The language of loss and love
Thursday, June 10, 2021
In her splendid little book Why Rebel, Jay Griffiths despairs of the way we commonly tell the story of climate crisis, noting how it distances us from the urgency and enormity of the ecological devastation unfolding around us. She writes:
"The language we use for this is itself deadly. The mass of ocean writing is a heap of broken plastic words: stock, fisheries, industry, off-shore, tonnage, commercial fleets, sea cages, fish farms, subsidies. Through the language it is hard to see the ocean's true nature, whose vitality needs to be rendered as beautiful as iridescence itself. We speak of an 'extinction event' or 'species decline' because of 'intensive agriculture.' These are lifeless phrases. How easily the eye bypasses them. They are words of tarmac and traffic, not the lovely writhy ivy words of the woods.
"I cannot touch or taste terms like 'habitat loss' or 'pollution' because they are unbeloved words which carry within themselves the toxicity of lifelessness. Humans, we are told, need insects for 'the function and services they provide.' Cold language, cold as coins on corpse eyes, cold as the philosophy that put us here. Words of heart are needed.
"There is a new word in the air: defaunation: the loss of absolute animalness. Defaunation includes the loss of individuals and the loss of abundance. Defaunation, argue researchers in Science magazine, should be as familiar and influential as the word 'deforestation.' Another term for the loss of the world's wild fauna is 'biological annihilation.'
"Please tell me you understand the immensity of this. And if you don't, please think, alone and quietly perhaps, of the unfolding ending. Let me speak simply into the simplicity of your heart, then, and let me just ask you what you love, what makes you happy.
"Is it a child? Is it your partner? Do you love your friend or, Little Prince, do you love your rose? Do you love your dog, your cats, your church, your home, your garden? Your books, perhaps, or the poetry you make, or the music? The meaning you have made of your life, maybe, your health, status, honour or all of these? And this love, then, this happiness that you hold so dear, tell me how it will even exist without the tiniest of beings, the insects, against which we have been so pitiless? Without the insects for the food and the flowers and the soil?"
Barry Lopez is another writer who entwined the language of loss with the language of love in his remarkable and influential books, which changed the way that many of us viewed the world and our place within it. In his essay "Love in a Time of Terror," published shortly before he died (in January), he wrote:
"Evidence of the failure to love is everywhere around us. To contemplate what it is to love today brings us up against reefs of darkness and walls of despair. If we are to manage the havoc -- ocean acidification, corporate malfeasance and government corruption, endless war -- we have to reimagine what it means to live lives that matter, or we will only continue to push on with the unwarranted hope that things will work out. We need to step into a deeper conversation about enchantment and agape, and to actively explore a greater capacity to love other humans. The old ideas -- the crushing immorality of maintaining the nation-state, the life-destroying belief that to care for others is to be weak, and that to be generous is to be foolish -- can have no future with us.
"It is more important now to be in love than to be in power. It is more important to bring E. O. Wilson’s biophilia into our daily conversations than it is to remain compliant in a time of extinction, ethnic cleansing, and rising seas. It is more important to live for the possibilities that lie ahead than to die in despair over what has been lost.
"Only an ignoramus can imagine now that pollinating insects, migratory birds, and pelagic fish can depart our company and that we will survive because we know how to make tools. Only the misled can insist that heaven awaits the righteous while they watch the fires on Earth consume the only heaven we have ever known....In this trembling moment, with light armor under several flags rolling across northern Syria, with civilians beaten to death in the streets of Occupied Palestine, with fires roaring across the vineyards of California, and forests being felled to ensure more space for development, with student loans from profiteers breaking the backs of the young, and with Niagaras of water falling into the oceans from every sector of Greenland, in this moment, is it still possible to face the gathering darkness, and say to the physical Earth, and to all its creatures, including ourselves, fiercely and without embarrassment, I love you, and to embrace fearlessly the burning world?"
Griffiths and Lopez, of course, are not the only writers urging us to pay attention to the language we use when speaking of the more-than-human world. In previous posts, Robin Wall Kimmerer explained how the "grammar of animacy" can foster more respectful relationships with plants and animals; Lyanda Lynn Haupt reflected on the language of inter-species communion; David Abram argued that our conception of language itself as a purely human gift is much too limited; John O'Donohue spoke of animals and compassion from a Celtic point of view; N. Scott Momaday reminded us that speech itself is an ancient form of magic ... and there are so many others (fiction writers, poets, mythologists and storytellers included) who are working to re-enchant our words, re-wild our stories, and re-imagine our place in the living world.
Barry Lopez asks: Is there still time, and is this still possible? I have to believe it is. The great work of loving, of rebelling, and of storytelling carries on. It has only just begun.
Words: The passages quoted above are from Why Rebel by Jay Griffiths (Penguin/Random House, 2021) and "Love in a Time of Terror" by Barry Lopez (Literary Hub, August 7, 2020); all rights reserved by the authors. Lopez's last published book was Horizon (Vintage, 2019), which I highly recommend. You can read a post about it here.
Pictures: The fairy tale illustrations today are by H.J. Ford (1860-1941) and Helen Stratton (1867-1961).