BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. Fiction can do the job but as the future becomes less and less familiar, we may need new words to write it. We asked you listeners to pitch in after speaking to the man who rounds out this hour, Robert Macfarlane. He is passionate about what he calls “the literacy of the land,” language both evocative and precise to portray the Earth even as it changes. His fascination with new words actually began with his study of old ones from the British Isles, like shreep, mist that is slowly clearing, or ammil, the thin film of ice that makes leaves and twigs glitter after a frost. Macfarlane gathered thousands of these words in his 2015 book, Landmarks.
ROBERT MACFARLANE: On the one hand, it’s an opening of the eyes to things that are around us but that we might not have seen without a name in our mouths or in our hearts. So an example of that might be this gorgeous word from Sussex, smeuse, S-M-E-U-S-E, probably hasn’t been used much since the 19th century but it's being used a bit more now. And this means the hole in the base of the hedge left by the repeated passage of a small animal. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: A smeuse.
ROBERT MACFARLANE: Smeuse or maybe “smoise.” There’s no pronunciation guide [LAUGHS] from the mid-1800s, but as soon as you know it, you see them. You start to see them everywhere. I’ve had so many people write and say, do you know, once I knew that word, then there they were. They were seeing evidence of a kind of creaturely cohabitation in the landscape, which had previously gone unregarded, But, in a sense, some of these words were records of a biodiversity and a landscape diversity that had gone, that was extinct. And I think that's partly why there was an anxiety attendant to the revelation of this richness of diverse language, which, incidentally, regional American also possesses in fabulous abundance.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Like?
ROBERT MACFARLANE: Well, there’s this wonderful encyclopedic glossary called Home Ground, which Barry Lopez, the great writer, put together, with his partner, Debra Gwartney, and that includes things like shinnery, which is the oak scrub that scratches at your shins when you’re walking.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But did they make that up or did it already exist? [LAUGHS]
ROBERT MACFARLANE: No, it already existed. But what they brilliantly did was commission writers like Annie Prouix to devise definitions. So cow belly mud is the ultrafine silt that settles on the inside of the curves of a slow-moving river and it's so soft that if you were to step in it, you would barely detect the change from water to silt.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
ROBERT MACFARLANE: And it’s named because the belly of a Holstein cow is so softly furred to the touch that you barely know when your hand moves into it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So we’re talking about naming something makes it more present in your life.
ROBERT MACFARLANE: Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And naming something is a way to remember something that may have passed.
ROBERT MACFARLANE: Yes, both of those things. I mean, I think we shouldn’t always regard naming as a good thing. Nature doesn't name itself. The planet doesn’t have any grammar, and when I stand on the top of a mountain sometimes I say, “wow” or nothing at all.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But this is your endeavor, Rob, is, is naming things.
ROBERT MACFARLANE: [LAUGHING] We – no, no, no, we need room for silence as well because sometimes nature is too much for us. But I would say a word for the good kinds of naming, the kinds that throw into vision our forms of involvement with the world, that it astonishes us, delights us, pleases us, thrills us, infiltrates our memory, shapes our days and thoughts, as well. And, and a language which can do that seems to me one we should relish.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That is why you feel we need yet another new glossary –
ROBERT MACFARLANE: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - one for the Anthropocene. Compared to Landmarks, this is a darker endeavor, to preserve the names of what has gone, what you call the “ghost species” of our language.
ROBERT MACFARLANE: Species are blinking out, phenomena are blinking out. And so, any desecration phrasebook needs to be alert to disappearances and vanishings.
But I guess we're also bringing new things into being, to give you an example, this word “plastiglomerate.” Plastiglomerate is the name given by Patricia Corcoran, a geologist, and her colleagues to a new form of stone she discovered being made on the beaches of Hawaii. There’s one particular beach in Hawaii which is quite distant from a road head, so people tend to walk out there and camp overnight. It’s also - because of the prevailing winds and the currents, it also receives a huge upwash of plastic trash.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
ROBERT MACFARLANE: It’s a beach of disappointment. You walk for a day to get there to the pristine Hawaiian idyll and then you find bleach bottles and Avon Skin So Soft bottles. And the campers burn them. They burn the plastic on their campfires. It melts and as it melts it gathers up sand and wood and other bits of organic debris and then it hardens again as it cools down.
So all across this beach, Corcoran found these lava flows, as it were, of a kind of substance that was part organic, part anthropogenic, and it was proposed as a new stone, plastiglomerate.
In a way, all of these words are ugly because we have to jam them together to make new words for this new stuff that's happening and that we’re doing. “Plastiglomerate” is a pretty ugly word.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There’s one that you've written about before, “solastalgia.” It’s a beautiful word.
ROBERT MACFARLANE: I think it is a beautiful word. I’m really glad you think so, too. It was coined by Australian philosopher and ecologist Glenn Albrecht. It’s a variance on nostalgia, so a form of psychic or existential distress caused by environmental change. But what's specific about it is that the people who are experiencing this pain are not leaving these landscapes - that would be nostalgia – and looking back on something that they've moved away from.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The landscape is leaving them? [LAUGHS]
ROBERT MACFARLANE: It’s changing around them because of mining, because of temperature shifts. It has become unrecognizable to them. It is as though they have moved. And that, Albrecht said, we need a new term for, and he proposed “solastalgia.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: “Antevernals,” a word to describe a process.
ROBERT MACFARLANE: Yeah, well, literally a kind of pre-spring or before spring.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is when your flowers blossom long before they’re expected to or the trees leaf out when they’re supposed to still be bare.
ROBERT MACFARLANE: Yeah. I think we all know this now. “Did you see the snowdrops? They shouldn’t be out yet.”
The celandines have popped, what’s going on? “What’s going on?” You know, so often we hear that phrase. We live in an untimely time, when things are starting to behave out of sync and out of joint.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tell me about shadow time. It seems applicable to a number of scenarios. Climate change would be one of them, but maybe not the only one.
ROBERT MACFARLANE: Yes, so there’s this American group called the Bureau of Linguistical Reality. They have put together a really fascinating and pretty ugly group of words. And one of these is “shadow time.” They give the definition of the sense of living in two or more timescales simultaneously and, in addition, the, the sense that the future is soon to change drastically. They’re thinking about the way climate change, in particular, but also more localized forms of drastic environmental change, loom in our psyches.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: “Shadow time” isn’t an ugly word though. Give me a really ugly word by the Linguistic Reality people.
ROBERT MACFARLANE: [LAUGHS] Well, “apex guilt.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Apex guilt?
ROBERT MACFARLANE: [LAUGHING] I guess.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I like that. Living at the peak of humanity, we’re about to decline and so it’s like survivor's guilt?
ROBERT MACFARLANE: Pretty much. I think living within climate change, you know, we’re all criminals, as well as victims.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
ROBERT MACFARLANE: And that, that wasn’t the case with nuclear war, which was, arguably, the, the apocalypse of certainly my parents’ generation, and that was one that you could outsource to the villains, right, the world leaders with the big red buttons under the flip cases? But climate change doesn't work like that. On the whole, we’re aware that at some level we’re all part of this. So I think that that sense of a collective culpability is there in apex guilt.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE] So what are some experiences or phenomena that you would love to capture but you don't have the word for it, yet?
ROBERT MACFARLANE: Ooh, well, I was in Greenland this autumn gone and I was living and working and walking and climbing on ice for a very long time and in a very lonely coastline. So in the village that I was staying for a time, Kulusuk, the glacier across the bay used to have such extent that its carvings could be heard in the village.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: When it broke.
ROBERT MACFARLANE: Incredible sonic events, roarings and crackings and shootings, poppings.
[SOUNDS OF GLACIER]
And they carry over many kilometers.
So that was the soundscape of the village for as long as there has been a village there. But now the recession of the glacier is such that it’s shrunk back behind a corner, and so suddenly the village is, is silent. Its soundscape is different. There’s the howling of the dogs and there’s the talking of the people and the wind and the blizzard, but there’s no longer the glacier. And I’m not saying this is a good thing or a bad thing but, but that was one of the many powerful signs of melt that were at work –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
ROBERT MACFARLANE: - in Greenland in the hottest autumn ever recorded, so hot that the Danish Meteorological Institute thought its instruments had malfunctioned.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There’s another one you've written about, a Maori who was trying to capture the sound of a bird that later went extinct?
ROBERT MACFARLANE: Yeah, so this is a bird called the huia, native to New Zealand. And it vanished before field recording technologies really existed. And it was prized for its, its tail feathers, these very lush black and ivory feathers. But there was a, a Maori tradition of mimicking birdsong. And so, that mimicked song was passed down through generations as a form of knowledge, from a time when the huia itself has left no sonic trace.
[MAORI HUIA MIMICRY SOUNDS]
That mimicry was itself recorded by a non-native in the mid-20th-century.
[HUIA SONG CONTINUES]
So what we have is an analog recording, now digitized, of a Maori mimicry of an extinct bird. And something about the complexity of that, I think, speaks to some of the complexities of recording loss that I touched on earlier.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You recently gave a speech at a conference in Oslo about how our need to change how we interact with the environment in the Anthropocene seems to greatly exceed our capacity to change. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you used the phrase “thick speech” to describe some of our limitations.
ROBERT MACFARLANE: Mm-hmm.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What’s that mean?
ROBERT MACFARLANE: What is thick speech? I think thick speech is the stuttering that our language and our tongues make when we try to talk about the Anthropocene, the way that we are generating not just this ugly vocabulary that sticks in the throat but also all these terms that we’re generating for the Anthropocene, itself. It’s a hugely debated term, so we have the Anthropocene, the Misanthropocene –
[BROOKE CHUCKLES/MUSIC UP & UNDER]
- the Econocene, [LAUGHS] the Obscene-ocene. We’re disputing even the basic name of our consequence for the Earth and its future history.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much.
ROBERT MACFARLANE: You’re very welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Robert Macfarlane is a fellow at Cambridge University and the author of the books, Landmarks and The Old Ways, among others.
MAN: I am Prabin Gooday from Brookfield, Wisconsin. Cluddite for climate change Luddite, from those that do not believe in climate change to the ones that do not believe that climate change is caused by humans. I hope that we will gradually see an extinction of Cluddites.
DAVE AROZO: Hello, my name is Dave Arozo and I’m calling from Silver Spring, Maryland. My word is verdone. Here’s a lament for a place that was once green but is no longer, as in, it was a beautiful lush forest but now, sadly, it is verdone.
[MUSIC/MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: On the Media is produced by Meara Sharma, Alana Casanova-Burgess, Jesse Brenneman, Micah Loewinger and Leah Feder. We had more help from Jane Vaughan. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were Terence Bernardo and Sam Bair. Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. Bob Garfield will be back next week. I’m Brooke Gladstone.