In Landmarks, Robert Macfarlane has much to offer regarding the connectedness of place and language. Patrick Kavanagh’s insight that the local parish is our only access point to Aristotelian universals is profound (see last excerpt in this post). To share a frustration, Macfarlane’s claims often exaggerate the powers of language alone to tie our hearts to the land and to enable us to hear the voices of the earth and water forms with which we live. It seems to me that this kind of attention and love cannot be separated from the norm of lifetimes spent in faithfulness to a particular place across generations. His collection of writers devoted to places and their peoples, however, is a powerful beacon amid the storms of modernity.
The terrain beyond the city fringe has become progressively more understood in terms of large generic units (‘ field’, ‘hill’, ‘valley’, ‘wood’). It has become a blandscape. We are blasé about place, in the sense that Georg Simmel used that word in his 1903 essay ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’–meaning indifferent to the distinction between things. It is not, on the whole, that natural phenomena and entities themselves are disappearing; rather that there are fewer people able to name them, and that once they go unnamed they go to some degree unseen. Language deficit leads to attention deficit. As we further deplete our ability to name, describe and figure particular aspects of our places, our competence for understanding and imagining possible relationships with non-human nature is correspondingly depleted. The ethno-linguist K. David Harrison bleakly declares that language death means the loss of ‘long-cultivated knowledge that has guided human–environment interaction for millennia …accumulated wisdom and observations of generations of people about the natural world, plants, animals, weather, soil. The loss [is] incalculable, the knowledge mostly unrecoverable.’
…[Basso, author of Wisdom Sits in Places (1996)] became especially interested in the interconnections of story, place-name, historical sense and the ethical relationships of person to person and person to place. Early in the book, Basso despatches what he calls the ‘widely accepted’ fallacy in anthropology that place-names operate only as referents. …The Apache understand how powerfully language constructs the human relation to place, and as such they possess, Basso writes, ‘a modest capacity for wonder and delight at the large tasks that small words can be made to perform’. In their imagination geography and history are consubstantial. Placeless events are inconceivable, in that everything that happens must happen somewhere.
…For Weber, disenchantment was a function of the rise of rationalism, which demanded the extirpation of dissenting knowledge-kinds in favour of a single master-principle. It found its expressions not just in human behaviour and policy–including the general impulse to control nature–but also in emotional response. Weber noted the widespread reduction of ‘wonder’ (for him the hallmark of enchantment, and in which state we are comfortable with not-knowing) and the corresponding expansion of ‘will’ (for him the hallmark of disenchantment, and in which state we are avid for authority). In modernity, mastery usurped mystery. Our language for nature is now such that the things around us do not talk back to us in ways that they might. As we have enhanced our power to determine nature, so we have rendered it less able to converse with us. We find it hard to imagine nature outside a use-value framework. We have become experts in analysing what nature can do for us, but lack a language to evoke what it can do to us. The former is important; the latter is vital. Martin Heidegger identified a version of this trend in 1954, observing that the rise of technology and the technological imagination had converted what he called ‘the whole universe of beings’ into an undifferentiated ‘standing reserve’ (Bestand) of energy, available for any use to which humans choose to put it. The rise of ‘standing reserve’ as a concept has bequeathed to us an inadequate and unsatisfying relationship with the natural world, and with ourselves too, because we have to encounter ourselves and our thoughts as mysteries before we encounter them as service providers. We require things to have their own lives if they are to enrich ours.
…Patrick Kavanagh (1904–67), the great poet of the Irish mundane, was sure of the parish’s importance. For Kavanagh, the parish was not a perimeter but an aperture: a space through which the world could be seen. ‘Parochialism is universal,’ he wrote. ‘It deals with the fundamentals.’ Kavanagh, like Aristotle, was careful not to smudge the ‘universal’ into the ‘general’. The ‘general’, for Aristotle, was the broad, the vague and the undiscerned. The ‘universal’, by contrast, consisted of fine-tuned principles, induced from an intense concentration on the particular. Kavanagh often returned to this connection between the universal and the parochial, and to the idea that we learn by scrutiny of the close-at-hand. ‘All great civilisations are based on parochialism,’ he wrote:
To know fully even one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience. In the world of poetic experience it is depth that counts, not width. A gap in a hedge, a smooth rock surfacing a narrow lane, a view of a woody meadow, the stream at the junction of four small fields–these are as much as a man can fully experience.