Short Stories
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Antspeak and Rocktalk: The Author of Acacia Seeds

Ants on Bullhorn Acacia

Last week I explored Amy Leach’s creative non-fiction and its appeal to wonder and imagination. This week, I would like to turn to fiction and highlight a fantastical tale that does the same. Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Author of Acacia Seeds and Other Extracts from the Journal of Therolinguistics takes place in the future, but does not dwell on new technologies or societies. Exploring the secret languages of things large and small, Acacia Seeds instead tasks my imagination to envision a wholly different way of relating to the world, to see familiar beings in a new light, and to expand my moral horizons to consider the greater community of which humanity is a part of. Deliciously satirical and ethically provocative, Acacia Seeds is one of my favourite works to read and reread, and a wonderful little Ekostory to celebrate Earth Day 2014.

Synopsis

Acacia Seeds consists of three short excerpts from the future journal of Therolinguistics – the field that studies non-human languages. The first snippet, titled MS. Found in an Anthill, revolves around attempts to decipher messages left by ants on degerminated acacia seeds. One therolinguist is convinced that one such statement, translated roughly to “Up with the queen!”, is actually a worker’s call for rebellion, for in an ant’s world and mind “up” represents death and exile.

The second entry, Announcement of an Expedition, has Dr. D.Petri seeking qualified personnel to embark on an Antarctic expedition to study the language of Emperor penguins. Unlike the kinetic aquatic texts of their smaller kin, Petri notes, Emperor penguin dialect is silent and blind, a social poetry borne out of a shared solitude on the ice, and is conveyed through fluctuations of feathers and body temperature. Interested in spending six months in bitter cold and darkness to study it? Four spots remain: Apply soon!

The last piece is an editorial written by the President of the Therolinguistics Association. In a world where animal languages are accepted and discussed, the president notes that plant languages remain largely unexplored and believes this to be a failure of imagination within the community.  The exploration of language, he/she contends, should not be limited to the active communication humans and animals are accustomed to. It must expand to include the passive arts, he/she argues, for language and art may not only governed by movement and metered by time, but may also include notions of reception and response. The president challenges fellow therolinguists to look deeper and broader, both to the past when people were ignorant of the tongues of fish and penguins and ants, and to the future when later generations may scoff at those for not understanding “the delicate, transient lyrics of the lichen”, the “wholly atemporal, cold, volcanic poetry of the rock”, even the words of the earth “in its immense solitude, within the immenser community of space”. (p. 272)

Both Familiar and Different

Staghorn Fungus - Acacia
A world both familiar and different. Image from wikimedia commons.

When I read Acacia Seeds, I am propelled into a world that is both familiar and different, a world that features everyday common creatures being our linguistic equals. In this potential future, the claim that all penguin authors share a similar vein of joy, vigour, and humour is taken for granted without a second thought – only a simpleton would think otherwise. As I become immersed in the story, I grow aware of the existence and legitimacy of viewpoints and realities beyond my own, and am pushed to reconsider the boundaries I impose between the human and non-human world. Are we really so different?

“Remember that so late as the mid-twentieth century, most scientists, and many artists, did not believe that even Dolphin would be comprehensible to the human brain – or worth comprehending! Let another century pass, and we may seem equally laughable.” (p. 272)

 Acacia Seeds reminds me that the human is not the universal, and that mindsets change over time. Reading it, I find myself more receptive to the land ethic as proposed by Aldo Leopold and other ecological thinkers, where considerations of community encompasses not only people, but also the soil, the water, the plants, the animals, and ultimately the land. Acacia Seeds helps me envision a dynamic and progressive future where ethical considerations expand outward to include the greater biotic and abiotic community. Founded upon a foundation that acknowledges the legitimacy of the Other, Le Guin subtly shows us how far we have come, and how far we can potentially go.

Masterful, Meaningful Satire

 “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.” (p.271)

What makes Acacia Seeds work is the humour. For me, the entire piece reads not only as a delightfully mad romp in the natural world (in a similar way as Leach’s work), but also as as a sly jab at the impenetrable lingo of ivory tower academics wield as they debate the linguistic semantics of ants exudations or chide their peers for thinking that penguin script is similar to dolphin simply because they share “the same extraordinary wit, the flashes of crazy humour, the inventiveness, and the inimitable grace”. (p. 268) As egg-layers, one smug therolinguist proclaims, penguins obviously speak in a completely different way than dolphins. Obviously.

Molting Emperor Penguin - Acacia

An Emperor penguin practicing poetry. Image from wikimedia commons.

Yet there is also substance behind the satire. When I reread Acacia Seeds, I find myself overwhelmed by Le Guin virtuosity, by how she effortlessly conveys concepts and perspectives that are notoriously difficult to express in words. The entire tale is a testament not only to her skill as a writer, but also as a thinker, with many of the ideas the piece conveys more relevant today than ever before. Each of the three excerpt tasks me to envision realities unexamined, in configurations unsought of. They test the mettle and robustness of my imagination, demanding that I make the mental journey to a new world while reflecting upon the possibilities of a wholly inclusive future. It is an exhilarating journey.

Story as Imagination Exercise

“The fantasist, whether he uses the ancient archetypes of myth and legend or the younger ones of science and technology, make be talking as seriously as any sociologist – and a good deal more directly – about human life as it is lived, and as it might be lived, and as it ought to be lived. For after all, as great scientists have said and as all children know, it is above all by the imagination that we achieve perception, and compassion, and hope.” 

– National Book Award Acceptance Speech, p.48

Imagination! In modern society, it is often seen as something childish, naïve, and indulgent, associated primarily with escapist fantasies, daydreams, flights of fancy, and dismissed as wastes of time and lost productivity. What good is imagination when there are things to do and problems to solve? What’s the use of it all?

Yet there are those who view imagination as the chief source for all things possible. They understand that a robust imagination allows us to envision paths not taken, to test drive hypotheticals, and bridge mental gaps of understanding. They know that the free play of the mind affords our brains time and freedom needed to forge unseen connections and craft original solutions. They realize that imagination is crucial to new ways of thinking and being, and help hone qualities of empathy, understanding and kinship with others.

Daffodil - Acacia SeedsCan we one day know the art of the daffodil? Image from wikimedia commons.

Stories like Acacia Seeds help us to exercise and tone that imagination, and in so doing, help us sketch out a strange but wondrous outline for a path forward, towards a more inclusive future where humanity accepts and respects, without a second thought, an ant’s lamentation, a penguin’s heartache, a sunflower’s receptive silence, the earth’s grand vastness.

Related Ekostories:

Reference

Le Guin, Ursula K. (1974) The Author of Acacia Seeds, from The Real and the Unreal: Selected Stories from Ursula K. Le Guin, Volume 2. MA: Small Beer Press, 2012. 

Le Guin, Ursula K. (1973). The National Book Award Acceptance Speech for the Farthest Shore, from The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction. New York: Berkley Paperback, 1982.

Featured image from Ecolibrary.org

7 Comments

  1. This is one of my favorite LeGuin stories. Thank you for the sensitive exploration of its message and the lovely images.

  2. I need to find a copy of this LeGuin story because I love the premise as you relayed it to us. All the various organisms have their own realities that we shouldn’t blithely dismiss. Life is an orchestra and everything plays its part. We may find out late in the game that our very human existences may depend on how well the Acacia ant and all the other smaller and unnamed creatures are doing. Hey, if Einstein believed that imagination was more important than knowledge…who am I to argue with him!

    • Even if the ants or all the unnamed creatures of the world have no bearing on our everyday lives, I think their realities have value in and of themselves. Another passage from Le Guin from The Lathe of Heaven:

      “Things don’t have purposes, as if the universe were a machine, where every part has a useful function. What’s the function of a galaxy? I don’t know if our life has a purpose and I don’t see that it matters. What does matter is that we’re a part. Like a thread in a cloth or a grass-blade in a field. It is and we are. What we do is like wind blowing on the grass.”

  3. I wish I’d read your post before I wrote my post on fantasy writing. I mentioned Ursula Le Guin. Thanks for mentioning The Author of Acacia Seeds. I need to add it to my list. Love the quote you used from her acceptance speech.

    I find ants very fascinating, so I’d love to read the piece of ants. 🙂

    • Ooo I’ll check your post out 🙂 I don’t write fantasy – I don’t have the prowess in worldbuilding, but I do admire the genre and the skill of its authors so very much.

      Do check Acacia seeds out – it’s only eight pages long, but it’s funny, poetic, and thought-provoking, as if I haven’t already sung enough about its praises. It definitely captures the strange (only in that it is very different) perspective of ants.

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