Learning Nature’s Language

in the forestA heavy rain last night, and now a cool morning.  Tall grasses adorned with seed heads give indication of the slightest breeze, as they dip and swirl as if in conversation.  It’s a language I can’t decipher in words, yet I feel their gentle contentment in the burgeoning sun and the drips of water sliding from their slender leaves.

There is birdsong, as usual these mornings, but I cannot tell you what birds are singing. After 28 years of living, I can identify only the songs of chickadees, red-winged blackbirds, mourning doves, crows and ravens.  I can hear the high screech of hawks overhead, but do not know what type of hawk it is.  For a few years I knew the sound of saw-whet owls and the different beats of woodpeckers, but they are memories of my memory now, and I am in need of a new lesson.

In a recent essay titled Landspeak in Orion Magazine, Robert MacFarlane writes about the deletion of nature-based words from the Oxford Junior Dictionary, and the way human relationship to nature changes as we lose the ability to interact with nature through language.  He writes:

“A basic literacy of landscape is falling away up and down the ages. 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. As the writer Henry Porter observed, the OUP [Oxford University Press] deletions removed the ‘euphonious vocabulary of the natural world—words which do not simply label an object or action but in some mysterious and beautiful way become part of it.'”

A few weeks after reading MacFarlane’s essay, I heard a commentary on Vermont Public Radio, titled “Documenting the Decline,” in which Vic Henningson notes MacFarlane’s writings, and says:

“As the number of botanists declines and words relating to nature disappear from dictionaries, the evidence suggests we’re becoming strangers to the natural world, victims of self-inflicted ecological illiteracy. And when we no longer understand nature, no doubt we’ll finally stop worrying about climate change.  We’ll still enjoy looking at nature, but as novelist and naturalist John Fowles noted, landscape alone is a “bare lifeless body” without the flora and fauna that give it speech, movement, and dress. ‘Without natural history’ hewrote, ‘the world is only a fraction seen. [Imagine] not knowing any flowers, any birds. [T]o so many, they are meaningless hieroglyphs.'”

It took me 19 years to begin learning the names of trees, plants and wild animals in a meaningful way.  As a student on the Adirondack Semester, I was immersed in nature, and our ecology class gave us the language to enter the landscape.  Six years later I took lessons in the language of Vermont’s natural landscape through the Wisdom of the Herbs School, and I opened myself to a new world of wild edibles and medicinals.  I learned that the natural world is always open to us; transforming our understanding of nature from a “fraction seen” to a whole web of living beings is a matter of transforming our own relationship with the life around us.  It’s a matter of opening ourselves to the wonder of learning and the mystery of the natural world.

Now I can tell you about the differences between cultivated plant varieties you grow in your garden, and how to increase your yields with organic growing practices, but on the edge of the garden the field begins, and beyond that the forest spreads like a waves over hillsides and mountains.  At the chatter of a squirrel or the call of a bird, my son stops and listens, his mouth forming a perfect circle, his eyebrows lifting his eyes wide open in exclamation as he points toward the sound–Mama, did you hear that?!  

I see in him our natural place in the layers of the world; how we are constantly drawn to nature, to learning those layers and becoming a part of the landscape around us, how this is wired within us.  His curiosity wakes up my own, and I realize the joy and responsibility of teaching him this language.  It means I have to learn it, too, and for that I am grateful.

Money or No Money

Farming and traveling.  For the last two years this is what I have done, and now I am doing neither.  Shortly after returning to Vermont from Alaska, I decided to work as a ski instructor with my brother, Jeff, at a nearby resort.  I am happy that I have a job, but I miss the rhythm of growing food.  Working at the resort, I find myself constantly asking, “Why am I doing this?”  There is something about this job that keeps me stressed–a multitude of things perhaps–like the constant shuffling of the schedule and the uncertainty of getting a lesson on slow weeks; the pulling of rank that happens among instructors and supervisors; the feeling of working at a place where a guest may spend more money in one week than I will make fore the entire season.

For the first time in my life I am noticing the inequities of money close-up, enhanced by the fact that I am also paying rent, which I have never done until now.  My first week of living here, between rent, food and car repair costs, left $5 in my bank account–a number that sent an empty shock to my stomach.  Now, after a month of work and weekly paychecks I am comfortable again, though the number for comfort has lowered.

I am not angry that some people have money when others don’t; in fact, with less money I am understanding what I have always known: happiness comes from the love arising out of each moment and taking the time to see it.  Instead I am frustrated at the hold money takes over life, and the value our society adds to the people who do have it.  I notice myself get more wrapped up in money than I ever have before, worrying and stressing to the point of tears, feeling under-appreciated if I don’t get a tip, and allowing money to blind me to the joy of working outside and teaching everyday.  I am allowing myself to forget what happiness is.  Perhaps what I need more than anything right now is an allowance of quiet moments.

On New Year’s Eve day I came home worn out and crying.  Edge held me an listened, and when Jeff came home he sat with me at the kitchen counter, offering insight.

He told me, “I’m doing this job because skiing has played such a huge role in my life.  If I can get kids excited about skiing and let that be a conduit for their relationship with nature, or even just a way to get them outside, then that’s great.”

He talked about his experience getting to know the mountain last year, and how special it is.

“When you get off the trail and into the woods, it’s so quiet, and it can feel like you’re the only one on the mountain.”

Jeff’s goal is not to make money, but to open up a whole world to kids and show them a way to be in it.  And that was my mistake.  I came into this job viewing it as a temporary way to make money until I could do what I really wanted.  Of course, I’ve always loved teaching so that was a plus, but now I see that this job is not as limiting as my view of it.  Ski instructing allows me to teach and share the small victories of improvement–balance, stopping, turning–and watch kids move through the winter in a new way; it allows me to live in a beautiful house and spend time with my brother, who is the reason I moved to Cambridge and the reason for so much joy in my life.

So last Monday I started fresh, and am seeing again the opportunities that each day brings.

I wake up.  I drink tea with Edge.  I write.

At work I laugh and encourage.  Yesterday I even had time to ski over to the larger mountain for a personal run, and for the first time saw Mt. Mansfield rising up to the right, lit up by the afternoon sun, and felt the wonder Jeff talked about finally come over me.

In the evenings I come home and bring Nobee outside.  At night Jeff and Edge play music, and I sing with them.  I do have time to sit quietly and reflect, to do the things I want to do, and to spend time with the people I love, and for this I am thankful.  Money or no money, I am living, and the joy that comes from simply being is the joy that I cherish the most.