Names are powerful. Names help us to identify and distinguish objects and beings from the rest of the world. When we name something, we clarify both what it is and what it is not. This tree, I may say, is a maple, specifically a Norway maple, Acer platanoides, and knowing that name is an important step to finding out more information about that tree and recognizing it from elms, oaks, pines, and other maples. This is one way that names can shape our relationships with other beings in the more-than-human world.
But what about the names that we use for that world as a whole? Names such as nature, earth, and universe? How do they shape our relationships?
Early humans were intimately dependent on the non-human aspects of the world – the plants, animals, water, and soil – for their existence. We likely saw little separation between us and the non-human. But over the millennia, we developed technologies that took us further away from the sources of our food, water, fuel, shelter, and clothing, and so we gradually became less aware of our dependence on the non-human. We became more conscious of an apparent separation between us and the rest of the world, and used the word nature (which evolved from a root meaning “to give birth” and once simply described a being’s innate character and growth) to refer to the non-human part of the world. Before the 16th century, we did not use the word nature as we use it today. When we named the rest of the world “nature”, we fooled ourselves into thinking that human and nature are separate things. The rest of the more-than-human world became other, something that we could use and exploit, rather than live in interdependence with.
Today when we use the word nature, I think that we often continue to subconsciously promote the idea of the separation of the human and the non-human. We say things like, “I enjoy spending time in nature,” but this phrase doesn’t acknowledge that we are always in nature simply by being human. Although I think it would be difficult to move away entirely from using this definition of nature, when I can I try to choose words that reflect our wholeness and connection with the non-human rather than our illusory separation. An example of this is the phrase, the “more-than-human world”, which was (I think) coined by David Abram in The Spell of the Sensuous. This phrase describes a world that includes humans, and yet also reminds us that we are a part of a much larger world.
The word earth originally referred to simply the ground on which we walk and the soil from which we grow. It was a good, sensible, practical, down-to-earth word. But as humans became aware of our existence as a planet in a solar system, earth became the Earth, and we used this simple word to denote our planet as a whole. Even as we recognized the wholeness of the planet we live on from a scientific perspective, I think that we lost some of our connection to the simple, humble earth, soil, dirt beneath our feet. I think that while most of us are used to thinking of the Earth as a planet orbiting our Sun, many of us are not so good at connecting with the more immediate earth on which we walk everyday.
In his introductory note to his book, Becoming Animal, David Abram recognizes this when he writes:
Today many writers choose to capitalize this term…. Such a gesture feels overly facile to me, since it leads us to imagine we are respecting this wild planet, and according it appropriate honor, simply by capitalizing its name…. I have generally chosen to keep the term in lower case, in order to remember that the earth is not just the round sphere in its entirety but also – first and foremost – the humble ground beneath our feet, the winds gusting around us, and the local waters flowing through us.
While I used to capitalize Earth most of the time, now I usually prefer the simple uncapitalized earth, unless I’m talking about the planet from an astronomical perspective. I feel that the uncapitalized word is more immediate and intimate, and focuses our attention more on our relationship with the local landscape.
Universe is a word that literally means “one”. It has always been used to refer to the cosmos as a whole, everything there is. It includes us, all life on Earth, all the planets, the stars, the galaxies, and even that which we don’t see – black holes, dark matter, subatomic particles. It is too large for us to comprehend completely, at the same time as we are an inseparable part of it. This is an important word for us to use because I think we need to recognize that “nature” is not simply this planet we live on but also every planet, every star, every galaxy that is out there. It is everything. Universe also brings to mind images of sweeping vistas of galaxies, and hints at the awe we feel when we contemplate the vastness of it all. This is another word that we can choose to use instead of nature.
I believe that the words and names we use for the world shape our attitudes towards it. Changing the way we talk about nature – perhaps by using that very word less – can, I believe, begin to shift our beliefs and, in turn, our actions.
Look at the way you use these words. If you can, replace generalized words such as “nature” with more specific words. Instead of telling people that you like spending time in nature, tell them that you enjoy visiting the forest or the lake. Talk about the specific beings – pine trees, rivers, slime moulds, bluebirds, etc. – that share the world with us, and share your love for them. If you must use a more generalized word, consider whether the word you are using is one that separates or one that connects us with the more-than-human world. How can you choose your words to subtly remind others of our connection and oneness with the universe?
These may sound like small details, but it is through language that we shape our thoughts, communicate our knowledge to our children, and discuss the issues that affect our world. Names are powerful; choose them with care.