Robert Macfarlane’s editor reflects on regional peculiarities in nature lexicography
When I finished reading the first draft of Robert Macfarlane’s book on landscape and language, I found that my vocabulary had notably and delightfully expanded:
I now knew ‘rionnach maoim’ (a Hebridean Gaelic term for ‘the shadows cast by cumulus clouds on moorland on a sunny, windy day’); ‘smeuse’ (Sussex dialect for ‘the hole in the base of a hedgerow made by the repeated passage of a small animal’); ‘af’rug’ (a Shetland word for ‘the reflex of a wave after it has struck the shore’); and ‘wind-fucker’ (the perfect East Anglian dialect nickname for a kestrel), along with ‘blonking’ (snowing), ‘babbing’ (fishing for eels) and ‘jirglin’ (playing about with water).”
All of these words, and thousands more, collected over a decade by Rob from the Shetlands to Cornwall, from Pembrokeshire to Suffolk, and from old Norse to Romani, appear in Landmarks, in the nine glossaries which interleave the ten chapters of the book. (Landmarks also describes Rob’s journeys into the mines of Cumbria, the moors of the Hebrides and the corries of the Cairngorms, as well as his meetings with glossarians, poets and word-collectors up and down the country.)
Landmarks is a book about the power of language – ‘strong style, single words’ in Rob’s phrase – to shape our sense of place. It is both a field-guide to the literature he loves (Nan Shepherd, Barry Lopez and Roger Deakin and more) and also a ‘Word-Hoard’, to borrow the title of the opening chapter. Over the course of the book we can chart a kind of love-affair between writer and language. The authors Rob is most drawn to tend to write with an exact and committed intensity about their chosen landscapes, in styles strong enough to revise our imaginary relations with places. They aim, in the words from Emerson which Rob quotes in the book, to ‘pierce…rotten diction and fasten words to visible things’, They are celebrants of the specific – and so too is Rob.
Over the book’s course, via its chapters and its glossaries , we come to realise that words and language, well-used, are not just a means to describe landscape, but also a way to know it, and ultimately to love it. If we lose the rich vernacular, regional, demotic lexis of these islands, developed over centuries, then we also risk losing our relationship to nature and the land. What we cannot name, we cannot in some sense see.
In the first chapter of Landmarks Rob writes grippingly about the battle to prevent a farm of 234 wind turbines, each 140 metres high, being built on the Outer Hebridean Isle of Lewis. To some, like the writer Ian Jack, arguing in support of the planning application, Lewis was simply ‘a vast, dead place’; but to the majority of others concerned, it was a landscape full of life and particularity. How to express this? The answer lay in part in language, in the scores of ‘precognitions’ – statements of evidence – submitted by islanders, which included love-songs, poems, ballads and personal stories. As Finlay Macleod, a Hebridean friend of Rob’s active in the campaign concluded: ‘‘What is needed is a Counter-Desecration Phrasebook’ – a lexicon to banish the vision of Lewis as a ‘vast, dead place’. Happily, incredibly, the campaigners eventually won their battle – a victory for both place and place-language which may of course be only temporary.”
In some sense, Landmarks is a step towards just such a phrasebook, rich in language which sings, touches and affects, ‘offering glimpses through other eyes, permitting imaginative contact with distant ways of being, and habits of perception that might be valuable to save and to share’.
Listen to an audiobook extract
SHORTLISTED FOR THE SAMUEL JOHNSON PRIZE 2015
Landmarks is Robert Macfarlane's joyous meditation on words, landscape and the relationship between the two.
Words are grained into our landscapes, and landscapes are grained into our words. Landmarks is about the power of language to shape our sense of place. It is a field guide to the literature of nature, and a glossary containing thousands of remarkable words used in England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales to describe land, nature and weather. Travelling from Cumbria to the Cairngorms, and exploring the landscapes of Roger Deakin, J. A. Baker, Nan Shepherd and others, Robert Macfarlane shows that language, well used, is a keen way of knowing landscape, and a vital means of coming to love it.
Praise for Robert Macfarlane:
'He has a poet's eye and a prose style that will make many a novelist burn with envy' John Banville, Observer
"I'll read anything Macfarlane writes" David Mitchell, Independent
'Every movement needs stars. In [Macfarlane] we surely have one, burning brighter with each book.' Telegraph '[Macfarlane] is a godfather of a cultural moment' Sunday Times