A Language Older Than Words

In A Language Older Than Words, author Derrick Jensen explores the relationship between silencing and clearcutting, between abuse of human beings and abuse of salmon, and offers us a different way to listen. This passage is taken from the opening of the book.


By Derrick Jensen

There is a language older by far and deeper than words. It is the language of bodies, of body on body, wind on snow, rain on trees, wave on stone. It is the language of dream, gesture, symbol, memory. We have forgotten this language. We do not even remember that it exists.

In order for us to maintain our way of living, we must, in a broad sense, tell lies to each other, and especially to ourselves. It is not necessary that the lies be particularly believable. The lies act as barriers to truth. These barriers to truth are necessary because without them many deplorable acts would become impossibilities. Truth must at all costs be avoided. When we do allow self-evident truths to percolate past our defences and into our consciousness, they are treated like so many hand grenades rolling across the dance floor of an improbably macabre party.

We try to stay out of harm’s way, afraid they will go off, shatter our delusions, and leave us exposed to what we have done to the world and to ourselves, exposed as the hollow people we have become. And so we avoid these truths, these self-evident truths, and continue the dance of world destruction.

As is true for most children, when I was young I heard the world speak.

Stars sang. Stones had preferences. Trees had bad days. Toads held lively discussions, crowed over a good day’s catch. Like static on a radio, schooling and other forms of socialization began to interfere with my perception of the animate world, and for a number of years I almost believed that only humans spoke.

The gap between what I experienced and what I almost believed confused me deeply. It wasn’t until later that I began to understand the personal, political, social, ecological, and economic implications of living in a silenced world.

The silencing is central to the workings of our culture.

The staunch refusal to hear the voices of those we exploit is crucial to our domination of them. Religion, science, philosophy, politics, education, psychology, medicine, literature, linguistics, and art have all been pressed into service as tools to rationalize the silencing and degradation of women, children, other races, other cultures, the natural world and its members, our emotions, our consciences, our experiences, and our cultural and personal histories.


Derrick Jensen is a long time environmental campaigner, activist, writer and founding member of Deep Green Resistance. He has published Endgame, The Culture of Make Believe, A Language Older than Words, and many other books.

Featured image by Max Wilbert.

One thought on “A Language Older Than Words”

  1. Well, that’s one way to sell a book, Derrick — give us just enough to think, “This is going to be good!” — and then stop! I’ve gotta buy this one.

    I’m not going to try to guess all he was going to say about silenced voices and disregarded, self-evident truths. But here are two of my favorites:

    1) Long before I heard of environmentalism (probably even a year or two before Rachel Carson published “Silent Spring”), I started wondering things like, “Isn’t there a potential problem, if civilization is growing, and the planet isn’t?” or, “What happens when we run out of oil?”

    I was about 13, and I didn’t pester grown-ups a lot with such questions. But when I did ask, the answers I got weren’t very reassuring.

    “Human ingenuity is endless” seemed about as credible as, “We could never use up all the oil in the ground.” Both sounded too much like dares. And I wasn’t about to lay a dare on an oil company.

    2) The other thing that bothered me was faith. I went to Sunday School, said my prayers, and memorized the Apostles’ Creed by the time I was 12. But I kept having thoughts like, “If I’m gonna believe this long enough to teach it to my kids, I’m gonna need to see some proof.”

    The reason I mention religious faith and blind assumptions about inexhaustible human inventiveness in the same context is that I have long since realized that faith is what people want you to believe in, when faith is all they’ve got.

    I don’t mean to put down anybody’s religion. Everyone has a right to personal beliefs, including the spiritual. But we DO NOT have the right to make decisions for others or the world, based on blind faith or boundless optimism.

    We nonetheless have leaders today who expect us to take it on faith that our extractionist, consumerist, profit- and growth-driven civilization can go on without divine intervention, or changing the laws of physics. And there isn’t a shred of evidence that God, Jehovah, Allah, Shiva, or Buddha will ever intervene to keep us from destroying ourselves.

    How, then, do we explain such things as all four panelists on one of the Sunday talk shows agreeing that the presidential election will be decided on two questions alone: how Trump handled the pandemic, and who would better manage the economy.

    If there are debates, I’ll be surprised if anyone asks an environmental question that really demands an answer. And we all know there will be no questions such as, “How can we maintain a growth economy in a world of diminishing resources?” Or, “Why do we talk about feeding 10 billion people — rather than convincing parents and national leaders that our best hope is to prevent 10 billion, by having two children per family or less?”

    We now have mainstream scientists, economists, and other experts, warning of an existential, global water crisis in 10 years — and that no known technology will be able to meet our electricity demands by 2040.

    Why do we keep silent on such questions? And why do we take leaders seriously, when they have no amswers?

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