Soon, our land­scape will defy de­scrip­tion

The Aurora (Labrador City) - - EDITORIAL - Rus­sell Wanger­sky

Ah, lan­guage — I spend most of my days wrapped up in it, strug­gling to find the best way to com­mu­ni­cate. Try­ing to find a lex­i­con plain enough to be widely un­der­stood, yet par­tic­u­lar and de­tailed enough to make sub­tle, care­ful dis­tinc­tions be­tween things.

En­ter Robert Macfar­lane. The au­thor of “Land­marks,” a book on lan­guage and the land, Macfar­lane has been mak­ing an ar­gu­ment that res­onates deeply with me.

He’s writ­ten on the dis­ap­pear­ance of land­scape-based words from dic­tio­nar­ies and from our vo­cab­u­lary, and what that dis­ap­pear­ance says about us and where we see our place in the world.

As we move fur­ther from the land, we see its vari­a­tions and sub­tleties less, and value the lan­guage that cap­tures those dif­fer­ences less as well.

It hasn’t al­ways been that way. When it was crit­i­cal to sur­vival to know pre­cisely what you were look­ing at, to find your way or at least to find it safely, pre­cise words mat­tered. Macfar­lane col­lects a whole set of land­scape lan­guage that is dis­ap­pear­ing be­cause the dif­fer­ences unique words de­scribe are no longer im­por­tant when viewed fleet­ingly through a car win­dow on a 100-kilo­me­treper-hour high­way.

Take the term, “ri­on­nach maoim.” It means “shad­ows cast on the moor­land by clouds mov­ing across the sky on a bright and windy day.” The term comes from Gaelic, and while you might never work those words into a sen­tence, if you cast your mind back, you can prob­a­bly re­mem­ber a time when you were on high ground, watch­ing the shad­ows of clouds scud across the land­scape be­low you, the trav­el­ling patch­work both dis­tract­ing the eye and at the same high­light­ing in­di­vid­ual patches of ground as it passed. I was there just two weeks ago.

Then there’s the word, “roke.” It’s from East Anglia, and it’s a word for mist, but for a par­tic­u­lar kind of mist: “fog that rises in the evenings off marshes and wa­ter mead­ows.” Any­one trav­el­ling through late sum­mer evenings has watched just that kind of mist fin­ger­ing across high­ways and sec­ondary roads.

Now, I’m not ar­gu­ing that ar­chaic words, no mat­ter how aptly they de­scribe a par­tic­u­lar sit­u­a­tion, should sud­denly be­come com­mon par­lance; it’s just not go­ing to hap­pen.

We don’t pay care­ful enough at­ten­tion any­where near of­ten enough to keep those kinds of words in our me­mory.

But as our words for dif­fer­ent things erode, so does their worth. A yel­low war­bler is a bird, but the sim­ple term “bird” hardly catches what a yel­low war­bler is. That tiny bright showy hand­ful of flit­ter is clearly dis­tinct from robin or star­ling.

If all the yel­low war­blers dis­ap­pear, there will still be other birds. If “bird” is your only mea­sure, then per­haps their dis­ap­pear­ance would be of no great im­port.

Words are dis­ap­pear­ing. Not “pave­ment” and “app,” per­haps, but strong, de­scrip­tive terms for par­tic­u­lar parts of the nat­u­ral world.

From East Anglia again, there’s the de­light­fully ono­matopoeic “fizmer,” which is the “rustling noise pro­duced in grass by petty ag­i­ta­tions of wind.” The fizmer of beach grass — you can hear the sound of it right in the word it­self.

And how about “hover”? Not used as a verb for a static chal­lenge of grav­ity, but as a noun. In Nor­folk, it was used to de­scribe “a float­ing is­land or a bed of reeds.”

Words like that ex­ist ev­ery­where that na­ture and en­vi­ron­ment are crit­i­cally im­por­tant to daily sur­vival — but as we de­tach our­selves from the words, we de­tach our­selves from the sur­round­ing that made them as well.

There’s a great peril in that. How do you value some­thing — how can you value some­thing — that you can’t even find the words for?

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