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Disappearing Nature

May 11, 2015

Lamenting the loss of them in town, L noted that a mourning dove asks questions, whereas the invading collared dove merely makes statements. If you were looking for good conversation, you would invite mourning doves to tea. Rock doves are more like grumpy old men sitting in the cafe with cups of black coffee.

Species come and go. During our lifetime, they have mostly gone. (Look at a satellite photo of the earth at night.) The former natural world is disappearing, reflected in the language we use.

A recent essay by Robert Macfarlane (author of “The Old Ways,” a marvelous book about paths and walking them) touches on the subject of his forthcoming book, “Landmarks” (now on order, with my name first).

He noted that in a revised edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary a great many words concerning nature had been culled as no longer relevant to a modern childhood: acorn, ash, beech, buttercup, dandelion (but they’re everywhere!), fern, heron, kingfisher, lark, and so on.

Newly added to the dictionary were: attachment, block-graph, broadband, bullet-proof, celebrity, committee … I can’t go on!

It’s not that these were added but that they displaced beautiful words of an entirely different class of experience. “Lark” in all its related senses is richer and lovelier than the idea or the experience of “committee” or, God forbid, “bullet-proof.”

Oh, how gray the world can be, despite the bright colors on the iPhone. Our world—“the outdoor and natural being displaced by the indoor and the virtual,” Macfarlane says—is reflected in our language but also created by it. The words we use depend on where we place our attention.

Now, if there are no more meadowlarks to see or hear, then we can’t put our attention there. But in our world of seven billion people, if we don’t put our attention on meadowlarks, they very well may disappear.

Macfarlane explains botanist Oliver Rackham’s thoughts on the “four ways in which “landscape is lost”: through the loss of beauty, the loss of freedom, the loss of wildlife and vegetation, and the loss of meaning.”

Macfarlane admires the way that “aesthetics, human experience, ecology, and semantics are given parity in his list. Of these losses the last is hardest to measure.”

“Landmarks” comes out of the author’s collection of “place-words.” These words have a rich connection to particular experience. In Devon, he found the word “ammil,” meaning “the sparkle of morning sunlight through the hoar-frost.” Even the definition is gorgeous.

From Shetland comes the word “pirr,” meaning “a light breath of wind, such as will make a cat’s paw on the water.” In Sussex, there is “smeuse … the gap in the base of a hedge made by the regular passage of a small animal.”

And Macfarlane notes, “… now that I know the word smeuse, I will notice these signs of creaturely movement more often.” However, hedgerows, too, are disappearing.

I shall wait patiently for his new book. Meanwhile, a friend suggested “Evolving ourselves: how unnatural selection and nonrandom mutation are changing life on earth.”

I almost didn’t take it, because confirming my worst fears is not a good pastime. However, I glanced at the table of contents, and right off there’s a heading: “Is autism a harbinger of our changing brains?”

So now I must read it. My own theory of autism is not that humans have changed genetically but that we have sufficiently altered our experience to trigger entirely new behaviors in our species. This book might be saying something different. Stay tuned.


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