Robert Macfarlane has a thing about words. In fact, just the other day, I said to him, “What is it with you and words?” Which upon immediate, intermediate, and extended consideration seems a remarkably anodyne thing to say to someone who’s widely recognized as one of the more erudite chroniclers of the natural world. But you know, when one writer is expressing admiration for another, shoals abound: reefs of insecurity, ego, too-willingness to please. It’s easier, and safer, to lower the center of gravity and use a shallow draft. Dude.
But Rob, man, he’s amazing, which I mean literally, as I often stand amazed at the way he pieces words together, and even more for the passion he brings to it. Rob’s books include The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, The Wild Places, and Mountains of the Mind: A History of Fascination (are you sensing a pattern here?), but it was his most recent work that gave witness to his singular mind and, quite frankly, blew my doors off.
Landmarks is a 75,892-word love letter to the loamy, entangled relationship between language and nature, and he had me from the very first sentence: “This is a book about the power of language – strong style, single words – to shape our sense of place. It is a field guide to literature I love, and it is a word-hoard of the astonishing lexis for landscape that exists in the comprision of islands, rivers, strands, fells, lochs, cities, towns, corries, hedgerows, fields and edgelands uneasily known as the British Isles.”
Yeah, okay, word nerds were gonna flock, and did. But Rob’s message in Landmarks wasn’t just that there are many, many ways in Scotland to describe snotty sleet falling from the sky—though it was that, too—no, it was a warning that too many of us living in modern urban and ex-urb culture are losing our connection to nature, our words for nature, and that bodes ill for the places and the people who reside in them. When we have no name for something, we don’t know it, and when we don’t know it, we don’t steward it. Rob’s most important call, then, was for a “rewilding” of language, for a new natural literacy, to better find our place in the world and to take care of the dang thing. I believed in the idea so much that I coerced—or was it cajoled?—him into letting me publish an excerpt from Landmarks in the second issue of Adventure Journal Quarterly.
Here’s a brief glimpse of this treasure:
Over the years, and especially over the past two years, thousands of place-terms have reached me. They have come by letter, e-mail and telephone, scribbled on postcards or yellowed pre-war foolscap, transcribed from cassette recordings of Suffolk longshoremen made half a century ago, or taken from hand-drawn maps of hill country and coastline; and delved with delight from lexicons and archives around the country and the web. I have had such pleasure meeting them, these words: migrant birds, arriving from distant places with story and metaphor caught in their feathers; or strangers coming into the home, stamping the snow from their feet, fresh from the blizzard and a long journey.
That he entrusted us with such words continues to fill me with gratitude; that they will be here on my desk always, nestled side by each with those of Terry Tempest Williams and Andy Kirkpatrick and others, warms my days.
So, why did I start writing this? Oh, right—Rob. The guy teaches at Emmanuel College in Cambridge, he’s working on a new book on the underlands, he has kids and a wife and parents who still kick butt, and he runs so intensely (and intently, one would presume) that he sometimes gets stress fractures. In short, he is one of the last humans I would expect to see on Twitter. But there he is, @robgmacfarlane, still wet behind the avatar, and in three short weeks he’s already posted 300-plus tweets and has garnered 8,000-plus followers.
Guess what he tweets about?
That’s right, words.
Well, words and nature and weather and climate change and history and art and all manner of delights upon which his wide-ranging curiosity rests. A masterful party arranger, he seats old friends from Landmarks (“Word of the day: “shirr” – a ruffle or ripple on water; also to gather fabric into rows (English regional, north-west)” next to newfound companions (”Stone-skimming as water-giggling in Irish! Ha! Thanks for that, Seán.”) and across from street artists and the strange uncle who knows too much about bird eggs. Rob’s feed will enchant, tickle, and probably ensnare. It is a place to comprehend and apprehend nature with alacrity and precision, and to come away feeling smarter and somehow cleaner.
Witness, for example, the sparkling of this gem: “‘Bärenschliffe’—polished rock surfaces in caves worn smooth by the passage of bears.”
So, yeah, Rob. He’s on Twitter. Check him out. Say hi. And don’t be shy—if words fail, you can always fall back on emoji.
Photo of winter “shiveling” by Rosamund Macfarlane, Rob’s mum.