I had just started to scrub the sheet pan when I saw the glare from across the sink.
“Dad, that is so loud!”
Then, to her friend on the laptop Skype screen: “Sorry, my dad is now a huge Taylor Swift fan.”
My daughter is used to me wading into a pile of dishes to the soundtrack of my teen years — usually Bruce Springsteen or the Replacements. She seemed somewhat irritated that her father — a 50-year-old conservation scientist — had strayed from his musical lane.
Well, why not? Americans of all ages know that Ms. Swift is one of the most successful, influential pop stars of all time. She has won 10 Grammy Awards and is up for six more in this year’s competition. (The winners will be announced at a ceremony on Sunday night.) She surprised her millions of adoring fans with two unannounced albums in 2020 — “Folklore” and “Evermore.” Both received critical acclaim for their storytelling and production, but I heard another reason to celebrate them: They are filled with the language and images of the natural world.
The language of nature has been steadily draining from the vocabulary of our culture. With these sister albums, Ms. Swift pushes back hard on that trend.
On the albums, nature has primacy of place from the beginning: their cover art, with photography that shifts with the seasons like the menu of a farm-to-table restaurant. Recorded in the spring, “Folklore” finds Ms. Swift dwarfed by trees in a foggy vernal forest. On “Evermore,” recorded in the fall, we look over Ms. Swift’s shoulder to a stubbly field, bare trees in the distance reflecting the last glow of an autumnal sunset.
Both were recorded during the seemingly endless quarantine and isolation of 2020, and with these cover photos, Ms. Swift seems to be turning to nature for connection and solace.
The albums’ lyrics abound with references to nature: “running like water,” “Gold was the color of the leaves when I showed you around Centennial Park,” “You’ll poke that bear till her claws come out,” “Long limbs and frozen swims/You’d always go past where our feet could touch.”
There are stars, crescent moons, sunrises and sunsets, eclipsed suns, Saturn, comets and auroras, amber skies and purple-pink skies. There are cliffs and precipices and rabbit holes to trip on. Plants grow in the background — bushes, trees, grass, clover, willows and wisteria — and in two songs, ivy or other vegetation grows over characters. The passage of time is marked by wildest winters, spring breaking loose, salty-air summers, autumn chill and gray Novembers. There is snow and cold hands.
An emotional gulf between characters is the “sea you put between us.” Reunions take place “at our old spot, in the tree line.” Tears spill out as “acid rain on the pillow.”
As I’m a conservation scientists, not a music critic, I had to apply some rigor to this claim about the nature of Ms. Swift’s writing. So I analyzed the lyrics of the 32 songs on “Folklore” and “Evermore” and the lyrics of the first 32 songs from the Today’s Top Hits playlist on Spotify. The result? Ms. Swift uses nature-themed words seven times as frequently as the other pop songs do.
Aside from the poetic and aesthetic pleasure all this brings, does it really matter? I think so.
Our culture has experienced a steady and dramatic decline in its connections to nature. American children now spend an average of only four to seven minutes per day playing outdoors, compared with over seven hours per day in front of a screen. By now, they are far better at identifying corporate logos than native plants or animals; they can tell the difference between an Apple and a Coke, but not a maple from an oak.
A 2017 scientific paper published by the Association for Psychological Science reported that nature-themed words were losing ground in our pop culture. Researchers surveyed song lyrics, books and movie scripts and found that words associated with nature have declined steadily since 1950. During that time, the loss of nature words was most pronounced in songs. The scientists scanned the lyrics of 6,000 songs and found that the frequency of nature-themed words had declined by 63 percent. The researchers posit that as we lose our daily connection to nature, we think and write about it less often. Conservationists see these cultural declines as both symptoms of and contributors to many trends reflecting the decline of actual nature.
Against the backdrop of these declines, consider the song “Seven.” In its accompanying video, we see a grainy home movie of a young girl playing in trees as Ms. Swift sings:
Please, picture me in the trees
I hit my peak at 7
Feet in the swing over the creek
I was too scared to jump in
But I, I was high in the sky
With Pennsylvania under me
Are there still beautiful things?
Here, she packs in nature references at a dizzying clip while evoking the landscape of the state where she grew up. The girl in this song does not spend just four to seven minutes outside each day. Rather, nature, childhood and friendship are all intertwined and seared deep in memory.
In Ms. Swift’s lyrics, nature is not remote. It can also be suburban, even urban, and thus familiar and accessible. The backyards where little kids explore creeks become places to party for high schoolers. She name-checks two urban parks: the High Line in Manhattan and Centennial Park in Nashville, her adopted hometown.
Songs like this — in which nature is a place to bond, seek solace or just hang out — may be even more needed than songs that preach about saving it. Because this is not nature as a living (what I do) but simply nature as part of daily life. And that is what we are missing.
Ms. Swift’s songs aren’t going to reverse climate change or the decline of wildlife. But they are a step toward reversing the decline of nature in pop culture, and that matters. If we want to change the world to safeguard nature, and ourselves, we first have to see it. Art can do that.
As I finished the dishes, the song “Seven” came on, with this line evoking an undomesticated childhood: “Please picture me in the weeds. Before I learned civility, I used to scream ferociously.” And I saw my daughter — at the table, working hard as a high school junior — transformed back into her unkempt, tiny form of dirty knees and wild hair. “Hey, that was you,” I told her.
Her eyes gleamed, “Still is.”
Jeff Opperman is the global lead freshwater scientist for the World Wildlife Fund. He is the first author of the book “Floodplains” and a regular contributor to the energy and sustainability sections of Forbes.com.
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