The glossarian as moralist – review of Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane


Landmarks, Robert Macfarlane, London: Hamish Hamilton, 2015, 387pps, hb, £20

Robert Macfarlane is one of the most lionized of contemporary British writers, somehow combining a Cambridge career with producing a celebrated sequence of unusually literate explorations of landscape. First was 2003’s Mountains of the Mind, about Occidental attitudes towards high places – followed by 2007’s The Wild Places, in which the author toured representative relict British landscapes, and 2012’s The Old Ways, in which he walked ancient paths in several countries. To add to this already impressive collection along comes Landmarks, the goal of which is to help re-invest the landscape with meaning by assembling a “word-hoard” of descriptive terms at imminent risk of disappearance. It is his fervent hope that the modest act of recording these unique words will help us re-appreciate places and phenomena we too often take for granted. He reminds us,

Intense attentiveness is a form of moral gaze…if we attend more closely to something then we are less likely to act selfishly towards it

These descriptive terms are for the most part highly specific, but he also cites the barbarized 2007 edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary, which culled many presently common words on the grounds that they are irrelevant to modern children. These include everyday words which may in consequence become rare, like acorn, adder, heather, heron, otter and pasture, excised in favour of celebrity, cut-and-paste and MP3. This is admittedly an extreme (if especially ominous) example. More typical than such brutal acts of amputation is simple omission, as capital, urbanization and homogenization poke into every last corner of the countryside and old observers-users die out, their idioms largely unrecorded, their intimate topographies slurring into undifferentiated spaces. The author is fighting a war of the world-words against a blind behemoth – standing athwart “the torrent of daily forgetting – the black noise that pours always over the world’s edge”.

Macfarlane loves words for themselves, but this is no idle exercise – because “language deficit leads to attention deficit”. In other words, the less differentiated and distinctive a landscape seems the less we will care for it. By losing words for places, we are weakening our ability to understand and defend them. Even career Greens can be guilty of what the author calls “instrumentalizing nature” – viewing it as dull “standing resource” rather than numinous source of wonder. Our ignorance and inarticulacy weaken and impoverish our countryside – and thereby our culture and national character. The author coins the sad but useful word “blandscape” to betoken the steady evaporation of memory and meaning from so many once special places. But then to really comprehend a place is a vast commitment – Macfarlane cites the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh,

To know fully even one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience

As the cliché so often reminds us, Eskimos “have fifty words for snow”. But so too do (or did) the British – and for every kind of weather, every lump or lesion in their local landscapes, every combination of vegetation, and every indigenous creature that lives in these. So once did everyone who ever lived in close proximity to nature, dependent on it for sustenance and in rare leisure moments taking interest and pleasure in it for its own sake. The terms gathered in Landmarks, cumulatively impressive as they are, are just a morsel of what might have been gathered, and could still be gathered if only there were more Robert Macfarlanes peregrinating interestedly around the shires, notebooks (or MP3s) in hand.

These terms are not all old, and some are still in fairly common usage (e.g. speleological). Other terms are always being invented, or entering from other languages. But the most piquant of these colloquialisms are those anchored in hard old necessities – Geordie coalminers used to speak precise “Pitmatical”, Atlantic trawlermen yarned in “coddish”, and eastern English farmers needed to know the difference between a skradge (a small bank raised on an older one to prevent flooding) and a smeeth (level space). They are often earthy – one name for the kestrel was wind-fucker – or perhaps one should say peaty, because one of the sources for this book was a Peat Glossary compiled as a “counter-desecration phrasebook” by lateral-thinking Hebrideans fighting off a wind-power station proposed for Lewis.

Other terms are closely observant, like fox-fire, a Lincolnshire term denoting phosphorescence emitted by decaying timber – or calmly accepting, like mole-country, a Suffolk synonym for graveyard. There are hints of ancient annoyances in mall (Welsh for bad or quaggy land) and flinchin (Scots for a deceitful promise of better weather). There are reminders of former dark imaginings in gallitrop (a fairy ring in the West Country) and the Old English wæter-egesa (water-terror). One can imagine trying to avoid an aigrish (sharp, cutting) Essex wind, or being frightened by the swelk of a Pentland Firth whirlpool. But there is also sheer exuberance in words like flinks (to wander like a frolicsome Shetland girl) and zwer (an onomatopoeiac Exmoor term referring to the noise made by a covey of partridges as they take flight).

Each landscape-specific chapter (Flatlands, Coastlands, etc.) ends with a glossary, the last democratically left blank for our own overhearings or inventions. But the book is only democratic up to a point – one suspects that few landworkers will read Landmarks, let alone add to it, and that if they did read it they would find it rather precious. But then the book is aimed at a wistfully-inclined middle-class audience, of the kind that formulates culture and ultimately policy. As did Diderot, the author understands the transformative power of accumulating, selecting and disseminating knowledge.

Landmarks is wonderfully littered with writers ranging from Aristotle via The Kalevala, William Cobbett and Gerald Manley Hopkins to John Muir, saviour of so much of the American West, although he was “disturbingly unwilling” to include Amerindians in his vision of wilderness – and A Land author Jacquetta Hawkes, even if the author finds her ethnic asides “queasy-making”. More modern inspirations include Cairngorm chorographer Nan Shepherd, wild swimmer Roger Deakin, and J. A. Baker whose fierce love for the peregrine falcons of the Essex coast in some way compensated for his own cramped and pinioned life. Maybe occasionally at the outset there are too many writers cited, interrupting the flow with short quotations that could have been at least as well-expressed by the author. But even these signpost new readings, and demonstrate hearteningly that Macfarlane is part of a larger movement, and one that extends beyond Britain. He also takes care to marry insular idiosyncrasies to universal principles. (A happy term in this regard is the Northamptonshire expression for highly localized rain, which is said to fall in “planets”.)

In a slightly fantastical Postscript, Macfarlane records receiving a letter as he was finishing Landmarks from a (never named) Qatar-based folklorist-philologist, who has for fifteen years been compiling a global glossary of landscape words, an astoundingly ambitious task which eerily echoes the author’s fantasy of a landscape lexicon so unlimited it could almost constitute a library. At such a level of detail, the mundane suddenly becomes magical realist, the humdrum huge, and he and we are awed to see how apparently simple namings of apparently simple things add up to something that is both unexpected and enchanted.

This review was first published at, and is reproduced with permission





Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.