A Language to Embody Place: Dynamic, Braided, Wild

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How do we (environmentalists, conservationists, nature-lovers) give voice to an ecological valuing of place that is so often marginalized by top-down modernist ideology? One of the key tools lacking for such environmental expression is an effective ethical linguistics. Stories on how lovely and significant natural places and those living within them are, tend to be misinterpreted. This is because the language available to share these heartfelt stories is squeezed into conceptual frameworks that analyze linguistic meaning according to rational principle. The apparent “vagueness” and “indeterminacy” of the voices of “nature lovers” do not mean that these voices are groundless or unfounded, but rather indicate a struggle to use language that is insufficient to formulate the concepts these voices are trying to express. The formulation of care for nature is molded by a globally dominant language of resource economics and management. In other words, those caring individuals who are on the ground, in place, making environmental concerns manifest—those caring individuals with all their local knowledge of and intimate relations with their places—are powerless to inform and make social and political decisions.

The dismissal awaiting such environmental discourses is a result of a confinement to the rigid vocabulary employed by political and social power structures that are unwilling to recognize language’s use of metaphor. One of the consequences is that the language used to describe earth’s places focuses on a discourse that breaks down the limitless elements of place, merely analyzing and defining these components instead of connecting, interweaving, and comprehending the otherness and unknowable aspects of place.

The discipline of geography, fundamentally a field based in the study of places, has focused most of its efforts on the discourse of human transformation of earth and on the manipulative transforming of place in practice. For example, geographer Robert Sack speaks to the boundaries around the concept of place-making where transforming the Earth is strictly a human endeavor: “We are place-makers because our lives and the projects we undertake require geographical structure in the form of places and their interconnections.”[1] His discussion in “A Sketch of a Geographic Theory of Morality” understands place-making as solely a human activity. Sack not only omits more-than-human others conceptually, but infers humans as separate from the rest of nature: “Our geographical selves transform the earth and make it into a home by making space into place. Everything occurs in space, including our own projects. But unlike the rest of nature, human projects rely on place especially.”[2] Sack’s description assumes that only the human family transforms Earth to create places. This leaves no room to conceptualize place as something active and full, not just empty space, prior to human presence.

In addition, Sack describes place as a “bounded and controlled area of space.”[3] This is an understanding of place that has supported the modernist colonial agenda. Political language’s espousal of terms such as “bounding” and “controlling” reflects concepts of setting limits on, confining, and being under obligation to the powers that set and enforce these boundaries. By setting these rigid limits, place falls victim to being identified as an island unto itself, one that is independent of and exclusionary to those “outside” of this or any place, both spatially and temporally. In addition, those remaining inside the bounded place who do not satisfy the requirements set by those defining and enforcing the boundaries are branded “outsiders” as well.

Locations, according to this understanding, are only considered “place” if we as human agents have bounded and controlled them, employing our understanding of the “rules.” Eliminating from the discussion the validity of nature’s existence outside of ourselves in this way, creates a misrepresentation of who humans are and how we and others exist spatially. Our development of the concept of human place cannot be imagined as outside of nature and the places of natural others. We must come to understand place instead, as dynamic and interdependent—braided, not bounded; wildly alive, not controlled. Place dependence is significant for both humans and other-than-human species.

Thus, modernist discourse made up of rational and rights-based language is incapable of articulating our powerful feelings for and interconnections with Earth’s places and the environment as a whole. As philosopher Mick Smith writes, “The feeling of being close to nature simply makes no sense in those discourses that would pull apart, analyze, define and regulate both the moral field and the environment.”[4] Perhaps it is essential now more than ever to re-imagine language as much more fluid, embracing new terms that are able to express the interconnected, interdependent situations we find ourselves in as the highly expressive social animal we are. 

[1]R.D. Sack, “A Sketch of a Geographic Theory of Morality,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 89, no. 1 (1999): 26-44, at 27.

[2]Ibid., p. 29.

[3]. Ibid, p. 27.

[4]. M. Smith, An Ethics of Place: Radical Ecology, Postmodernity, and Social Theory (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001), p. 168.

  • Anja Claus

    As Senior Editor, Anja guides the development of Humans and Nature Press Digital as well as co-edits submissions to this publication.  She spearheads the Questions For a Resilient Future's Cosmos series—a series focused on reimagining our inter-connections with off-Earth environments.
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