12 October, 2015Issue 29.1

Email This Article Print This Article

Re-Enchanting Nature

Emily Anderson

rbf 2

Robert Macfarlane
Penguin Books, 2015
£20 (hardback)
387 pages
ISBN: 9780241146538.




The phrase ‘nature writing’ can today hint of pretentiousness. Using it risks conjuring up images of city-dwellers strolling through farmland whilst reciting poorly-remembered Wordsworth. Or, perhaps worse, it seems reminiscent of school assignments—”write about the scene in a country village”—composed in hot classrooms remote from any trees or natural landscapes. Ironically for a literary descriptor for books and poems about rocks, lakes, mountains, fields, and valleys, it feels un-grounded, wet, lacking in grit, wishy-washy.

Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks utterly destroys any such perceptions of nature writing. As his punning title suggests, his book is a study of close connections—two-way, enduring connections—between landscapes and language. It demonstrates how our natural surroundings have influenced profoundly and have marked, our languages, dialects, and idiolects: “Old English, Anglo-Romani, Cornish, Welsh, Irish, Gaelic […] Shetlandic and Doric dialects of Scots, […]regional versions of English […] living Norman still spoken in the Channel Islands.” It also shows how, in return, the ways in which we discuss and write about the countryside of the British Isles—the marks on the page that constitute “nature writing”—mark us, our perceptions of that countryside and consequently the decisions we make about its future.

Landmarks is dedicated to different writers and environments: Roger Deakin, John Muir, John Alec Baker, Nan Shepherd, Jacquetta Hawkes, Richard Skelton, Autumn Richardson, Peter Davidson, Barry Lopez, and Richard Jefferies; and flatlands, uplands, waterlands, coastlands, underlands, northlands, edgelands, earthlands, and woodlands. Each chapter contains personal as well as scholarly reflections on the writers and their works. Macfarlane offers literary, biographical, and autobiographical insights, showing not only the power of how his beloved authors write, but also how he has met them textually, and occasionally personally, in his own writing and life respectively. Punctuating Landmarks are several glossaries of terms for describing natural phenomena, which Macfarlane has gathered from archives, letters, emails, maps, and recordings. Many are astonishingly precise, such as clint, a “hard, bare surface of limestone showing at ground level,” and fizmer, a “rustling noise produced in grass by petty agitations of the wind.”

The combination of literary discussion, anecdote, and countryside lexicon align with Macfarlane’s aims. To demonstrate “the power of language – strong style, single words – to shape our sense of place”; to offer “a field guide to literature [he] love[s]” and which gave him a “pupillage”; to provide a “word-hoard” that will help to “invigorate our contemporary language for landscape”; and to promote a secure future for our natural landscapes. In laying out his agenda, Macfarlane adds a manifesto quality to his work, a sense of urgent appeal for his audience to understand the importance of marking nature in word and in thought.

The importance of such marking is made clear early in the book in Macfarlane’s report of the battle over the Isle of Lewis’ Brindled Moor in 2004. The moor was threatened with the construction of what would have Europe’s largest wind farm, but was saved in part by islanders collecting and presenting accounts of it—”narrative, lexical, poetic, painterly, photographic, historical, cartographical.” AMEC, the company making the proposal for the wind farm, as well as those in favour of the building work characterized the moor as an empty, barren wasteland, as a hostile wilderness that could be made more useful. By gathering their stories, poetry, art, and maps, the islanders exposed the falsehood of this conception. Far from being a blank, their moor was a space alive with flora and fauna, peopled with the invisible tracks and stories of locals, ramblers, and nature-lovers.

Borrowing his friend Finlay MacLeod’s phrase, Macfarlane calls for a “Counter-Desecration Phrasebook that would comprehend the world,” an expanded version of the project that helped to save the Brindled Moor. There is an unapologetically moral strand to this call: Macfarlane wants to “encourage responsible place-making.” The combination of reasoned example (including that of Lewis’ moor) and evident passion with which he makes the case for such a responsible approach to natural spaces is irresistible. “We find it hard,” he writes “to imagine nature outside a use-value framework.” Our reliance on such a framework seems obvious, and important to overcome, once described so simply.

Landmarks is also full of more personal examples of how nature writing and its language shapes our interactions with our surroundings. Macfarlane describes how reading Roger Deakin’s Waterlog (1999), an account of adventures swimming in rivers and lakes around Britain, influenced his own approach to water. Open water “became a realm to be entered and explored” rather than an obstacle; Britain became “newly permeable.” Discussing Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain (1977), similarly, Macfarlane details how the work offers an alternative perspective on mountain climbing. Unlike the majority of mountaineering literature, Shepherd does not take reaching the summit as the only standard by which to judge the success of an expedition. Instead, she tells how it is possible to wander on mountains without having a pinnacle in mind, enjoying the plateau as well as the peak. As Macfarlane beautifully puts it, “to aim for the highest point is not the only way to climb a mountain, nor is a narrative of siege and assault the only way to write about one.”

What emerges from Landmarks is a sense of reciprocity between nature and language. Macfarlane could not be more compelling in his demonstrations of how nature has enriched our language and literature. Nor could he be more convincing in his claims that sensitivity to the ways in which we describe nature deepens our experience of it.

Present too, however, is a feeling of continuity between writers and readers. This often develops from passages in which Macfarlane describes his friendships with the authors whose works he loves. He tells us of his close relationship with Deakin, which continued after the writer’s death not only through memory and re-readings, but through Macfarlane’s role as Deakin’s literary executor. He explored the dauntingly large number of “notebooks, letters, manuscripts, folders, box-files, cassettes, videotapes and journals” that Deakin left behind. Amongst these were letters from Macfarlane himself, one of which disclosed a forgotten germ of inspiration for Holloway (2013), a volume Macfarlane composed alongside Stanley Donwood and Dan Richards. Resembling the interweaving between language and nature, author and reader, Deakin’s literary influence and friendship flow together. As Macfarlane says, “Green Man-like, he appears in unexpected places, speaking in leaves.”

The community of nature readers, writers, and friends presented in Landmarks is inviting. One wants to enter both the natural worlds of which it offers glimpses and the group (or ecosystem) of authors it presents. Reading Landmarks reminded me of a brief period that I spent as his student whilst studying for my BA. At the time, to my shame, I was almost ignorant of his published work and he was (rightly) unimpressed by my academic efforts. I missed an opportunity to cultivate my understanding of nature writing and the enthusiasts who produce and consume it. So welcoming is Landmarks, however, that I feel closer to the world of nature writers having read the book than ever I did when drinking mint tea in Macfarlane’s office. Therein lies the power of language to open up the possibilities of nature, its literature and its followers.

One further personal response: Landmarks prompted me to re-engage with my locality. Poring over its glossaries, I found myself searching in particular for lexis from my home, Yorkshire, and from the adopted home I have most identified with, Cambridge. I delighted in the inclusion of words so familiar to me that they are almost mundane (tarn, a “mountain pool or small upland lake”), the remembering of uncannily familiar words, perhaps used by an older relative and then forgotten (scimaunder, “to wander about, take a devious or winding course”), and the discovery of words entirely new to me (glocken, “to start to thaw, compare the Icelandic glöggur, ‘to make or become clear’”). Specific things happen in specific landscapes—where but in East Anglia is one more likely to find roke, a “fog that rises in the evenings off marshes and water meadows”? To recognize the gaps in one’s own vocabulary, and the power of books like Landmarks to fill those gaps, is to realize the greatness of such specificity.

It is in fact only when one starts to write about nature that one realizes how great is the need for apposite, varied vocabulary for describing it. Whilst writing this review, I have repeatedly been reaching for lexis with which to label the spaces Macfarlane deals with—reaching without finding. Re-readings of Landmarks, particularly its glossaries, are delightful ways to address the deficit: there will be a delight in perusing and committing to memory at least some of the terms Macfarlane provides. The final glossary in Landmarks is left blank “for you to fill in […] to hold the place-words that have yet to be coined”—another welcome invitation to join the community of nature writers the book celebrates.

Above all, Landmarks prompts readers to recollect a child-like fascination with all that natural landscapes hold. Macfarlane even reclaims the term “childish,” using it to denote not foolishness but a fresh, vibrant language for describing nature, a language that is “subtle in its intricacies and rich in its metaphors” and that stems from acute sensitivity to the environment. Re-learning childish contributes to “re-wonderment,” a process that counters the “disenchantment” of modernity—the belief that calculated understanding can sweep aside all mystery. Re-wonderment comes from developing a language that shows what nature “can do for us.”

The enchantment with nature that Macfarlane encourages is an awareness and love of particularity. It is an enchantment akin to the sensation that comes from pausing on a train journey, and noticing the different grasses and flowers growing on the verge outside the window, the verge that was previously a blur. A general impression of green and open space is replaced with a vision of particular colours and textures, of tiny enticing details, of a different world.

Or, to become enchanted with nature, if I may borrow from Wordsworth’s explanation of his poetry, is “to give the charm of novelty to things of every day and to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural, by awakening the mind’s attention to the lethargy of custom, and direct it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us.”

Emily Anderson has recently published her MSc research into Scottish celebrations of the 1916 Shakespeare tercentenary in the journal Shakespeare. She began a PhD at Newcastle University in Autumn 2015 on humour in First World War writing.