In his essay “Into the Electronic Millennium,” Sven Birkerts uses language that alludes to nature in a number of different ways and, it might be claimed, for a number of different reasons. These ways and reasons arguably include the following:
- Birkerts uses such language because practically every human being is familiar with nature. Nature surrounds us, and so, when Birkerts uses language “rooted in” nature (as I have just done by using the phrase “rooted in”), most of us can easily understand what he means.
- Since Birkerts is dealing with what he believes is a major transition in human culture, it is advantageous for him to explain it by using language related to what is unchanging and constant. If, by contrast, he had used a great deal of highly technical and unfamiliar jargon, his readers would be less able to follow his argument simply.
- Since Birkerts is a defender of what has been familiar, traditional, and relatively constant in our culture, it makes sense for him to explain his own thinking by using language derived from nature, which is relatively constant and unchanging.
- Because human languages have formed over vast spans of time in which one of the few constants was contact with nature, it makes sense that much of human language, in its words and phrases, reflects that kind of contact. If we say, for instance, that new technology is part of a “flood” of new ideas, we are using language anchored in our familiarity with nature to describe developments that may seem puzzling and unfamiliar. (Even the word “unfamiliar” seems natural in origin, since it ultimately alludes to something outside of one’s family.)
- For the reason just mentioned, however, much of Birkert’s use of “natural” language is not especially original, remarkable, or even noticeable. Many of his natural metaphors are dead metaphors; they no longer call attention to themselves as pieces of language. They have become almost clichés. To say this is not to criticize Birkerts; it is simply to point out what often happens to metaphorical language when it is used repeatedly. Thus, when we hear the phrase “bridge the gaps,” few of us think today of literal bridges or literal gaps. A good example of a dead metaphor occurs in the following sentence from Birkert’s essay:
The evidence is all around us, though possibly in the manner of the forest that we cannot see for the trees. [emphasis added]
The italicized phrase is a cliché, but clichés become clichés partly because they create (or at least originally created) helpful pictures in readers’ minds.
- A far more original use of “natural” language in Birkert’s essay occurs in its final sentence: “language is the soul’s ozone layer, and we thin it at our peril.” Here the phrasing really does catch us somewhat by surprise, and it would have done so especially for the essay’s original readers, who had only just begun to hear and think about the ozone layer. For the most part, however, Birkert’s use of imagery and language derived from nature is not nearly as vivid as this particular usage.