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Russell Wangersky: Soon, our landscape will defy description


Published on August 4, 2017

The hermit warbler at Mobile in November was Rare Bird of 2016.

©Jared Clarke

Ah, language — I spend most of my days wrapped up in it, struggling to find the best way to communicate. Trying to find a lexicon plain enough to be widely understood, yet particular and detailed enough to make subtle, careful distinctions between things.

Russell Wangersky
File photo

Enter Robert Macfarlane. The author of “Landmarks,” a book on language and the land, Macfarlane has been making an argument that resonates deeply with me.

He’s written on the disappearance of landscape-based words from dictionaries and from our vocabulary, and what that disappearance says about us and where we see our place in the world.

As we move further from the land, we see its variations and subtleties less, and value the language that captures those differences less as well.

It hasn’t always been that way. When it was critical to survival to know precisely what you were looking at, to find your way or at least to find it safely, precise words mattered. Macfarlane collects a whole set of landscape language that is disappearing because the differences unique words describe are no longer important when viewed fleetingly through a car window on a 100-kilometre-per-hour highway.

Take the term, “rionnach maoim.” It means “shadows cast on the moorland by clouds moving across the sky on a bright and windy day.” The term comes from Gaelic, and while you might never work those words into a sentence, if you cast your mind back, you can probably remember a time when you were on high ground, watching the shadows of clouds scud across the landscape below you, the travelling patchwork both distracting the eye and at the same highlighting individual patches of ground as it passed. I was there just two weeks ago.

Then there’s the word, “roke.” It’s from East Anglia, and it’s a word for mist, but for a particular kind of mist: “fog that rises in the evenings off marshes and water meadows.” Anyone travelling through late summer evenings has watched just that kind of mist fingering across highways and secondary roads.

Now, I’m not arguing that archaic words, no matter how aptly they describe a particular situation, should suddenly become common parlance; it’s just not going to happen.

We don’t pay careful enough attention anywhere near often enough to keep those kinds of words in our memory.

But as our words for different things erode, so does their worth. A yellow warbler is a bird, but the simple term “bird” hardly catches what a yellow warbler is. That tiny bright showy handful of flitter is clearly distinct from robin or starling.

If all the yellow warblers disappear, there will still be other birds. If “bird” is your only measure, then perhaps their disappearance would be of no great import.

Words are disappearing. Not “pavement” and “app,” perhaps, but strong, descriptive terms for particular parts of the natural world.

From East Anglia again, there’s the delightfully onomatopoeic “fizmer,” which is the “rustling noise produced in grass by petty agitations of wind.” The fizmer of beach grass — you can hear the sound of it right in the word itself.

And how about “hover”? Not used as a verb for a static challenge of gravity, but as a noun. In Norfolk, it was used to describe “a floating island or a bed of reeds.”

Words like that exist everywhere that nature and environment are critically important to daily survival — but as we detach ourselves from the words, we detach ourselves from the surrounding that made them as well.

There’s a great peril in that.

How do you value something — how can you value something — that you can’t even find the words for?

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 30 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at rwanger@thetelegram.com — Twitter: @wangersky.