The Word “Nature” Just Doesn’t Do the Job

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Introductory Note

This essay was originally posted in early 2015.  It was subsequently removed from the blog while it was being submitted for publication.  It is being reposted here since the editors of the publication to which it was submitted were unable to find it space.

Lewis Lapham, Editor emeritus of Harper’s magazine, usually chooses single trenchant nouns (“Death”, “Eros”, “Intoxication”, etc.) as titles for his wonderfully eclectic periodical, Lapham’s Quarterly.  But he chose to call Volume 1 Number 3 The Book of Nature.  Why would an experienced editor add those extra words?

I  believe it is because the word “nature” alone is vague and vapid.  What if there were a single word for all perceptible colors and sound?  Even the sub-vocabulary devoted to nature is impoverished and, frankly, obfuscating.

The three section headings of The Book of Nature hint at the scope of the problem:  “Howling Wilderness”, “The Gardens of Earthly Delights” and “Terra Incognita”.  But there could have been more:  Mother Nature, Human Nature, Human as a Small Part of Nature, Nature as that which Does Not Need Humans, Nature as Opposed to Humanity, The World Without Us, The Universe Including Us, The Sound of Wind Blowing, Mountaintop Sun, Birthing and Dying.  The list goes on. When we say “nature” what are we talking about?

Much of the time, “nature” means that part of the world which occurs independent of man.   Federally designated Wilderness Areas are supposed to be big chunks of it. Grass growing in sidewalk cracks is a bit.  A typical summer thunderstorm certainly is.  A hyperhurricane fueled by global warming – well that’s a tough call.

And what about the fellow who shot the last wild passenger pigeon?  Was he destroying nature or just playing a part in it – just like that meteor which altered the planet’s climate and wiped out the dinosaurs.

Back in prehistory, when language was emerging and the human species consisted of a few thousand tribes teetering on the edge of extinction, it probably made some sense to draw a bright line between us and everything else.   Everything else there was and everything else that was happening. Nowadays of, course, unless you’re out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean (and. while you’re at it, steering clear of the pile of plastic in the North Pacific Gyre) or alone in the Amazon basin or the Siberian steppe, it’s pretty difficult to find a view or experience an event devoid of all human influence.  Walking in the New England woods you find yourself hopping over stone walls which, once upon a time, separated farmers’ fields; experience a near fatal accident and it’s much more likely to be an automobile straying over the center line than a pouncing carnivore.  And even the Great American Frontier explored by Lewis and Clark is being understood more and more as an environment significantly altered by the first Americans.

Nature as something entirely independent of humankind now comes in bits and pieces.  More and more it is a mercurial concept and not an actuality – unless, of course,  you include mankind as an integral part.  In that case nature is everywhere and everything – but then what is the stuff that is non-us?  What are the grand vistas, the silent soaring forests, the coral reefs, the migrating birds, the sparkling night sky?  As I said, the word lacks precision and the vocabulary around it is impoverished.

The problem is not trivial.  While Whorfianism – the old idea that thought was shaped by language – has been pretty well debunked, more recent thinking by philosopher Jerry Fodor in his book The Language of Thought, suggests that words function as a kind of mnemonic helping us formulate and call to mind memories of complex ideas.  So there is work to be done.

E.O.Wilson, the Pelligrino University Research Professor, Emeritus  in Entomology at Harvard, and a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction has been hard at work on the problem for years.  In 1984 he introduced the concept of “biophilia” in his book by the same name.  Wilson defines biophilia as “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life”.  Maybe having that word isn’t entirely responsible for the idea of feeling close to other living things, but it does seem to highlight the fact that it’s a generalizable phenomenon.

Back when Lapham was still Editor in Chief of Harper’s Magazine an article by him appeared in the February 1990 edition.  It was called “What’s the Word For…..?”  In it Lapham, striving to introduce “….new words to make sense of new circumstances and relationships…..with the hope of filling the lacunae in today’s dictionary,”  asked “an assortment of English speakers – politicians, writers, actors, union organizers, musicians and miscellaneous wordsmiths – to identify those meanings they thought absent from the common lexicon…” and “….coin an appropriate neologism.”  Conspicuously absent from that assortment were any ecologists, conservationists or natural scientists.

To address this oversight  – and also just for the fun of it – here are some neologisms which might have appeared in that article had Latham not ignored those noble and underpaid professions.  Like all good neologisms, they may serve the purpose of expanding our thinking about or at least make it easier to recall certain aspects of nature:

Bewonderment – The feeling of awe and reverence in the face of a  non-human phenomenon such as the Grand Tetons or a wildebeest migration.

Extrospection – Moving ones consciousness outside oneself and one’s species to become part of the non-us.

Delerium terrers – The distress experienced by someone who craves natural beauty but has just spent the past five days working in an office cubicle.

Landscrape – A landscape following large scale mineral extraction.

Populution  – Problems created by an abundance of humans ignorant of the need to cherish the environment.

Infiniterror – The mistake of believing that a resource or non-human entity is limitless (think passenger pigeon or giant redwood or codfish)

Allospecexion – A technical term for sensing a connection with a member of a different, typically non-domesticated, species. May refer simply to the emotional impact  of a close physical encounter with a wild animal.  A subcategory of biophilia.

Domesticexion – A subcategory of allospecexion relating to a pet.

Knorght – An ugly or disgusting natural occurrence: maggots in the face of a decaying corpse, the odor of the giant flower of Amorphophallus titanum, the mucus layer of eels.

Williwild –  An encounter with nature-engendered fear:  being lost alone in the woods as night falls or adrift in a lifeboat as a storm approaches

Morzored – Killed or injured by a natural event:  attacked by a tiger, drowned.  May apply to inanimate objects: a town morzored by a landslide; a vehicle mozored by a falling tree branch.

Fulfillaction – The feeling – perhaps hypothetical – engendered in an organism when it is successfully performing an act for which it has specifically evolved in a hospitable and familiar environment:  The satisfaction experienced by a peregrine falcon as it strikes it’s prey after a 200 MPH dive over open ocean or by a human in a protected and comfortable space discovering a new use for a material. (Note – when an individual is morzored by a member of a different species, it often results in fulfillaction on the part of the individual who did the morzoring.)

Debeingation – Physical or spiritual destruction of a creature by a member of another species:  a gazelle killed and eaten by a leopard, an elephant forced to perform in a circus. Debeingation is often a result of being morzored.  (Physical destruction of a creature caused by another of the same species is called sacrifice or murder.  Spiritual destruction within the same species is called slavery.)

Hyperdebeingation – Destruction of one entire species by another.

Since originally posting this essay, I have come across a wonderful book by David Lukas called Language Making Nature.  This scholarly but eminently readable book explores the history of neologination and urgently advocates for the making of new words to enrich our perceptions and descriptions of nature.  In it, Lukas implores the reader to consider making new words a hobby – sending them out into the world in hopes that some will  “go viral” and eventually end up in common usage.  Whether one goes on to read Lukas’s book or not, I invite readers to let their imaginations soare and add some of their own wildewerds in the comments section.

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6 thoughts on “The Word “Nature” Just Doesn’t Do the Job

  1. Internature – experiencing nature through the frame of internet-based platforms like social media. *I would be curious to know more about the Internet’s role in shaping human perceptions of and appreciation for nature.

    • That is a really interesting question! On the one hand, people are going to be satisfied watching Youtube vignettes of battles between wart hogs and leopards instead of trekking through the jungle and experiencing the many dimensions of the full experience – smells, humidity, full vistas, insects, ambient sounds, the background threat of predators. On the other hand, the internet has accelerated the accumulation of deep natural knowledge – electronic tags recording and making widely available the travels of whales, sharks and sea turtles; citizen science defining the leading edge of migrating bird species; rich analyses of the full meaning of birdsongs.

      Will the two-dimensional experience suffice for most people? Will it be less of a tragedy for them if the Youtubes persist as the wart hogs and leopards become extinct? Sounds like ecoapathy resulting from wildertruncation to me!

  2. Peter, Many paragraphs in this essay call for hours of discussion over the campfire or in the coffee house. However some of the comments seem to me as “Sapientcentric” and take the views only one species. For instance: ” Knorght – An ugly or disgusting natural occurrence: maggots in the face of a decaying corpse, the odor of the giant flower of Amorphophallus titanum, the mucus layer of eels.” Fly larvae are not ugly to a hungry robin; several members of the Araceae family have a host of insects that love their perfume; the eel proudly wears his coat of gelatinous protein for protection and much more. Ugly implies visual criteria for beauty, disgusting is purely attitudinal.

    • Yes! I like the idea of hours of discussion over coffee. Of course you are right; many of these words are sapientcentric. I am just finishing a book by Jennifer Ackerman called The Genius of Birds, one chapter of which is devoted to the care with which bowerbirds choose and arrange objects around their bowers. She makes a strong case that male and female bowerbirds have coevolved an aesthetic sense of what makes for a beautiful bower entrance.

      Some things surely engender subjective feelings in many species; the nearby roar of a lion must cause many types of prey, including Homo sapiens, to experience fear. The housecat which goes after a wee mouse, however, causes quite different feelings in its owner as opposed to the mouse.

      Perhaps what we need is some way of marking the generalizability of feelings and value judgements. Perhaps make the font of a word bigger the more generalizable it is (though that would surely raise havoc on the printed page). But there is much, much more to be hashed out over that coffee!

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