Bleak Language

Anza-BorregoI was watching the Amgen Tour of California on TV the other day as the bike racers descended the Palms to Pines Highway into Palm Desert, passing through one of my favorite landscapes. After a year and a half here in inexorably green Michigan, it was refreshing to see the desert again, if only on HDTV.

Then announcer Phil Liggett called the desert “bleak.” Not just once, but at least three times. I bristled, as one might expect from a one-time desert writer. Just as I had bristled the day before, when he called the slopes of Mt. Palomar a desert. “No, Phil,” I yelled at the TV, “that’s chaparral. You should recognize it from the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia!”

But calling the desert bleak? He had gone too far. I took to Facebook, and posted my outrage: “Phil Liggett annoyed me during yesterday’s Tour of California stage into Palm Desert and Palm Springs with his constant bleating about the desert being ‘bleak.’ It’s not bleak, Phil. It’s stark, maybe. Arid. Clean. Pleasantly uncluttered with trees. A bracing reminder that the earth doesn’t exist exclusively for human needs. But not bleak.”

Quite a few of my friends enjoyed the comment, and the photo I posted with it, but one decided that Phil’s word-choice was apt. He posted the first definition from the Oxford dictionary: “Lacking vegetation and exposed to the elements.” He said I owed Phil an apology.

Let’s leave aside connotation vs denotation. And the fact that all the other definitions present negative states or outlooks: dreary, not hopeful, miserable, forbidding. And that the word has its origins in the Old English blāc, which means shining or white, and that its roots go back even further to the Germanic, in which white was the color of death (thank you, Thomas Pynchon).

Instead I want to look at that first, literal definition, because it shows how the idea that the earth is created for human use is so deeply embedded in our language that we’re not even aware of it.

Does the desert really “lack vegetation”? The answer is: No!

But Larry, how can you say that? There’s a lot less vegetation in the desert than in a forest, isn’t there?

True, but the word “lack” doesn’t just mean “less,” it implies something about what should be. (And now, having been prompted to use the dictionary, I feel I have to return to it again: Lack means “the state of being without or not having enough of something.”) To claim that the desert doesn’t have enough vegetation is absurd. Enough for what or whom? For humans, of course! But the desert has exactly the right amount of vegetation for a desert. All of the plants and animals that live there are uniquely adapted to extremes of temperature and infrequent rain.

To say that the desert needs more rain or more vegetation is to say that the desert shouldn’t exist. That the plants and animals that do make their homes there shouldn’t exist. And it’s only one step from that kind of thinking to the idea that vast fields of solar mirrors won’t hurt the desert, but will benefit it by providing all those poor animals some much-needed shade. (These statements come not just from ignorant internet commenters, but even from California’s governor. Take your shade and shove it where the sun don’t shine, Jerry.)

Heather MoorlandAnd it’s not just deserts that are described as lacking in vegetation, when in fact they have plenty. The example Oxford gives for that first definition is “a bleak and barren moor.” Google the term “bleak moor” and you’ll find a bunch of images like this one from Wikimedia, often in black and white, to underscore the, um, bleakness.

Obviously, this landscape is neither lacking in vegetation nor barren. It’s a functioning ecosystem, with lots of grasses and heather. Compared to many deserts, it has plenty of vegetation. (Although, if you said the Yorkshire moors “lack trees,” that could be technically true, because it seems they were tree-covered up until Mesolithic times. But there are moors that have existed for longer, and apparently weren’t created by human influence, in North Scotland and the Hebrides.)

So, if a land as lush with grass and heather as the moors can be described as bleak, maybe the word doesn’t mean “lacking vegetation” in a strict sense, just “lacking particular types of vegetation English-speakers like to see, such as trees.”

My desert nature writer’s license (for which the testing was onerous) requires me to quote Edward Abbey now:

‘This would be good country,’ a tourist says to me, ‘if only you had some water.’

He’s from Cleveland, Ohio.[!]

‘If we had water here,’ I reply, ‘this country would not be what it is. It would be like Ohio, wet and humid and hydrological, all covered with cabbage farms and golf courses. Instead of this lovely barren desert we would have only another blooming garden state, like New Jersey.’

The desert is a bleak wasteland only to those who believe every inch of the earth’s surface should be put to human use. And there are more and more who seem to believe this; some of them even consider themselves environmentalists (or at least “green”). It is truly dismaying that, after a hundred years of eloquent writing about desert landscapes from John Van Dyke and Mary Austin through Joseph Wood Krutch and Edward Abbey to Terry Tempest Williams and a slew of others, much of the public still has this view of deserts as lacking something, as needing human intervention. One guy even has plans to “restore” the desert to grazing land, an idea that Chris Clarke eloquently rips to shreds.

So that’s the context in which Phil Liggett’s use of the term “bleak” landed. It’s just a reminder how careful we need to be with words, how archaic are the notions about the world embedded within them, and how changing our anthropocentric worldview is a whole uphill battle against the English language.

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