Tawny Grammar

Ordinary Good Writing is like a garden that is producing exactly what you want, by virtue of lots of weeding and cultivating.  What you get is what you plant, like a row of beans.  But really good writing is both inside and outside the garden fence.  It can be a few beans, but also some wild poppies, vetches, mariposa lilies, ceanothus, and some juncos and yellow jackets thrown in.  It is more diverse, more interesting, more unpredictable, and engages with a much broader, deeper kind of intelligence.  Its connection to the wildness of language and imagination helps give it power.

photo copy 3This is what Thoreau meant by the term ‘Tawny Grammar’, as he wrote (in the essay Walking) of ‘this vast, savage, howling mother of ours, Nature, lying all around, with such beauty, and such affection for her children, as the leopard; and yet we are so early weaned from her breast to society…The Spaniards have a good term to express this wild and dusky knowledge, Grammatica parda, tawny grammar, a kind of mother-wit derived from that same leopard to which I have referred.’  The grammar not only of language, but of culture and civilization itself, comes from this vast mother of ours, nature.  ‘Savage, howling’ is another way of describing ‘graceful dancer’ and ‘fine writer’.

photo copy 2The twelfth century Zen Buddhist philosopher Dogen put it this way : To advance your own experience into the world of phenomena is delusion.  When the world of phenomena comes forth and experiences itself, it is enlightenment.  To see a wren in a bush, call it ‘wren’, and go on walking is to have (self-importantly) seen nothing.  To see a bird and stop, watch, feel, forget yourself for a moment, be in the bushy shadows, maybe then feel ‘wren’ – that is to have joined in a larger moment with the world.


In the same way, when we are in the act of playful writing, the mind’s eye is roaming, seeing sights and scenes, reliving events, hearing and dreaming at the same time.  The mind may be reliving a past moment entirely in this moment, so that it is hard to say if the mind is in the past or in some other present.  We move mentally as in a great landscape, and return from it with a few bones, nuts, or drupes, which we keep as language.  We write to deeply heard but distant rhythms, out of a fruitful darkness, out of a moment without judgement or object.  Language is a part of our body and woven into the seeing, feeling, touching, and dreaming of the whole mind as much as it comes from some localized ‘language center’.

From Gary Snyder’s essay Language Goes Both Ways

photoImages from yesterday’s outing to Geilston Garden, Helensburgh

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One thought on “Tawny Grammar

  1. Pauline says:

    Looks like an interesting garden!!

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