Unprettying: Writing, Nature, and Climate Change

By | July 12, 2018

Guest post by Amy Weldon, excerpted from The Writer’s Eye: Observation and Inspiration for Creative Writers

In 2007, a revised edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary replaced words associated with nature – including acorn, catkin, kingfisher, nectar, and pasture – with words associated with white-collar, adult-driven technology, including block-graph, bullet-point, committee, cut-and-paste, and voice-mail.[1] When asked about the deletions, the then-head of children’s dictionaries for Oxford University Press said, “When you look back at older versions of dictionaries, there were lots of examples of flowers, for instance; that was because many children lived in semi-rural environments and saw the seasons. Nowadays, the environment has changed.” While acknowledging “a realism to her response,” English nature writer Robert Macfarlane (and others signed a public statement opposing the new dictionary changes, arguing that they show “an alarming acceptance of the idea that children might no longer see the seasons, or that the rural environment might be so unproblematically disposable.”[2]

Online responses to that petition grouse about aging, idealistic writers, but I think those commenters miss a larger point about children, language, and writing: children need and want to engage reality in what they read, but they need some kind of distance from it.  This can be time, like the gap between Laura Ingalls Wilder’s nineteenth-century world and an America gripped by the Depression, when the Little House books were actually published.  It can be narrative point-of-view; Laura’s first attempt at the material that would become the Little House books was the first-person (“I”) narrative “Pioneer Girl,” but the Little House books are written in third-person limited (“she”), which maintains a sense of both distance and closeness for young readers.  It can be a distance of non-realism, as seen in young-adult literature from The Hobbit to The Giver to The Hunger Games.  Human-like animal characters can help children learn to recognize and understand their own emotions better than they would if those characters were human. The child meets those fictional explorations on the common ground of her own body and her own senses, both thrilled and reassured by the fact they share a reality with her at a little distance.

By contrast, block-graph, bullet-point, and committee shove into the foreground our dismally corporate world, into which we’re eager to initiate children despite our helicopterish worrying about their “innocence.”  In that world, docile corporate-technological subjecthood has become a new normal; an eleven-year-old texting, shopping, and leveling up in what she thinks is a game establishes an electronic identity trail that will track and shape her behavior for the rest of her life.[3] Meanwhile, even summer-camping activity time is shifting toward indoor crafts and away from hiking or swimming.  Behind the dictionary-change shimmers a blithe, dangerous cultural assumption: objecting to our screen-focused new normal is vaguely regressive, shameful, and backward-looking, so – even at eleven years old – we’d better get with the program.  Yet cognitive and pedagogical research, not to mention our own experience and intuition, tell us differently. Sure, it’s a dictionary-compiler’s job to describe a culture’s use of language as it is. But neither we nor our children have to accept a culture that pushes language – and, therefore, human minds – into technocorporate shapes.

Robert Macfarlane’s worry about the junior dictionary is fueled by his work with vanishing rural dialects all over the British Isles – specifically their nature words, which are rooted in close observation and, often, earlier forms of a language. As described in his book Landmarks (2015), these words “act as compass; place-speech serves literally to en-chant the land – to sing it back into being, and to sing one’s being back to it.”[4]  Hear just a few he shares with us: quealed (Exmoor; of vegetation, curled up or withered), roddamy (Fenland, to describe rolling land), caochan (Gaelic, from Old Irish “blind,” for a small stream hidden in grass and therefore unable to “see out of its own bed”), or wimpling (from poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, the “rippling motion induced in a bird’s wing feathers by the passage of wind.”) The American version of Macfarlane’s project is Home Ground, compiled by Barry Lopez and Debora Gwartney in 2006. Out of its wealth of language, my favorite term – which I heard in my own rural Alabama childhood – is “cowbelly,” used to describe a fine, silty mud,” found “along the banks of slow-moving creeks, where the current slackens completely” and where “the bottom is so plush that the sinking foot of the barefoot wader barely registers the new medium, only a second change of temperature.”[5]  With this word – remembered in my late father’s voice – a wealth of memory and sensation wells up, like the eye of a spring: my own feet once sank in mud like that, soft as a new calf’s fur before it had roughened in the grass and wind.[6]

Considering this question ushers you through the open door between language and life: what humans can see is connected to what we can name and, in turn, to what we love and to who we are. “The nuances observed by specialized vocabularies,” Macfarlane writes, “are evaporating from common usage, burnt off by capital, apathy, and urbanization;” such language isn’t only to be mourned with platitudes about descriptivism and cultural change.[7]  When your range of linguistic movement and your sense of what Macfarlane calls “the distinction between things” is reduced, so is your freedom of thought and self-understanding.[8] In The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World (2009), anthropologist Wade Davis argues that when we lose a language, we lose a whole system of knowledge and ways of human being saturating its fibers.  As the proverb says: when an old person dies, a library burns to the ground. And – as George Orwell described in his novel Nineteen Eighty-four through his imaginary Newspeak – when your language is narrowed, so is the personal interiority that you may use it to describe. Given how corporations loom expectantly in every corner of society, cracking their knuckles, we shouldn’t fail to notice that here their language is encroaching on us too, supplanting the old distinguished ground of speech – the natural world and the body. If white-collar bureaucracy hogs ever-finer gradations of word-energy but landscape is named only in what Macfarlane calls “large generic units” like “woods,” “hill,” or “field,” our attention will be redirected, and our feelings for nature dulled, accordingly.  Some things are hard to love – even to see – if you can’t quite put a name to them.[9]

Experience and emotion will sharpen your choice of words in a good way if you let them – even about something so grief-infused and hard to imagine as climate change.  In July 2017, the radio program “On the Media,” as part of a larger feature on environmental dystopias, invited readers to substitute their own words for what we are losing and how the world is changing.[10] A woman from Brooklyn submitted “wintersmell,” which is exactly what it sounds like, the particular smell of snow and cold we are in danger of losing. Others submitted “hibernap” (as shorter winters will leave bears less time for the hibernation cycle they need) and “SPF’d,” as in “we’re SPF’d” – a pointed description of a not-so-future state when there won’t be enough SPFs to put on to keep you from being burned. A man from Maryland, sadness obvious in his voice, contributed “verdone” – as in “it was once green and lush, but now it’s verdone.” (The sad echo of Verdun, the World War I battlefield, fits.) It’s not just mashing syllables fancifully together but looking closely at a state of being, then trying to fit language to it.

While writers aren’t always sure about how art can intervene in our climate crisis, my own hope is that sharpening our language and sharpening our sight can enable one another.  As moral beings and as writers, it’s our job to look at reality and describe what we see. When strained through the filter of careful observation, then sharpened with an astringent dash of complex emotion, language becomes a very bracing brew. Consider an interesting craft challenge: describing something unpleasant, alarming, frightening, or sad. Some of the most precise and effective descriptions of unpretty things I’ve seen lately have been written by women, who are so often trained to be “pretty” in life and on the page. Yet when we lift the glass cloche of expectation-to-please from over the little green shoot of our writing, it flowers and branches in unexpected directions, because its roots are going into the dark. The kind of restraint Chekhov describes – warmed throughout by emotion that may not be wholly pleasant or socially admissible – does good things for prose, sharpening it word by word.

Angela Carter’s landmark story collection The Bloody Chamber (1979), feminist retellings of fairy tales, glows with her capacious, rebellious imagination and her ability to counterbalance excess with detail. [11] In “The Erl-King,” haunted by the ghosts of John Keats, William Blake, and Christina Rossetti, a woman falls under the spell of a forest spirit who’s both lover and jailer:

Now the crows drop winter from their wings, invoke the harshest season with their cry.

It is growing colder. Scarcely a leaf left on the trees and the birds come to him in even greater numbers because, in this hard weather, it is lean pickings. The blackbirds and thrushes must hunt the snails from hedge bottoms and crack the shells on stones. But the Erl-King gives them corn and when he whistles to them, a moment later you cannot see him for the birds that have covered him like a soft fall of feathered snow. He spreads out a goblin feast of fruit for me, such appalling succulence; I lie above him and see the light from the fire sucked into the black vortex of his eye, the omission of light at the centre, there, that exerts on me such a tremendous pressure, it draws me inwards.

Eyes green as apples. Green as dead sea fruit.[12]

Claire Vaye Watkins’ eco-dystopian novel Gold Fame Citrus (2015), set in a drought-stricken future California, contains similar passages of dark beauty:

Because sweet Jesus money was still money, and wasn’t that something to celebrate? For now, enough money could get you fresh produce and meat and dairy, even if what they called cheese was Day-Glo and came in a jar, and the fish was mostly poisoned and reeking, the beef gray, the apples blighted even in what used to be apple season, pears grimy even when you paid extra for Bartletts from Amish orchards. Hard sour strawberries and blackberries filled with dust. Flaccid carrots, ashen spinach, cracked olives, bruised hundred-dollar mangos, all-pith oranges, shriveled lemons, boozy tangerines, raspberries with gassed aphids curled in their hearts, an avocado whose crumbling taupe innards once made you weep.[13]

Charlotte Wood’s beautiful, brutal, and gripping dystopia The Natural Way of Things (2016) – set in a camp of imprisoned women on the Australian outback – forces us to confront a kangaroo in the trap the women have set in the hope of other food:

The roo is as tall as the girls. They can smell the animal breath coming at them, dank and afraid.

It stops struggling and stares straight at them. Ears vertical, twitching, quivering. The thick, muscular trunk of its tail presses into the dirt, supporting its great weight. The girls stand, unmoving, not speaking. Vainly, the kangaroo shifts and scuffles again. Then it lowers its head and lengthens its mighty neck, black eyes fixed on them, and lets out three long, hoarse snarls. Its snout fattens, nostrils flared. Panting with effort, it falls to rest back on the great stool of its tail. Little balls of shit lie everywhere about the clearing.

“Have to unclamp the trap,” Yolanda whispers, and takes a tentative step toward the creature.[14]

In lesser hands, this kind of thing can easily become mere gross-out or prurience, more about an immature writer straining for effect than about a mature effort to look closely. But I think the fiction writer Megan Mayhew Bergman, who has written and has spoken about this issue in a workshop I took with her, is right: we can find a difficult and realistic kind of beauty in disorder and darkness, and that’s where we need to look for a richer and wilder understanding of beauty and of life, particularly in our new reality of human-created climate change.  This is the clear, all-encompassing gaze expressed by the Roman playwright Terence: Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto, or nothing human is alien to me. It’s also expressed, of course, by Chekhov.  Here, in 1887, he’s advising a novice writer against the temptation to prettify:

Your statement that the world is “teeming with villains and villainesses” is true.  Human nature is imperfect, so it would be odd to perceive none but the righteous. Requiring literature to dig up a “pearl” from the pack of villains is tantamount to negating literature altogether. Literature is accepted as an art because it depicts life as it actually is. Its aim is the truth, unconditional and honest. Limiting its functions to as narrow a field as extracting “pearls” would be as deadly for art as requiring Levitan to draw a tree without any dirty bark or yellowed leaves. A “pearl” is a fine thing, I agree. But the writer is not a pastry chef, he is not a cosmetician and not an entertainer. He is a man bound by contract to his sense of duty and to his conscience. Once he undertakes this task, it is too late for excuses, and no matter how horrified, he must do battle with his squeamishness and sully his imagination with the grime of life. He is just like any ordinary reporter. What would you say if a newspaper reporter as a result of his squeamishness or a desire to please his readers were to limit his descriptions to honest city fathers, high-minded ladies, and virtuous railroadmen?[15]

Expanding this lens of curiosity, generosity, and openness to a full range of emotion, including grief, equals confronting and continuing to live in reality. If each of us contains both a surgeon and a poet, words are the tools these aspects of our souls have in common. Words are the means with which we act upon the world, and the means by which we surrender to the world so it may act upon us. They are the knives with which we peel away the falsity and bloat of oblivion and lies and expose the slim nerves of reality, and they are indexes, like high-water marks, of the means to which we have let ourselves be overtaken – the more precise the words, I hope, the greater the love and wonder they will register in their hearts, and ours.


Amy E. Weldon is Associate Professor of English at Luther College, USA. She is the author of The Hands-On Life: How to Wake Yourself Up and Save the World (2018) and has published numerous essays in edited collections and stories and reviews in journals including OrionLos Angeles Review of BooksThe Common, Midwest Gothic, and The Carolina Quarterly. Her new book, The Writer’s Eye: Observation and Inspiration for Creative Writers, is now available from Bloomsbury.




[1] Robert Macfarlane, Landmarks (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2015), 3.

[2] Ibid.

[3] See Webb, Amy. “We Post Nothing About Our Daughter Online.” Slate, Sept. 4, 2013. http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/data_mine_1/2013/09/facebook_privacy_and_kids_don_t_post_photos_of_your_kids_online.html.

[4] Macfarlane, Landmarks, 22.

[5] Beasley, Conger, Jr. “Cowbelly.” In Home Ground: Language For An American Landscape. Ed. Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney (San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 2006), 89-90.

[6] Thanks to Home Ground, we can remember that the place a spring comes up from the earth is called an eye.

[7] Macfarlane, Landmarks, 23.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] http://www.wnyc.org/story/on-the-media-2017-07-07

[11] See also Amy Weldon, “Belle Dame Sans Merci: On Angela Carter.” Los Angeles Review of Books, Sept. 20, 2013:  https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/belle-dame-sans-merci-on-angela-carter/.

[12] Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber (1979; New York: Penguin, 1993), 89.

[13] Claire Vaye Watkins, Gold Fame Citrus (New York: Riverhead Books, 2015), 17.

[14] Charlotte Wood, The Natural Way of Things (New York: Europa Editions, 2016), 194-195.

[15] Chekhov, Letters, 62.

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