Uncommon Ground; A word-lovers guide to the British landscape
by Dominick Tyler
Guardian Faber, paperback, 256 pages. Out now.
Review by Sue Brooks.
This book is the product of a year long expedition to photograph and name specific landforms. Expedition is not too strong a word for endless hours driving a camper van from Cornwall to the Outer Hebrides and Wales to East Anglia, even though they were interrupted by days at home on other business. And in the Introduction and the Afterword there is the sense that it was much more difficult than anticipated. More blood, sweat and tears than a photo record of a journey.
The invitation was unexpected. The chance to make a book of my own about something I really loved. Not a collaboration as previous books had been. He would be the sole agent, both text and pictures, and in very good company. Robert Macfarlane was engaged on a similar project, Barry Lopez had completed another and A Counter-Desecration Phrase Book had been published by Artevents in 2010. The timing was perfect. He couldn’t refuse.
Pictures to illustrate words: words to introduce pictures. A thrilling project. After the travelling was done, Dominick Tyler selected from notebooks and a pile of exposed film, 109 matching pairs. They are arranged in eight Sections, roughly charting the route. Some words are familiar – machair, tombolo, glen, scarp, carr, rime – but there are always gradations. A “glen” is different from a “strath”, for example ( deeper and narrower ) and “rime” is not another word for “hoar frost” ( “rime” forms in high winds when droplets of fog or low cloud hit cold surfaces ). Others have been completely new. The ones from Gaelic, Welsh or German are difficult to pronounce, even though a guide is provided, and correspondingly difficult to assimilate. But I’m sure with perseverance I could distinguish between a “stuc”, a “meall” and a “sgurr” ( all names for mountain peaks). There is great pleasure in naming. It gives a sense of belonging as past generations belonged to the natural world in which they lived and worked. If there was no word that fitted exactly, they created one, words often deeply expressive, rich with precise function and acute observation. It has been Dominick Tyler’s mission to breathe life into some of the countless names that are, in the Twenty First Century, in danger of sinking without trace.
I am particularly grateful for words that dropped like new wine into treasured bottles. “ Verglass” ( Old French ) to describe a steeply flowing stream which had frozen into a semi-transparent blue glaze over the rocks, seen on a recent trip to Norway. Ice-glass. Exactly so. A pair of favourite trees in my local woods: the King and Queen, oak and ash, standing so close together, their bark has fused in two or three places. I went there yesterday and spoke the word out loud. Osculari. ( Latin – to kiss) from which we have “inosculation”. And “sastrugi” ( Russian zastrugi ) for which I have held a long fascination. Dominick Tyler describes it beautifully – the wind pushes fresh snowfall around like a sculptor kneading clay…..only once it has been consolidated can it be carved into something as fine and dramatic as sastrugi. These ripples and grooves are unmistakeably aeolian. They make visible the great pulling masses of air that run over the earth…
I have a favourite – two in fact. The first I suspect I will never use, but I love it for its sound and ephemeral quality – “doake”. That there exists a word to denote the indentation left in sand or silt when a flatfish, such as a flounder is no longer there, is something to celebrate. The residents of Palnackie in Dumfries and Galloway are especially good at it. The second has already sharpened my eye on a warm afternoon by the river – “wellum” is the radiating ripples set off by a surfacing fish. The photograph which accompanies “wellum” is particularly translucent and has probably been imprinted along with the word. It has depth and texture more like fabric than water, and a characteristically perplexing sense of scale. Where is the surface? Is the leaf in the centre floating on it, or below it? These are interesting questions in this context and I have pondered many of the photographs in the same way.
We are told the camera was a Hasselbad 503 cw, and the film Kodak Ektar. I am none the wiser. I can only say as one who knows nothing of taking photographs with film, Dominick Tyler is a magician. In his hands the camera makes water stand still ( page 10) or turn into strands of silver hair ( page 147 ). Sandbars in an estuary become basking seals, and a piece of eroded wood an offshore rock formation ( page 134). Distance and perspective merge and warp as in a fairy tale – the photograph that introduces the Lakes and Dales section for example. The foreground is touchable, right there at my feet, and something happens beyond it that seems to require a giant leap or a shrinking potion, and then I would be a small figure running towards the far distant blue hills. All very mysterious, and he does it again and again.Page 111, which illustrates “shivver” ( sharp fragments of slate) plays so effectively with the horizontals and verticals it is hard to know what is reflection and what is slate. Is there water in this picture? And page 149 – one of the most gothic and enchanted in the book – surely has an imprisoned figure under the waterfall, and a thread that must belong to a spider caught in some fleeting second by the light. Sometimes I would let my eyes take a soft focus to see what might be there. The Magic Eye revealed more magic, greater depths, hidden pathways. I won’t tell you which photos, and then you can see for yourself.
Two final images to add to this list, the ones that begin and end the book. The opening page shows a blue camper van parked under a starry sky with light spilling from the side windows. I’m imagining Dominick Tyler on his first night, pouring over his books and maps, trying to make them fit and feeling lonely and more than a little anxious. The last one is of a rocky outcrop with a small pool of autumn leaves. The camera is looking down from some unknown height and fast-flowing water rises up from below and metamorphoses into cloud and swirling mist. A hallmark photograph by the author as curator to mark the completion of the expedition. The book was ready to be released back into the flow of ideas, to make its own way, wherever it goes. As a physical object it is exceptionally beautiful, the pictures are faithful to the high quality of the equipment and the skill of the hands which directed it, and a soft cover format, moderately priced. Let this book find its way into your hands. You won’t be disappointed.
Dominick Tyler is among the guests at The Caught by the River Faber Social taking place in London on 13 April