This morning, the sky’s autumn blue was the richest I’ve seen so far this year–electric-looking, stung with freshness. It was a morning in which I’d like to have been hiking. The word “brisk” comes to mind (if we can separate it from mega corporate-peddled iterations of iced tea). Yes, I’m reclaiming “brisk,” taking it back from convenience store shelves and returning it to the kinds of things it used to describe, like walks on chilly mornings, or breaths that tighten and tickle the lungs. I acknowledge I may be out-of-touch with consumer trends. If the word “brisk” conjures in my mind bottles and cans of iced tea, then I may be the one with the problem and not the consuming public or the marketing and advertising firms that promote the brewed (hopefully) beverage (I envision machines mixing water with a patented “tea syrup” in giant vats, with tasters on the side determining the degree to which the substance mimics iced tea). Is Brisk Iced Tea still around? I guess my next trip into a gas station might answer this burning question, which I truthfully don’t really care to know the answer to, if I’m being honest. I don’t care. This is just the direction this blog happened to go.
It’s clear to me now, though, that the problem is at least partially mine. Maybe on some level, it’s society’s problem, but I’ll just own it for now: I resent the way companies hijack legitimate words for the purpose of making money. Like “monster” and “wrangler.” I guess the logophile in me resents that consumer products come to mind when those words are used, often before their original meanings come to mind. I know–first-world problem. But culture hinges on language, and associating a word with a mass-produced beverage before associating it with what it actually signifies has a way of easing us up the slope and into the shallow end, intellectually speaking.
This very blog is an example of how this phenomenon works. All I wanted to do, when I wrote the first sentence of this post, was praise the quality of the autumn sky’s blue. I found it inspiring. It had been cold when I was walking outside, but it was that sunny kind of cold that seems more palatable than the cloudy kind, so I was inclined to find it invigorating rather than uncomfortable. And the intense shade of blue that served as a backdrop for the trees struck me as a uniquely autumnal thing–particularly late autumn, when trees are almost bare but a few orange-brown oak leaves still stubbornly cling. And what’s the perfect word to describe a cold, invigorating breeze? You guessed it: brisk. Except when I landed on that word, I also landed on the idea of that rather unsavory form of tea that exists in bottles on convenience store shelves and in twelve-packs of cans in grocery stores. It then became difficult to separate the meaning of “brisk” from the marketed product that bears that same word as its name. But it didn’t stop there. Soon, one of the beverage’s slogans came into my consciousness: “That’s brisk, baby!” Except it’s not! It’s high viscosity tea syrup in a can, and tastes of chemicals and artificiality. I’m not a fan.
And maybe that’s why we fear it. Possibly, the title made you think of the silent treatment we give those who’ve wronged us, but that’s not what this is about. This is about the silence of nature and of the cosmos–the deafening roar of an empty house, how its newly cavernous dens and bedrooms (when we find ourselves alone) press in with a sound more profound than any human voice can render, much less a TV or a radio–the dryer drum spinning incessantly with its metal-on-metal crack of blue jean buttons. Silence is a sound made up of no sound (abstraction is the only way to render this), when we stare into the void and it stares back at us.
But the sound is not altogether hostile. Have you ever taken a long walk in the woods with no agenda–no deer to harvest or no mileage to meet before dark–and found yourself pausing to listen. But to what? Not even the birds are whistling. Maybe the occasional whisper of pine boughs lets drop a message you’d swear is only for you. Maybe you honed in on a specific whisper and called it God.
When we listen to silence, she speaks. I’ve believed this for years now, though I don’t always listen. I’m as susceptible to modern life’s distractions as anybody–the television’s drone is a comfort, however superficially, and my Spotify playlists grow ever more tailored to my musical taste, which makes them hard to ignore when I’m driving here and there.
One thing I do have going for me, however, is an immunity to the need to always be talking. Dr. Joel Fleischman of the nineties show Northern Exposure is a New Yorker transplanted to a backwoods Alaskan town as a way to pay for his expensive education by serving as a general practitioner to the town’s eccentric populace. He misses everything his quiet moments try to teach him, because he won’t shut up. You probably know the type. You may even be the type. If you’re a Fleischman, I implore you to face down the terror of your quiet, alone on a trail or in your living room with TVs and radios and oscillating fans turned off. If you’re not a Fleischman, then face it down anyway. It may accomplish nothing, but in our harried world of ceaseless distraction, amid all the noise grasping at our attention, there’s something noble in being stubbornly quiet, in being quiet on purpose. It’s like holding up a middle finger to those homogenizing forces that would have us sequestered like cattle in pens, oblivious to our impending slaughter. Maybe a voice will speak to you out of the silence.
For nearly forty years, I’ve called this animal a buffalo. Somewhere along the way, I learned it’s also called a bison–American bison, to be exact. But that didn’t make it any less a buffalo, it just now had two names–interchangeable, like pig and hog.
At Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area, the part near Cadiz, Kentucky, I’ve driven through the Elk & Bison Prairie numerous times, once even having to stop the car completely, because buffalo–er, bison–had surrounded us (I was with my dad). It was a transcendent moment, having these beasts on all sides, who could end us with one toss of the head, these icons of the American plains.
There are cities named after it; there are national brands with the word in their names; the animal is used in countless folk and Americana songs. But I learned, not too long ago, that to call this furry behemoth a buffalo, is to call it the wrong thing. After all these years, I decide to look it up, to see if there’s a difference between the two terms. What I discovered surprised me. It turns out the only true buffalo are in Asia and Africa (think water buffalo). What we have in America is actually only a bison. Though it’s no less majestic, it’s also no more a buffalo.
Imagine all the names of things that must be changed now, things integral to the very culture we inherit, and that we hope to pass on to our kids and grandkids! Doesn’t this revelation make you wonder if everything we assume to be true is really just made up? Or that we’re making it all up as we go?
Okay. I might be overreacting. But now, when I see Blue Buffalo dog food in the grocery store, with a little blue bison leaping on the logo, I think, “Your brand’s a lie!”