May 18, 2008

Written words, spoken words, and what they say

“Don’t write:  just listen,” Gill Solomon  is telling me.  We are on the Boston Common for the annual rebuilding of the fishweir, but more about that later.  First there is Solomon putting his hand over my notebook and telling me to learn as his ancestors did, by listening.  Solomon is a member of the Massachuseuk, the Native people who gave our state its name, whose language was spoken only, not written.

“Just listen,” he says, “and my words will become part of you.”  It is a mark of how dependent I am on the written word that I feel a little panicky.  Will  I remember what he is saying?  I listen hard.  I try to picture the long winter nights he describes, when the tribe would have gathered around a fire and the evening’s entertainment would have been the telling of their history. 

One of the elders would have started. Then maybe someone else would have said, “That’s not the way I heard it” or “I think it happened this way” and the story would have expanded, grown rich with embellishments, longer with each generation. 

But we who rely on the written word, never heard the story.  And so we learned only recently about the fishweir.  Fishweirs--essentially fences placed in flowing waters--have been used for thousands of years to trap fish.  Beginning in 1913  with subway excavation under Boylston Street and continuing through the 1990s as foundations were dug for Back Bay office buildings, workers uncovered wooden stakesdthat were eventually identified as remnants of ancient fishweirs. Carbon-dating of the stakes indicates that, instead of the 350-plus years Boston proudly claims, the human history of this land actually reaches back some 5200 years. 

Because it was not written down, most of us do not know this story. But since 2001, led by artist Ross Miller, the Ancient Fishweir Project has built a weir each spring at the Charles Street edge of the Boston Common.  It sits where tidal waters once lapped, looking mysteriously and magically out of time and place on the grass. And each spring  in what Miller refers to as “this place we now call Boston,” the story is now being told.

Watching this year’s weir being built by schoolchildren recently, I think about  how much our understanding of our world, and our city, is rooted in written language. I think of what has been lost by not writing down the story of the weir.  It could be as familiar to Bostonians as Bunker Hill and Samuel Adams.

“Think about what you are going to do today,” Solomon tells the children, explaining that this was the time of year when the Native people would gather to repair the weir.  “The medicine man would tell them, ‘It’s time for the fish to come back to fulfill their part in the circle of life, to give up their bodies to sustain us. And our role is to sustain the earth.’ “

Solomon says his tribal name is Feather on the Moon .  Are there hyphens between the words, I ask him; I will need to provide the exact spelling for my editor.  Solomon shakes his head.  I am still not getting it:  This. Is. Not. A. Written. Language. Well, of course, it is written now to some extent, a concession to the other world the tribe must live in.  But exact spellings, which words are capitalized, if there are hyphens are all questions without relevance.  Even the name of the tribe, the Massachuseuk at Ponkapoag, Solomon explains with a shrug, just refers to  “the place where they put us.”

I can barely imagine living in an unwritten language.  But then I think of what could be gained by not writing down the words.  I picture those winter nights, those children hearing from the lips of their elders the story of themselves and their people, the  stories passed down not as cool words on a page but with the sound of voice and breath, the force of feeling. I picture listening hard.

Not for the first time I think of the atavistic pleasure of going to a reading where the audience sits mesmerized by the sound of someone telling them a story.  How much more compelling  could it be if the story we were hearing were our own?


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©2007 Ellen Steinbaum

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