Fugitive phenomena

Some of the terms I collected mingle oddness and familiarity in the manner that Freud calls uncanny: peculiar in their particularity, but recognisable in that they name something conceivable, if not instantly locatable. Ammil is a Devon term for the thin film of ice that lacquers all leaves, twigs and grass blades when a freeze follows a partial thaw, and that in sunlight can cause a whole landscape to glitter. It is thought to derive from the Old English ammel, meaning “enamel”, and is an exquisitely exact word for a fugitive phenomenon I have several times seen, but never before named.

Robert MacFarlane describing one of the disappearing words he’s collected which describe landscapes and the natural world.

I’m fascinated by language, and I’m drawn to these uncanny words that describe something specific by familiar. They have the alienated majesty of my own thoughts or observations captured in a single word, and they often have the power to change the way I perceive the world.

The Japanese word wabi sabi is one example of this. When I first heard the word, it immediately resonated with me. The idea of something becoming more beautiful with use was something I’d been thinking about already.

Learning about wabi sabi helped to crystalize some of those ideas, but also changed the way I perceived the world. It’s a concept I’ve returned to again and again when thinking about how things should be designed. Knowing the word fundamentally changed the way I experienced the world.

MacFarlane comments on this in his article.

Smeuse is an English dialect noun for “the gap in the base of a hedge made by the regular passage of a small animal”; now I know the word smeuse, I notice these signs of creaturely commute more often.

Not only is smeuse an amazing word, but it’s had the same effect on me. During my walks around our village I’ve noticed smeuses much more often than I did before now that I have a word for them.

It’s this point — naming something means noticing it — that lies behind MarFarlane’s project to collect seldom-used words that describe the landscape and natural phenomenon.

A recently published version of the Oxford Junior Dictionary removed natural words, such as “acorn”, in favor of digital words, such as “blog.” MacFarlane places his project in this context:

The substitutions made in the Oxford Junior Dictionary – the outdoor and the natural being displaced by the indoor and the virtual – are a small but significant symptom of the simulated screen life many of us live. The terrain beyond the city fringe is chiefly understood in terms of large generic units (“field”, “hill”, “valley”, “wood”). It has become a blandscape. We are blasé, in the sense that Georg Simmel used that word in 1903, meaning “indifferent to the distinction between things”.

There is a relationship between our experience and the words we use to describe it. It works in both directions. As our interactions with nature decline, so too will our our use of words that describe specific natural phenomenon. Those “fugitive phenomena” are less likely to be noticed, so why would we need words to describe them?

I worry that we’re spending less and less time in nature. I worry that we’ll lose more than just words. I worry that we losing the lessons that are learned when you spend time climbing a tree, buiding a den or losing yourself in the woods: self-reliance, cooperation, close observation of your surroundings. I worry even more because these skills aren’t prioritized by our current education systems.

I’m not convinced that collecting these words will necessarily change this on its own, but I believe that MacFarlane’s project is worthwhile as a part of a larger project to reverse this trend. Collecting these words takes a stand for taking the time notice these things that are rarely noticed. If they spark the curiosity of just a few people or change the way they view the natural world, then it’s well worth it.