Words, words, words.

Sun streamed in through the windows of my mother’s flat, up above The Broadway in Thorpe Bay, England. To the right, too far for us to see but close enough to be felt, was the sea, and to the left, the train station that took so many commuters on a route paralleling the Thames River, up to London. We make a habit of walking along the seafront, my husband and I, when we’re back visiting my mother, but the beauty of the day made me think I didn’t want to limit our time outside to just an hour along the seafront. It was the kind of day when it would be good to be in the trees. Catch the sunlight filtering through the branches in airy beams. And give my husband’s knees a break by letting him walk on soil instead of pavement.
“Do you want to go to Hockley Woods?” I asked him.
“Okay, let’s go.”

A bus ride later – a blue, double-decker no less, where we sat upstairs, at the front, with a little bit of a queasy view of all the harrowing squeeze-pasts this dieseling behemoth had to make on the narrow, curvy, two lane country roads – we were in the woods, away from the sounds of traffic, encountering only occasional walkers, like us, most of them out with their dogs.

We stretched out, the ground muddy in places under our feet, the sky a heavenly lavender blue where we could see it. Hockley Woods is what they call a “coppicing” woods, where the trees are felled in one area and the stumps left to encourage new growth. We took photos of the burly oaks, examined the seeds from the sweet chestnut trees and looked at piles of newly felled hornbeams, wondering if they’d get sold for wood.
Hockley Woods 3
Sweet chestnuts
Coppicing 1
At the end of our walk, while my husband chatted with an amiable Essex forester who started every sentence with “truth be told,” I stared at the sign detailing Hockley Woods. And lost myself in the language of it. Words like foxglove and broom, butchers broom and dog mercury made me want to stand there forever, reading them again and again, hoping to imprint their beauty on my mind. Cow wheat, willow herbs and Heath Fritillary butterfly; how could anyone not love such language?
Hockley Woods
Maybe this was just me being nostalgic for the words of my childhood but I think not. I think words are my thing, in the same way that fabric is my older sister’s thing. I remember being dragged into fabric shops by her as a teenager and standing, waiting for what seemed like endless amounts of time as she pondered the different materials, asking myself in that sullen, teenage way, why she had to touch every, single one. Now I get it. I think one of the best things about being a writer is having to go through the mental archives of vocabulary looking for just the right word. Or, even better, looking for different words to say the same thing.

I walked away from my husband and on to another sign, where I read words like pedunculate oak, paper birch, hazel, sessile oak. It didn’t matter that some of the words were unfamiliar to me; I could always look them up, I thought. Or could I? According to Landmarks by Robert MacFarlane, a fascinating book about the different words we have to describe our landscape, the following words are among those that have now been dropped from the Oxford Junior Dictionary:

acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture and willow.” (Landmarks, Penguin Press, 2016, pg. 5).


They were dropped so they could be replaced with – are you ready? – words including:

attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player and voice-mail.” (Landmarks, Penguin Press, 2016, pg. 5).

I’ve asked myself about this many times since I read it, thinking how sad that we’re moving so far from the natural world, that the Oxford Junior Dictionary doesn’t think children need to look those words up anymore. It’s true that the second group of words is more reflective of the things they run into contact with everyday but, as a friend mentioned to me at one of my book events, when I shared the above with the audience, the children she deals with in schools already know the meaning of words like broadband, voice-mail and chatroom. In fact, they probably already know the meaning of all the words in the replacement group. But what are they going to do when they’re introduced to Shakespeare and can’t look up the meaning of the word cygnet? Or lark, for goodness sake? What if they read The Wind in the Willows and wonder what is this creature called otter? Or are we to assume that the words in those texts will be replaced with more modern, more “relevant” terms.

“It was the nightingale, and not the MP3 player,
That pierced the fearful hollow of thine ear.”

My husband sidled over to me and interrupted my memorization of the sign. “You want to see what they have to eat at that pub we passed?” he said to me.
“Sure,” I answered, ready for some lunch.

We walked, single file, along the narrow band of pavement that curved up the hill from Hockley Woods, a steady stream of cars whizzing past inches from our shoulders and hips. I wondered, as we walked, whether I would linger in front of a sign that was littered with words like broadband and chatroom and bullet-point? Probably not, I thought. They’re just not as prosaic as nature words. Or do I have that the wrong way round? Is it that nature is more prosaic than technology so the words used to describe it are more evocative? Maybe if we gave our documents and devices prettier names, I’d find them more appealing. But, then again, a cell phone by any other name would still be a cell phone.

Unless, of course, we could come up with a way to replace it with the Heath Fritillary butterfly. Truth be told, I wouldn’t mind.
Heath fritillary


My Brain Has More GB Than Your Cloud.

Just recently I read a very troubling blog post about how Apple had stolen the writer’s music collection. The veracity of the writer’s statements are apparently under review but nevertheless, much of what he said, struck a chord with me. Particular coming on the heels, as it did, of my own conversation with a sales associate at one on the Apple stores, in which I divulged that I don’t want to back my iPhone up to the Cloud. “Why not?” she asked, and gave me that look. You know, the one that says you just dropped a bad smell in the room. Or killed their favorite cat. It’s the same look I’ve received any number of times from sales associates in various stores when I present them with cash to make a purchase and they ask if they can have my phone number or my zip code – and I say no. It’s the look that says there’s something wrong with me because I don’t trust people I don’t know (or in the case of the Cloud, an intangible cyber construct) that wants my personal information. Since the sales associate at Apple seemed to be about the same age as me, I tried being honest with her about my distrust of the Cloud, by using my age as my defense. I’ve lived long enough to see what cyberspace can do to people, their finances, their children, their lives, and long enough to remember a time when people didn’t trust others with their personal information, sometimes simply because they didn’t want the barrage of unsolicited phone calls that would undoubtedly come if they did give out their number.

My argument held no weight with the sales associate who looked at me and said, “You wanna talk about age? Look at me.” I thought to myself, then why doesn’t that make you sensitive to what I’m saying? Why can’t you tailor your responses to me as an individual, rather than just another one of the masses who must fall in line with the latest way of doing things? Why, when there are actually other ways to back up electronics, including flash drives, CDs and, oh yes, our brains. Again, I’m old enough to remember a time when I had all the important phone numbers at my finger tips because they were stored in my head. I like the convenience of having contacts stored in my phone, don’t get me wrong, but I do think it’s disabled our ability to do the remembering for ourselves. And we have allowed it to do so on the unstated promise that if something goes wrong, the techno-gurus will help us out. So why is it that the default response seems to be, “Er, no.” Or, if I’m to be honest, and excuse me, my more genteel readers, for the language – “Fuck, no!”

I’m not that old but I have past the golden anniversary of my birth and I find the older I get, the more I like things the way I like them. Or, to use a more hip-term, I have my comfort zone. So while I like my electronics for the things they can do for me, once I get them set up for usage, I don’t like them to change that much. So one of the things that bugs me is the constant need to upgrade my computer and phone and software. Apart from anything else, my writing time at my computer is limited and already I find myself jealous of it because it gets interrupted all too frequently. So when I sit down to write, the last thing I want to spend my time doing is upgrading software – particularly when it turns out to be something I don’t even use in my system. In the TED radio hour The Source of Creativity, the writer Elizabeth Gilbert talks about an American poet she admires called Ruth Stone. She says this poet would be working the fields in Virginia when she was a young woman and would hear a poem thundering towards her, like a massive earthquake, and Ms. Stone knew that the only thing she could do was run. Run like crazy for her desk, to write this poem down once it got to her otherwise she knew it would keep moving through, until it found another poet to take its inspiration. Imagine what would have happened to Ruth Stone’s poetry if she ran like the wind to write it down only to discover she had updates that were CRITICAL to take care of before she could write. It’s like being in the throes of passion and having a kid walk into the room saying, “Mummy, I wet the bed.” You don’t have to deal with it now but, boy, it sure killed the mood. And to have it kill the mood only to find out that’s not enough – you need to back it up to the Cloud too and risk hackers seeing it before you’re ready to share – well, that just makes me bristle.

“Oh, our Cloud has never been hacked,” the sales associate boasted and I’m sure that’s true. But I’m equally sure that other big companies (remember Target? and Sony?) as well as government agencies (remember the IRS?) thought they couldn’t be hacked – until they were. What I want to tell my young friends, some of whom encourage me to just do it – use the Cloud, take the latest upgrade, download the latest software, sign up for every possible social media and then use it as an app – I want to say that my little frisson of distrust that I carry around – that comes from somewhere. That comes from my brain having enough storage capacity to remember that this has happened and can happen again. Because my brain, as small as it may be compared to some other people’s brains, my brain I’m pretty sure has way more gigabytes than any company’s Cloud. And unlike our electronics, when my brain freezes, all it usually takes is the act of sitting down a comfy chair to reboot it. No trip to The Genius Bar required.
Brain 3
Plus, here’s an interesting dichotomy. We’re made to feel like we must keep up with technology and we must give up readily our personal information and yet, if you try calling one of these hardware or software companies – even e-mailing them – for help, you’re going to find you have to sift through an overwhelming number of FAQs or scripted responses that actually have nothing to do with your problem because, you know why? They don’t want you bugging them! And that happens no matter what your age or what operating system you’ve upgraded to or how many passwords you have judiciously memorized to make sure your life information is protected. In fact, I think I’d respect these big techno-companies more if their products came with a warning label. Something along these lines: TRUSTING TECHNOLOGICAL ADVANCES TO BEAT HUMAN ERROR MAY BE DANGEROUS TO YOUR BLOOD PRESSURE. That way, those who give up everything to be in step with the latest advances won’t be surprised when they drop their phone off the side of a mountain and say, yes, they backed up to the Cloud, but no, they can’t remember their password because they stored it in that phone since their memory has been compromised by never having to use it, only to hear the unflattering reply, “Oh. Sucks to be you today.”

But okay, I get that these big companies have had way too many people yelling at them for not being able to restore their contacts or photos after they drop their phones in the toilet that they’ve come up with what they think are idiot-safe ways to protect that information. But then I tell myself, if they’re capable of that, why aren’t they capable of designing items that take into account the comfort zone of the biggest sector of the population – the baby boomers? And why can’t they train their staff to talk to said baby boomers like there might actually be some validity to the way they see the universe? Because – and herein lie’s the rub – we may be old and crusty in our ways, but even the lowly like me, tends to have more disposable income than our younger, techno-hipster counterparts.

Something to think about.