“‘Remember, the firemen are rarely necessary. The public itself stopped reading of its own accord.’”– from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, on burning books.
While hiking an unfamiliar prairie this past weekend, I came to a stream, limned with ice.
The bridge spanning the waterway was gone. Hmmm. My choices were simple. I could turn back. Hop from slick rock to slick rock. Or, wade the shallows to the other side, and get my feet wet. Reluctantly, I chose the path of least resistance and retraced my path. The rest of the prairie would have to wait for another day’s exploration, better footwear, or the bridge repair.
As one who seeks to know new places more intimately, I’m reminded that the loss of bridges—connecting points—-matter.
As a writer, I get that as well. Words are bridges. They have the capability to connect us to places—and to dynamic ideas. They elicit memory. They provoke action. They stimulate emotion. They are a springboard for the imagination.
How many times has a parent told you, “Her first word was—-.” Or a grieving person: “His last words were—–.” Words are significant! Our ancestors also knew the importance of words. The First Amendment notes, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press… .” Words matter. Losing words matters.
When we lose particular words about place, we lose part of the collective memory of our people. These words comprise a slice of our identity. They are the language of the place in which we live. More specifically, when we lose prairie-related vocabulary, we break links that join us to the tallgrass; specific identifiers that bind us to a place.
Words are one way we give human voice to a land that speaks in prairie dropseed, bobolinks, and dung beetles. Naming things brings them to our attention, just as learning the name of someone we meet makes them more memorable, more “real” to us.
When we learn the name for a particular sedge or a specific bee, we can visualize it, even when it isn’t in front of us. In a time when tallgrass prairie is dubbed one of the most threatened natural areas on earth, to lose any of these names is to lose some of our momentum in cherishing and caring for it.
We’re lazy. We don’t have enough time, do we? It’s easier to use non-descriptive, bland words that trip easily off the tongue. Ecosystem. Landscape. Grasses. Plants. Bugs. Use generalities and the prairie becomes a blur, a non-entity.
There is rhythm and motion in the prairie vocabulary; joy in the particulars. Delight in the common names: Canada wild rye. Regal fritillary. Hoary puccoon. Cream wild indigo. Try saying some of the scientific names out loud: Bison bison. (That double whammy! Like a drumbeat.) Or, Monarda fistulosa. Spiza americana. Let these descriptive words roll off your tongue: Mesic. Mollisols. Loess.
Speak the words. Keep them in front of people.
It’s a fragile hold we have on these words. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
As we draw toward the winter solstice on Thursday—the shortest, darkest day of the year—remember the light that words can bring into the world. Words of color and sound. Words of hope. Words of restoration. Words of promise.
Specific words matter.
Let’s use them.
Ray Bradbury’s (1920-2012) short, powerful book Fahrenheit 451, written in 1953 about a post-literate society, seems almost prophetic more than six decades later. Bradbury’s writing spanned many genres, from science fiction to fantasy, as well as a terrific book, Zen in the Art of Writing on the craft of putting words together well. My favorite is Dandelion Wine, his fictional memoir of growing up in Illinois.
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; blown-out Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota) seedheads on Afton Prairie, Afton Forest Preserve, DeKalb County Forest Preserve, DeKalb, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Afton Prairie, Afton Forest Preserve, DeKalb County Forest Preserve, DeKalb, IL; mixed grasses with smartweed (Polygonum spp.) around the pond at Afton Prairie, Afton Forest Preserve, DeKalb County Forest Preserve, DeKalb, IL; mountain mint (probably Pycnanthemum virginianum), Afton Prairie, Afton Forest Preserve, DeKalb County Forest Preserve DeKalb, IL; mixed grasses including Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) on Afton Prairie, Afton Forest Preserve, DeKalb County Forest Preserve, DeKalb, IL; mixed grasses with little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) on Afton Prairie, Afton Forest Preserve, DeKalb County Forest Preserve, DeKalb, IL; Canada wild rye, Afton Prairie, Afton Forest Preserve, DeKalb County Forest Preserve, DeKalb, IL; unknown sunflower seedheads (Helianthus spp.) with Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis) Afton Prairie, Afton Forest Preserve, DeKalb County Forest Preserve, DeKalb, IL; wild cucumber (Echinocystis lobata), Afton Prairie, Afton Forest Preserve, DeKalb County Forest Preserve, DeKalb, IL; sunset, Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL.
Thanks to John Heneghan and Tricia Lowery for taking us to Afton Prairie for our first visit there. And thanks to Joshua Clark and the good folks at DeKalb County Forest Preserve who care for Afton Prairie and its associated beautiful natural areas. Once again, a big shout-out to Paul Marcum and the ID gurus at Illinois Botany Facebook page for help with wild cucumber.