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The Place Where You Go to Listen

Landscape, Photo: Dennis Keeley

"Songs are thoughts which are sung out with the breath when people let themselves be moved by a great force, and ordinary speech no longer suffices.

When the words that we need shoot up of themselves, we have a new song."

-- Orpingalik, a Netsilik elder

They say that she heard things...

At Naalagiagvik, The Place Where You Go To Listen, she would sit alone, in stillness. The wind across the tundra and the little waves lapping on the shore told her secrets. Birds passing overhead spoke to her in strange tongues.

She listened. And she heard. But she rarely spoke of these things. She did not question them. This is the way it is for one who listens.

She spent many days and nights alone, poised with the deep patience of the hunter, her ears and her body attuned to everything around her. Before the wind and the great sea, she took for herself this discipline: always to listen.

She listened for the sound, like drums, of the earth stirring in ancient sleep. She listened for the sound, like stone rain, as rivers of caribou flooded the great plain. She listened, in autumn, for the echo of the call of the last white swan.

She understood the languages of birds. In time, she learned the quiet words of the plants. Closing her eyes, she heard small voices whispering:

"I am uqpik. I am river willow. I am here."

"I am asiaq. I am blueberry. I am here."

The wind brought to her the voices of her ancestors, the old ones, who taught that true wisdom lives far from humankind, deep in the great loneliness.

As she traveled, she listened to the voices of the land, voices speaking the name of each place, carrying the memories of those who live here now and those who have gone.

As she listened, she came to hear the breath of each place -- how the snow falls here, how the ice melts--how, when everything is still -- the air breathes. The drums of her ears throbbed with the heartbeat of this place, a particular rhythm that can be heard in no other place.

Often, she remembered the teaching of an old shaman, who spoke of silam inua -- the inhabiting spirit, the voice of the universe. Silam inua speaks not through ordinary words, but through fire and ice, sunshine and calm seas, the howling of wolves, and the innocence of children, who understand nothing.

In her mind, she heard the words of the shaman, who said of silam inua: "All we know is that it has a gentle voice like a woman, a voice so fine and gentle that even children cannot be afraid".


The heart of winter: She is listening.

Darkness envelopes her -- heavy, luminous with aurora. The mountains, in silhouette, stand silent. There is no wind.

The frozen air is transparent, smooth and brittle; it rings like a knifeblade against bone. The sound of her breath, as it freezes, is a soft murmuring, like cloth on cloth.

The muffled wingbeats of a snowy owl rise and fall, reverberating down long corridors of dream, deep into the earth.

She stands, motionless, listening to the resonant stillness. Then, slowly, she draws a new breath. In a voice not her own, yet somehow strangely familiar, she begins to sing...



This piece has appeared in The North American Review (March/April 1998), and in Terra Nova (Volume 2, Number 3).

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