Caught by the River

Caught by the River Book of the Month: March

5th March 2015


Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane
Hamish Hamilton, hardback, 400 pages. Published 5 March

Review by Rob St. John

I’m writing this review looking out of my office window onto the North Pennine moors. Despite it ostensibly being the first day of spring, it’s been snowing on and off all day. And right now, as it gets towards dusk, a weak band of sun is finally struggling through the thick, grey cloud and onto the snowbound hills: somehow seeming to backlight it all with a soft, phosphorescent glow. There’s no word that I know to describe this phenomenon: indeed, it’s taken me a long sentence to even hint at it.

Most likely, though, a person or community somewhere in the world may well have the language to get to the root of this configuration of landscape. Perhaps the word would be a little like gloaming, but refer to something brighter, more magical. Maybe the word iset (the colour of ice: isetgrey, isetblue) from Shetland, might help me be more specific. Or perhaps this dusky glow might be something close to what Gerald Manley Hopkins called doomfire (the sunset-light which has the appearance of apocalypse to it)? Given that I’m looking over the Lancashire-Yorkshire border, maybe eawl-leet (literally ‘owl-light’ or twilight) could work instead?

These words, and hundreds more like them, are taken from the glossaries which waymark each chapter of Robert Macfarlane’s new book Landmarks. In a subtle departure from the tone of his previous work, Landmarks is quietly political, rallying against what might be termed the ‘extinction of experience’ arising from our dwindling connections with a natural world increasingly tied and defined by its use value (or the cold, bureaucratic phrase of ‘ecosystem services’).

For Macfarlane, this growing disconnect between people and the natural world is typified by the recent decision of Oxford University Press to cull a swathe of ‘nature words’ from the new edition of their Junior Dictionary, as he wryly puts it: “for blackberry read BlackBerry”. To borrow another concept from ecology, we might term this quiet loss of the language of landscape as a ‘shifting baseline’ – in plain terms the idea that with each new generation comes a reduced (yet imperceptible) expectation of the richness and diversity of the world, and often, a subsequent inability to feel any sense of loss or need for conservation – landscape becoming “blandscape”. The overarching theme to this book then, is that if you can name and describe landscape phenomena with (often poetic) precision, then you stand a better chance of understanding it, valuing it, even protecting it.

In 2004, an application was put forward to construct a major new windfarm on Brindled Moor on the Isle of Lewis off the west coast of Scotland. The planners – proposing what would have been Europe’s largest windfarm – characterised the moor as an empty wilderness; a wasteland or terra nullius; a hostile place that would be improved by the development. The task for Lewisians opposed to the scheme (and there were around 11,000 of them), then, was to express the moor’s “invisible content: the use-histories, imaginative shapes, natural forms and cultural visions it had inspired, and the ways it had been written into language and memory.” In short, to use find ways of showing that what might seem like empty space was in fact a rich, valuable place.

Prior to the proposed development, Macfarlane’s Lewisian friend Finlay MacLeod had compiled a ‘Peat Glossary’ of 120 terms used to describe this Hebridean landscape. Collected from a survey of three Lewisian townships, the Peat Glossary was compiled in response to a decline in the use of certain Gaelic words, with the language at risk of “withering on the tongue.” When the plans for the windfarm were proposed, MacLeod and his fellow islanders worked to build on the Peat Glossary to produce what they called a ‘Counter-Desecration Phrasebook’, a set of terms that provided a “new nomenclature” for the Lewis moorland, so that “it cease[d] to be under-written and under-appreciated and thus readily vulnerable to desecration.” And this small act of linguistic resistance proved successful: after three and a half years of campaigning and negotiations, the Scottish Executive ruled against the windfarm development: the phrasebook having done its share of the work.

Many of the terms in the Peat Glossary are enthralling in their specificity: èit is “the practice of placing quartz stones in moorland streams so that they would sparkle in the moonlight and thereby attract salmon”; rionnach maoim are “the shadows cast on the moorland by clouds moving across the sky on a bright and windy day”; and botann is “a hole in the ground, often wet, where an animal might get stuck.”

Compiled from archives and collections such as the Peat Glossary and from invited submissions from friends and colleagues, Macfarlane’s glossaries are organised into broad themes – Flatlands, Uplands, Waterlands, Coastlands, Underlands and so on – each loosely corresponding to the preceding chapter. Macfarlane takes a playful an progressive approach to assembling these ‘word-hoards’: smout (a hole in a hedge used by a hare ¬– from northern England, the Midlands and Somerset) placed next to soft estate (the almost-poetic term used by the Highways Agency to describe the self-willed edgeland habitats that have sprung up around motorways), the spaces and tensions between words, dialects and landscapes teasing out new meaning: what is a natural landscape (and what isn’t), and how do we talk about it, describe it, manage it?

Some might see these attempts at preservation and documentation as nostalgic, or perhaps even conservative, attempts to preserve a particular form or function of a landscape in time. Similarly, such a project might run the risk of taking a grand tour through various dialectal quirks and placing constellations of niche concerns side by side in a linguistic cabinet of curiosities. But, thankfully, in Macfarlane’s assured curatorial hands, this isn’t the case in Landmarks. Words like èit and botann are convincingly put forward as having the potential to actively enliven and enchant the world; to make it richer in potential and meaning. As in the case of the Lewis windfarm, these are words that have an uncanny ability to evoke natural phenomena in space and time, and to unearth life, nuance and beauty in landscapes that might otherwise seem empty and barren.

Macfarlane has always been a generous champion (or perhaps in vinyl record terms, a ‘crate-digger’) of other (often little-known) writers, and following the ‘land trio’ of Mountains of the Mind, The Wild Places and The Old Ways, the publishers of Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain, Geoffery Household’s Rogue Male and JA Baker’s The Peregrine will have doubtless observed spikes in sales based on his praise. Shepherd and Baker are considered again here, alongside Roger Deakin, John Muir, Barry Lopez, Peter Davidson, Richard Jefferies, Autumn Richardson and Richard Skelton – writers who in Macfarlane’s terms use language “exactly and exactingly” to explore landscape; ‘noticers’ who celebrate and illuminate their chosen territories and bioregions through various shades of lyrical, sited prose.

Perhaps the new revelation of this book will be Jacquetta Hawkes’ A Land. Published in 1951 – the year of The Festival of Britain, the Austin A30 and The Goon Show, Macfarlane notes – A Land is an ‘island story’ of Britain, a “deep-time dream of 4 billion years of earth-history.” Like Macfarlane, Hawkes casts her gaze widely, with A Land taking in speculative geological histories, dreamscapes, biography, art criticism, personal philosophy and meditations on cultural and community life in making sense of the past: fusing science and storytelling, natural history and narrative arc with a fervent intensity. This unique, unclassifiable work by an author with similar attributes – she was friends with Henry Moore and Paul Nash, regularly visited Robert Graves’ enclave of upper-class-bohemia on Mallorca, and wrote a frank memoir detailing her bisexuality in the 1970s – is described by Macfarlane as, “like Roger Fry on rocks…like Gurdjieff on geology…like Adrian Stokes on acid.” (On that last phrase, it is slightly odd to read a writer of Macfarlane’s ingenuity using one of the most cliched phrases of cultural criticism, but never mind.)

My one gripe is that even after reading (and being convinced by) Landmarks, I am unconvinced about how much we should really worry about the nature word cull in the Oxford Junior Dictionary. There’s been plenty of letter writing and twitter chatter about the issue over recent months, but in this inescapably digital age, I wonder just how important physical dictionaries are for children’s word learning, and by extension in this case, their knowledge of the natural world?

The removal of these words is telling, perhaps, in terms of what the editors at the OUP think that children should know or want to hear. But as long as kids get to experience the languages, sights, smells and sounds of nature in one way or another (and lets be honest, this has always likely to have been more about parental or peer influence rather than the contents of a dictionary), then perhaps the situation isn’t too dire. For example, given the proliferation of sites such as iSpot where if they wanted, kids might not just be able to learn about willow trees, let’s say, but also be able to see pictures, read about their ecology, and even identify different species. Perhaps, given that we can’t really retreat from digital modernity, we need to embrace new ways of seeding our childrens’ natural world vocabulary, and not worry too much about how these engagements with nature are encouraged: the key thing is that they are.

There’s an inspiring example of how these engagements might be fostered in the final chapter, ‘Childish’, the title both a reversal of the common negative connotations of the word to suggest an exploratory glee; and also a nod to early language improvisations and accumulations that are “subtle in intricacies and rich in metaphors”. Macfarlane notes that for a child, the wide natural vistas that adults might term landscape are of little interest. Instead, through child’s eyes, the natural world is not a backdrop but “a medium, teeming with opportunity and volatile in its textures”, where scale is small and the world is tactile, sensory and thick with the potential for play, or as John Muir put it: “Between every two pines is a door leading to a new life.”

Macfarlane tells us about the work of Deb Wilenski, a primate ecologist and psychologist turned educator. Her work with four and five year old children in Cambridge is pretty remarkable. Over a three month period, Wilenski took a group of kids out into a large area of woodland and grassland to the south of the city, letting the children roam loose to explore, climb trees and build dens, and slowly, to begin to create new words and stories to (re)make an imaginative landscape. Macfarlane writes, “With the children as her guides, Deb began to see the park as a ‘place of possibility’ in which the ‘ordinary and the fantastic’ – immiscible to adult eyes – melded into a single alloy…No map of it could ever be complete, for new stories seethed up from its soil, and its surfaces could give way at any moment.” Reenchantment of landscape through creative play and imagination, through exploration and through language: a thread that (in one way or another) is carried through all the authors considered in Landmarks, and of course, through Macfarlane himself.

This is perhaps Macfarlane’s most personal and autobiographical book yet, reflecting on how his chosen writers and their words have shaped his life and work. Tellingly, in the introduction, he writes, “Certain books, though, like certain landscapes, stay with us even when we have left them, changing not just our weathers but our climates…Taken in sum, the chapters of Landmarks explore how reading can change minds, revise behaviour and shape perception.” And Landmarks itself is an inspiring text, encouraging wonder-full explorations through worlds and through words. And the final glossary? Well, it’s blank – left open as an ongoing work in progress to be added to by you, the reader. Now, to figure out a word for that frozen sunset…


Look out for an exclusive extract from Landmarks on Caught by the River tomorrow.

Landmarks is available in the Caught by the River shop priced £15.

Rob St. John on Caught by the River