The Language of Reciprocal Sentience

By Mitchell Thomashow

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Environmental Learning in the Anthropocene: A Series on New Approaches to Education

Last summer I was browsing the shelves at Munro’s Books in Victoria, British Columbia. The stacks are neatly displayed amongst lovely, wooden tables in an elegant, stately building. I was reminded of the blissful hours I spent in Brentano’s mid-town Manhattan bookshop many decades ago. There’s a timeless quality about a classic bookshop.

The new, paperback version of Robert MacFarlane’s Landmarks was featured at the checkout counter. I’ve been slowly drifting away from traditional “nature writing” in recent years and at first glance I was deliberating whether to look inside the book. The cover and title were sufficiently appealing so I decided to flip through the pages. I was captured by Macfarlane’s mission—to collect as many landscape words as possible from the various languages of the British Isles. A random flip brought me to a section of words describing the water’s surface. And the first word I saw was “cuilbhean.” It’s a Gaelic term that describes a “cup-shaped whirl in a stream or eddy.

Landmarks is a taxonomy of several thousand words, organized according to the following sections—flatlands, uplands, water lands, coastlands, underlands, edge lands, earth lands, and woodlands. I started reading the lucid essays that connect these wonderful glossaries.

MacFarlane implores his readers: “We need now, urgently, a Counter Desecration Phrasebook that would comprehend the world—a glossary of enchantment for the whole earth, which would allow nature to talk back and should help us listen. A work of words that would encourage responsible place-making, that would keep us from slipping off into abstract space, and keep us from all that would follow such a slip.”

He explains that he was originally inspired to develop such a collection after noticing that a recent edition of the Oxford Dictionary for Children replaced numerous natural history related words with newer, trendy, tech-oriented words. MacFarlane seeks to redress that trend by resurrecting the extraordinary landscape lexicon that is now endangered. There’s a corollary, of course, between endangered species, threatened landscapes, and endangered landscape terms, and what concerns Macfarlane most is that we are losing the sensibility, beauty, local knowledge, descriptive natural history, and perceptual experience contained in these words. “And what is lost along with this literacy is something precious: A word magic, the power that certain terms possess to enchant our relations with nature and place.”

I was visiting Victoria while teaching a course, Developing Environmental Understanding, at nearby Royal Roads University. I brought the book back to class, enthusiastically showed it to the students, and began thinking about how I might use it in future classes. The extraordinary essays that connect the glossaries contain brilliant insights about environmental perception, and the entire package is an inspiration to deepen your understanding of place, natural history, and perceptual awareness, or what I describe in Bringing the Biosphere Home as “place-based perceptual ecology.” Each of MacFarlane’s glossaries is a lesson in perceptual ecology, describing glimpses, extraordinary events, ubiquitous moments, unusual patterns, or obvious relationships that are rarely described. Most importantly it’s impossible to read more than a few pages until you’re ready to go outside to observe, celebrate, and cultivate landscape awareness.

Macfarlane wisely avoids trite nostalgia by suggesting that “although place words are being lost, they are also being created. . . . We have forgotten 10,000 words for our landscape, but we will make 10,000 more given time.” What a great project for environmental learning in the Anthropocene!


A month later I was attending the Blue River Writers Gathering at the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest, a fine weekend of conversation, musing, and wandering. There I met David Lukas, whose wonderful book, Language Making Nature does exactly what MacFarlane suggests. Lukas proposes a series of “alternative field guides,” approaches to environmental perception that allow people to bathe in the direct experience of species and landscapes. “I long to see a new generation of field guides that go behind pop art,” he says, “field guides that innovate and explore radically different traditions and styles as diverse as abstract expressionism or cubism in the city.”

In Language Making Nature, Lukas challenges readers to create their own words that express how they perceive the biosphere. Lukas provides readers with various ways to deconstruct, recreate, and reorganize language by breaking words down and then putting them back together again. He explores root forms, affixes, suffixes, word origins, the use of vowels and consonants, the use of older forms of words as taken from Old English, Anglo-Norman, French, Greek, and Latin. He provides an outline of English word formation, utilizing affixation, compounding, conversion, blending, clipping, and word manufacturing. And like any good field guide, there are many lists and examples to identify and then explore.

This is where the book moves from a set of instructions to educational inspiration. There are also sections that suggest topics for word creation, with some helpful suggestions for getting started. Short chapters on place-name elements, texture, rock, seeing color, states of mind, wind, clouds and species elaborate the possibilities. The essence of his project is neatly summarized in the section Four Ways to Create Original Words: “Borrow or repurpose old words or change them into new words. Add prefixes or suffixes to preexisting words. Convert a word to a new part of speech. Combine two or more words into a new compound word.” And then Lukas adds a dose of philosophical instruction:

Bring every word to life:
—know its roots
—place it carefully
—have it mean something

I spent much of October reading Language Making Nature, while spending time at my cottage in the New Hampshire woods. It was a glorious foliage season. I wondered if I could utilize the Lukas method to expand my perceptual awareness. One morning while reading Lukas a dragonfly landed on my shirt. It flew away and then returned, landing in the white pages of the book. I had several moments to observe it. After its departure I found my Stokes Beginner’s Guide to Dragonflies and identified it as a broad-winged meadowhawk. But then I thought—have I learned nothing? Give it your own name! And I realized what a poor observer I am, and that it would take much more experience before I could give the dragonfly a fitting name. Maybe I can give it many different names until one finally fits. Maybe I am caged by the language rules that I am familiar with and as Lukas suggests the only way to break away from the blinders of rule-fixed language is to develop my skills. So I temporarily named it a Monadnock meadowhawk, linking it to my place, and in honor of those people who have more experience than I in observing its behavior.

If I’m not quite ready to use words to describe new impressions, I thought I might get part way there by writing down impressions of phenomena that I had no single word for. So here’s my list of foliage impressions deserving of creative word or thought forms:

  • The pointillist granularity of countless spectral foliage arrangements.
  • How the wind and shadows cause movement and motion, deepening the vibrational color forms.
  • The changing hues of blue sky through the canopy shadows.
  • Multiple colors of leaves on the same tree.
  • The light of the sun reflecting differently off variably colored leaves.
  • Passing clouds over the bright canopy.
  • Yellow, orange, and red leaves falling like floating petals of rain.
  • How the forest floor becomes a more complex mosaic with each falling leaf.
  • A sequence of foliage arranged in the order of the spectrum.
  • The sound of insects on the last warm October day.

I may not have invented new words, but the spirit of the Lukas inquiry challenged me to observe more deeply.

I put my educator’s hat on. Why confine our observations to linguistic forms? Why not use icons, visual symbols, dance movements, graphic designs, musical notes, musical scale systems, musical instruments, or drumbeats and patterns, or other hybrid forms of communicating our observations of the biosphere?

Both MacFarlane and Lukas mention David Abram’s influence. His phenomenological approach to learning inspires a reawakening of sensuous experience. Looking deeply into language is merely a method. It’s the process that matters. He writes in Becoming Animal that “[w]hether sounded in the tongue, printed on the page, or shimmering on the screen, language’s primary gift is not to re-present the world around us, but to call ourselves into the vital presence of that world—and into deep and attentive presence with one another.” Abram refers to a compelling reciprocity of experience. What all three writers have in common is an understanding that the landscape speaks directly to us, the biosphere is what makes us whole, and there is a reciprocal sentience at play.


Amitav Ghosh, the great novelist, has a brilliant new book on climate change. The Great Derangement ponders the utter absence of literary work about climate change and the resulting great failure of insight and imagination. He assesses the origins and history of that failure, linking it to colonialism, imperialism, and the hubris of scientific reductionism. Those are familiar explanations. What makes Ghosh’s book of great interest is where he takes that assessment. Ghosh describes uncanny moments when natural processes overwhelm our everyday perceptions, the “moments of recognition, in which it dawns on us that the energy that surrounds us, flowing under our feet and through wires in our walls, animating our vehicles and illuminating our rooms, is an all-encompassing presence that may have its own purposes about which we know nothing.”

Is this the vital presence that Macfarlane, Lukas, and Abram all refer to? Yes it is. And Ghosh suggests that the manifestation of this presence “is one of the uncanniest effects of the Anthropocene, this renewed awareness of the elements of agency and consciousness that humans share with many other beings and perhaps even the planet itself.” Perhaps the Anthropocene (and all of the hubris suggested by its very name) reflects the planet reasserting itself, smacking humanity in the face, giving it one last chance to pay attention to the magnificent biosphere that dwarfs humanity’s ubiquitous and petty concerns. Ghosh reflects that the Anthropocene resists literary fiction because it cannot be explained by language alone, and “it would seem to follow that new, hybrid forms will emerge and the act of reading itself will change once again, as it has many times before.”

Ghosh understands that for pre-modern cultures, and for many existing cultures, this vital presence was crucial to their intrinsic ways of knowing. But it has been lost and abandoned by modernity. Macfarlane’s glossaries and Lukas’s word formations use the tools of language to resurrect this forgotten presence, and to do so as a partner to scientific inquiry. Lukas asks “why not take scientific terms and extend them with new metaphoric possibilities; for instance, try using hypothesize as a verb for the behavior of an animal, or photosynthesis as an expression for the work you do when you read a book?” And Macfarlane’s Counter Desecration Phrasebook as he imagines it “as thought-experiment, as baroque fantasia—would stand out not as a competitor to scientific knowledge and ecological analysis, but as their supplement and ally. We need to know how nature proceeds, of course, but we need also to keep wonder alive in our descriptions of it: to provide celebrations of not-quite-knowing, of mystification, of excess.”

All three writers and David Abram are proposing that we use language as a tool for transcendence, an open-ended conversation with species and landscapes, a perceptual immersion that transcends modernity, and leads to a deeper awareness, a vital presence, a reciprocal sentience with the biosphere. This is an explicit rejection of reductionism, an emergent vitalism, and a testimony to planetary creativity. Stuart Kauffman explores similar ground in his recent book, Humanity in a Creative Universe. Andreas Weber in The Biology of Wonder proposes a metamorphosis of science that is attuned to aliveness and feeling. Alison Deming’s Zoologies and Carl Safina’s Beyond Words are testimonies to animal spirit, feeling, and sentience. All of these books are wonderful guides for environmental learning in the Anthropocene. We look beyond ourselves. We peer deeply into other species, opening our hearts to what they have to teach us.

Anthropocene science brings us extraordinary capabilities—advanced technological sensory systems, complex theoretical formulations, networked science, and big data. These are astounding accomplishments and they provide us with magnificent tools for better understanding the biosphere. But they are useless without a parallel exploration of sentience, feeling, and perceptual reciprocity. MacFarlane and Lukas bring us back to basics, providing the hands-on language tools that help us link what we say and hear to what we perceive. They provide a simple foundation that allows us to penetrate the layers of complexity. They help us realize that every word is an ocean and every phrase embodies a landscape. The language we speak comes from the earth. It comes from the birds. It’s alive in every cell in our bodies. It is a direct path to a deeper awareness of the places we inhabit, and that is the foundation we need to better understand the complex global environmental changes that impact every community on the planet.



Mitchell ThomashowMitchell Thomashow is the author of Ecological Identity, Bringing the Biosphere Home, and The Nine Elements of a Sustainable Campus. He is the President Emeritus of Unity College. His current work includes projects on the ecological imagination, community and place, and global environmental change. Mitch is currently a Fellow at Philanthropy Northwest in Seattle, Washington, working on sustainability, community, and place.
Read “The Ecological Imagination: A Conversation on Art + Environment with Mitchell Thomashow and Ben Champion” appearing in

Header mural image by Jake Seven. Photo of Mitchell Thomashow courtesy Mitchell Thomashow.

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