Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks is much-coveted; though newly published, it feels entrenched in the nature-writing canon already. From the exquisite cover and fine end-papers on, it should be owned by all lovers of landscape and language.
Perhaps that is as far as Landmarks can, and should, be categorised. Macfarlane’s prose-poetic text calls for “a decentred eye and a centreless nature”, and shares Les Murray’s joy in being “only interested in everything”.
In a chapter focussed on Roger Deakin’s woodland study (Macfarlane was Deakin’s chosen literary executor), the two writers’ stylistic and subject crossovers are increasingly apparent. Those who reached for mental secateurs, finding Deakin too opulent in his allusive, eccentric writing may have similar twitchings here. I am not among them.
Every chapter is devoted to one aspect of our islands’ geography – flatlands, waterlands, edgelands (“Bastard Countryside”), earthlands and more. Each highlights a writer closely tied to that feature: Nan Shepherd, Jacquetta Hawes, John Muir and other luminaries – writers for whom the membrane between flesh and earth was thin. Several record their need to lie on it, to “earth” themselves.
Each chapter ends with a glittering geode of a glossary. Macfarlane has hoarded a glory of words, from the related technical lexicons of forestry, geology, mountaineering and suchlike to some of the most beautifully descriptive terms from our islands’ languages. In accordance with his own experience, Gaelic, Shetlandic and Scots feature strongly, but all the Celtic tongues and words from Kent, Northamptonshire and elsewhere are here too. For these glossaries alone, any writer would want to possess this book. There are too many riches to mention here fairly, but a skim reveals gems like “boreen – small, seldom-used road, usually with grass growing up the middle Hiberno-English” and ”bishop – over-large heap of manure Hertfordshire. Macfarlane is impish in his surprise at finding such a wealth of words for excrement. Even the specialist vocabulary sparkles – consider mountaineers’ “snow-djinns”.
Alas, whilst I fully accept these lists are “not intended as scholarly to the point of definitive”, there are issues. My mongrel Scots ear could not believe “glaur” local to Galloway; its Ulster-Scots may well have presented there early, but “glaur” messes wellies country-wide. “Yett” is indeed a Shetland gate, but it surely exists in most of Scotland as residents of Yetts o’Muckart in Clackmannanshire will attest. The Dutch borrowing of “polder” is hardly owned by Kent as Seamus Heaney might agree. In all this beauty, it feels churlish to raise this, but it occurs far too frequently to be ignored, often flying in the face of easily-available references in both Scots and English dictionaries. In truth, it rankles.
On a second, minor dissenting note, Macfarlane is perhaps overly-keen to assert that the language of landscape grows directly from its source. Whilst MacCaig’s Aunt Julia’s “seagull voice” delights in that vein, and there are very significant studies of landscape-influenced phonetic variations (notably Everett’s remarkable 2013 work on the effect of altitude), some readers may be resistant to Macfarlane’s autochthonous reasoning. Most readers, I suspect will find a happy path here, but I felt Macfarlane had to do more to prove his point. The Exmoor “ammil” is fabulous indeed, but its etymology follows a Norman French path via the enameller’s art. However, that these words are precious, hold memories and must not be lost is not in dispute.
That is perhaps the essence. We live in a time when “We are literally ‘losing touch’, becoming disembodied, more than in any other historical period”; when the new Oxford Junior Dictionary has removed words “no longer […] relevant to a modern-day childhood”, all the lost being from nature. Blackberry is now just a trademark.
So, it is fitting that Macfarlane’s last chapter is offered to the future in “Childish”, that glossary left blank for our jottings. This is a wonder of a working book, “a fabulous sensorium and the intellect’s auxiliary”. Buy it.