Blog | Nature: more than words can say?

Tree Week Scouting Blog

By Beth Keehn

Could you ‘elevator pitch’ for your favourite tree? Describe the wonders of icicles on a branch? Write a poem explaining the magic of sleeping under the stars in the woodland? 

Very few of us would argue against the importance of experiencing nature and the way it enhances our lives.  Even the media agrees: there are at least 12 TED Talks focusing on the wonders of our planet; [1] and a random reading in print and online reveals a range of articles extolling the benefits of nature:

  •  'Kids who spend time outside every day are healthier, happier, more creative, less stressed and more alert than those who don’t.' (David Suzuki Foundation)[2]
  • 'Gardening in an allotment can improve mood and self-esteem…' (BBC)[3] 

Some popular commentators are going even further by stressing the importance of the language we use to describe (and sometimes defend) nature. Writer and farmer, Wendell Berry, says, 'People defend what they love, and to defend what we love we need a particularising language, for we love what we particularly know'.[4]  Journalist, George Monbiot, tends to agree: 'The language we use to describe [the natural world] is… rigid and compartmentalised. In the UK we protect ‘sites of special scientific interest’, as if the wildlife they contain is of interest only to scientists.'[5]  In a more creative way, Helen Macdonald makes a fine case for the use of special language in her award-winning book H is for Hawk. She elevates the simple story of her relationship with a goshawk by using an intriguing array of words describing hawking ritual and paraphernalia. 

Writer, Robert Macfarlane delves even deeper, revealing what he sees as a worrying trend in the disappearance of the language of nature.[6] He explains that, through his own interest in words, he created a ‘nature word-hoard’ – collections of words like ‘ammil’ – 'a Devon term for the thin film of ice that lacquers all leaves, twigs and grass blades when a freeze follows a partial thaw'. Then he (and others) noticed that the Oxford Junior Dictionary had culled 'words concerning nature” and “entries no longer felt to be relevant to a modern-day childhood' – for example, deleting ‘acorn’, ‘conker’, ‘kingfisher’ and ‘lark’ and including instead ‘celebrity’, ‘broadband’ and ‘Blackberry™’.  Macfarlane worries that 'we increasingly make do with an impoverished language for landscape', and that our landscape has become a 'blandscape'.

In 2000, authors Daniel Nettle and Suzanne Romaine feared even worse. In Vanishing Voices, they lamented the loss of indigenous languages in some of the world’s most diverse environments, concluding that this could even affect biodiversity in these areas: 'When a language is lost, the environmental knowledge catalogued in that language is lost with it.'[7] 

To me, it also seems that the language used to describe the therapeutic benefits of nature is also changing.  Corporate awayday sessions, often in nature retreats, to relax the stressed brain used to be playfully called ‘tree-hugging’. Now this therapy is less focused on nature and more on ourselves, as ‘mindfulness’ which stresses the importance of thinking. Some even say that it is the patterns in nature that can make you more mindful.[8] And who would disagree that a stroll in the mountains is better than staring at the computer screen all day? 

Of course, all this will be no surprise to Scouting volunteers who already know that nature can be a welcome relief from many modern ailments, including helping people to connect in our increasingly virtual world. As one mother of keen Scouts says: 'Scouting helps my sons see that they can have fun outdoors, learning new skills and playing with their mates. When they invite those friends over for play dates, they enjoy more outdoor time as it is common ground.' 

So, what do you think? To enjoy and promote the connecting, common ground of nature, to say why it is important in our screen-filled lives, do we need the words to describe it in detail?  

  • Write about your local trees and how you connect with them in your day-to-day life
  • Contribute to Macfarlane’s ‘nature word-hoard’. Find out more here.

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