Saving the Butterfly Word

"The defining function of the artist is to cherish consciousness." Max Eastman

I recently read an essay entitled "The Last Word" which lamented the passing of indigenous languages from the world. According to the author, as many as three thousand languages, comprising "half of all the words on earth," are doomed to silence in the next century. While conscientious linguists may try furiously to get the language down in print, and put into a file for safe-keeping, when the language is no longer spoken, it dies.

The author clearly states that a language is a dictionary of reality, a way of understanding and describing consciousness, not merely practical notations for table, salt, rock. He cites a moving example of this in terms one can emotionally comprehend. On his travels, he visits a village in southern Mexico with Mayan roots, a poor village where few have work and those who do earn less than a dollar a day, but yet a powerful desire and movement exists to keep the ancient Mayan language alive. While sitting in the forest at the edge of town, a butterfly settles beside him. The color of it was a blue unlike any he had ever seen, a hue and intensity "beyond naming", a test for the possibilities of metaphor.

He soon discovers that in the Mayan language, there are nine translations for the color blue, but in the Spanish-Maya Dictionary which translates from the indigenous to the dominant language, there are only three definitions, "leaving six butterflies that can be seen only by the Maya," thus "proving that when a language dies six butterflies disappear from the consciousness of the earth."

I had to take that in. I had to feel tears behind my eyes, not for the simple regrettable loss of butterflies, but because of something much greater, something that had to do with cherishing consciousness, not just cherishing the forests, the fields, the harvest, the bread, but also the bonding of people with their world, their songs, their way of worshipping or working or loving or beholding nature in all its manifestations.

The essay turned over in my brain as I went about my day, wondering at my own devotion to language, as a poet, as someone who cleaves to and elevates the beauty and precision of the living word. I thought of how I had devoted a great portion of my life to writing, to plumbing the intricacies of words and their rippling meanings. I thought too of how for more than twenty years I have been strongly called to offer this experience to others, in the form of journaling classes, which evolved into lifestories and poetry workshops. I thought of the quote I often share with my students: "Every time a person dies, a library burns."

Synchronistically, thumbing through an old (1989) journal of mine, I found this paragraph:

"The journal is like a second heart or brain, a living storage place where one can go to retrieve or create meaning. I believe journals have historical, anthropological, mythic and literary value, that our words or our lives are not just random collections of raw data, but have meaning in a larger, universal context. Even if our [writings] are never read or shared with another person, they will have in fact recorded an existence, and thus established in some corner of the cosmos an imprint of our particular essence."

Thus, I can't help asking, what if not only a people's language, the language of a culture or civilization, but the language of each and every individual is sacred? What if each person's mind and soul is actually irreplaceable and of unique value and worth? If your words were written down and thus saved from extinction, free to vibrate out into the world, would the universe be altered by your gift?

Perhaps only a poet would have such thoughts. Or perhaps, in each of us, embedded in the intricacies of our DNA, exists a certain knowing, that life is a wondrous experiment in diversity and uniqueness, that is meant to be preserved and fulfilled, that is meant to shimmer and shine, like a star in a sky full of stars, or a butterfly in a sea of butterflies, not to become extinct, but to flourish in consciousness for all time. I hope this is the case, and if so, let us each add our prayer to the temple wall.

Katya Sabaroff Taylor, M.Ed., (2002)

"The Last Word" by Earl Shorris, originally published in Harpers Magazine, in Best American Essays, 2001, edited by Kathleen Norris.