At A Loss: Last Words


The Pioneer Plaque

"It's a kindness that the mind can go where it wishes." ― Ovid, "The Poems of Exile: Tristia and the Black Sea Letters"

"Language is the only homeland." ― Czesław Miłosz

"These are all I have. I do not have the wide, bright beacon of some solid old lighthouse, guiding ships safely home, past the jagged rocks. I only have these little glimmers that flicker and then go out." ― Rebecca Wells, "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood"

The Silent Languages

It is Day Two of one of my headaches, which usually last for three. It is morning, and I am in bed, my head wrapped in a black-and-white Yasser Arafat scarf, one forearm pressed hard against my skull and the other resting on my husband's chest.

It is on this latter arm that the jazz musician with whom I live is "playing," with the fingers of one hand, a tune. A silent tune, as my skinny forearm is no trumpet.

Dean knows that, while the pain in my left temple is relentless, language--of any sort--will tempt me out of the hole down which pain thrusts me. Eventually, I will have to know . . . what tune he is playing. Eventually, the language which he speaks so fluently, and hears constantly within his cranium, and which I can only hear (and then, imperfectly), when a band performs it, will charm me (as the flute, the cobra).

"What are you playing?" I ask, eventually.

He smiles and, in his endearing falsetto, pipes a bar or two. "'Spring is Here,'" he interjects.


"Rodgers and Hart. Stan Kenton."

"So, I have an entire orchestra playing here? On my arm?"

The fingers are onto something else, however. "Now, what?"

"'Yesterdays.' By Kern and Harbach. Stan Kenton again, though."

Not skipping a beat, he begins 'Stompin' At The Savoy.'

Lying here, in almost total silence, one of us speaking through the fingers of a hand, the other listening, clumsily, through the skin of a forearm, we are something like the members of two early, isolated tribes of homo sapiens, upon first contact. I will never have time enough to learn the language-of-jazz in which my spouse has been steeped since early childhood. And, by this point in our marriage, I know he will never learn the proper use of "went" and "gone": his participles will remain, for this grammarian, blood-curdling, lo, unto the grave, whichever of us arrives there first.

"I've never went to . . ." says Dean.

"Gone to!" says Elizabeth. "Gone!*&%"

When one of us is in pain, in the little co-mingled tribe that is this marriage, the silent languages predominate: those comprising simply sounds, as opposed to words; those expressed through touch.

Throughout my husband's surgery of a month ago, and my own headaches, we have spoken, for the most part, without a lot of words. In fact, because I myself am so beset and beleaguered by words, living with a musician, who communicates primarily and happily and by choice via sounds alone, most of those sounds mediated by instruments (and, so, at a remove of one or two from the human breath or the human hand, or both), I have found being with Dean a relief, a refuge.

In our house, there is much music, but most of it comes without lyrics.

Which is not to say we do not communicate profoundly. We communicate, with all our various languages, signs, and signals, across most silences and distances. But we speak best, usually, without words.

What, I wonder, did Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis "say," upon first encountering one another, over 100,000 years ago, somewhere in the Middle East? What was communicated in that first gaze?

In the way that we "use" language, and considering the languages we have chosen to learn well, even over the short course of our shared time on the planet, my husband and I could be members of different species. Here, we have an instance of Homo trumpetensis taking up residence with Homo comma-oxfordensis
No wonder one of us seems always to have a headache (she said, smiling).

Lost in Translation: "Saudade" & "Hiraeth"

We are losing human languages, year by year, as we lose the last native speakers of each.

Languages go extinct with their speakers, unless studied, recorded, and preserved for prosperity, and many, many human languages (I think, just, of all the extinct aboriginal languages of Australia) were gone before . . . we knew it. In this new century, with the death of their last-standing native speakers, we have lost Klallam, Linvonian, the Cromarty dialect of Scots, and Pazeh, along with at least 14 other distinct tongues.

Tongues: given my husband's (and Koko the gorilla's]) fluent fingers, tongues and breath are not essential for communication, but most languages may still be called tongues.

Language has ever been based on breath. And tongues. Both human.

And, with every year, and every year of globalization, the tongues we speak decline in number. Soon, we will be left with what, which? Chinese? Spanish? English? Hindi? And, then? Just Chinese?

I grieve the loss of all tongues for, in and through each, we have expressed what is almost impossible to express in others.

There is one, solitary Portuguese word, saudade, for example, which originated in Galician, and for which English (and perhaps all other languages) has no twin, no cognate (or "blood relative").

Saudade (as per Wikipedia) "describes a deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing for an absent something or someone that one loves. Moreover, it often carries a repressed knowledge that the object of longing might never return. A stronger form of saudade might be felt towards people and things whose whereabouts are unknown, such as a lost lover, or a family member who has gone missing, moved away, separated, or died. Saudade was once described as 'the love that remains' after someone is gone.

"Saudade is the recollection of feelings, experiences, places or events that once brought excitement, pleasure, well-being, which now triggers the senses and makes one live again. It can be described as an emptiness, like someone (e.g., one's children, parents, sibling, grandparents, friends, pets) or something (e.g., places, things one used to do in childhood, or other activities performed in the past) that should be there in a particular moment but is missing, and the individual feels this absence. It brings sad and happy feelings all together, sadness for missing and happiness for having experienced the feeling.

"In Portuguese, Tenho saudades tuas(European Portuguese) or Tenho saudades de você (Brazilian Portuguese), translates as 'I have saudade of you,' meaning 'I miss you,' but carries a much stronger tone. In fact, one can have saudade of someone whom one is with, but have some feeling of loss towards the past or the future.

"In Brazil, the Day of Saudade is officially celebrated on 30 January."

I, myself, "have saudade of" the lost languages of Klallam, Linvonian, the Cromarty dialect of Scots, and Pazeh, along with the other 14 tongues which have gone extinct since the year 2000. I have saudade, as well, of all those lost languages whose names I will never even know.

For me, in a sense, every day is The Day of Saudade.

And then, there is the Welsh word hiraeth. Wikipedia: "The University of Wales, Lampeter, attempts to define it as homesickness tinged with grief or sadness over the lost or departed. It is a mix of longing, yearning, nostalgia, wistfulness, or an earnest desire for the Wales of the past.

"Oxford and Merriam-Webster define hiraeth as: (noun) 'a homesickness for a home you cannot return to, or that never was.'

If this sounds familiar: "Hiraeth bears considerable similarities with the Portuguese concept of saudade (a key theme in Fado music), Brazilian Portuguese banzo (more related to homesickness), Turkish gurbet, Galician morriña, Romanian dor."

So, whatever language we speak, or no longer speak, we Homo sapiens, trumpetensis, and/or comma-oxfordensis, have coined a plethora of words with which to express À la recherche du temps perdu.

Extinction is a concept with which we have long been acquainted, but with which we are never, ever, comfortable.

Breath & Dragon's Breath

Recently, in my ongoing, Oedipal, and Conradian quest to nail down just when and through what mechanism runaway climate change will effect the Sixth Extinction, a planetary cataclysm resembling the great Permian die-off, in which fully 83 percent of Earth's genera went extinct, I came across a long, peer-reviewed article by marine biologist Dr. Ronald L. Shimek, former chair of the Biology Department at the University of Alaska, Anchorage, assistant director of the Bamfield Marine Science Centre on Vancouver Island, Canada, and a "CORAL Magazine" senior editor. (The version of the essay which I cite here, and which is available online is this one:

Dr. Shimek, while researching coral reef extinctions, one of his areas of expertise, stumbled upon the research of Dr. Natalia E. Shakhova, "a Russian oceanographer and geologist who has been studying the permafrost methane distribution throughout the offshore region of the Laptev Sea known as the Eastern Siberian Arctic Shelf (or ESAS in scientific circles) and the adjacent onshore areas."

Shakhova's research has been in another neck of our shared woods, entirely, from that of Shimek. Her focus is the release of methane into the atmosphere, and the probability that the next great planetary extinction will be caused by a catastrophic release of the gas also known as "Dragon's Breath."

Quoting from Shimek's piece: "[Shakhova] estimates the [methane] clathrate deposits in the ESAS to be between hundreds and thousands of gigatons. This is not easy to visualize, but the total mass of carbon in living plants and animals on Earth has been estimated at 500 gigatons, making these buried deposits of solidified methane unimaginably huge in the true sense of the word. Some observers have dubbed the collective, buried power of these deposits the 'Methane Dragon.'"

Shimek continues: "In 2010, Shakhova and her co-workers estimated that a catastrophic methane release in excess of 50 gigatons (a minuscule percentage of what is in that area) is possible at any time. She said, and continues to assert, that such a catastrophic release could take place over a period of one to ten years. The fear is not the potential explosive effect--terrifying caribou in the wild, barren north--but rather the massive infusion of enormous clouds of potent greenhouse gas into Earth's atmosphere. As a result of her work, the question that needs to be asked is this: 'Are her estimates of catastrophic release reasonable and possible? And, if they are, what difference would that make?'"

Shimek concludes his essay (and what can I really do but quote him at length?): "When and how things might unfold is profoundly uncertain, but the trigger point for the short-term catastrophic methane release postulated by Dr. Shakhova could be a temperature rise as low as an additional 1.5°C or as high as an additional 10°C. These are not the rantings of fearmongers, but scenarios described by respected Arctic oceanographers. The 50-gigaton decadal methane pulse scenario posited by Shakhova, Semiletov, and Alekseev, who are probably the leading experts on Arctic methane and methane ices, is considered plausible by scientists at the UK Meteorology Office, as well as multiple scientific reviews, including one written by more than 20 Arctic specialists. Current Arctic atmospheric methane concentrations are unprecedented, but the best minds believe that if 50 Gt were added to the atmosphere, conditions would become very bad, very fast. It would be, some experts fear, the beginning of 'runaway global warming' that humans would be powerless to stop.

"Given an effective meltdown of methane clathrates in the Arctic, climate expert Dr. Malcolm Light has estimated global temperatures of around 50°C above averages between the years 2040 and 2050. In summer, if the normal average had been 30°C (for example, where I live in Montana), the post-methane belch temperature would rise to 80°C or 176°F.

"While the timing is unclear, the consequences can be predicted with some certainty. They include: Complete melting of polar ice caps; global flooding; Disruption of global ocean currents and gyres; demise of oceanic fisheries; Crop and food production failures; Spread of disease and parasites; Collapse of power grids and transportation systems; Mass human mortality in heat and cold waves; Catastrophic breakdowns in political, economic, and societal stability."

Shimek concludes: "There is no easy way to write these words: Should such an event occur, it is certain that the coral reefs I set out to research would have no chance of survival. More to the point, most of us would perish."

While We Have Breath

Other scientists believe all of us will perish, and the event will occur before the end of the current century. Day by day, I review the science, and it seems, to me, incontrovertible. The Sixth Extinction, the one brought about by mankind, will occur in the lifetime of our grandchildren, and it will snuff out every last creature "with breath," and most without, on our shared planet.

If I, with my small knowledge of science, know this truth to be self-evident, how long will it take my peers in "The Reading West" to surpass me in my researches? I would like to think that many, many of us will come "online" with the science rapidly, and turn global attention to what appears to be just ahead for us all.

In thinking out loud about extinction here, I have begun with the extinction of languages but, perhaps just after my own sojourn on the planet ends, and the small extinction my death will signify, language itself will become extinct along with any being who parsed, or will ever parse, language.

Based upon and an expression of the consciousness of Homo sapiens (and Homo sapiens' forebears), language--the concept, the thing itself--will disappear with us, as though it, and we, never were.

Floating through space on the wings of Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecrafts were, are, the so-called Pioneer plaques, humankind's early-1970s "messages in a bottle" to the universe. If and when they are "received," and if ever they are "understood" by other beings--a possibility so remote as to defy all probability--perhaps someone, somewhere, in some dimension, may know that we lived and breathed: but the likelihood of our still being here then appears nil.

The enormity of that realization is now being pondered by relatively few homo sapiens, but will affect each and every one of us, whether we choose to inform ourselves, or not.

And many of us--the current ponderers--believe the time has long since passed when we might have avoided the iceberg, or the dragon's breath. The time now is for pondering alone. For facing the music as we can.

Readers still with me here may want to explore the writings of Dr. Guy McPherson and, perhaps, join me on Facebook in the (closed) group, Near Term Human Extinction Support Group.

We who speak and breathe and touch and sing now face the end of humankind's tenure on Earth, and we will together be choosing how we face it; not if, or when.

While I have breath, and while I may be heard, I will continue saying, "Choose. Choose how we go forward. Choose together."

We have no other choices left us, we who coined the words saudade and hiraeth.