“I’m losing confidence in words.” Charles Foster declares in the opening lines of his July, 2021 essay “Against Nature Writing”. Foster, who is a Fellow of Green Templeton College and author of more than twenty books including Being a Beast: Adventures Across the Species Divide, uses this essay as a way to ponder the limitations of the written word when talking about the natural world.
“There’s a wood near us, I can’t see the wood for the words”, Foster states. He explains that the words we use carry with them our personal and cultural histories. “When I think I’ve described wood, I’m really describing the creaking architecture of my own mind.” There is a divide between the “words” and the actual experience. When we use words, we evoke our past and fall back on our existing knowledge. This knowledge is then colored by our thoughts and perceptions. Therefore, language is limited.
Foster’s basic argument in this essay is that words can never truly convey the truth of the natural world. Because of this limitation, Foster wonders if we just give up writing about nature. Should we allow this form of expression to dissolve into the mist because it is confined in its ability to convey the truth? Foster, as a person who makes his living writing about nature, hopes this is not the case and thus seeks to find a way to balance the restrictions of language with the expansiveness of the natural world.
Foster thus proposes three possible responses to this dilemma.
- “Throw language away and strive for the direct, unmediated experience of reality spoken of by the mystics.” This approach seems extremely difficult as removing ourselves from the written word might mean the removal of ourselves from our cultures and communities.
- Recognize that “our cognition and our language are so inextricably entangled that we just have to live with the entanglement.” This approach seems to recognize that no matter what is written, it will always fall short of the truth.
- “Acknowledge that we can’t free ourselves from language–that language is a part of the web and weave of human perception and understanding–and try to use language in a way that subverts its colonial tendencies.” Foster leans towards this response in the hopes that he can keep writing and sharing the beauty of experiences with others.
Foster continues by explaining that there are strategies that can be used to help create an experience for the reader that embodies this third response. First is to defer to the natural world and imitate its processes with onomatopoeia. For example, “Rain should hissssssssssss. Boughs should creeeeeeeeak”.
Next is to change the classical writer’s advice from “Show, don’t tell” to “Make us hear, don’t tell.” Foster’s argument here is that our visual sense is so entwined with our thought processes that we will immediately apply our own mental constructs to a visual scene. However, the sense of sound is less wrapped in the conceptual thought process, and therefore a better option for trying to communicate about the natural world.
Another strategy is to avoid metaphor and simile. Foster says, “Nothing in the universe is sufficiently like anything else”. Metaphors and similes can be thought of as just a way to demonstrate our intelligence, or verbal wordplay that has the potential to be terribly misleading.
We should be “unapologetically but cannily anthropomorphic”, Foster continues. By doing this we are acknowledging the consciousness that exists outside ourselves. All beings in nature should be recognized for their potential personhood. Trees, mountains, and rats are included in this vision.
Finally, when talking about nature we should use short blunt words. The complex and fancy words of the Romance languages, Foster states, are layered in cultural influences and often need footnotes in order for the average reader to grasp their historical meaning. The short blunt words are “from the belly” of language. This simplicity, which is rooted in oral storytelling traditions, has the potential to lead to paradox. This idea of paradox is at the root of good writing, and at the root of reality.
With these strategies in mind, Foster continues with a theological exploration of words and their ability to create. Remember, “And then God said, let there be light”. Foster then proposes that perhaps the true conflict lies in the difference between “words” and “language”. Words, he proposes, have the ability to stand for something. They can deepen our understanding. Language, on the other hand, brings the author along with it. Another way to say this is that the author’s ego is wrapped up in the language, and a word can stand alone.
So, with this new revelation, what is Foster’s idea on how to move forward?
Foster proclaims “Poetry can show the way. By allowing words to stand for themselves, poetry can escape many of the charges . . . leveled against language by using language against itself.” Poetry, and likewise the poet, has the ability to use words in ways that go beyond the cultural confines of language and move into a space that taps into the expansiveness of nature.
It is at this point that we diverge from Foster’s essay, and move into a contemplation of haiku as a poetic form that meets this need.
The new question then becomes, can writing haiku be the way that we can use words to convey the truth about the natural world?
This, I guess, depends on how you see the haiku. At its most basic form, the haiku is a short verse that captures a moment in time usually connected to the natural world. By using simple language, and presenting objects rather than describing them, the poet seeks to provide a juxtaposition that encourages the reader to make some insightful interpretation on the moment. Charles Turnball points out that, “Good haiku avoid subjectivity; intrusion of the poet’s ego, views, or values; and displays of intellect, wit and facility with words.”(2) If we reflect back on Foster’s strategies for mitigating the limitation of language, it seems that the haiku meets his criteria around using basic words and removing the writer’s ego from the process.
In The Wild Horse of Haiku, Terri Glass explores the history of haiku and provides varying views about its form and function. Glass acknowledges that the debates about what constitutes a haiku have existed ever since Basho began working with hokku: the beginning verse of the renga. For example, Buson, Issa, and Shiki, all had slightly different angles on writing haiku, although all were inspired by Basho. And while various versions of these conversations continue today, a piece of advice originally written by Basho still rings true: “However well phrased your poetry may be, if your feeling is not natural- if the objects and yourself is separate- then your poetry is not poetry but merely subjective counterfeit.”(2) In this statement, I can almost hear Foster’s contemplation on languages’ inability to convey the true meaning of nature. Because if the melting of self into object, which in this case is the natural world, is forced, contrived, or wrapped up in the cultural expectation of colonialist language, then you will never be able to truly talk about nature.
Glass shares that the haiku moment, or that specific point in time where the haiku emerges, is the space where the heart and mind connect. She states that Allen Ginsberg described this moment as “little jumps of freedom into eternity”. This jump is the place that allows the words of the haiku to communicate the truth about nature; it is the bridge that allows the human to write about nature. This is where we can find solace in the words that we use to communicate. We can see them starting to hold the truth of existence.
So perhaps it is haiku that can provide an answer to the question about the limitations of language. But before we jump to that conclusion, we should reflect on Hasegawa Kai’s comment to Glass about modern haiku. Kai states that “There are many haiku poets who are bound up by fixed ideas about things. But, there are also many who are not. The latter are the one who will seek out the right way from among the various opinions.” Kai also explains that “I’m not following anyone’s theory, and I don’t write haiku to prove my own ideas. Haiku theory is always in pursuit of haiku, not the reverse.” I think Kai’s statement is vitally important as we ponder the limitations, and the potential, of the written word. Getting caught up in theory, whether it is haiku, narrative essay, or sonnet, has the ability to limit our personal experience. Our ego can easily creep into our writing and we can miss what is right in front of us. We can become so worried about the rhyme and structure that we miss the cricket as it floats by.
On a branch floating downriver a cricket, singing. -Kobayashi Issa/translated by Jane Hirshfield
- Charles Foster’s essay “Against Nature Writing” can be found at the Emergence Magazine website. Foster’s Books include: Being a Beast: Adventures Across the Species Divide, The Sacred Journey: The Ancient Practices, and Being a Human: Adventures in Forty Thousand Years of Consciousness.
- Terri Glass is the author of the ebook The Wild Horse of Haiku: beauty in a changing form. This book can be found on Amazon.
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Thanks for sharing this controversial subject matter! Foster may be “losing confidence in words” but, given these excerpts, I’m beginning to lose confidence in what he’s talking about.
Granted, language falls short of the reality of what surrounds us but the inability to adequately “see the woods for the words” has always been a dilemma for the writer and, in my opinion, is hardly a cause for despair.
Foster proposes 3 possible responses for the problem & wisely chooses to “use language in a way that subordinates its colonial tendencies.” Onomatopoeia is useful (as is poetry in general) but to avoid metaphor, the strongest spike in the wordsmith’s toolbox, seems foolish from my perspective. Also troubling, from my experience, is the writer’s suggestion to be “unapologetically but cannily anthropomorphic.” Seems to me that grafting a “potential personhood” to non-human beings might be wonderful for children’s literature but, beyond the classic Wind in the Willows, borders on the naive.
Sorry for the rant, but there’s a reason that haiku & the best of poetry take us to the larger world of nature like no other forms of literature.
Hi Walt, Thanks for adding to the conversation! I appreciate your thoughts and ideas about Foster’s piece. I’m not a hundred percent sold on his argument other than his recommendation that poetry has the potential to move the reader beyond the limitations of the word and challenge the assumption we make of language. But perhaps the sign of a good piece of writing is that it makes the reader contemplate the subject matter. And, Foster definitely does that! Thanks again for adding your thoughts. I appreciate it!
Thank you for this article. Agree with every word here. Getting caught up in theory can certainly narrow our personal experience.
Hi Madhuri, I also really liked Kai’s statement about being caught up in theory. There are a lot to ponder when we start to question how and why we do things.
I also came away from this description of Foster’s stance with an agreement of poetry as a powerful way to stretch language. To me, the spring poem by e.e. cummings wonderfully shows that time of year (https://fleming.foundation/2018/04/a-spring-poem-by-e-e-cummings/). Other than the poetry recommendation, Foster seems to be overthinking the issue. It’s along the lines of saying, Why take photos of nature when they will never replace being within it? Language has limitations. Language is imperfect. I think those should be embraced because they show our human-ness. And despite the limitations and imperfections of language, I’ve been deeply moved by passages of writing.
Hi Dave, I haven’t read the e.e. cummings poem before. I may have to sit with this for a bit! But yes, what a way to stretch language and ask us to think about the words we use. Thanks for sharing the poem and your thoughts on this Foster’s essay!
A fascinating post and it certainly adds to the collection of ideas about how I pursue my own writing!
NB. Say 100 people look at a stretch of river, there will be 100 different views and maybe only one of them spots the cricket!
Hi Ashley, Wonderful comment! I so appreciate the 100 different views. I hope that you have a great holiday.
Thanks, Mark, have a happy healthy holiday 🎄🙋♂️
Just curious what he might think of Walt Whitman or more current Mary Oliver.
Hi Phil, thanks for the comment. I don’t think Foster commented on any poets directly. However, since he did suggest that poetry has the ability to move beyond the limitations of words, I bet he would approve. Thanks again for adding to the conversation. Talk soon,
As someone who has been involved in both nature poetry and nature photography, one thing that comes to mind is our target audience. Who are we aiming to please with our efforts in creating art about nature? That question definitely exposes any biases we may have in our approach. For me personally, I do it for myself. I am my target audience, and I wish to portray nature in a way that is deeply profound to me. I hope others appreciate my efforts, but if I’m not creating to answer that call within myself, then I’m a hack, and I think that’s were language (and any type of bias) will get in the way of what we’re trying to do. I agree with much of Foster’s sentiment, but not all of it. He seems to be overthinking, as another commenter put it. When I write nature poetry (especially haiku/tanka), or when I was involved in nature photography, my personal experience was all that mattered to me, my attempts to understand and interpret what my senses were telling me and record them on paper or film. Shinrin-yoku comes to mind: experiencing a forest by “bathing” ourselves in it. No words needed, unless we wish to share our experience with others. I agree that haiku is perfect for this in its brevity and simplicity, its “present, not describe” methodology, its timelessness and profundity. I’m still trying to improve my haiku and I think it’s going to be a lifelong mission to try to perfect those little slices of the moment in nature. Anyway, this is fascinating, Mark. Thoroughly researched and impeccably written, and Kobayashi Issa’s cricket haiku is among my favorites. 🙂
Hi Mike, What I really like about Foster’s piece is the amount of personal thought it provokes. Do we agree or disagree? Or is the larger objective that we stop and think about what we are doing. Recently, I have reread this piece a couple of times and see that is a spiritual/religious angle that I didn’t highlight. and it makes me think of the Tao Te Ching. That what can be named is not the Tao. The Tao is nameless. This is my horrible paraphrase, but the basic idea. In this light, I understand where Foster is coming from.
Hi Mike, hit the reply button instead of backspace on my phone as I was writing my reply. Please excuse any major typos on the other response! Anyway, I was basically wrapping up my response. Thanks again for your thoughtful comments. I hope all is well and you have a good holiday weekend. Talk soon,