The First Tendrils of Communication

For Mel Baggs and Phil Smith, who knew, and know, communion with the wild places better than I can imagine.

Do you remember how you learned to communicate? If you communicate pretty typically, odds are it wasn’t perfect, but it included something like: you reached out socially, and people reached back.

You looked at them; they gazed adoringly back at you.

You smiled; they smiled back and waved. “Hi, Baby! Hi! Oh, what a beautiful face!”

You laughed; they reveled in your chortles and giggles and were silly in the hope that you would laugh again.

You cried; they held you and comforted you and tried to figure out what was making you miserable.

You called out at night; they pulled themselves out of exhausted slumber, scooped you up, and blearily cuddled and fed you.

You made a sound or a gesture, an approximation of standard meaning — or they convinced themselves of that, anyway — they pounced on that and talked back to you. “That’s right! Ma-ma! You know who your mama is! Can you say it again?”

They celebrated your efforts to engage, amplified them, reflected them, and worked to understand them.

The first tendrils of what would eventually grow to be a robust, redundant, and resilient communication system peeked out of you, questing for the sun of human connection and they, who reveled in what developed, with consummate faith in the richness of the soil those tendrils came from, watered and fertilized them; and between you, the communication system bloomed and blossomed into a strong and supple living thing.

You were human: the development of an adaptive and functional communication system was a drive. Once you knew how to communicate with people close by, those who knew you best, you gradually became better and better at communicating with others.

Through communication, you developed — to a greater or lesser degree — the ability to connect with others. And because you were human that, too, was a drive. It probably has been thwarted to at least some extent, just as there are people among whom you feel unheard, or who make you feel unable to understand. But also, you know you can.

Or maybe it wasn’t so easy or so joyous. Maybe the soil was too thin, or the rain too sparse, or the sunlight too filtered. Maybe those who should have nurtured you did not, for reasons within or beyond their control. Maybe the communication system grew slowly. Maybe it bore the signs of hard growth. But again, if you communicate pretty typically, then probably, between whatever you did have and human instinct, those hardy tendrils, doggedly found a way. Communication, connection, after all, is a human drive, and you were, you are, human.

And sure, there are times when you feel lonely, and times when you struggle to express what you want to say, when the living thing between you and others seems battered and bedraggled, beset by drought, but the fundamental ability to engage in human give-and-take is there, waiting, like a cactus, for the rare and precious rain.

But now imagine if your reaching-out is misunderstood or unnoticed, if it is ignored or even discouraged. Imagine if, instead of being showered, or at least drizzled, with nutrients, it is sprayed with pesticide, or even torn out at the roots. Imagine if someone else, like a landscaper who has been educated by those who cultivate formal gardens, decides how you should communucate, and then enforces that decision, stamping out whatever errant shoots creep out of you, and which she sees as weeds. Imagine if your communication system, instead of growing in fertile ground, is constructed in a lab and forcibly buried in you in place of what was already growing but fervently opposed. Imagine if your efforts to communicate and connect — because it is all one thing — elicit not excited reciprocity but measurement, evaluation, strict weeding, and control.

I’m not saying text-based AAC is better than grid-based. I’m not saying any kind of chunk of a communication system is better than any other kind of chunk. I’m not saying to push for that instead of this. I’m saying that a communication system must be one that takes root in the ground where it will live, and that allows for the fullest expression possible of what the ground already contains.

As much as I completely understand the terror a parent feels when they look into the future and cannot imagine what communication is going to look like, as much as I completely understand the hope that a professional seems to offer, who has with a system for forcing the approximation of that which the parent has come to expect natural growth to look like, it’s the wrong choice.

A fear-and-control-based approach to human connection is wrong. You can’t make connection that way. It has to be organic. And yes, there is a time to prune, a time to tell your child not to comment on other people’s bodies, a time to coach your teen in the art of the handshake rather than the hug, a time to mark the trails that those who are welcomed in will follow, but the more tender the shoots of the communication system, the riskier that pruning is.

I am saying when you plan in advance how someone else will communicate, you plan what they will communicate, and then it ceases to be communication. When you enforce a particular way of communication and relentlessly prune anything that does not meet your standards, then what should have become, perhaps, a powerful redwood is trained into a bonsai instead; and a bonsai, however artistically presented, cannot do the work of a tree that has grown as its own nature commanded it. What should have been, perhaps, sorrel, harassed by the controlling landscaper because it is not the violets she wishes it to be, will have leaves so damaged that they cannot absorb the sunshine of connection. And when the landscaper beams at the parents and proclaims, “Nothing worthwhile would have grown here without my efforts, so celebrate this withered stem I have coaxed from earth that was once overrun by weeds!” it is cause for grief, not gratitude.

You may have wanted tulips, and by all means, bury a bulb or two and see what comes up in the Spring, but if the absence of tulips is all that you can think about, you may miss the sweetness of honeysuckle.

One thought on “The First Tendrils of Communication

  1. ….if the absence of tulips is all that you can think about, you may miss the sweetness of honeysuckle…..

    Thank you Cal.

    This sums it all up for me as a mum of a gorgeous 8 year old boy who is beginning to use his words xx


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