Book Review: Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane

© Hamish Hamilton


Ammil, grumma, garbhlach and gryke; lippers, flinks, and aggy-jaggers; such is the language of Landmarks, the fifth book by the accomplished nature writer Robert Macfarlane, author of Mountains of The Mind among others.

I am not sure how best to describe it. Is it a folk dictionary of nature, or a scholarly meditation on landscape in literature? Is it a work of some importance, or just a bit of a mickey take? I swither.

Wordbog: prose so densely layered that reading it is like wading through peat

Site-citing: a literature of place built out of quotes from other writers

Landmarks ‘explores the linguistic and literary terrain of our archipelago’. It is composed of fragmentary glossaries of words for landscapes and nature, harvested willy nilly from a thicket of languages and regional dialects, and then chucked together under loose themes (woods, water, hills, you get the drift). Accompanying every glossary is an essay chapter, vaguely related to the words, each looking at a different nature writer. From Nan Shepherd to John Muir, J.A. Baker to Jaquetta Hawkes, some are better known than others, but each has a deep relationship with landscape and nature, and most have had an influence (sometimes obvious) on Macfarlane.  

Landmarks cover shot  © Hamish Hamilton

The effect of the lot is piecemeal. This isn’t a book you’d be likely to read cover to cover (unless you’re reviewing it), rather one to dip into now and again. As a single coherent work it doesn’t quite gel, and the impression that bits have been borrowed magpie-like from all over is only compounded when you realise that you’ve read some of it before. Macfarlane’s Nan Shepherd chapter, for instance, is lifted verbatim from his introduction to the recent Canongate edition of her concise little masterpiece The Living Mountain.

There’s something insincere about that. But it’s not just the recycling I object to; this hollowness rings deeper too.

In fairness I have no idea how he actually apportions his day between the office and the outdoors. But that’s not going to stop me from assuming. My impression is of someone who spends less time delving into the natural world for himself, than he does mining literature for pithy quotes. He’s clearly got a lot to say, and elegant ways to say it, but when Macfarlane rhapsodises about nature I’d like to hear more of his own voice, and a bit less channelling of other peoples’. At the risk of sounding superior, if he read less and walked more the results might seem more authentic.

Landmarks recently featured as book of the week on Radio 4. I am the last person to be inversely snobby about that staple of middle class liberalism, and yet why does this not surprise me? It is just the sort of light-intellectual arts establishment product that you might expect them to plug, that’s why.

As very much a creation of this milieu Landmarks indulges in one too many twee puns, self-referential and rather self-conscious plays on words. Here’s a Macfarlaneism of my own: His prose is studied - in two senses naturally. By which I mean both that he’s done a ton of research, and that he visibly labours to convey this erudition in refined ways, never using an ordinary word where some exotic synonym will stand in. At its worst his writing is an elaborate confection, smothering any slim chance of a spontaneous or naive apprehension of nature, let’s call that the real thing, the ideal, under thick layers of stylised and reference-heavy prose. In talking about this book he has himself spoken of texts as a kind of optic that mediate between us and the world. Perhaps we all peer out at nature through cultural filters, but in Macfarlane’s case the lens can be so dense that it’s practically opaque.

"Landmarks’ rich store of words is its saving grace"

Landmarks, like others of his books, tends more towards the academic than the arcadian; it is donnish more than down to earth, a triumph of artifice over artlessness. Too often his nature writing is done at a remove; he writes about writing about nature. It might miss the mark on one count, but considered instead as a species of literary criticism it is rather good. If that’s your thing.

I saw these ammils and dagglers on a beck-side dander in the rafty coombe   © Dan Bailey
I saw these ammils and dagglers on a beck-side dander in the rafty coombe
© Dan Bailey

So the chapters haven’t really wowed me. But what of the glossaries? 

"There are experiences of landscape that will always resist articulation” he writes, “and of which words offer only a distant echo – or to which silence is by far the best response. Nature does not name itself. Granite does not self-identify as igneous. Light has no grammar. Language is always late for its subject." Quite so. In which case what’s to be gained from this book?

Well, says Macfarlane, “we are and always have been name-callers, christeners."

And he’s doubtless right that only by articulating something do we have the tools to really think about it, and ultimately to value it. Weird and wonderful ways to talk about the world help to keep us enchanted by it too. Hence the glossaries. However, lured away from critical thought by figurative flights, he goes too far at times in his analysis of language.

"Words are grained into our landscapes," he writes, "and landscapes grained into our words." An enthusiasm for neat circular phrases misleads him here. The second part of that is true, but only trivially so. However the first part is profoundly and obviously wrong, a variant almost of literature’s ‘pathetic fallacy’, a sloppy anthropomorphism of the non-human. When he gets silly it rather undermines the seriousness of his message about the language of nature and place.

Yet he really has touched on something important in Landmarks.

The idea of collating and conserving such words is an admirable one. Elsewhere Macfarlane has spoken about values, about fostering a good relationship with place, a ‘progressive parochialism’ by which an awareness of tiny details and particularities allows us to apprehend the bigger whole. Well it’s a thought.  

When the Oxford Junior Dictionary dropped such utterly normal nature words as acorn, conker and bluebell on the grounds that kids these days find broadband and MP3 more useful, something profoundly sad was hinted at, a distance between our urban society and the land. It was this that spurred Macfarlane to start collecting. The result is as unfinished as it is unwieldy, and yet it is beautiful too, an elegy to something we’re losing.

In Kent the wind gusts in whiffles; in Manx bogs a stump of oak is a dharrag; where rain has washed away the earth in a steep and slippery place Shetlanders apparently talk of a skruid. But for how much longer?

Just as species are dying out, and perhaps for related reasons, many words for nature and the small specificities of place are withering. Macfarlane’s answer is to capture them before they’re gone.

“We need now …a Counter-Desecration Phrasebook that would comprehend the world” he writes in chapter two, imaginatively, “ – a glossary of enchantment for the whole earth, which would allow nature to talk back and would help us to listen. A work of words that would encourage responsible place-making, that would keep us from slipping off into abstract space, and keep us from all that would follow such a slip. The glossaries contained here… do not constitute this unwriteable phrasebook – but perhaps they might offer a sight of the edge of the shadow of its impossible existence.”

Terms in Gaelic, Irish, Scots and Romany, words from the fens and the farms, the summits and the suburbs, the highbrow and the hedgerow, all jostle together in his patchwork glossaries. There’s Welsh too, though unaccountably only a token smattering. Each entry is particular to its own culture and place, be that the Northern Isles or Northamptonshire, a peat bog or a textbook. Many are losing out to time, words and ways of seeing unique to the old languages and regional dialects that still just about web these islands beneath the spreading concrete of our homogenous metropolitanism. But language always moves on, as more recent additions to the lexicon show. The picturesque and the lumpen, the poetic and the precise, the current and the defunct, the vital and the utterly useless – it’s an unwieldy bestiary, though not without a lyrical quality.

But surely this is not meant as a practical source of reference. How am I ever going to use the word aquabob (a Kentish icicle) without seeming pretentious? How is Robert Macfarlane? Yet somehow I’m glad to have learned it, and scores of others.  

Landmarks’ rich store of words is its saving grace. These glossaries are of more than just quaint or historical interest. If we can name nature then we have a vocabulary for protecting it; but if we allow ourselves to become disengaged from it then it’s not just our language that will be impoverished. Macfarlane’s word lists are arbitrary and incomplete - he says as much himself. However all may not be being lost. The postscript to the book reveals the existence of a more rigorous and rather less modishly parochial work in progress. In Qatar a scholar is quietly compiling a global glossary of landscape words, for all places and all time. To date it runs to 50,000 terms, we’re told, in 140 different languages. If that is ever published it really will be a landmark book.


Landmarks is published by Hamish Hamilton, hardback cover price £20


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21 Apr, 2015
Great book Dan, I bought it along with Dominick Taylor's Uncommon Ground. Great bedtime reading both.
21 Apr, 2015
I got it for my birthday from my sister in law. I must confess that I've only read chapter one however. Bedtime isn't just for reading ;-)
21 Apr, 2015
Hmm, think it must've popped up automatically.
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