Language and landscape

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.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

4 responses to “Language and landscape

  • Leeby Geeby

    Sounds like a fascinating book. I think language can bring us closer to nature for sure. I also agree that it is important to understand the inherent bias in our linguistic terms because we have a we have a nasty habit of imposing that perceptual bias on nature and letting it be the determinant of our relationship with natural systems. We also need to listen and understand the various dialects of nature on their own terms and develop a co-creative dialogue which understand both the unique contribution of each living system, while at the same time recognizing it’s inherent value to the evolution of the Earthly biosphere as a whole. There also might be a knee jerk reaction (“what I would call hairless ape’s burden”) to over-romanticize nature, rather than addressing it in more practical terms. I believe that linguistically this may perpetuate the separation and devalue the importance of human stewardship. I do see the challenges posed by the limits of modern language which compartmentalizes and imposes dominant perceptual values upon the consciousness of the user, this is clearly where the value of and need for Archaic symbolic terms (e.g. the tree of life, elemental correspondences in modern physics etc.) can come into their own.

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