And Other Extracts from the Journal of the Association of Therolinguistics
by Ursula K. Le Guin
MS. Found in an Anthill
The messages were found written in touch-gland exudation on degerminated acacia seeds laid in rows at the end of a narrow, erratic tunnel leading off from one of the deeper levels of the colony. It was the orderly arrangement of the seeds that first drew the investigator’s attention. The messages are fragmentary, and the translation approximate and highly interpretative; but the text seems worthy of interest if only for its striking lack of resemblance to any other Ant texts known to us.
[I will] not touch feelers. [I will] not stroke. [I will] spend on dry seeds [my] soul’s sweetness. It may be found when [I am] dead. Touch this dry wood! [I] call! [I am] here!
Alternatively, this passage may be read:
[Do] not touch feelers. [Do] not stroke. Spend on dry seeds [your] soul’s sweetness. [Others] may find it when [you are] dead. Touch this dry wood! Call: [I am] here!
No known dialect of Ant employs any verbal person except the third person singular and plural and the first person plural. In this text, only the root forms of the verbs are used; so there is no way to decide whether the passage was intended to be an autobiography or a manifesto.
Long are the tunnels. Longer is the untunneled. No tunnel reaches the end of the untunneled. The untunneled goes on farther than we can go in ten days [i.e., forever]. Praise!
The mark translated “Praise!” is half of the customary salutation “Praise the Queen!” or “Long live the Queen!” or “Huzza for the Queen!”—but the word/mark signifying “Queen” has been omitted.
As the ant among foreign-enemy ants is killed, so the ant without ants dies, but being without ants is as sweet as honeydew.
An ant intruding in a colony not its own is usually killed. Isolated from other ants, it invariably dies within a day or so. The difficulty in this passage is the word/mark “without ants,” which we take to mean “alone”—a concept for which no word/mark exists in Ant.
Eat the eggs! Up with the Queen!
There has already been considerable dispute over the interpretation of the phrase on Seed 31. It is an important question, since all the preceding seeds can be fully understood only in the light cast by this ultimate exhortation. Dr. Rosbone ingeniously argues that the author, a wingless neuter-female worker, yearns hopelessly to be a winged male, and to found a new colony, flying upward in the nuptial flight with a new Queen. Though the text certainly permits such a reading, our conviction is that nothing in the text supports it—least of all the text of the immediately preceding seed, No. 30: “Eat the eggs!” This reading, though shocking, is beyond disputation.
We venture to suggest that the confusion over Seed 31 may result from an ethnocentric interpretation of the word “up.” To us, “up” is a “good” direction. Not so, or not necessarily so, to an ant. “Up” is where the food comes from, to be sure; but “down” is where security, peace, and home are to be found. “Up” is the scorching sun; the freezing night; no shelter in the beloved tunnels; exile; death. Therefore we suggest that this strange author, in the solitude of her lonely tunnel, sought with what means she had to express the ultimate blasphemy conceivable to an ant, and that the correct reading of Seeds 30-31, in human terms, is:
Eat the eggs! Down with the Queen!
The desiccated body of a small worker was found beside Seed 31 when the manuscript was discovered. The head had been severed from the thorax, probably by the jaws of a soldier of the colony. The seeds, carefully arranged in a pattern resembling a musical stave, had not been disturbed. (Ants of the soldier caste are illiterate; thus the soldier was presumably not interested in the collection of useless seeds from which the edible germs had been removed.) No living ants were left in the colony, which was destroyed in a war with a neighboring anthill at some time subsequent of the death of the Author of the Acacia Seeds.
—G. D’Arbay, T.R. Bardol
Announcement of an Expedition
The extreme difficulty of reading Penguin has been very much lessened by the use of the underwater motion-picture camera. On film it is at least possible to repeat, and slow down, the fluid sequences of the script, to the point where, by constant repetition and patient study, many elements of this most elegant and lively literature may be grasped, though the nuances, and perhaps the essence, must forever elude us.
It was Professor Duby who, by pointing out the remote affiliation of the script with Low Greylag, made possible the first tentative glossary of Penguin. The analogies with Dolphin which had been employed up to that time never proved very useful, and were often quite misleading.
Indeed it seemed strange that a script written almost entirely in wings, neck, and air should prove the key to the poetry of short-necked, flipper-winged water-writers. But we should not have found it so strange if we had kept in mind that penguins are, despite all evidence to the contrary, birds.
Because their script resembles Dolphin in form,we should never have assumed that is must resemble Dolphin in content. And indeed it does not. There is, of course, the same extraordinary wit, the flashes of crazy humor, the inventiveness, and the inimitable grace. In all the thousands of literatures of the Fish stock, only a few show any humor at all, and that usually of a rather simple, primitive sort; and the superb gracefulness of Shark or Tarpon is utterly different from the joyous vigor of all Cetacean scripts. The joy, the vigor, and the humor are all shared by Penguin authors; and, indeed, by many of the finer Seal auteurs.The temperature of the blood is a bond. But the construction of the brain, and of the womb, makes a barrier! Dolphins do not lay eggs. A world of difference lies in that simple fact.
Only when Professor Duby reminded us that penguins are birds, that they do not swim but fly in water,only then could the therolinguist begin to approach the sea literature of the penguin with understanding; only then could the miles of recordings already on film be restudied and, finally, appreciated.
But the difficulty of translation is still with us.
A satisfying degree of promise has already been made in Adélie. The difficulties of recording a group kinetic performance in a stormy ocean as thick as pea soup with plankton at a temperature of 31° Fahrenheit are considerable; but the perseverance of the Ross Ice Barrier Literary Circle has been fully rewarded with such passages as “Under the Iceberg,” from the Autumn Song—a passage now world famous in the rendition by Anna Serebryakova of the Leningrad Ballet. No verbal rendering can approach the felicity of Miss Serebryakova’s version. For, quite simply, there is no way to reproduce in writing the all-important multiplicity of the original text, so beautifully rendered by the full chorus of the Leningrad Ballet company.
Indeed, what we call “translations” from the Adélie—or from any group kinetic text—are, to put it bluntly, mere notes—libretto without the opera. The ballet version is the true translation. Nothing in words can be complete.
I therefore suggest, though the suggestion may well be greeted with frowns of anger or with hoots of laughter, that for the therolinguist—as opposed to the artist and the amateur—the kinetic sea writings of Penguin are the least promising field of study: and, further, that Adélie, for all its charm and relative simplicity, is a less promising field of study than is Emperor.
Emperor!—I anticipate my colleagues’ response to this suggestions. Emperor! The most difficult, the most remote, of all the dialects of Penguin! The language of which Professor Duby himself remarked, “The literature of the emperor penguin is as forbidding, as inaccessible, as the frozen heart of Antarctica itself. Its beauties may be unearthly, but they are not for us.”
Maybe. I do not underestimate the difficulties: not least of which is the imperial temperament, so much more reserved and aloof than that of any of penguin. But, paradoxically, it is just in this reserve that I place my hope. The emperor is not a solitary, but a social bird, and while on land for the breeding season dwells in colonies, as does the Adélie; but these colonies are very much smaller and very much quieter than those of the Adélie. The bonds between the members of an emperor colony are rather personal than social. The emperor is an individualist. Therefore I think it almost certain that the literature of the emperor will prove to be composed by single authors, instead of chorally; and therefore it will be translatable into human speech. It will be a kinetic literature, but how different from the spatially extensive, rapid, multiplex choruses of sea writing! Close analysis, and genuine transcription, will at last be possible.
What! say my critics—Should we pack up and go to Cape Crozier, to the dark, to the blizzards, to the -60° cold, in the mere hope of recording the problematic poetry of a few strange birds who sit there, in the mid-winter dark, in the blizzards, in the -60° cold, on the eternal ice, with an egg on their feet.
And my reply is, Yes. For, like Professor Duby, my instinct tells me that the beauty of that poetry is as unearthly as anything we shall ever find on earth.
To those of my colleagues in whom the spirit of scientific curiosity and aesthetic risk is strong, I say, Imagine it: the ice, the scouring snow, the darkness, the ceaseless whine and scream of the wind. In that black desolation a little band of poets crouches. They are starving; they will not eat for weeks. On the feet of each one, under the warm belly feathers, rests one large egg, thus preserved from the mortal touch of the ice. The poets cannot hear each other; they cannot see each other. They can only feel the other’s warmth. That is their poetry, that is their art. Like all kinetic literatures, it is silent; unlike other kinetic literatures, it is all but immobile, ineffably subtle. The ruffling of a feather; the shifting of a wing;the touch, the faint, warm touch of the one beside you. In unutterable, miserable, black solitude, the affirmation. In absence, presence. In death, life.
I have obtained a sizable grant from UNESCO and have stocked an expedition. There are still four places open. We leave for Antarctica on Thursday. If anyone wants to come along, welcome!
Editorial by the President of the Therolinguistics Association
What is Language? This question, central to the science of therolinguistics, has been answered—heuristically—by the very existence of the science. Language is communication. That is the axiom on which all our theory and research rest, and from which all our discoveries derive; and the success of the discoveries testifies to the validity of the axiom. But to the related, yet not identical question, What is Art? we have not yet given a satisfactory answer.
Tolstoy, in the book whose title is that very question, answered it firmly and clearly: Art, too, is communication. This answer has, I believe, been accepted without examination or criticism by therolinguists. For example: Why do therolinguists study only animals?
Why, because plants do not communicate.Plants do not communicate; that is a fact. Therefore plants have no language; very well; that follows from our basic axiom. Therefore, also, plants have no art. But stay! That does not follow from the basic axiom, but only from the unexamined Tolstoyan corollary.
What if art is not communicative?
Or, what if some art is communicative, and some art is not?
Ourselves animals, active, predators, we look (naturally enough) for an active, predatory, communicative art; and when we find it, we recognize it. The development of this power of recognition and the skills of appreciation is a recent and glorious achievement.
But I submit that, for all the tremendous advances made by therolinguistics during the last decades, we are only at the beginning of our age of discovery. We must not become slaves to our own axioms. We have not yet lifted our eyes to the vaster horizons before us. We have not faced the almost terrifying challenge of the Plant.
If a non-communicative, vegetative art exists, we must rethink the very elements of our science, and learn a whole new set of techniques.
For it is simply not possible to bring the critical and technical skills appropriate to the study of Weasel murder mysteries, or Batrachian erotica, or the tunnel sagas of the earthworm, to bear on the art of the redwood or the zucchini.
This is proved conclusively by the failure—a noble failure—of the efforts of Dr. Srivas, in Calcutta, using time-lapse photography, to produce a lexicon of Sunflower. His attempt was daring, but doomed to failure. For his approach was kinetic—a method appropriate to the communicative arts of the tortoise, the oyster, and the sloth. He saw the extreme slowness of the kinesis of plants, and only that, as the problem to be solved.
But the problem was far greater. The art he sought, if it exists, is a non-communicative art: and probably a non-kinetic one. It is possible that Time, the essential element, matrix, and measure of all known animal art, does not enter into vegetable art at all. The plants may use the meter of eternity.
We do not know. We do not know. All we can guess is that the putative Art of the Plant is entirely different from the Art of the Animal. What it is, we cannot say; we have not yet discovered it. Yet I predict with some certainty that it exists, and that when it is found it will prove to be, not an action, but a reaction: not a communication,but a reception. It will be exactly the opposite of the art we know and recognize. It will be the first passive art known to us.
Can we in fact know it? Can we ever understand it?
It will be immensely difficult. That is clear. But we should not despair. Remember that so late as the mid-twentieth century, most scientists, and many artists, did not believe that Dolphin would ever be comprehensible to the human brain—or worth comprehending! Let another century pass, and we may seem equally laughable. “Do you realize,” the phytolinguist will say to the aesthetic critic, “that they couldn’t even read Eggplant?” And they will smile at our ignorance, as they pick up their rucksacks and hike on up to read the newly deciphered lyrics of the lichen on the north face of Pike’s Peak. And with them, or after them, may there not come that even bolder adventurer—the first geolinguist, who, ignoring the delicate, transient lyrics of the lichen, will read beneath it the still less communicative, still more passive, wholly atemporal, cold, volcanic poetry of the rocks: each one a word spoken, how long ago, by the earth itself, in the immense solitude, the immenser community, of space.
© 1974 by Ursula K. Le Guin. Originally published in Fellowship of the Stars. Reprinted with permission from April 1, 2021-March 31, 2022.
About the Author
Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018) was one of the most celebrated authors of science fiction and fantasy of the 20th century. Over a career that spanned over 60 years, she published 21 novels and numerous short stories, articles, and children’s works. Her numerous accolades include eight Hugos, six Nebulas, a National Book Award, and recognition by the Library of Congress. In 2021, the US Postal Service will be releasing a stamp featuring Le Guin against an image of her masterpiece Left Hand of Darkness. Her official website can be found at https://www.ursulakleguin.com/.