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Language Garden

Does an orangutan find freedom in the gift of words? Do we?

by Susanne Antonetta

Published in the March/April 2005 issue of Orion magazine



Photograph by Stuart Conway, used with permission

A MAN I KNOW, NED MARKOSIAN, teaches a doctrine called presentism. In presentism the past and the future don’t exist. Aristotle is dead; therefore, there was no Aristotle. We meet to talk about this over coffee, maybe the ultimate nonpresentist drink. He has applied for and gotten tenure, and writes and publishes, hurling himself into that unreality, the future.

I have been thinking about presentism lately, and consciousness, and language. Linguist Derek Bickerton wrote, “Only language could have broken through the prison of immediate experience in which every other creature is locked, releasing us into infinite freedoms of space and time.” To theorists like Bickerton, language is the tearing apart of temporality. To others, like Jaron Lanier, consciousness, kissing kin to language, traps us in time, in “the very concept of a present moment.”

Wondering about all this, I fly to speak with an orangutan named Chantek. He lives in a habitat on the grounds of Zoo Atlanta in Georgia, where he was placed after a stint at Yerkes Primate Center and before that, life in the home of his “cross foster-mother,” as anthropologist Lyn Miles calls herself. She raised him as a signing infant from the age of nine months, rearing him as much as possible as a human child. Lyn toilet-trained Chantek and gave him chores, like cleaning his room, and an allowance. His favorite thing to spend it on is fast food from McDonald’s, and his weight threatens to be a lifelong problem. He has ballooned to twice the weight of a normal male orangutan. If he’s granted legal rights, as Lyn would like him to be, he could join a fast-food class-action lawsuit and become not just the most verbal but the richest orang in the world. (But in the interests of Chantek’s heart, no McDonald’s for now.)

When our van pulls up to Chantek’s habitat he swings out onto one of its inside branches and asks for bottled water, which he calls “car water,” since Lyn usually has some in her car. He’s particular about bottled waters, preferring Naya. Chantek appears as harmlessly shaggy as a Sesame Street figure, the color of a November pumpkin, the size of an enormous easy chair. Because of his strength, though, we’re not allowed into his habitat, so he kisses and strokes Lyn through the bars.

I know very little sign, so Lyn asks Chantek to teach me some. Chantek has an active vocabulary of about three hundred words and a passive vocabulary of a thousand or more, which he can comprehend either by speech or by sign. We start with the basics.

Teach her apple, says Lyn.

Chantek shows me apple, brushing his cheek. I mimic him, and Good, he signs, then asks Lyn what’s wrong with her hand, which has a scratch on the knuckle.

I did it cleaning, she tells him, and he makes a grimace of sympathy, then asks to touch and kiss it.

Lyn introduces me as Writer—which becomes my sign name—the friend of Dawn You Made A Necklace For. Chantek has had surgery recently on his laryngeal flap, the long black fold under the chin that makes orangs look like some kind of colonial barrister, and she asks him how he’s feeling, if the suture’s healing okay. Yes, says Chantek, he’s fine. He has missed Lyn and wants to play ball. Oh, and there’s poop on the other side of the habitat, presumably left there by his companion, Sibu; it’s dirty and he’d like it removed.

Lyn and Chantek speak head to head; her disorderly reddish hair makes them look for a second like mother and son, a repetitious mother, a leaning son anxious not to misunderstand. I stand there like anyone hanging around two family members who chat familiarly, neither of whom you know very well; you try to find ways to interject yourself into the conversation. Mine turns out to be no more mysterious than a bag of yellow raisins, which Chantek loves and my five-year-old son Jin, who flew here with me, got tired of. In other words, with one part of my mind I’m aware of the fact that I’m doing this slightly unreal thing, talking with an orangutan. With another, I’m just a socially awkward person in a group, hoping I don’t say anything stupid, and that I can perhaps say or do something a little memorable.

“Sad,” Chantek says when we, or more precisely, Lyn, leaves.

CHANTEK USES WORDS plus gestures to speak: He might tell Lyn “I you talk,” indicating the other side of the cage, when he wants privacy from me—from my keen and almost predatory listening—as he does several times when I’m there. (He insists on privacy to discuss the poop situation.) His inability or unwillingness to use complicated syntax puts him at a child’s linguistic level, as do other behaviors. In some ways, his resemblance to Jin and every other human child in the world cracks me up. When we give him an apple and ask him to share it with his habitat-mate Sibu, he carefully pulls off a crumb of apple-flesh and hands it to her, the way Jin will share a bit of cookie. “Really share or you can’t have any more,” Lyn scolds orally, and he resignedly breaks off half. He signs over and over—begs—for ice cream and cheeseburgers. Other things I see show a sophistication a child wouldn’t have. Chantek, as always, dabs his mouth clean after eating but surprises both Lyn and me by folding the napkin to a fresh side and sponging out the sutured part of his laryngeal flap, which tends to catch food crumbs. He has never cleaned this area in the past and seems to realize the suture needs special attention. Sibu, an orang who has never had human acculturation, grabs a napkin and begins wiping her own mouth as she watches his slow and deliberate swipes. It’s not quite the apes throwing bones in the air in front of a monolith from the film 2001, but Sibu has clearly, at that moment, absorbed a piece of culture.

A project called ApeNet is working to put video feeds into Chantek’s cage, to enable him to talk to Koko, a gorilla in California who also signs—an interspecies chat undertaken in terms of human language but not directed by humans.

“We want to find out what challenges them, what gives their life meaning,” says Lyn. It occurs to me that we have no protocol that answers these questions about ourselves. Maybe we are, like the proverbial screwballs who go into the field of psychiatry, posing the questions we would like to force ourselves to answer.

Whatever meaning we find in the world must be crammed into a mighty short space. Marcus Aurelius reminds us: “. . .the longest life and the shortest amount to the same thing. For the passing minute is every man’s equal possession, but what has once gone by is not ours. When the longest- and the shortest-lived of us come to die, their loss is precisely equal. For the sole thing of which any man can be deprived is the present…”

Consciousness—in the sense of self-awareness or inner narration—is our prison to Lanier and our freedom to Bickerton. Most would agree it’s a small world. As consciousness studies have grown over the past decade, as we think about our thoughts, we realize how much thought itself is an inconsequential thing—our present lasts about two to fifteen seconds, according to Merlin Donald, author of the book A Mind So Rare. Our mind’s a blip, elegantly borne in the litter of a body that’s mostly four-billion-year-old water. We’re the ultimate May-December marriage.

THE TERM PERSONHOOD gets used a lot in the field of animal intelligence. The website Lyn set up proclaims Chantek the “World’s First Orangutan Person and Ambassador for the Rainforest” over a headshot of him, looking solemn and ambassadorial. Personhood means conscious awareness—language, acculturation, socialization to such a degree that rights would have to be conferred under the law. How, I wonder, might animals see us, who fast-forward them, or subvert them, with our system of mental coding: as those mythical small gods, like Hermes or Prometheus, who always annoy the hell out of the great gods, or as a defect given to them, an interspecies virus maybe, “a disease that’s in my blood,” as Lear said, “that I must needs call mine”? We construct for them the world of what autistic Temple Grandin calls neurotypicals—those who think in normal ways—and neuroatypicals, those who like her think differently. Then we test them, calling their intelligence four-year-old, five-year-old. I can imagine ape-raised humans, tested in the intelligences that keep orangs going in their world, like the ability to read body stance and facial expression, and asked to judge, for instance, an array of smiles or display the visual and tracking skills to find litchis and mandarins tucked into the dense jungles of Indonesia: we would seem childlike, very dim.

LYN WANTS CHANTEK TO HAVE FREEDOM. He grew up in her trailer on the campus at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and escaped from his living quarters to look for food. When Chantek was eight, the university shipped him back to Yerkes, his birth facility, which allowed Lyn limited visits for a few years, then declined her the right to see Chantek altogether.

“They said they wanted to put the animal back into him,” she tells me. Lyn says this with some bitterness, and while I mean to come back to the comment later I forget, a sign of my information-gathering ineffectiveness. Looking at my notebooks I wonder what the comment means. Yerkes pioneered primate language. Would an ape troubled by his own shit be too much? Lyn finally regained control of Chantek and had him placed at the zoo, moving to Atlanta to stay close. Chantek is not part of any zoo exhibit—he lives a short ride from the main zoo grounds—and while he has a roomy habitat with plenty of branches for swinging, as well as a hammock and private space, it’s still a cage.

Consciousness, most theorists say, is language: it’s what lets you know yourself, know time—become self-aware. If you’re a Lanierist you can argue that we have given Chantek, in the gift of language, a more terrible prison than the steel one: the jail of the present, with its fine-honed edge. (Now Lyn is here, Chantek hears in his head. Now she leaves.) Or you could argue with Bickerton that the doors of Chantek’s cage have been flung open in a way no key could ever do.

I read that Koko the gorilla calls death, in an extraordinary string of thought, “comfortable hole byebye.” Before coming here I imagined myself having talks like that with Chantek, finding out what the hole is, what the comfort. But he teaches me a few words and, satisfied by my basic sufficiency, turns to Lyn, occasionally cadging my raisins. Or he sits still and regards me thoughtfully from his pale, fur-curtained eyes.

CHANTEK CALLS HIMSELF an Orangutan Person. Presumably this term would refer to any orang who’d been enculturated and given language. Untaught orangutans, like his cagemate Sibu, he’s given the rather snide name of Orange Dog. He sees himself somehow as the ape in the web photo, stiff, solemn, buttoned-up as a character in Planet of the Apes. His title sounds exalted as well as lonely: the only one of his kind in the universe, as far as he knows.

I would like to visit Chantek’s memory. It seems very likely he’s begun to store material as language; not just a simple object like a ball (surely a dog can do that much), but past events, which I imagine he stores as simple sentences (Mother Lyn hurt finger, Writer visit with Mother Lyn). Perhaps he sees them again, relives them, the way humans have become so adept at carrying and replaying hurt and shame. We have inner critics, depressive realism where we narrate our lives to ourselves with deadly precision. Chantek’s not such a good presentist anymore. We have given him the quality of useless repetition, as we’ve hammered it into ourselves, so that even humans who’ve devoted their lives to voiding the existence of the past and future live in them regardless. “You need to cut out the negative self-talk,” a therapist scolds me. “You need to let go of the past.” My child development books tell me children put down virtually no memory until they have language.

That spark in Chantek’s mind, that language skill on the genome, we stand in front of it with our bellows. Words may mean nothing to Chantek ultimately, or they may mean negative self-talk and depressive realism—“I am a fat ape among apes”—or a flood of dialogue like mine, of nonexistent existence.

I MET CHANTEK IN THE SPRING, and then flew back with my family to Bellingham, Washington, where I live. I think of him every day, swaddled as a newborn in his folds of flesh, in the ginger coat we his relatives have thrown off. He is magnificent. His magnificence is in front of me, and the numbers: fifteen to twenty thousand left in the wild and maybe ten years to go at our current rate of extinction, and the difficulty of changing that. All this I remember.

Right now, within the bonds of the present, the neighbor boy’s reggae music blasts far too loud and Mars’ path has brought it closer to the Earth than it’s been in sixty thousand years, so that the Red Planet flames at night over Venus and the moon, usurping the North Star’s glow. When it last appeared like this, Neanderthals looked up at it as I do now, at an eye in the sky like a saber-tooth cat’s, gleaming. I have taken to being outside all the time, to doing nothing, a statue of myself. My son sleeps and my husband reads in a skirt of light. What could matter? Things disappear in days; they stay gone for epochs. But I like to look at the bald eagles here, the black squirrels, the pleats of the pink mallow and the fuschia, crazy offerings to the gods of the present. And the momentary fruit flies, whose lives and mine are precisely equal.

I don’t think I’m a total presentist yet. What existed, existed. I just see in language that which dissolves into nothing, in seconds, even if someone tries to make it live. When we come together—ape and human, author and reader—we settle for demonstrating that we both know the grossest objects of the Earth, ball and hurt and water, while what we would want to name is fluid and intestinal: the melancholy in the eyes of a caged ape; or a man and a boy, hand-in-hand at a zoo. We have given Chantek a way of knowing the past, the gift of the void. Of remembering the dark-haired woman named Writer who looked at him hungrily, and the question his speaking mind must have framed: what she could possibly want?

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This article has been abridged for the web.

SUSANNE ANTONETTA is an award-winning poet and author of Body Toxic: An Environmental Memoir, a New York Times notable book and winner of an American Book Award. "The Language Garden" is adapted from her book, A Mind Apart, published in fall of 2005 by Jeremy P. Tarcher, a division of Penguin Group (USA).

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