A landscape without words?

What words do you hear children using when they talk about Nature? What were the words you used as a child, but don’t hear anymore?

I love reading books on nature. One of my favourite writers in this genre is Robert Macfarlane and at the moment I am reading his latest book Landmarks. This is an extraordinary book about the words used to describe the natural world. It is also a book of place – the British Isles. I was born in the UK and lived there, in the Wiltshire countryside, until I was eight and we then moved to New Zealand so I must admit it has an immediacy for me. It evokes parts of the landscape of my early childhood, but its themes are universal.

There is a passage in his book that actually made me cry. My cry was a lament for our landscape and the loss of connection to it. I mourned for our children. I feel this passage is so powerful that I am reproducing it here to share with you.

“The same year I first saw the Peat Glossary, 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 [my emphasis] 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 introduced to the new edition included attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player and voice-mail.”

Are we really prepared to let the words of our natural world be deleted from the dictionaries of our children? If we deny them the words to describe natural world how can they feel part of it? How can they understand its nuance and relevance to their lives?

How can we let nature become so invisible, so obsolete, when it is the very thing we all depend upon? How can we hand the next generation a world to care for if they do not even know what to call it?

In one paragraph Robert Macfarlane has shown us how we have become so irresponsible with our children’s futures. This deleting of the vocabulary of nature is happening against a backdrop of climate change, biodiversity loss, ecosystem degradation, pollution, an ocean of plastic and the powers that be don’t really seem to care about that either. Not really. Isn’t there some saying about if you don’t know the names of those you kill then it doesn’t matter so much? Is that what we are doing? Erasing the names of nature so we can’t see or care about what we are killing?

The greatest gift my parents ever gave me was a childhood growing up in the countryside, surrounded by nature. I can see how that formed me and while sadly I do not have children of my own, I love teaching children about the magic and beauty of the natural world. I love to see them see things differently – the weed that heals, the animal that answers when you call, the trees of myth and legend, our place - not as ruler, but as equal in this fabulous web of life… our place in the oneness of things.

I don’t want to live in a world where children don’t know that a dandelion is a dandelion. Do you? It is up to us to show our children, our communities, our politicians, our business leaders that nature is vital to our own well-being. Because without it we are nothing.


 Here are some links to nature books I love:

Landmarks - Robert Macfarlane

Arctic Dreams - Barry Lopez

Nature Cure - Richard Mabey

The Ring of Bright Water Trilogy - Gavin Maxwell


1 comment

  • I also grew up in the countryside. Having moved into the city at high school stage it took me a long time to adjust to pavements and the closeness of urban living. As my children were born, I was sad they didn’t have the same freedoms that I had. Having chores to do after school – feeding the fowls, feeding calves, helping my Mother to take the billy of tea and scones to the hay makers in season and even helping to milk the cows at times. And yes, dandelion, willow, kingfisher, pasture, buttercup were all around.

    These deleted words from the dictionary are important to keep and should be reinstated. Don’t the new words introduced seem shallow and cold in comparison.

    Lesley Goodall

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