What is it about that word? Aroostook. The County, they call it here in Maine.
A word is a tiny thing, a written word. It is smaller than a leaf—a word printed on a page. Rarely as big as a blade of grass. Don’t even bother comparing its size to a tree. And yet…. Words conjure trees: trees doubled by wind … a hemlock, its crown pushed down, boughs thrashing on a gale.
A word is a little member, but mighty. You lay one behind another, but they bunch up and pile themselves into structures, images, emoting pictures. They breathe on you, rousing. An idea is extended, whole houses of mentalities ….Flowers are identified by them, the contents of fields. Plots are sold, injustices revealed, societies laid bare. Little word.
Stone. Or fish. Arrow. Branch.
Heart/core. They resonate. All primal, designating. We sit and turn pagefuls. We work for years placing a bookful, just so. Each and every word. They are read in hours, forgotten in moments … or change the course of lives.
What mystery is housed in the word forest? Evergreen boughs upturned in mist, crowned with cones, breathing leaves. Respiring vapors, fragrance. Exchanging gases with humans who shelter beneath.
Words are but symbols for associations. Fine lines, minute fragments, are curved, spliced, intersected with precision, black on white … only to invoke something not themselves. A written word knows it is nothing, hides itself to give you … a fish—iridescent with gills, twitching there in the shallows.
Fish and Stone, and Arrow and Tree are all Anglo-Saxon in origin. They are primal, mythopoeic. This is what J.R.R. Tolkien said, mythologist and master of words. A mighty philologist, he was called by words. According to T.A. Shippey, in his Road To Middle-earth, the language of Goths (Gothic) fueled Tolkien’s passion—although its fragments were few. The language could only be inferred, so little was known of it. Scraps preserved in script, that’s all. One scrap is atta Attila, or daddy Attila, a reference to Attila the Hun. Tolkien relished it. Hearing these words stirred the word-master, because they imparted volumes of understanding about the Goths, who were overrun and their heritage plundered by Huns. So why was Attila, who was their destroyer, referred to by them with familial devotion? This phrase salted the spectacle of legend, of antiquity, for Tolkien, demonstrating that Goths joined their enemies in spoiling their own heritage. And I find it a salient metaphor of humanity’s spiritual heritage: a fall from paradise, telling ourselves a story, forsaking the truth.
Try the word Story itself. From the American Heritage Dictionary: via Middle English, Norman French, Latin (historia), Greek: Wisdom. In story, we have the source and house of our imaginations. Marriage and divorce are each results of the stories we tell ourselves. Heads—of both the grossest criminal and the most thoughtful astrophysicist—teem with theories, stories phrased in numbers, words.
Now try county. The County.
I sat in the Ohio kitchen with books spread out, having just read a word. I said the word aloud. Some one little called. A door whanged. I stood automatically, walked three steps, reached up and got out peanut butter. There was white cold milk in the refrigerator, and soft bread speckled with cracked wheat on the counter. The word Aroostook was thickening against the roof of my mouth.
It’s been years, but that’s how I remember it. I’d like to go there. But, driving the Town Road today, my spouse Allen asks, “Why Aroostook? Why is it so important to you?”
The word must be highly selective.
It was the back road, going toward our own county seat. The Western Maine ponds—limpid, green, and cut with lights—were behind us in a fold of the old hills.
My words were purely explanatory: about that Ohio kitchen twelve years behind. About the endless prehistoric forest in some corner of a distant northern state. About that forest’s ablation into a sea of pine stumps; each five, six, or seven feet in diameter. And how potatoes now grew in their stead. Aroostook was now an aisle of civilization bordering a rolling plain of farms, edging, in turn, a great industrial north woods filled with thin trees. And I had been listening to its story.
Aroostook, I said, is the mystique of exploring Aroostook.
What I did not say was that I explore words, search out their meanings and mysteries. Use them to evoke more mystery. We write words because we are called by the Word.
© S. Dorman
Dorman has lived in Maine and studied its ways for thirty-five years. Maine Metaphor: The Green and Blue House is her first book in the series of Maine creative nonfiction, put out by Wipf& Stock. This essay is used by permission of W&S. Review copies may be requested at the publisher’s website.