Nature as literature

Nature writer Robert Macfarlane makes a passionate case for recalling and setting down the lexicon of the natural world in Landmarks

In a haunting scene in Through The Looking Glass (1871), Alice wanders into a wood in which everything has been denuded of its name and, by extension, its identity - the trees, the animals, even Alice herself.

It is a deeply disorienting notion. How do we know who we are, how we fit into the world, if we become so estranged from ourselves and the things around us that we forget what they are called?

Landmarks (2015), a remarkable book on language and landscape by British academic, nature writer and word lover Robert Macfarlane, makes a passionate case for restoring the "literacy of the land", for recalling and setting down the lexicon of the natural world, at a time when it is rapidly disappearing.

He means to explore the value of reading and writing about nature, he says, and also to celebrate what he calls "word magic" - terms that can "enchant our relations with nature and place".

He embarks on this ambitious task by taking us to the farthest reaches of the British countryside, exploring it with (or in the footsteps of) some of the nature writers he most admires. He picks writers who "use words exactly and exactingly" and that is what he does too.

He is an erudite, lyrical, enthusiastic and well-read guide.

Landmarks (above) by Robert Macfarlane (left) takes readers to the farthest reaches of the British countryside.
Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane.

In one breath, he is referring to the Herefordshire Pomona, "the great chronicle of English apple varieties"; in another, he is comparing The Peregrine (1967), John Alec Baker's rigorous and eccentric bird book, with Beckett's Waiting For Godot; in a third, he is noting that in Exmoor, in south-west England, the word "zwer" refers to the "whizzing noise made by a covey of partridges as they break suddenly from cover".

We meet water lover Roger Deakin, whose Suffolk farmhouse had its own "spring-fed moat" and who chronicled his swim across Britain's lakes and rivers in his book Waterlog (1999). And we are introduced to many other writers devoted to the notion that animates Landmarks: that nature, and how we think about, describe and interact with it, is crucial to living.

For a book so self-effacing and respectful of the words of others, Landmarks is wildly ambitious, part outdoor adventure story, part literary criticism, part philosophical disquisition, part linguistic excavation project, part mash note - a celebration of nature, of reading, of writing, of language and of people who love those things as much as the author does.

It is an argument for sitting down with a book. It is also an argument for going outside and paying attention.

I read Landmarks, in part, on the subway in New York, riding to and from work with the heat seething outside and the awful news of the world piercing even the summer torpor. So much of the language being spoken just now is ugly, brutal and divisive.

The book feels like an antidote to that, as startling, interesting and fizzy as the word "zugs", which in Exmoor refers to "little bog islands, about the size of a bucket" and is one of dozens of unexpected terms compiled in the glossaries. They read like poetry.

You do not want to think that such a passionate author is shouting into the wind, so it is a delight to learn that many people, and not just well- known writers, share his passion for language and land.

He is not the only one determined to rescue lost words.

In a tiny corner of Scotland, Finlay MacLeod has compiled a Peat Glossary, of words used in three local townships - Shawbost, Shader and Bragar - to describe the moor.

A scholar in Qatar who contacts Macfarlane is compiling a "global glossary of landscape words" spanning more than five millenniums and touching on some 140 languages. So far, it is pushing 3,500 pages.

Wherever Macfarlane goes, it seems, people present him with wrinkled pieces of paper; index cards stored in boxes; or lists written and then stashed away, half-forgotten, containing words peculiar to their own landscapes.

In a wonderful coda to the book, written after its publication in Britain last year, he describes gift-words from readers, the first sent by a 96-year-old Lancashire woman describing a word she had coined 85 years earlier: "lighty-dark" - "the light occurring at the edge of darkness after a cold clear day".

He has received thousands of such words, official and not, from around the world, which give his work a specificity and a universality.

He is the author of five previous books, including the wonderful The Old Ways: A Journey On Foot (2012), which chronicles his years spent walking along ancient pathways in Britain and beyond.

He has won numerous awards in Britain, regularly appears on bestseller lists and deserves to be much better known abroad. With any luck, Landmarks is the book that will help him do that.

For all his love of words, he warns us not to fetishise. Some experiences, he writes, "resist articulation".

His book had such a strong effect on me and it was more visceral than cerebral.

Mainly, it made me want to get out of town. Landmarks feels as if it should be read near a river, in the mountains, in a meadow or on a moor, the wind riffling through your hair, maybe even a gentle rain falling, and no one for miles except a friend to read the best bits aloud to.


• Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane ($28.75) is available from Books Kinokuniya.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 31, 2016, with the headline 'Nature as literature'. Print Edition | Subscribe