About the Author
Read an Excerpt
How Many Words Do You Need to Describe a Woodpigeon? Being a writer, I suppose it’s not surprising that I’m intrigued by the relationship between language and the natural world, or that I try to craft as close a fit as possible between my sentences and whatever it is I’m using them to word into being on the page. I’ve always liked the advice given by Japan’s great master of haiku poetry, Matsuo Basho (1644-1694): “Let not a hair’s breadth separate your mind from what you write.” I know how hard it is to close that hair’s breadth, but I also appreciate what a rich and flexible resource the English language is for effecting precisely this kind of closure and precision. Yet, even though I sometimes feel I’ve succeeded in saying more or less exactly what I have in mind, I know that there’s a massive disparity between the actuality of the natural world and how we express our experience of it. In fact, the way we talkand writeabout nature tends to happen at a level of such simplification, so far removed from its sumptuous complexities, that it can seem as if we’re talking about something else entirely.
Aristotle famously said that philosophy begins with wonder. I believe that responsible attitudes to the natural world have a similar point of origin. My worry is that the way in which we routinely apply language to that world may be a contributory factor leading to the mindset that allows us to wreak such damage on our environment. Verbal simplifications, and the superficial perceptionsor rather misperceptionsthey foster, undermine the sense of wonder on which respect for nature is founded. In case this all sounds too vague and abstract, let me tie these generalizations down to a specific example. It’s tempting to go for something rare, beautiful, and endangereda snow leopard, perhaps, or a quetzalbut I think the point is better made by something more mundane. So, let’s take the woodpigeon that landed the other morning on the lawn just outside my window. Watching it strut and peck its way across the grass helped to crystallize the realization of how impoverished the verbal strategies are that we normally call into play and how often they make what’s extraordinary seem ordinary.
Woodpigeons are common birds, of course, pests in the eyes of many farmers and gardeners. From such perspectives they’re not deserving of any special use of language. Surely all that needs to be said in order to describe the moment is something like: “There’s a woodpigeon on the lawn.” What’s wrong with leaving it at that? At one level, nothing whatsoeverit provides a workable enough account in rough-and-ready terms of what happened at a certain time and place. My concern is that we too seldom recognize such statements for what they are: radical attenuations, disguised abbreviations, excerpts telling so little of the story that they only provide a massively diluted taste of the world’s flavors.
In J. A. Baker’s The Peregrine, a book which shows how language and nature can be brought into a far more potent alignment than we normally allow, the author observes that “the hardest thing of all to see is what is really there.” That comment came back to me as I tried to find a way of catching in words what was involved when the woodpigeon landed on my lawn. On reflection, the phrases I’d normally use to describe it all seemed designed to hide, rather than to seestill less to celebratewhat was really there.
The more I thought about it, all the words I normally rely on seemed badly flawed. Letting that commonsense statement “There’s a woodpigeon on the lawn” stand as representative of our ordinary diction, it was as if it encountered four waves of assault. Each wave eroded its credibility. But the impact of these waves wasn’t merely destructive; they also broke into a more encompassing vision, sweeping me towards what is, I hope, a less blinkered account than the one offered by our usual modes of discourse.
Table of Contents
Darwin's Fox 1
How Many Words Do You Need to Describe a Woodpigeon? 13
The Walking Buddha Beckons 24
How's the Enemy? 46
(Un)sentimental Timekeeping 65
Before I Knocked 75
Butterfly Smoke Signals 94
Death and the Maiden 130
The Archaeology of Days 176
Putting Two and Two Together 192
Hitting the Right Note 224
Afterword: Thirty-Six Ways of Looking at an Essay 237