On Beyond Conferencing: The Stillness of the World

The same semester that I offer “The Rhetorics of Silence,” I am also experimenting, for the first time, with a pair of courses–-one version for first semester students, one for upperclasswomen-–called “Ecological Imaginings.” Sara Gladwin, who is enrolled simultaneously in both the class on silence and the upper-level eco-one, often finds ways to link them together, to carry insights from our interrogation of silence into our discussion of ecology, and, contrari-wise, to translate the language of environmental studies into that of rhetorical silence. Listening to Gordon Hempton’s podcast of “The Last Quiet Places,”1 which documents the great difficulty of finding quiet in today’s world, Sara recognizes a central pattern of her own education: she describes how she and many other children are taught to direct their attention in school, to close themselves off from both their own divergent and distracting thoughts and from their surroundings, “to let the environment fade into the background.”2

Sara speaks about this dynamic at the “Silenzio” conference. I now follow her lead in finding my way back to the possibility of silence, not just as a placeholder for interpretation, a pause for gathering ourselves to speak more fully, but as a site for learning and teaching that might well not give way to words. Silence can serve as an invitation into more “ecological” habits of mind and body, which acknowledge how deeply embedded we are in larger structures we cannot name, direct or control. As Eduardo Kohn makes clear in his study of How Forests Think, perception is always happening, and need not be–-is primarily not–-conducted, and often not even recognized, by humans.

Sometimes, in response to relationships of power (which can be oppressive and close off possibilities), silence marks a lack. Other times, in evoking things beyond human knowing (including the unconscious and the non-human world) silence can offer a kind of capaciousness. Acknowledging all these aspects of silence in the classroom means acknowledging the limits of understanding, redirecting education so that it is less oriented to knowing, more to being with the unknown.Acknowledging all these aspects of silence in the classroom means acknowledging the limits of understanding, redirecting education so that it is less oriented to knowing, more to being with the unknown.

During the ASLE conference in Moscow, Idaho in June 2015, I attend an early morning session entitled “Out of Silence, They Emerge,” in which the Mississippi poet Ann Fisher-Wirth evokes just this sort of orientation.3 Troubled by our recent, seemingly intractable, season of racial unrest, Ann shares with us a passage from Faulkner’s novel, Light in August, in which Joe Christmas articulates his own (unmet) need for silence, and imagines the peace it might bring:

It is just dawn, daylight: that gray and lonely suspension filled with the peaceful and tentative waking of birds. The air, inbreathed, is like spring water. He breathes deep and slow, feeling with each breath himself diffuse in the neutral grayness, becoming one with loneliness and quiet that has never known fury or despair. “That was all I wanted,” he thinks in a quiet and slow amazement. “That was all, for thirty years. That didn’t seem to be a whole lot to ask in thirty years.”4

Such diffusion is denied Joe Christmas–but it continues all around him. Ann reads us another “tiny unforgettable moment” from Faulkner’s novel, in which Joe, en route to committing murder, is crossing the yard:

In the grass about his feet the crickets, which had ceased as he moved, keeping a little island of silence about him like thin yellow shadow of their small voices, began again, ceasing again when he moved with that tiny and alert suddenness….He walked without sound, moving in his tiny island of abruptly ceased insects.5

It is Faulkner’s description, Ann says, of the lush environment in which “insects accompany humans”–-humans who see one another as enemies, while the insects are so silently attentive and responsive to their movements–-that forms the impetus for a project6 that attempts to capture a range of voices, including the “hatch-out of the 17-year cicadas” in the woods behind her house. With the burgeoning economy in Mississippi, Ann says, has come the loss of such music, which, “as we wake, as we sleep, reminds us that we are embedded in this thick materiality of the non-human world.” Ann hears the “spirit of place” in the voices of the crickets and of the people, whom she makes, in her poems, both equivalent and available to being understood by others.7

Ann’s poetry–as well as the silence that surrounds and holds it–inspires and shapes what-and-how I am now attempting to figure.

And also what I am risking leaving unsaid.

  1. Gordon Hempton, “The Last Quiet Places” (May 10, 2012), February 18, 2016.
  2. sara.gladwin, “Divergent Thinking,” December 2, 2012 (5:24 p.m.), February 18, 2016.
  3. Ann Fisher-Wirth, “Out of Silence, They Emerge” (paper presented at the biennial conference of the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment, Moscow, Idaho, June 24, 2015).
  4. William Faulkner, Light in August (New York: Vintage, 1932), 134, accessed February 18, 2016.
  5. Faulkner, 94.
  6. Ann Fisher-Wirth and Maude Schuyler Clay, “Mississippi: A Collaborative Project,” About Place Journal 3,2 (November 2014), accessed February 18, 2016; “Mississippi: An Excerpt,” Bloom (March 23, 2015), accessed February 18, 2016.
  7. Fisher-Wirth, “Out of Silence”