Speaking the Language of the Landscape

How our intellect hinders us from communicating with the land.

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Sunrise on the Desert. Photo by Fabian Struwe on Unsplash

Logic is a great tool, and it sharpens our intellect. The intellect needs to be sharp, like a surgical knife, in order for it to help us navigate situations that need careful analysis. But so far, logic hasn’t helped us when dealing with the landscape. The knife rips right through it.

Have you ever looked at a landscape and felt no particular connection with it? Or started enumerating and categorizing what you saw? Rushing to take a picture or thinking what you see is a natural “resource?” That’s what I am talking about.

To understand how plants and animals work, we kill them, isolate them, bring them into the lab, and analyze them. Then we try to put all the dead parts together with tape through what we call systems thinking. It doesn’t work.

Naturally, when all you have is a knife, all you know how to do is cut, rip, and hack.

If we want to develop a sustainable relationship with the landscape, we need to use emotional skills, not intellectual ones. We need to learn to speak “landscape language.”

Socializing, a practice as old as us, is key to our well-being. The benefits of friendship, love and companionship are countless. But socializing with the landscape is under-rated. Forest bathing is a good lead, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg (pun intended).

When socializing with anyone, logic isn’t our primary tool. Socializing relies on the ability to speak the same language. In relationships, speaking the same language is key to build a solid foundation and avoid misunderstandings. Ask couples and you will know.

So if we are to socialize with the landscape, how do we learn to speak its language?

The first step is in acknowledging that we don’t know how to speak it. The proof? We don’t even agree on what to call landscapes: nature, the environment, the natural world, the outdoors, etc.

The second step is to switch to a landscape-centric perspective. This means that we should stop thinking of ourselves and our surrounding landscape as a speck of dust in the midst of the universe. Such a view drowns us and the landscape, and dwarfs the importance of our relationship. The world needs to be us and the landscape, even if just for a moment.

For a moment, imagine looking at a sunrise in a desert landscape and think about how that landscape could be the whole world. For one moment, forget the rest of the world.

Your intellect might interrupt this contemplative exercise with some logic. Here’s an exaggerated example for effect:

A sunrise isn’t “really” a sunrise. It’s an Earth-turn. The sum total of the rotation of the Earth around the Sun, the Sun around the Earth, and the Earth around itself makes it so that the Sun looks like it’s regularly rising in the sky every morning in the East, but it’s not.

Some might blame the colloquial use of the term ‘sunrise’ on a heritage of geocentrism that we couldn’t yet get rid of. But consider this quote by historian of science Seyyed Hossein Nasr:

“A scientific explanation of a natural phenomenon does not exhaust its symbolic significance.”

The symbolic significance of sunrise is ever-present regardless of how we can explain away the astronomical phenomenon. It’s present in the eye and the heart of the beholder.

From our landscape-centric perspective, even if the phenomenon is astronomically speaking an Earth-turn, for us, the sun is rising. We can’t ignore that.

Speaking the language of the landscape is tantamount to accepting this perspective as the basis of our relationship. Just as good family relationships necessitate seeing family as a unit at the center of society, so do landscape ‘relationships.’

Good relationship advice often refers to not having expectations, or not the wrong ones at least. Similarly, with the landscape, you should not expect to have a conversation on the first day, nor should you romanticize what I am saying and expect it to be a certain way. Each landscape speaks differently.

On the Water People podcast episode titled Watershed Chats: On Being a Beneficial Human and Learning to Listen to the Land, renowned permaculturist Geoff Lawton spoke about how it took him a lot of time to understand that the location he’d chosen for a vegetable bed was too wet. It kept flooding even after a little bit of rain, which he didn’t expect. He had to move the bed uphill.

Despite years of experience in dealing with the New South Wales’ climate in Australia and general knowledge about that climate analog, he had to learn the “dialect” of that particular landscape. Not just the language.

In the past, our ancestors had access to a limited number of landscapes. Herders and nomads might have had access to more than settled agriculturalists, but on average our access to landscapes is unprecedented. Traveling, even within the same country sometimes, was treacherous. Wild animals, highway robbers, and unfriendly tribes were not uncommon. People traveled in caravans and avoided open landscapes when possible.

Nevertheless, they developed a rich landscape language. The density of place names, or toponyms, was found to increase with population density in hunter-gatherer populations according to a paper in 1994. When you have a relationship with the landscape, you start naming it. Think nicknames for your friends and loved ones.

Other connections between landscape and language have been found more recently. In 2012, a co-occurrence of language diversity and biodiversity has been found in biodiversity hotspots.

Nowadays, we have access to a much greater number of landscapes, even if it is through looking at pictures of faraway places. But our dismal relationship with the lansdcape doesn’t fail to show here. Geo-tagged pictures in social media make people flock to particular landscapes and create a lot of disturbance.

Yet another proof that we haven’t learned to speak landscape language yet. We have the wrong expectations. We want a high-definition picture and an adrenaline rush.

If you tried learning a language before, it would be already clear to you that it’s not about memorizing dictionaries and logically going through all rules of grammar and syntax. Children, whose intellectual knife is duller than us, do best at language learning. It’s an understanding that you get a feel for after tons of practice.

To practice landscape language, we need to consciously stop our intellect from interfering with our contemplation of the landscape.

Nobody can relax to have a conversation with someone holding a knife, especially a sharp one.

Then, we need to halt our expectations and spend a lot of time with one particular landscape. Hopping from one landscape to another to collect experiences may make us instantly recognize some features common to all of them, but doesn’t equip us with the emotional connection necessary to speak and listen to the landscape.

Nobody builds a relationship with the census officer who comes to categorize us in boxes.

Letters From The Drylands

Writing from a landscape where evaporation exceeds rain.

The Moor from the Drylands

Written by

A resilient human living in the drylands. I write about our relationship with the environment and I sometimes compose poems.

Letters From The Drylands

Letters From The Drylands is a collection of H. A. Moor’s essays and musings on landscape, the environment and traditional ecological knowledge.

The Moor from the Drylands

Written by

A resilient human living in the drylands. I write about our relationship with the environment and I sometimes compose poems.

Letters From The Drylands

Letters From The Drylands is a collection of H. A. Moor’s essays and musings on landscape, the environment and traditional ecological knowledge.

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