What comes to mind when you hear the word “apple”? How about “web” or “tweet”? Do you think of electronic devices, Internet and social media or fruit, spiders and birds? As civilization and technology invade our natural spaces, they also take over our vocabulary. Words disappear, change, acquire additional meanings, and all of a sudden people can be unplugged and disconnected just like their devices, and a cloud is no longer a mass of condensed water vapour or, at least, not primarily. Don’t believe me? Try Googling “cloud.” Most of the search results are about cloud computing and cloud storage. Any mention of a cloud as a natural phenomenon does not come up until page 6.
A lot of our nature words are endangered, and their gradual disappearance from our vocabulary not only mirrors the loss of biodiversity but quite often predates it. A few months ago, I saw a graphic posted on Facebook. It depicted six types of trees and six brands asking to name them. It’s a no-brainer, of course, which ones would be more difficult to identify for most of us. Some of the comments were quite interesting though. A lot of people argued that urbanites have no need for this kind of knowledge. That they can easily learn to differentiate between different types of plants when heading into the wilderness to avoid gobbling up a poisonous berry or walking into poison ivy. That kind of reasoning was probably behind the Oxford Junior Dictionary removing words like “almond,” “blackberry” and “crocus” and replacing them with “broadband,” “analogue” and “block graph.” Since kids nowadays spend more time in front of their screens than picking blackberries or smelling crocuses, they have no need for that kind of vocabulary.
However, knowledge of flora and fauna does more than just help save lives in the wilderness. If we have no idea what an aspen looks like or that a wood duck even exists, would we notice if they all suddenly disappeared? To paraphrase the famous “if a tree falls in a forest” philosophical query: If a tree falls and we never noticed it was there in the first place, would we care?
As our nature vocabulary shrinks, our disassociation from nature balloons creating a whole string of social and environmental problems. So what can we do about it? We can reclaim our nature words and rewild our vocabulary. Here are six ways to do it.
How many types of birds can you identify? A sparrow, a pigeon, a crow? How about a northern cardinal, an American goldfinch or a Baltimore oriole? How many types of ducks can you name? On our recent walk through the park, my friend was actually surprised to learn that there was more than one. So whenever you are outside, don’t just admire the plants and animals you come across, learn their names. Get nature guides and carry them with you. Take pictures and find the species online. Take time to stop and read interpretive panels often displayed in the parks that explain their natural and human history, local flora and fauna and other important information about the area.
Go on scavenger hunts
I once attended a talk by a nature photographer who made it his goal to locate and photograph every species of orchids that grow in Ontario. Not an easy task, considering these beautiful, delicate flowers are usually small and elusive, but that is what makes it even more exciting. You can make your own list of plants and animals you would like to find. Put a “face” to the names of all those species you find in books and see in pictures.
Take time to observe
It is not just the names of various species that are disappearing from our discourse. How often do you hear words like “brook,” “rill” or “rivulet”? Do you know what words like “glade” or “quagmire” mean? Can you tell the difference between a thicket and a grove? Chances are all groups of trees look the same to a lot of us as do different streams of water. Distinguishing between them requires us to slow down and observe, something we have neither time nor desire to do anymore. So every time you go outside, make sure to stop and watch. How deep is that stream? How wide? Does that group of trees have a lot of undergrowth? Observe different cloud shapes above, study rocks under your feet, examine various patterns in spider webs.
Become a hoarder
That’s right. Hoard nature words, collect them, treasure them like most valuable possessions, and of course, use them whenever you can: in a journal, a blog and when describing your nature adventures to your friends. Moving away from generic words, like “tree,” “bird” or “flower,” and diversifying your nature vocabulary will not only help make your stories more exciting, but will help save nature words from extinction and inspire others to go see those species and terrains for themselves.
Read about nature
Reading about nature is the next best thing to going out and exploring. So dig up fictional stories about wilderness adventures, reports by real-life explorers, reference books and nature guides, blog posts and magazine articles and enjoy. Try to imagine all those magical places you read about, jot down beautiful nature words you come across, and make your own to-see and to-visit lists.
This one is obvious: get outside as often as you can. Observe animals and birds. Get close to the ground. Notice little crawlies. Jump over brooks and rills. Wander through thickets and groves. Stop and listen to chirps and tweets. Once we rebuild the world where nature is an indispensable part of our daily lives rather than an occasional escape from civilization, we will need a vocabulary to go along with those experiences.