I believe every voice is important, especially those hardest to hear. As a teacher, I learned it is the person tucked away in a chair backed partially out of the circle, face averted or half-protected by one shoulder, who often has the most profound words to offer. If you create the space that gives them room and then step out of it to listen with patience, a soft voice comes creeping out to lay rare words upon the floor like a row of gems. Their silence was not because they had nothing to say.
I am Choctaw. I grew up knowing that everything has a voice, and also that many voices are so different from human perception that it requires great patience to hear them. I can’t remember when I learned this, but I remember the first time I heard the voice of cottonwood tree as a child. On a day of hot summer wind I chanced to lay my hand on a shade-dappled trunk as I stood with bare foot on the crest of a root. Suddenly I realized I could feel the trunk swaying, the root straining as cottonwood danced with wind and earth. I closed my eyes, overwhelmed. That enormous old tree was more supple, more vibrant, more deeply alive than I could have ever imagined. I felt my toes nuzzle toward dark stillness of roots far below and my hair seemed to rise on the wind among bright, quivering leaves high above me. Then an awareness that was voice rose through my body, and in it spoke a wisdom of trees. Years later, far from home, I was surprised and then warmly glad to recognize a similar voice in the sway and rock of a great wooden sailing ship at anchor as it danced between currents of tide, wind, and time. There is far more here than metaphor, but human words cannot tell it.
Many people know such voices exist. Their hearts ache to hear them. As Helen Keller placed her hand upon another tree, long ago, to feel the sweet vibration of a bird in song upon its branch, so they reach with blind eyes and deaf ears to the mountains, the rivers, the beaches, the starlit nights. But in desperation, they grip so tightly that only their own pulse echoes back through throbbing fingers, to speak of things they already knew.
The voice of a person whose life is very different from our own can tell us something we could not possibly learn otherwise. So too, the voice of that which is not human brings wisdom to anyone who waits upon its rhythms and enters the space of its own ground. I believe the wisdom of voices wholly different from our own is essential at this time in human history. And I believe that we can learn to hear them if we relax our hands, open our hearts, and have the courage to wait in the vast, hollow silence.
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