The language of the land
By Fran Southgate
Living Landscapes Advisor
We live in a loquacious world. New words are created almost every day, and the breadth and diversity of the language(s) that we can use is breathtaking. The Lost Words by Rob Macfarlane and Jackie Morris also tells us about Dandelion, Otter, Bramble and Acorn - words describing our natural world which have fallen out of the dictionary, and therefore out of our awareness. Indigenous languages and the innate knowledge of the natural world that they hold disappear on a regular basis.
In our culture, if there is no language to describe something, then to some extent it ceases to exist and is forgotten. Conversely, you can often hear us say words without truly considering what their meaning is. This is worrying to someone who notices what is missing, or who knows that we have forgotten much in relation to our own relationship to nature.
Within the world of wildlife conservation there are everyday terms we use to describe our interactions with the natural world, which are loaded with assumption. The word conservation itself implies a kind of preservation in aspic of nature, which is both impossible and unfeasible – it gives no scope for a landscape to be adaptable over time and according to changing circumstance.
There is also an embedded language that the environmental sector uses on a daily basis, which seriously limits our ability to look beyond the normal, and to challenge the boundaries of the mundane. One example of this might be our reliance of describing a piece of land according to the man-made boundaries around it. Because we use these words, fields, with fences, ditches, walls and straight lines therefore define the shape of our landscape without us realizing that there might be an alternative. The advice that we give about nature religiously revolves around human boundaries and sticks within their limits. For me it is time to consider what might happen to wildlife if we removed some of the straight lines and fences, and started to allow a much freer and more natural evolution of natural boundaries. If we take the fence away from the edge of the woodland, it will take a much more natural shape and form, with much better habitat for wildlife.
Likewise when we want to restore woodlands, we revert automatically to conversations around planting trees, complete with imported seeds, soils and plastic tubes – rather than thinking about a more natural way to restore a healthy and resilient woodland, through natural regeneration and allowing the trees to choose where they want to grow.
I find it bemusing that the environmental NGOs still ubiquitously write ‘management plans’ for their nature reserves – and that we have not yet graduated to the creation of ‘natural landscape’ or ‘self willed wildlife’ visions. And within these ‘plans’ we often speak of ‘clearing out ditches' or water level management – not considering that perhaps it might be better for wildlife to restore the natural hydrology which came before the ditches, pumps and drains. A hedge is often described as being overgrown and in need of trimming – not considering that the natural outward expansion of a hedgerow actually creates prime edge habitat for wildlife.
And then there are the weeds – even some of our rarest arable plants are still described as arable weeds. But a weed is merely a plant in a place that a human doesn’t want it to be – they are all providing wildlife habitat, many have medicinal properties or provide food and forage, but our description of them as weeds implies an implicit need to remove them from our world, or to only conserve them as an act of tolerance.
Similarly, a piece of land which is neither farmed nor built on is often described as abandoned, wasteland or unproductive (farm)land - forgetting that these pieces of land are often some of the most productive in terms of wildlife and the natural services such as pollination which are essential for human survival. Only recently have we truly started to consider naming them as something else like wildland or natural capital.
The natural process of a beaver, deer or pig browsing or digging in the land are still so often called damage, even by the environmental sector. Flooding is always described as catastrophic damage, whereas in the right place it is fertilization of prime agricultural land, natural soil creation, natural water storage, water cleansing, habitat for wildlife and a great deal more. Many of these natural processes that we unwittingly still think of as damage, are in fact intrinsic to the creation of a wildlife diverse landscape, which is healthy both for people and wildlife.
I for one am increasingly trying to think about the words I say to describe the natural world and our interactions with it. On a daily basis I speak to landowners about enhancing their land for wildlife, and the language that I use will be passed on and used by them – it is a responsibility as well as an opportunity for a new environmental type of creativity.
In a world which is inundated by emoji’s, texts, emails, podcasts, tweets, blogs, chats, posts, etc, it is hard to even want to hear the language of the natural world around us, particularly when it doesn’t speak clearly in words. Thankfully, Rewilding and other more nature-led conservation approaches are challenging our daily use of language and the assumptions about our natural landscapes that go with it. Although it is a challenge to find the language for the unknown emergent properties which may emerge from rewilding, it is important that we try to (re)find them, and with them we may finally find a place for nature in our societies.
A new kind of environmental eloquence seems to be emerging which is both exciting and essential. A conversation and a language based around the needs and shapes of nature, where humans are a species embedded in the ecosystem rather than a species which dominates and often misinterprets it.