An ecologist’s thoughts on orality versus literacy

I read widely, and the most recent book I cracked open (if you don’t count the handful whose introductions I read today) is Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology, an interesting celebration of the sensual pleasures of the world around us by a leading ecologist. It’s pretty interesting so far, if you’re into that sort of thing. (But I expect most people would find it a bit too hippy-dippy.)

In any case, the author opens with some interesting thoughts on oral language as compared to written language:

While persons brought up within literate culture often speak about the natural world, indigenous, oral peoples sometimes speak directly to that world, acknowledging certain animals, plants and even landforms as expressive subjects with whom they mights find themselves in conversation. […]

Oral language gusts through us—our sounded phrases borne by the same air that nourishes the cedars and swells the cumulus clouds. Laid out and immobilized on the flat surface, our words tend to forget that they are sustained by this windswept earth, they begin to imagine that their primary task is to provide a representation of the world (as though they were outside of, and not really a part of, this world).

He also includes in his preface his thoughts on capitalizing the word “earth”:

The word “earth” appears often in the pages that follow. Today many writers prefer to capitalize this term whenever it appears. Such a gesture feels overly facile to me, since it leads us to imagine that we are respecting this wild planet, and according it appropriate honor, simply by capitalizing its name. In this work I have generally chosen to keep the term in lower case, in order to remember that the earth is not just the round sphere in its entirety but also—first and foremost—the humble ground beneath our feet, the winds gusting around us, and the local waters flowing through us.

Thoughts on written language do spring up in the most unexpected places.

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