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Eli was standing in the backyard holding a crust of dried French bread he'd swiped from the bird feeder and talking to a crow, a long rambling conversation of ten minutes or so. He leaned forward, lips extended like a bill, and squawked in the raspy language of the crow perched two houses down on a utility pole.

"Caa, caaa," he said.

"Caaw, caaw." The bird bobbed as it spoke.

"Caa, caa, caa."

When Eli came indoors I asked him as casually as I could what the crow had said.

"Aawww," he said, rocking from side to side in a way that seems to comfort him. "I asked that crow brother if he wants to live in my house. But he said, 'Naaaa, naaa.' Like that." Eli convulsed like a dog vomiting, giving the words the whole abdominal emphasis the crow had. "Aawww. But I forgot to ask him if I could go to his house."

I trust Eli to translate between me and the natural world. Being only three, he's a recent emigrant from that world, carrying mementos of it in his genes, like heirlooms in a freight trunk, a treasured quilt, a tarnished silver ring. Nine months in the womb, and then he was born into this strange temporal land where his ears, developed over eons to read the chattering of squirrels and brushing of wind over rocks, are greeted by the air horns of diesel trucks hauling concrete fillets from the Kennedy Expressway. Yet I suspect there's a window of time between birth and Barney when a child can still speak and understand in the grandmother tongue, the babble of the crib.

Humans branched off from other hominids a million years ago and during millennia of social development lived intimately with the natural world. It's only in the last blink of time--500 years, 5,000 years--that humans in large numbers divorced themselves from the planet: yoked the ox, held or became slaves, planted row crops, and wore Walkmans on the train downtown.

Eli is my good translator because unlike a mystic I heard of, who urged his audience to sit silently by the lakeshore and hear the wind and waves talk, Eli can answer my questions about what the wind said without new-age credulousness. "The wind say that," he tells me, a mix of whimsy and easiness with such questions.

Some people who study neural psychology and language acquisition say that the intrinsic pathways in the brain available to grow into language highways will, if denied the normal social development of language, atrophy or be co-opted for other uses. If children don't learn to speak by the time they're eight or nine they probably won't be able to assemble the neural parts needed to put language together. And since human thought is expressed in language, such a person is hobbled, seriously deficient in the ability to be human. Such was the supposed fate of the Wild Child of Aveyron, a feral child captured in a forest in France at the turn of the 19th century. His inability to ever learn more than a few human words greatly dissappointed his enthusiastic teacher, Jean-Marc-Gaspard Itard, disciple of the Age of Reason.

But others criticize these theories as too circumscribed, attributing to something as complex and mysterious as the brain the mundane exigencies of industrial or commercial operations. They say, "Language is response driven. Language is about communication. Maybe the Wild Child didn't want to talk about table manners and colored triangles. Maybe he had something to teach that we were unable to hear."

Itard described the child's nervous ebullience when he witnessed the "grand events of nature....If at such a time a stormy wind chanced to blow, if the sun behind the clouds showed itself suddenly illuminating the atmosphere more brightly, there were loud bursts of laughter, an almost convulsive joy, during which all his movements backwards and forwards very much resembled a kind of leap he would like to take, to break out through the window and dash into the garden." Through which neural channels was the child communicating? How had the only community he'd ever known made itself understood?

Humankind's recent departure from its natural neighborhood may have let certain potentials--the capacity to understand bird talk, for example--wither from disuse. Natural language pathways may still be triggered in an infant, but they're soon swamped by the other noises of human society.

This may be the cause of my own feebleness in recognizing bird talk. Crows, pigeons, gulls, ducks, and geese--these I know from the childhood toys that teach animals' calls when you pull a string. But I suffer just trying to sort the calls of the robin and wren and starling and sparrow. My sister sent me tapes of bird songs to help me learn. But just as when you drill Spanish tapes into your mind and end up, parrotlike, remembering only "Cuanto costa?" and "Cerveza por favor," I may not learn anything beyond ninny conversation about worms and turf.

Where do the birds go and what words do they use to talk about fundamental things? Terence Moore and Chris Carling, linguists at Cambridge, write in The Limitations of Language that the basic problem in communication is the dichotomy between the "I" who ultimately experiences the world and the "we" through whom any of it makes sense. Only "I" can cognize the world and attempt to give it meaning, but "I" can do it only through the interaction with "we" in language and communication. These constraints make language inherently faulty and inexact, given to frequent and total collapse.

If we extend Moore and Carling's work and allow "we" to include all the other creatures of our planet, earth's geology and atmosphere --the crashing of seas and bubbling of brooks--then our failure to be able to communicate with the natural world is a direct result of our being away from it. We are, like the Wild Child, an urban feral people raised without a natural community, outside the interactions that could develop the vocabulary and syntax of nature.

Sometimes we as children learn about nature in school or on TV. But the language acquisition that's built on experiential phenomena, that might transfigure the brain to allow communication, never happens. Still, we seem to possess such potential, proved by those infrequent moments when the distant rumbling of thunder vibrates in our vertebrae or when the eyes of a doe latch onto ours in the woods. Bird tapes might get us through a vacation, but it seems the more profound prerequisites are need and response, quiet and space. It is these areas that are so thoroughly dominated by noise and busyness in our urban milieu that all secrets and whispers are canceled out.

This is actually a long argument against placing machines to crush concrete next to rivers, woods, parks, and schools, as is happening behind Lane Tech on Rockwell Street (see Neighborhood News). As part of the Kennedy reconstruction, concrete may be recycled here through a temporary operation approved by the city. With the help of political clout and federal transportation pork, the contractor Plote, Inc., of Elgin frantically leveled a small grove, threw up a chain-link fence around the several-acre plot, and in one week created a new topographic feature on the Chicagoland map--a 99,000-cubic-yard concrete mountain. The noise, the dust, the congestion, the fumes, the highway itself are likely to sicken and harm the people who live nearby if the 50 diesel semis per hour ripping through the neighborhood don't flatten them first.

The project has also deprived the community and its children of one more tiny site for natural language acquisition. The felling and dismembering of 200 trees removed a whole community of talkers and replaced it with static, the noise of commerce, dumbness.

A math teacher at Lane, Fred Schaal, described how on March 3 he looked out the school window toward the river and saw trees in the tiny woodland flopping over, one after another. "Scarlet tanagers come there in the spring. Where are the scarlet tanagers going to go?" he asked the contractor at the public hearing. The answer could have come from the Plote employee quoted by the Tribune: "These are rag trees. They're just wild trees that grow anywhere."

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