Words flow in lands of yore
In one branch of the broad family of nature writers, there are the teachers and priests, and, in the other, the enthusiasts, cranks and ecstatics. I have always most loved the latter: Gerard Manley Hopkins on dappled beauty, John Ruskin on cloud forms, Roger Deakin swimming Britain’s wild waterways like a happy otter or Gretel Ehrlich, mesmerised by the beauty of Wyoming’s high plains. Many of them write in the mad fringe land between genres, such as WG Sebald in Rings of Saturn, in which the narrator takes the pulse of a toxic Europe while walking East Anglia’s coastal tracks.
Robert Macfarlane is a teacher; an enormously popular one. A fellow at Cambridge and a crafter of clear, precise British prose, he is a lover of natural life and landscapes, especially old ones. In his books and excellent journalistic pieces he aims to draw readers’ eyes, as he writes in Landmarks, to “what is really there”.
Part of Macfarlane’s appeal is due to his fabulous choice of subjects: mountain love and the last patches of surviving wildernesses in Mountains of the Mind (2003) and The Wild Places (2007); and in the beguiling, bestselling The Old Ways (2012) he traced the world’s ancient pilgrimage paths, sea roads and prehistoric footways.
Macfarlane’s is intelligent writing with a slightly scholarly inflection, mixing acute observation, exactly rendered sensation, terms borrowed from science and local knowledge. More singularly, he also sees the world through the place-writing of the past; each page — each paragraph — lights up with beautifully chosen quotations from other authors. Macfarlane’s work has a clear debt to academic cultural history, with its interest in how stories shape the past, which shapes us back in turn. But his knack is to combine scholarship with travel, giving it a warmly embodied form.
In Landmarks, his fourth book, Macfarlane turns his attention more fully to the language and writing of the past. The words so long attached to English place, he argues, are vanishing: that “astonishing lexus for landscape that exists in the comprision of islands, rivers, strands, fells, lochs, cities, towns, corries, hedgerows, fields and edgelands”. For years he has been collecting them where he can; on field trips, in old books and in letters posted from around the country. The result is this, a “counter-desecration handbook”, its glossaries of disappearing words bound intimately with the land when it was still wound about with enchantment.
Many of these are delightful. If you’re a word nerd, you’ll find yourself making your own lists of favourites, such as the north Lancashire term for dusk: Eawl-leet (or, literally, “owl light”). On my list, too, were smeuse (Sussex): a “gap in the base of a hedge made by the regular passage of a small animal”, the Scottish lunkie (a “hole deliberately left in a wall for an animal to pass through”) and northern English smout (a “hole in a hedge used by a hare’’). They speak of centuries attending to the movements of the small creatures of trees and hedgerows.
Britain was known in ancient times as a mysterious, watery place, so it’s little wonder the legacy of words for water is so rich — currel, drindle, glaise, nant, muddy pow and linne (Gaelic): a “pool in a river, deeper than a glumag”. Some words, hauntingly, hold the old working sounds of the country: Kepp-keppkepp; koop-koop-koop; si-ew, si-ew, si-ew are Herefordshire farmers’ calls to poultry, horses and pigs. Many reminded me of Yiddish, with their sense of gossipy village observation — of those who plutsch (Shetland, flapping the feet while walking “as seafowl do”), or spandle (leave marks of wet feet on a floor “as a dog does with its pawprints”).
Perhaps the most lovely of all the entries is ting (East Anglia): “to cause a swarm of bees to settle by means of ‘ tinging’ a house key against glass or metal.”
Between his lists, Macfarlane recounts his travels, but the main business of these intervening chapters is to pay tribute to the nature writers he admires. Some were familiar, such as Iain Sinclair, tracer of the “bastard countryside” between city and country, and wild swimmer Roger Deakin, mentor and friend, whose joyfully “bumbelling” prose style in Waterlog Macfarlane describes perfectly. Others were joy to discover: Anna Shepherd, close observer of Scotland’s Cairngorm mountains, and Clarence Ellis, the pebble-hunter who “turned me into a petrophile”. Macfarlane’s own writing is more on the mild than wild side, but it is dense and generously alive with his ap- preciation of the wildness in others. As a taster of place writers, Landmarks works beautifully. As an antidote to desecration, I’m less sure. The mixing of words from different regions and eras in these glossaries removes from their local contexts; despite their obvious appeal, they felt to me like creatures in a museum, once-bright eyes and plumage dulled. Nature writing’s nostalgia, as author Steven Poole has suggested, may be part of today’s problems, not the fix. Maintaining a forward motion is a constant, and urgent, question for Anthropocene era nature writing — one Macfarlane is too smart not to be aware of.
For this reason, my favourite chapter in Landmarks is the last, devoted to the recent work of primate behaviourist Deb Wilenski. In 2012 she let British children loose in a country park, documenting how they mapped it as a supple, changing, wild place with their imaginative games and stories; seeding grasses were, for example, “honeyfur”. (Asked to come up with a word for the smooth flow of water over rock, Macfarlane’s son came up with the fantastic “currentbum”.) Here Macfarlane offers a small, unpious dose of hope: that close attention can still produce the ongoing enthusiasm, even ecstasy, for nature that may help save it.
Robert Macfarlane, with pebbles, celebrates nature writers he admires