Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Apologizing to Whales and other living things

Review: Cecile Pineda. Apology to a Whale: Words to Mend a World. San Antonio, TX: Wings Press, 2015. ISBN 978-1-60940-440-6

Michael Sedano

I’m an on-again-off-again reader of nonfiction--out of long habit and intent--so finding Cecile Pineda’s 2015 Apology to a Whale: Words to Mend a World was a rare treat. Readers who treat themselves to this title will find it a challenging, impressive, alarming, collection of speculative analysis about the end of the world and how we got here.

Following up Pineda’s compelling Devil’s Tango, where the author had her feet planted firmly on facts, Apology to a Whale takes flights of fancy grounded in fact. The title alludes to all nature, not whales alone. With the world entering environmental devastation at the hands of humanity, humanity owes nature an apology in the way of an acknowledgement of what we’ve done.

How’d we get here?

Answering that won’t solve any problems beyond offering clarity, something Pineda sees as worthwhile in itself. Readers will find challenges in the constant provocations from the writer. Using a fairy tale, she illustrates the primordial division of hominids from other biological life. From that point, Pineda’s discussion divagates along sometimes ingenious threads until it finds stasis, only to launch another investigation. Point to point, the story of environmental devastation grows.

Pineda’s impressive depth of knowledge and often biographical anecdotes give even her most obscure points a quality of informed speculations that leaves a reader nodding in a “why not?” kind of agreement. Beyond this, readers will appreciate Pineda’s literary turns that she unleashes amid unwinding a complex idea. Early in the text, for example, she allows herself a poet’s view of her sky:

“My own wonderment at seeing the changing light of day from the dull blue gray that presages the dawn to the rose of day’s dawning promise, the horizon rimmed with daybreak, the birthing rays of sunlight erupting over the hills, the flattening of the light as the day advances, the decline of afternoon, the lengthening shadow of evening, the mystery of the gloaming; more than waves of sand in the desert, or the shimmer of light on waves of the sea, it is the endless saga of sky that I never tire of reading as if each day, light is born anew.”

Humanity has sped up time and the world is the worse for our progress. That is not alarmist news but a point of view that animates Pineda’s analysis. How can one be alarmed at natural processes, despite such dismal results? She illustrates how technology comes to stasis but with innovation spreads rapidly. Flint points aside, language is at the heart of Pineda’s concern.

Students of psycholinguistics will find the middle of the book especially entertaining, where Pineda’s speculation delves into how language and mind interact to change our brains. That analysis begins in primordial times, with the fairy tale of resentful animals stymied by thieving hominids. A parrot explains that the humans understand animal language and have opposing thumbs. Give humans their own language, the parrot reasons, and they will forget how to speak our language.

That’s Pineda’s launch point for an elaborated discussion of mind and language. Humans lost something in exchange for acquiring language, Pineda laments, “extra-sensorial ways of inhabiting our planet,” she explains. She elaborates through anecdotes, like the feral child abandoned to a jungle tribe of capuchin monkeys. She learned to communicate, perhaps in monkey language. The Inuit people who speak wolf, and modify their own environment in concert with what the wolves tell them. Then there are animals with life-long recall of a kind human.

By the time Pineda’s argument arrives at the inherent sexism and brutality of Indo-European languages, especially English, readers won’t be alarmed but mystified at what we’re to do with the emotions Pineda’s treatise stirs up.

How does one disconnect the genetic links between language and world?

There’s an ineluctable helplessness haunting Apology to a Whale. Pineda’s filled the reader’s experience with alarming sound and fury, but leaves without a substantial next step. Given the subject and analysis, it’s not a flaw. Apology to a Whale offers distinctly arranged and developed views but the material is ultimately familiar. Presented in challenging, impressive, alarming ways, Apology to a Whale shows it’s enough to get one’s juices stirred up, allow persistent ideas to ferment until one finds a personal language that addresses a dying world with more than words of succor.

Order Apology to a Whale: Words to Mend a World from your local independent bookseller, or publisher direct here.

1 comment:

Olga Garcia Echeverria said...

Wow, that sentence of hers that you quoted. I wanna read this. Gracias.