A discussion with James Hitchmough today reminded me of an interesting article in the New Statesman a while ago which asked if we need a better term for ‘tree’. The author writes that our collective use of language to describe the natural world is so impoverished that this prevents us from connecting with it and thus appreciating its richness and our relation to it. The limits of our knowledge define our reality: if we only know one word for tree, the argument goes, we are only likely to see one type of tree, and so a cycle of environmental degradation is entrenched.
There are lots of provocative questions in there- what is meant by better? why not more words for ‘tree’? and whose use of the language is so impoverished? The easy response is to say that the values of the natural world are the opposite of the values held by many of those who don’t engage with it, and so trying to bridge this gap between soft fabrics, tango and social media on the one hand and honeysuckle-laden hedges on the other is a forlorn hope.
But I don’t buy this and wonder how we can use this understanding of language to fight the cycle: feeling the sensation of Large White-moss against your cheek or the rush of climbing Slieve Donard can be transformational sensory experiences. So how can landscape architects encourage non-nature lovers to think (consciously or sub-consciously) about landscape differently?
Once we have an experience, communicating it becomes so much easier- and more personal and therefore more relevant. For example, I find one of the biggest drivers for learning botanical expressions is because I’m trying to ask practical questions about what I see in nature: language, in a way, is reaction wood. By using our own imagination and research we find new ways to describe things, hence the hundreds of common names for Arum maculatum.
Language is important, but more important is an enquiring mind and perhaps this is where we should start as designers: asking lots of questions broadens our mind and makes us search for the words to describe our experiences and we need to find ways to encourage the users of the landscapes that we design to ask questions about what they can see, hear or feel. Once we have named or described something, our empathic horizon has expanded a little and we are much more likely to care for it.