In a haunting scene in “Through the Looking Glass,” Alice wanders into a woods in which everything has been denuded of its name and, by extension, its identity — the trees, the animals, even Alice herself.
It’s a deeply disorienting notion. How do we know who we are, how we fit into the world, if we become so estranged from ourselves and the things around us that we forget what they are called?
“Landmarks,” a remarkable book on language and landscape by British academic, nature writer and word lover Robert Macfarlane, makes a passionate case for restoring the “literacy of the land,” for recalling and setting down the lexicon of the natural world, at a time when it’s rapidly disappearing. He means to explore the value of reading and writing about nature, he explains, and also to celebrate what he calls “word magic” — terms that can “enchant our relations with nature and place.”
In one breath, he’s referring to the “Herefordshire Pomona,” “the great chronicle of English apple varieties”; in another, he’s comparing “The Peregrine,” John Alec Baker’s rigorous and eccentric bird book, to Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.”
In Exmoor in southwest England we meet Nan Shepherd, author of “The Living Mountain,” about the Cairngorms in Scotland, whose writing focused on “the inter-animating relationship of mind and matter.” Here also is Richard Skelton, expert on the West Pennine Moors in Lancashire, musician, solitary walker, “keeper of lost words” mourner for his wife, Louise, who died in 2004. His book “Landings” rests on the wishful notion, Macfarlane writes, that “if a moor’s memories might somehow be retrieved in full and perfectly preserved, then so might those of a person.”
We meet water lover Roger Deakin, whose Suffolk farmhouse had its own “spring-fed moat” and who chronicled his swim across Britain’s lakes and rivers in his book “Waterlog.” And we’re introduced to many other writers devoted to the notion that animates “Landmarks”: that nature, and how we think about, describe and interact with it, is crucial to living.
For a book so self-effacing and respectful of the words of others, “Landmarks” is wildly ambitious, part outdoor adventure story, part literary criticism, part philosophical disquisition, part linguistic excavation project, part mash note — a celebration of nature, of reading, of writing, of language and of people who love those things as much as the author does. It’s an argument for sitting down with a book; it’s also an argument for going outside and paying attention.
I read “Landmarks,” in part, on the subway in New York, riding to and from work with the heat seething outside and the awful news of the world piercing even the summer torpor. So much of the language being spoken just now is ugly, brutal and divisive. This book feels like an antidote to that, as startling and interesting and fizzy as the word “zugs,” which in Exmoor refers to “little bog islands, about the size of a bucket,” and is one of dozens of unexpected terms compiled in the glossaries that punctuate this book. They read like poetry.
You don’t want to think that such a passionate author is shouting into the wind, so it’s a delight to learn that many people, and not just well-known writers, share his passion for language and land. He’s not the only one determined to rescue lost words. In a tiny corner of Scotland, a man named Finlay MacLeod has compiled a “Peat Glossary” of words used in three local townships — Shawbost, Shader and Bragar — to describe the moor. A group of researchers has done the same thing for North American topography in “Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape.” A scholar in Qatar who contacts Macfarlane is, thrillingly, compiling a “global glossary of landscape words” spanning more than five millenniums and touching on some 140 different languages; so far, it’s pushing 3,500 pages.
Wherever Macfarlane goes, it seems, people present him with wrinkled pieces of paper; or index cards stored in boxes; or lists written and then stashed away, half-forgotten, containing words peculiar to their own landscapes. In a wonderful coda to the book, written after its publication in Britain, in 2015, Macfarlane describes gift-words from readers, the first sent by a 96-year-old Lancashire woman describing a word she had coined 85 years earlier: “lighty-dark,” which refers to “the light occurring at the edge of darkness after a cold clear day.” He has received thousands of such words, official and not, from around the world, which gives his work both a specificity and a universality.
Macfarlane is the author of five previous books, including the wonderful “The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot,” which chronicles his years spent walking along ancient pathways in Britain and beyond. He has won numerous awards in Britain, regularly appears on best-seller lists, and deserves to be much better known abroad. With any luck, “Landmarks” is the book that will help him do that.
For all his love of words, Macfarlane warns us not to fetishize. Some experiences, he writes, “resist articulation.” His book had such a strong effect on me, and it was more visceral than cerebral. Mainly, it made me want to get out of town. “Landmarks” feels as if it should be read near a river, in the mountains, in a meadow or on a moor, the wind riffling through your hair, maybe even a gentle rain falling, and no one for miles except a friend to read the best bits aloud to.
“Landmarks” by Robert Macfarlane; Penguin Books ($18)