Review: Wisdom Sits in Places

June 8, 2008

Wisdom Sits in Places is the name of a remarkable little book of linguistic ethnography about "landscape and language among the Western Apache." Written by rancher and professor Keith H. Basso, who had spent decades working with this group of Apache before composing this opus, the book is easy to overlook: file under boring academic anthropology. For anyone interested in gaining a greater appreciation for the diverse ways we humans think and act, both in and about this world, doing so is a certain mistake.

Basso describes a use of language and story-telling wholly unfamiliar to the western (Euro/Anglo/American) mindset, giving to the reader "a sense of the Apache sense" of place. The "sense" that this reader got: that Western Apache people (and likely others) view/sense certain places as being imbued with a power to train individuals in the key ways of wisdom. This power is imparted on them perhaps from the grandeur of nature itself, but more directly from the stories, whether mythological or modern, describing what has happened at these places. For instance: a particular, named, place may have taken part in (not merely been the setting for) a story illustrating what happens to those who do not share with their neighbors in times of need.

Now the language comes in — in talk amongst those who know the story, the name of the place alone is sufficient to evoke the necessary reaction and consideration in the hearers. There is no need to repeat the story, or draw out its implications for current-day affairs. These are understood to follow directly from the morality-story, from the name of the place. And if you yourself have done something wrong, then this place name and its story will haunt you. Each time your actions conform to the same improper manner as before, you will remember that place. Each time you pass by it in your daily activities, it will loom mighty in your mind, reminding you how to behave and how to act as a proper member of Western Apache society.

One need not wait to have the story "shot" at them like an arrow (which digs deep, biting into flesh, relentlessly working its way inside you). One can also deliberately inculcate wisdom through practices of "drinking in" from these stories, learning to apply them each day to all the problems that confront us. Through these practices, one builds up "smoothness of mind", and unobstructed state that keeps the mind vigilantly focused and skeptical. This in turn is dependent on "resilience of mind" in the face of external pressures and "steadiness of mind" with respect to internal maunderings.

The author weaves narrative and story in a lively manner, always coupling academic analysis with practical and meaningful examples. His respect for the people described is evident, including the care taken in using people's names and remaining vague about the specific locations of the various places described. His is a humble approach, recognizing that even after much time spent with these people, his grasp of what it means to be Apache, to see as Apache see, to feel as Apache feel, is rudimentary at best. But it is worth the effort nevertheless.