Words flow in lands of yore

The Weekend Australian - Review - - BOOKS -

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

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