Words – the latest endangered species?

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June 30, 2011 by Tess Riley

From Sophocles to Shakepeare, Dickens to Don DeLillo, metaphors of nature are used to emphasise social degradation. In some cases, the natural world is a homogenous positive force set against its ‘unnatural’ counterparts. Here, the lush green fields of bountiful Mother Nature are suffocated by encroaching cityscapes and all their cronies. In other cases however, nature itself is both agent and victim of destruction, pervasive weeds, creeping ivy and irrepressible tree roots all strangling their more delicate natural surroundings.

The first type allows us to rail against humankind’s misguided – or utterly corrupt – attempts to achieve economic development at the expense of everything else. The second type is perhaps more interesting though since it makes clear that fine line between good and evil… and how easy it is to slip from one to the other. In this world, everyone has seeds of destruction within themselves, its whether those seeds are nurtured or not that determines the outcome, as Hamlet, condemning Denmark’s pervasive corruption, suggests:

‘Tis an unweeded garden that grows to seed;

Thinks rank and gross in nature possess it merely*.

Gardens can be places of beauty but, left unchecked and badly tended, rankness is almost inevitable.

Whichever way nature is envisaged, it serves to teach us something about human behaviour. Like the human body, the natural world consits of a system of component parts, all of which contribute to the healthy functioning of the whole. Damage one part of this natural body and the rest of the system starts to creak.

So what do we do when that natural world upon which we rely starts to crumble at an alarming rate? How do we express that degradation when the tools at hand – the language of the natural world which has so far provided such fruitful figurative imagery – are themselves at the centre of such degradation? What metaphors, similes and conceits can ever come close to describing the very literal and irreversible damage to the environment that is our current reality?

The search for adequate expressions of ecological decline is ongoing and the blogs that follow will often attempt to find ways to address specific issues, the ultimate aim being to create a whole of multiple parts – much like the natural ecosystems already referred to. One thought in particular comes to mind right now and it is this; we need constantly to invest discussions of environmental and social justice crises with a concept of agency. Just as Jenny Edkins (2002) argues that the apolitical term ‘famine’ should be replaced by the phrase ‘mass starvations’, so we should start to integrate ideas of ‘ecocide’ and ‘mass social exclusion’ into our everyday language when talking about climate change, poverty and other acutely pressing contemporary concerns.

Things ‘rank and gross in nature’ were, for Hamlet, apt symbols of the corruption at the heart of  the Prince’s world. 400 years later and the desire for power at the expense of all else – so evident throughout Shakespeare’s play – is as alive today as it ever was… Sadly, the natural world is not.

* merely = entirely

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