Review of 'Landmarks' by Robert Macfarlane: Journey Through a 'Word Hoard' Gleaned From the Varied Landscape of Britain
Robert Macfarlane's LANDMARKS
A 'Lexis for Landscape'
If I told you I’d just read a book about words, you’d think, ‘Ok, so what? Sounds pretty boring to me.’ Most authors would have difficulty making such a subject interesting to more than a handful of committed logophiles. However, Robert Macfarlane is not your average author. He has a style and a way of crafting words, old and new, that knock many a novelist into a cocked hat. He imparts an enthusiasm impossible to ignore.
Robert Macfarlane is a travel writer, a Fellow of Emmanuel College Cambridge, Director of Studies in English, University Senior Lecturer in Post-WWII Literature in English. Not only do we get to explore the words, we are given an overview of Britain's varied and wonderful landscape.
Every page of ‘Landmarks’ is packed with meaningful words, phrases and concepts. He begins with ‘This is a book about the power of language… to shape our sense of place… What we cannot name, we cannot in some sense see.’
He’s made a collection of ‘words [what he calls a word hoard]… for specific aspects of landscape, nature and weather’ and he wants a ‘Terra Britannica’ of terms used by a variety of workers, artisans, mountaineers, shepherds…’ and so on. His purpose is to assemble some of the diverse vocabulary to form a ‘lexis for landscape’, ‘releasing its poetry back into imaginative circulation.’ The poetry aspect is manifest in words such as ‘gallitrop’, meaning fairy ring in Devon, Gloucestershire and Somerset; and ‘zwer’, used on Exmoor for a ‘whizzing noise made by a covey of partridges as they break suddenly from cover’.
Knowing where a word comes from, its etymology, ‘illuminates - a mundane verb is suddenly starlit.’ Macfarlane is referring to ‘consider’, from con-siderare - to ‘study or see with the stars’.
Language of the Commons
Macfarlane refers to other authors and literature, introducing some amazing people along the way, giving, at the end of each section, a glossary of words specific to each one’s respective landscape or viewpoint. It is the ‘literacy of the land’, as he puts it.
He found, to his dismay, that the Oxford Junior Dictionary had decided to omit words of country and seasonal origin and he says,
‘A basic literacy of landscape is falling away up and down the ages. A common language - a language of the commons - is getting rarer. And what is lost along with this literacy is something precious; a kind of word magic, the power that certain terms possess to enchant our relations with nature and place.’
So this book is a ‘celebration and defence of such language’.
My favourite, because I’m from Sussex, is
‘smeuse’ - the gap in the base of a hedge made by the regular passage of a small animal’.
When you know words such as these, you look for examples as you walk about - the word connects you to the landscape.
Influence of other Writers
The chapters of ‘Landmarks’ all concern ‘writers who are particularisers, who seek in some way to look at the detail.’ All writers mentioned ‘have sought to pierce… rotten diction and fasten words again to visible things… to use language well is to use it particularly’.
He refers to being precise in language, using precise words to convey meaning, purpose, feeling: ‘Precision is a thing of the imagination [and produces] writing of maximum force.’ It involves ‘watching and waiting’.
Another quote: ‘Language deficit leads to attention deficit…. Without a name made in our mouths, an animal or a place struggles to find purchase in our minds or our hearts.’ An area becomes a ‘blandscape’ instead of landscape. How true that is!
There are languages, within English, which have no translation, such as ‘coddish’ from the fishermen and ‘Pitmatical’ from the miners, so-called as it has a mathematical quality. Macfarlane describes these as ‘super-specific,… born of lives lived long - and laboured hard - on land and at sea.’
Flatlands, Uplands & Waterlands
We fly into Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides, with Macfarlane and meet Finlay MacLeod who has amassed ‘The Peat Glossary’, terms collected to save the ‘flatlands’ of moor and bog.
We meet Nan Shepherd who becomes one with her beloved Cairngorms, talking about ‘weaving and interconnection’.
We’re taken to water-man Roger Deakin who conveys the world from the perspective of water itself, deriving ‘pleasure at moving with the world & being swept along by its rhythms rather than sweeping it along with ours’.
Isle of Lewis, the Cairngorms & a Stream
Coastlands, Underlands & Northlands
J A Baker, on the coast of Essex, tries to become one with the Peregrine Falcon; he follows them and hunts with them, though wracked with arthritis and failing sight, aiming to adopt ‘catascopy’ - falcon sight. His precise descriptions are stunning, like the peregrine itself with its ’cloud-biting anchor shape’.
Richard Skelton, through grief, explores rugged terrain, quarries and workings in Cumbria, and shows the ‘Tunnel of Swords and Axes’ to Macfarlane. Skelton is ‘a keeper of lost words’ such as ‘Hummadruz. It means a noise in the air that you can’t identify, or a sound in the landscape whose source is unlocatable.’
We’re introduced to Barry Lopez, who writes of the Arctic North, and Peter Davidson whose writings mirror the seasons. Through Lopez, says Macfarlane, ‘I learnt how to write’, finding that ‘non-fiction could be as experimental in form and beautiful in its language as any novel.’ The Arctic holds vast areas of white-out, so description is difficult; however, Lopez moves from ‘panoramic to specific’, thus ‘detail anchors perception in a context of vastness.’
Davidson has a cabinet of many strange objects, referred to as ‘art-historical’; he accentuates the ‘instant’s perishability’ which has to be captured in words. Throughout both these men’s writings ‘recurs the idea that certain landscapes are capable of bestowing a grace upon those who pass through them or live within them.’
Peregrine, Quarry Tunnel & Arctic
Edgelands, Earthlands & Woodlands
Then we have Richard Jefferies’ ‘edgelands’, the outskirts, roads and ‘soft estate’ of the verges, railway cuttings, suburbia - labelled ‘marginalia’. The edgelands have their own literacy, and he is all about ‘optics & perception’ creating ‘a decentred eye and a centreless nature’.
We find Clarence Ellis’ language of stone, a myriad of words for all types of rock. Macfarlane collected stones, each stone becoming a souvenir. ‘Collection spurs recollection’; how many of us look through our own collections of objects or images, being reminded of place, person, time or event?
Then comes Jacquetta Hawkes’ writing about the land of Britain, rising from her passion for archaeology. To her, rock was thought; there was a deep psychological connection. Like Nan Shepherd, she merges into her landscape but it is the whole history of the earth that Hawkes infuses.
John Muir, another writer ‘at one’ with his environment and an example of ageing writers ‘gradually resembling the landscapes they loved’, ‘touched, tasted and smelt the trees’ and spoke of ‘diffusion’ - ‘most people are on the world, not in it - having no conscious sympathy or relationship to anything about them.’ It’s easy to walk through a town or through a field without noticing anything around you, isn’t it? Because you’re in your own world rather than the one around you.
Marginalia, Stones, Rock & Trees
Lastly we’re introduced to Deb Wilenski who studied ‘the hundred languages of children’. Children live in a world where doors open everywhere, where there are secrets and magic around every corner. To children, landscape ‘is a medium, teeming with opportunity and volatile in its textures.’ Children make up names for places, and realms within those places; they ‘weave words and ways together’.
Macfarlane has a personal example from his son: ‘currentbum’, for ‘the dome of water created by water as it bunches up before babbling over a rock in a stream’. How delightful!
Sadly, as Macfarlane bemoans, ‘we live in an era of diminishing childhood contact with nature, and landscapes outside the urban.’ A shocking statistic is that between 1970 & 2010, ‘the area in which British children were permitted to play unsupervised shrank by 90 per cent’!
Macfarlane uses a quote from one of Britain’s explorers and presenter of children’s and adults’ nature programmes, Chris Packham (May 2014) -
‘The children out in the woods, out in the fields, enjoying nature on their own - they’re extinct.’ Macfarlane’s reaction is -
‘These changes in the culture of childhood have huge consequences for language.’
Children become immersed in their worlds and create their own stories with infinite boundary-less imagination. We need to nurture this.
Impact & Impulse
This is a book to re-read and re-re-read. I have drawn so much inspiration from it. It is writing which yields different emotions, details and wonder each time you immerse yourself or take an occasional delve. It has a poetic style, worthy of the best authors. You will not regret partaking of this remarkable prose.
Most of all it reminds us to use, and thereby keep alive, the power and precision of specific words. Let's say you're writing about an icicle: how about the Kentish 'aquabob' instead? Anyone can write 'drizzle'; try 'dimpsey' from Devon, then you're describing low cloud with fine drizzle, much more specific.
Say them! Read them! Write them!
I’ll leave you with this quote:
‘We see in words: in webs of words, wefts of words, woods of words. The roots of individual words reach out and intermesh, their stems lean and criss-cross, and their outgrowths branch and clasp.’
Other Titles by Robert Macfarlane
- ‘Mountains of the Mind’, published in 2003: an account of the development of Western attitudes to mountains and precipitous landscapes, and takes its title from a line by the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins.
- ‘Original Copy: Plagiarism and Originality in Nineteenth-Century Literature’, published in March 2007: exploring the difference between creation and invention, the book surveys the "borrowedness" of much Victorian literature, focusing on the writings of George Eliot, Walter Pater & Oscar Wilde, among others.
- ‘The Wild Places’, published in September 2007: he embarks on a series of journeys in search of the wildness that remains in Britain and Ireland. The book explores wildness both geographically and intellectually, testing different ideas of the wild against different landscapes, and describes Macfarlane's explorations of forests, moors, salt marshes, mudflats, islands, sea-caves and city fringes.
- ‘The Old Ways: A Journey On Foot’, published in June 2012 by Hamish Hamilton/Penguin UK, and in October 2012 by Viking/Penguin US. The book describes the years Macfarlane spent following 'old ways' (pilgrimage paths, sea-roads, prehistoric trackways, ancient rights of way) in south-east England, north-west Scotland, Spain, Sichuan and Palestine. Its guiding spirit is the early twentieth century writer and poet, Edward Thomas, and its chief subject is the reciprocal shaping of people and place.
- ‘Landmarks’, published in the UK March 2015 & in the US in August 2016: a book that celebrates and defends the language of landscape,
- ‘The Gifts of Reading’ published in May 2016, a short book about gifts, stories and the unexpected consequences of generosity.
Macfarlane is presently writing
- ‘Underland’, a book about underworlds real and imagined, the Anthropocene and deep time, due to be published in the spring of 2019;
- a book about troubled landscapes called Eerie, Unsettled,
- and collaborating with the artist Jackie Morris on a large-format book for children called ‘The Lost Words: A Spell Book’.
'LANDMARKS' by Robert Macfarlane
Published by Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books Ltd. (Hamish
Hamilton, 2015). Cover reproduced by permission of Penguin Books Ltd.