Robert Macfarlane is one of my very favorite nature writers. He writes in a wonderful, engaging combination of personal essay, cultural history, and nature writing. Whether it’s about our weird relationships with peaks and summits, or the old paths and pilgrims’ ways and shielings that we’ve worn for ourselves for thousands of years, or about the little pieces of true wilderness that still exist in a tiny, populated place like Great Britain, he’s a delight to read: clear, sometimes elegiac but still hopeful, often funny, sharply observant, and tender.
Landmarks is a different sort of book than any of his others that I’ve read. It’s a book about words: the way nature shapes our vocabulary, and reciprocally, the way our words shape what we think and do about nature. His argument is that we have long had, and that we need, a very large and specific body of nature-words, because they reflect our close attention to nature. Close attention, in his view, makes us sympathetic to nature, in the same way that close attention to a friend or family member inclines us to love them better.
Each chapter of Landmarks, then, celebrates a nature author Macfarlane loves, someone who has been truly influential, and someone who really understood what it meant to pay extremely close and sympathetic attention to their particular piece of the landscape. He talks about Nan Shepherd, who wrote about her years-long exploration of the Scottish Cairngorms; J.A. Baker, who wrote a book about peregrines in which he very nearly became one himself; a 19th-century author’s close observation of the scruffy “bastard countryside” around London; John Muir’s Yosemite trees and birds. In each chapter, he writes about how his own eyes were opened, how he learned a new way of seeing because of these authors and their words, how the world was made new with a new way of naming it.
After each chapter on mountain or bird or tree or waterway, there’s a glossary: a list of nature-words, primarily in British dialects (Celtic, Gaelic, Welsh, Scots, Shetland, Suffolk, Kent) but sometimes from other places (poetic, meteorological, official, childish, military, speleological, optics.) It is a tiny taste of the enormous flood of words we’ve made in response to the world. (ammil: the icy cases of leaves and grasses, lit by sunfire. zwer: whizzing noise made by a covey of partridges as they break suddenly from cover. clinkerbell, conkerbell, cockerbell, aquabob, ickle, shockle, shuckle, tankle: icicle.) Each glossary isn’t to be read straight through, like the rest of the book. It’s to be dipped into, tried, savored, saved.
At the end of the book, Macfarlane tells us in an added postscript that after the publication of Landmarks in 2015, he received thousands of words from all over the world: gifts from people who wanted the same living nature-language he did. One woman, aged 96, had been collecting them all her life on index cards; another sent his grandmother’s collection of farmers’ dialect and sayings that she’d made when she was 19. This book rouses that connection in you. You want to start using the words, and more than that, you want to notice what they’re describing, to pay attention to the world. To be in relationship with it.
If this sounds any good, I urge you to read it. Or really, any of his books; they’re all wonderful.