Over the last few months, I have become increasingly aware of language and how it frames my — our — relationship to the world. In my work building ecology, profitability and beauty on farms around the world, I have recently heard from three people who have expressed their research and reflections on language in slightly different ways, but all three are questioning how the language we use today shapes our relationship to the landscape and world around us. I wanted to share all three together here because I can feel they are very linked but I haven’t quite been able to articulate that clearly yet, so would love to be in dialogue with others about this.
1. Rishi Kumar: #LanguageofRegeneration
A few months ago I came across Rishi Kumar — he had shared three posts on #Language of Regeneration. Rishi highlighted that the words we use today to navigate our relationship with the natural world are trapping us in the status quo degenerative mindset— the discourse around ‘reducing your footprint’, ‘being carbon zero’, the idea that you shouldn’t spend too long in the shower because it’s ‘bad for the environment’ — that every move is plagued by a guilty question of how much negative impact is your action going to have?
This mindset that feels filled with scarcity and guilt, that assumes everything you do will be negative and all you can do is reduce how bad you are, doesn’t feel part of an abundant future or regenerative way of thinking to me. So when Rishi framed all that language and way of communicating about the planet today as degenerative and offered a set of regenerative words, it felt like a huge opening and renewed possibility of how to interact with and understand the world within a regenerative paradigm. For example, Rishi suggests using the term ‘environment’ serves the economy and culture of degeneration as it places you as separate from the world around, he asks ‘Where does the environment end and you begin?’. He offers an alternative word ‘body’ that encourages the development of regenerative culture. You can see his full exploration of the impact of using the word environment in his Instagram post below.
I have been practising using the word ‘body’ when I speak about the living world. It does feel a bit awkward initially but it also makes much more sense in many contexts— the pain we feel when we see the degenerative acts in the world is because those acts are being inflicted on the body we are part of, our body. It is not that we have a bad impact on the environment but that we, the people, haven’t understood the pain we are inflicting on our body and the healing work we need. I care about our body, nourishing and caring for myself is part of caring for our body. Everything I do can be considered from that place of how can I best nourish our body, my body, the body? I feel excited about living in that way every day, recognising in every moment that all my actions, our actions, are connected. It also helps me to understand better some of the pain I feel seeing the destructive acts that are happening around the world — that the degradation of soils literally pains my gut.
The other two word exchanges he offers are:
degenerative: waste → regenerative: gift/offering (full post here)
degenerative: natural (and also unnatural) → regenerative: healthy, to feel whole (full post here)
Imagine rather than asking what is more natural, asking what brings more health? Somehow I find the latter is so much more dynamic and alive, filled with possibility.
2. Col Gordon: Wisdom Still Sits in Places
I read Col Gordon’s piece ‘Wisdom Still Sits in Places’ which asks how non-indigenous people might reconnect with being indigenous, and in particular how language may offer a portal into better understanding this.
Col Gordon is a farmer in the Scottish highlands and so his research is focused there. He describes how early OS maps of the Scottish highlands have areas that have a multitude of different Gaelic names across landscapes. He points out that today these vast areas might be described as “barren wilderness of no human value” but, “these names show that this was not always the way.”
Col’s descriptions of the Gaelic words for these many small features across landscapes felt breathtaking “Cárn na Loinne — cairn of the shimmer/ heat haze; Allt Uisge Geamhraidh — burn of the winter water; Cárn na Sguabaig — cairn of the sharp gusting wind; and Cárn Caochan Ghiubhais — cairn of the pine streamlet”. The concept of understanding and knowing that bit of earth so well that every small area has a name, or marking on a map, that allows you to navigate by the ‘burn of the winter water’ feels like another way of knowing our world.
Col also shares how the English language is built on assumptions about the world, that potentially trap us into an extractive worldview. He shares that an Anishinaabe person of North America believes English speakers are unable to understand the world from an indigenous perspective because of the bounds of English. Some of the basic assumptions of the English language, like differentiating the animate and inanimate world are fundamentally inconsistent with the Anishinaabe worldview, and that of many other indigenous cultures.
I heard a similar idea expressed in different ways a number of times at the ORFC Global Conference from different indigenous peoples. For example, Tame Iti of the Tūhoe Māori iwi, or tribe, shared that ‘the river is just like our body, it has a heart, eyes, ears and a voice — we need to have a relationship with her. We need our children to grow up not thinking I am a shareholder in the river, but I have a relationship to her, my mother [the river].’ I highly recommend watching the full discussion here.
Col also talked about the loss of languages as being synonymous with the loss of biodiversity. Read his full piece here.
3. Rebecca Hosking: Sharing the Land with All Life
This leads me on to Rebecca Hosking’s presentation at ORFC Global, ‘Sharing the Land with All Life’. Rebecca shared about the history of separation (from a British perspective)–the history of humans seeing ourselves as separate from the natural world.
Rebecca started with Plato and the Greek’s focus on duality and finished with John Muir, the father of national parks, who ordered all the indigenous people to be removed from Yosemite as he felt they were not part of the pristine environment. Her driving point was that using words like ‘nature’ is part and parcel of seeing ourselves as having dominion over the natural world, it always separates humans from this other, ‘nature’. She encouraged people away from using this term, with alternatives such as 'the living world’, ‘the web of life’, ‘our home’.
Interestingly Rebecca has studied psychology in recent years and has learnt how much language affects our actions and the way we think about things. You can see her full talk here (I highly recommend watching it).
When I was younger, I hated languages, I always thought they were pointless (classic English viewpoint!), but I have come to realise that just like every farm and bit of earth is different–so too are culture and language. Culture and language are a reflection of the land and therefore if we want to embrace diversity in farming, we must embrace a diversity of languages and cultures — it is the same thing.
It feels like if we continue to use the English language in the way we do today we are laying ourselves in a trap that seals us into the dynamic of oppressors and the oppressed, embedding degenerative behaviours and culture in our every day, even if we are enacting regenerative approaches to farming. I am hopeful that the thinking of Rishi, Col and Rebecca, as well as many others, are laying foundations for us to step outside of the traps and embrace other ways of weaving webs in the world.
All three of them share the importance of connecting with indigenous cultures and knowledge, listening and learning. There is a great invitation ahead to regenerate, re-attune to place and embrace our collective body. It's not simple as there is a huge amount of healing to be done–but I feel buoyed by the opportunities of seeing the world in new ways, moving away from a scarcity mindset and learning from and sharing with many others.