Place-words: Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane, in which enchantment is practised to undo the injuries of modernity

[With grateful thanks to Radio NZ and Kim Hill for alerting me to this extraordinary book],-landscape-and-language

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.

Moving Water

Pools Ponds and Lakes

Rain and Storm

Riverbank, Riverbed

Springs and Wells

Swimming and Splashing

Water’s Surface


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.

In the process of his collecting these words about the land and our reading them, the land comes towards us, the book’s readers. It stands out in sharper focus, shows us its beauty, its coarseness, its humour, its economies and its histories. In order to do this, local people have had to focus sharply on the things they see and hear while they walk or fish or hunt in these places. In the process of the words being collected, the people who collect the words preserve the cultural connections between themselves and their language past and their particular land and waters. The lexis they produce, he says, is so supplely suited to the place being described that it fits it like a skin. And then, after the words are there, that makes it possible for other people to focus more sharply on what they might see or hear or smell. Precision of utterance, he says, [works] as both a form of lyricism and a species of attention. The power of these word lists is complex and profound. If people are able to point to the fine details of what happens in a place, they can then defend that place against the sort of vagueness and generality that always accompanies, and is the necessary pre-requisite to, proposals for development in the form of exploitation of or irreversible change to the land. The book contains an example of this power of language as a tool of activism in the actions taken to stop the proposed construction of a wind power farm on the moor of Lewis in the Hebrides.

Having begun to engage with this book, I have started to ask myself how it applies to Aotearoa and to me as a writer here. I noticed that all the words in the glossaries are from a language of the place in the past.  Because language is endlessly changing, you cannot say that these words are from the definitive or only language of the places, but you can say that the words are from there, from a particular place, and refer to something that happens there, and maybe does not happen or is not seen in quite the same way, anywhere else.

So does that mean that the authentic enchanting and re-enchanting language that connects people to the land and water of Aotearoa is Māori? I think it does. And if that is the case, until I engage with this language, I am not just unable to listen to, hear or understand this place-language. I am silent,  cut off from the place. I have a language of the local place, or perhaps I could find one, but it is not of the place in the way that Macfarlane’s Glossaries are of the UK places.