Environmental literacy and environmental orality

The ability to read and store knowledge in written form has become so fundamental to our cultural imagination that literacy - the ability to read - is used as a wider indication of understanding. I’ve been interested in environmental literacy for while, and especially how it arises in humans, machines, and other organisms. This has taken shape in programs like Machine Wilderness and Random Forests.

Metaphorically speaking, an environmentally literate person or machine can be considered able to ‘read the book of nature’ and thus make sense of it. But for the majority of human existence, written denotation of language has been rare. The academic boundary set between history and pre-history is marked by the written word, only a few thousand years ago. Prehistory becomes anything pre-text.

Under closer inspection this boundary appears less uniform. In many ways ‘pre-history’ is still with us; reading emerges in different cultures at different times. Some groups of people communicate without the need for a written language. Illiteracy can be imposed on people in a literate culture both deliberately and by circumstance. Archeologist Gavin Lucas presents a way of considering prehistory as existing wherever the context or purpose of material cultures and artefacts are irretrievably lost.

Seen over the timeframe of millions years of human existence, literacy is a very recent phenomenon and many areas of life remain fundamentally oral. So many things in life are still learned by people sharing things directly. The study of animal cultures has shown how fundamental direct exchange is to many forms of life. Where conservation efforts used to focus on organisms and habitats, there is a growing recognition of the importance of conserving cultural transmission of knowledge among animal and even plant populations.

In a way this is mirrored in our understanding of the human organism. Through experimental archaeology the focus has moved beyond isolated physical remnants, to include cultural processes that shaped those artefacts and societies. Oral cultures can maintain a vast repertoire of knowledge, which includes the environmental insight needed to thrive in complex, dynamic ecosystems. The keeping and transmission of such knowledge needs to be deeply resilient.

In some instances this knowledge can be traced back over hundreds and sometimes thousands of years, showing a robustness over time that textual means may still struggle to match. Looking at the recent literature of the last two centuries, it seems tragically ineffective at addressing shifting baselines (our forgetting of historic ecological conditions and biodiversity, as each generation takes the situation they grew up in as normal). This is evident among the literate general public and crucially also among academics and researchers. Maybe now it's time to investigate environmental orality in more depth.

There has been recent interest in the relations between language and environmental amnesia. How vocabularies associated with the natural world can shrink and how contemporary language lacks the diversity or subtlety of words to describe environmental complexity, or the missing words that could reach beyond the nature/culture binaries of modernity. That is not what we’re addressing here. Our focus is on the praxis of orality, and what that fundamentally brings to the human organism.

Even simple experiments with ‘narrative environmental mnemonics’ can lead to significant shifts in the way the world is perceived and experienced. When the process of thinking is distributed within the environment, that world bursts into life. You are no longer just walking to the bakery or office, you are walking through the history of early human ancestors or a catalogue of poisonous plants (or whatever ‘data’ you happen to have ‘encoded’ locally).

The land acts like a mind-palace. But what sets it aside from the mind-palace practices described by modern memory champions is the way it externalises mental processes. Thinking reaches out externally in vibrant spaces. It becomes enriched by physicality (geography, shape, colour, sound, smell, texture…), character (properties, stories, activities, coincidence, serendipity…) and metaphor (the land is both itself and something else). Your mental space becomes something to walk through and is enlivened by the tumult of everyday life. There are many levels of connection that can engage your entire being.

These practices seem remarkably universal and diverse across the archeological record of human history. Remnants can still be seen in active use. The signs of the zodiac, for example, are narrative mnemonics applied to the night sky which can help understand how it changes. The pervasiveness of these practices leads to questions of how foundational to our species they could be. Are we wired for this stuff? Have we rewired ourselves for it?

Two immensely powerful forms of human memory are at play:

(1) our memory for geography: We may not be great at remembering shopping-lists, but we are significantly better at remembering places. Few people forget where their kitchen is located, or the sequence of rooms to pass through to get there. Maybe the way you walked to school as a child stays with you. The neurological research of May-Britt Moser suggests that geography is essential to human memory, with the discovery of place-cells and grid-cells

(2) our memory of character: we may forget someone’s name, but few of us would struggle to remember someone’s personality. The book Prehistoric Figurines edited by Douglass Bailey examines 'thinking through figurines', and has a remarkable section on how miniaturisation creates narrative spaces and time.

At first, weaving the imagination and environment together in a way that is stable or reproducible takes considerable effort. Yet once the path becomes established it’s amazing how much ‘data’ can be attached to a ‘narrative’ and how robust a 'narrative hook' can become. The act of walking is conducive to serendipity, along with the 'reminding' of thought through activity. Because any environment is more diverse and complex than the narrative, once the hooks have become established they can carry a depth of narrative information. The simple act of walking through the data enables different strands to resonate or correlate. New questions emerge. New patterns emerge. So these are not methods for passive storage, like the mind palace; they can facilitate thought, query and insight.

Some first experiments

In practical terms, we start with some basic experiments with the 'encoding' of ‘data’ in shared public spaces. At an individual level each person works in their local setting, drawing from their personal fascinations and talents. Collectively we share and exchange our experiences.

  • monstercode_intro.txt
  • Last modified: 2021-06-09 13:19
  • by nik