The Language of Nature in Our Lives

The connection between nature and human thought has long been a subject of philosophical musings, from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in his Reveries of the Solitary Walker, in which he claimed that walking aided abstract thought, to one of my favorite authors, Rebecca Solnit, who wrote a whole book of essays about the broader political, social and cultural significance of walking in nature, called Wanderlust

It’s clear that for as long as homo sapiens have been getting around on their hind legs, freeing hands and mind, our thoughts have been able to “wander” along with our legs. Now that we are not constantly looking over our shoulders to check for saber-toothed tigers, walking can free our minds, help us relax and become meditative, reducing stress, and making space for new and creative approaches to our lives. 

quote on a card

Social butterflies and busy bees

So it’s not surprising that the words that have been used over generations to describe the natural world have become embedded in our language; that we use elements of landscapes and landmarks, animals and plants to describe our thought processes, our challenges, and travails as well as our successes and moments of joy. 

While I am out hiking, my musings take me all over the place, and I mull over things that would never occur to me if I were sitting at my computer or on the sofa watching Netflix. Descriptions of character traits like “social butterfly,” “sly as a fox,” “silly goose” and “busy bee” all come from our previous closeness to nature, and it’s fun to return to nature to see how accurate these descriptions really are. 

Sometimes while I walk, I recall idioms and sayings from my childhood: I remember my grandmother getting out of hospital after an operation and gramps saying, “She’s out of the woods now thank God!” and me asking “But what was she doing in the woods?” 

Not seeing the wood for the trees

This also happens to be a song on a Taylor Swift album. And whenever it came on the radio, I wondered how many teenage girls in urban America would perhaps take the title literally, as I did as a kid. If you have ever walked through a dark wood, emerging into a sunlit field, you will know what it means. It is as if a weight has lifted, and anything threatening has been left behind. There is something profoundly threatening about forests, embedded in our very psyche, perhaps reinforced by the mystical imagery of traditional German (Grimm brothers) and Scandinavian fairy tales. The forest is where the big bad wolf skulks along with bears, wood sprites, and other mean-spirited creatures. So it is no wonder that being out of the woods means to be out of danger. 

Judging by the number of references there are to woods and trees in our language, we clearly have a more arboreal past than many would imagine, considering how our forests and woodland have shrunk. Yet one thousand years ago, most of Britain was covered in forest. In Germany, even now, it’s 30% of the entire country, which explains why forests are so deeply entrenched in the German psyche. “Not seeing the wood for the trees” is a beautiful way of expressing someone’s inability to see the bigger picture. You can look at and admire single trees, but until you step back and see the beauty of trees in relationship with each other, you are missing the bigger picture. 

Birds of a feather

Because I’m a keen birdwatcher, I not only collect bird sightings but also references to birds in language. I file them away in my mind, planning to use them “casually” in conversation –bird nerd, I know. I love the comic imagery the phrases conjure: “thieving magpies,” “happy as a lark,” or “crazy as a loon.” And the classic “Birds of a feather flock together.” 

Anyone who has ever seen a rookery, or swallows perched on the wires of a telegraph pole, knows how true this is. The only time I have ever seen birds of different species interacting is when a crow or two gang up to mob a buzzard that has been trying to steal their young. It brings home how similar we are to our avian travelers, at least when it comes to social behavior. 

My favorite idiom has nothing to do with birds, though, but with my love of kayaking. “To be up the creek without a paddle.” Although I thought the word “creek” was American in origin, it turns out it actually comes from the Old Norse for saltwater inlet, “kri-kri.” And anyone who has ever been kayaking knows that losing your paddle is the worst thing that can happen – short of losing your kayak! 

Many of these expressions are tentative links to our hunting, fishing, and farming past, connecting us to our forebears. Even living in a wholly urban environment, people will use these phrases, unthinkingly calling on the experiences of their ancestors. I like to think that even though my gramps has been pushing up daisies for a long time now, he lives on in my language and the funny sayings I use, passing them on to my children and on and on. Let’s hope that the natural world around us will survive so those future generations will still be able to make sense of old sayings like:

“A bird in the hand is better than two in the bush” or “a cuckoo in the nest” or “one swallow does not a summer make” and not have to ask us, “What’s a swallow?” That would be sad, indeed. 

Reading tips

 Two wonderful books that deal with nature and language and our sense of place:

Barry Lopez, ‎Debra Gwartney, Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape

Robert MacFarlane, Landmarks