Lead book review

Fizmer, feetings, flosh, blinter - enjoy these words and forget them immediately, advises Adam Nicolson

In a review of Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane Adam Nicolson reminds us that the most poetic descriptions of nature were once the everyday speech of ordinary countrymen

28 February 2015

9:00 AM

28 February 2015

9:00 AM

Landmarks Robert Macfarlane

Hamish Hamilton, pp.388, £20, ISBN: 9780241146538

Uncommon Ground: A Word-lover’s Guide to the British Landscape Dominick Tyler

Guardian Books/Faber, pp.247, £16.99, ISBN: 9781783350483

Wolfsnow is a dangerous blizzard at sea; slogger the sucking sound made by waves against a ship’s sides; ammil the sparkle of morning sunlight through hoar-frost; af’rug the reflection of a wave after it has struck the shore; blinter is a cold dazzle; sutering the cranky action of a rising heron; èit, a Gaelic word, is a piece of quartz placed in a moorland stream so that it glimmers in the moonlight and in that way attracts salmon in late summer and autumn; summer geese is steam that rises from the moor when rain is followed by hot sunshine; fizmer the noise of wind rustling in long grass; may-blobs are kingcups; zwer is the whizzing of partridges as they break cover; feetings are footprints of creatures as they appear in the snow; twindle is stream foam; an after-drop is the rain drop which falls after the cloud that produced it has passed; a cockle is a ripple on water caused by the wind; a keld a deep smooth still part of a river; a flood is a land shut; a glaise a rivulet; the slack water at a bend where there is a pause in the current is a lum; where on a weir the water tips over the level into the curved form held in the air by its own momentum and its sudden falling, that is a sill; a flosh is a stagnant pool overgrown with reeds; a pudge or a swidge is a little puddle, the mardle, slightly bigger, a pond big enough for cows to drink in; the maril’d is the sparkling luminous substance seen in the sea on autumn nights, and on fish in the dark; hummaruz is a noise in the air you can’t identify, or a sound in the landscape whose source cannot be traced; owl-light is the non-light when the owls first call; the bright borough that part of the sky filled with stars.

We should learn the words from Robert Macfarlane’s astonishing and revelatory Landmarks, not so that we can produce them at opportune show-off moments (they are, for all their redemption here, essentially unusable; no one wants to walk around in ruff and doublet pulling out plums) but so that we can understand again something of the finesse with which people in the past have been able to encounter the natural world.

A small valley or hollow, usually wooded, known as a ‘dell’ (unchanged from Old English) or ‘dingle’.
A small valley or hollow, usually wooded, known as a ‘dell’ (unchanged from Old English) or ‘dingle’.

The deeply valuable thing that Macfarlane has done is not gathering these 2,000-odd words but showing that the scale on which we can meet places and landscapes does not need to be coarse or clumsy or impositional. Many of the words in the nine glossaries that punctuate his book are drawn from poetry (Gerard Manley Hopkins is subtly pervasive throughout) but most were formed in the mouths of ordinary, almost certainly illiterate people, whose understanding of ‘nature’ was not something you headed out to on a Saturday morning with your mountain bike but was the matrix of all meaning, every day, all life long. Familiarity breeds understanding and that is what these words are the measure of. Fineness, subtlety and perceptiveness do not belong exclusively to the poets; they are our common inheritance. But we scarcely know it.

Macfarlane has over many years been gathering and hoarding these verbal touchstones, instinctively recognising that they are a way of reanimating our connections with the natural world. In some places, this remaking of a forgotten vocabulary is not needed. In the ethnically Hungarian valleys of Transylvania, where despite all the turmoil and uprootings of the 20th century something of the traditional life has survived, anyone over 20 years old can still on average recognise and name more than 200 species of plants.

Only nature nerds in this country can get even halfway to that number and Macfarlane not only mourns the loss. He wants to make a dam against it, pointing out that the current is still flowing in the wrong direction. He lists the deletions in the new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary:

acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture and willow.

The editors thought that children simply didn’t need these words nowadays. Some of the more necessary words replacing them were attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player and voicemail. ‘For blackberry,’ as Macfarlane says, ‘read BlackBerry… the simulated life.’

At the same time, he approaches his target from the other direction, interleaving with the glossaries ten brief critical biographies of writers on nature and landscape that he has loved and admired. Almost always, he singles them out for their precision, as ‘particularisers’, for — Robert Lowell’s phrase — ‘the grace of accuracy’ with which they examine and record the world around them, not only in a hard-edged, material way, but in their ability to sense the half-forgotten undermeanings which lurk in long-treasured places, the great Coleridgean subject of the inter-animating relationship of mind and matter.

From John Muir and Richard Jefferies in the late 19th century, he moves through heroes familiar to readers of his other books and introductions: the prose-poet of the Cairngorms, Nan Shepherd, J.A. Baker, the pursuer of the peregrine, Roger Deakin, Jacquetta Hawkes and Barry Lopez, before coming to the modern word-hoarders and gatherers, the northern walker and poet Peter Davidson, Finlay Macleod of Shawbost on the great moor of Lewis, and Richard Skelton, the composer and poet who has made the Lancashire parish of Anglezarke his province and echo-chamber.

If possible, you should read Landmarks alongside a book by the photographer Dominick Tyler, who is a friend of Macfarlane’s. Uncommon Ground: A Word-lover’s Guide to the British Landscape (published 19 March) covers something of the same territory but with lovely, unflashy, tender photographs of Tyler’s chosen meanders and dingles, like a lexi-holiday in lovely spots.

‘Scholars, I plead with you,’ the Assynt poet Norman MacCaig once asked, ‘Where are your dictionaries of the wind, the grasses?’ Tyler and Macfarlane have provided the answer: they are here. But there is an interesting tension at the heart of Macfarlane’s book in particular. His chosen writers are on the whole obsessive, marginal, cultivatedly strange, going out into nature in search of the marvellous and extraordinary. But the mind that shaped the words in the glossaries is almost precisely the opposite of that. People for whom the edge of a peat bog is ‘a rind’, as if the earth were a cheese, or who liked to give miry, soft ground the same name as porridge, are shaping their language’s vision on practical, immediate, shared and communal concerns. Their words are acute descriptions of the ordinary.

The writers are different from that, each clamouring in their own way after a connection to a country which for the anonymous people who made the language in the first place was only an everyday necessity. The seeing of slight or transient or marginal things, which may now seem to belong to the poet or the littérateur, was, for people exposed to the daily ripple and shimmer of light and land, part of their view of how things were. They named the land with an idea of its usefulness and its reality, its responsiveness and detail, not with a sense of its mystery — or at least with such a relaxed and habituated sense of that mystery that it became part of their normality. Seen like that, the modern writers tend to look more like the biographers of loss.

‘The sound of all this moving water is as integral to the mountain as pollen to the flower’, Nan Shepherd wrote of the burns in the Cairngorms. Not a word of that beautiful sentence is better or cleverer than any other and if she had used a special word for the sound of moving water the sentence would have been diminished and distorted. So what does that tell you? Please read Landscapes, encounter its wonderful words, let them open your mind, then forget every one of them and start looking at the world in the dazzlingly receptive way they have taught you.

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