War Of Words: Is Nature Still Relevant?

letter-to-the-editorby Michele S. Byers, Executive Director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation.

It is a sad sign of how far we’ve become removed from the natural world that even our language is shifting away from biology and toward technology. The clearest example yet comes in the form of the Oxford Junior Dictionary.

The Oxford Junior Dictionary contains roughly 10,000 words. Aimed at seven-year-olds, it is understandably smaller than those dictionaries attempting a more comprehensive vocabulary.

London’s Daily Telegraph reported in December that a mother in Northern Ireland had compared the dictionary’s most recent edition (2007) to previous versions and found a number of terms from the realm of nature were left out. And they weren’t highly technical scientific terms, either. Among the deleted words were over 90 common plant and animal names like acorn, beaver, canary, clover, dandelion, ivy, sycamore, vine, violet and willow.

The Telegraph contacted Oxford University Press to ask about the decisions. The publisher’s head of children’s dictionaries explained, “We are limited by how big the dictionary can be – little hands must be able to handle it.”

She continued: “When you look back at older versions of dictionaries, there were lots of examples of flowers, for instance. That was because many children lived in semi-rural environments and saw the seasons. Nowadays, the environment has changed.”

The environment of youngsters is now apparently populated by things like MP3 players, voicemail, blogs and chatrooms – all words that were added to the dictionary’s latest edition. Even “BlackBerry” the electronic device made it – ironically, at the expense of “blackberry” the fruit!

Although other reference books haven’t systematically eliminated nature words the way the Oxford Junior Dictionary has, it’s alarming to see this trend in works for children.

Nature has traditionally generated a rich language we use as a reference point that binds generations. Many color names, for example, come from the flowers and plants in which they naturally occur. Many – if not most – of the world’s ancient cultures have works of wisdom that use nature’s complexities to explain the realities of existence. Even today, broad concepts like relationships are described in natural terms. Have you ever traced your family tree? Perhaps future generations will trace their family networks instead!

Ironically, the technology industries themselves occasionally remind us of the universality of nature by adapting natural terms to their uses. Thus terms like “world wide web,” “cloudware” and “viral” are created or given new meaning because non-technical people everywhere are familiar with the underlying concepts.

Studies show that breaking our connection to the natural world isn’t good for us. In his landmark 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods, author Richard Louv writes: “… children and adults alike would suffer from what might be called nature deficit disorder… including diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses.”

In their 1998 National Study of Outdoor Wilderness Experience, researchers Stephen R. Kellert and Victoria Derr conclude that “prolonged and challenging immersion in the outdoors, especially in relatively pristine settings, can exert a powerful physical, emotional, intellectual, and moral-spiritual influence on young people. (The) outdoor experience continues, even in our highly technological and urban society, to be a critical pathway for youth to achieve physical and mental fitness and security.”

Certainly modern reference books must be relevant to their target audience. But nature language reflects a deep-seated, ancestral connection to the environment in which we live. Perhaps the best foundation that we can give our children for future learning is a strong connection to the natural world.

So take children outdoors and show them some marvels of nature – including acorns, clover, willows and blackberries! And I hope you will consult New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org, if you would like more information about conserving New Jersey’s precious land and natural resources.

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