Robert Macfarlane’s new book is a celebration of the language of place, as he tells
The first thing Robert Macfarlane wants to show me is a tree: a dawn redwood, to be exact. The coniferous green giant is one of more than 100 rare, lovely or eccentric examples planted in the gardens of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where Macfarlane has been a fellow since 2001.
As we tramp along stone paths and climb the worn back stairs to his rooms, the Nottinghamshire-born writer tells the story of the redwood’s discovery. Until a keen-eyed Chinese forester happened on a single example of the tree in the 1940s, it was known only from Mesozoic-era fossils. It is a living example of the genus Metasequoia, thought to be extinct for five million years.
As Macfarlane attempts to clear a space among his donnish mess of books and papers for us to sit, it occurs to me that this story is a fragment in which his larger method is contained: simple wonder, bolstered by empirical knowledge, delivered in vivid narrative form.
Such attentiveness to the world is catching. Anyone who has read one of Macfarlane’s works of place-based literature will know the feeling of heightened awareness they engender. Go outside after closing one of them and bland reality resolves itself into a series of small miracles. You perceive what medieval theologians called haecceity, this-ness all around you — whether “this” is a tree, a rock, a bird.
For now, Macfarlane is in the more prosaic situation of submitting to interviews about his new work, Landmarks, in which he turns his attention to the relationship between language and place. For many years he has been collecting place-related terms, and the book’s chapters are interspersed with glossaries: words referring to rivers and mines, bogs and coastlines, mountains and woodlands from all corners, linguistically and geographically, of the British Isles. They can be mellifluous and onomatopoeic, gruff and utile, but they are all markers of specificity. They refer back to a time in which people’s relation to the land was more intimate, more tactile, more demanding of fine-grained discrimination. A ghost dictionary world, then?
Not quite, Macfarlane explains, and finely balances his new project’s aim as divided between “Avant-garde antiquarianism” — an attempt to “salvage a shadow language as it slips from us” — and a celebration of the possibility of fresh creation.
“The book is always teetering on a sense of its own futility in that these glossaries might be no more than reliquaries or cabinets of curiosity,” he says. “But on the other hand, speaking more hopefully, there is a sense in which these words possess afterlives, or new lives, or new forms of vigour — hopefully they set imaginations tingling as well as giving glimpses back into these lost life-words.”
He continues: “I try to resist an instrumentalist account of what releasing these words back into circulation might do, but I feel hopeful that some of them will go on and live unexpected lives.”
There is every chance they will, since Macfarlane, since publication of Mountains of the Mind in 2003 and three subsequent place-based narratives — The Wild Places (2007), The Old Ways (2012) and Holloway (2013) — has built a substantial following, both for his books and for the ideas that animate them. In the dozen years since he began, Macfarlane has worked at the vanguard of a cross-cultural movement that has tried to reanimate our wonder in and respect for the natural world.
Yet there is a paradox at the heart of this latest project. Doesn’t language get between us and the world? How do you inspire direct contact with nature via such a noisy intermediary? Macfarlane agrees the book is “a first technology, a first mediation”, but he has a more nuanced take.
“It’s a fascinating conundrum, whether we can find an art that reacts to nature without intervention — that stands as a form of pure transcription,” he says, and speaks of contemporary experiments in what he calls “un-meditation” such as field recording, sound art, in which ‘‘the cassette recorder is the technology but it’s spectral to the point of invisibility’’.
“Writing doesn’t do that. As I write in Landmarks, ‘Light doesn’t have a grammar.’ As soon as you work in language you’re acknowledging the basic paradox of the impossibility of a pure representation.
“The more interesting question is how do we twist and torque and splinter language in ways that make it better at its strange job of evoking the world.”
The question of human interpolation is at the heart of several essays in the book, appreciations of nature writers (a term, coincidentally, that Macfarlane dislikes — “it makes my gills shiver”) such as JA Baker and Nan Shepherd who have sought to erase the lyric “I” of the romantics and replace it with something more elusive.
Macfarlane says of all his works Landmarks “has the least of me in it. I flit in and out of its pages, occasionally there as a pair of eyes or as a companion or as a compass wielder. I’ve tried to make myself less present and more ghostly.”
Whatever the case, Macfarlane’s love of Scotland, home of his grandparents, remains palpable on the page. His long chapter on Shepherd, a poet, novelist and schoolteacher who spent years roaming the Cairngorms, writing her way into the mountains and their moods is a standout section of the book. He’s only just returned from one of his many treks through the area.
“The Cairngorms are a wild, strong place,” he says. “It has left its marks on me in ways that I’m just recovering from.”
This makes sense when we view the arc of his