Language, Nature and the Great Remembering

Language, Nature and the Great Remembering

Having spent her life in a small rural area now challenged by encroaching suburban sprawl, the author asks what it takes to protect the heritage of the land she loves — and how to deal with a recent bout of 'solastalgia.' One answer, she discovers, is in words that express how our imaginations 'get' various sorts of perceived magic in our natural surroundings.

A river runs through the Caledon Hills, hopefully for a long time. [o]

BELFOUNTAIN, ONTARIO — I had fun at my mum’s funeral. She was 94 when she died last July as the result of a fall. Known to her friends as Do or Dodie, she was a kook in all the best senses of the word, so we celebrated her craziness as we buried her in the cemetery next to the big old red-brick St. Cornelius Catholic Church. It’s perched up high on the First Line East, overlooking the massive humpbacked drumlin in the Forks of the Credit. Now both my mum and dad have one of the best views in all of Caledon, a beautiful rural area outside Toronto where I’ve lived for most of my life.

Soon the last of my mum’s long time friends who live nearby will die too. That will leave me and my generation to do the remembering.

When I refer to the Fifth Line or Five Sideroad, most people give me a blank stare. Their memories don’t date back to the time before Bob (I forget his last name) stripped the lines and sideroads of their numbers. He exchanged them for names that occasionally recognize the very speculators (let’s call them what they really are.) who have systematically been buying up Caledon’s prime agricultural land to reap the economic rewards that will follow their stripping the topsoil and dividing some of the finest farmland in Canada into postage-stamp-sized building lots.

I’m not sure whether he issued his projection as a warning or with a how-exciting-is-that! tone to his voice.

The ongoing transformation of my hometown makes me solastalgic, and I’m glad my mum is no longer around to witness to it. Solastalgia is a term coined by Glenn Albrecht, an Australian academic. He defines it as the distress that results when people are subject to environmental change in the place they currently call home. Albrecht makes the point that solastalgia differs from the more familiar “nostalgia,” which implies melancholy for where one used to live.

Not all of the changes that have taken place over the last half-century in Caledon are bad: I like meeting friends and enjoying a latte in Belfountain’s Higher Ground Coffee Co. or picking up a thin-crust pizza at Spirit Tree Estate Cidery. And it’s really nice that there’s a liquor store in Caledon East. My dad had to buy his spirits where he worked, about 50 kilometres away.

But I’m not deaf to the stream of commuter traffic that roars down our rural roads with no concept of sharing the space with pedestrians, equestrians, dogs or wildlife. I feel the relentless pressure of row upon row of cookie-cutter houses as subdivisions creep ever closer to Caledon’s rolling hills and forested river valleys. 

So what of Caledon’s future? Where are we headed? Is there relief in store for my solastalgia?

A fertile vision of suburban bliss includes essential lawn foods (1958). [o]  

Nick McDonald is the President of a planning company based not far from Caledon, though it’s unlikely he had set foot here before being hired to study the community’s population trends. At a town-hall meeting, he advised that because of rapid growth in the Greater Toronto Area, Caledon should prepare for a ten-fold increase in its population to 500,000 residents from its current 60,000. Since I was unable to attend the meeting, I’m not sure whether he issued his projection as a warning or with a how-exciting-is-that! tone to his voice. But I fear the cautionary addendum that capped off his pronouncement. He said, “We should keep in mind how much can be physically accommodated here [in Caledon].” I don’t think he was worried about having enough space for deer and foxes, fields, forests and open vistas such as the one my mum now enjoys. In other words, I doubt his concern was for nature. Maybe he’s never walked along a quiet country lane or spied white-tailed deer, ears twitching, in spring when the young buds on the maple trees give the forest a soft green hue. It’s possible that McDonald doesn’t know what a fen is, or that endangered Jefferson salamanders live in vernal ponds, or what binder twine is used for. And I’d bet he has no idea Winston Churchill Boulevard used to be the Sixth Line West where I grew up.

Consider his language: “We should keep in mind how much can be physically accommodated here.” McDonald makes it sound as if he’s referring to the square footage of a warehouse as opposed to the soaring cliffs of the Niagara Escarpment, the kames and kettles of the Oak Ridges Moraine, the flat agriculturally rich Peel Plain, and Caledon’s plethora of villages — a handful of which have not yet been flattened, widened, stripped of their trees and now need speed bumps to calm the unimpeded stream of commuters who live in or pass through Caledon en route to offices and factories in neighbouring urban areas, including Toronto. McDonald doesn’t ask “how many,” but “how much.” Does he mean how much humanity can we cram into Caledon before it overflows our borders and slithers into adjacent municipalities?

George Monbiot, the author of Heat, a best-selling book about climate change, disparages the state of our language about conservation. In his opinion, the word “environment” is especially problematic. Monbiot writes, “ ‘Environment’ is a term that creates no pictures in the mind.” For this reason, he prefers the more vivid “natural world” and “living-planet.” I concur with him and have long resisted calling myself an “environmentalist.” Personally, I like the term “natural landscape,” though I recognize that referring to myself as a “naturalist” may be misinterpreted.

"Forty percent of British youth used to play regularly in “wild places” — only 10 percent do so today." Intertwined roads by Hubert Blanz. [o]

Some argue the term “conservation” is problematic. The objective of “conservatism” is to conserve, to stick with the status quo, which is often not what people who revere a given natural landscape want. While the status quo in Caledon seems better then what’s in store, my goal runs more toward Robert Macfarlane’s definition of nostalgia. The author of the 2015 bestseller Landmarks, he takes the idea a step farther than Albrecht. Macfarlane says that if one is nostalgic, he or she “laments the prevailing state of things and agitates for change.” While I suffer from solastalgia, my longings for Caledon are shaped by nostalgia too. I lament chlorinated drinking water and agitate for more nature and fewer cul-de-sacs.

With publication of A Once and Future Land, the follow up to The 100-Mile Diet, J.B. MacKinnon has emerged as one of this country’s great nature writers. He dwells upon the need for memory if we are to protect nature. Harper’s Magazine quoted MacKinnon: “If you know that whales belong to Vancouver’s past, then it becomes possible to imagine their presence in the future. If you aren’t aware of that history, then the absence of whales will seem perfectly normal — natural, in fact.”

The word èit refers to “the practice of placing quartz stones in streams so that they sparkle in moonlight and thereby attract salmon to them in the late summer and autumn.”

And therein lies the risk in Caledon. With more than half the municipality’s population of 60,000 already living in places that look a lot like neighbouring Brampton, a sprawling, seemingly heartless urban area, our collective memory as well as our language is already tending toward suburban. Crescents and ubiquitous Tim Horton coffee shops “seem perfectly normal — natural, in fact” when “nature” consists of a dandelion-free, fenced-in bit of mown grass.

Children and youth whose main form of entertainment involves a cellphone may soon become part of a startling statistic regarding British children. Whereas, a generation ago, according to research undertaken for Natural England, 40 percent of British youth played regularly in “wild places,” only 10 percent do so today. And whereas 16 percent of children a generation ago preferred to play indoors, some 41 percent now opt for this alternative as a child’s bedroom is no longer where he or she is sent to be punished, but is, instead, an entertainment centre.

"I don’t think he was worried about having enough space for deer and foxes, fields, forests. . ." or reptiles who dwell there, like the Eastern newt. Photo by Tony Paine [o].

Couldn’t happen in Canada you say? Maybe not. After all, Canada abounds in wilderness. Our country comprises unbroken stretches of trees so vast they’d be impossible to imagine for the average Brit who seldom escapes Birmingham or Sheffield. In Canada, we have lakes and rivers and mountains as well as the longest coastline in the world, one-fifth of the world’s fresh water and wildlife that eat people. But the truth is that though Canadians may identify with this wilderness, they seldom walk in or explore it. Many admit to being afraid of nature. I wonder: How can you know Caledon if you have never explored the massive moss-covered limestone boulders adorned with rare walking ferns as you hike to the legendary Devil’s Pulpit, or if you have not looked out from atop the Oak Ridges Moraine as a red fox steals its cautious way over the hummocky terrain, or cooled your weary feet in the area’s Humber and Credit rivers?

In Landscapes, Macfarlane admires the Gaels for the localized and eloquent terms they use to describe their landscape. When given a copy of Some Lewis Moorland Terms: A Peat Glossary, Macfarlane learned of some 120 terms used specifically for the Lewis Moorland, including rionnach maoim, which means “the shadows cast on the moorland by clouds moving across the sky on a bright and windy day,” èit, which refers to “the practice of placing quartz stones in streams so that they sparkle in moonlight and thereby attract salmon to them in the late summer and autumn,” and teine biorach, which is “the flame or will-o’-the-wisp that runs on top of heather when the moor burns during the summer.”

English has a tough time competing with Gaelic for its poetic rhythm, but that shouldn’t stop us from developing our own versions of rionnach maoim, èit and teine biorach. After all, the Isle of Lewis is part of Scotland and “Caledon” is an endearing name from the northern wilds of the British Isle.

The Cheltenham Badlands are a distinctive feature of the Caledon Hills. [o]

How about “sapat,” which I suggest is the final drip of lightly yellow maple sap that freezes overnight at the end of a metal tap; or “releaf,” the act of removing the leaf through which a spring ephemeral flower such as a trout lily or bloodroot has grown such that its leaves are restricted and unable to unfurl; or “webtears,” the phenomenon seen on autumn mornings when the sun reflects the dew on the spider webs that have been woven overnight in a field of Queen Anne’s Lace or goldenrod; or “clisp,” the delicate layer of opaque, sometimes patterned ice that caps small potholes in your driveway after its been broken by the family car to expose open water that then freezes overnight.

In The Guardian, Macfarlane wrote, “The natural world becomes far more easily disposable if it is not imaginatively known, and a failure to include it in a literary regard can slide easily into a failure to include it in a moral regard.” This idea — that we need language and imagination and stories if we are to protect what we love — is expressed in more practical terms by the American farmer and essayist Wendell Berry. “To defend what we love,” he wrote, “we need a particularizing language, for we love what we particularly know.”

Creating our own glossary of terms — our own particularizing language — may not be enough to save Caledon from the combined forces that have resulted in my case of solastalgia. But it would be a start as my generation loses our parents and their memory of how things once were.≈ç

 

 

NICOLA ROSS is a biologist and author currently fulfilling her dream of being a literary adventure travel writer, while also publishing her series, Loops & Lattes Hiking Guides. She is the author of seven books; her articles have been published in, among many others, The Walrus, Globe and Mail, explore, Mountain Life.   www.nicolaross.ca

 

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