Mind your Words. Because they Matter

A few years back the Oxford Junior Dictionary culled a bunch of words relating to the natural world. Out went buttercup, acorn, dandelion, fern, hazel, heron, ivy, mistletoe and others. In their place arrived blog, broadband, celebrity, chatroom, voice-mail. The dictionary needed to be relevant, argued Oxford University Press. It needed to reflect the experience of modern-day childhood – an increasingly urban existence where words to describe the natural world are less useful than those illustrating the technological ecosystem. ‘A basic literacy of landscape is falling away up and down the ages,” writes Robert McFarlane in Landmarks. “And what is lost along with this literacy is something precious: A kind of word magic, the power that certain terms possess to enchant our relations with nature and place.”

I wrote a story recently about love, care and action in the face of climate change. About how important it is to care and act, no matter the scale. Making visible the beauty, wonder and importance of the natural world is something that is of great importance to me, yet until reading McFarlane’s book, Landmarks, I hadn’t fully considered the role language plays in this.

Words shape the way we see the world around us in ways ordinary and enduring. From describing the structure of a tiny Dianella caerulea flower, to affecting the ways we value a wild landscape, to the way an entire culture views non-human life. Words describe, evoke, engage, inspire. They’re so ubiquitous that it’s easy to forget how powerful they are. “Don’t gobblefunk around with words,” advised the BFG, Roald Dahl’s wise giant.

Describing nature

About 15 years ago I discovered the wonder of botanical names. I’ll never forget the world that opened up to me, visually as well as intellectually, when I began learning the names of plants. The more words I had, the more plants I saw.

Since moving to the river my arsenal of field guides has grown. There’s a trilogy on our coffee table – Field Guide to the Native Plants of Sydney by Les Robinson, Field Guide to the Birds of Australia by Simpson and Day, and my latest purchase, A Field Guide to Insects in Australia by Paul Zborowski and Ross Storey. Rarely a day passes when I don’t pick one or more of these books up, hunting a newly discovered plant, bird or bug.”

There’s criticism of this very Western/English language need to define, to name, to categorise. John Fowles writes of the trap of categorising rather than seeing in his book, The Tree. He describes how, on discovering a soldier orchid in France, he ‘fell on my knees before it in a way that all botanists will know.’ Yet, five minutes after he’d classified it, measured it, photographed and plotted it on a map, he realised something. “I had not actually seen the three plants in the little colony we had found… It is not necessarily too little knowledge that causes ignorance; possessing too much, or wanting to gain too much, can produce the same result”, he writes.

I’ve felt myself lean dangerously towards the need to name, rather than the actuality of seeing, but my general experience has been that learning names unlocks a way of seeing that helps connect the dots between one tiny being to another. From one species to another. From one side of the world to another. Between a moth and an orchid flower. between a banksia and a leucospermum. Between a bull ant and my ankle.

“It is not, on the whole, that natural phenomena and entities themselves are disappearing; rather that there are fewer people able to name them, and that once they go unnamed they go to some degree unseen. Language deficit leads to attention deficit. 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 non-human nature is correspondingly depleted”, writes McFarlane in Landmarks.

Writer and book lover Trisha Dixon's library at her home, Bobundara.

The language of landscape

My childhood visions of ideal landscapes were ones I read in predominately English story books: Green, soft and full of fairies. The true colours and climate of our Australian landscape didn’t sit neatly within those worlds created by words from another hemisphere, yet I was transfixed by it too. Words for this incredible, subtle, extreme and rich place are still showing themselves to me, and many other Australians.

I wonder how our language for the Australian landscape would look and sound now, if words other than Terra nullius were spoken 248 years ago? Nobody’s land, they said. These two words legitimised attempts to erase over 60 000 years of language, culture, stewardship and knowledge. This is the great tragedy of our country. The Uluru Statement from the Heart, words calling for a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Australian Constitution, has largely been ignored by our Government. It seems our politicians have more important things ponder than words that will transform the way we see ourselves as people of this landscape, this place.

“We have a continent to learn”, writes Bill Gammage in The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines shaped Australia. If we are to survive, let alone feel at home, we must begin to understand our country. If we succeed, one day we might become Australian.” Language can help us learn our country. Songlines and stories. Words and ways of seeing. They’re waiting for us. Our country is waiting for us. It’s not empty as we’ve told ourselves for hundreds of years. It’s full. We just need to learn it’s language.

New words for nature

A few years back I was listening to a podcast interview with US author, scientist and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, Robin Wall Kimmerer, whilst driving from Orange to Sydney. Somewhere between Bathurst and Lithgow Kimmerer raised an idea that has stuck with me ever since. “In the English language, if we want to speak of that sugar maple or that salamander, the only grammar that we have to do so is to call those beings an ‘it’, she said. “And if I called my grandmother or the person sitting across the room from me an “it,” that would be so rude, right?”

‘It’ is the only way we have in the English language to speak of beings other than humans. ‘It’ objectifies, distances and disrespects, according to Kimmerer, and “is at the root of a worldview that allows us to exploit nature.”

Not wanting to objectify the plants, the bees, the snakes I love, I often find myself in a pickle too. There are not enough words in our language for me to adequately express my true connection to these lives I exist in communion with. Imagine if there was a word for living beings that respected their alive-ness; a word that celebrated a plant’s plant-ness; a word that brings us closer to all the lives we’ve grown apart from? I think it’s time we created one.

Words shape the terrain of the mind. They have the power to make visible the invisible, and the visible invisible. Some are light as a downy feather floating to the ground from high in a gum tree. Dipping and arcing in the breeze, this way and that. Some are as weighty as all the tears ever cried, a huge sandstone rock marked by the of winds of millennia.

Just a few letters shuffled around can re-make a world. Consider, for example, the difference between these two phrases: ‘the environment’ and ‘our environment’? One implies separation, the other togetherness. One way of acting, of being, of engaging, to another. One world-view to another.

Mind your words, said someone once. Mind them, because they matter.