Review published on September 25, 2015.
Landmarks illustrates how language plays a critical role in our understanding and nurturing of landscape. Structured around ten wordsmiths who have influenced his thinking, Macfarlane explores how their observations have been crafted with simple phrases or the creative, but expressively apt, use of metaphor or simile.
He eulogises about Nan Shepherd’s evocative depiction of the Cairngorms in The Living Mountain. The notebooks of J. A. Baker’s The Peregrine have influenced how he sees the sky and sea. He relates the urgent collection of local words that saved moorland on the Isle of Lewis from incursion by windfarms. While celebrating the influence of John Muir on the appreciation of wilderness, he writes about another naturalist whose realm was “the edgelands” where city and countryside meet.
Sandwiched between each extended commentary are glossaries: hundreds of words from across the country, demonstrating linguistic diversity and describing showers to snow, peaks to ponds. Rain may dibble in Shropshire or be dabbledy in Herefordshire. A dagglet or a tankle is an icicle if you are in Hampshire or Durham. A final glossary is blank, for words yet to be coined or we discover ourselves.
While Macfarlane extols the richness of language conveying landscape’s meaning, he reveals an inherent pessimism. Loss of habitat and encroaching urban sprawl lead to a diminished lexicon. He is saddened by the loss of opportunities for children to engage with the landscape. In consequence, their influence on the development of language is lost, exemplified by one of his children coining a word for that smooth dome of fast-running water passing over a rounded boulder just below the surface: a currentbum. In parallel, he mourns the “culling” of familiar words from the Oxford Junior Dictionary: catkin, cowslip, hazel.
As a celebration of language, as a debate, as a collection of the quaint and curious, does Macfarlane attempt too much?
Paeans of praise to landscape writers that shaped his literary style, and reflect his passion for mountains and northlands, read evocatively. Others lose their emotion, reading like a dissertation, as Macfarlane’s academic background comes to the fore. References to a plethora of lesser known writers add little, unless already familiar to the reader. Comments on the loss of words from a children’s dictionary, combined with his assessment that young people’s “disconnection from nature is greater now than it has ever been,” suggest a polemic that never quite emerges.
Occasionally Macfarlane’s enthusiasm to share his extensive knowledge can overwhelm, yet the book whets the appetite and fascinates. The glossaries, while diminished by a simple alphabetic listing within over-broad headings, are an intriguing cornucopia of words into which the reader can dip. In all, Landmarks shines a light on, and prompts a revisit to, some of Macfarlane’s earlier titles.
Nigel Ward, Ayrshire
Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane
978-0-241-14653-8, Hardback, Hamish Hamilton, 2015
WHAT WE ARE READING: nb86 Alastair Giles