Landmarks: how to get up close and personal with nature

I’ve just finished reading Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane, and it’s a must-read for anyone interested in sustainability and language. Each chapter focuses on one or two authors who’ve made deep impressions on Macfarlane through their writing about the natural world – including Nan Shepherd’s deep explorations of the Cairngorms, Roger Deakin’s explorations of wild swimming, and JA Baker’s obsessive documenting of the life of peregrines.

Underlying all this is a search for the language and words that can evoke specific places and features of nature. Scattered across the book are rare lexical gems, lists of unusual and particular words for natural phenomena.

These themed glossaries of enduring (and endangered or vanishing) words, accompanying each chapter, show the rich variety of terms from around Britain and Ireland, coined to address a need in a particular place and time:

Letty: enough rain to make outdoor work difficult

Rodham: a raised bank or ridge of silt in the Fens, formerly the bed and sides of a river or tidal creek

Flinchin: a deceitful promise of better weather

Zwer: the noise made by a covey of partridges rising in flight

But Macfarlane also reflects on how nature is known. One of the features is ‘precision’: not to be achieved through scientific analysis, but through close and long-term experience of the landscape and the details within it. Precision, in this sense, also relates to the distinct and appropriate vocabularies formed by communities over generations in relation to the world around them – like the ‘Pitmatical’ language spoken by Geordie coalminers.

He also speculates on whether a new dictionary is needed for the ‘Anthropocene’ – one that documents the changes and increasing harms occuring to animals, plants and oceans through the actions of human beings.

Another feature is the place of the observer within the landscape. With close examination, a writer is able to focus and reflect on minute details within it. But with this focus comes the extraordinary gift of a radical change of perspective. In The Living Mountain, Nan Shepherd writes:

“Lay the head down, or better still, face away from what you look at, and bend with straddled legs till you see your world upside down. How new it has become! From the close-by sprigs of heather to the most distant fold of the land, each detail stands erect in its own validity….

Details are no longer part of a grouping in a picture in which I am the focal point, the focal point is everywhere. Nothing has reference to me, the looker. This is how the earth must see itself.”

Shepherd also writes about “the knowledge that is a process of living”. Experiencing and living with, and in, the mountains yields knowledge about them that cannot easily be captured or codified. Is it any less valuable for that?

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