Once upon a time, a missionary set forth into the jungle.  Hearing the tales of other heroic explorers, he had in mind to find a group of primitive tribesmen and to ‘civilize them’.  After venturing with his guides and a few scouts, they came upon such a tribe deep in the plush jungle highlands.

He observed the tribesmen for a few days before deciding where to begin.  More so than anything else, he was repulsed by the manner in which they ate.  Cooking food over a crude fire, the aboriginal men would eat with their fingers off of pieces of bark or leaves.  So he decided to teach them table manners.

Gathering some members of the tribe, he had one of his servants bring him one of his finest plates and some silverware.  He called over one of the scouts to interpret for him and offered the dish to the natives that were eating off of the leaves and bark and made hand motions to the plate then his mouth.

Offering 'civility' to the primatives

Offering 'civility' to the primatives

The natives moved back at sight of the colorful plate and looked confused at the gestures he was making.  The missionary asked his interpreter to tell them that he wished them to take the plate as a gift and to eat from it.

The interpreter spoke to them in their language of grunts and utterances. The old native spoke back to him and he translated.  “They are leery of the things the white man brings them.  He explained to me that this thing is of many colors like the poisonous frogs, and the colors are in patterns similar to the backs of the venomous snakes and it’s skin gleans like the sides of the ‘nibble fish’.  I think he means the piranha.”

“Explain to them that the colors are simply painted on by men,” he looked across their decorated faces.  “Like the colors they paint on their skin and their totems.  The patterns are chosen by men.  Chosen from sources like the backs of their snakes because we find them attractive.  And the shine is simply a polish like …”  He looked about their belongings when he noticed one man with an obsidian pointed spear. “Like the polish on the tips of their spears when they sharpen them!”

The missionary was quite proud of his thoughts and asked the interpreter to explain it to the natives. He did so, and many of them nodded or gestured in understanding but none got any closer to the plate.  Upon finishing, the old shaman spoke a few more words and the interpreter again explained.

“They understand now of the colors, patterns and the shimmer of the surface, but they still wish to know of what it is made.  They have never seen such a thing before.”

The missionary was somewhat put aback.  “Why tell them it is a dinner plate!” he said consternatiously.

“That might be a problem,” said the interpreter.  “That is why they pull back, they don’t know what it is.  They have no word for ‘plate’ or ‘dish’, for as you can see, they eat off of the bark of trees and the leaves of the plants.  They have been wary of us newcomers, and they consider their bodies as sacred like the jungles.  They will not eat off your plate unless they know what it is.”

The missionary thought a moment, but he was a ‘civilized’ man and knew very little of plates and dishes.  They were simply things that were to be eaten from.  He asked among his men if any had ever worked in an industry that involved making such things and found one conquistador who’s father had been a potter.

“Why yes,” said the young man.  “I can tell you what it is.  It is a piece of ceramic dish baked in an oven.  Tell them that it is made from clay.”

Looking to the interpreter, the missionary asked him to translate.  But the interpreter just shook his head.

“Look around you fine sir,” said the interpreter.  “Do you see any clay about?  This land is a rich jungle.  The earth here is many feet deep of rich, fertile peat soil.  The river is bottomed with a similar layer of black mud.  These men have all they need here to survive and thus seldom venture beyond the nearby hills.  They know not of the concept ‘clay’ and have no word for it that I can speak to them either.”

The missionary thought a moment and considered, “Well, can’t you describe it as to the mud of the rivers then?  Baked until hard and then used to eat off of?”

The interpreter shook his head.  “I can try, but it may not be that simple.”

He spoke in the tongue of the men and did his best to relate the missionary’s desires.  As he gestured toward the mud along the shores of the river, the elder tribesmen became repulsed. He then gestured toward the fire and knocked on a nearby log, but when he gestured with the motion of eating, many of the younger tribesmen burst out in laughter.

One of the elder tribesmen spoke back to the interpreter making gestures to the entire jungle, and then again to the mud of the river before drawing his hand below his nose to sniff with a similar look of disgust.  Then he gestured as if to throw whatever he sniffed to the ground, touched his mouth and shook his head while waving his hands.  More of the young men laughed.

“What did he say?” implored the missionary.

The translator explained, “They believe the forest is a living being not unlike the man or the leopard.  He told me that they see the river as…. well, a means of digestion of the ‘food’ the forest eats.  They see the mud of the river as – pardon my saying sir – but the feces of the forest as it is similar in texture, color and smell.  To be fair, it is not an unreasonable comparison.  Needless to say, they are not encouraged by the thought of eating off of… well, the closest way to translate it is ‘the poop of the river’.”

The missionary was quite frustrated indeed.  He needed to find some way to explain to these primitive men that the plate was harmless and was a better thing off which to eat their food than mere bark or leaves.  If he could not get them to do something as simple as eat off of dishes in a respectable manner, how could he ever hope to civilize them proper?  Again he turned to his men.  He asked them if any knew of how to explain the concept ‘clay’ to such simple minded people.

One young man stood up, “I think I can offer a suggestion, sir.  I worked as a miner north of Gibraltar before enlisting in his lordship’s service.  Clays are made from the minerals mined from the earth.  Things like limestone, shale, siltsone and sandstone.  Any sedimentary deposits, properly weathered can become a consistency of clay.  It results when the material is ground into a fine dust and the dust is made wet.”



The missionary turned to the  interpreter and the interpreter then to the tribesmen.  He went on at length making gestures toward the landscape, gestures of grinding, splashing a small  handful of water from a nearby pool.  Finally he stooped to pick up a large stone and spoke a few more words and the faces of the tribesmen lit up.

TUN!” many of them spoke in unison.

The interpreter looked at them for a moment confused but then enthusiastic, he repeated nodding with excitement, “Ban … ban taka… TUN!  TUN!!!

The native men then all came around to take the plate and each in turn touched and examined it, some tapping at it or bending to look at the patterns.  The missionary was quite impressed and the interpreter looked prideful but mentally exhausted.

After a short pause, the missionary could stand it no longer.  “What was it?  What did you say to make them take it?”

“It wasn’t quite what I said,” said the interpreter.  “I tried to explain that the clay used to make the plate was of the earth itself, and it was ground to fine dust, and mixed with water.  It wasn’t until I stooped to pick up that boulder that they came to it on their own.”

Tun?” asked the missionary.  “Is that what they call it?  What does it mean?”

“In essence,” laughed the interpreter, “I told them that your ‘plate’…. is a ‘rock‘!”

Author’s Note: It’s just a silly little allegorical parable to demonstrate the basic concepts of identification, reduction, concepts vs. precepts, context and even contextual emotions.  For more information, check out my explanation of why I wrote it on my blog:

TheWildWebster – Identification, Reduction, Integration

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  1. […] 5, 2010 by TheWild Webster I wrote a new short parable today on the ObjectOpus and thought it might be useful to write a short piece here as to why I […]

  2. I would like to give a special thanks to the University of Texas’s Brian Stross and his online native American language dictionary – most specifically the Chorti dictionary which helped me find the word ‘Tun’. http://www.utexas.edu/courses/stross/chorti/

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