This week I was lucky to attend a public conversation between three of my heroes: Terry Tempest Williams, Robin Wall Kimmerer, and Richard Powers. They spoke of loss and belonging, of isolation and reconnection. They spoke of mosses and rocks and trees, and afterwards I went to visit a very special tree nearby, and I felt both worse and better.
The topic of language kept arising, and with it the idea that our current language is more precise than we know, and also wholly inadequate. Take bewilderment, for example: there’s a root of re-wild-ing in there, of wandering without a map. Or remember: Re. Member. To put back together.
Robin was asked about the magnificent verb puhpowee, from the Potawatomi language. It means, “the force which causes mushrooms to push up from the earth overnight.” Have you ever heard a more glorious word? There are verbs in this language for sap rising, for buds unfurling… seventy percent verbs, whereas English is mostly nouns.
Dear friends, where are the places that our words can’t reach? A honeybee in flight is different from a bird in flight. The cutting of a century-old tree is different from the cutting of an onion.
When we see something that needs a new word, let’s consider it deeply. Somewhere, there is a word. Let’s remember.
* Many of you will recognize these three as some of my very favorite authors, including among their many publications The Hour of Land, Braiding Sweetgrass, and The Overstory. They were all friends with W.S. Merwin, too, so, wow.