I’ve recently read Jonathan Bate’s The Song of the Earth – it’s a book of literary criticism looking at landscape writing from a more ecological perspective, and it’s decidedly interesting stuff. In places I found it a bit more technical and academic than I could manage, but there were long, more accessible passages that more than made up for this.
One of the key theories underpinning the whole text, is that language is an act of separation from nature. Language is one of the things that makes humans, not natural, and so to speak of nature in language is to heighten separation. Further, that language is not experience, not the real thing, only ever a way of expressing something else. It makes an interesting juxtapose with Robert McFarlane’s ‘Landmarks’ where the message is that specific language helps us recognise and connect, and brings us into better relationship with the natural world, and that human communities living closer to nature have more words for what they encounter. On the whole I am more aligned to Robert McFarlane’s perspective.
I do not see language as unnatural. Nature communicates, with fellow members of its species and with other species when needs be. It does it with sound and movement, smell, chemical emission. If you know a dog you can tell the difference between its wanting to play bark, and its alarm and posturing bark, while full on aggression sounds different again. A blackbird’s warning call is not the same as its sundown song. We can make sense of the bee’s waggle dance, although they don’t do them for us. Tress give off signals to attract the allies they need if they’re hit by a plague of insects, and on it goes. Communication is intrinsic to life, not some weird human addition. It may be arrogance to assume that other species have fewer ‘words’ as well.
Talking is not the experience itself. Writing and reading are very human activities, but they engage our mammal emotions and our minds. What we learn from any form of exchange goes with us, back out into the world, to help us notice. It is easier to discuss something you have words for, and to extend knowledge by means other than direct interaction.
Verbal communication has been given primacy in human interactions, but we do still use body language if we deal with each other in the same space. We are affected by how other humans smell – not just the binary of gross/acceptable, but subtle messages that come in through the nose. Tone of voice affects us. There’s also the exchanges that happen heartbeat to heartbeat, skin to skin, when we are close enough to be communicating in largely physical ways. The dialogues of holding and being held. You can tell someone a great deal simply by how you touch them.
Language itself allows us to hold and explore ideas that it would be hard to imagine without the words to frame them. Truth, belief, the difference between experience and the expression of experience… but these are issues for another day.