I have come to realize that language is an indispensable portal into the deeper mysteries of the commons. The words we use – to name aspects of nature, to evoke feelings associated with each other and shared wealth, to express ourselves in sly, subtle or playful ways – our words themselves are bridges to the natural world. They mysteriously makes it more real or at least more socially legible.
What a gift that British nature writer Robert Macfarlane has given us in his book Landmarks! The book is a series of essays about how words and literature help us to relate to our local landscapes and to the human condition. The book is also a glossary of scores of unusual words from various regions, occupations and poets, showing how language brings us into more intimate relations with nature. Macfarlane introduces us to entire collections of words for highly precise aspects of coastal land, mountain terrain, marshes, edgelands, water, “northlands,” and many other landscapes.
In the Shetlands, for example, skalva is a word for “clinging snow falling in large damp flakes.” In Dorset, an icicle is often called a clinkerbell. Hikers often call a jumble of boulders requiring careful negotiation a choke. In Yorkshire, a gaping fissure or abyss is called a jaw-hole. In Ireland, a party of men, usually neighboring farmers, helping each other out during harvests, is known as a boon. The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins called a profusion of hedge blossom in full spring a May-mess.
You get the idea. There are thousands of such terms in circulation in the world, each testifying to a special type of human attention and relationship to the land. There are words for types of moving water and rock ledges, words for certain tree branches and roots, words for wild game that hunters pursue. There are even specialized words for water that collects in one’s shoe – lodan, in Gaelic – and for a hill that terminates a range – strone, in Scotland.
Such vocabularies bring to life our relationship with the outside world. They point to its buzzing aliveness. There is a reason that government bureaucracies that “manage” land as "resources" don’t use these types of words. Their priority is an institutional mastery of nature, not a human conversation or connection with it.