Two Writers Explore the Words & Cultures that Shape Their Connection to Place
Dawn Wink & Susan J. Tweit
(Originally published in Langscape: Voices of the Earth, Part I, Summer 2016)
Of all the arts and sciences made by man, none equals a language, for only a language in its living entirety can describe a unique and irreplaceable world. I saw this once, in the forest in southern Mexico, when a butterfly settled beside me. The color of it was a blue unlike any I had ever seen… There are nine different words in Maya for the color blue in the comprehensive Porrúa Spanish-Maya Dictionary, but just three Spanish translations, leaving six butterflies that can be seen only by the Maya, proving beyond doubt that when a language dies six butterflies disappear from the consciousness of the earth. –Earl Shorris
“When you talk about plants, I think languages.”
“When you talk languages, my mind goes to the land.”
We sat propped up against pillows in our hotel beds, laptops open, preparing for our conference workshop “Soul of the Land: Place as Character and Inspiration.” As we each scribbled presenter’s notes, our conversation returned again and again to plants and languages.
That hotel-room conversation evolved into an ongoing dialogue about what we call “mother tongues,” the critical importance of biological, linguistic, and cultural diversity to the health of whole landscapes and human survival. The more we exchanged stories and learnings—drawing on our respective backgrounds (Susan’s in plant biology, Dawn’s in multilingualism)—the more we focused on the diversity of plants and the diversity of languages as intertwined symbols of biological and cultural richness. Just as native plants “speak” of the diverse genetic adaptations and sustainability of the ecosystems they create—each individual species representing a set of relationships and adjustments that help the whole system survive disruption—so do native languages carry the unique stories and knowledge about the places and people where they evolved. Both are, in essence, the mother tongues of place: the plants of the biological realm, the languages of the cultural realm.
Dawn: What I find amazing is all of this research about the correlation between diversity and vibrancy of plants, animals, and languages. As the diversity of the land, plants, and animals deteriorates, so too does the diversity of languages and their cultures. We are exterminating languages faster than at any other time in human history. For example, many of the Indigenous languages of the Americas are now endangered. This is true of Indigenous languages around the world. If we keep going at the same rate we’re losing languages now, 90 percent of the world’s languages will be extinct within the next 100 years. Tens of thousands of years of wisdom, lost.
Susan: Plants speak the mother tongue of the landscapes I call home. I first understood these rooted beings as the living vocabulary of the North American West in my childhood, long before I claimed science as my second language or had any notion I would spend a career and a life listening to plants, parsing their relationships to each other and to us oxygen-breathing beings. My initial inkling about plants’ role and parlance came on a sunny morning in late June, at the beginning of one of my family’s weeks-long camping, hiking, and naturestudy expeditions through the West. My father was driving, gas-pedal to the floor, reveling in the open road of brand-new Interstate 80 west of Laramie, Wyoming. My mother, as chief navigator, sat in the front passenger seat; my brother was perched between them, scanning the landscape for birds new to his life list. I sat in the dinette in the back, head down, absorbed in a book.
“Homogenization of a landscape … reflects the ill health of a landscape, just as the homogenization of language diversity … reflects the weakened health of a culture and people.”
The van engine knocked hard on a steep grade. Dad pressed the clutch pedal and shifted down. I looked up. Elk Mountain, its top still splotched with snow, rose out of the expanse of shrub desert like a massive ship, its prow cresting wave after wave of sagebrush, silver-green and spangled with spring moisture.
Lupine exploded in purple flower spikes between the flat-topped shrubs, and the air pouring in through the open windows bore a fragrance that has always spoken to me: a mix of turpentine and piney resin touched with honey and orange blossoms. Sagebrush, I said to myself, rolling on my tongue the name I had recently learned for the shrub. Years later, with a new degree in Botany, I would identify the plant that is the inland West’s most common shrub by its scientific name, Artemisia tridentata, the plant with the three-toothed (tri-dentate) leaves, named for the Greek goddess Artemis, feminist, hunter, and herbalist. I would detail the plant’s relationship with hundreds of other species of animals and plants that depend on its sheltering over-story to thrive in these harsh landscapes. But that June day, I only knew what the shrub and its fragrance said to me: Home.
My heart swelled with feelings my nine-year-old self could not explain. I went back to my book.
Dawn: Diversity can be fostered, encouraged, and expanded. Homogenization of a landscape—reducing a biological community to a single type of grass, for instance—reflects the ill-health of a landscape, just as the homogenization of language diversity—a single language replacing multiple languages, for example—reflects the weakened health of a culture and people. When my dad walks the land of our family ranch on the Great Plains of North America, his eyes scan the ground to pick up the different grasses. One summer my mom picked as many different types of grass as she found on our ranch and taped them to a sheet of white paper. One piece of paper became two and two became three. The Great Plains and its grasses were new to me then, as I was raised on a ranch in the Sonoran Desert in the North American Southwest. I studied and memorized the grasses of the body of this new world. Now, it was just a matter of learning them.
I held the pieces of paper with the grasses in my hands and walked out onto the prairie. The endless prairie wind whipped the sheets between my fingers. I watched for the bluish tinge that Big Bluestem casts on the prairie. Wild Rye bobbed above many of the grasses, its flowering spikes curving to the ground. Side-oats Grama, its oat-like seeds sprinkling downward from the stem. Prairie Brome, Blue Grama, and Buffalograss grew in small clusters under Bottlebrush that cast its sprays skyward. While the grasses were new to me, the focus on their diversity was not. In our family, we knew: the more types of grasses, the better. To many of us, it has become clear that multiplicity of languages is as vital to the land and her people as the necessity of diversity of plants and animals. Without diversity of language and culture taking center stage, along with plants and animals, the potential conversation remains limited. Biologists look to the diversity of plants and animals as a reflection of the land’s health. A single type of grass reflects a monoculture inherently limited in potential. So it is with languages and cultures. A monolingual, monocultural state weakens all inhabitants.
Susan: I was born to a small tribe— my parents are both only children, and their brood numbered just two, boy first, and then me, the girl. In the 1950s of my childhood, our country’s culture was envisioned as a huge pot that melted away individual cultures and languages, leaving English as our home tongue. Still, my family spoke a second language: science, our lexicon bursting with the names of plants, animals, rocks, stars. Nature-study was our shared culture. Drawers in the basement cabinets of my childhood home held neatly labeled collections of seashells and rock specimens, plus a black light for identifying minerals. TV dinners in our kitchen freezer were stacked side-by-side with roadkill for study; my mother’s tidy garden borders included
“Multiple languages, multiple cultural understandings, rhythms, and ways of walking through this world reflect healthy linguistic landscapes and cultural landscapes expressed in languages of every place, spoken with freedom in all spaces.”
one lively section devoted to wildflowers rescued from development sites. Our family “car” was a tradesman’s van converted for camping, our conversations peppered with the names of wild birds and plants. My suburban schoolmates’ heads were filled with G.I. Joes, Barbie Dolls, and the opening bars of “Goldfinger”. Mine held the courting songs of robins, the habitat of ladies’ tresses orchids, and the geology of glacial valleys. Other families’ vacations took them to Disneyland or the beach; ours took us on hikes and backpacking trips into the wild reaches of state and national parks and wildlife refuges.
I learned how to focus binoculars and read nature field guides before I learned arithmetic and cursive in school. I began to look for patterns in nature and the relationships that create them—plant to soil and rock, plant to plant to plant, creating whole interwoven communities; mushroom to tree root, bird to prairie or mountain forest, frog to lily pad, wolf to elk, grizzly bear to spring flower bulbs—the way other kids learned baseball statistics and players’ names, or movies and movie stars.
As I grew older, my family’s language of nature split on taxonomic lines: my father and brother spoke bird, while plants gave my mother and me a shared vocabulary. Even after a lifetime of studying and writing about plants and their patterns and relationships on the land, I still cannot entirely articulate why it is sagebrush, a shrub so ubiquitous many never notice it at all, that to me speaks for the region I call home. I do know that it is the culture of plants—those seemingly mute beings rooted in place but so much more attuned to their environment than us wandering verbal creatures—that gives me the words to explore my species’ role on this living planet.
Dawn: In Wisdom Sits in Places, Keith Basso writes of how to the White Mountain Apache, the land speaks in languages that span time, their messages pooled and embedded within the earth to become place-worlds. Basso cites Vine Deloria, Jr. (Standing Rock Sioux) and his observation that most American Indian tribes “embrace ‘spatial conceptions of history,’ in which places and their names—and all that these may symbolize—are accorded central importance… Knowledge of places is therefore closely linked to knowledge of the self, to grasping one’s position in the larger scheme of things, including one’s own community, and to securing a confident sense of who one is as a person.” With the loss of language comes the loss of place-worlds; with the loss of place-worlds comes the loss of the sense of self.
These messages extend into distinct languages through each distinct plant and animal, each unique and integral. Grasses and plants and languages and cultures—the more diversity, the healthier the land, the healthier the people. We often see photos of an unhealthy environment side-by-side with a healthy environment, a fence-line the divider. A healthy environment is reflected in a multiplicity of grasses, plants, and animals, while in the other photo a barren monoculture reflects that land’s lack of health. Birdsong of unique trills, chirps, and caws float on the winds, above the varying textures of the grasses and plants, the flaxen, the bluish-gray, the emerald, among ochre.
“The mother tongues of plant and language carry the critical stores of knowledge—genetic and cultural— that we need in order to continue to thrive on this singular, living planet.”
Multiple languages, multiple cultural understandings, rhythms, and ways of walking through this world reflect healthy linguistic landscapes and cultural landscapes expressed in languages of every place, spoken with freedom in all spaces.
Susan: I call plants the living vocabulary of landscapes; they are the lives that restore the structure and function of healthy ecosystems. They provide the basic food all life on earth depends on, complex carbohydrates made using the sun’s energy and carbon dioxide plus minerals from the soil; they grow the structure that supports nests and burrows and homes for other species; they synthesize a wide vocabulary of aromatic chemical compounds which they use to communicate with other species. Native plants are the vernacular, the dialect of individual places. Like unique human languages, these local plant-voices connect humanity—breath, story, and soul—to each other and to place.
Dawn and Susan: We know that plants benefit us in many ways—as food, as fiber, as raw materials, and as beauty to nurture our spirits. But our connection with these rooted, photosynthesizing beings goes deeper. They are our “breathing buddies,” as the poet Clifford Burke writes, inhaling and fixing the carbon dioxide that we and our industrial processes exhale as a waste gas, and exhaling the very oxygen we require, the breath we depend on. Language and culture root us individually and collectively to the earth and to Place. With the loss of each language, so go generations of wisdom, belonging, and identity. So goes peace. These mother tongues of plant and language carry the critical stores of knowledge—genetic and cultural— that we need in order to continue to thrive on this singular, living planet.
Basso, K. (1996). Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press.
Moore, K.D. (2010). Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature. Boston, MA: Trumpeter Books.
Skutnabb-Kangas, T., Maffi, L., & Harmon, D. (2003). Sharing a World of Difference: the Earth’s linguistic, cultural and biological diversity. Paris: UNESCO.
Tallamy, D. (2009). Bringing Nature Home. Portland, OR: Timber Press.
White, C. (2015). The Age of Consequences: A Chronicle of Concern and Hope. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint Press. Wilson,
E.O. (2006). The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth, New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc.
Dawn Wink Dawn Wink is a writer and educator whose work explores the beauty and tensions of language, culture, and place. Author of Meadowlark, Teaching Passionately: What’s Love Got To Do With It? (with Joan Wink), and “Raven’s Time: Critical Literacy in the American Southwest,” Wink is Director and Associate Professor of the Department of Education at Santa Fe Community College.
Susan J. Tweit A plant biologist in love with life, Susan J. Tweit is the author of twelve books, as well as essays and articles featured in publications including High Country News, Audubon, the Los Angeles Times, and Popular Mechanics. Her writing “melds the passion of a poet with the precision of a scientist,” and has won numerous awards.
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Thank you to Langscape for including our piece in the issue Voices of the Earth, Part I. Langscape also published Wild Waters: Landscapes of Language. Please find more below about the work of Terralingua and this issue of the magazine.
“We are marking Terralingua’s twentieth anniversary by “going back to our roots” with this issue’s theme: “Voices of the Earth”. In 1996, we chose the name Terralingua to suggest two things at once: the language of the Earth—the voice of Mother Nature; and the languages of the Earth—the many voices of the world’s diverse peoples, which have evolved through intimate interaction with the Earth in each specific place. We wanted to hear from and about the Voices of the Earth, and so we did! This issue brings you fascinating stories and images of biocultural diversity from all over the globe.