An honest conversation with the Earth

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An honest conversation with Earth

We need new language, new words, to help our relationship with nature. Lucy Purdy looks at writers and publications and the new language they are using to talk about nature.


An image by Dominick Tyler. © Dominick Tyler, from his new book Uncommon Ground

In 1991, Thomas Berry, in his book Befriending the Earth, said ‘We have broken the great conversation. We are talking only to ourselves. We are not talking to the rivers, we are not listening to the wind and stars.’

If he was alive, Berry would probably join Margaret Atwood, Michael Morpurgo and other writers. They wrote to Oxford University Press recently to protest that words about nature have been taken out of removal the Oxford Junior Dictionary. Words like ‘acorn’ and ‘catkin’ have gone to make room for words like ‘broadband’ and ‘cut and paste’.

In EarthLines magazine, Dr Sharon Blackie says that many people, authors, publishers, photographers and documentary-makers are very emotional about the destruction of the world. And there is a lot of magic in nature.

Her magazine shows people with a deep connection to the land. They tell stories about the humans and non-humans who live here. She started EarthLines two years ago to show inspiration about the natural world.

‘We use strong language because the planet is in crisis. We’re not trying to create activists - we want people to know what we could lose.’

There is also a project called Dark Mountain Project. Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine started it for writers, artists and thinkers, to change the way we write and talk about the natural world.

Dominick Tyler, photographer and founder of the Landreader project, says that language relates to knowledge. If you know the ‘right’ word for something in nature, it gives it more value, and makes you want to protect it.

Tyler thought he did not have enough words to describe the landscapes he was photographing. He began collecting forgotten words: eg. jackstraw, zawn, clitter and cowbell. Then he created a glossary of the British landscape. This is the Landreader Project. Already, there are more than 2,000 words, many from the general public.

Tyler says we are growing away from the natural world. ‘The countryside, has become unfamiliar and a threat. We need to understand and enjoy it,’ he says. ‘Maybe this is because we feel uncomfortable with things we have no name for.’

The Landreader is trying to fight against this. Tyler says we can share power with words.

Tyler has been working with nature writer Robert Macfarlane (who wrote The Wild Places and The Old Ways). Macfarlane has also been collecting words for landscapes. There are more than 3,500 - his new book Landmarks talks about some of them.

Macfarlane says in Landmarks. ‘If we don’t have the language for something, we don’t pay attention to it. If we have less language to describe nature, our relationship with nature will suffer.’

Macfarlane has discovered many local words and place names. The Icelandic novelist Jón Kalman Stefansson writes about fishing communities speaking ‘coddish’ in the North Atlantic; the miners in England’s north-east spoke ‘Pitmatical’ or ‘yakka’. People from Parliament could not understand them.

‘Then I saw a new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary. Someone noticed that they had cut words about nature.’

He was very shocked and worried. Words like acorn, catkin, kingfisher, pasture and willow were cut – not important to modern childhood. But bullet-point, celebrity and MP3 player were added. The blackberry fruit was cut, and the Blackberry brand was added.

‘We are losing the magic of words,’ writes Macfarlane.

Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane will be published in March 2015 by Hamish Hamilton.

Lucy Purdy is a journalist who writes about the natural world and positive change.

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: (This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).