The Biophiliac’s Guide to Modern Life: Tip #2

Tip #2: Learn the language

A few weekends ago, we spent time exploring a spur off of one of my favorite logging roads of all time.

It’s a spunky little area that has somehow been managed in such a way that the forest has regenerated itself in an impressive display of second-growth enthusiasm.

What I love most about this area isn’t just the trees, which are lovely in their own right, but the profusion of native plants in the understory. I’ve come to view this area as a sort of¬†personal teacher: I observe, I photograph, I pore over my field guides, and I identify new plant specimens.

Although I grew up in a rural area and spent most of my childhood outside, I didn’t grow up anywhere near western Washington. When we moved here, I didn’t know a hemlock from Douglas fir. Since then, I’ve spent as much time as I can in the woods, developing my eye for native plants, their habits and habitats, and their companionable distributions.

Like a second-language speaker able to identify regional accents, I can now see the effects that microclimates have on plant species and identify various stages of forest succession. As I’ve traveled from Alaska to California and east across the Cascades, I’ve begun to puzzle out the constituent parts of each ecosystem and how they relate to others.

Not unlike that non-native language speaker, though, I still often lack basic vocabulary. The learning challenge I’ve set for myself has been to identify any plants I photograph before posting them on the blog or social media. I focus on one or two species at a time, committing them to memory, and try also to remember the Latin name and variations on the common names.

In addition to way these kinds of word games help my brain remember new things, I love seeing how natural history, ethnobotany, and language shape our descriptions of the world we share.

And that’s the lesson here: that when we name things, we create a relationship with them.

We develop affection and a sense of kinship, two things without which, as Wendell Berry reminds us, there can be no ecological thought. He describes the cultural cycles that turn alongside ecological cycles, ensuring the transmission of knowledge from generation to generation and sustaining a memory tied to place. For Berry, these cycles turn on affection, a love for a place and its beings that keeps us in balance, ecologically and culturally.

Although I don’t share Berry’s insistence on staying rooted in one place, I keep coming back to the idea of affection. Of knowing a place, deeply, in various seasons and over time. Of learning about the social and economic pressures that have affected the place and its people. Of learning to communicate with a place in the many languages it speaks, whether wilderness or forestry or agriculture or cultural history.

By creating a relationship, we become personally invested. A place becomes part of our story, and there’s a weight to that.

So much of modern life is transactional. We talk about inputs and outputs and cost per unit, and this way of speaking pervades even our talk of ecology. This is the language of analysis, and it lets us distance ourselves in order to better understand.

It also protects us. With distance, there is objectivity. Things are less personal. Failures are caused by imbalances, and while sometimes those imbalances are caused by us, that isn’t quite the same thing as saying we’re to blame.

With affection, on the other hand, there’s risk. We can hurt and be hurt. We lack control.

Yet we gain something from each perspective: a deeper understanding of place, of the people who share it, of ourselves.

Learn to speak the many languages of place, whether that means knowing the Latin names for the plants that grow there or appreciating how the sun fills a corner of the room on late fall afternoons.

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