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  • Singing in Animal TonguesAn Inner Journey
  • Jan Harrison (bio)

"Animal tongues" is a language I speak and sing. It acts as a bridge to the world beneath the surface, and it enables me to live and see clearly. It is the voice of the Other—the animal soul, consciousness, and spirit. Animal tongues is not a literal portrayal of animal sounds, but it expresses the animal spirit within human beings and within the world through speaking and singing in tongues. High and low voices, innocent and knowledgeable, interact in a ritual of chanting and singing.

The origins of my speaking in animal tongues can be traced to my earliest memories. All of the events in my life, all of the different forms my art would take, have contributed to and led to this language, which is part of my identity. The animals are within us, within our subconscious. I see a connection with phylogeny, as the beings in animal tongues are re-living all of our collective paths. They remind us of our connections with other animals, with the earth, with ourselves, and with nature.

I have recollections from my childhood of imaginary friends, private worlds, and communication with both domestic and feral animals in the neighborhood where I lived in south Florida in the 1950s. My father left when I was seven, and I was raised by my mother. It was a solitary life, as we were forced to move often because we couldn't afford to pay the rent. Although briefly exposed to traditional religion in my childhood, I was reluctant to connect with it. For instance, when my mother sent me to walk to church on Sundays, I would take a detour, and would go instead to a wild-looking garden, where I could feel empathy with the spiders, lizards, birds, cats, and dogs. This may be the source of my connections with deep ecology and ecotheology, but of course I didn't call it that back then. Feeling great empathy with the natural world, I would disconnect from the dysfunctional events around me enter abandoned houses, and create worlds that often included animals. Narratives would come into being as a result of what I saw and experienced while spending time alone in the houses or the gardens.

The narratives I told as a child would often involve animals and humans communicating with each other, expressing what they loved and feared in the world. One [End Page 28] story occurred when I entered a large room on the second floor of an unoccupied Spanish-style stucco house similar to many older houses in West Palm Beach, where I lived. There was a very large window, and at the foot of the window were about thirty pairs of childrens' shoes, all lined up on the floor beneath the window. I made up a story that the children had removed their shoes and had flown out of the window, chanting and singing as they flew away. Characters in the stories would perform rituals, which involved dancing and clapping hands, and the animals in my imagination would wave their tails around in a curvilinear motion. The imaginary beings would caress each other while laughing and sobbing. Narratives would include animal ancestors, because I believed our animal forebears were buried beneath the cast concrete statues of lions that had been placed as sentries at the entrance of some of the old houses I visited. Many of the stories involved scenarios of humans being assisted by animals. I spoke and sang of the purity of animals, as well as the plight, persecution, and suffering of animal saints.

When I was eight or nine years old, people said that I had a beautiful voice, and I was occasionally asked to sing at weddings, in school plays, and in performances in the neighborhood for small groups of people. I remember once when singing for a group of people in their garden, someone requested that I sing a particular song. I refused, and at that point made a decision that would remain with me for the rest of my life. I decided against performing as an entertainer, preferring instead to sing with all the...


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