Climate change is boring

Climate Change – the term doesn’t elicit much feeling. It’s not our word or phrase, it’s not vivid, personal or very active. I am wondering about how we can propagate a heterogeneous list of words for ourselves (or perhaps publics) that have more velocity and meaning: large-scale hyper-words, and intimate ones.

Two things about words, names, and connection-making:

Robert MacFarlane’s book Landmarks

And philosopher Glenn Albrecht’s hybrid term solastalgia, which I came across in the Guardian essay, Generation Anthropocene

SOLASTALGIA: a combination of the Latin word solacium (comfort) and the Greek root –algia (pain).

 As opposed to nostalgia — the melancholia or distress experienced by individuals when separated from a loved home (A.K.A. homesickness) — “solastalgia” is the distress that is produced by environmental change impacting on people while they are directly connected to their home environment.

MacFarlane’s book is about the loss of regional or locally specific language to describe landscape and climate phenomena. He claims this loss has grossly facilitated our disconnection from our landscapes. A few key quotes:

(In the 2007) 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 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.

A common language – a language of the commons – is getting rarer. And what is lost along with this literacy is something precious: a kind of word magic, the power that certain terms possess to enchant our relations with nature and place.

The variant English terms for ‘icicle’ – aquabob (Kent), clinkerbell and daggler (Wessex), cancervell (Exmoor), ickle (Yorkshire), tankle (Durham), shuckle (Cumbria) – form a tinkling poem of their own.

‘Language is fossil poetry,’ wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1844, ‘[a]s the limestone of the continent consists of infinite masses of the shells of animalcules, so language is made up of images, or tropes, which now, in their secondary use, have long ceased to remind us of their poetic origin.

Nature is not now, nor has ever been, a pure category. We inhabit a post-pastoral terrain, full of modification and compromise: this is why the glossaries contain plenty of unnatural language, such as terms from coastal sea-defences (pillbox, bulwark, rock-armour) that register threats both from the sea and of the sea, or soft estate, the Highways Agency term for those natural habitats that exist along the verges of motorways and trunk roads.

In The History of the Countryside (1986), the great botanist Oliver Rackham describes four ways in which ‘landscape is lost’: through the loss of beauty, the loss of freedom, the loss of wildlife and vegetation, and the loss of meaning. I admire the way that aesthetics, human experience, ecology and semantics are given parity in his list. Of these losses the last is hardest to measure. But it is clear that there is now less need to know in detail the terrains beyond our towns and cities, unless our relationships with them are in some way professionally or recreationally specialized. 

To celebrate the lexis of landscape is not nostalgic, but urgent. ‘People exploit what they have merely concluded to be of value, but they defend what they love,’ writes the American essayist and farmer Wendell Berry, ‘and to defend what we love we need a particularizing language, for we love what we particularly know.’

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