Liminal

“The short man followed, limping, terrific, crablike.”

Nearly through reading 900 pages of Faulkner short stories, and can’t get rid of the sentence above. For some reason. Yesterday, while doing research for a story I’m writing, I came across a Cree word that any bird hunter would appreciate: “Papêtikwâskopaniow.”

I wish I could pretend I knew how to pronounce it. But it means the thundering sound a partridge makes with its wings when it takes off.

We’re always, all of us, until we die, in between things. Words and sentences stick with us, for some reason or reasons (often inexplicable), that mark a point in time and place that’s there as a kind of anchor. I’m sure I’m driving Leslie crazy by randomly repeating (usually as she’s about to fall asleep at night) that sentence from Faulkner’s story “Death Drag.” I can’t explain why I like it so much, but I know I do and am fine with leaving it at that. Then there’s the Cree word, which I might say a lot about. Each of these linguistic landmarks will bookend a moment in my life later on that will remind me I was in the middle of something intense here, in this case not really the kind of intensity I would choose, but just one of those life things that we’re always in the middle of. My stepmom likes to say, after an emotional response to something, that she was “in the middle of being moved.” It’s like that. But it seems, probably for everyone, that we’re always in the middle of something, whether it’s being moved or not. For me, this marked moment has to do with moving. And it’s moving, too. But see, that’s another story.

The Cree word, for obvious reasons, struck me. When I came across it I was simply looking for the Swampy Cree (“N Dialect”) word for “hello” on an online Cree dictionary. Hello? Maybe you can think of the thunderous surprise of a grouse busting right at your feet as a kind of greeting. More likely, the word came up because of a coding glitch. But I’ll take the connection; it makes some sense. The bird flipping you the bird? There are all kinds of ways to say, and all kinds of ways to interpret, “hello.” Lookout, idiot! Nice to see you again. Is anyone there? The word itself is liminal, and the context and how we see it gives it its meaning. One of my favorite lines from Hamlet nails it: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

Papêtikwâskopaniow. Good: it’s beautiful to me, enviable even, that the Cree have a single word that captures such an incredible, shocking, powerful, complex experience, especially if you’re a bird hunter. Bad: English doesn’t. But then, these judgments are of course culturally contingent and biased. Liminal. Can we say it matters who we are and where we come from? Who gets to say that? And who gets to say how we feel about killing a bird?

We do. We must. So what do you say?

One thing I love about the Cree word is the agency it gives to the partridge. Some of us talk about “fair chase,” so this matters. For Cree, and most First Nation people, “prey” are so much more than that. This word makes it clear it’s the bird who makes the sound with its wings, and it’s a specific kind of sound. One word. You’ve experienced the sound. When you replay that moment reflected by that word I would bet your brain slows it down so you can see it, so you can get in the middle of it. Liminal. The bird is leaving one place and going to another, and anyone who’s watched a big dusky grouse do this in dense woods or even in grassland knows that even that bird doesn’t know for a while exactly where it’s going. And when it’s a covey of chukar, or waves of a super-covey, what then? The sensations. And where does this leave you? Do you shoot? Can you?

6 Replies to “Liminal”

  1. Glad you are back writing about birds! I’m hanging out where you used to live. Experiencing some exciting flushes. Sometimes the last few hundred yards to the truck make me feel a bit like Faulkners’ guy. Hope you get moved and have time to chase some birds with your buddies!
    Larry

  2. I am sure you are aware of an early theory positing an onomatopoeic origin of language.
    I really have no idea when the theory fell out of favor, but it does resonate occasionally with certain words.

    In my attempt at pronunciation, Papêtikwâskopaniow does seem to imitate the sound of a flushing grouse, particularly the plosive beginning. With a little imagination “papetikwasko” is the startling flush and “paniow” is the sigh of the startled woodsman.

    I’m certain that my imaginative interpretation is completely wrong, but it does lead me to wonder what the Nez Perce word is for “Dang hand sure hurts from that hopelessly imbedded cactus spine”.

    As for the Faulkner quote, I am struck by the adjective “terrific”. I believe our modern definition, driven by overuse through popular culture, (like amazing! and perfect!) has wrenched the word away from its original moorings in the Latin “terribilis”.

    Faulkner’s use is shocking to the modern reader who balks at the context of “Death Drag” encompassing a word widely interpreted as a delightful positive.

    Liminal is a perfect word in the context of grouse hunting. Edge cover is liminal, the boundary between brush-tangled alders and young jack firs. The wild flush is liminal, the imperceptible membrane between terror and delight.

    Perhaps a grouse hunter’s life is the liminal boundary between oblivion and eternity? That might make a viable seed for poetry if it were possible to ground those unruly abstractions.

    I am grateful for your blog! You always give me something to think about. After all, grouse hunting without thoughtful consideration is simply not worth the time.

    By the way… did you ever find the Cree word for “Hello”?

    1. Thanks so much, Jon, for your super-thoughtful response. It gave me a lot to think about, too. I like your onomatopoeic exploration of the Cree word, and see some sense in it, but also reserve deference for total ignorance of pretty much all linguistics but especially Native language history… When I think about what I wrote, I now realize that my seizing on “terrific” in the Faulkner story (and he uses that adjective a LOT in stories of this period) epitomizes the definition of liminal. As for “the” Cree word for hello: I have found at least three totally different words, and am still trying to figure out which would be more common in the area I’m writing about. I probably need to take a trip. Thanks again for your rich comment. (Sorry for the delayed response.)

      1. Tansi! My exhaustive, 10 second, internet search found that Cree greeting which literally translated to “how” meaning how are you? That is the sum of my knowledge of Cree, but hey… it’s more than I knew 2 minutes ago!
        That got me thinking about another tangential word mystery. If you take the Oxford Dictionary and set it next to any dictionary of Norwegian, Swedish or Danish, you can’t help but be struck by the sheer dominance of the English in comparison, the volume of the volume, so to speak. We English speakers appear at first glance to have about twice as many words as the Scandinavian languages. So that led me to ponder the value of our English words which, by standard economics must be worth about half of the words of the Vikings. Maybe you just don’t need as many words if you have scary looking helmets and big swords?
        English must have a ton of words and phrases for hello. Greetings, Hi, Yo, Hey, What’s up, How’s it going, etc. etc.
        On a completely unrelated note I was in Idaho last week and found all my favorite spots were snowed in. I could reach a couple of them on plowed roads, but when I got there the snow was too deep for walking without snowshoes. I finally gave up and sought out some lower elevations for ruffed grouse. We had one very productive day that helped ease the pain of failure from earlier in the week. I’m currently pouring over maps and obsessing about boat-access because I like boats a lot more than snowshoes.

Chirp away

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