by Brian Underwood
Say that three times real fast
My axe splits the wood into three roughly equal pieces. One I split in half; another I cut into six pieces and the smallest strip of kindling I carve down into curly shavings. I pile the larger pieces over the smaller tinder.
The dome of heaven is filled with stars stretching across the Milky Way and time. Out of the light-speckled sky comes an ancestral memory of some proto-Underwood starting the first manmade fire. This Prometheus--was he the first man to break with nature? He no longer needed nature to give him fire. He could now cook his food and put some warmth into the cold night air.
A single striking spark generates a burning ball, which ignites the larger kindles. I soon have my campfire going. I have enough fuel to cook a trout for dinner and put some warmth into the cold night air.
He could keep the beast from his sleep and for the first time he could relax and think. Sometimes he would burn a plant and the smoke would fill his lungs and mind and give him visions of gods.
With fire, he would survive the ice age. This fire would take him through Iron Age and the industrial revolution and to his final break with nature--the atom bomb--Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.* And now we, the sons and daughters of Prometheus, our machines are filling the sky with climate-changing carbon.
Were there people --once upon a time-- who lived with nature? They did not chop, cut, and burn; they lived with wood. They let the wood provide for them. What wood words did these nature’s children use?
The vocabularies we use to talk about our connection with nature use words of the present. Today our society relates to the world with a language that is consumptive. We cut, burn, market, advertise, sell, and buy. We build houses to hold the things we consume. We generate energy to power the machinery that consumes ever more resources.
However, the future is not written and when it is I do not know if any words that, we have in our language can be used. The words of the future will need to be words that require no definition, the same way that our wood words of today such as cut, split, and burn all have self-evident meanings. Words like sustainability or conservation can have different connotations. Permaculture is a made up word that requires an explanation.
We need a new language with new phonemes with sounds of peace and cooperation. Words, which have meanings other than--cutting and burning until nothing, is left. We need simple words that give rise to knowledge and awareness. The future must have a vocabulary of wisdom, which balances want with necessity. We must have poetry. We need expressions of art that reveal the beauty of the natural world and lexis of science that makes clear our place in nature. These words will write the future and nature’s children will sing these wood words.
*Robert Oppenheimer after the Trinity Explosion