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Terrain of Language
The Understory: Issue Nineteen
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In the Oxford Junior Dictionary (OJD) 2007 edition, an astute reader noticed a strange sleight of hand. A series of words that describe nature and the countryside had gone missing between editions. I invite you to say these omitted words aloud as a kind of summoning spell: acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture, and willow. When pressed to respond why these words had been removed, Vineeta Gupta who was then head of children’s dictionaries at the Oxford University Press remarked that the OJD was a curated selection of 10,000 words and phrases that “reflect the consensus experience of modern-day childhood.” That list of words shifts between editions based on the editorial insight into contemporary childhood. Gupta further elaborated:
“When you look back at older versions of dictionaries, there were lots of examples of flowers for instance. That was because many children lived in semi-rural environments and saw the seasons. Nowadays, the environment has changed.”
In the stead of these fifty or so words were those reflecting the consensus childhood experience of our current technoscapes: attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player and voice-mail. As Macfarlane further elucidates in sharing this story in his book, Landmarks:
“Do we want an alphabet for children that begins ‘A is for Acorn, B is for Buttercup, C is for Conker’; or one that begins ‘A is for Attachment, B is for Block-Graph, C is for Chatroom?’...The substitutions made in the [Oxford Junior] dictionary—the outdoor and the natural being displaced by the indoor and the virtual—are a small but significant symptom of the simulated life we increasingly live. Children are now (and valuably) adept ecologists of the technoscape, with numerous terms for file types but few for different trees and creatures.”
I share Macfarlane’s lamentation and resistance to subordinate life lived outdoors in connection with the more-than-human world for the indoor, 24/7 simulated technoscape. One of the running questions throughout The Understory has thus been how we might restore our individual and societal connections to recognize our interdependence rather than dominion over the planet. To live reciprocally—not taking more than we need and looking for ways to regenerate a healthier planet. It struck me in reviewing the story of omission of natural language from contemporary discourse that language is both a symptom and a symbol of our separation from the natural world. In Issue Sixteen Reflections David Abram distinguishes between cultures that talk about nature and those who talk to nature. If we neither spend our days talking to the more-than-human world and our “scalpel-sharp words” (Macfarlane) to precisely describe that world are diminishing, our terrain of language and our practices around it becomes a crucial cultural bridge to understanding and imagining lives of greater reciprocity instead of continued depletion.
This issue seeks to bring our attention to the power of language and the practices surrounding its usage in connecting us more deeply with the natural world. We will enchant the shimmering wings of moths, listen in on the “talked names” of the Apache landscape in Cibecue, Arizona, and travel across the Songlines of Australia. Eventually, we will arrive at how language as a memory tool becomes essential in adapting humanity to a changing climate. Just as we have cast away words and a broader language of interdependence and connection with the natural world, we can also restore it. For language is our creation and our own momentary choice. How we use language and create meaning within it is only limited by our imagination and determination to bring forth what is most important. This issue is dedicated to remembering the power of language to bring forth the world we choose to see.
"We know enough of our own history by now to be aware that people exploit what they have merely concluded to be of value, but they defend what they love. To defend what we love we need a particularizing language, for we love what we particularly know."
– Life Is A Miracle, Wendell Berry
We are often challenged to find the particular words, let alone the precise language that binds us in reciprocity to the natural world and beings around us. We see a bird, but cannot invoke its name. We admire a tree, but struggle to recall which type it is. We encounter a small river flowing across the coastal plain and never knew to call it a rife. Our child holds a gneiss rock shimmering with quartz and asks what rests in their palm.
In our contemporary moment, most of us have a blunted precision in addressing the natural landscapes that surround us and that reside in our memories. In first reading Macfarlane’s Landmarks, I was struck by the evocation of language and the dedication to its precision. Macfarlane selected the muses for each chapter—Roger Deakin, J. A. Baker, Nan Shepherd, Barry Lopez, Richard Skelton, Richard Jeffries, Jacquetta Hawkes, John Muir—for their shared sensibility that “to use language well is to use it particularly: precision of utterance as both a form of lyricism and a species of attention." Each chapter concludes with a glossary, numbering nine in total, with what likely amounts to two-thousand words, what Macfarlane describes as a:
“word-hoard of the astonishing lexis for landscape that exists in the comprision of islands, rivers, strands, fells, lochs, cities, towns, corries, hedgerows, fields and edgelands uneasily known as Britain and Ireland...I sought to gather grit as well as pearls: landscape offer us experiences of great grace and beauty, but also despair, hard labour and death. Thus the discomforts of hansper and aingealach, alongside the dazzle of ammil and haze-fire.”
The thousands of words Macfarlane shares do indeed form the beginnings of a kind of Terra Britannica as he set out to write with terms used by fishermen, farmers, sailors, scientists, crofters, mountaineers, soldiers, shepherds, walkers, and unrecorded ordinary others over millennia. In most cases, the words shared escape the grasp of not only mainstream lexicons, but even the mutterings of those very communities where they originated. The loss is much broader than just our precision of language, but rather represents a larger symbolic cultural loss. We have lost words and phrases not because they have fallen out of favour, but rather because our lives have fallen out of the kind of integration with the natural world that makes them meaningful and demands their invocation. David Abram likes to speak of the “taste of a word or phrase.” However, without the direct, felt experience with that which we choose to speak, how might we even know the taste?
Our natural landscape lexicon is now the purview of a few remaining naturalist authors like Macfarlane and teams of toponymists within our governments. In Canada, place names are “authorized” through a national committee called the Geographical Names Board of Canada. The appointment of officials and roles in our society that relegate the selection of language to describe place is a symptom of our independence from the natural world. No longer is our place language emergent from individuals whose occupation is in relationship with the land, but rather this responsibility has become the purview of a small group of outsourced official experts working in offices. I do not mean to insinuate irresponsible behaviour in how these experts designate language, but rather to reflect on the cultural condition that we find ourselves in where the government has become the custodian and guardian of place language because of the distanced relationship of ordinary citizens to the more-than-human world.
Enchanting Lost Words
As recounted to Emergence Magazine in this interview well worth listening to (for Macfarlane’s reading of “Otter” at 1:11:00 alone), illustrator Jackie Morris contacted Macfarlane to see if he wanted to collaborate with her to make what she called “a beautiful protest” of the fifty “nature” words Oxford University Press had removed from the OJD. This invitation resulted in two beautiful books, The Lost Words and The Lost Spells. Macfarlane’s approach was to evoke each of the omitted OJD words with a “summoning spell.” In the introduction to The Lost Words Macfarlane writes:
“You hold in your hands a spellbook for conjuring back these lost words. To read it you will need to seek, find and speak...it holds not poems but spells of many kinds that might just, by the old, strong magic of being spoken aloud, unfold dreams and songs, and summon lost words back into the mouth and the mind’s eye.”
This possibility of holding lost words in the “mind’s eye” creates an integral linkage between the physical worlds and our words of imagination and dreaming. Our ability to conjure mental images not only manifests them in our minds, but as we shall soon see, can also bring the material world into being. I invite you to this enchantment of “moth”:
The Lost Words and The Lost Spells are in a way counterspells to our contemporary lifestyles disconnected from the more-than-human world. As Morris desired, the books are indeed beautiful, but they are also protests. The aversion to loss of not just these fifty or so “nature” words, but more significantly the relationships that are implied within each of them has struck a global chord, catalyzing manifestations of the book into theatre, film, music, card games, and puzzles. As Macfarlane humbly notes, “it’s nothing to do with us anymore: it’s to do with love and hope and fear and loss.” A bus driver went so far as to raise £30,000 to put a copy of The Lost Words in every primary, secondary, and special school in all of Scotland, some of which had to be delivered by sea kayak to schools on remote islands. The authors generously shared a free version of their Explorer’s Guide to The Lost Spells containing lessons and activities which you can download here.
What The Lost Words reminds us is that words can be a bridge between worlds. Words can connect us with the once seen, and perhaps even the lost. Once gone from our language, words lose their potency to evoke. By putting words into continuous practice, building our own terrains of language, we come into relationship with those words and what they represent once again. The next two sections will look at cultures who have built practices where invocation of language is the vital linkage between the human and the more-than-human worlds.
Speaking Landscapes into Being
While spending time with the Apache in Cibecue, Arizona, Yale anthropologist Keith Basso started to notice an undercurrent language as he became more attuned to the rhythms of life in the village. As shared in Stalking with Stories(1984), Basso overheard an Apache cowboy speaking quietly to himself while stringing a fence. As Basso leaned in to hear what he was saying, he discovered that the man was reciting a string of place names, one after one, in a verse without pause for nearly ten minutes. These place names took the form of long phrases: “big cottonwood trees standing spreading here and there;” “coarse textured rocks lie above in compact cluster;” “water flows down on top of regular succession of flat rocks.” When Basso asked the man what he’d been saying, the man replied that he “talked names” to himself” because “I like to ride that way in my mind.”
Basso researched the 1,100 person community from the Western Apache settlement of Cibecue, eventually mapping 104 square kilometres and recording 296 Apache location names across the landscape. As Basso recounts, by reciting a series of place-names, the Apache are “travelling in their minds” across the landscape. When asked why they do this, another Apache man told Basso “because those names are good to say.” This practice of naming landscapes and all the animate objects within them by travelling within one’s mind is not unique to the Apache. As David Abram writes in The Spell of the Sensuous, the intertwining of landscapes with linguistic memory is common to almost all Indigenous oral cultures.
This is a good point in the essay to pause if you are so inclined. For what I am about to share about Aboriginal Songlines took me three different books to begin to understand. Even then, I am only beginning to grasp its totality. Perhaps we should not be surprised to find this level of complexity in something that has developed over 55,000 years. For the concepts embedded within the Songlines are so countary to our Western views of creation, time, and human orientation to other species that it may take time well beyond this essay to unfold. But I think the pursuit is highly worthwhile, as it is a radical imagining of our relationship of language to everything that makes up our world.
Let’s begin with Bruce Chatwin’s journey in Aboriginal Australia as shared in dialogue with Arkady in Songlines (1987):
'So the land,' I said, 'must first exist as a concept in the mind? Then it must be sung? Only then can it be said to exist?'
'In other words, "to exist" is "to be perceived"?'
[Arkady] 'In Aboriginal belief, an unsung land is a dead land: since, if the songs are forgotten, the land itself will die.'
In Aboriginal culture, language and the words within it are not simply communicative for human utility, but existential. Singing sustains the animate earth and everything on it, and was similarly essential to how everything was first created. As Chatwin writes, “the whole of Australia could be read as a musical score...Each totemic Ancestor, while travelling through the country, was thought to have scattered a trail of words and musical notes along the line of his footprints.” These trails are called Songlines and are still travelled to this day on “Walkabout.”
In searching for a description of the Aboriginal creation story, I found Wade Davis’ in The Wayfinders the most approachable:
“The Ancestors walked as they sang, and when it was time to stop, they slept. In their dreams they conceived the events of the following days, points of creation that fused one into another until every creature, every stream and stone, all space and time became part of the whole, the divine manifestation of one great seminal impulse....The paths taken by the Ancestors have never been forgotten. They are the Songlines, precise itineraries followed even today as people travel across the template of the physical world. As Aboriginals track the Songlines and chat the stories of the first dawning, they become part of the Ancestors and enter Dreamtime, which is neither a dream nor a measure of the passage of time. It is the very realm of the Ancestors, a parallel universe where the ordinary laws of time, space, and motion do not apply, where past, future, and present merge into one.”
If you notice, there is a semantic distinction between wake and sleep. Both are vital states of becoming, and “Dreamtime” is a state of being in relationship rather than a description of awakeness. The world is formed by singing in the waking hours, and reconstituted in our sleep by connecting with Ancestors. Every Aboriginal band is composed of individuals from different totemic clans (animal, plant, power) which gives them access to different Songlines. Together all the totemic clans represent all of creation, and yet individually each is responsible for a specific lineage of creation. By chanting any part of a song cycle, that person becomes linked to their totem and the Ancestor that first wandered across the dreaming earth. Because the Ancestors traced every Songline to bring the world into existence, all the songs are reconnective where what was becomes what is—the past is the present. Our Western notions of time are irrelevant. Abrams describes it as a “time out of time.” As Davis goes on to explain:
“In the Aboriginal universe there is no past, present, or future. In not one of the hundreds of dialects spoken at the moment of contact was there a word for time. There is no notion of linear progression, no goal of improvement, no idealization of the possibility of change. To the contrary, the entire logos of the Dreaming is stasis, constancy, balance, and consistency. The entire purpose of humanity is not to improve anything. It is to engage in the ritual and ceremonial activities deemed to be essential for the maintenance of the world precisely as it was at the moment of creation.”
This is what is meant by a language becoming existential. Without the movements and sacred Dreaming rituals, the Songlines cease to exist, and therefore the earth will become the “dead land” as shared by Chatwin. Without memory, which in effect brings the past into the present, there is no present, nor a future. Or as Abram says, “The coherence of human language is inseparable from the coherence of the surrounding ecology...It is the animate earth that speaks; human speech is but a part of that vaster discourse.” What I think Abram means, and more broadly what the Songlines instruct, is that there is no language without one of the animate earth. It is the vital language. Singing is necessary to continuously recreate creation. The Songlines tell us that without continuously singing our world into being, the landscape and everything that is a part of it becomes lost, including us.
Dreaming as Adaptation
We are just starting to awaken to the realization that Indigenous wisdom provides vital intelligence into our future capacity to be adaptive in the face of a changing climate. In 2020, The New York Times Magazine featured “The Great Climate Migration” anticipating that by 2070, one in three people will live in places that are nearly uninhabitable, sparking a migration of a scale that civilization has never seen. Our understanding and interrelationships with landscapes will once again become integral to our survival. As the research of anthropologist Helen Payne revealed, Songlines are cultural memory tools of viable routes against the harsh terrain of Australia. She found that Dreaming sites along Songlines contained either a source of water, a potential shelter, a high vantage point good for hunting, or a cluster of these characteristics. These Dreaming sites were the only places that had such features across the whole of the desert. It is through the memory of the Songlines that we can sustain life, as contained within them are the myriad landscape features that are essential to survival.
The notion of progress or the lack thereof in the Aboriginal worldview is also vital as we consider what it might actually look like to live sustainably on the planet. Because there is no notion of progress and because the entire world has already been created, it implies that there can be no imperfection in the world. As a counter to our continuous search for “solutions” to “problems,” Chatwin shares that the spiritual life of Dreaming has a single aim: “to keep the land the way it was and should be.” In that wisdom is another lesson for our survival amidst a changing climate—to remember that our role is to restore the land to what it should be, and protect what it always was.
I would like to conclude with a question I am frequently asked. What can I do as an individual to mitigate the climate crisis? While that answer varies for everyone, one of the things I learned from probing the depths of language within this essay is the power of integrating a practice of enchantments of the more-than-human world into our daily lives. Speak the landscape to yourself as you are doing the dishes, standing in line at the grocery store, eating lunch at your desk. Seek out the words that describe the more-than-human worlds so you can build language to be in relationship with it.
What we can learn from the Macfarlane and Morris’ Lost projects, from the Cibecue Apaches string of place names, and from the Aboriginal Songlines is that language resides in our minds whether awake or asleep. Regardless of place or moment in time, we can choose to increase our interdependence with the natural world by enchanting counterspells to our simulated technoscapes. We must begin to speak the words before we can speak the language. And if we can learn to speak the language of the more-than-human world, we can interconnect what has been disconnected. “The roots of individual words reach out and intermesh, their stems lean and criss-cross, and their outgrowths branch and clasp,” says Robert Macfarlane. It starts by remembering what we should be grasping for, and continues in our daily practice of enchanting what is worth recalling.
From the moment the various European colonists spanned out across North America and the Dutch & British reached the shores of Australia, we have struggled to comprehend the intertwining of place with linguistic memory that is common to nearly all Indigenous, oral cultures around the world. We are slowly awakening to the realization of the power of language to bind us to the more-than-human world, as a bridge to being in relationship with the land and all that it contains. We can resist the blunted words of “mountain,” “bird,” “water,” and “tree” in favour of a more precise language that speaks not just about but also to the natural world.
Living in reciprocity with the natural world extends beyond our actions and into our speaking and imaginings. By investing in a richer terrain of language, one laden with “scalpel-sharp words” that cherish and enchant the world that we value, we will be more heartened defenders of the natural world by being in relationship to it. What we can learn from the spells of Macfarlane, from the talked names of the Apache, and from the auditory mnemonics of the Aboriginal Songlines, is that language, spoken and heard, is essential to lives of interdependence that heal the cultural divisions of our simulated technoscapes.
Language is a human creation. By being intentional in what we invoke and how we practice speaking, we can use the power of language to bring forth the world that we all know is possible. By singing the animate earth, we continue creation.
Go forth and make a difference in the week ahead.
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Why I Write The Understory
We have crossed the climate-change threshold from emerging to urgent, which demands a transformative response. The scale of the issue demands not only continuous focus but also the courage to take bold action. I've found that a persistence of climate consciousness improves resilience to the noise and distractions of daily life in service of a bigger (and most of the time invisible) long-term cause.
The Understory is my way of organizing the natural and human-made curiosities that capture my attention. Within the words, research, and actions of others lies the inspiration for personal and organizational journeys. I hope that my work here will help to inform not just my persistent consciousness, but yours as well.