This past weekend I joined the Cattail Gathering, an annual ancestral and survival skills training here in Connecticut. Much smaller than the MAPS meet I’ve attended over the years, and with many of the instructors being teachers at Ayhan’s forest school, it felt very familial (and thus a safe-feeling event coming out of a pandemic).
One workshop my family took together—and brand new to me—was on “American Sign Language in Nature.” In this hour and a half, I learned the ASL alphabet and perhaps three dozen nature words—animals, colors, tree, forest, and commands like look, listen, and run.
First of all, even just this little taste made it clear how beautiful the language is.* We often talk about how we like the sound of some languages—such as the sing-songiness of French—and don’t like others. Well, while silent, the art of ASL came across even in just the little I learned.**
This past week I’ve spent some time memorizing the alphabet and words I learned (which of course is made infinitely easier with online videos as I can confirm I got them right). And fortunately, after three years of karate, I am much more of an embodied learner, and memorizing hand movements felt more natural than it might have before I had this experience.
I am already excited to practice this language with my son: to stay silent and not disrupt wildlife while walking quietly in the woods, and be able to say, “Look there in that tree, a hawk.” (Or more accurately as I have no understanding of grammar yet it would be: Look. There. Tree. Hawk.)
But hopefully Ayhan would get what I meant (and wouldn’t get scared that there’s a witch in the tree, which we learned has the same sign as hawk and eagle). And because we stayed silent, the hawk would remain in the tree and the quietude would remain unbroken.
I also admit that I can imagine using this skill in other contexts, including in danger situations (including witch attacks). The sign we learned for “Run” felt especially relevant in the American context (where gun violence is endemic): make two finger guns, one in front of the other, hook the one behind onto the thumb of the one in front, pull the trigger on the front one and move your two hands forward.
I hope my worst fears about the future don’t manifest but when the present is as it is (with customers shooting cashiers dead because the latter ask the former to wear masks; with heightening racial violence and inequity; with mass shootings now common; and a country awash in guns) it seems wise to be able to communicate basic commands silently.
Signing with Humility
That said, just as with ancestral skills, there is a risk of appropriation whenever adopting or utilizing a skill out of context. I do not know how those in the Deaf community feel about the sweeping use of sign language to help communicate with babies. Though this New York Times essay (by a Deaf individual) explores that question in detail—both the positives, like exposing the hearing community to the beauty and usefulness of the language (including for visual learners or cognitively different individuals), as well as the negatives, such as the design of baby sign videos that exclude Deaf children (no subtitles and heavily reliant on spoken words) and the discouragement of any deeper engagement with ASL beyond some simple signs (including the author’s parent-friends not signing with her).
Upon reflection, I certainly just took the skill unthinkingly. Exhausted as I was caring for an infant (and figuring out how to be a father) I expediently learned the signs I wanted and then stopped using them when my son could speak. Perhaps learning from a book, and not learning or sharing beautiful signs like forest, was my mistake; baby sign language is very utilitarian: more, enough, please, etc. Plus not having a language partner makes sustaining a language difficult, but now I have a nine-year old to learn and practice with.
As with ancestral skills, if we consciously acknowledge the gift with proper gratitude and respect, and don’t try to co-opt it, I hope this humility will be accepted. But as with how Americans treated Indigenous people, Deaf people also faced oppression. As our instructor noted, teachers would hit Deaf children’s hands in classrooms if they started signing (such as at this school for the Deaf, which sadly sounds similar to the Indian schools that were designed to strip away Native Americans’ cultures and languages).***
So being very sensitive to that history (and ongoing marginalization) and acting accordingly is essential. Our instructor noted, for example, that it would not be appropriate for hearing individuals to do ASL poetry (which is beautiful) and that Sign Names are given to you not taken. But ASL is powerful and I am excited to (humbly) learn some: enough at least to sign—and sustain silence—in nature and to be able to greet a Deaf person in their language.****
Note: I shared some video links to words, and when possible I chose videos that at least had subtitles (or were silent) and included Deaf communicators.
*Even the sign for coronavirus is pretty!
**Not the case when I learned a few signs (from a book) when my son was a baby. But the recent film The Sound of Metal (which I found beautiful) surely primed me for this experience too.
***Here is a fascinating journal article on how Deaf children taught each other how to sign in an “oppositional pedagogy” at schools where signing was banned. I wish children were peer teaching oppositional pedagogy in other oppressive contexts too: climate education in climate denial school cultures; comprehensive sexuality education in abstinence schools; critical race theory where institutional racism dominates; and so on.
****Or more correctly a Deaf person who speaks ASL. It turns out there are up to 300 forms of sign language in the world. Check out some of the many alphabets here! And knowing my own limits, I’ll then switch to writing to communicate. As I learned from our instructor, you shouldn’t assume Deaf people read lips (so keep that in mind).