Category : Nature
Date : November 3, 2013

A few dandelions are popping out on the lawn and the bees are very grateful for this needed dose of pollen, as they hurriedly gather the last morsels of outdoor food to tide them over the winter.  The little jenny wrens are chirping by the woodpile in the mornings, and frost has covered the blades of grass and fallen leaves.  We are moving into the long days of winter here in western Massachusetts.

Earlier in the week, I began reading Christian McEwen’s World Enough & Time and have not been able to get this passage out of my mind:

In 2009, the editors at Oxford University Press removed a swathe of nature-related words from their latest Junior Dictionary……The familiar names of flowers and trees and birds and fish and animals vanished from the page.  Primrose and dandelion, hazel and walnut were replaced by terms like blog and voicemail, BlackBerry supplanted blackberry.  The heron and the kingfisher, the magpie and the raven, even the tiny wren flapped their ancient wings and flew away.”

How would Emily Dickinson have been able to write her poems without knowing the names and the qualities of countless plants, flowers and birds, I wondered.  One might argue that writers use the words, and the technology, of their time.  Today, writers undoubtedly pull out their handy Blackberry or Android to jot down verses as they hurriedly go about their day.  This is not dissimilar to the method Dickinson employed, for she would reach into her pocket, pull out her pencil and write snippets of verse upon saved scraps of envelopes; however, she probably relied upon her own erudition as well as the dictionaries and encyclopedias of the day in her explorations.  If words are eliminated from the landscape of the Junior Dictionary, how then will children know about what they are observing and write their poems?

detail for Euell #8--Brece Honeycutt, work on paper, 2012

detail for Euell #8, Brece Honeycutt work on paper, 2012

If Dickinson were alive today, would she use her PDA to write about the wren?

For every Bird a nest —
Wherefore in timid quest
Some little Wren goes seeking round —
Wherefore when boughs are free,
Households in every tree,
Pilgrim be found?
Perhaps a home too high —
Ah aristocracy!
The little Wren desires —
Perhaps of twig so fine—
Of twine e’en superfine,
Her pride aspires —
The Lark is not ashamed
To build opon the ground
Her modest house —
Yet who of all the throng
Dancing around the sun
Does so rejoice?


Christian McEwen, World Enough & Time:  on creativity and slowing down (Bauhan Publishing LLC, 2011), pg. 65.

The Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. by R. E. Franklin, (Harvard University Press, 2005), pg. 50

Thanks to India Flint for alerting me to McEwen’s thoughtful and provocative book.  An antidote to the harried world of the now.

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