Robert Macfarlane: How Language Reconnects Us with Place

I have come to realize that language is an indispensable portal into the deeper mysteries of the commons. The words we use – to name aspects of nature, to evoke feelings associated with each other and shared wealth, to express ourselves in sly, subtle or playful ways – our words themselves are bridges to the natural world.  They mysteriously makes it more real or at least more socially legible.

What a gift that British nature writer Robert Macfarlane has given us in his book Landmarks!  The book is a series of essays about how words and literature help us to relate to our local landscapes and to the human condition. The book is also a glossary of scores of unusual words from various regions, occupations and poets, showing how language brings us into more intimate relations with nature. Macfarlane introduces us to entire collections of words for highly precise aspects of coastal land, mountain terrain, marshes, edgelands, water, “northlands,” and many other landscapes.

In the Shetlands, for example, skalva is a word for “clinging snow falling in large damp flakes.”  In Dorset, an icicle is often called a clinkerbell.  Hikers often call a jumble of boulders requiring careful negotiation a choke.  In Yorkshire, a gaping fissure or abyss is called a jaw-hole.  In Ireland, a party of men, usually neighboring farmers, helping each other out during harvests, is known as a boon.  The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins called a profusion of hedge blossom in full spring a May-mess.

You get the idea.  There are thousands of such terms in circulation in the world, each testifying to a special type of human attention and relationship to the land.  There are words for types of moving water and rock ledges, words for certain tree branches and roots, words for wild game that hunters pursue.  There are even specialized words for water that collects in one’s shoe – lodan, in Gaelic – and for a hill that terminates a range – strone, in Scotland. 

Such vocabularies bring to life our relationship with the outside world. They point to its buzzing aliveness. There is a reason that government bureaucracies that “manage” land as "resources" don’t use these types of words. Their priority is an institutional mastery of nature, not a human conversation or connection with it. 

Macfarlane writes that the rationality of our technological era has eclipsed our once-bountiful engagements with nature – and along with it, our once-vivid lexicon for knowing nature. Our sense of nature has been reduced to a mechanical, instrumental relationship. Macfarlane writes:  “As we have enhanced our power to determine nature, so we have rendered it less able to converse with us.  We find it hard to imagine nature outside a use-value framework.  We have become experts in analyzing what nature can do for us, but lack a language to evoke what it can do to us.”

This is a huge loss to humanity reflected in our language. According to botanist Oliver Rackham, there are four ways that a landscape can be lost – through the loss of beauty, the loss of freedom, the loss of wildlife and vegetation, and the loss of meaning.  The way that we talk about nature these days reflects our diminished relationship to it, our ignorance of our local landscapes, and our impoverished our understanding of who we are in the cosmos.

By re-introducing us to lost words and near-forgotten nature writers, Macfarlane’s book is an attempt to “re-wild our contemporary language for landscape.” He shows us how many manual occupations (farmers, colliers, fishermen), hikers, and others have invented rich, pulsating language-traditions to describe the intoxicating and special aspects of a place.  His goal is to bring us into a more convivial relationship with nature, in the Ivan Illich sense of “encouraging creative relations between people, and people and nature.” 

Some of Macfarlane’s profiles of British nature writers made me want to immediately chase down their books and drink them in. For example, he profiles Nan Shepherd, a virtually unknown Scottish nature writer who tirelessly rambled through the Cairngorms mountain range in Scotland in the same way John Muir lived in the Sierra Nevadas.  “These mountains were “her inland-island, her personal parish, the area of territory that she loved, walked and studied over time,” writes Macfarlane, “such that concentration within its perimeters led to knowledge cubed rather than knowledge curbed.

Unlike male mountaineers who boast about conquering summits, Shepherd hiked the mountains “as one visits a friend, with no intention but to be with him. She regards the plateau “as the true summit of these mountains; they must be seen as a single mountain, and the individual tops…no more than eddies on the plateau surface.”

Shepherd aspired to ‘irradiate the common’ in the Cairngorms as a way to ‘make something universal.’  "An irradiation of the ‘common’ into the ‘universal’ – through her writings about the Cairngorms – is what she achieved in The Living Mountain,” concludes Macfarlane.  He compares Shepherd’s late 1970s book The Living Mountain to other contemporaneous classics such as Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia, John McPhee’s Coming into the Country, and Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard.  The book was written in the mid-1940s but not published until 1977, and with little fanfare or notice.

"What Shepherd learns -- and what her book taught me," writes Macfarlane, "is that the true mark of long adquaintance with a single place is a readiness to accept uncertainty: a contentment with the knowledge that you must not seek complete knowledge."  Compelled by the "unmappable surplus" of the mountains, Shepherd writes, "The mind cannot carry away all that it has to give, nor does it always believe possible what it has carried away."

Robert Macfarlane also writes about Barry Lopez and other writers of northern landscapes, whose work discloses “a shared metaphysics of northerliness:  an exactness of sight; lyricism as a function of precision; an attraction to the crystalline image; shivers of longing; aurora-bursts of vision and elegies of twilight.”  Such writing makes the Arctic north come to life on the printed page!  As Macfarlane links the aesthetics of beautiful writing with the experiences of beautiful landscapes and the ethics of responsible stewardship, it becomes abundantly clear:  They are all connected in a love for the land.

But Macfarlane is no prig.  He concedes that “there are experiences of landscape that will always resist articulation, and of which words offer only a remote echo – or to which silence is by far the best response.”  Still, it is also true that our words matter:  “Every language is an old-growth forest of the mind.”

Macfarlane’s gift is to use language to help us experience the joys of being rooted to a place – to see how the subtle rhythms and pulses of a landscape help us understand our own role in this larger drama.  Inspired by such epiphanies, we must learn to act with grace and love toward the landscapes we inhabit. I like to think that poetic insights of nature and vernacular local words inexorably lead us back to ourselves, which is to say, to the commons.