I was excited when I first heard about Robert MacFarlane’s new book Landmarks. Not only is he an excellent writer, but his latest subject is one which can provide inspiration to the conservation movement.
Landmarks (http://www.nhbs.com/title/203256/landmarks) explores the relationship between words and landscape and how they interact to define each other. Essentially, it’s a glossary of words which describe nature, land and weather.
Reading about the book (http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/feb/27/robert-macfarlane-word-hoard-rewilding-landscape), I was stunned by the huge variety of words which exist to describe our surroundings, extending far beyond my own vocabulary. Who would have thought the Shetlander’s would have a word to describe a light breeze on the water? Or that this same word, Pirr, would have such a poetic definition: a ‘light breath of wind, such as will make a cat’s paw on the water’.
The very existence of a Hebridean dictionary for peatlands made me realise what a rich tapestry of language exists and how it is rarely used.
This made me think about my own vocabulary. As scientists we are often obsessed with technical language. We use scientific words to convey our points, and with good reason: without agreed terms to describe parts of a flower (stamen, style, corolla, etc) we would end up in a world of confusion. But how many of us have started to read a publication on ecosystems services and felt our eyelids lowering? The problem is that scientific language – vital as it is – lacks pathos and so does little to engage the wider public.
There is a widely held belief that our current model for conservation is failing. Language offers us an opportunity to change this. We are increasingly becoming a society of buzzwords (e.g. stakeholders, ecosystems services, biodiversity) which mean little, if anything, to most people. If we can collectively find the time to learn, use and share words which convey the beauty and wonder of nature, we will have taken an important step towards protecting our most valuable asset.
Landmarks may be a good place to start.
“people exploit what they have merely concluded to be of value, but they defend what they love, and to defend what we love we need a particularising language, for we love what we particularly know.” - Wendell Berry