Monday, October 3, 2016

Natural Language Processing

I am writing this during allergy season, which many people associate with the appearance of goldenrod. However, goldenrod is not a problem for allergy suffers, because its flashy flowers mean it depends on attracting insects to spread its heavy pollen. If you are searching for a culprit, look among those plants who do not care whether anyone notices them, those with, say, green flowers, like ragweed, which blooms at the same time as goldenrod. Its nondescript flowers sticking straight up in the air depend on wind pollination, so they fill the air with their pollen that we then breathe in. How we understand the world influences how we see it.
Monarch Butterfly on Golden Rod
I have thought that perhaps I can help people find that richer relationship with the natural world through the power of metaphor, which charges the world with the electricity of imagination and enables us to see and feel the excitement inherent in the world that surrounds and includes us. Just look at the names of those two late summer plants: “golden rod” for the tall beautiful plant that entices insects to itself as part of its sexual reproduction and “rag weed” for the unattractive, low down plant that promiscuously spreads its pollen to unwelcome passages. The contrast in their natures is captured in the imagery of the popular name—riches and rags.
I call what I want to do “nature writing” rather than “environmental writing”, because environmental writing seems more journalistic and news/event driven and shifts focus as the news of the day shifts focus. Nature writing, in my lexicon, strives to be reflective and universal; I want my writing to be powered by our engagement with the nature where “lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” However, I am beginning to think that I can no longer write about nature without some environmental undertones or overtones. To deal with a real place is to deal with its ecology, and as McKibbon pointed out in 1989 (and is even more obvious today) there is no ecology that is unaffected by human decision making.
But even my dependence on explicit metaphor may be suspect. As George Lackoff and Mark Johnson pointed out in Metaphors We Live By, first published in 1987, even our everyday language is shot through with metaphor, and we use interconnected networks of metaphor to define and clarify our expression. For example, an idea is like a plant: it grows and spreads and can be nurtured and can die. Metaphors drawn from concrete experience of nature weave their way into our thinking, and those ideas then echo in our descriptions of nature, so that the ancient forest becomes majestic and inspiring like a grand idea. That relationship suggests that language is a good way into nature because language and nature interact in our experience, just as our abandoned fields of disturbed earth create an environment for ragweed, and ragweed creates an environment for us. And now I will go blow my nose.

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