Robert Mac­far­lane’s new book is a cel­e­bra­tion of the lan­guage of place, as he tells

The Weekend Australian - Review - - BOOKS -

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’’.

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“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

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