What Words Cannot Do

Annie Dillard, one of the great purveyors of words, once said that all true philosophers eventually become botanists. Botanists have words to describe seemingly everything.

These are people who learn the words for everything because they sense that there is a mystery at the heart of life on earth and they want to get to the bottom of it. Words can open doors to understanding. They can remove layers of mystery.

What kind of bird is that? What is the name of the process that produces silk from spiders? What is the mechanism that lifts water through the trunk of a tree and out into each individual new green leaf?

Simple words can answer these questions. But the deeper sense of mystery remains untouched – the one that sparked the need for all these words.

At the end of botany, like coming to the end of the alphabet, we arrive at a pure and perfect blank space. A question that cannot even be articulated. There are no words for it.

So we turn to art and try to hammer away at building a new language made out of pieces of the old ones, smashing ideas together like a Hadron Collider, trying to discover new expressions that speak into the void.Desert Rocks.jpeg

Of course, this mystery – “the void” – is not a void. It is the opposite. It is a space of complete fullness. It is rounded and self-contained, radiant and eminent. It stands behind every mountain, laughing in the air.

It’s funny, really, to think that we chase after this sense of mystery in order to see ourselves reflected in it, gathering any pieces we can and pasting them into a rough mirror. The one thing that is absolutely clear, somehow, is that there is a glory wrapped up in this mystery, a profound and resplendent glory without a name, like a new born baby swaddled in a blanket inside a dream.

The baby, metaphorically, is our own. We have an urgent need to see its face. But we are holding tightly to the baby with both hands and there’s no way of letting go. If we had another set of hands and we pulled back the swaddling clothes…what would we see reflected back at us in those sparkling black eyes?

Here what we see is a familiar awe, no less powerful for its familiarity. No matter how commonplace it may be, the swell of feeling persists, the one that resounds in our every encounter with something so intimate, something of our blood and bone, yet entirely beyond our understanding.

There are no words for it, nothing adequate anyway. But there is an impulse to find them, to find some way to speak to that emphatically silent magnificence, which, by dint of miracle, we still hear laughing in the air.

This essay was written as an artist’s statement for a collage show at Sagebrush Cafe in Quartz Hill, Ca.  The show is now called “Between You, Me, and the Joshua Tree” but I wanted to share the original vision/thematic concept here. 

Between You, Me & the Joshua Tree