Not out of the woods yet

How we use landscape in human metaphor bothers me. Not out of the woods yet is a case in point. As though woods are a bad and dangerous place and safety depends on exiting them. American talk of draining the swamp is another one. Wetlands are fantastic habitats and great sinks for carbon. If someone is in the wilderness, it’s not generally considered a good thing. We use ‘desert’ to stand for barren, empty and insufficient. If we call something a jungle it’s often to convey a sense of violence, and a law of might is right. Mountains are metaphors for problems and challenges.

It’s worth noting that these are all wild landscapes and evoke things not used or exploited by humans. These are the places we don’t build cities, and we tend to overlook the people who live in such areas just as we devalue the land itself. Good land, by our current habits of thinking, is land tamed to the plough or exploited for oil and other resources. Good land is working for ‘us’. Good people are inside the system, not wild things in a wild landscape. Drain the swamp and get rid of the swamp dwellers.

It’s worth being alert to this kind of language use, to avoid doing it, and to challenge those who throw wilderness words around in casually negative ways. If we want to protect our wild landscapes, we have to change how people think about them in the first place.

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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

24 responses to “Not out of the woods yet

  • garycohenblog

    Coincidentally I had a conversation with my wife recently about the negative associations with the saying ‘not out of the woods’. I thought it may be another way of demonising those of us who have a strong felt connection with nature; the dark woods where the wicked witches and horned god worshippers live. However apparently I was way off the mark and it’s something to do with settlers in the early USA and a safe place to camp overnight.
    Re using nature as a metaphor for negativity, as a therapist I am bringing outside work involving the woods etc into my practice. Professional psychotherapy catching up with what many have know for countless years. The connection with nature can and does heal.

  • Laura Perry

    I’ve been thinking about this sort of thing lately, what with the destruction of the woodland behind us to build a new neighborhood. I’ve especially been contemplating the idea of “development”… undeveloped land is considered nearly valueless, and only by “developing” it does it have value for many people. Development, of course, means cutting down all the trees, driving off the wildlife, and removing any trace of its original, natural form in order to build something that’s convenient for humans (a neighborhood, a shopping center). Even parks are considered “developed” because they have amenities for human convenience and comfort. To me, this is a kind of double-speak, sort of the way we talk about developed and undeveloped (or developing) countries. It’s a way of saying that nature (and cultures that differ from ours in substantial ways) have less value, or no value at all. That really bothers me. Language supplies a great many assumptions that we often don’t look at too closely, but maybe we should.

    • Nimue Brown

      yes, development is a really suspect word, isn’t it. Over here, the government kikes the term ‘sustainable development’ which of course it isn’t. Double speak all the way.

  • Bill Watson

    No, never…. To do so would diminish the poetic imagery of English metaphor!

  • Fny

    Makes me think of the Swedish word “skogstokig”, which means something like… being bat shit crazy. Or, if you want a literal translation, “forest crazy”.

    • Nimue Brown

      Ah, I think that’s ‘bosky’ in English, which is a word I like 🙂

      • Fny

        Bosky? I never heard that!

      • Nimue Brown

        I got it from Robert Holdstock but I don’t think he made it up.

      • roselle angwin

        It is definitely a word, originally used in Old English (or possibly Middle; can’t remember). I’ve always imagined it came from the French ‘bosquet’, a grove. I love it 🙂

      • Laura Perry

        Bosky is in my OED: [from BOSK (not recorded between 14th and 19th c., but preserved in dial.) + -Y; or alteration of BUSKY, after It. boscoso] consisting of or covered with bushes or underwood; full of thickets, bushy.

        Then the entry for bosk says: [The early ME bosk(e) was a variant of busk, BUSH; bosk and busk are still used dialectally for BUSH; but the modern literary word may have been evolved from BOSKY.] 1. A bush. 2. A thicket of bushes and underwood; a small wood.

        So it’s a “real” word, at least, real enough for the OED folks to have recorded it. 🙂

      • roselle angwin

        Yes, I’d forgotten its early etymology: boscoso sounds Cornish.

    • Laura Perry

      Oh, and then there’s the next entry, which is also for bosky, listed as dialect or slang: [perh. a humorous use of prec., with the notion of ‘overshadowed’ or ‘obscured’.] Somewhat the worse for drink, tipsy.

  • Ryan C.

    Really interesting point about the hidden meanings in our language, I hadn’t thought of those expressions like that before, but they do all point to a sense of Nature as “wild”, dangerous and hostile. I shall be more thoughtful before I speak in future, which I’m sure is no bad thing!

  • Laura Perry

    More linguistic ponderings: I was having a conversation with a friend recently and we stumbled around to the word *dirt* – which, for many generations, meant feces. There’s the Victorian night-soil man (or woman), again with the word soil meaning feces. How long have we equated the very substance of the Earth with shit? That suggests just how little we value it.

  • Christopher Blackwell

    My desert can have some wild weather as well. I heard my plank door, banging a bit, we don’t have a latch on it, though it is counter weighted with a quart size bleach bottle willed with water to keep it closed most the time my 16 pound cat can push it open from the outside, to come inside. But sometimes he will push in the door a bit and let it bang shut several times. It is his way of knocking on the door as a way of letting me know that he wants me to open for him instead. He has me well trained.

    But as I got out of my seat at the computer, noticed a swirling brown dust storm, thick enough that I could not see the two lane State Highway only sixty feet from my building.

    These sudden dust storms make it suddenly impossible to see, and are notorious for causing multi-car crashes with injuries and even death to driver not aware of how to react. A few weeks ago such a storm caused a 27 car pile up with two dead, and the rest injured and sent to two different counties’ hospitals.

    Yesterday’s dust storm continued for several minutes then suddenly changed to a blinding rain storm that also kept me from seeing our highway for several minutes and then settled to just a heavy monsoon rain storm, and slowly worked down to a sprinkle and died off. We had 30 MPH winds with gusts of 60 MPH winds.

    In minutes, we had gone from dry ground to water running down my driveway and the land was still soaked from three other rain storms in the last week.

    My yard used to flood during a heavy rain, and even once I had it come inside the building. But a few years ago I had a three foot deep water diversions ditch dug up hill from two of my my buildings so even this blinding rain did little damage, just blew the tar paper off the roof of a small shed of mine. But all three of my main buildings went through the storm without damage. Though rain was forced through one air conditioner to puddle on the floor of my sanctuary building.

    Some people, including local farmers did have some damage. As our roads just dip through the gullies, not having culverts, nor bridges, I assume that many of them were unpassible for a while. In my area we had nine telephone poles blown down, leaving a number of people without power for a while, until new poles could be installed.

    • Nimue Brown

      Very glad you came through that ok.

      • Christopher Blackwell

        Main thing is having buildings that can stand up to what our weather can do.

        The county building code only requires that a building can stand up to a 90 MPH wind.

        I have no idea of what my two metal buildings can stand up to, but my Adobe building has stood up to a 115MPH gust of wind during one storm many years ago. Our roof is only one layer of board and then plywood, but it is bolted down through a could of layers of adobe brick and then into a concrete bond beam. So those two layers of adobe brick and the whole of the concrete bond beam would have to lift off for the roof to go. I could hear the roof straining and flexing it, but it survived undamaged.

  • roselle angwin

    Completely agree with this. Thanks for it. I write about it too – really gets me going. The word I particularly hate in relation to the natural world is ‘resource’. Grrrr. It all emphasises the false binary we’ve made of human and other-than-human.

    Incidentally, Thoreau said that all life begins and ends in swamp; to him it’s the primordial wild.

  • lornasmithers

    Yes I totally agree that our negative preconceptions about nature are ingrained in our language and it’s something that those of who are word-smiths should be addressing.

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