Date finished: April 16th 2017
As someone who vaguely aspires to write on some level, I’ve always felt as though I’m not as adept a philologist as the writers I enjoy. Obviously, reading is one good way to widen one’s knowledge and vocabulary, but specific areas I fall down on are architecture and nature. It was only very recently that I actually managed to put the words cornice and ha ha (as in a wall) to the respective objects they denoted.
When a writer explores the contours of an edifice, or the minutiae of an environment, I can be left feeling a little lost by the more technical terms or the names of flora and natural formations that are unfamiliar. On a related note, is it me, or does every crime novel feature an unrealistic amount of bougainvillea? Anyhow, my own language of nature and architecture is something I’ve always wanted to expand.
“winterbourne – intermittent or ephemeral stream, dry in the summer and running in winter, usually found in chalk and limestone regions. Berkshire, Dorset, Wiltshire”
I started following writer Robert Macfarlane on Twitter more or less randomly, but quickly begun to enjoy his word of the day tweets, sharing regional, archaic and downright strange terms for natural phenomena, often with illustrative photos. Somewhat conveniently, I remembered that my nan owns a copy of Landmarks, Macfarlane’s most recent book.
Landmarks, itself a landmark, is a celebration of language and landscape, collecting the dialectical phrases, extinct nouns and weird and wonderful descriptors used to describe our natural world. Mostly collected from Britain, but with occasional crossings into foreign vocabulary, Macfarlane seeks to collect these words lest they disappear, and illustrate the intertwining relationship of linguistics, literature and the natural world, and show how words and worlds create a mutual appreciation of one another.
“bretsch – breaking of waves on a rocky shore. Shetland”
Macfarlane is an instantly likable writer. He has a gorgeous prose style akin to a veteran novelist, an impressive breadth of knowledge, a deep reverence for the wild world, and a mastery over language and literature. He’s humble and reasonable, never taking a grammarian or “kids these days don’t know a thing about the real world” stance. He’s written Landmarks for the sheer love of the job, and it shines through in every poetic description, every tentative recommendation of other work, every admiring quote of someone whose work he enjoys.
It’s a multi-faceted work: a collection of glossaries, a linguistic love letter, a celebration of fine literature, forays into biography, expeditions into literary criticism, vignettes of nature writing, snapshots of personal relationships, notes on continuing activism; “nature writing” is, at best, a merely convenient term for this infinitely complex book. Each chapter is dedicated to a particularly landscape and a particular writer who best evokes that environment in the written form. Every chapter is finished off by a glossary of terms relating to that chapter’s terrain.
“smeuse – gap in the base of a hedge made by the regular passage of a small animal. Sussex”
This celebration of other writers means that Landmarks adds rather a lot to the to-read pile. There’s something in here to appeal to everyone. Personally I was quite taken with the chapter on Roger Deakin, an intriguing character with a passion for waterways. But whether it’s Nan Shepherd’s lifelong excursions into the mountains, the myopic J. A. Baker’s uniquely blurry perspective on peregrines falcons, or the roamings of John Muir through the American wilderness, there’s a variety of treasures contained within these pages. The notes and bibliography section could supply a man with nature writing for the rest of his life and the recommendations come as varied as Werner Herzog’s documentary Grizzly Man, the art of Stanley Donwood (who designed the book’s cover), and the ethereal, neoclassical violin work of one of the mentioned author’s, Richard Skelton, who records in the wilds of Cumbria.
“chaps – fissures into which the land is broken after a long period of hot weather. Northamptonshire.”
Of course, the true purpose underlying Landmarks is to collect a repository of language that describes our natural world and, in this respect, it starts paying for itself almost immediately. After reading the introduction I went for a walk and was startled by a sudden zwer – an Exmoor term for the onomatopoeic sound made by a covey of partridges taking flight. There are entertaining terms, such as MAMBA country – used by Welsh farmers to describe the “Miles And Miles Of Bugger All” they inhabit; words that fill niches you never knew existed like wilsome – of a way or path, leading through wild or desolate regions; and words for things you knew but never had a name for as in burr – a moon halo, or scocker – a rift in an oak tree caused either by a lightning blast or the expansive freezing of water.
Landmarks is a passion project, and Macfarlane’s sheer delight in all things at the intersection of nature and literature is infectious. His modesty, intellect and proficiency as a writer make this work a joy to lead. However, it’s debatable as to whether Landmarks delivers on all that it promises in its opening chapters, becoming more focused on the writers within and the environments they explored than original nature writing which Macfarlane mentions only briefly in passing. The glossaries and chapters diverge further from one another until they begin to feel somewhat unrelated. It’s a small criticism however, as what remains is undeniably a sprawling work by an author palpably enraptured with his undertaking.
“smirr – extremely fine, misty rain, close to smoke in appearance when seen from a distance. Scots”
Ultimately, Landmarks is an infinitely valuable work of natural history, collecting the elements that make-up our understanding of the natural world into one accessible pot of knowledge, folklore, characters, landscapes, lexis and love. It’s a book dedicated to the childlike sense of wonder any one of us can feel when presented with a breathtaking environment. Landmarks is a consciousness-raiser, a work that implores us to look closer at the natural world in order to appreciate the surprising beauty and diversity of life that can be found in even the most seemingly humdrum landscapes. There’s so much love and dedication in this volume that it’s hard to put it down without a renewed sense of appreciation for the world around us. We celebrate books mostly for what they contain within them, but Macfarlane has created a book that helps us celebrate what lies outside its pages.
Feral – George Monbiot