A couple of days ago I read one of those books that reaches deep into your heart and wrenches you. I was in my daughter’s brand-new first grade classroom, and the first big meeting between the class parents and the teacher was over, and people were milling around and talking and getting to know each other. In Waldorf education, a single teacher stays with a class without interruption from the first grade through the eighth grade, so at this meeting everyone knew that they were laying the groundwork for relationships that had to stand the test of time. Of course, many of us parents knew each other already from last year’s Kindergarten, and most of us knew our class teacher from earlier work she’d done with the school, and the informal parties and gatherings we’d had over the summer — but still…
I found myself over by the bookshelf. I wondered what books my daughter’s teacher had picked out to get started with — no doubt books with beautiful pictures and simple words for early readers… Here was a magnificent ancient edition of the Billy Goats Gruff, with a neat pop-up mechanism that allowed the reader to see the troll encountering each of the goats one at a time. The biggest billy goat Gruff looked so terrifying that I felt absolutely sorry for the troll.
My eye was drawn to a small paper book called Komo the Shepherd Boy, by Martha Hackman (Green Tiger Press, 1982). The illustrations were stunning — bright watercolors in a sort of “Yellow Submarine” late-60’s style, by Aura Cesari. I thumbed through the pages, and saw that there was quite a bit of text. Obviously, our teacher intended this to be a book that she would read aloud to the class. I was surprised, because in our experience Waldorf teachers tell stories completely from memory, for a number of reasons — perhaps most importantly to allow the children to form their own pictures in their heads, uninfluenced by pictures in a book, and to allow themselves to fully engage the children as they’re speaking…
My eye was caught by a few key phrases. I immediately read the whole thing in two minutes.
The following is my own paraphrase.
Komo the Shepherd Boy
Komo the shepherd boy lived a long time ago when the world was young, and his sheep spoke to him. Not only that, all the animals of the world spoke with him; and so did the grass, the trees, and the stars. Always everywhere around him was the singing of the world, the songs of the forest and the sea and the wind.
One day he began to wonder what the names of the things of the world were. He asked the grass what its name was, and the trees, and the sheep, and the answer was always the same: we have names, but we don’t know what they are. All the names of everything in the world are kept in a great book in a distant land, guarded by a god…
Komo went on a long journey, spoke with the guardian, and was allowed to read the book. He carefully learned the names of everything in the world. They were beautiful names. He learned that the grass was called grass and the trees were called trees and the sheep were called sheep…
But when Komo returned home, he found everything silent. He spoke to the sheep and the grass and the trees, but they would not answer him. And he couldn’t hear the songs of the forest, the sea, or the wind. He had learned the names of everything, and that knowledge gave him great power over them. But now they could no longer speak to him.
He was devastated. But he sat under a tree and fashioned himself a flute, and began to play. And as he played, he thought he could hear a little bit of the song of the world again.
Echoes of the Dark
I was absolutely floored. I felt like I’d been kicked in the stomach. I didn’t even know why it affected me so strongly. My first thought was, she’s going to read this to the class?? I staggered over to her and asked her about the book.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” she said. “The third grade teacher gave it to me. I haven’t read it yet, I’ve just glanced at the pictures. I was going to read it tonight…”
I told her the story in a few words, and her eyes grew wide. She must have been able to tell how the story had struck me, because she immediately gave me a hug.
“Wow,” she said. “That’s something.” She said she would give it a lot of thought before presenting it to the class. Certainly there was nothing wrong with the book, the children would love it… but at what age?
The story appears to be entirely the creation of Martha Hackman — this isn’t a traditional Japanese folktale or anything, as far as I can tell. It most obviously echoes the Garden of Eden story, with the Garden corresponding to Komo’s idyllic life before he reads the book, and the tree’s fruit corresponding to the book of names. But it also echoes the experience of each of us — as we mature around the age of five or so, leaving behind the wonderful world of the very very young, and learning to name everything — putting everything into its little labeled box, and figuring out how all the boxes fit together. But once they’re in the boxes, they won’t come out again. For someone who loves words as much as I do, this dark side of language is hard to face.
Blades of Grass in a Box
But it seems to me that this isn’t just language at fault here. It’s not language that puts things in little boxes; language is just a reflex of our rational thought. In order to reason about anything, you have to categorize it; you’ve got to be able to say how it fits into the larger scheme of the world. Here is a blade of grass: it’s green, it’s thin, it’s short, it grows out of the ground. It fits in the same box with all the other things that share those properties. Give the box a label: grass. Now you can attach other properties to the box. From Wikipedia:
Grasses and grass-like plants have long had significance in human society, having been cultivated as food for domesticated animals for up to 10,000 years. (See grass fed beef.) They have been used for paper-making since at least 2400 BC.
The maintenance of a grass lawn is a sign of a homeowner’s responsibility to the overall appearance of their neighborhood. Many municipalities and homeowner’s associations have rules about this. Some require lawns to be maintained to certain specifications, sanctioning those who allow the grass to grow too long. In communities with drought problems, watering of lawns may be restricted to certain times of day or days of the week…
Now we know quite a bit about grass, don’t we? Putting everything single box is essential for reasoning and learning about them as a group. But every blade of grass is different, and something primordial is lost when you’re looking at a pile of labeled boxes instead of the real world.
Komo’s story is different from the Garden of Eden tale in that a path partial redemption is offered: music made by human hands echoes the song of the world. No one really knows why people make music — like language, it’s basically unique to humanity, but every human does it. It’s found in every culture and tribe on this planet. But it’s not found in any other species. Tribes of chimpanzees make war, get married, raise children, fashion simple tools, play games with rules, and have extraordinarily complex social lives, just as people everywhere do; but they don’t sit around discussing yesterday’s weather, and they don’t sit in a circle beating on sticks in unison. Language and music are universally and uniquely human, and they are tied together — somehow. Was music “given” to us as the antidote for language?
One final thought here. Something Komo’s story doesn’t get quite right is that Names aren’t given to us out of a book. We make them up. Sure, we learn our language from our parents and peers, and so we have a set of basic building blocks to start with. But all of us can make up new words, and change and deepen the meaning of existing words, if only in our own minds.
And through storytelling, we can relabel boxes, and take things out of their boxes and look at them as they really are, and move them into new boxes if we want. When we do that — when we “repackage” a message in new words — our listeners get a new glimpse of what really lies behind the names.
It’s not something we all do easily, because we get used to leaving things in their boxes and never really looking at them. It takes practice and it takes conscious awareness, especially with those boxes that hide things we’d rather not look at. But when we do that — when we dump open the boxes and hold the real world in our fingers — we touch the Source, and hear the music again.