Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane

We think of ‘the countyside’ as a place of nature into which we can escape for refreshment. It offers a break from the dismal treadmill of our ant like endeavours in urban life. Yet there is practically nothing left of pristine wilderness in these, our British Isles. Humans have for so long been hunting, chopping, burning, ploughing and building that the whole country is really an artefact. Everything is put to use. The landscape is instrumentalised. Even the remotest, agriculturally worthless, blasted moors on the Outer Hebrides can be put to use by having wind farms erected upon them (

Our language, too, reflects this drive toward utility. Against this, there has been a long tradition in literature of allowing the wonder and mystery of nature to speak. Wordsworth sat on a hill in The Wye Valley in 1798 and composed Lines Written a few miles above Tintern Abbey. He writes:

“For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue. And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods,
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye, and ear,—both what they half create,
And what perceive; well pleased to recognise
In nature and the language of the sense,
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being.”

Gerard Manley Hopkins, too, sensed something in nature that is eternal, unquenchable and divine. In his poem of 1877, God’s Grandeur, he writes:

“The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
    It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
    It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
    And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings”

Prose has also captured a sense of an eternal creative force in nature to whose being we owe our existence. Henry David Thoreau (, John Muir (, Roger Deakin (, Annie Dillard (, Nan Shepherd (, Kathleen Jamie ( and Robert Macfarlane ( , are just a few of the authors who have conveyed a sense of this mystery.

Macfarlane has written this book particularly about the relationship between landscape and language. As he says – ‘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 comparison of islands, rivers, strands, fells, lochs, cities, towns, corries, hedgerows, fields and edgelands uneasily known as the British Isles.’ Travelling from Cumbria to the Cairngorms, and exploring the landscapes of Roger Deakin, J. A. Baker, Nan Shepherd and others, the author shows that language, well used, is a keen way of knowing landscape, and a vital means of coming to love it. This is a book to treasure before and after your many outings into our landscape. I commend it to you.

Enquire at your local library or consult for full bibliographic detail.

400 pages in Hamish Hamilton

First published 2015

ISBN 978-0241146538

Robert Macfarlane

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