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Ursula K. Le Guin

"The Author of the Acacia Seeds"

and Other Extracts from the Journal of the Association of Therolinguistics


The messages were found written in touch-gland exuda­tion on degerminated acacia seeds laid in rows at the end of a narrow, erratic tunnel leading off from one of the deeper levels of the colony. It was the orderly arrangement of the seeds that first drew the investigator's attention. The messages are fragmentary, and the translation approximate and highly interpretative; but the text seems worthy of interest if only for its striking lack of resemblance to any other Ant texts known to us.

SEEDS 1-13

[I will] not touch feelers. [I will] not stroke. [I will] spend on dry seeds [my] soul's sweetness. It may be found when [I am] dead. Touch this dry wood! [I] call! [I am] here!

Alternatively, this passage maybe read:

[Do] not touch feelers. [Do] not stroke. Spend on dry seeds [your] soul's sweetness. [Others] may find it when [you are] dead. Touch this dry wood! Call: [I am] here!

No known dialect of Ant employs any verbal person except the third person singular and plural, and the first person plural. In this text, only the root-forms of the verbs are used; so there is no way to decide whether the passage was intended to be an autobiography or a manifesto.

SEEDS 14-22

Long are the tunnels. Longer is the untunneled. No tunnel reaches the end of the untunneled. The un­tunneled goes on farther than we can go in ten days [ie., forever]. Praise!

The mark translated "Praise!" is half of the customary! salutation "Praise the Queen!" or "Longlive the Queen!" or! "Huzza for the Queen!"—but the word/mark signifying} "Queen" has been omitted.

SEEDS 23-29

As the ant among foreign-enemy ants is killed, so the ant without ants dies, but being without ants is as sweet as honeydew.

An ant intruding in a colony not its own is usually killed. Isolated from other ants it invariably dies within a day or so. The difficulty in this passage is the word/mark "with­out ants," which we take to mean "alone"—a concept for which no word/mark exists in Ant

SEEDS 30-31

Eat the eggs! Up with the Queen!

There has already been considerable dispute over the interpretation of the phrase on Seed 31. It is an important question, since all the preceding seeds can be fully under­stood only in the light cast by this ultimate exhortation. Dr. Rosbone ingeniously argues that the author, a wingless neuter-female worker, yearns hopelessly to be a winged male, and to found a new colony, flying upward in the nuptial flight with a new Queen. Though the text certainly permits such a reading our conviction is that nothing in the text supports it—least of all the text of the immediately preceding seed, №30: "Eat the eggs!" This reading though shocking is beyond disputation.

We venture to suggest that the confusion over Seed 31 may result from an ethnocentric interpretation of the word "up." To us, "up" is a "good" direction. Not so, or not neces­sarily so, to an ant "Up" is where the food comes from, to be sure; but "down" is where security, peace, and home are to be found. "Up" is the scorching sun; the freezing night; no shelter in the beloved tunnels; exile; death. Therefore we suggest that this strange author, in the solitude of her lonely tunnel, sought with what means she had to express the ultimate blasphemy conceivable to an ant, and that the correct reading of Seeds 30-31, in human terms is:

Eat the eggs! Down with the Queen!

The desicated body of a small worker was found beside Seed 31 when the manuscript was discovered. The head had been severed from the thorax, probably by the jaws of a soldier of the colony. The seeds, carefully arranged in a pattern resembling a musical stave, had not been dis­turbed. (Ants of the soldier caste are illiterate; thus the soldier was presumably not interested in the collection of useless seeds from which the edible germs had been removed.) No living ants were left in the colony, which was destroyed in a war with a neighboring ant-hill at some time subsequent to the death of the Author of the Acadia Seeds.

—G. D'Arbay, T.R Bardol


The extreme difficulty of reading Penguin has been very much lessened by the use of the underwater motion pic­ture camera. On film it is at least possible to repeat, and to slow down, the fluid sequences of the script, to the point where, by constant repetition and patient study, many elements of this most elegant and lively literature maybe grasped, though the nuances, and perhaps the essence, must forever elude us.

It was Professor Duby who, by pointing out the remote affiliation of the script with Low Graylag made possible the first, tentative glossary of Penguin. The analogies with Dol­phin which had been employed up to that time never proved very useful, and were often quite misleading.

Indeed it seemed strange that a script written almost entirely in wings, neck, and air, should prove the key to the poetry of short-necked, flipper-winged water-writers. But we should not have found it so strange if we had kept in mind the fact that penguins are, despite all evidence to the contrary, birds.

Because their script resembles Dolphin in form, we should never have assumed that it must resemble Dolphin in content. And indeed it does not There is, of course, the same extraordinary wit and the flashes of crazy humor, the inventiveness, and the inimitable grace. In all the thou­sands of literatures of the Fish stock, only a few show any humor at all, and that usually of a rather simple, primitive sort; and the superb gracefulness of Shark or Tarpon is utterly different from the joyous vigor of all Cetacean scripts. The joy, the vigor, and the humor are all shared by Penguin authors; and, indeed, by many of the finer Seal auteurs. The temperature of the blood is a bond. But the construction of the brain, and of the womb, makes a bar­rier! Dolphins do not lay eggs. A world of difference lies in mat simple fact

Only when Professor Duby reminded us that penguins are birds, that they do not swim but fly in water, only then could the therolinguist begin to approach the sea-literature of the penguin with understanding only then could the miles of recordings already on film be re-studied and, finally, appreciated.

But the difficulty of translation is still with us.

A satisfying degree of progress has already been made in Adelie. The difficulties of recording a group kinetic per­formance in a stormy ocean as thick as pea-soup with plankton at a temperature of 31°F are considerable; but the perseverance of the Ross Ice Barrier Literary Circle has been fully rewarded with such passages as "Under the Ice­berg" from the Autumn Song—a passage now world famous in the rendition of Anna Serebryakova of the Leningrad Ballet. No verbal rendering can approach the felicity of Miss Serebryakova's version. For, quite simply, there is no way to reproduce in writing the all-important multiplicity of the original text, so beautifully rendered by the full chorus of the Leningrad Ballet company. Indeed, what we call "translations" from the Adelie—or from any group kinetic text—are, to put it bluntly, mere notes—libretto without the opera. The ballet version is the true translation. Nothing in words can be complete.

I therefore suggest, though the suggestion may well be greeted with frowns of anger or with hoots of laughter, that for the therolinguist—as opposed to the artist and the amateur—the kinetic sea-writings of Penguin are the least promising field of study: and, further, that Adelie, for all its charm and relative simplicity, is a less promising field of study than is Emperor.

Emperor!—I anticipate my colleagues' response to this suggestion. Emperor! The most difficult, the most remote, of all the dialects of Penguin! The language of which Pro­fessor Duby himself remarked, "The literature of the emperor penguin is as forbidding as inaccessible, as the frozen heart of Anartica itself. Its beauties may be un­earthly, but they are not for us."

Maybe. I do not underestimate the difficulties: not least of which is the Imperial temperament, so much more reserved and aloof than that of any other penguin. But, paradoxically, it is just in this reserve that I place my hope. The emperor is not a solitary, but a social bird, and while on land for the breeding season dwells in colonies, as does the adelie; but these colonies are very much smaller and very much quieter than those of the adelie. The bonds between the members of an emperor colony are rather personal than social. The emperor is an individualist Therefore I think it almost certain that the literature of the emperor will prove to be composed by single authors, instead of chorally; and therefore it will be translatable into human speech. It will be a kinetic literature, but how dif­ferent from the spatially extensive, rapid, multiplex chor­uses of sea-writing! Close analysis, and genuine transcrip­tion, will at last be possible.

What! say my critics—Should we pack up and go to Cape Crozier, to the dark, to the blizzards, to the -60° cold, in the mere hope of recording the problematic poetry of a few strange birds who sit there, in the mid-winter dark, in the blizzards, in the -60° cold, on the eternal ice, with an egg on their feet?

And my reply is, Yes. For, like Professor Duby, my instinct tells me that the beauty of that poetry is as unearthly as anything we shall ever find on earth.

To those of my colleagues in whom the spirit of scien­tific curiosity and aesthetic risk is strong I say, imagine it: the ice, the scouring snow, the darkness, the ceaseless whine and scream of wind. In that black desolation a little band of poets crouches. They are starving; they will not eat for weeks. On the feet of each one, under the warm belly-feathers, rests one large egg, thus preserved from the mor­tal touch of the ice. The poets cannot hear each other; they cannot see each other. They can only feel the other's warmth.That is their poetry, that is their art Like all kinetic literatures, it is silent; unlike other kinetic litera­tures, it is all but immobile, ineffably subtle. The ruffling of a feather; the shifting of a wing; the touch, the slight, faint, warm touch of the one beside you. In unutterable, misera­ble, black solitude, the affirmation. In absence, presence. In death, life.