Heather is a plant name: a scrubby evergreen shrub. In New Zealand, a weed; in Scotland, where I come from, a symbol of identity. So it is with curiosity that I read in Robert Macfarlane’s 2015 book, Landmarks, that heather is a noun you will no longer find in the Oxford Junior Dictionary.
Heather, along with other nature words including acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, kingfisher, newt, otter, pasture and willow, have been removed from the dictionary as they no longer reflect the “consensus experience of modern-day childhood” – an urban, technologically-literate childhood – a childhood that needs only words such as attachment, broadband, celebrity, cut-and-paste and MP3 player.
The lost words are a loss of culture as well as experience. As a child, six weeks on an ocean liner forever re-framed my experience and idea of home. I remember realising there was a difference between the meadows of home and stories, and the paddocks of my new country: meadows never had cow shit in them, paddocks in the Manawatu did; a glen in a pine forest was far-removed from a pine plantation. I, myself, was someone else.
In New Zealand, heather is a weed, as are others of the Oxford Junior Dictionary’s deleted words, such as buttercup and dandelion. Other lost words are transplanted memories of a cultural home: catkins, conkers, willows, and bluebells. They are the fairy tale plants – childhood dreams or the dreams of a transplanted Anglo-Saxon past: each word the seed of a story.
Macfarlane, a travel writer and literary critic, recognises words as migrants themselves. To write Landmarks he set about collecting words that describe an intimate relationship with English landscape. He was gifted many words, words he describes as “migrant birds, arriving from distant places with story and metaphor caught in their feathers.” So the loss or migration of words is the loss of story and of expression, or a meaning forever altered.
Local words provide a deep understanding of how people and place are connected and constructed. Aotearoa/New Zealand has its own woven wordscape of place, a wordscape that connects to the land and seascape of the Pacific. Aotearoa and New Zealand both have their origins in sea journeys and are constructed from ideas. They are large names that blanket, like our long white cloud, the intricate stories of this stream and this hill and this rock, stories we have lived in and on.
Landmarks is a love affair with the specificity of place and words. Macfarlane writes that:
place speech … serves literally to en-chant the land – to sing it back into being, and to sing one’s being back into it.”
It is wise to remember that story-making on the land is a cultural action – whakapapa is a recalling of people and place. To name a place is to claim a place. When land is taken, you are confiscating language, story and identity as well as the place where people stand.
But Landmarks is, above all, a deliriously pleasurable journey through wilding words in intimate landscapes. I am taken with Macfarlane’s chapter on Childish (the landscape/language of childhood) and the prevailing sense of childishness, described as “innocent of eye and at ease with wonder.”
In a world where our connectedness is increasingly virtual, where it is only the touch of my keystroke that you will ever see, our relationship with each other and the earth beneath our feet is becoming distant. I hold my palm to the screen on a Skype call, and while this is connection, it is also a loss of contact. As people and communities, our health and wellbeing is tied to a sense of belonging and connection and the ability to articulate our pasts and our futures. When we lose the words that make these links, we become aphasic. Our connections are lost and we lose each other. In 2017, attachment is no longer an affectionate relationship but a file appended to an email.
Macfarlane reminds us that sometimes questions are the only answers we need:
the true mark of a long acquaintance with a single place is a readiness to accept uncertainty: a contentment with the knowledge that you must not seek complete knowledge.”
And in a world battered by incessant technological demands for attention (the chirp is a text message not a cricket), Macfarlane values silence (there’s that chirp again):
there are experiences of landscape that will always resist articulation, and of which words offer only a remote echo – or to which silence is by far the best response. Nature does not name itself. Granite does not self-identify as igneous. Light has no grammar.”
Sometimes there is only wonder….
P.S. Luckily, Heather remains in the Oxford Dictionary of New Zealand English.
Heather Bauchop is a writer and researcher. She lives in Dunedin, New Zealand.
You can read Heather’s previous essays for Corpus here.