Winter’s long days and short nights, when my garden is resting, are my contemplative time. Lately, I’ve been contemplating words and how they affect what we believe in and do. (I’m a writer trained as a plant biologist, which makes me fluent in two languages, English and Science.)
Words are powerful abstractions. They can unite us: If you’re reading this post, you likely identify as part of the tribe of gardeners, folks who tend plants in gardens. “Gardeners” is a word that brings us together. We can find common ground talking about our gardens even if we share nothing else.
Words can also divide us, driving wedges so deep within that we respond instinctively, as if the feelings incited by those words jerk us around like marionettes on so many highly charged strings, and we become incapable of listening or having rational discussion.
Look what happens when you modify the word “plant” by adding “native.” Perfectly reasonable gardeners who would otherwise enjoy trading tips and touring each other’s gardens go ballistic.
What might have been fruitful discussion becomes acrimonious, with some arguing about the definition of “native,” or asserting that since all plants came from somewhere else originally, native doesn’t matter, or calling people who advocate for native plants “mindless purists.”
“Nature” elicits a similar emotional response from people, as I’ve learned with my twelfth book, the memoir Walking Nature Home. I hear regularly from readers who tell me of their surprise that the book touched them deeply and they’ll read it again and again. They usually add that they would never have bought it but for a personal recommendation.
When I ask what put them off before they ever opened the book, the answer is something like, “Well, it’s about nature. I don’t read that. I read books about people.”
Oh. Where did this deep-rooted aversion to nature (and also, it seems, to “native” when combined with “plant” or “species”) come from? Since when does the word “nature” connote a separate world–whether alien or utopian does not matter–to which humanity no longer belongs? Finding a way around those blocks is central to my work.
“Nature,” by the way, comes from Old Middle English via Old French, orginally from the Latin, natura, “body, nature, quality” and the verb nasci, “to be born.” “Native” comes from the same root. So if you follow the original meaning, nature is something we are born to.
As a writer who writes about the other species with whom we share this planet, but does not prefer to be labeled a “nature writer” if that’s a pejorative term, I’ve searched for a less-charged vocabulary for my chosen genre.
I most often say I write about the “community of the land,” a phrase inspired by Aldo Leopold, author of the conservation classic A Sand County Almanac. Leopold, a wildlife biologist, spent a lifetime outdoors observing the relationships between plants and animals (humans included), and the land.
He came to realize that what was important in nature wasn’t individual lives or even individual species (in most cases). Rather, it was the whole messy package, the steaming stew of interactions between plant and animal and landscape, between soil-dwelling microbe and root, root and tunneling rodent, rodent and soaring hawk, and hawk and the soil it eventually decays into that created this living, breathing earth.
Leopold called his credo “The Land Ethic,” explaining, “The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to encompass soils, waters, plants, animals or collectively: the land.”
From that came my phrase “the community of the land.” Not as compact as the word “nature,” but perhaps not as freighted with subconscious triggers either. Further, the phrase reflects what we gardeners know to be true from watching the community of the gardens we tend: landscape is not just a scenic backdrop; it is a vibrant, interrelated community, one to which humans belong.
Making the word “community” a prominent part of a phrase describing nature reminds us that the matrix within which our species was born and shaped is no random collection of critters. It is a living web of relationships between species large and small, the gossamer blue and green skin of life that animates this planet.
The community of the land turns the planet we depend on into a nurturing place, providing the air we breathe, cleansing the water that floods our cells, supplying the food we eat and the raw materials from which we fashion the stuff of our lives. Our gardens are that community brought home, animating the places where we spend our days, inspiring the homes of our hearts and spirits, our families and our dreams.
That’s pretty heady stuff for mere words, but we’re gardeners: We plan and plant and dream. We can handle heady stuff.
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