Originally published in Periphery Magazine ; Audio version here
Listen. There was a time when people did not speak. The entire human vocabulary consisted of a single noise. It was an even hum, a length of m’s strung together, monosyllabic and vowel-free. “Mmm” one might say, and the response would be “mmm” right back.
These early sounds carried only one meaning: acceptance. A birth or a death, a sunrise or a sunset, a flood or a fire, a snowflake or a bud: each was greeted without bias or emotion. It simply was, so it was simply accepted. Mmm.
Acceptance begets acceptance, so humans rarely spoke alone. When someone let out an “mmm,” it would often meet the ear of another person who, likely enough, was feeling acceptance right at that moment, or who wished to say “I accept your acceptance” and would “mmm” in return. The mmm’s merged together and the song grew.
And, when enough humans mmm’d together at just the right tone, the hum would catch at something invisible deep in the ground. There is only one resonant frequency of the planet, and the human hum matched the chord. Vibrating like a guitar string plucked by human voices, the very earth would sing- humming its one beautiful pure note, sounding its acceptance in return. Of all the animals, only humans could cause the earth to hum, which is why the humans were entrusted as the Keepers of the Earth. This bond was reinforced each time they joined together in the sacred communion of acceptance. Mmm.
At this time, there was no hate, because there was no sound for it. There was no love, because there was no word for it. Emotions existed, but they were like shadows that the heart never cast in the universal light of acceptance. There was only one thought, only one feeling, and only one note but it was perfectly tuned. It was that way for a very long while.
Listen– A woman and a man lay in the early afternoon sun. They joined their bodies together in the way people sometimes do, and occasionally they would “mmm” in the way that people sometimes did. Within that the moment when tension gives way to release, the woman’s acceptance crossed over into something more and she cried out: “mmm!” It was the same noise as every other human noise had always been, yet something about it was undeniably different. That’s because it didn’t mean “I accept” or “I acknowledge” or even “I concur,” it meant “YES.” Through the experience of pleasure, she had come to know approval, and a new word was conceived.
With their bodies still intertwined, the man stopped and stared at the woman. Her eyes shone and her lips curled up at the edges- it was the first smile the man had ever seen. Seeing her this way, something shifted in his heart and he understood what she had meant. He spoke back at her in the new way. “Mmm!” “Yes.” “I agree with your agreement.” “What we did was good and what you said about what we did was good” all this was said with the new sound. The feeling was utterly new but immediately recognizable. Yes.
Approval begets approval, and so the new sound spread rapidly. Humans began using their noises to agree with things: “mmm” to a sunrise, “mmm” to a meal, “mmm” to pleasure. It was a beautiful time of affirmation and encouragement and approval. When enough mmm’s were hummed, the earth still sang back, but it was weaker than before because the sound was changed, and it was shorter than before because these mmm’s caused the people to break out laughing, so great was their joy.
Listen– A woman watched as her father lay weak on his deathbed. She had witnessed many passings in her life, but none since the new word had been born. She hummed over his frail body, a song of acceptance of his release from life, a song of approval of what he had done with it– and then, the old man’s peaceful stillness was broken by a sudden shallow gasp, and his last living breath passed through his open lips. The woman’s song caught in her throat and the tone shifted: “mmmm!” This sound, it was the same but also different. It was not an expression of acceptance or approval. It was a rejection, a dismissal, a curse: “NO.” The woman had discovered pain and its remnants were this new word.
The other mourners looked at the woman. There was an ache in her eyes and her cheek was wet. It was the first tear they had ever seen. The anguished sound carried a feeling that echoed in the heart of each person and the room broke out in a swell of “mmm.” Together they joined to express a sorrow that they never knew existed with this new sort of sound.
Disapproval begets disapproval, and the new sound spread rapidly. The chorus of consensus was broken and people began to speak this other “mmm” to lament and dissent and express discontent. It was unpleasant but satisfying. Some people tried to stop it but they could not, because there can be no head without a hind and there can be no “yes” without a “no,” not for long anyway. And once their hearts had grown to know the emotion of pain, truly there was no going back. When enough mmms were hummed, the earth still sang back, but it was even weaker than before because the sound was distorted, and it was shorter than before because these mmm’s caused the people to break out crying, so great was their sadness.
From there, new noises with new meanings continued to come about. Like ever-expanding concentric circles, each new sound revealed another, until there were “mmms” of every possible kind. There was an “mmm” that meant “I’m tired,” an “mmm” that meant “are you sure?” There was an “mmm” that meant “I don’t know” and an “mmm” that meant “I dare you.” There was an “mmm” that meant “I love you” and even an “mmm” that meant “I love you too.” People were limited only by the physical range of their voices– it was an exciting and occasionally noisy time.
As the mmms expanded, so did people’s emotional capacity. Human hearts learned to express feelings that matched every variation of the sound and every situation that prompted it. With so many things to communicate, there were abundant occasions to speak, and the constant vibrations of the humming noises sang out all the more. The “mmms” created chords and dischords, harmonies and disharmonies. When enough mmm’s were hummed, the earth shuddered and sputtered, but it did not truly sing as it had once before.
Listen– A woman bent over a bowl of rice as she prepared a meal for her family. Suddenly, a crow landed on her shoulder and with a booming “maw!” he snatched a grain from her bowl and flew away. The woman was so startled that called “mmmaw!” in response. Now she was doubly surprised- she had spoken an entirely new sound for the first time. The noise brought with it a new sort of feeling– the crow had taken something and the woman wanted it back. She watched as the crow returned to his flock and cackled and crowed with the other birds. “Maw” they all said to each other and she understood. This was a word of possession, of ownership, of competition. “Mine.”
The woman dropped her meal preparations and ran to share the discovery with her neighbors. From their doorsteps, they heard the sound of a crow coming from the body of a woman. Seeing her parted lips as she belted out the sound, they understood the power of this innovation and they immediately wanted the new sound for themselves. They responded in turn. “Maw!”
Change begets change, and it was not long before people turned to other animals for inspiration. From the cat they adopted a rattling “prrrr,” from the dog, they acquired a clipped “rart!,” from the other birds they delighted in a dizzying array of sounds from “liip” to “skree” to “walloo” and “tititi” and many many, many more. People wondered how it was that they had heard these sounds so many times before but never taken them for themselves. Eagerly they stretched their mouths, lips, tongues and throats in strange new ways, speaking in a jangle of sounds. They gained access to consonants and vowels and configurations previously untapped until words developed, then sentences, then languages.
As the range of noises expanded, so did people’s intellectual capacity. Each new meaning gave rise to a new thought, and the human mind expanded to ever-greater reaches of knowledge. Like a cauldron of entropy, new words and new ideas bubbled forth.
In time, humans became so intelligent that they learned how to master the world around them. They tamed and caged wild animals. They engineered massive structures. They mined rich minerals deep in the earth. As people’s brains got smarter and their dominion over the earth increased, they lost respect for other beings. They began to think that their power meant they were better and that their control gave them license to exploit. They began to think that Keepers of the Earth meant People over Earth.
All the while, people talked and talked. With so much to say, they no longer bothered to mmm.
A hummingbird in an orchard of diluted nectar may stick its tongue down every flower but never extract satisfaction from the faded fluid. A person in a world of modern language may lend his voice to every word but never conjugate fulfillment from the flat sounds. Words could never give what the hum gives so freely, but the humans had lost it, they became head-wise and heart-foolish. They forgot to remember the keystone beneath it all. They forgot to remember that the world used to murmur back.
Sometimes the earth would agitate itself with a quake and a sputter, in a weak and desperate attempt to remind humans of what they are capable of together, but such tremors only made the people talk more. The earth, weary with the effort of strumming itself, returned back to dormancy like a bear who wakes to find that the long winter has not yet passed. The earth has not truly resonated with its own songs for centuries.
Listen. One day, there will be a pair of lovers in a crowded bar. The voices of the crowd will clamor together loudly and the couple will not be able to hear each other speak. Their minds will be full of thoughts but their words will be useless in the throng. So, the woman will draw close to the man and she will utter a single sound against the soft of his neck: “mmm.” He will feel the vibration of her sound, he will feel her acceptance of that moment and of him and of what they are sharing, and he will be overcome with its purity. “Mmm” he will say in return. Their eyes will meet and they will sing their simple song together, feeling the peace of that noise and knowing in the base of their souls that there is some truth to what they have just done.
In time, they will have a child. They will greet her each morning “mmm” and each night’s lullaby will be “mmm.” They will “mmm” to her first step and fiercest tantrum and silent sigh. They will feel a quality in every “mmm” that removes their desire to speak and eases their need to be right and that gently hums them into an acceptance they had never known before.
Together, as a family, they will sing as one.
One day, because unity begets unity, more people will join in. The words of the unfinished sentences will fall from people’s mouths and they will join the song. The different words and languages and tones will start off disjointed, but they will merge and converge and settle into a single tone until each dialect’s and tribe’s and individual’s sounds engage into one perfect harmony.
People will be overcome with the power that their simple song has to join them together, but even so, they will be humbled by what comes next: the very earth will tremble.
It will tremble in recognition of a sound more powerful than all the words of all the languages that have ever been and can ever be spoken. The birds will call out and the animals will shift and pace, anxious in the face of the aura looming. The miners low in the caves and the builders high on the skyscrapers will lock eyes in fear of the unstable ground beneath them, but the power of their unity and the purity of the chord will keep them from dropping the note.
Then, at last, the earth will pick up the song. To the unfamiliar ears of the people, this sound will seem to come from nowhere and everywhere. It will envelop them completely like a sweet wind that carries away every thought or judgment and leaves behind only truth, this is the song of universal acceptance.
Though no living soul will know it, the sound will be ever-so-slightly different from was it was once before, a flat note made sharp from the carved-out caves and mounded-up mountains that altered the planet’s resonance. The earth will be changed by what the people have done to it and the people will be changed by what they have done to the earth. The humans can no sooner forget their intelligence than a plate of glass can be reassembled, their hearts can no more easily un-feel feelings than can minerals be un-mined from the earth. But it will not truly matter that the players have changed. What will matter is that there is still a frequency at which the voices of the earth and its people intersect and that they can still commune together after all they have been through.
Amidst the hum of our native tongue, humans will once again become worthy of their post as the Keepers of the Earth, and all will give way to acceptance of that great and glorious mmmmmmmmm.
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