Some claim that there is a linguistic element in industrialized man’s attitude towards Our Earth & Nature, that the way we talk about these topics & the issues connected to them is representative of how we perceive them. For instance, in Religion and Environment, Vinay Kumar Srivastava calls attention to how we often talk about Nature: “Man tames, enslaves, or humbles nature; he conquers its forces; he emerges victorious in this war—or deal—with nature.” (Srivastava, 2006, 23:250)
If you stay your tongue and perk your ears long enough, you will gradually find that Srivastava’s observations are not false. How much time people spend conquering their lawns! And it is borne out in popular culture. In a recent film—The Witch—these motifs are explored extensively; in one scene, the Puritan father gazes on from the fringes of a virgin woodland and proclaims, “We will conquer this wilderness. It will not consume us.”
So, if our attitude towards Our Earth, Nature, ecology, etc., is really reflected in the way we talk about those things, then what can be done? One solution, albeit one that’s unsuitable for most people and woefully obscure, is to circumvent the language altogether—to create a new language. Constructing languages (“conlanging”) has recently enjoyed a surge of interest prompted by pop culture conlangs like Na’vi (Avatar) and Dothraki (Game of Thrones). As it happens, conlangs exist in abundance and for reasons far more numerous than than might be expected.
Relevant to trees and the environment is a conlang called łaá siri, which has been created to complement its creator’s neopagan spirituality and worldview. If linguistic expressions truly do give form to their speakers’ internal perceptions of the world, then we can understand why in łaá siri the phrase for “to die” (yasaá’ ‘iłaa) translates literally as “to become a tree.” There is another common phrase in this conlang used when asking for advice from others, literally, “what should I do?,” and it’s “yasaa’łá laara’isii?,” the transliteration of which is “what do the trees say?”
As English speakers, let us imagine for a moment that our language had similar phrases. What if, when our mothers die, we chose to say, “My mother became a tree”? What implicit connection would we have to the trees all around us? English does not entirely ignore trees—there are “tree diagrams” in the disciplines of linguistics and taxonomy, we do say “knock on wood,” and we have “treehuggers”—but English speakers apparently do not feel a spiritual connection to trees that must be expressed in words or phrases, despite the fact that English was originally spoken by Germanic pagans who considered trees sacrosanct.
By making łaá siri, the creator is not trying to prove that English is incapable of giving form to such sentiments or that English speakers should adopt łaá siri as a means of evocative expression. Rather, he is trying to codify his own perspective of Our Earth in a way by which special attention is given to Nature and the sanctity of the environment.
There is one phrase I like in particular, yasaá’ tłila, which the creator defines as “to aspire to lead a free, fair, and peaceful life (usually in harmony with nature).” This phrase literally means “to aspire to be treelike”; the first word in the phrase is yasaá’, which means “tree,” and the second word is tłila, which is defined as “to follow in the footsteps of someone whom one holds in high esteem, to live by someone’s example, to aspire to be like someone or something whom one admires.”
So in some sense, the phrase designates trees as a moral example which humans may hope to emulate. America is already seeing an increase in the number of adults unaffiliated with religion or affiliated with a non-Christian religion. Thus is it our generation’s task to establish methods of propagating moral values which are common to most, or, hopefully, to all of us. This is why the phrase “to aspire to be treelike” is important—Nature is common to all and a morality couched in nature would transcend religious and cultural boundaries.
And so, I wonder: what would it look like for people to aspire to be treelike? This is definitely a nonviolent aspiration. And, since we are increasingly moved to take action to preserve Our Earth, it makes sense for trees to be the moral exemplars of how to do so. As was stated earlier, trees outnumber humans 422 to 1, yet an excess of trees is rather unlike an excess of humans.
(published in No Home Journal vol. 1, 2016)