I used to joke that I only write this blog in order to keep my Mum up to date with what I am doing. It turns out to have been largely true, because since my Mum sustained a serious head injury on 1 July I haven’t written a word. But with Mum finally due to leave hospital next week, it is time to revive markontour. This one’s for you Mum (like all the others).
Robert Macfarlane is the nature writer of choice in markontour’s household, and so reading Landmarks, Macfarlane’s linguistic exploration of landscape, has been a deliberately drawn out affair – a book that we have read out loud over several months in order to savour every word.
I did try reading it to my Mum over FaceTime a few weeks ago, but it was a particularly poor choice for someone who is having to re-learn language. Macfarlane revels in using unusual adjectives and nouns as a matter of course. In Landmarks he dials obscurantism up to eleven, with the express purpose of resurrecting almost-lost words of landscape in English, Welsh, Scots and Irish. I had to explain to Mum that it wasn’t that she had forgotten these words, but that we were both hearing them for the first time.
Precise dialect language is important because it helps describe place, but as Macfarlane explains, “language is used not only to navigate but also to charm the land. Words act as a compass. Place-speech seems literally to en-chant the land – to sing it back into being, and to sing one’s being back into it.” So we need to hang on to nearly-lost language in order to better enjoy the world around us.
Landmarks is a book “about the power of language..to shape our sense of place” and is also “a word hoard of the astonishing lexis for landscape that exists in the comprision of islands, rivers, strands, fells, lochs, cities, towns, corries and hedgerows, fields and edgelands uneasily known as the British Isles.”
Thus, through the glossaries that follow each of Landmarks’ chapters we learn variously that “glisk” is a Cumbrian dialect verb meaning “to glitter, shine, sparkle, glisten”; a “haregate” is an opening in a hedge sufficiently large for the passage of a hare, while a “smeuse” is a lesser gap for smaller species; a “moocher” is a potato Herefordshire folk have left in the ground to sprout again; and in the same county “fairy money” is old coins turned up after fields have been newly ploughed.
Landmarks, ploughing a familiar furrow for Macfarlane, is also an introduction to some amazing writing about landscape, and the chapters are organised around the books and authors that have shaped Macfarlane’s appreciation of the great outdoors. Necessarily, therefore, it starts with a book that is referenced in so much of Macfarlane’s own work – Nan Shepherd’s ‘The Living Mountain’, a slim volume about the Cairngorms written in the 1940s, but not published until 1977.
‘The Living Mountain’, Macfarlane explains, is a parochial work of obsession with the Scottish highlands. But it is parochial in the positive sense of that usually pejorative word, for as the Irish poet, Patrick Kavanagh wrote, “All great civilisations are based on parochialism..To know fully even one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience. In the world of poetic experience it is depth that counts, not width.”
Another chapter is devoted to Macfarlane’s former mentor, Roger Deakin, who inspired the re-birth of wild swimming via ‘Waterlogged’, his diary of a swimmer’s journey around Britain. Such was Deakin’s love of water outdoors, “[o]n hot summer days, Roger would snake out twenty metres of water-filled hosepipe onto the ground, leave the pipe to lounge for hours in the sun like a lazy python, then run that solar heated water into the outdoor [claw-footed old iron] bath for an alfresco wallow.”
It’s a lovely image, although having just returned from a bracing, and very brief, dip in the fast-flowing mountain waters of the River Usk, it is not an experiment I am minded to mimic just now.
As Macfarlane works through the various forms of landscape – flatlands, uplands, waterlands – so he focuses on the work of a different author. It makes for a wonderful introduction to great literature. I had never heard of J.A. Baker’s ‘The Peregrine’ before reading Landmarks, although it has now been re-popularised through a beautiful BBC reading by David Attenborough. Macfarlane uses Baker’s observations of peregrine falcons around the Essex coastline to set the scene for his chapter on coastlands.
Baker was an oddball by the standards of any age, but also unusually determined, refusing to be held back from bird-watching by short-sightedness or constant ill-health, and single-mindedly (parochially) focused on a single, extraordinary species of avian hunter – the peregrine falcon. Having spent many hours out in the Welsh hills indulging in amateur ornithology throughout the COVID pandemic, it was Macfarlane’s passage about the bird-watcher’s unusual perspective on landscape that particularly caught my attention:
”What binoculars grant you in focus and reach, they deny you in periphery. To view an object through them is to see it in crisp isolation, encircled by blackness as though at the end of a tunnel. They permit a lucidity of view, but enforce a denial of context, and as such they seemed to me then the perfect emblem of Baker’s own intense and intensely limited vision.”
Most of the books Macfarlane focuses on in Landmarks I have now read, but Jacquetta Hawkes’ ‘A Land’ is still on my to-buy list. Written in 1951, Macfarlane explains that “Hawkes disarmingly refers to the book as a memoir, but if so it is one in which she investigates her past with reference to the whole of planetary history.” It sounds intriguing, and perhaps a good tome for reading out loud to Mum when she is back on her sofa, surrounded by a lifetime of books about life, the universe and everything. I’m looking forward to it already.