Our culture has been changing for well over a century. Once largely agrarian, it has transitioned to industrial and increasingly urban, with the remaining agrarian function largely within the purview of mechanized big field farming. Beyond industrial, we have recently added pervasive technological and intellectual aspects to our culture. With every year of this transitioning, humans have lost some of our connection with the land and with the other organisms that inhabit it.
Probably most inner city children have no concept of the natural world at all. The situation is captured by the recent editions of the Oxford Junior Dictionary, which have replaced words describing the natural world with words related to our new technology culture. Words such as acorn, almond, blackberry, buttercup, crocus, hamster, heron, herring, kingfisher, lark, leopard, lobster, magpie, minnow, mussel, newt, otter, ox, oyster, panther have been excused from further dictionary duty. In their place are attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, chatroom, cut-and-paste.
This is not an indictment of the OJD, which has tasked itself to remain relevant by addressing current word usage. And the next step up, the Oxford Primary Dictionary for older children, still contains many of the OJD deletions. Rather, the OJD changes are a reflection of the times, and thus serve to highlight the depth of the problem we face. If we have no intimacy with, yea even no knowledge of the natural world, how can we learn to value and love it?
We will have difficulty arousing passion for nature if we lose the language of nature. That is just what is happening. Such language is being deemed less and less relevant. Assuming one has to be in a natural setting to appreciate it, and one must have suitable language to convey one’s appreciation to others, our culture has two big strikes against it: no access and no words.
Robert Macfarlane has written the book Landmarks, illustrating how language has been used to describe the highly specific characteristics of the natural landscape. He surveys the writings of many naturalist authors and plumbs local word usage from the various dialects of the British Isles, reveling both in discovery of local archaic language, and in the creation of new language for this purpose. He points out that we cannot care about what we do not know, and we cannot know well what we cannot name.
His well-researched book, when compared with modern dictionaries and language compendiums, can serve to demonstrate the size of the gap that is growing between humans and the natural world. Perhaps he will publish a junior edition of his book. Some such books will be required to reverse the process by which we are being removed from any appreciation of the natural world. Going further on the offense, schools must play a role in nature studies. And we need to bring healthy doses of nature into our urban spaces, and support urban children leaving the city for excursions into the natural world.
Pointing one way forward, authors who came together to protest the OJD omissions noted that “there is a shocking, proven connection between the decline in natural play and the decline in children’s wellbeing.” They point to research which found that a generation ago, 40% of children regularly played in natural areas, compared to 10% today, with a further 40% never playing outdoors. “Obesity, anti-social behaviour, friendlessness and fear are the known consequences.”
Ultimately, protection of our natural resources may fall to people with no appreciation for them. At that point, we will lose them to the profit motive. Our future well-being depends on the majority of citizens being in a caring relationship with the natural world.