Wisdom Sits in Places (I of III)
- This is the first paper I handed in for my “Language and Culture” class. I found it an interesting window on what the professor expected. I was really worried about it, before handing it in, for several reasons. Firstly, I had no real idea of what the professor expected in a good paper. Secondly, it was my second time back in college after about a decade away. I had a really bad inferiority complex about my potential ability to keep up with all these young students who were tossing around terms and concepts I didn’t yet understand. It took me a few weeks to realize they didn’t understand them either — at which point I got my confidence back. ;)
Finally, I was worried because the book the paper was supposed to be based on (Wisdom Sits in Places by Keith Basso) was about the connections between location and wisdom — and the paper was supposed to be about language. There wasn’t a whole lot in the book about language, per se… so what was I supposed to be writing about?
With great trepidation I decided to write the paper as if I were a speaker of the culture being examined. The Apache favored plain speaking — using that technique, I could potentially hide my lack of knowledge of ‘academia-nut babble.’ The italicized paragraphs are my attempt to demonstrate the story-telling techniques of the Apache, within the paper. I tried as best I could, but I was miserably certain the professor would consider this substandard work when I handed it in.
The professor loved the paper! He referred to it as “Thoughtful and nifty!” In fact, even when he disagreed with the premises I was putting forth, he loved all my papers — including the ones I didn’t think were that good! The only conclusion I could come to was that either I was doing far better work than I realized — or he was so used to indifferent, sloppy work that anyone coming up with anything innovative, or giving any real thought to what was going on in class, and into the papers was such a delight and surprise to him that he was automatically thrilled by it.
Either way, I’m happy. Drink deep.
Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache
First Essay Assignment
According to Keith H. Basso, for the Western Apache ‘wisdom sits in places.’ Efforts to explicate this perception could conceivably use a variety of techniques of greater and lesser obscurity and verbosity. However, it is said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
Thus this paper will be an exploration of “the ways in which language figures in the complex intersections of wisdom and place among the Western Apache,” but it will also be an attempted demonstration of the use of language in story-telling techniques as the Western Apache themselves might use.
Wisdom is a desired objective for adult Western Apache, one that all can cultivate, given time. ‘Wisdom’ can be roughly described as “a heightened mental capacity that facilitates the avoidance of harmful events by detecting threatening circumstances when none are apparent (p 130).”
It is broken down into three main mental characteristics by the Apache themselves: smoothness (an uncluttered, unencumbered mind), resilience (resistance to external fears and alarms), and steadiness (a lack of aggressive personal ambition) [p131-3]. Brevity and clarity of speech are considered a logical outgrowth of the development of wisdom in an individual (p 131).
Wisdom is often metaphorically linked with water, as in: both are necessary for living (p 127, 131), or both can be drunk (p 140, 143). In the location stories the Apache people tell these desired characteristics are frequently either exemplified, or the dire consequences of their lack is shown.
The Apache live in a harsh land, and water is sometimes scarce. However, respectful care of the land and compassionate behavior between people will husband the water. This will ensure crops will grow and the Apache people will live and prosper.
Equally so in life, prudence and understanding may be scarce, but
judicious cultivation of wisdom can forestall disaster and death.
Indeed, the words used to characterize the traits of wisdom are all
words that tie closely to the lifestyle of the Apache.
A smooth and uncluttered mind is receptive, like a cleared field ready for planting. Resilience can be exemplified in a close-woven basket, which resists deformation from jarring outside occurrences. Steadiness is comparable to a fence post firmly seated in the ground (p 132). All these traits are explainable in terms that show the close connection between the people and the land.
The Apache location stories exemplify all these above traits, and are
passed down from generation to generation. This means not only that
Western Apache culture has its continuity ensured, but also that learned
wisdom is not lost.
The language itself helps in this process: it is the ‘speech of the ancestors,’ and to speak thoughtlessly or to tell a story carelessly is disrespectful of the wisdom and learning the ancestors have left for their present day children, enfolded in the location stories and the language (p 31).
Indeed, there is some worry that outside influences are subtly dissipating this tight association between the land and the people — most notably the new language and culture of the non-Apache world (p 151-152).
This happened not very long ago. This woman, she was looking for wisdom, she thought maybe she’d found it. She had to form it into words, so she could tell other people about what she’d learned. But she wasn’t sure how. She was worried. Would she be able to tell them? Would they find wisdom in her words?
Here she comes now. She’s found a site. This place, it is clean, white, unmarked. It is a place lacking in character, but it has promise. ‘Yes… this could grow, could tell others of what I think I’ve discovered about wisdom.’ She’s not sure yet if people will be able to drink from the place she’s trying to build; if her words will be like an arrow to them; but she’s going to try. She names the place – it’s First Essay Assignment Paper.