Rock People and Feather People


One of my deep interests is change: particularly the relationship between personal change and societal change, and especially the individual and group tensions that are always involved. Is changing something we do from (internal) desire or willpower, or are we changed as a result of something (external) that happens to us? How is it that some people change easily (or seem to), and others never change (appearing as if they cannot)?

Tendency of stone
I know two stories about rocks and belonging. One of my teachers, Grandmother Spotted Eagle, told us about a lesson she received as a young girl in Arizona. This is how I remember it:

One day,” she told us, “I was instructed to go out and collect ten white rocks.” It took awhile for her to find and carry the rocks back to the camp, but she accomplished the task. What happened next was a surprise: “Then,” she explained, “I was told to return each one of them to the place where I found it, and put it back in the exact same spot.

The second story is from a visit to Hawai’i. While there, I learned that there are many stories about people who take a piece of volcanic rock home as a souvenir, and then have terrible luck until they finally send the rock back. It is as if the rock curses them for removing it from where it belonged.
Some people belong to a certain space like specific stones “belong” in their particular place. These Rock People are connected by nearly unbreakable bonds to deeply felt ways of relating to each other and the environment. Whatever the weather brings, they will endure it! Take them out of that cultural milieu and unhappiness follows; watch them return and rediscover pleasure.

Drift of feathers

heron and ducks.jpg
Grandmother Spotted Eagle also inspired my interest in birds, who figure prominently in American Indian culture. Later I learned about the use of canaries in mines, and began bird-watching. After looking so hard to identify different types of birds, it seemed that my ability to watch and comprehend ASL improved greatly! Unlike stone (under normal conditions), birds travel vast distances, propelled and protected by feathers whose density compared to rock is practically nonexistent. Once shed, a feather can be blown about by even a slight breeze. Change seems constant! Yet, the bird’s flight is purposeful while the feather’s vulnerability to the wind remains always the same.
Groups – be they societies or organizations, need Rock People and Feather People. We need people who are reliable, sturdy, always present. We also need people who flit about: leaving, adapting, coming back, and being blown through by the wind. I have a rather silly hypothesis that social change – of the fundamental, lasting kind – happens when there is an overlap of agreement between the Rock and Feather Peoples of various identity groupings: a temporal merger of drift and tendency.

“Westerners have watches; we have time” (an African saying, thanks Siré!)
No one has yet been able to explain that “overlap of agreement” – it may be the kind of experience that is ineffable: “incapable of being expressed in words.” And, while we may never know how to say what it is when our social interacting culminates in change, we may be able to perceive that such events are immanent: “…within the limits of possible experience or knowledge.”

milieu, definition by Merriam Webster Online
photo by Sarbjeet, Amherst Campus Pond, UMass
Independent Nation of Hawai’i (DUO), Reflexivity
IF CONDORS RULED THE SKY: Yurok Tribe seeks return of majestic bird to Northern California, by Jeff Barnard, Associated Press, in The Monterey County Herald
What does it mean to be a “canary in a coal mine”?
ineffable, definition from Merriam Webster Online
Immanent, definition from Merriam Webster Online
Westerners may have watches, but Africans have time……, Notes from the Field 2007, Public health students from the University of Minnesota write about their summer field experiences.
A matter of time, GrumpyGecko

NOTE: Thoughts on ineffability inspired by Brion. I’m partial to the sentiment expressed by Douglas Adams: “We shall grapple with the ineffable, and see if we may not eff it after all.”

2 thoughts on “Rock People and Feather People”

  1. Thanks buzzzy! A few peeps have said so in other ways, too (email, or in person). Now, if I can just distill the ideas in my dissertation, all will be well!
    A professor in a completely different field was asking me some questions about it yesterday. He said, “It sounds like you’re trying to pick up a mattress with one hand. You don’t where to grab it!” I think I have some handles, but convincing others that the handles are sturdy is a feat in and of itself. 🙂

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