Not so long ago the people – our ancestors – lived in close relationship with the land. They knew the names of the plants, trees, stones, mountains, valleys and streams. They knew the names of the wind and the rain, the songs of the birds, the tracks of the animals. They could read the seasons and the stars. They were literate in the language of the natural world; they had learned the lexicon of the living earth.
The landscape held the stories and songs of the people, and bound them to their place. The landscape was a storehouse of myth and meaning. The people lived in the land, and the land lived in them. Their words shaped the landscape, while the landscape shaped their words. They belonged. They were home.
I live in Inverness, in the Point Reyes National Seashore. I have no claim to belong here, no right to call this place home. This is not the land of my ancestors. It is not a land shaped by their words. This place belongs to the Coast Miwok. These are occupied lands.
The Coast Miwok are the First People of the Point Reyes Peninsula. They lived here for thousands of years, in relative peace and prosperity. They tended the wild, and the land nourished them in return. Their knowledge of the environment was broad and deep, a wisdom expressed in their language. Much of this language, much of this land, has since been lost. While a few Coast Miwok place names remain – Tomales, Olema, and Tamalpais – the indigenous place-based language was erased by that of European invaders, replaced with the words of conquest and colonialism.
Drake’s Bay, Drake’s Estero, and Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, are all named after the English privateer who claimed the land for England in 1579. “Punto de los Reyes” – Point Reyes – was named by the Spanish explorer Sebastian Vizcaino who claimed the land for Spain in 1603. Limantour Estero, beach and spit, were all named after the French trader, Jose Limantour, who wrecked his ship there in 1841.
Inverness was named after a town in Scotland, by the Scottish lawyer and landowner, James Shafter, who at one time owned the entire Point Reyes Peninsula with his brother, Oscar. In the 1860s the Shafter brothers divided the Peninsula into multiple ranches, naming each one a letter of the alphabet. Abbott’s Lagoon was named after the “H” farmer. Kehoe Beach was named after the “J” farmer. The list goes on: landmarks and place names; politics and economics; capitalism and colonization.
If the story of a land is told through its place names, then this land tells a story of corruption, greed, and power. It tells the story of the colonizer, not the colonized, whose land was stolen, whose tale was forgotten. The colonized, the First People, the rightful stewards of this land, were long ago destroyed, displaced, and dispossessed. The settlers that live here now rarely talk about them, even though the descendants of the Coast Miwok are still here. Invisible. Unremembered. But still here.
When the original people were taken from these lands and stripped of their culture, an immense body of ancient knowledge was lost. A vast language of landscape simply vanished – particular place names, local fauna and flora, knowledge of conservation and restoration. All of this went when the indigenous language, which held a particular worldview of how to live in reciprocal relationship with this part of the world, disappeared.
The lost language of landscape is not confined to the Point Reyes Peninsula. Of the 7000 languages spoken worldwide, over half are endangered and expected to go extinct in the next 50 years. These indigenous languages are not just disappearing of their own accord, they are being eradicated by the economic, political and ideological structures of the dominant culture.
The wild landscape of language is being strip-mined, clear-cut, and laid waste, in the same way that the wild landscape of the natural world is being destroyed. Culture and nature, landscape and language, are all intimately connected, and are all under threat.
We are not only losing indigenous place-based languages; English is also fast becoming an impoverished language of landscape. Robert MacFarlane, British author and literary critic writes: “A place literacy is leaving us. A language in common, a language of the commons, is declining. Nuance is evaporating from everyday usage… The terrain beyond the city fringe is chiefly understood in terms of large generic units (“field”, “hill”, “valley”, “wood”). It has become a blandscape.”
MacFarlane points out that the Oxford Junior Dictionary recently culled certain words from its pages, words no longer relevant to childhood today, in order to make room for new words that better reflect the world children inhabit. Words such as dandelion, newt, bluebell, acorn, pasture, fern and willow were deleted in favor of words such as broadband, blog, chatroom, and cut-and-paste.
What happens when we lose the words that relate to the natural world? Why does this loss matter? “It matters because language deficit leads to attention deficit” says MacFarlane. “As we deplete our ability to denote and figure particular aspects of our places, so our competence for understanding and imagining possible relationships with non-human nature is correspondingly depleted.” He goes on to quote the farmer and writer Wendell Berry: “people exploit what they have merely concluded to be of value, but they defend what they love, and to defend what we love we need a particularizing language, for we love what we particularly know.”
When we lose a particular language of place, when we have no names for the specifics of the natural world, that world is rendered invisible. We will not fight to save what we do not love, and we cannot love that which we cannot name. How can we know the things that we have no words for? We cannot even see them. And that which we cannot see, we will not protect, because it doesn’t exist in our minds.
When the natural world becomes imperceptible, unknown, and nonexistent, it becomes wide open to extraction, exploitation and extinction. No one sees the abuse. No one notices the shifting baselines. We are blind in the wasteland, unable to imagine what the world looked like before we lost the words that once described our place.
Can you imagine what the Point Reyes Peninsula looked like before European invasion? The birds and butterflies that darkened the skies? Salmon runs so thick you could walk across their backs? Unbroken herds of antelope, elk and deer roaming the hills? Black bears? Wolves? Condors? An astonishing number of whales and sea otters? An abundance of brilliant wild flowers? Acorn and berry harvests bountiful beyond belief? Can we speak of these things that were lost?
Can we restore a language that has disappeared? Rewild the English language that remains? Bring old words back into common parlance? Create new words that deepen our connection to the land? Can we regenerate landscape and language together, revitalize our communities, re-enchant our relationship with the natural world? Can we bring back the salmon and the bear?
I don’t know the answers to these questions, but perhaps the work could begin, slow and small, one word at a time. We could start to introduce place-based words of specificity and particularity, in our poetry, writing and conversation. Words that animate the world. Words that respect the wild. Words that honor the Coast Miwok. Words of relationship. Words of reciprocity. Words of remembering. Words of gratitude. Words of belonging.
We could begin to share these words with our children, friends and families. Who knows, it might be possible to seed a new landscape of language, to restore a vocabulary that sings the world alive, one that binds us to our place. One day we might just find our way home.
(An edited version of this essay was originally published in the Inverness Almanac Volume Two, Fall 2015 / Winter 2016)