Othering — on Woodlands, Maps and Language

Artist Jo Dacombe explores the othering of woodlands through maps and language as bordering us off from the natural world, and looks to ways to reconnect.


2,000 words: estimated reading time 8 minutes 

Sociologist Yiannis Gabriel has written that Othering is a defining feature of Western culture:

“Some authors (notably Said, 1985, 1994) have argued that Western identity and culture are fundamentally forged by an othering logic, one that dehumanizes or devalues other people, such as primitives, uncivilized, orientals, blacks, non-believers, women and so forth. An essential feature of othering is denying the Other his/her own voice, denying him/her the opportunity to speak for him/herself and instead attributing qualities, opinions and views that refer to one’s own identity and culture.”

Othering occurs to non-human subjects too. It also occurs in relation to our environments. This Othering of Nature has been discussed by thinkers such as Latour and Levi-Strauss; the Enlightenment enabled this dichotomy in order for humans to exploit nature to their own ends.

The Enlightenment was an intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated the world of ideas in Europe during the 18th century. Emphasising intellectual and scholarly methods and using reason for gaining knowledge, the ideas of the Enlightenment worked against religious, spiritual or traditions of knowledge and thus elevated the European intellect to the highest status. One could argue that this set up the eventual split between the human world of reason and intellect, and Other worlds of spirituality or non-humans. Thinkers of the Enlightenment saw nature as a source to study and the wild as something to be controlled, to be subjugated under the will of humans, and thus the natural world could be exploited by human domination to suit their needs.

Othering as acts of bordering and of enclosing

Othering creates borders. We try to describe our environments using maps. We draw geography and delineate between this area and that. In essence, borders are made-up, imagined edges. They may make our map drawing a little easier and our politics more manageable, but they are still not real. Birds and animals have a sense of territory, sometimes, though perhaps not all of them. But certainly plants don’t stick to their own area in quite the same way; perhaps they have a more accidental way of landing and then surviving where the conditions are right. Animals, plants and birds all attempt to find a space in which the area and resources are what they need to survive. Humans carve out their territories for similar reasons, but there seems to be a more calculated motive, which can become about expansion for the sake of it, going too far with ideas of world domination. There seems more ego in it.

I love maps. They can be beautiful works of art and fascinating time capsules of a place. However they are also powerful, and as with all power theirs can be used or abused. A map presents a place from the perspective of the mapmaker. Every mapmaker has to make decisions about what to include and what to leave out, and this will depend on what the mapmaker thinks is important, corresponding to his or her own personal bias. Maps are all about drawing borders, identifying areas of particular characteristics, placing points of interest within contexts; sometimes imposing those contexts. Thus, maps can be tools of Othering. By creating maps of particular areas, we also create Other areas. 

Oliver Rackham writes of the changing maps of woodlands over the centuries. Ancient woods marked on maps appear now much as they were in earlier maps of 1580; zigzag outlines, boundaries that go around individual large trees, maps drawn to describe the natural boundaries set out on the ground, not from a draughtman’s office. Straight lines on maps do not appear until 1700, when woods started to be grubbed out or enlarged. These altered boundaries appear regularly curved or straight. 

“In Planned Countryside the irregular shapes of ancient woods sit awkwardly among the straight hedges laid out around them by Enclosure Act commissioners. In Ancient Countryside, the ghost of a grubbed-out wood may haunt the map as the irregularly-shaped perimeter of a ‘Wood farm’ whose internal hedges are anomalously straight.”

These imposed boundaries were due to Enclosures of land, and marking out forest areas as royal preserves. Gamekeeping in Britain specifically contributed to separating people from woodlands, unlike in France, Germany and Switzerland where “ancient woods are everyone’s heritage; in Britain alone have we lost that birthright, and with it our knowledge and love of the woods.”

Putting Nature in its place

And yet we do have a love for the woods, but I would argue that this is a different sort of love from the one that Rackham describes. For many of us, woodlands are like a brief flirtation rather than a commitment like marriage. We go to the woods to escape. We see them as places that are separate from our everyday lives, and that is why we love them. They are places for ‘nature’ and reserves for wildlife. We are happy with wildlife when it is in ‘its place’, in other words, not in our place.

Othering woodlands: Enchanted 1. Photograph by Jo Dacombe
Enchanted 1
Photograph: Jo Dacombe © 2019 www.axisweb.org/p/jodacombe/

Woodlands are often ‘other’ to the modern human world. They are a place of nature, a retreat, something to be preserved in a ‘natural’ and untouched state, not to be interfered with by human activity. They are to be kept for us to enjoy when we visit, but not to become part of our modern way of life. The two things are separate.

On the one hand this could be positive; the Othering of the natural environment means we have an urge to conserve it, to admire it, not to interfere with it too much, surely this is a good thing. However my view is that the Othering of nature means that we become more and more disconnected from our natural environments and from woodlands. They become a desirable thing for our leisure time, but there is a danger then that perhaps they are not a necessity when resources are scarce. Woodlands are valued and magical, they are precious to us in a way, like a beautiful object kept in a glass case. In my book Imagining Woodlands I have written about the Enchantment of woodlands and the notion that they are faeryworlds, or otherworlds. But these faery stories and folk tales add to the Othering of woodlands as distinct from the human world.

This has not always been the case. Once the woodlands in Britain were an important part of everyday human lives. People worked in and with forests. Woodlands were places of industry as much as leisure, where wood was gathered for a variety of uses, livestock were grazed there, and charcoal was produced as fuel. It is my belief that when woodlands were connected to us in this way, as something we lived on, relied on and thus valued, that the woodlands were more likely to be conserved by us as something essential. It was not Other. It was a part of us, and we were a part of the woods.

Our language contributes to this act of Othering. Our language both reflects and shapes the way we perceive things. It is almost impossible to speak about the natural world without Othering it – there I go again! Just by uttering those words, ‘the natural world’, I have made it separate from the alternative, the ‘human world’.  Yet there are cultures that do not have a word for nature because they do not see it as a separate entity, such as small scale communities in the Amazon and the Malaysian rainforests.

Othering woodlands: Enchanted 2. Photograph by Jo Dacombe
Enchanted 2
Photograph by Jo Dacombe © 2019 www.axisweb.org/p/jodacombe/

Currently there is a national drive to plant more trees, to mitigate the effect of imminent climate breakdown. To re-wild, and re-forest. But these things will not overcome the Othering of the woodlands. Perhaps planting new street-trees would be more effective; integrating swathes of trees into our everyday lives and right up to our front doors.

I grew up on a street called The Avenue. It was lined with large-leaved linden trees. Every day I would say hello to these trees, and watch as they sprouted new twigs at the base, bright red new sprouts that would bear pale yellow-green, large heart-shaped leaves. I would notice the colours changing with the seasons, fear the wasps that would gather in late summer to sip from the stickiness on the leaves, and worry about the black spots that sometimes appeared. I knew those trees well, and they were a part of my daily life. Now I’m older, I still feel a particular affinity with linden trees and I always recognise them and feel that strong connection. Other trees I have got to know since, but it has often been a more forced relationship, as I have felt I ought to know more species’ names and learn about them. But linden trees I grew up with, and I still miss them now that I live on a road without trees.

Perhaps a change in our language could help too. There is a fascinating section in Rackham’s book about the many Anglo-Saxon words for woodlands, many for which their specific meanings have been lost. These words demonstrate the greater connection they had with woodlands, and how they reflected the way they thought of woodlands in different contexts. For example, feld is an open space in sight of woodlands, with which to contrast it. A ley or a hurst appear to mean inhabited space surrounded by woodland. These words show how woodlands were a part of a wider, connected landscape, rather than a separated area on its own. Perhaps our language needs to expand to reflect this way of thinking again; to develop a lexicon to describe landscape relationships rather than separate features.

Old English consisted of a vocabulary of short words, and so used composite words to expand the vocabulary, which we know from the long saga poems such as Beowulf. For example, a whale is referred to as an ‘ocean-rider’, using two words combined to be descriptive of the animal. Often this was a way of creating the correct alliteration that was required by the poem, but it also produced beautifully descriptive new words.

I wonder if this is a way we could create new words to better describe our landscapes? To start to generate those connections between objects and surroundings, to embed things fully into the landscape and the way we speak of it? ‘Street-tree’ is one example, placing the tree in a particular type of location. How could we use words to better describe the different types of woodland? ‘Slope-spruce-holt’ for trees on a mountain side? (Holt being the Old English word for a wood of predominantly one species.) ‘Poplar-shimmer-shaw’ for the effect of a line of white poplar trees from a distance when the wind turns their leaves over to show the pale side? (Shaw meaning a small wood on a boundary.)

How would this way of using language change our relationship with the natural world around us? Would naming the specificity of woodlands make them more personal, more valuable, and better connect us to them?

Find out more

Jo Dacombe is currently creating a book of words and images called Imagining Woodlands, which will be available in 2020. You can read Jo’s earlier ClimateCultures post, Bone Landscapes, describing her work with museums and researchers on visual art inspired by relationships between bones and landscapes, now and into the future.

Oliver Rackham’s classic The History of the Countryside was originally published in 1986 and is to be reissued by Weidenfeld and Nicholson in 2020.

You can read Yiannis Gabriel’s 2012 post The Other and Othering – a short introduction at his website.

And you can explore The Lost Words: A Spell Book by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris (2017), published by Penguin. The book “seeks to conjure back the near-lost magic and strangeness of the nature that surrounds us” and has generated a set of songs, available from the same site.