I have a weakness for words. I get excited by terms like ‘crepuscular’. Anything archaic, specific, anything that rolls well over the tongue or identifies something for which I had no words previously. Last week I got very excited about ‘smeuse’ which is a hole made in a hedge by the regular passage of a small animal. If the small animal is a hare, it might instead be a hare-gate.
I don’t really know how to review Robert McFarlane’s ‘Landmarks’. I loved it. At times I wanted to hug it and proclaim it as my new sacred text. It inspired me and caused me to wonder, and to think about my own relationships with landscapes urban and rural, how I move through them, participate in them, am changed by them. Who I am in a landscape and how I express that have been issues on my mind for a while. This book has not answered any of that for me, but it has shown me doors, alerted me to fellow travellers, given me ideas about what I will walk, read and write in the months ahead. It’s also gifted me with a wealth of new landscape language.
This was, without any shadow of a doubt a book written for me – because I have something verging on a fetish for language and a passion for walking and for the landscapes of Britain and I’m getting increasingly interested in the idea of writing about landscape and a spiritual practice that revolves around being in the landscape.
I hope it’s a book that will turn out to have very wide appeal indeed. As childhood becomes ever less free-range, as we as a society become ever more removed from our landscapes – even the urban ones in which most people are now living – we need our eyes opening. We need to be reminded of place, and that who we are is part of a place and that places shape us in turn. We aren’t little unconnected islands in the great sea of the internet, but physical beings in specific locations interacting with all manner of things that we may have no conscious awareness of at all.
It’s hard to think or talk about something if you have no language for it. Easier to engage with the things we can name, and by naming, discuss with others and fit into the narratives of our lives. The need for narrative engagement with the land is something Landmarks really conveys, and the loss of awareness that goes with the loss of language.
I’ve added water dogs and wonty tumps to my vocabulary, which makes me absurdly excited about the opportunity to point and exclaim ‘wonty tump’ on finding one. I want to learn more about Saxon language in place naming and perambulations – a verbal kind of map making that I learned about from Alan Pilbeam. I want to read more books, and next time I lie in the grass I will think of other adventurers and nature writers who lay down on the ground to better know something it is hard to put into words.
For me, this book was a beginning, a doorway to a path I’d been looking for awhile. Where it goes, I intend to find out.