Monday, June 16, 2008

The Words for Honeysuckle

It is mid-June, and along with the foxgloves and campions and the froth of white cow parsley, there is honeysuckle everywhere. Its scent fills the lanes. Every morning walk I take is a feast for the nose as well as for the eyes.

The honeysuckle bloomed early this year. On the first day of the month I noticed it already in flower in several places. Excited by my discovery, I was looking forward to getting home and sharing the news.

A few moments later, I saw a pleasant-looking couple coming around the corner, striding briskly towards me in in their hiking boots, knapsacks on their backs, almost certainly heading for the Coast Path that runs along the clifftops close to here. They smiled as we drew close. And as is the custom in these parts, wished me a polite "Good morning". I responded in kind, adding eagerly that it was a lovely morning and "Look, the honeysuckle is already coming out, just up there."

The man and woman had not broken their stride till then, so were almost past me before they paused and the man said "I beg your pardon?"

I re-burbled my happy news item. At which they smiled again, albeit tentatively, nodded slightly and went on their way.

Only after I was well around the next corner did it dawn on me that they obviously had not understood a word. And only then did I connect that with the careful, phrase-book English of the "Good morning" and the "I beg your pardon?"

As I walked on, I began to think about how easily I could have conveyed the message about the honeysuckle in a just a few simple, wordless gestures: my hand as an unfolding flower, held to the nose, a sniff, an expression of delight, a finger pointing towards the hedge they were soon to pass. Clear. effortless. They would have understood perfectly and watched out, perhaps, for the sight and scent of those first flowers. It would have been a shared moment, a moment of relationship, bypassing the artificial boundaries of language.

It had never occurred to me not to use words. It rarely does. I am a writer. Each day of my life is crammed to the ceiling with words. So that morning's encounter reminded me that although words can build bridges of understanding to connect minds and hearts, they can also build walls of bafflement to separate them.

Watching a young mother whose child was crying so hard he could not tell her what the problem was, I heard her say "Use your words, Joe. Use your words." That wise young woman knew that only by learning to name his chaotic feelings would Joe ever be able to control and understand them.

But there are so many things - like the development of the ego itself - that once learned and mastered need then to be unlearned. Or at least labelled 'optional'. Our automatic turning to the use of words may possibly be one of them.

I hope that couple noticed the honeysuckle anyway, and stopped to smell it. Even if they never did connect it with my message in a foreign language.