Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks (2015)

A Lecturer in English and Fellow of Emmanuel College in Cambridge, Robert Macfarlane walks the talk more than most people in his line of work, for in addition to teaching and working on writing about nature he has tramped over a fair stretch of the British Isles. His most recent book consists of essays on a number of British authors who have written about nature and landscape, in which he places their works against terrains across which he has walked. There is a density in Macfarlane’s prose, never flash and immensely precise, that is beautifully aligned with his material and in some ways recalls the sparse style of Cormac McCarthy. The result is a series of  intense pieces in which literary criticism and immensely perceptive description of the natural world overlap. Each chapter is followed by a glossary of words used of places and types of weather in different parts of Britain that constitutes a deeply fascinating word-hoard (the Old English term he uses is most appropriate); cumulatively the lists of vocabulary he has accumulated from written sources and various informants convey a sense of Britain as being a wet, cold, and dark place. Hmm, perhaps there is little to be wondered at here.

Many of the words occurring in the glossaries are very old, originating in the Gaelic spoken on some Scottish islands, the remnants of Old Norse scattered about the areas settled by Vikings and the language of the Romani; others, such as those used by Gerard Manley Hopkins, are recent coinages that don’t seem quite as organic. Of course, humans have been living in Australia for far longer than they have in Britain, yet it is hard to see how such an exercise could be so successfully carried out here. While Indigenous Australians are responsible for a large number of modern Australian place names, in urban as well as regional areas, their words for climate and landscape are not at all common in the contemporary word-hoard. The nature of the caesura caused by the coming of Europeans and of what may have remained the same after the apparently pivotal year of 1788 can be hard to get a hold on. Doubtless there are all kinds of continuities between the Indigenous and settler societies of Australia, but it is not easy to establish how significant these have been. That Indigenous Australians pointed out good ways to cross ranges of mountains to settlers who went on to build roads along them is an obvious sign of co-operation and good will; yet surely these routes were the most sensible ones, which any humans would have ended up using. Macfarlane’s work points to continuities of language and perception in Britain undreamed of in Australia. The Indigenous contribution to contemporary Australian life could be greater than it is; doubtless it could have been much greater than it ever will be.


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