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Words The Wind Blew In

John Feehan

Landmarks, by Robert Macfarlane, Hamish Hamilton, 387 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-0241146538

Landmarks sets out to be an exploration into “the mutual relations of place, language and spirit”, and although it lacks something of the fluid lyricism and narrative flow of its masterly predecessor, The Old Ways, the language at its best dazzles and mesmerises, at times recapturing the limpidity of The Old Ways (for example, when Macfarlane describes a return visit to the Cairgorms ten years after he first read Nan Shepherd’s famous book on the area.

Toponomy aside, each of the chapters is a tribute to a figure who has been a major influence on his writing: in Chapter 2 it is Finlay MacLeod and Lewis, Nan Shepherd and the Cairngorms in Chapter 3, Roger Deakin and his wetlands in Chapter 4. These accounts are often riveting, but more in the nature of personal memoir. Nan Shepherd in particular is a deep influence on him, and he quotes in extenso from her book on the Cairngorms (which he has read at least ten times), snatches of which often carry echoes of his own prose. Opponents of windfarm developments will doubtless enjoy the account of how the “re-enchantment” of the moorland landscape of Lewis saved it from the gargantuan windfarm development proposed in 2006.

Chapter 5 is a memorable portrait of JA Baker, author of The Peregrine, providing an account of the difficult personal circumstances under which that masterpiece was written. But equally it is a meticulous analysis of Baker’s style, and this helps us to see the extent of its influence on Macfarlane’s work. He admits as much, telling us that the opening sentences of The Wild Places “knowingly invoke the opening sentences of The Peregrine; Baker is present through the whole work, his style stooped into its prose.”

In Chapter 6 we meet Richard Skelton, “a musician, a glossarian, an archivist. Landscape, language and loss are the three great subjects of  his work.” There is a fascinating analysis of Skelton’s strange music which makes me want to hear it: “echoic, repetitive, faded and fading; a minimalist sound-palette; shades of Arvo Part or Brian Eno – emerged, itself ghosted by missing partner-pieces: all those compositions that had been played to no audience but air and the moor grass.” Skelton also wrote a book to accompany his recordings (Landings), and this too has influenced Macfarlane; “Both sound and text are devoted to a kind of echo-location used to measure the relation of distant entities.”

“North-Minded” (Chapter 7) addresses northern influences. Inevitably then, there is Barry Lopez, whose wonderful Arctic Dreams “changed the course of my life”, and again, this chapter is primarily an analysis of Lopez’s style. The second half of the chapter is devoted to the style of Peter Davidson, whose “lyricism [is] as delicate in its structures as an ash fall” and whose sentences “devote themselves to the record of volatile subjects – textures of weather, tones of colour, a fall of light, “which dies even as the hand attempts to catch its likeness” – but they do so in foreknowledge of the failure of their task”. But there is rather too much of this analysis of the style of others, peppered with brief quotations.

Chapter 8 deals with the “edgelands” between city and countryside, and although this centres on Macfarlane’s own experience, it is set against a loose framework of reference to those who have influenced him; Richard Jefferies is the central influence in this chapter. His own experience is of the edgeland of his Cambridge home, which, he tells us, it took time for him to acquire the kind of literacy that enabled him to come to terms with it, in the process discovering how much there is to be seen in the everyday landscape – “hidden in plain view” – once we have learned (as he did in the slower company of his children) “to [alter] my focal length and [adjust] my depth of field”. I am reminded of a wonderful line in a Chinese poem quoted by Caspar Henderson in his Book of Barely Imagined Beings: “the true measure of a mountain’s greatness is not its height but whether it is charming enough to attract dragons”. He contrasts the edgelands of today’s cities with the biodiversity of the London edgelands so lyrically described by Jefferies, and adds his own note of lament for the dimming of the rainbow of living diversity in the countryside at large, but nowhere as much as in the expanding halo of the urban fringe.

Chapter 9 is an extended tribute to Jacquetta Hawkes’s A Land that will help find for that masterpiece a new generation of admirers. (Indeed, the reception awarded The Old Ways was not dissimilar to that which greeted A Land when it first appeared in 1951.) Chapter 10 is the inevitable tribute to John Muir, again mainly an analysis of style with abundant quotation, and with a sprinkling of biographical detail.

The final chapter is an exploration of how children relate to landscape, living in a world of their own, speaking that other-world language we call Childish, in which the question of whether a story is true or false never arises. This expands into a discussion about the disconnect between modern childhood and the natural world (quoting a 2012 “Natural Childhood” study which reported that between 1970 and 2010 the area in which British children were permitted to play unsupervised shrank by 90 per cent).

The book concludes with a postscript that tells of a scholar of languages whose life’s work has been the compiling of human landscape language in its entirety, across the globe and down all the centuries (still a work in progress, running so far to three thousand five hundred pages and fifty thousand entries). It would have been a fitting ending if he had woven into this some reference to the fabulous enterprise of the geographers in Lewis Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno Concluded, who made the ultimate map of their country on a scale of a mile to the mile; but since farmers objected that it would shut out the sunlight they decided to use the country itself as its own map, and found it did nearly as well.

Early on in the book he writes of “the power that certain terms possess to enchant our relations with nature and place”. That power comes from contact and exposure to the experienced reality of the natural world. If contemporary discourse increasingly lacks this, it is because that contact is no longer there. I am still dizzy from his list of the kind of words the latest edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary considers to be “no longer relevant to a modern-day childhood” and tempted to take its editors to task, but I quickly realise it does no more than reflect the reality of where we are. However, I am less confident than Macfarlane that although “we have forgotten 10,000 words from our landscapes, we will make 10,000 more, given time”. I have had to buy my own copy of the Oxford Junior Dictionary to convince myself that acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture and willow have all been dropped, to make room for attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player and voicemail.

I was tempted on occasion to draw attention to a rich literature on Irish and Anglo-Irish placenames from which Macfarlane might have drawn with rich profit, but remembered his disclaimer that the rich “Glossaries of Landscape” that follow most chapters are “not intended as closed archives but glorious gallimaufries, relishing the awesome range and vigour of place-languages in this archipelago, and the tease of their words on the tongue”. These glossaries are intended to contribute to a “phrasebook”, but Macfarlane is somewhat vague as to how these might be used, in spite of what purport to be guidelines on pages 32 to 35 and at the end of the book. Although we are led to expect some discourse on Irish placenames, there really is none, which is a pity for many reasons, one being that it would have been fascinating to read a chapter on the dinnseanchas. On the other hand, it leaves the door of that possibility open to the future. Gaelic names are very much to the fore, but they are mostly Scots Gadhlic.

However, the Irish experience echoes only too familiarly his lament for the loss of the extraordinary language of place of our Outer Hebrides cousins. “Gaelic itself is in danger of withering on the tongue.” He quotes Tim Robinson as saying that with each generation in the west of Ireland “some of the place-names are forgotten or becoming incomprehensible”. Not that it has to be the west. It is happening all over Ireland: and everywhere else in the developed world. “What is happening in Gaelic is, broadly, occurring in English too – and in scores of other languages and dialects.” These rich lexicographical hoards, minted in the sweat of contact with the earth, are slipping away as “progress” and development reduce that contact, and the colour of the language itself fades in parallel.

The “particularity” which is constantly referred to as a characteristic of placenames, does not necessarily – or perhaps even usually – reside in the word as such but in what the speaker brings to it from his intimacy with the particular place: or draws from it, using the bare word as a hook. “Specialised ways of indicating aspects of place” needs comment. Toponomy is indeed often rich in itself, but just as often it is commonplace, even mundane, relying on personal and communal familiarity to set it alight. I am reminded somewhat of Linnaeus, at the centre of the taxonomic world of his day, naming the endless forms of life being sent to him from acolytes dispersed all over the world. MacFarlane is a sort of Linnaeus of language.

I have had such pleasure meeting them, these words: migrant birds, arriving from distant places with story and metaphor caught in their feathers; or strangers coming into the home, stamping the snow off their feet, fresh from the blizzard and a long journey.

In a way the book is a bit of a wunderkammer of words, memories and influences, a logistic efflorescence of the kind of wunderkammer his grandparents constructed in their Cairngorms home, “a wall-mounted cabinet, the white-wood compartments of which held a pine cone, a rupee, cowries, a dried shepherd’s purse, a geographic cone-snail shell with its map-like patterns, and polished pebbles of chalcedony and onyx”.

01/06/2015

John Feehan, formerly senior lecturer at UCD’s School of Agriculture and Food Science, is well known for his award-winning television work on the natural and cultural heritage of the Irish landscape, for which he received a Jacobs Award. His many books include the definitive textbook on Ireland’s peatlands, the widely acclaimed Farming in Ireland: History, Heritage and Environment, The Wildflowers of Offaly and (with colleagues in UCD) a popular book on Ireland’s grasslands.

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