Posted by: Banta | November 10, 2015

The lost language of wild nature

2008.06 140

Does anyone still look up words in an actual dictionary? Or do we all default to the Google oracle for meanings and etymologies?

Words matter to me. Certain ones are dear, dear friends. Yes, I was a college English major. Yes, reading and writing rescued my childhood like sturdy life rafts in a swollen sea. Yes, I did re-read every Jane Austen novel last year. For fun.

So when I hear that words like acorn, moss, minnow and fern no longer appear in the Oxford Junior Dictionary, I grieve what our digitized world has done to a culture—and a generation of children—already suffering severe ‘nature deficit disorder.’ This dictionary, aimed at 7-year olds, began deleting certain references to flora and fauna back in 2007, but they don’t publish the words they omit each year. Only hands-on sleuthing reveals which ones have gone missing.

In their stead, we find blog, broadband, dyslexia, mp3 player and chatroom, words geared to the market share of 7-year olds who spend far more hours in front of digital screens than in the wild outdoors. Even the luscious summer blackberry has morphed into BlackBerry of smart phone fame.

Self-confessed word hoarder Robert Macfarlane, professor at Cambridge, believes that our impoverished language for wild places threatens the quality of our literary life. In his book Landmarks (2015), Macfarlane takes up the cause of resurrecting the language of landscape. “The terrain beyond the city fringe is chiefly understood in terms of large generic units—field, hill, valley, wood,” writes Macfarlane. “It has become a blandscape.”

But it’s more than that. Like the canary in the coal mine, the disappearance of ‘nature words’ from the Oxford Junior Dictionary mirrors the far more urgent loss of thousands of plant and animal species each year. Gone from our planet. Forever. Scientists estimate the rapid loss of species we see today at between 1,000 and 10,000 times higher than the natural extinction rate—that is, what would be happening if we humans were not around.

Restoration ecologist Donald Falk likens species to bricks in the foundation of a building. “You can probably lose one or two or a dozen bricks and still have a standing house. But by the time you’ve lost 20 per cent of species, you’re going to destabilize the entire structure,” says Falk. “That’s the way ecosystems work.”

More than twenty years ago, Harvard biologist Stephen Jay Gould connected the dots between species loss and our human connection to the natural world. “We cannot win this battle to save species and environments without forging an emotional bond between ourselves and nature as well—for we will not fight to save what we do not love.”

Macfarlane makes a similar case for rewilding the language of landscape. “Language deficit leads to attention deficit,” writes Macfarlane. “As we deplete our ability to denote particular aspects of our places, so our competence for understanding and imagining possible relationships with non-human nature is correspondingly depleted.”

Wendell Berry, Kentucky farmer, environmental activist and writer, creates a memorable literature of place better than almost any author I know. His passion for Henry County, KY and the fictional town of Port William emanates from every paragraph. Language matters to Berry. “We know enough of our own history by now to be aware that people exploit what they have merely concluded to be of value, but they defend what they love,” writes Berry. “To defend what we love we need a particularizing language, for we love what we particularly know.”

What wild place do you love? A mountain, a river, a desert mesa, an old growth forest? Go there now, if only in your mind. Sit on the ground. Close your eyes and listen. Let the wild place talk to you in her own language. She may need your help. Take her words to heart. Speak them out loud. Write them down. Keep them safe for the next generation.


  1. No acorn, fern, minnow or moss? That’s appalling! By the way, there is an excellent local program called Muddy Sneakers that works with the schools to get kid out into nature over the course of a school year. We need more of that for the next generation

  2. Thank you once again for wisdom.

    Sent from my iPad

  3. Beautiful Banta. Thanks for letting me know you are writing here again! Kevin recently read “The Earth has a Soul”. It is a book of essays by an older Carl Jung on “Nature, Technology and Modern Life”. Kevin was very moved by the book’s message, much akin to what you expressed here so eloquently.

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