Speaking the land

In deep summer I wrote about the relationship between stories and the land – Stories that endure – yet, what about words and their ability to connect us with place?

Sitting beneath the Woronora bridge by the river’s side, Uncle Max asked me if I knew any language names for country. I said some, mainly place and plant names and some animal names. He told me that I only needed to know a few, that I should say these names as I moved through country. Was he encouraging me to invoke the spirit of place through these words? A language that the land could understand?

In a recent article published in The Guardian, The word-hoard: Robert Macfarlane on rewilding our language of landscape,  Macfarlane writes about the ways in which words shape our sense of place. He reflects upon his time on the Isle of Lewis (UK) where he came across Gaelic words and phrases that described with stunning beauty the landscape of the moorlands.

Other terms were striking for their visual poetry: rionnach maoim means “the shadows cast on the moorland by clouds moving across the sky on a bright and windy day”; èit refers to “the practice of placing quartz stones in streams so that they sparkle in moonlight and thereby attract salmon to them in the late summer and autumn”, and teine biorach is “the flame or will-o’-the-wisp that runs on top of heather when the moor burns during the summer”.

Each word and phrase is a well that once stepped into, takes us deep within the interior of the land. We see the land in new (and old) ways, we remember that there is profound beauty that we are connected to. We say the names that invoke and acknowledge this beauty and these connections. But how often do we utter these words that take us beneath the veneer of the land, deep into its heart?

Macfarlane shares his dismay at the erasure of our connection with the land which is precipitated through the erasure of powerful words from our memories and lexicon.

The same summer I was on Lewis, a new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary was published. A sharp-eyed reader noticed that there had been a culling of words concerning nature. Under pressure, Oxford University Press revealed a list of the entries it no longer felt to be relevant to a modern-day childhood. The deletions included acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture and willow. The words taking their places in the new edition included attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player and voice-mail. As I had been entranced by the language preserved in the prose‑poem of the “Peat Glossary”, so I was dismayed by the language that had fallen (been pushed) from the dictionary. For blackberry, read Blackberry.

I am reminded of George Orwell’s 1984 and the way in which words that reminded people of their humanity, humility, freedom and connections were systematically erased to create a new reality based on control and compliance. Languages that speak the land and people-place are crucial if we are to keep remembering who we are and what we are connected to, so that our imaginations can continue to roam and dream in country.

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