‘We have broken the great conversation,’ wrote Thomas Berry in his 1991 book Befriending the Earth. ‘We are talking only to ourselves. We are not talking to the rivers, we are not listening to the wind and stars.’
Were he alive, Berry would no doubt have joined Margaret Atwood, Michael Morpurgo and other writers whose recent letter to Oxford University Press protested the removal of nature-related words from the Oxford Junior Dictionary. Words such as ‘acorn’ and ‘catkin’ have been dropped to make room for the likes of ‘broadband’ and ‘cut and paste’.
From the Romantic poets, who considered writing a ‘reconciler of nature and man’, to the great American authors Leopold, Thoreau and Emerson, the popularity of what is loosely called nature writing has ebbed and flowed through modern history. Now, seemingly inevitable ecological collapse has prompted a surge of renewed interest in the field.
Words such as ‘acorn’ and ‘catkin’ have been dropped from the Oxford Junior Dictionary to make room for the likes of ‘broadband’ and ‘cut and paste’
Authors, publishers, photographers and documentary-makers are grappling with everything from the deepest grief at the violence humanity has enacted on the planet, to the transcendental sense of magic and enchantment in the natural world. Crucially devoid of sentimentalism or self-satisfaction, this is urgent and strong: language for a ‘planet in crisis’, as the editor of EarthLines magazine, Dr Sharon Blackie, puts it.
Her publication publishes a range of content from writers and artists, focusing on real and deep connection to land and place, telling stories about the human and non-human inhabitants of these spaces. She co-founded EarthLines two years ago to fill what she noticed as a gap in the media landscape. Readers were hankering, she sensed, for writing which nurtured a sense of being inspired by the natural world but without an excess of feel-good.
‘The environmental crisis really doesn’t fit with all that stuff, if you’re switched on,’ Blackie notes. Instead, her vision was to publish pieces with ‘a good measure of grit and groundedness’.
‘The language we use is strong because the planet is in crisis: there’s no room for platitudes. Or for nostalgia. We’re not trying to create activists in the usual sense of the word, but we want people to know what’s at stake.’
Sifting the sediment
The Dark Mountain Project also takes grief and mourning as starting points. Writers, artists and thinkers, led by the project’s founders Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine, have now contributed to six books and a seventh is in progress. Deliberately holding a space for words forged in the darkness, for the unwritten story, Dark Mountain has been greeted by an unexpected surge of interest.
Words then, can help to sift and cleanse the sediment of natural and cultural loss which lies inside so many of us. But at such a poignant juncture in ecological time, don’t we need action, rather than more, albeit fresh, voices? Can changing the way we write and talk about the natural world achieve anything?
For Dominick Tyler, photographer and founder of the Landreader project, there is a direct correlation between the richness of vocabulary and intimacy of knowledge. Knowing the ‘right’ word for something in nature reemphasizes its value, he believes, and therefore fosters a desire to protect it.
Tyler was fulfilling a commission on wild swimming when he realized that his vocabulary to describe the landscapes he was photographing was woefully inadequate. He began collecting words: forgotten gems such as jackstraw, zawn, clitter and cowbelly, which sparked an impulse to create a glossary of the British landscape. The Landreader Project has swelled to become a stirring synthesis of people and place: about vernacular and lore as much as geology, ecology or topography. Already, more than 2,000 terms and words have been gathered, including hundreds of submissions from members of the public.
‘We currently use very few of the words that were historically available to describe and denote the landscape,’ says Tyler. ‘In general we no longer need to be able to do this with precision, but where a specific need remains, for example in mountaineers, coastal fishermen or wetland farmers, pockets of language persist.’
Knowing the ‘right’ word for something in nature reemphasizes its value and therefore fosters a desire to protect it
For him, our growing estrangement from the landscape mirrors our growing unease with the natural world.
‘The outside, the countryside, has become the unfamiliar “other”, a threat to be overcome and dominated, not understood and enjoyed,’ he says.
‘Might this partly be because we feel uncomfortable with things for which we have no name? Perhaps we have chosen to render the landscape in such broad, bland terms in order to insulate ourselves from the loss of it?’
As well as a step toward reversing this trend, The Landreader is about rootedness: a searing desire for intimate knowledge of place in response to the homogeny which creeps with horrifying replication into all corners of our lives. We can gather purpose and strength, it suggests, in not ignoring but engaging with this most difficult time, this place of breakthrough or breakdown.
‘There is a difference between engaging through the written word and through direct experience,’ Tyler explains, ‘but I would say that the ability to fluently and evocatively communicate about that experience is a kind of power-sharing.’
This is about, he says, providing the tools for a ‘detailed, complex and intimate conversation about landscape in its broadest terms’.
Tyler has been working with established nature writer Robert Macfarlane, author of The Wild Places and The Old Ways, and master of writing on our imaginative relationships with landscape and place. Macfarlane too has been collecting landscape terms and words, more than 3,500 so far, some of which are explored in his new book Landmarks.
‘Language-deficit leads to attention-deficit,’ writes Macfarlane in Landmarks. ‘As we further deplete our ability to name, describe and figure particular aspects of our places, our competence for understanding and imagining possible relationships with nonhuman nature is correspondingly depleted.’
While journeying, Macfarlane has ‘hit buried treasure’ in the form of vernacular dictionaries or extraordinary people, ‘troves that have held gleaming handfuls of coinages,’ he says.
He has received thousands of place-terms over the years, some arriving by letter, email, telephone, others ‘scribbled on postcards or yellowed pre-war foolscap, transcribed from cassette recordings of Suffolk longshoremen made half a century ago, or taken from hand-drawn maps of hill country and coastline; and delved with delight from lexicons and archives around the country and the web.’
‘Perhaps we have chosen to render the landscape in such broad, bland terms in order to insulate ourselves from the loss of it?’
Macfarlane mentions the Icelandic novelist Jón Kalman Stefansson writing of fishing communities speaking ‘coddish’ far out into the North Atlantic; the miners working the Great Northern Coalfield in England’s north-east developing a dialect known as ‘Pitmatical’ or ‘yakka’. It was ‘so dense it proved incomprehensible to Victorian parliamentary commissioners seeking to improve conditions in the mines in the 1840s,’ he writes.
And he recounts stumbling across a peat glossary, divulged to him on the moors of the Outer Hebridean island of Lewis in 2007, which included hundreds of Gaelic terms for the moorland there. A linguistic collection as rich as the peat itself.
‘The same year,’ he writes, ‘I first saw the Peat Glossary, a new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary was published. A sharp-eyed reader noticed that there had been a culling of words concerning nature.’
This shocked and disturbed him deeply. Words including acorn, catkin, kingfisher, pasture and willow had been removed, being deemed no longer relevant to a modern-day childhood, while bullet-point, celebrity and MP3 player had been introduced. Where blackberry was omitted, Blackberry was added.
‘And what is lost along with this literacy is something precious: a kind of word-magic,’ writes Macfarlane, ‘the power that certain terms possess to enchant our relations with nature and place. Landmarks is a celebration and defence of such language.’
The defence may, of course, be in the celebration. Macfarlane also quotes US essayist Wendell Berry, who wrote: ‘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.’
From a multitude of roots today’s nature writing inspires as much as it chills. Crucially, this is nature not at arms-length or separate from people, remote and wild, but attuned to humanized landscapes too.
This is language which is not nostalgic or passive, but urgent and heartfelt, responding to the turmoil we face. At a time when systems and values crumble before us, using language to help craft a new story could be crucial. Words which stimulate and enrich. Our humiliated, hopeful humanness laid bare to the page.
Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane will be published in March 2015 by Hamish Hamilton.
Uncommon Ground: a word-lover’s guide to the British landscape by Dominick Tyler will be published in March by Guardian Faber.