Names and Places


By Paul Warde

Several of the papers and talk we heard at Wicken Fen were about disappearance and loss: the end of the ‘amphibious culture’ of the wetlands described by Petra van Dam, or the disappearance of the Fens through drainage traced by Ian Rotherham, a loss so complete in the case of the Yorkshire fens around Hatfield Chase that few people even remember they ever existed. Carry Akroyd spoke about her affinity for John Clare’s writings as an inspiration to her, and as someone who seemed to hold a shared feeling for the environment and the changes that it was subject to; and a common idea to express these feelings in art. Much of Clare’s work was of course born of a deep pain at the changes wrought by the enclosure of the Northamptonshire landscape, and then his own dislocation to the Fens.

I was surprised by the degree to which Carry’s art really was at times a very precise document of places at particular moments; a farmer destroys an actual hedge. The devil is to be found in the detail. John Clare’s laments were also not just general appeals, but rooted in places and moments. One thing that distressed him was the loss of names as the landscape was torn up, altered, and barred to wandering feet. Precious knowledge and folkways were cut adrift from their moorings, so that people no longer had the intimate experience of nature that allowed them to be familiar with the diversity of joys (and dangers) it could offer. Equally, with that link broken, orally-borne and common(s) knowledge vanished, and the names of things become unknown to the great majority of us, now reserved and policed for the large part by scientifically-trained experts. His own words expressed those losses but could not replace them.

The vanishing names include not just the monikers of plants or insects, but places, features, views, prospects. The experience of such things is perhaps, first and foremost, visceral and sensual. But naming them makes a difference, and sometimes alerts us to the fact that they are there. The enclosure of the landscape and urbanisation have been associated, to be sure, with long-term processes that have brought us new vocabularies and forms of expression. But they have erased much too: mountains of the mind that have melted into the air. Names and words are, after all, central routes by which we, linguistically-minded creatures, discover, harbour and cherish meaning. We can certainly find meaning in a landscape without names (although most explorers have shown a great enthusiasm for fixing the meanings for subsequent generations by spreading liberally the names of themselves, monarchs, and so on), but once named, that landscape enters a new kind of story, develops historical meaning, and becomes the vehicle of its unfolding history. The ‘linguistic turn’ in history famously ‘liberated ‘ speech and writing from ‘real’ things, calling into question categories such as ‘class’, ‘gender’, ‘race’ and ‘nation’ and demonstrating that real change was as much a matter of how we spoke as anything else. But this discovery did not erase what we currently call ‘the environment’. It has demanded that we think anew about our capacity to give meaning to it, and to situate our own lives.

Historians are storytellers, wordsmiths. They are, of course, also a kind of judge (albeit with a rather limited jurisdiction), as well as being archivists, hunters and collectors. They can be guardians of many things, both good and bad. And one thing they are guardians of is names. Place-name provenance is in itself a particular branch of history, and also can serve as evidence of past landscapes, albeit highly disputed. (Does naming a place after the oaks indicate there were many oaks or very few?) But this is generally the province of early medieval history in Britain. Few people pay much attention to place-names after that time. Yet names carry in them the possibility of meaning, and the longevity of a name is in itself a particular meaning. And a name is not just a sign of an old meaning, part of the deep historical record of the country, but also the gateway to future meanings, chances for re-articulation, rediscovery and creation. What kind of a relationship do we have with the environment, if the names are gone? How do we speak of what we see, and do we see it at all? It becomes harder to understand how our landscapes have been shaped, and their dynamics, if we cannot put a word to how previous generations spoke of it and located themselves.

Every so often we read or see stories that schoolchildren do not know where milk comes from, or that they do not know the most basic facts about their natural environment. Increasingly, at least in Britain, their mobility is circumscribed. The loss of intimacy with much of the natural world, a bodily and mental disconnection with many natural processes and lives of species (even the ones we exploit most heavily, such as chickens or cows) has been one of the profoundest changes of modern industrial civilization, and is an ongoing process in many parts of the world. It is something that will be difficult, nay impossible, to roll back. But we can still insist on the importance of names, and also that historical names – or simply that names that can allow meaning to thrive – remain in our land and cityscapes. Because without the names, how do we tell stories?

This is a key issue where the global and the local intersect. Increasingly, perhaps, environmental narratives, and environmentalism, have been shaped as a shared public discourse by ‘distant’ events, or risks that are pervasive but imperceptible, not ‘local’ even if they are in our locality: chemicals, radiation, oil spills, deforestation, global warming. But how can rage against these things be articulated and embodied on a local level without the tools to make local stories too? Without these, the global stories remain largely shaped by global players, and it is hard to give them local resonance. Repeating the global narratives may be contributing to the oft-observed processes of standardization, reduced diversity and easy substitutability among all of the worlds that we live in. This would be an ironic twist for the many of us who are interested in global (and local) environmental politics whose engagement in such things was awakened by the thrills and spills of the particular names and places. We’re familiar with the injunction to ‘think global, act local’, but why is the priority assigned in that order – can we also ‘think local, act global’?

‘Naming’ is not that much of a theme in environmental history (as far as I know). The history of names should not simply be an exercise in the exegesis of rather ancient societies (I say that as someone who could happily spend a lifetime in precisely that limited field!) But the challenge of names is also to the future, and to the fashionable idea of ‘restoration’ (a modish-ness that of course is but a re-articulation of many of the ideas of George Perkins Marsh in the 1860s). It is one thing to restore landscapes, or even to set landscape processes going. It is quite another thing to restore or generate meaning. In the case of a project like the Wicken Fen Vision, where will the names come from? How will people articulate what they are seeing and passing over? Will it be ‘the cycle-track’, ‘the big bridge’, the ‘short walk’, that give expression to landscape features as means to a leisure experience that happens to be within convenient driving distance of your house?  Will people be aware of historic names and practices that shaped the environment, or will they discover new significance? How will they share that with people who by and large live far from the land, and no longer constitute a resident community? Will the Wicken Fen Vision still be Wicken Fen when it stretches far from those modest origins?

There are projects out there that are starting to think about this (such as the Worcestershire Parish mapping project). Think of mid-century mass observation. The Domesday project back in 1986 turned out to be a one-off, like its precursor (and unlike the original, the 1986 version was stored in machine-readable files for which we no longer have the machines). Carry reminded me that these issues were very much the driving force behind Richard Mabey’s great Flora Britannica. But as with so many other things, I suspect the rate of loss is still much greater than the rate of retention – and even far outpacing the invention of new names in our new urban and suburban landscapes of work and leisure.

Tags: , ,

Comments are closed

Sorry, but you cannot leave a comment for this post.