Finding a better word for “tree”: why naming the landscape could be the thing to save it

Photographer Dominick Tyler began the “The Landreader Project” to collect countryside vocabulary after finding his own impoverished. Could saving the Earth be a matter of language?

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It is a grim day in January and we are walking towards Walthamstow Marshes on the outskirts of east London. Seagulls straggle the sky, grey against grey, like flakes of ash from a dwindling fire. With his hands in his pockets, the photographer Dominick Tyler is keeping warm in a hat and bright-green jacket, and telling me about his latest project.

While working on a commission about swimming in the wild, Tyler began to write notes on the landscape he was shooting. “I’m a country lad,” he thought, “this’ll be easy.” But he found he had no more than the “bare bones” required to write – a landscape vocabulary that was stunningly impoverished. Over time, Tyler began to flesh out his diction, collecting word after unfamiliar word as a child collects marbles, taking suggestions from the public and creating an online glossary known as “The Landreader Project”.

“But it’s cold and damp today,” I moan, “and this is London: flat, muted and bleak.”

“Try ‘stagnal,’” says Tyler. “Of or delighting in wet or marshy places.”

The mud next to our path, he suggests, is “stabble”, gloopy contours shaped by footprints. The gap formed behind the hedge to our right is a “twitchel”, “twitten” or a “ginnel”, depending on where you are in the UK.

“The plastic bag caught in a tree above our heads,” he says gleefully, “is a pair of ‘witch’s knickers’. Maybe she took off too quickly, maybe it was a low pass.” This expression made its first appearance in Ireland.

Margaret Atwood and Michael Morpurgo were among a group of writers who recently criticised Oxford University Press for dropping certain nature words from its Junior Dictionary. “Acorn” and “catkin” have been scrapped; “broadband” and “cut-and-paste” added.

Not knowing the names of things makes them easier to discard. If our politicians know only “rain”, “silt” and “dredging”, the complexity of the flooding in Britain will never be understood. If trees are only ever “trees”, and not “birch”, “ash” or “sycamore”, their quality and value diminish in our minds.

“It makes it easier to cut them down,” Tyler adds. “It’s easy to be dispassionate about someone until you know his name is Stephen and his mother is Gladys. It’s easy to feel disconnected from what you don’t have a language for.”

We head to a local café where we warm our fingers with tea served in porcelain mugs as toddlers shimmy around the table legs and parents slouch wearily at the side.

Isn’t this project about loss?

“Sometimes you can’t account for the senses you experience in terms of sight, smell or hearing a landscape,” Tyler says. “There will always be wordless experiences, thank goodness, but knowing these words allows us to tell a richer story. They connect us with the history of the words and the other people who know them.”

I head home, past a tree scrawled with lovers’ initials. The bark has grown around the cuts, curving to accommodate each letter. The words Tyler collects remain alive, too – shifting, changing – long after we have departed the landscape, like mushroom spores lying dormant in the soil. Some are scrawled in the notes of park rangers, fishermen and mountaineers. Others lie patiently in books, waiting to be dredged up and catalogued for the digital future.

It’s as if the landscape is dilating around me. “It is an entirely other feeling,” Tyler said earlier, his voice quickening with excitement. “Almost like a separate sensory input.” He’s right.

Uncommon Ground: a word-lover's guide to the British landscape by Dominick Tyler will be published in March by Guardian Faber

Lucy Purdy is a freelance writer from rural Shropshire, now living in north London. She writes on the environment, landscape and our connection with the natural world. Follow her on Twitter as @Loosepea

This article first appeared in the 06 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, An empire that speaks English