johnson and Boswell read his book and took a copy of it along with them on their famous tour in 1773. Johnson felt Martin had failed to record the more interesting aspects of life at the time and suggested that this was because Martin was unaware of just how different the social structure of the Western Isles was in comparison to life elsewhere.
Martin Martin says,
“Some of the poorer sort of people in the Western Isles retain the custom of performing these circles sunwise about the persons of their benefactors three times, when they bless them and wish good success to all their enterprises. Some are very careful when they set out to sea, that the boat be first rowed sunwise and if this be neglected, they are afraid their voyage may prove unfortunate. When a Gael goes to drink out of a consecrated fountain, he approaches it by going round the place from East to West and at funerals, the procession observes the same direction in drawing near the grave. Hence also is derived the old custom of describing sunwise a circle, with a burning brand, about houses, cattle, corn and corn-fields, to prevent their being burnt or in any way injured by evil spirits or by witchcraft. The fiery circle was also made around women as soon as possible after parturition and also around newly-born babes. These circles were in later times described by midwives and were described effectual against the intrusion of daoine-sìth or sìthichean, who were particularly on the alert in times of childhood and not infrequently carried infants away, according to vulgar legends and restored them afterwards but sadly altered in features and personal appearance. Infants stolen by fairies are said to have voracious appetites, constantly craving for food.”
Martin is also known for his early descriptions of Scotch whiskey.
“Their plenty of Corn was such, as dispos'd the Natives to brew several sorts of Liquors, such as common Usquebaugh. Another call'd Trestarig which is Aquavitae three times distill'd which is strong and hot. A third sort is four times distill'd and this by the Natives is call'd Usquebaugh-baul which is Usquebaugh which at first taste affects all the Members of the Body. Two spoonfuls of this last Liquor is a sufficient Dose and if any Man exceed this it would presently stop his Breath and endanger his Life. The Trestarig and Usquebaugh-baul are both made of Oats.”
The origins of the word widdershins dates from the early 16th century from Middle Low German weddersins and from Middle High German widersinnes, from wider ‘against’ + sin ‘direction’; the second element was associated with Scots sin ‘sun.’ Use of the word has been on a steady rise since the first decade of the nineteenth century up to the first decade of this century where it has leveled off with widespread use. The Oxford English Dictionary cites the earliest use of the word widdershins from 1513, where it was found in the phrase “widdersyns start my hair”, i.e. my hair stood on end. Because the sun played a highly important role in older religions, to go against it was considered bad luck for sun-worshiping traditions. It was considered unlucky in Britain to travel in an anticlockwise direction around a church and a number of folk myths make reference to this superstition, e.g. Childe Rowland, where the protagonist and his sister are transported to Elfland after his sister runs widdershins round a church. There is also a reference to this in Dorothy Sayers's novels The Nine Tailors ("He turned to his right, knowing that it is unlucky to walk about a church widdershins.") and Clouds Of Witness ("True, O King, and as this isn't a church, there's no harm in going round it widdershins"). In Robert Louis Stevenson's tale, The Song of the Morrow an old crone on the beach dances widdershins.
In the mythology of the 21st century North Yorkshire Moors it is believed that if you dance nine times widdershins around a fairy ring of toadstools you will come under the power of the fairy people. The story of Fairy Cross Plain or Fryup Dale chronicles the fate of a young boy, Thomas Skelderskew, who did just that.
In Judaism, circles are sometimes walked anticlockwise. For example, when a bride circles her groom seven times before marriage, when dancing around the bimah during Simchat Torah, when dancing in a circle or when the Sefer Torah is brought out of the ark. This has its origins in the Beis Hamikdash, where in order not to get in each others way, the priests would walk around the altar anticlockwise while performing their duties. When entering the Beis Hamikdash the people would enter by one gate, and leave by another. The resulting direction of motion was widdershins. In Judaism, starting things from the right side is considered to be important, since the right side is the side of Chessed or kindness while the left side is the side of Gevurah or judgment. For example, it is a law to put on the right shoe first and take off the left shoe first unless one is left-handed.
In the Eastern Orthodox Church, however, it is normal for processions around a church to go widdershins.
The Bonpo in the Northern Hemisphere traditionally circumambulate widdershins. This runs counter to Buddhism and orthodox Hinduism. This is in keeping with the aspect of the Sauvastika or as the Tibetans call it, yung-drung, sacred to the Bonpo. In the Southern Hemisphere, the Bonpo practitioner is required to elect whether the directionality of 'counter-clockwise' (deosil in the Southern Hemisphere) or running-counter to the direction of the Sun (widdershins in the Southern Hemisphere) is the key intention of the tradition. The resolution to this conundrum is left open to the practitioner’s intuitive insight.
Meanwhile, back at the farm, one aspect of the actual practice of sunwise twirling caused me some speculation. The reaction of one worker who had already known and used the term prior to our lesson that I shared these inquiries with was freighted with a strength of conviction and depth of faith that also smacked of a distant time and place.
Not fond of the word “training”, I called the procedure “twirling” and this caught on to a degree but fell out of use after a few days under the gravity of the more ancient term. My speculations had to do with questioning the warning we had received regarding the importance of twirling the shoots sunwise. My first reasoning was that when a vertical heliotrope shoot makes contact with a vertical rope regardless of its starting position on an imaginary compass drawn around the rope, the apparent motion of the sun is a constant cycle of East to West. The tiny hooks that attach to the anchor rope must send signals to the opposite side of the tendril to grow slightly faster in order for a spiral shape to occur. In this manner, it follows that whether the vine is spiraling clockwise or counter-clockwise, it will cross the rope once per cycle and thus both will attain the goal of height.
I was firmly told that the only way was sunwise and to do otherwise was to invite disaster. Apparently the plants would unwind and spend themselves in the weeds below. I practiced sunwise twirling exclusively from that moment on. At home in the sunny evenings, I wandered in my wife’s garden where three of the varieties of plants growing there were climbers. One type was honeysuckle, one was columbine and the third was green beans.
With great interest I inspected each one as to its orientation in relation to the pole it was climbing. I asked my wife if she had twirled them by hand to start them out. She replied in the negative and assured me that they were planted as seeds and left to their own devices after that. A tremor rippled through my Welsh and Irish telomeres and I ran back to look again. Widdershins all!
It seems that the fears that were long ago instilled by sun-worshiping Druid priests into priest-worshiping Gaelic distillers of alcohol and sowers of oats are yet sitting on our chests like atrophied incubi and succubi waiting to draw new life from our obeisance.
One morning at the field before work, while I sat on a trailer sipping coffee, a bear bolted out of the North and then ran widdershins through the hops and into the pines. It reminded me of a recent dream and then an old Nepalese folk tale I know came to mind. I will tell you that story now.
A long time back, in the foothills of the Himalayas, a merchant from the South was wending his way North in search of new opportunities and enterprises. He was carefully observed by a Nepalese gentleman long before reaching the top of a steep pitch of a grassy boulder field which led to the next pass to be crossed. As he neared, it became apparent that the lone figure in his path was the proud owner of a small bear. Fatigue and fascination combined with the grandeur of the heights made him decide to make night camp there at that auspicious place.
Not that the merchant was proficient in the tongue of the Nepalese but he at once tried to establish some communications, learn of the way ahead and eventually inquire as to the uncommon choice of a pet that the mountain man had made. The Nepali raised a wind-browned hand and wiped his brow with a heavy sigh. He patted the bear several times, twisted his fist around the thick rope leash and intimated that as much as he loved the bruin, it was a heavy burden for him.
He said that he had actually been on his way South in order to find a suitable new owner for his beloved animal. The merchant allowed that it probably was hard to sell such an impractical commodity, all things being equal. The Nepali allowed that this was true but added that his bear was a very special creature and much more than a simple pet. He intimated that the bear had come to him after many days of Shamanic ritual fasting. On top of this, the bear was fully tamed already and thus clearly a gift of the local mountain deities or demons, as it proved later to have extraordinary powers.
Having seen a dancing bear in a village in India as a youth, the merchant clucked inwardly at the superstitious beliefs of the highland yokels such as his host. The superstitious beliefs of his own lowland ancestors lay dormant like sated cobras somnolent round a bowl of sour milk in a cool stone temple. They would have their slumber interrupted soon enough.
The travelers prepared their beds and food and the Northerner settled his bear, pounded a strong stake fitted with a swivel to attach its leash to and applied a soft rope hobble to its legs. He smoked and sipped tea while the new-comer had his meal. The Nepali made a small fire while the Southerner prepared himself for sleep. The tired man was soon snoring and dreaming of the next day.
While that man dozed, in the firelight twenty yards away, the Nepali produced an instrument of bamboo not unlike a long syringe. He loaded it with a charge of copper rupee coins from a goatskin pouch and next coated it with grease which he kept in a small carved box. This done, he squatted near the bear’s backside, raised its stubby tail and slowly inserted the syringe. The bear lifted its head a few inches and looked unconcernedly at his master, huffed and closed its eyes dreamily.
This process was repeated again with a much shorter syringe loaded half with silver coins and half with gold coins. The bear sniffed and scratched its belly as the man put away his implements and composed himself on his bedroll. The night passed peacefully.
At sunrise, the Nepali was up first to bring a dish of water for his bear. The Southerner watched as the mountain man untied the bear’s feet and urged it upright. The beast slurped some water and licked its lips. Next it was coaxed into walking counter-clockwise around the swivel stake. The owner used a small stout highly polished stick. He tapped first behind the bear’s shoulder and gradually worked his way down to the base of its tail.
Presently, as the Lowland traveler watched in disbelief, the bear stopped, grunted and began to defecate rupees. He blinked his eyes and there on the dew-laden long grass lay a small clutch of gold coins. The bear began to circumambulate once again as silver and finally copper coins marked its passage. The handler tapped it back to a sitting position and gave it some hearty pats and spoke to it in loving tones before gathering the ejected numismatic material, which he placed in a goatskin pouch.
In the adrenaline filled line of questioning that ensued for the balance of that morning, the Nepali described how he had only accidentally discovered this most wonderful ability of his spirit bear. Over the years since, he explained, it had been both a curse and a blessing. The blessing was obvious but the question was that after a man has all the money he could possibly need for several lifetimes over, what was the joy in having more? It was a secret to be closely guarded in order to avoid all kinds of calamity at the hands of thieves and even jealous relatives. He was a slave to the bear and charged with keeping it comfortable and well nourished on mountain grasses, fish, frogs, fruits and pure water.
He produced the goatskin and took out three coins. He handed a gold, a silver and a copper to the other man and told him that the coins produced varied by location, diet and the humor of the bear. The circle must be always walked counter-clockwise and the bear does the rest. The Nepali said that he had noticed in general that the higher the elevation the fewer were the coins produced. A richer diet gave rise to more gold and silver. It was for that reason he was this very day heading down to the lowlands sell the bear.
A deal was quickly and excitedly struck between these two. Each the answer to the dreams and aspirations of the other. The merchant happily exchanged his entire venture capitol for the bear, the stick, the leash, the swivel-post and a solemn pledge to always be kind to the bear. He watched the Nepali scaling the heights above and smiled when on his first attempt at walking the circle the bear laid a ninety degree arc of hot coppers.
Michael Hawes was born in Texas, raised in Louisiana and lives in British Columbia.