I won't write the obvious cliché about the value of pictures, though you can probably guess what it is. In this blog I wanted to tell the story of a wood just to the north of where I live, which lies in the proposed trajectory of HS2. It's where we go blackberry picking in the late summer; people walk their dogs nearby, and it's close enough to the edge of town to be just the right balance of accessible but wild. Sometimes there are buzzards.
Nature as a poet, an enthusiastic workingman, becomes more and more visible the farther and higher we go; for the mountains are fountains - beginning places, however related to sources beyond mortal ken.
John Muir (1838 - 1914) writes effusively in My first summer in the Sierra of the wonders that he sees. Every tree, flower, mountain, and even house fly he sees there is a miracle, a beauty to be contemplated; to be enjoyed and protected. In 1869, he is the companion to a group taking a herd of sheep ('woolly locusts', he terms them) to find fresh pasture in the mountain meadows of the Yosemite. Taking his leave of the group for sometimes days on end, Muir walks and sketches and makes copious notes of his surroundings.
I think his predecessor and fellow Scotsman, Hugh Miller (1802 - 1856) would have agreed with Muir's 'nature as a poet' approach:
Nature is a vast tablet, inscribed with signs, each of which has its own
significancy, and becomes poetry in the mind when read; and geology is
simply the key by which myriads of these signs, hitherto indecipherable,
can be unlocked and perused, and thus a new province added to the
poetical domain. (Lecture third)
Inequality, to me, is legalese. It's harsh, unfeeling and grey. The word doesn't demand action of us: it's a state of being, a mathematical comment on the way the world is. A brick is heavier than a feather - that's inequality. It doesn't make me want to do anything about it.
So I wondered about the synonyms for inequality, and a quick search on the clever Google Ngram showed me something interesting. We used to talk about injustice much more than we talked about inequality. Something happened between 1973 and 1974, and inequality took over. There's not space (or time) to look at why that happened, but it seems that the sense of justice went out of fashion. We were no longer talking about what was right or wrong.
Does 'injustice' demand more response than 'inequality'? Or which other words could we use?
"Possession is nine points of the law", goes the early seventeenth-century proverb. What would happen to our understanding of possession if we had no verb to express it?
Scottish Gaelic (and other Celtic languages) has no possessive verb. I quote from "Gaelic made easy", by John M. Paterson (1952):
We know that when you want to say that a person has anything, you put it as being "at him". Thus THA TAIGH AIG IAIN, A house is at John, or, John.....THA FIOS AGAINN GUM BHEIL AIRGIOD GU LEOIR AGAIBH, We know that you have plenty of money; or [literally], knowledge is at us that money galore is at you.
What would happen if we took away our English verb 'to have'? In Gaelic, we're stating the facts - there's a house and it's with John. There is some money and it happens to be in your pockets. To me, this sounds less permanent, accepting the transient nature of the world by the very grammar used. It makes me think that the things we talk about owning don't really belong to us in the first place - they belong to someone else and we're borrowing them for a while.
It's easy to forget that, really, everything is a gift; everything we use, borrow, eat. How about giving up the verb 'to have' for the day?
Should sustainability be an abstract concept? I went to a talk by Damian le Bas last weekend at Greenbelt on Romany language, storytelling and culture and I asked him how he would express the concept of 'sustainability' in Romany.
The answer he gave all of us was surprising at first. For all the precious lessons that Romany people have learned from the past about travelling light, for their low carbon footprint, there's no word for sustainability. Granted, Romany is an evolving language, but there's no English Romany word for 'sustainability'. According to Damian, English Romany is not often used for abstract ideas; more for saying "I'm going up the hill to catch a rabbit".
However, the Professor chipped in, there is an international Romany constructed word, dur-shayipe; sort of 'long term ability to carry on, etc', which can be used in the context of sustainability. They both agreed, though that it's a word with little currency.
This got me thinking. Should something so vital to our existence be relegated to the realm of the abstract? Where's the concrete language to talk about what we mean?
"...a place where knowing your environment is the key to survival." *
We rarely think about how our knowledge of our surroundings is a matter of life or death. We reserve that for people living in the more out-of-the-way places, where the weather is more severe, and the natural landscape hazardous.
But it's not quite true.
I know that if I walk across a certain road at the wrong time, my life is in danger. I know that this particular alleyway is narrow and dark and should be avoided at night. I know to be wary of certain wild animals. I know that these berries are tasty and these berries are deadly poisonous. I know how to keep food so that it won't go off. I know, more or less, the things which will help me preserve my life and those which will bring it to a more rapid end than I'd wish.
This is true for me, someone who lives on the edge of a medium town in a pleasant county.
Knowing our environment is always a key to survival, wherever it is. We need to understand that our environment isn't somewhere 'out there' where the wild things are, and see that it's here, right where we are.
...words. I did a quick straw-poll on Facebook this week, asking a simple question:
What's your favourite word?
I'm not sure that any of the answers are words that get used very often, but they're an interesting mix of foreign, emotive, philosophical, onomatapoeic expressions. A lot were chosen for the way they feel to say; some for the meanings and a couple for their flexibility.
I wonder whether a piece of writing containing one of these favourite expressions would make the reader more likely to take notice?
Presumably someone, somewhere has mapped the nation's favourite words.
I should point out that one of my friends takes umbrage with this question of ' favourite words', as it subscribes, in his opinion, to false economic reason. We ought not, he tells me, reduce the massive complexity of language to mere words. Thanks, JB.
Nachhaltigkeit ist ein Fremdwort, writes Silvia Schaub in her article in Schweiz am Sonntag at the weekend.* 'Sustainability is a foreign word'. In German, Sustainability is a word taken from another language. A foreign concept, rendered into German by using the existing building blocks: nachhaltig, 'sustained, lasting, persistent' and keit, a suffix like the English -ness to turn it into a noun expressing the concept of being sustained or lasting.
It's clunky but functional - not unlike our English Sustainability. It's a construction; a concept that we're learning to live by because, as Silvia writes, it's better than the alternatives.
*'Ende der Monokultur - Zeitenwende im Garten', Schweiz am Sonntag, 9.März, pp. 50 - 51.