We need a better language for nature

Unsolicited Book Reviews: Horizon, by Barry Lopez; Underland, by Robert Macfarlane

There are any number of ways to begin this review. I could discuss how our language of “Nature” is fundamentally exploitative–that most of us have difficulties thinking of nature as anything other than a grab-bag of resources to be exploited (even if we do it carefully.) I could discuss the attempts of many–including Lopez, MacFarlane and others–to preserve the language, and the knowledge, that underpins traditional societies, knowledge that will be needed if the structures of civilization begin to break down (think seriously about modern agriculture and its vulnerabilities.) I could discuss the fact that most of us no longer have any contact with “place”–we live, and participate in society, in an increasingly abstract, undefined and characterless built environment. Malls and airports often define our existence, and these all look the same these days–with the same 60s British and American pop soundtrack in the background.

Or I could start with Captain James Cook, who, rather implausibly, figures prominently in Lopez’s Horizon. Horizon is Lopez’s first major non-fiction book since Arctic Dreams, some three decades ago or so (and the book that Macfarlane said made him want to become a writer.) That’s a long time for many of us to be waiting. And the book does not disappoint. But why does Captain Cook keep making an appearance in a book of essays about places, and our diminishing knowledge of them? Because was, in fact, an explorer in the truest sense of the word. He sought, and obtained, knowledge for its own sake. Yes, he was employed by others who didn’t share his vision, people who were considerably more mercantile than Cook was. Lopez points out that Cook changed everything–before him, the Pacific was an abstract concept for Europeans; after Cook, it was a known, or at least identified, quantity. The planet was coherently map-able in a way that it wasn’t before Cook’s three voyages. But his major attribute for Lopez was an enthusiasm for understanding what he encountered, and his discomfort at what was then pretty well established western imperialism. He was far from perfect, and in many ways embodied his century. But in many ways he defied it as well. And one of these was his appreciation for the various cultures he encountered, one not necessarily shared by those who sent him off on his missions.


Lopez’s Horizon is the culmination of another 30 years of travels, and the book is organized geographically, and, indeed, by explorers such as Cook. We revisit the Arctic, visit the Antarctic, spend time in Australia, and there’s even a very brief stop at the beginning at Mamaroneck, New York, where I happened to go to High School–this was definitely a very Sebaldian moment for me (W.G. Sebald has a weird story about an imaginary Mamaroneck in The Emigrants). It’s definitely a travel book, in a way that Macfarlane’s is not. Lopez wants us to see the places he goes, and it’s much more of a celebration of place than Macfarlane’s journey–as one would expect, given that Macfarlane spends most of his time underground. But it’s also a highly personal book–these are places where Lopez has spent some, or a lot of, time in his life, and they clearly hold a range of memories and meanings for him.

“Celebration” perhaps isn’t the right word, since most of the landscapes he visits are under threat, even after being compromised for, in some cases, centuries. But the more overarching theme is not what is being lost physically, although much of this is both avoidable and calamitous. He engages with both people and place, though–many of his journeys are those in which he is able to accompany a scientific research project–in Great Rift Valley, in Greenland, in the Galapagos Islands, at both poles, in the outback of Australia, even at home in Oregon. But all take place in the context of, and deep interactions with, a local population that has often inhabited the area long before Europeans showed up on the scene, and who now often retain much, or at least some, of the local cultural knowledge of generations spent in a single place. This is perhaps what most concerns Lopez–the gradual disappearance of this knowledge, both of local culture and of local places. This all has a very Wendell Berry feel to it.

And like Berry, Lopez is angry as what he sees around the world–the depletion of resources, of course, but also the eradication of local knowledge of the kind that enables a people to live within the limits of a place. Berry has for decades been writing about how humans need to learn the concept of limits–for our economics, for our politics, for how we lead our lives. Lopez reflects these same concerns–often in his travels her reminds us of how the loss of this local knowledge of limits has accompanied the displacement of local cultures by Western economic and political systems. And much of the book is devoted to how useful, and deeply necessary, this local knowledge is, and will be as the physical condition of the planet reflects the changes wrought by the Anthropocene.

Macfarlane is well established here, and increasingly, I gather, in the US as well. His recent book The Lost Words, inspired by the Oxford English Dictionary dropping a whole range of words about the natural world because they were no longer in use, has become a surprise, and probably permanent, best seller. The highly successful campaign in Scotland to deliver a copy to every school library in the country has inspired similar efforts elsewhere. His writing for years has been about observing the landscape, and defining what makes a place a place. And by that, I mean developing not just an appreciation for landscape and place, but developing a language for defining and describing it. He also has a knack for making you want to go where he has been–The Wild Places and The Old Ways were full of places and locales that you wanted to visit. That was part of the intent of the books–to inspire. And judging by their reception, they’ve been wildly successful in this regard.


In Underland, he does something different. He travels to places that most of us rarely see–what lies beneath. So we travel through caves and caverns, some of which MacFarlane (whom I have met, and who is tall) can barely crawl through. We encounter some impressive cave art from thousands of years ago. We learn about the subterranean forest of fungi. We travel through the endless miles of he catacombs beneath Paris. We travel across glaciers in Greenland to understand how these are being hollowed out from below. We start to appreciate what is being revealed by the melting ice–radioactive munitions from old military depots, anthrax-generating animal carcasses that kill. We fish off the coast of Norway, where there is a bitter competition for what’s down there–cod, or oil. Cod has surprisingly been winning, but oil plays a long game, as we know, and it’s not over yet. We have a deep underground legacy that we virtually never see, but it’s there. And it has the potential to be threatening. It’s not clear that these are places we might want to visit–at times Macfarlane seems to be pretty uncomfortable with some of he situations he’s in.

As with Lopez, there is a geographic organization to the book, although Macfarlane’s reach is more concentrated–Britain, Europe, the North. And we come to appreciate Macfarlane’s comment that the underland not only protects us from the future–the seed storage vault in Norway, for example– but also protects the future from us–the underground caves being dug in Finland to store nuclear waste for 100,000 years. (And getting back to language–Macfarlane has an interesting discussion of what various committees went through to design a communication system that conveyed a warning to future generations.)

Throughout, as with Lopez, we have conversations. MacFarlane is a wonderful raconteur, and encounters and accompanies an engaging lot of locals wherever he goes. People with a depth of local knowledge that Macfarlane beings out for us–like Lopez, Macfarlane wants us to not only appreciate the extent that is still available, or being rediscovered. But, again like Lopez, he is concerned–indeed, alarmed along with many of his companions–about what is being lost. This includes the still rapacious use of the underland that humans use–the global mining industry shows no signs of slowing down, much like the global forestry industry. More important for Lopez, and to Macfarlane although not stated as explicitly, is the lost of the cultural knowledge for a deeper appreciation of how to view the landscape, how to define place.

This is one of the unifying thread of both these wonderful but alarming books–what we’re losing. Like Wendell Berry writings on agriculture, or Gary Nabhan on our knowledge of how to feed ourselves locally, both Lopez and Macfarlane mourn the loss of this local knowledge. And this knowledge is not just knowledge about what’s where, and how to do stuff–it’s a deeper knowledge of how to approach and actually understand the landscape. And this is where both authors, directly or indirectly, confront the limits of language, and how it may reflect the limits of our mindsets. Macfarlane has been writing about language for years, but it is clearly a focus for Lopez as well. Lopez spends considerable time juxtaposing the views, and language, of traditional peoples with those of their western guests, if that’s the word. And he, like Macfarlane, ends up at something of a loss in terms of how to bridge this gap.

This is not something they achieve, though, although it’s clear why. We’re talking about how language embodies culture, specifically those cultures that predate the European (or Western, if you prefer) incursions. Linguists have been having this argument for decades, or longer–to what extent does language reflect, or even define, the cultural assumptions of its speakers? The Whorfian hypothesis is always with us. Both Lopez and Macfarlane accept it–and note repeatedly the limits of English, they language they use, to describe the worldviews of those displaced by western economic imperatives. Lopez would remind us that Captain Cook faced the same difficulties and constraints, but was often able to get past them through sheer inquiry and curiosity.

Lopez and Macfarlane are not alone. This discussion has been going on for decades, indeed centuries. For example, to what extent has the Judao-Christian notion of dominion underpinned western culture’s justifications for claiming ownership of resources–especially when there is an equally compelling Biblical case for humans being Stewards of the planet. There’s no reason to expect this discussion to be resolved any time soon, even as we deplete one resource after another. Global fisheries are collapsing. Topsoil is depleting at alarming rates. The list goes on.

What is needed here, as Lopez and Macfarlane continually remind us, is a different language for our relation to the physical world–one that more closely resembles that of traditional cultures. This is, of course, at direct odds with the modern financial system, independent of political structures–the old Soviet Union had as terrible a record of environmental destruction as any subsequent capitalist system. We could start, I suspect, with how we define “natural resources.” By resource, we inherently assume something that is available for consumption. But what if our language could accommodate multiple connotations for “resource,” including something other than something whose sole utility is to be exploited?

It’s not clear that we’re capable of this in the time we have for saving resources such as the Amazonian rainforest, or the oceans, or the biosphere, or–well, take your pick. What is clear is that however we try to do this, it will involve reclaiming much of the knowledge and sensitivities embodied in cultures of ownership, if that’s the word, prior to Western economic development. How can you describe ownership to a culture that lacks the concept entirely? How do you move to a more accommodative definition of who owns what? Not all of these cultures were equally successful–for every one that we can hold up as a model, such as Lopez’s Inuit or aboriginal friends, I’m sure there are some that were, in their own way, as rapacious as our current economic systems. But, as Lopez and Macfarlane stress, we won’t be able to begin that journey without understanding how our language limits how we view the world. As Lopez would put it, we need to be less literal and more metaphorical. And to do that, we need to listen in a way that, as a modern society, we have not been able to sufficiently. Listening, after all, was one of the things Captain Cook was good at.