Rewilding the Language of Landscape

Dr. Robert MacFarlane is the Director of English Studies at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. He is also a celebrated author whose subjects include nature, the post-pastoral, travel writing, and environmentalism. An article in The Guardian explores his creative project to "rewild the language of landscape." He writes:

"I have long been fascinated by the relations of language and landscape – by the power of strong style and single words to shape our senses of place. And it has become a habit, while travelling in Britain and Ireland, to note down place words as I encounter them: terms for particular aspects of terrain, elements, light and creaturely life, or resonant place names. I’ve scribbled these words in the backs of notebooks, or jotted them down on scraps of paper. Usually, I’ve gleaned them singly from conversations, maps or books. Now and then I’ve hit buried treasure in the form of vernacular word-lists or remarkable people – troves that have held gleaming handfuls of coinages, like the Lewisian “Peat Glossary”.

...Yet it is clear that we increasingly make do with an impoverished language for landscape. A place literacy is leaving us. A language in common, a language of the commons, is declining. Nuance is evaporating from everyday usage, burned off by capital and apathy. The substitutions made in the Oxford Junior Dictionary – the outdoor and the natural being displaced by the indoor and the virtual – are a small but significant symptom of the simulated screen life many of us live. The terrain beyond the city fringe is chiefly understood in terms of large generic units (“field”, “hill”, “valley”, “wood”). It has become a blandscape. We are blasé, in the sense that Georg Simmel used that word in 1903, meaning “indifferent to the distinction between things”.

...Why should this loss matter? You can’t even use crizzle as a Scrabble word: there aren’t two “z”s in the bag (unless, of course, you use a blank). It matters because language deficit leads to attention deficit. As we deplete our ability to denote and figure particular aspects of our places, so our competence for understanding and imagining possible relationships with non-human nature is correspondingly depleted. To quote the American farmer and essayist Wendell Berry – a man who in my experience speaks the crash-tested truth – “people exploit what they have merely concluded to be of value, but they defend what they love, and to defend what we love we need a particularising language, for we love what we particularly know.” Or as Cocker punchily puts it, “If acorn goes from the lexicon, the game is up for nature in England.”

...Landmarks, the book that has arisen from my own years of word work, is a celebration and defence of land language. Its fascination is with the mutual relations of place, word and spirit: how we landmark, and how we are landmarked in turn. Each of the nine glossaries is matched with a chapter exploring the work of those writers who have used words exactly and exactingly when describing specific places. “The hardest thing of all to see is what is really there,” observed JA Baker in The Peregrine (1967), a book that brilliantly shows how such seeing might occur in language, written as it is in prose that has “the quivering intensity of an arrow thudding into a tree”. The terrain about which Baker wrote with such committing force was the coastal Essex of saltings, spinneys, sea walls and mudflats. Compelled by the high gold horizons of this old countryside, even as it was undergoing the assault of big-field farming in the 1950s and 1960s, Baker developed a new style with which to evoke its odd magnificence. His sentences are full of neologisms: the adjectives he torqued into verbs (“The north wind brittled icily in the pleached lattice of the hedgerows”), and the verbs he incites to misbehaviour (“Four short-eared owls soothed out of the gorse”).

...So Landmarks began with the “Peat Glossary”, and it ended with Abdal’s world-spanning magnum opus. In between, I have realised that although place words are being lost, they are also being created. As I travelled I met new terms as well as salvaging old ones: a painter in the Western Isles who used landskein to refer to the braid of blue horizon lines on a hazy day; a five-year-old girl who concocted honeyfur to describe the soft seeds of grasses pinched between fingertips. We have forgotten 10,000 words for our landscapes, but we will make 10,000 more, given time and inclination. This is why Landmarks moves over its course from the peat-deep word-hoard of Hebridean Gaelic, through to the fresh-minted terms and stories of young children at play on the outskirts of a Cambridgeshire town. And this is why I decided to leave blank the final glossary of the book – there to hold the place-words that have yet to be coined."

To read the full Guardian article, click here. For another take on the language of landscape, see Harvard professor John Stilgoe's recent book What Is Landscape?