Nature Connections 2015 in Derby last week provided much to enjoy and reflect on. It enabled me to add a few pieces to the jigsaw of understanding our connection to nature. One area was language and nature, or how we frame nature.
I started they day emphasising the power of writing about nature. ‘Nature writing’ is at the heart of my personal reconnection with nature. I believe that, together with the attention to nature it requires, writing provided the mechanism that led to my own reconnection with nature. From a cognitive integrationist perspective, writing is not just an output of thought, it also enables and shapes our thinking (Menary, 2007). Writing in nature brings the outside in and enables a realisation of unity. I explore this further in ‘A Blackbird’s Year: Mind in Nature‘ and 1000 Good Things in Nature.
My talk at Nature Connections was soon followed by Ralph Underhill, and then Nadine Andrews, both on ‘framing nature’. Both cite Lakoff who explains how frames define problems and hence constrain solutions, they set the context and provide a viewpoint – strong frames define our common sense.
Both speakers demonstrated how language and everyday discourse creates boundaries to nature. Terms such as ‘connection to nature’, place us outside nature. I’ve written before of how I agree that the term ‘connection to nature’ suggests a separation that does not exist, but it’s becoming widely used and understood and I’m yet to hear a convincing alternative. Similarly, Ralph ended with a key question, “How do we create powerful frames that make us part of nature?”
This debate chimes with the recent campaign against the dropping of 50 nature words from the Oxford Junior Dictionary and Robert MacFarlane’s focus on re-engaging with the vocabulary used to describe the natural world. But could the written word itself be at the root of our disconnection from nature?
It is the written word that allowed abstract concepts such as brands to become as real as an oak, and for companies to have the same rights as persons (Corporate Personhood, 1819). We accept that the written word creates reality – the written word makes abstract notions real, yet distances us from the reality of nature. We want to find the language to frame human as part of nature, yet it is perhaps the abstract written word that sets us apart.
In Becoming Animal, David Abram the philosopher and cultural ecologist, discusses the lessons taught within the landscape and loss of oral traditions of the ‘alphabetic civilisation‘ unable to see beyond the frame of the written word, he writes:
“We did not realize that in order to plant them on the page we were uprooting these deep teachings from the soils that gave them their specific vitality…. We didn’t realize that we were divesting the ground of its voice …. Now the paper leaves of the book, rather than the chattering leaves of oak and beech and birch, seemed to hold the ancestral knowledge. Slowly the landscape fell mute,” p.283-284.
He concludes that written culture will never be sufficient and calls for us to replenish “the act of wonder that lies at the heart of all indigenous culture” and states that “the rejuvenation of oral culture is an ecological imperative,” p.292.
Or does the written word simply reflect who we are and what we’ve become, thinking within the Cartesian tradition where the subject is seen as separate from object – the invention of ‘human’ and ‘nature’ can be seen as a defining feature of modernity. I expect the two are closely tied, thinking informs language and language informs thinking, as Menary suggests. It seems that our minds create an inside that says an outside exists, but also a self that says that outside is an Other. Lakoff says that our perceived separation from nature is so deep within our conceptual system it is difficult to overcome.
Whatever the answer, we are tied to the written word, and returning to Nature Connections 2015, Melinda Appleby closed the day with a return to nature writing, told via the oral tradition. How connecting to nature is a personal experience, and how we are either pushed or pulled to nature.
And I still believe that writing can be at the heart of the personal experience of connecting to nature. However, there is a need to think carefully about how it is used, and how everyday discourse can create what is accepted to be common sense. And how can one common sense be replaced with another? How do we create powerful frames that make us part of nature?
Lakoff, G. and M. Johnson. 1999. Philosophy in the flesh: The embodied mind and its challenge to western thought. New York: Basic Books.
Menary, R. 2007. Writing as thinking. Language Sciences 29: 621-632.