I was familiar, in outline, with how Gaia theory got its name: that the novelist William Golding, being well versed in the classics, suggested it to his friend James Lovelock on a walk one day, perhaps to the local post office.
Before 2004 the debate about Gaia concerned only me and a relatively small number of scientists, but now a proper understanding of the Earth as a living planet is a matter of life or death for billions of people, and extinction for a whole range of species. Unless we accept the Earth as alive, with us as a part of it, we may not know what to do or where to go as the ocean rises on a hot dry world. For this purpose the name Gaia is far more suitable for a vast live entity than some dull acronym based on rational scientific terms. In ancient Greece, Gaia was the goddess of the Earth. To many Greeks she was the most revered goddess of all, and interestingly the only god or goddess that was never the subject of scandal.
I was recently approached by the Irish Independent newspaper for comment on the influence of American English and pop culture on Irish English speech.
The resulting article, by journalist Tanya Sweeney, focuses on the words people use to address their mother: mam, mum, mom, ma, and so on. It says the rise of mom in Ireland joins ‘other Americanisms that have now slipped into the lexicographical stream’.
With a film adaptation out, and Airborne Toxic Events occurring in reality, it seemed a good time to revisit White Noise, Don DeLillo’s great seriocomic novel of the mid-1980s. Its protagonist, Jack Gladney, is a professor of Hitler Studies preoccupied by an upcoming conference, because he doesn’t speak German.
Gladney begins taking private German lessons, recounting the experience in his wry, anxious voice. Spoiler note: little of what follows has any real bearing on the plot, and it’s not a particularly plot-driven book, but you may prefer to back out if you haven’t read White Noise and might soon.
So I am glad our story begins:
Speak, memory, the forgotten language,
Clear the mist in the mirror,
The unreality of memory going dark,
The shadow of the sun across a
Billion years, far from the light
Sometimes what I read tells me what to write about. Other times the hints come from what I watch. This time it’s both. First I read a line in Richard Pryor’s autobiography Pryor Convictions with this mighty stack of intensifying negatives:
I’ve always been wary of making new year’s resolutions, never taking them very seriously. So if you feel similarly, don’t be put off on that account. But I think they can be helpful if framed in a certain way, which I do in the opening paragraph.
Some suggestions are practical, addressing work habits and environment; others focus on our relationship to words and language, since this too is an important part of the work of editing and proofreading. Certain advice also applies to other trades.