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Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Nessmuk at Buttermilk Falls

A letter by George Washington Sears, pen-name Nessmuk, to his New York editor at "Field and Stream", dated May 1889:

"I have never reported, either in my journals or missives to this fine periodical, that when paddling up the Raquette River during the spring of 1883, I met Morte de la Porte in his very person, though we hardly exchanged a word. He at that time performed a favor for me, which in ways was perfidious in that it would have been damaging to my reputation were it ever to appear in print.

"The Raquette River, as I have described elsewhere, all but disappears into the earth at a place called Buttermilk Falls, a conflagration if there is any such cataract to be found in the Adirondacks. It was in the foot pool at the base of this waterfall that I met the great man of the mountains, who stepped out into the sunlight on a sandbar and saw me looking puzzled at the torrent of yellow water frothed with fallen trees hurtling down along with chucks of spring snow and ice.

"As you know my health has not been good, and the prospect of a heavy portage around the falls through uncertain terrain was not a task I anticipated with any ardor. My trusted vessel, the Sairy Gamp, was more loaded than a Winchester on the ramparts of the Alamo, and I am certain, to this day had I attempted to carry it all through the woods, I would have fallen victim to the fever, of which I had a terrible fear, since tuberculosis has been troubling me for some time. My goal was to explore the headwaters of this great river, which I did. How I got around Buttermilk Falls is heretofore unknown:

"I knew the great man was Morte, no one stands larger in my memory, and I have seen many, warriors and Indian braves. None held a candle to this creature, in size or form. His immense height hoarded a gaunt but kindly hunger packed in sinewed limbs, muscled as if Gods had proportioned him first from marble and then converted their handiwork into bronze and then lastly into flesh and bone.

"Nervously I addressed this mountain of a being and told him I wanted to achieve the top of the falls, so asked if he would accept the commission of assisting my portage. To this he wordlessly nodded. Then as I paddled towards the shore he stepped into the current and reaching out with a single arm took up the Sairy Gamp, with me and all my belongings, tent, food, kit, journals, sketchbooks, axe, knives, rifle whisky, flour and what have you, and though I am a light man my senior, my whole boat plus me weighed a good bit more than our publisher in his considerable chair of mahogany. Mr. Morte held up the Sairy Gamp with me and all my worldly possessions more easily than a chip of birch seized from the water's surface.

"A cry of surprise burst from my lips. To say I was terrified is understatement of the kind that reporters are loathe. The giant with his load cradled by one curled forearm strode toward the falls. My person, my books, firearm, tent, kit and supplies were certain to be destroyed by that torrent. I watched those limbs from above wade, and stride at the same time, boulder to boulder up the very falls themselves, while the cataract of water rushed around us.

"One cannot imagine the strength necessary to accomplish what took place. How he found footing I'll never know. How he resisted the thousands of pounds of force of that ferocious spring melt is beyond me. A log flew towards us like a projectile hurled by a cannon but Morte with his spare hand, flicked it aside mid course.

Within seconds we found ourselves at the queasy but comparative calm of the top of the falls, whereupon gently as a mother cougar setting down one of its kittens, Morte placed the Sairy Gamp, me inside, afloat upon those waters. Pushing the keel-stem with both thumbs, he set us skimming across the tremulous surface easily as a flake of slate flung by a happy schoolboy. We brought awash safely above where the headwater commenced its dive towards oblivion. When I spun to look, the giant had gone.

"Nearing my end of days, I have no objection to publishing this letter and hope I'm not remembered as a man of the woods unable to transport himself across a quarter mile of portage. Vanity must somehow kneel before the greater obligation of truth."

"I wish also to thank Mr. LaPorte himself whom I never met again, Every letter sent to him has since has returned and I remain sorry that I've never been able to express a single syllable of thanks though I hear by means of isolated reports that he is well."  (Archives of Field and Stream, Nessmuk Letter, September 1889)

Back Formation and our Latin Heritage

"Back Formation" is a grammatical term for describing the linguistic process of shortening and simplification caused by dropping a suffix. Burgle evolved subsequent to burglar and statistic formed after the field of study, statistics. A 'pea' is a shortened version of an older original, in this case 'pease' which was not plural, and meant 'a pea', but now means many 'peas'.

I remember a friend, a salesman who made comic attempts to repair damage caused by back formation. One of his favorite expressions was "It's not rocket scientry", in lieu of "It's not rocket science".

He also took liberties with the middle of words - "That's mathically unproven," instead of, "mathematically unproven." The word science dates from the 1300's and scientific, from 1589. Scientry is not a word at all but I wish it was. I love it.

My boeuf about Latin cognates is this: 

The Romans, via the French and Norman invaders of England, brought a Latin lexicon to English. Latinate roots, sprang from a military regularity of conjugation and syntax, and offered an ability to conjugate all variety of meanings.

Latin was designed like an all purpose tool-kit, an engineer's language, broadly covering such concepts as inside and outside (introvert and extrovert), or before and after (predict and postprandial). It's precise, superb at description.

It's a bridge builder's language developed as a kind of verbal math. The regulation of distant territories, the supply of far-flung armies and the construction of aqueducts and coliseums across the civilized world arose because of the precision of Latin as a language for dispensing military orders.

English inherits two major systems of expression. Latin, which excels at matters of business and government, for example liberty, and the older Anglo-Saxon cognates for poetic expression, for example freedom. These pairs are throughout English, inebriated vs. drunk, tolerate vs. stand.

Notice how in the last example tolerate is quite specific, whereas stand has a huge variety of meanings. The Germanic and Anglo-Saxon roots give English it's power.

"Hasten to the point would you!" I can hear my friends now. What do Latin cognates have to do with back formation?

Latin derived words are are built up of parts, often three or more. But language naturally does not tolerate pointless complexity. Some of those parts need to be dropped, over time. Back formation is the natural process by which English speakers often omit the front, middle or back portions of their words. One could say Latin syntax is ritualistic, a bit like Sanskrit, logical, and repetitive. In a ritual things are added or subtraced at the back, front, or middle. They subtract the same way.


Onto Celtic and Saxon roots of English poured a new vocabulary, in full force with William the Conqueror. At that magic moment, England inherited the power of Latin, as a language of Empire, through a Gallic filter. The new words conquered, literally:

     con·quer  (kngkr)
     v. con·quered, con·quer·ing, con·quers
     1. To defeat or subdue by force, especially by force of arms.
     2. To gain or secure control of by or as if by force of arms: scientists battling to conquer disease; 
     a singer who conquered the operatic world.
     3. To overcome or surmount by physical, mental, or moral force: I finally conquered my fear of heights. 
     [Middle English conqueren, from Old French conquerre, from Vulgar Latin *conquaerere,
     from Latin conqurere, to procure : com-, intensive pref.; see com- + quaerere, to seek.]

We may have lost the expressive power of Old English, but gained the power to dominate, to control, and to organize.

France and England reacted differently to injections of foreign linguistic power. The French standardized - beginning in the seventeenth century the Académie Française unified, codified, and deciding what was French and what was not. French has gone the way of Latin, dying from too much regularity, and planning.

Perhaps because of the organization imposed by William, the English subconscious became hungry for expressive power that got lost.

British upper classes held onto their irregular verbs, and used them as badges of birthright, and prestige. Language evolved a caste-system unto itself. Scotsmen returned from the Indian colonies, uttering new words like 'curry', 'thug' and 'pyjama'. The empire dispatched them back to their crass speaking realms with a curled upper lip. A similar division divided Cockney London from West End. The Scottish wag morphed into the badge of a servant engineer.

I'm for the power and innuendo of the street. Bring on the life of the word! Put me on the ground where a new lingo is evolving.

And so England's class strata, defined itself with the difficulty of spoken English, and injections of new vocabulary into a new street vernacular. Ports of entry for vocabulary were through the lower classes. New expressions flooded English Central from India, the Americas, Australia, and were shared on the streets of every foreign colony. England's upper crust assumed a select few of these expressions, but to this day reject many commonly accepted figures of speech.

In theory, a new word is English if a) it is pronounceable, and b) it has been used a number of times in English speech. If it bears the stamp of Latin logic, or has been formed by an organic linguistic process, it has an upper hand.  Isn't it true that any new English word has the upper hand?

Meanwhile French is slowly dying as a language, at least in France. The Académie Française is fighting back, by trimming the dictionary!

For centuries the Academy approved or rejected vernacular changes to French. Writers beginning with the Encyclopedists, defined what is French. As a result, spoken French retains little of the imported richness from French colonies in Africa and the Americas. The classic French dictionary, dies of malnutrition.

True, the brevity of French made it a wonderful vehicle for philosophers, thinkers, and existential poetry. But the starved vocabulary does quadruple or quintuple duty due to an overall paucity of word count, and thus excels at expressing abstract concepts. Slang combining existing 'legal' French words grows like weeds. The average French word has more dictionary meanings by far, than the average word English, but less words by far.

So, whether my friend was aware of his role in this process of converting common argot into new expressions, 'rocket scientry', since 1990, is emerging as an alternative way of saying 'rocket science', though he may have been joking, or pleading the scientrist's amendment.

Thoughts on 'Grassness' and Consciousness

 The Westerner defines life forms, in fact everything, with a materialist's boundaries and categories. A human being, a buffalo, a blade of grass. Books about nature display this preconception, the object of fascination, isolated on a white page. Horses, fish, or birds of the Andes, we regard them as defined iconoclastic entities, without reference to the world around them. We see stars separate from planets. Man separate from nature.

The Vedanta is ahead of us on this. Those ancient thinkers recognized no distinctions between the grazing bovid and the grass it ate. A cow was 'grassness', or the essence of grass. Grass included cows, and cows were grass. So humanity inhabits a film of life on this planet. We live as part of it. Bacteria and parasites live within us. The deer is the forest and we are the earth.

Could the subjective experience of intelligence, and sub-conscious forms of intelligence simply be ineffable cross products of material circumstances, for whose purposes our bodies have evolved? Look inside the brain, where there is seems to be little but nerves, flesh, and channels filled with fluid. Yet we intercept nervous impulses, and they do not explain themselves, or their contents. The act of searching for what is conscious is a lost quest, as difficult as locating an electron or computing the exact trajectory of a particular photon. The experimenter intervenes and destroys the experiment.

Other beings might see time much in the same way we look at a landscape. As earthlings we are possessed of three dimensions, aware conceptually of a fourth, time, which is not visible but is for our purposes, measurable. Surely there must exist life forms that directly perceive four, five or six dimensions with a kind of sight, and understand some final dimensionality, as a kind of fiction, much in the same way as we understand time.

We see space (1,2,3 dimensions), we think time (a 4th), but we feel conscious (the 5th)?

Or perhaps intelligence inhabits that fifth dimension, and the subjective self-awareness that intelligence has of itself, i.e. consciousness, could inhabit the 6th?

Asking 'where is consciousness?' is somewhat like looking for time within the three dimensional measurements of a cup of coffee. One may only perceive a cooling liquid if one admits time as a 4th dimension of study.

A 5th dimensional entity similarly cannot be measured by a 4 dimensional space. It can sit there, just as we in our 3 dimensions can park ourselves on a 2 dimensional carpet. Have we been looking for self-awareness in all the wrong places? Is consciousness, rather than a 'substance' which we can't see, is instead a dimension, from which other beings in turn see us?

Cause and effect? . . . Cause and effect are a temporal 'patch' over an eye that cannot see.

The notion of cause is a vestigial necessity for thinking about time, whilst being unable to see it. If consciousness is yet another dimension, then looking for it within 4 dimensions is as fruitless as looking for time within 3.

Suppose consciousness were everywhere and not contained within a 3 or 4 dimensional space-time continuum. It could be bound up within a 5th dimension. Once there, it might perceive us with the same clarity that we perceive a print on a museum wall.

The human mind/brain has no lock on consciousness. Water is conscious. Fire is conscious. Stones are conscious, and so is air. It all exhibits behaviors of consciousness. Infinite detail. Infinite complexity. Fire processes energy. Fire sorts out an infinite number of inputs and produces a result, computes a path, allocates resources etc. Water also. An ecosystem. An atmosphere.

We speak of 'light' from people who are uniquely intelligent A 'star'. But what of actual stars? The universe is a massive computer of possibilities, computing more conscious activity in just one bit of solar surface than all human life on earth.

Such a claim begs for clarification. What is consciousness? Isn't that the question we've been asking all along? Aren't we investigating where it occurs, how it occurs, what creates it, what are its thresholds, its behaviors, its realms?

I say this. . . The subjective "I" that is 'thinking'. . . . it's all real yes, but that's the only thing that is real. No other realities may be confirmed. The tags 'conscious', 'self-aware, or 'intelligent', may now be filed as endorsements by a lower set of vectors, that are aligning votes behind a power they cannot comprehend.

In other words language creates expression for quantities it does not fully understand to begin with. The word 'consciousness' is really only a sign, for an abstraction like 'God' or 'matter' or 'energy', useful only so far as we make them so.

The abstraction "God" has been useful to mankind, even though most in the current generation of scientists contend that the gods are dead, surprisingly the father of archetypal psychology would argue that they are more alive than ever. The most fundamental of man's technologies evolved when the prevalent paradigm of humanity was God fearing. Science was not even born. I'm making the point that paradigms of thought, whether dominated by gods or science, are complexes of behaviors, not self-evident truths.

Science, as the complete evolution of materialism, demands a return in practices and technologies that are useful for our survival. Viewed in this way the paradigm of science may be viewed as a set of conclusions from a thought process. Yet our science is hopelessly locked to the hip of materialistic assumptions. So we are unable to 'divine' higher concepts from our simplistic conceptions of matter and consciousness.

"Nothing is more vulnerable than scientific theory, which is an ephemeral attempt to explain facts, not an everlasting truth in itself." C.G. Jung

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