TEN years ago a Hebridean friend of mine called Finlay MacLeod imagined what he called “The Counter-Desecration Phrasebook”. In his thought experiment, this would be a glossary of words that denoted, defended and particularised those aspects of the living world that are vital to us, and that we wish to save. It would be a lexicon of enchantment that enabled nature to talk back, and helped us to listen.
Inspired by his vision, I wrote a book called Landmarks, containing nine glossaries that gathered thousands of words for precise aspects of land, nature and weather, taken from more than 30 languages and dialects of Britain and Ireland.
This wordhoard included such terms as rionnach maoim, Gaelic for “the shadows cast by clouds on moorland on a sunny, windy day”; ammil, a Devonshire term for “the ice-film that covers rocks and vegetation when a sudden freeze follows a thaw”; and zawn, Cornish for “a wave-smashed chasm in a sea-cliff”.
The book’s publication drew me into hundreds of conversations and correspondences about the language we have kept – and have lost – for the landscapes we inhabit, and for the non-human life with which we share Earth. I heard from farmers, fishermen, teachers, scientists, activists, conservationists and naturalists from many countries, all wanting to add terms as a means of salvage, celebration or preservation.
But I also came to realise that there was another kind of glossary I needed to assemble: a dark twin to the hopeful word lists of Landmarks. This would be a glossary of the Anthropocene: a lexicon recording the particularities of the environments and phenomena that our actions as a species are bringing into being. It would gather terms that describe a heavily harnessed or drastically deranged “nature”: a “Desecration Phrasebook”, as it were.
Such a glossary would need to record details of the topographies of toxicity and dereliction that we have made, the phenomena of pollution, corruption and extinction we have caused, and the coming miracles of geoengineering.
“Such a glossary would acknowledge human activity as a telluric force with an immense legacy”
It would acknowledge human activity as a telluric force with an immense legacy. It might document, for instance, the “trash vortices” that swirl in the gyres of the world’s great oceans; aspects of the pale hills of radioactive mine-tailings that rear above Johannesburg (gold mining as orogeny); or terms for the deep geological repositories in which we have entombed nuclear waste.
Is there a word yet for the post-natural rain that falls when a cloud is rocket-seeded with silver iodide? Or an island newly revealed by the melting of sea ice in the North-West Passage? Or the glistening tidemarks left on coastlines by oil spills?
We speak memorably of a murmuration of starlings, to describe vast flocks of those birds dancing and palping in the air above reed beds and wetlands. But as yet we have no term to denote the gulls that swirl above our landfill sites, or the red kites that turn above the meat factories of the Cotswolds.
Such language stands in a fascinating and provocative relationship to the idea of wonder. For Descartes, wonder was “the first of all the passions”. It was also at the heart of the scientific method, because in Descartes’ view, the experience of wonder provokes a twofold response: first we are amazed (wonderstruck), and then we seek an explanation for that amazement. Reason is exceeded, then provoked. In this way wonder is distinguished from our sense of the “sublime”, that form of affect so powerful that it presents an outrage to the understanding.
Certainly, the Anthropocene is rich with new sources of wonder, born of the kinds of landscape-level modification and innovation of which we are capable as a species. This autumn I went down the Boulby potash mine, on the north-east coast of England. There immense tunnel networks – or “drift”, in the lexis of mining – extend both inland and offshore. They run up to 1350 metres in depth, and up to 8 kilometres out under the North Sea, following the potash and rock-salt seams laid down during the evaporation of the Zechstein Sea some 200 million years ago.
The mining is done by £3.2 million machines, which – at least to my zoomorphic eye – resemble Komodo dragons, low-slung and sharp-toothed. These machines are taken down the main shaft in six or seven sections, then assembled in bays a kilometre below the surface. Once complete, they take three days to trundle out to the production district, where they begin work.
Years later, when a machine has been exhausted by the demands of its labour, it’s just too expensive to bring it back to the surface, for this would mean suspending the transport of the profitable potash itself. So instead it is driven into a worked-out tunnel of rock salt, and abandoned.
Slowly, the pressure of depth squeezes the tunnel, and translucent salt flows around the machine, encasing it. Thus we lay down a future fossil of the Anthropocene: a machine-relic in a halite cocoon.
There are good reasons to be wary of the idea of the Anthropocene. Most obviously, it speaks of the species-hubris that is at the source of so many of our current problems. The notion that all of nature is under our influence is preposterous when we are confronted by earthquakes, hurricanes or volcanoes.
We should also be concerned at the ethical consequences of declaring ourselves to be a geological epoch, for in so doing we frame our actions in terms of “deep time” – that sense of time whose fractions are measured not by means of week and month, but millennium and mega-annum.
“We should be concerned at the ethical consequences of declaring ourselves to be a geological epoch”
Deep time can crush structures of value: viewed in the context of aeons, all attempts at preservation or restoration can seem pointlessly transient. The Anthropocene designation might help warn us about the consequences of our actions – or just endorse our absconsion from long-term responsibility.
Perhaps the most extraordinary Anthropocene document that I know is Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel The Road. A book that issues a clear warning, it is set in a near-future North America that has been reduced to ash and rubble.
The language of nature survives in the mouths and memories of the characters – but the phenomena to which such words refer have been abolished. “Trout”, “storks”, the colour “green”: all are gone, shorn of their referents. Language has become, in the poet Paul Celan’s unforgettable phrase, a series of “word-caves”, hollowed out by loss.
In late November, as the Paris climate change talks approached, Rajendra Shende, a former director of the UN Environmental Programme, wrote an approving but challenging response to the glossaries of Landmarks: “South Asia, one of the loci of poverty and milling impoverished humanity, is the living example of how along with vanishing language of environmental justice, even the landscape and landmarks, too, get lost”.
“Has Robert Macfarlane included in his book vanishing words like archipelago of Maldives and Sunderban of Bangladesh? And what about phrases like Khumbu glaciers of Nepal, Ganges Delta and white tigers of Bangladesh?”
I hadn’t, of course, but these are surely the kinds of terms and toponyms that should enter an Anthropocene glossary: future word-caves, terms that will lose their referents unless we shift course and take responsibility. In this way, such a glossary for a future planet would give a sense of what is at stake as well as what is possible.
It would be a lexis to help us perceive what we might be capable of, in both senses.
(Images: David Hannah/Getty; Marnie Burkhart/plainpicture)