Review: Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane

In his celebration of the countryside, Macfarlane makes sure words have their place

Landmarks
Landmarks
Author: Robert Macfarlane
ISBN-13: 978-0241146538
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
Guideline Price: £20

In his 1883 study Nature Near London Richard Jefferies has a vibrant passage enumerating all the wild flowers he encounters on a single roadside verge. Conspicuous among them are buttercups, cowslips and dandelions. The Jefferies passage is quoted late on by Robert Macfarlane in this compelling new study, Landmarks, and it ties in poignantly with a turn of events he has cited earlier.

These words, he tells us, along with others, such as ash, acorn, bluebell, otter, kingfisher and heron, were deliberately excised from the 2007 edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary as being no longer relevant to children's experience. It's out with willow and heather and in with blog, broadband and chatroom. It isn't, Macfarlane says, a case of either/or: both sets of nouns and what they signify have a place in the world of today. But life is unquestionably impoverished if you do away with bluebells, conkers, larks and other common words denoting nature and natural forces.

Landmarks is a book about words, among other things, words for features of the landscape, for ice and snow, for dusk, dawn, night and light. Each of its 11 chapters, with one exception, comes with a glossary containing words peculiar to regions of these islands, from Connemara to Carloway, on the Isle of Lewis: intriguing, expressive and eccentric words. (The exception is the final chapter, whose glossary is left blank to accommodate future coinages.)

Irish words

A nab, for example, is the summit of a hill in Sussex; a Cumbrian sheep stranded on its back is a riggwelter; if you found yourself in a blinding snowstorm in Shetland you might say you’d been caught in a moorie caavie. There’s a selection of Irish and Northern Irish words among the terms for this sight, sensation or event – sliabh, bearna gaoithe, skiff, skite, hirple – although I was sorry not to see foundered, meaning “perished with cold” and still in common Ulster usage. But, as Macfarlane says, his glossaries have to be selective; they indicate endangered riches in the field of place language and local linguistic particularities.

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Macfarlane has won acclaim in recent years for his elegant and invigorating engagement with country matters, with language, continuity, lore, tradition, all kinds of fieldwork. He began with Mountains of the Mind, in 2003, and went on to write The Wild Places, The Old Ways and Holloway, all of whose titles make explicit his fascination with unpopulated environments and unbeaten tracks.

His books are original and illuminating, but they're not without predecessors. Landmarks is in part a tribute to literary as well as literal or physical landmarks, and to those writers whose expertise in observation and evocation has affected his own approach and enlarged his outlook. Custodians of languages and runes, of ancient hedges and ditches, indefatigable walkers and explorers, inhabitants of enchanted places: these, in Macfarlane's book, are trailblazers and exemplars.

Nan Shepherd falling under the spell of the Cairngorms (The Living Mountain); JA Baker getting as close as a person can to predatory bird nature (The Peregrine); Roger Deakin viewing Britain's landscape from a swimming perspective (Waterlog): these and others endorse and enhance Macfarlane's preoccupations. They are salty, clear-eyed, strenuous commentators with never a pastoral prettifier among them.

‘Edgelander’

Wildwood enthusiasts and word conservationists contribute to a general sense of urgency and apprehension about the countryside and what may become of it. “O let them be left, wildness and wet,” urged Gerald Manley Hopkins in prescient mode. It isn’t only the wilderness but also indeterminate territories, edgelands, tail ends of cities that captivate Macfarlane. He eschews a narrow view of Earth and its attributes.

“I am an edgelander,” he writes at one point in the engaging autobiographical strand that runs through his narrative like a path through the woods.

Alongside such suburban saving graces as field paths, beech trees and the odd hedgerow are raw ingredients of an inescapably bleak terrain. But if haulage depots, gravel pits, arc lights, litter-strewn canal banks and so forth can’t be ignored, they may in some sense almost be relished, by adjusting one’s attitude to aesthetics. In this respect Richard Mabey and Iain Sinclair are names that spring to mind.

Landmarks covers a good deal of ground, from the Arctic north to the Sierra Nevada, while homing in on distinctive British chosen grounds, all abundant in imagery and implications, social, moral and regenerative implications.

Some of the authors whom Macfarlane considers get to grips with the landscape and draw sustenance from it by lying down on top of it; there are other ways of experiencing nature to the full without going as far as John Muir, who in the 1870s threw himself into a Yosemite avalanche. (“Gloriously exciting!” was his verdict.)

You can, for example, immerse yourself in the weeds and the wilderness (pace Hopkins). Keeping the country in good heart by celebrating the countryside in all its aspects: this is one of Macfarlane's aims, and one that is wonderfully achieved. He knows its mountains, lakes, woodlands, wildlife, fields and hedges in all their variety and understands their need to be cherished. In relation to conservation he has had no need to make a mynydd out of a wonty-tump. Patricia Craig is an author, critic and anthologist. Her latest book is A Twisted Root: Ancestral Entanglements in Ireland