Friday, March 01, 2013

For Lack of a Name

Language takes aspects of reality and attaches words to them. One unexpected perk of studying a second language is the discovery that each language divides the world up differently. A word in one language may have no corresponding word in another. Similarly, the sounds used in one language  may be missing from another. It's said that we begin as infants able to utter the whole universe of sounds, but gradually narrow ourselves down to only the sounds needed for the language being spoken all around us. My daughter was able to roll her "r"'s early on, but lost the ability because English doesn't require it. My French teacher struggled to say the word "squirrel", while I could listen to her say two vowel sounds that in French are distinct, but to my ear were indistinguishable.

Now, if my ear loses the ability to hear sounds that exist in another language but not in mine, might the mind lose the ability to see aspects of reality for which one's language offers no word? And what happens if an activity and occupation vital to a society's longterm capacity to prosper has no corresponding word in the language?

That's the dilemma I happen upon repeatedly while tending gardens and managing landscapes. There is no good word to describe what I am aiming to do, which is to make a naturalistic garden more beautiful and diverse each year. Nor is there a good name for this occupation. "Maintenance" suggests something static. "Management" is slightly more dynamic, but can suggest just keeping things from falling apart. "Tending" and "caretaker" at least imply some t.l.c., but don't imply anything beyond keeping things going. "Sustain", "enhance", and "enrich" could be useful if they didn't sound so grand. They tend to crop up in grant applications and mission statements more often than in everyday activity. In any case, they have no accompanying noun for the person performing the action. "Parenting" suggests protecting and nurturing, which is close to the concept, but though a landscaping project may be someone's "baby", it's hard to call someone a parent in that context.

This lack of a name for people who not only maintain things but gradually improve upon them is more than a curiosity. It has consequences for what gets done and what sort of world we end up with. In the horticultural world, most of the money, grants, expertise and landscaping awards are directed towards installation. Many times I've seen beautiful gardens installed on public grounds, but no money or expertise dedicated to their upkeep. If the plantings get any attention at all, it's by maintenance staff who don't know which plant to pull and which one to leave. After several years of decline, the planting is mowed down and returns to lawn. Though maintenance determines the fate of gardens, it is devalued because it is viewed as a static activity, rather than a dynamic one that requires a vision for incremental improvement.

The more satisfying, lasting and cost-effective approach is to start small and improve the planting each year--to invest less in installation than a steady enhancement. Gardens, as well as nearly all aspects of life--a house, a nation, relationships, a government--could benefit from this process that has no adequate, widely agreed-upon name.

To prosper, a garden requires a mix of skill, work, vision and dedication. If there were a word for the person who delivers this highly desirable mix, more people might more fully inhabit that role, and their work would be more fully appreciated.

If we look at the world and see a gap where a positive trajectory should be, ask which came first, the gap in the world or the gap in the language.

(Title of this post was changed. Originally whimsically called "Who put the rant in nurturant?", a takeoff on Dizzy Gillespie's "Who put the Benzedrine in Mrs. Murphy's Ovaltine?")

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