Because a lightning strike does not come down from the clouds in a continuous motion, but is instead emergent, and intra-active – formed in communication with the earth, Vicki Kirby describes it as a kind of “stuttering chatter between ground and sky” (10). As if gold scribbles through the crow black night – sharp and erratic, stop and start – like the tongue of one wracked with anxiety, to stall at the cliff-face of words, in the space between sound and silence.
And if the world is, as Kirby argues, a cacophonous conversation, perhaps the black ants that swirl around my feet like dots of ink nipping at my toes can be heard to sing “rain, rain, rain.” Because I learned when I was a little kid that ants and water rhyme, because lines of ants across the pinewood of our kitchen bench were, almost always, followed by a chorus of rain and thunder. And much later in my life, Dharawal Elder, Aunty Frances Bodkin advised me that ants respond to weather conditions months in advance: “Their nests go down to the groundwater’ she said ‘and groundwater is connected to air pressure, it rises and falls as the air pressure changes” (Bodkin qtd. in K. Wright 162).
So it is that the moving architecture of an ant mount in response to weather – a multiplicity made of the microscopic bodies of the living and the dead coalescing with mineral rock and mobilised by an insect colony – can tell you which direction the rain is coming from. The world communicates itself as it creates itself (Murphie, 29) and this language of life is what environmental philosopher Deborah Bird Rose refers to as “creature languages” (103).
The sight and smell of flowers, the pain of the march fly bite and the sensation of blood running down the leg, the sight of swifts in the sky or flower petals drifting in the river, fireflies winking and the interminable racket of cicadas: these are multifaceted creature languages, and smart creatures take notice. Humans enhance their intelligence not by stepping out of the system and trying to control it, but by enmeshing themselves ever more knowledgeably into the creature-languages of Country (Rose 104).
It is said that we have entered the ‘Age of Man’, where the collective agency of the human species has become geological – what Michel Serres has called “the dense tectonic plates of humanity” (16). With such emphasis on the newfound mineralogical coordinates of the human “event” it can sometimes go unremarked upon that the burning of fossil fuels is a mobilisation of creaturely powers – that the uncanny return of the dead bodies of our Carboniferous multispecies kin to feed our fossil economy is part of a collective material agency, as the human, ant-like, burrows into and releases the subterranean forces of the Earth. Hacking into the narcissistic edifice of the Anthropocene, as if chiselling into the granite to which a memory of our species is to be forever consigned, is a reminder that humans are always becoming-with nonhuman kin.
As a conceptual frame and an embodied political tactic, ‘weathering’ is a mode of attunement that attends to this relational becoming. In this immanent, affective, viscous approach to the living world, the more-than-human kin that surround us are part of a semiotic ecology – their own affective and responsive bodies reverberating with difference as they communicate shifts in time and place. Nonhuman bodies are both signals and agents because everything in the world “is a kind of immanent process of mediation or… communication,” and an active participant in the world’s becoming (Murphie, 19).
Yolngu Elder LakLak Burrarwanga describes multispecies weathering in a communicative more-than-human matrix through the coming of a storm:
This lightning and thunder is sending out messages to other countries and other homelands telling everyone – Yolngu, animals, plants, everyone – that arra’mirri mayaltha [a particular season] is coming. Are you listening? Are you looking, smelling, feeling, tasting it? Quick Baru [crocodile] there’s a message here for you, don’t miss it. It’s very hot and humid during the day now and we’re starting to sweat during the night. The night sweating is a message, telling us fruit, like larani [apple] is getting ripe (qtd in S. Wright et al., 55).
It is a condition of existence that we cannot attend to all difference in our environments. As Uexküll observed through his concept of Umwelt – our sensory bubbles are always tuning out part of the rich ecologies we inhabit. Attending to more-than-human semiotic ecologies – creature languages – is a way of picking up on important environmental change that we would never be able to perceive with our own, all too human, sensory apparatus.
While the bodies of our more-than-human kin are a crucial part of our epistemology, I think it is important that these bodies are not approached with an extractivist mindset, to be dissected and mined for information. Scholars involved in Indigenous language revitalisation talk about the dangers of extracting Indigenous languages from community and place, and inadvertently (or intentionally) inserting colonial or capitalist concepts (Fraser). Creature languages are minoritarian and counter-colonial. They are part of the ongoing differentiation of life. If, as Hugo Reinert observes, extractive resource capitalism is a sort of “ontological machine—an engine that continuously remakes the world… in ways that facilitate surplus value extraction” (Reinert 96) – creature languages help us to work against this destructive worlding, and ask us to think otherwise. In this sense, creature languages can be understood as part of an intersectional more-than-human counter-colonial struggle. This decolonisation of creaturely linguistics must attend to creature languages not as a lingua nullius – but as a semiotic field that is an integral part of First Nation cultures and knowledge systems, requiring genuine collaborative engagement with Indigenous thinkers.
Callum Clayton-Dixon, an Ambēyaŋ scholar and co-founder of the Anaiwan language revival program, argues that:
For Aboriginal people, language is not merely a tool for communicating and relating with other humans. Language is also core to maintaining healthy relationships with country. The devastation inflicted upon Aboriginal languages by colonial violence, parallel to and interconnected with the colonisation of Aboriginal lands, lives and liberties, has caused extreme disruption to the fundamental relationships between people and country. It is therefore necessary, in principle and in practice, to ensure language revitalisation efforts aim to repatriate language to country. Like Indigenous peoples have been displaced from country, forced onto reserves and missions, Aboriginal languages have likewise been displaced from country, forced onto the pages of anthropologists’ and linguists’ notebooks, gathering dust in university and library archives.
Language revitalisation has a crucial role to play in contemporary assertions of Indigeneity, in what Cherokee academic Jeff Corntassel describes as the reclamation and regeneration of our ‘relational place-based existence’(88).
The Anaiwan Language Revival Program, an Aboriginal language revitalisation initiative in the so-called New England Tableland region of New South Wales, has begun the task of repatriating language to land by undertaking cultural site trips, reclaiming place names, and reconnecting lexical items with the elements of country to which they belong (e.g. plant and animal species). Language revitalisation ultimately offers a means of reclaiming and reviving the ancient reciprocal relationships we as Aboriginal people held within the natural world since the first sunrise.
Akarre Elder Margaret Kemarre Turner stated that “Language is a gift from that Land for the people who join into that Land… We come from the Land, and the language comes from the Land… language is born out of the living flesh of that Land” (Turner, 194). In other words, human language is not a property that separates humans from the nonhuman world, but an extension of the eloquence of life – and a gift.
Clayton-Dixon, Callum. Personal Communication, Armidale, 9 December, 2017.
Corntassel, Jeff. ‘Re-envisioning Resurgence: Indigenous Pathways to Decolonization and Sustainable Self-Determination,’ Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education and Society 1, no. 1 (2012): 86 – 101
Simon Fraser University, Decolonizing Language Revitalization. Retrieved from summit.sfu.ca/item/14186 (2014).
Kirby, Vicki. Quantum Anthropologies: Life at Large (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011): 10
Murphie, Andrew. ‘The World as Medium: Whitehead’s Media Philosophy, Immediations, eds. Erin Manning, Anne Munster and Bodil Marie Stavning Thomsen (Open Humanities Press, Forthcoming)
Reinert, Hugo. ‘About a Stone: Some Notes on Geologic Conviviality’ Environmental Humanities 8, no. 1 (2016): 95 – 117
Rose, Deborah Bird. ‘Val Plumwood’s Philosophical Animism: Attentive Interactions in the Sentient World,’ Environmental Humanities 3 (2013).
Serres, Michel. The Natural Contract., trans: Elizabeth MacArthur and William Paulson (University of Michigan Press): 16
Turner, Margaret Kemarre. Iwenhe Tyerrtye: What it Means to be an Aboriginal Person. As told byBarry McDonald Perrurle. Translated by Veronica Perrurle Dobson (Alice Springs: IAD Press, 2010)
von Uexküll, Jacob (1957) “A Stroll Through the Worlds of Animals and Men: A Picture Book of Invisible Worlds,” Instinctive Behavior: The Development of a Modern Concept, ed. and trans. Claire H. Schiller, New York: International Universities Press, pp. 5–80.
Wright, Kate. Transdisciplinary Journeys in the Anthropocene: More-than-human Encounters(Oxon and New York: Routledge, 2017).
Wright, Sarah., Kate Lloyd, Sandie Suchet-Pearson, Laklak Burrarwanga and Matalena Tofa, ‘Telling Stories In, Through and With Country: Engaging with Indigenous and More-than-Human Methodologies at Bawaka NE Australia’ Journal of Cultural Geography 29, no. 1 (2012).
 Nineteenth-century biologist Jakob von Uexküll used the term Umwelt to describe the way organism and environment form a whole system. Each organism has its own Umwelt, which is its meaningful environment. (5–80)