[With grateful thanks to Radio NZ and Kim Hill for alerting me to this extraordinary book]
It is extremely hard to describe what Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane is, or more importantly what it does, but it feels to me like something rare and precious. Landmarks is part of the current river of advocacy for the natural environment. But the book is not in the form of direct arguments for conservation. It was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction in 2015. But it is often poetry to my eye and ear, and I think it could be argued that the whole book behaves as if it were poetry.
In terms of structure, the book consists primarily of ten Glossaries , each one a collection of words particular to a certain aspect of land or water, for example Glossary lll Waterlands. Within that there are Subheadings.
Pools Ponds and Lakes
Rain and Storm
Springs and Wells
Swimming and Splashing
Within Wetlands are the following words :
allan piece of land nearly surrounded by water, Cumbria,
amod green plain almost encircled by the bend in a river, Gaelic,
crannog prehistoric lake dwelling, Irish,
doirling islet to which one can wade at low tide, Gaelic,
eyot small island, especially in a river, English,
feorainn grassy area of riverside or shore, Irish,
baft island in a pool, Midlands,
and halb, holm, peninsula, water-faesten, warth and ynys.
These glossaries contain words from Old English, Norn, Anglo-Romani, Cornish, Welsh, Irish, Gaelic, the Orcadian, Shetlandic and Doric dialects of Scots, numerous regional versions of English and the last vestiges of Norman still spoken on the Channel Islands. The place-words that Macfarlane collects and curates for us have been collected by scholars and members of the public, not just by him, so the Glossaries and the book have an inclusive quality. Words sent in by old ladies and children are treated with as much respect as words contributed by scholars. And perhaps this would be the right place to say that the words themselves are extraordinary for their sounds and the lyrical beauty of the things they describe.
The most obvious mechanism I can see is that Macfarlane directs the reader’s attention towards words about the land, which, for him, is the United Kingdom.
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