Review: Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane

Over the last decade Robert Macfarlane has established himself as one of the UK’s most important writers about travel and the outdoors, through bestseller including Mountains of the Mind, Wild Places and The Old Ways,  I’m reluctant to pigeon hole Robert as a travel writer or his work as travel literature, though it is certainly very literate.

If you like literature and the art of writing this is a book for you. If you prefer your writing to be more simple, most often in the form of a trip report, then maybe this won’t be for you, but here goes.

This book is all about the relationship between literature and the land or more accurately I suppose the natural world and its elements. The environment and the land have inspired some of greatest writers, both of fiction and non fiction. But Macfarlane’s thesis is that the land — as experienced by writers — defines not only style but language itself.  It is this relationship that is central to the book.

Landmarks is broken down into a number of chapters or sections. Each one explores some aspect of the natural world through one (sometimes more) key writers. Macfarlane explains how these books work and why he was so personally inspired by them. His sections are works of literary criticism but as such they give great insights into how these writers experienced their own world and the landscapes they are famous for. Each section is completed by a glossary of words — collected from all over the English speaking world — that relate to the subject in hand.

In short, this is a book for people who are fascinated by language.

There are sections on flatlands, uplands, waterlines, coastlands,underhands, northlands, edge lands (around cities), earthlings and woodlands. The authors featured include some of the greats such as Nan Shepherd (author of the Living Mountain based on her life in the Cairngorms), Roger Deakin (the environmentalist who championed wild swimming (Waterlog) and Wildwoods.

The terrain featured includes the flat bogland of Lewis, the East Anglian broads, the Scottish Highlands, the coast and much more.  The glossaries at the end of each section are fascinating; for example, there are so many unique and descriptive words about bogs and wetland from all over the UK. The words listed are delightful. If this frightens you stop here. If you love the sound of some of the words, then here are some of my favourites:

Ammil — from Devon, ‘the sparkle of the morning sunlight through the hoar-frost’

Blinter — a Scots word meaning a ‘cold dazzle’

Seabhainn — Gaelic, a small pool in the rocky bed of a stream in which salmon get imprisoned

Lattin — Somerset, enough rain to make outdoor work difficult

Dropple — Northamptonshire, a sudden squall with heavy rain

Aggy-jaggers — Kent, a mist that forms along the sea edge

Hit the Grit — Suffolk, to start walking on a road

Rack — Cotswolds, a path made by hares or rabbits

Shepherd’s Lamp — (after John Clare) the first star that rises after sunset

Bishop — Herefordshire, an over-large heap of manure!

 

I could go on forever. The book ends with a meditation about our current relationships with the natural world. All is not well. Macfarlane is concerned that  the disconnection of children from nature is greater now than it has ever been. Apparently, nine out of ten children can identify a Dalek while only three out of ten can identify a Magpie!

This language is important precisely because it is the result of our experience of — and our interaction  with — the land. Macfarlane’s book is not only a fascinating exploration of literature it is a call to arms. This richness of language has not come about by accident. That the language itself is endangered is simply a warning of greater challenges facing us in preserving our landscape and our wild places.

 

Comments

  1. I shall get this book; in fact it will probably be my next. I’m still of the old school paper book between two covers persuasion.

    I read ‘Mountains of the mind’, struggled with the first part but found the second half – dealing with the obsessive nature of mountaineers and their mountains – much more accessible to me. A couple of years later, I re-read it and had exactly the same reaction; then again, he is an emeritus don and I’m from Tipton, so there was always going to be an element of disconnect.

    I loved ‘The Wild Places’ a lot; ‘The old ways’ not quite so much; but I am looking forward to ‘Landmarks’. The more so after your review.

    • Hi Dave!

      Landmarks is a learned book 🙂

      What you will find is that it will connect you with some really superb outdoor writers, some of whom you might not have come across before.

      There’s nothing wrong with Tipton 🙂

  2. “Bishop” (!)

    Various jokes spring to mind but this blog is perhaps not the place;-)

    I’m putting off buying his book until I go and hear his book reading talk (the cost of the ticket is redeemable). I am looking forward to his talk and reading his book. I’m hoping to get Robert to speak with a group locally about our connection with landscapes and the restorative qualities they provide. But we’ll see.

    I really enjoy his writing. I have maybe sensed a slight jealously and resent by other writers, but personally I welcome Roberts obversations on the seemingly innocuous or unnoticed in our landscapes. Roger Deakin had that talent to find beauty in the subtle and relate that with equal subtlety and beauty. Robert carries the torch for me in that he can do the same. “Resonance” is a word often used regarding landscape writers work and MacFarlane’s work is resorant of what we enjoy outside I nature.

    I managed to write this post without gratuitously referring to bishops.

    • I’m glad somebody else appreciated the ‘Bishops’

      If you like the outdoors and you like words, this is a book for you.

      He’s not for everyone Robert. Sometimes even I find his language a bit flowery but I do love his books. There are few people writing like this these days.

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