When it comes to nature, what language are we speaking?

Spring seems as though it’s halfway here, but it can’t make up its mind. The daffodils are starting to sprout, as is the garlic. The geese are coming back – though I can’t imagine they were that far away, given the numbers that congregate on local farmers’ fields. I’ve heard a few marsh birds calling in the morning, and a handful of frogs croak-creaking at night. But the mornings are chilly and frosty, and next week we’re in for a cold snap. Working in the garden over the long weekend was an early season aberration, not quite a sign of spring.

Today our neighbours cut down four trees on their property. Last year they felled at least five, and suddenly we could see through their yard to Baldy Mountain – and hear the late-night parties of the adjacent property. Today we lost the trees that grew on the east side of our fence. Cedars, overcome by the drought of the last few summers. The skyline has changed – it’s a little less bushy, a little more distant. I stand in our yard and look at all the dying cedars in our neighbourhood, wondering how long it will be before they’re all chopped down.

There must be a language for this – the loss of trees that you have no say over losing. The opening up of the landscape in such a way that human noise becomes more prevalent. There must be a word for being halfway through spring and feeling like you’re halfway through everything: a writing assignment, a book review, a particularly bad patch in your life, a thought.

You’ve probably heard of the word “solastalgia:”

“an emplaced or existential melancholia experienced with the negative transformation (desolation) of a loved home environment.”

I felt that last year, watching the trees come down, and again today. The booming thud of a giant cedar trunk hitting the ground echoed the sadness in my heart at seeing these large trees being demolished.

I want to tell what the forests

were like

I will have to speak

in a forgotten language.

–W.S. Merwin

Or what about the word “endling?” Coined by Robert Webster in the mid-90s, he described it as “the last person, animal, or other individual in a lineage.” It resurfaced in the late 90s as part of a National Museum of Australia exhibit. However, it is rarely used to describe people – only animals.

As the environment changes around us, sometimes too quickly for us to keep up, we not only have to find a new physical place in the world – our mental perception of that world has to change, as well.

For example, the Malahat highway connects our community to Victoria to the south via a (small) mountain pass. The province has been working for months on widening the highway to deal with the increasing traffic from commuters and an increase in population. To do this, they’ve been razing forest, blasting bedrock, and rerouting drainage. The landscape looks like a war zone – the few times I’ve driven through it I’ve felt a profound sense that something is wrong in our world, that we need to destroy so much just to get a faster highway that can carry more people.

I don’t know how to talk about these changes. Just like people dealing with the immediate effects of wildfire, or the outcomes of flooding, or the aftermath of a devastating landslide don’t really know how to talk about these events.

To absorb and understand what’s happening to us, we have to come up with new language. We feel more empowered and in control when we can explain, describe, and share what’s happening to and around us. As Rebecca Solnit writes:

“The destruction of the earth is due in part…to a failure of the imagination or to its eclipse by systems of accounting that can’t count what matters…so the task of naming and describing is an essential one.”

Which is where Faith Kearns, Robert Macfarlane, Robin Wall-Kimmerer, and George Monbiot come in.

All of these people have an interest in – and have written excellent pieces about – how we use language in the Anthropocene (a new word in and of itself). How do we talk about climate change, loss of home due to natural disasters, our relationship with the natural world (or at least the relationship we’d like to have)? How do we use language to make sense of what’s happening all around us?

Kearns is scientist and communications specialist with the California Institute for Water Resources, and works “at the intersection of science communication, community engagement, and relationship-building.” This article in The Conversation talks about The Bureau of Linguistic Reality, which hosts workshops to come up with new words for social and environmental change. Kearns asks:

“How [do we] describe that feeling of looming dread after years of drought? Some have tried, but nobody really knows how.”

I know that feeling from our three summers here. When the rains end in April and suddenly there’s nothing but sun and blue skies for months on end. The ground cracks. The gardens need water. We worry about how long the cedars will last.

As Wade Davis writes:

“A language…is not merely a set of grammatical rules or a vocabulary. It is a flash of the human spirit, the vehicle by which the soul of each particular culture comes into the material world. Every language is an old-growth forest of the mind, a watershed of thought, an ecosystem of spiritual possibilities.”

In 2015, Robert Macfarlane wrote Landmarks (which I found a copy of at my local secondhand bookstore!). It looks at land and language throughout history, excavating words that “illuminate an ancient Anglo-Saxon intimacy with the land and her beings” (quote from Robin Wall-Kimmerer). If you follow Macfarlane on Twitter, he posts a new nature-related word and definition every day. Some I know well from my science background: crown shyness or krummholz. Others are more ethereal, like imbolc or hapax. Macfarlane writes that

“by instrumentalising nature, linguistically and operationally, we have largely stunned the earth out of wonder.”

He knows that language matters, and some of the words he’s discovered from the past have been resurrected in the present.

Robin Wall-Kimmerer herself, in an essay for Orion Magazine, wrote that

“Grammar, especially our use of pronouns, is the way we chart relationships in language and…how we relate to each other and to the natural world.”

Kimmerer quotes from Wendell Berry, that

“People exploit what they have merely concluded to be of value, but they defend what they love, and to defend what we love we need a particularizing language, for we love what we particularly know.”

She talks about working with a group of students to address “the grammar of animacy,” something she links with her Native language. Coming up with words that describe our relationship with the natural world – words that give that world agency and space in our techno-infused, smartphone-toting bubble. She suggests “ki” and “kin” when talking about other species.

Then there’s George Monbiot, who writes that our current language for nature is too objective, cold, and scientific. He writes:

“places in which nature is protected are called “sites of special scientific interest”. At sea, they are labelled “no-take zones” or “reference areas”. Had you set out to estrange people from the living world, you could scarcely have done better… Wild animals and plants are described as “resources” or “stocks”, as if they belong to us and their role is to serve us: a notion disastrously extended by the term “ecosystem services”.”

He makes a good point:

“Words encode values that are subconsciously triggered when we hear them.”

Somehow we need to find that middle ground between the objective scientist approach and the obscure wordsmithing of Macfarlane’s resurrected language. He suggests phrases like “places of natural wonder” or “living planet.”

Or maybe, as Sam Illingworth shared last week, we should just switch to writing poetry. Apparently, “writing poetry presents a way for underserved audiences to express their thoughts and needs in relation to environmental change.” I’m all for that.

So to end today’s post – a poem by Bo Bolander.

my name is frog

i liek the wet

on damp smol leaf

is where I set

if snek or birb should try attack

i kill them ded

i am not snak!

–Bo Bolander

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One thought on “When it comes to nature, what language are we speaking?

  1. Language if powerful… that’s why I prefer “climate action”, “earth healing”, “the commons”,”solar growth”, “interconnectedness” etc. Disillusionment, I once read, is not really a negative thing…. it’s being astutely aware of that which is not real.

    I’ve always enjoyed Wendell Berry, his poem -Manifesto: Mad Farmer Liberation Front for example, and his other writings….

    Also Thomas Berry “…everything has a right to be recognized and revered. Trees have tree rights, insects have insect rights, rivers have river rights, and mountains have mountain rights.” (Thomas Berry, “The Great Work,”)

    Our children and the frogs and the trees need us. A voice for the earth.

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