Chucky, Hirple, Clart

David Craig

  • Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane
    Hamish Hamilton, 387 pp, £20.00, March 2015, ISBN 978 0 241 14653 8

This book is almost parodically characteristic of Robert Macfarlane’s work. He is a scholar of place – of terrain, terroir, the land – and at times references, sources and citations have bulked uncomfortably large in his writing. Certainly he frequents the countryside at close quarters and often strenuously. He sleeps out, on mountains and moors. He walks arduously, along coasts and by holloways. He has spent months in our wild places from Sutherland and the Outer Hebrides to the extremities of Wales. He visits them, rather than living in them. He goes out of a strong feeling for nature, as a professional observer and writer – one who knows, or hopes, that he is going to have experiences that will be fruitful for his work. In this his mindset differs from that of most of the country writers who have stayed with me indelibly: William Cobbett of Rural Rides, a farmer’s son and himself a farmer from time to time; John Muir of My First Summer in the Sierra, a farmer’s son and farmer; and Lewis Grassic Gibbon of A Scots Quair, a farmer’s son from the Mearns in north-east Scotland. All three produced work that strikes me as special – as important, if you like – because they saw the countryside and its people as part of human society, rather than as stimuli for personal fascination. And they all came up with sequences or moments that are touchstones for their kind: Cobbett meeting a woman who has never been outside her parish, Muir rejoicing in the dewdrops on flowers one July morning, Gibbon describing a farm woman lost in thought in the gloaming after returning to her birthplace.

Landmarks has the explicit aim to do something practical for the countryside, which is ‘under threat’ or ‘at risk’ or whatever phrase we choose for our current, and valid, bugbears. Near the start of the book he gives a list of words that have recently been dropped from the Oxford Junior Dictionary. I’ll reproduce them in full because they represent a fairly hideous symptom of what is going on: ‘acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture, willow’. (The new additions to the dictionary mostly concern electronic media.) Macfarlane remarks, rather tolerantly, that the OUP managers show a ‘realism’ in their rationale, which is that it’s no longer the case that children live ‘in semi-rural environments’ and see ‘the seasons’. True. It’s also true that herons sometimes fly over motorways, conkers fall from horse chestnut trees in parks, kingfishers perch beside canals in cities, pastures produce the milk we all drink and willow is used to make cricket bats. But children’s surroundings have changed, even in the country. During the last two decades, in the Cumbrian village of 630 households where I live, a swing made out of rope and a stick on which children went swooping out over the Preston-Kendal canal has disappeared, and a shelter made of branches in a disused orchard has fallen in and rotted away. These things have not been replaced.

Macfarlane’s hope is that a conserving and reviving of country words will encourage ‘creative relations between people, and people and nature’ and irrigate ‘the dry metalanguages of modern policy-making’. In an earlier book, The Wild Places, he expands on this as an issue of the greatest importance: ‘We have in many ways forgotten what the world feels like … We have come increasingly to forget that our minds are shaped by the bodily experience of being in the world – its spaces, textures, sounds, smells and habits – as well as by genetic traits we inherit and ideologies we absorb.’ It may be that Macfarlane overestimates how far a linguistic effort can alter habits, which are driven by forces such as the market in computer games, the depersonalising of language which accompanied the new power of the civil service after the Civil War and the wiping out of the commons that followed the enclosures and the Industrial Revolution. These trends have been so widespread, so all-embracing in the reduction of our physical embroilment in our surroundings, that it may be quixotic to think we can escape them or reroute them much by piecemeal literary efforts.

His main effort in this book is to champion the country lexis in two ways: through critiques of some excellent country writers and by drawing up glossaries of words. The latter seems to me the more valuable. His lists, which are each about two hundred words long, are copious and rich, and he has endearingly included three blank pages on which we can enter our own finds. His are classified under Flatlands, Uplands, Waterlands, Coastlands, Underlands, Northlands, Edgelands, Earthlands and Woodlands. They draw on usage from most British regions and counties and from military, official and speleological sources. Some of his entries could be queried or supplemented. For example, chucky for a ‘small flat stone’ is certainly used in Aberdeen as well as in Galloway – I was taught it by my Scots-speaking aunt. Hirple for ‘limp’ is common in Scotland as well as in Northern Ireland, and clairt for ‘mud’ is usually spelled ‘clart’ (clairt is not given as a variant in the Concise Scots Dictionary). Such details are trifles, and are bound to crop up in a field as wonderfully fluid and motley as the usage of the British Isles as a whole. Macfarlane has alerted us afresh to a vital strand in the way we define our world and articulate our experience of it by reminding us of a whole tribe of words capable of revitalising our speech and writing, not only about country matters but, through metaphor, about almost any theme you care to mention. His section on rain is particularly fruitful, with six pages to itself, including nine words for raining hard, e.g. ‘hooning’, ‘kelching’, ‘pissing’ and ‘wazzing it down’.

The rest of the book – described on the dust jacket as ‘a field guide to the literature he loves’ – seems to me less valuable, less significant. Most of the chapters are a very personal kind of literary criticism of books by writers such as Peter Davidson (The Idea of North), Nan Shepherd (The Living Mountain), Richard Jefferies (Nature near London), J.A. Baker (The Peregrine), Jacquetta Hawkes (A Land) and Roger Deakin (Waterlog). It’s interesting that all these were connoisseurs of nature rather than workers with it or in it. Macfarlane’s accounts of them have a scholar’s thoroughness and also bring us close to them as people. He has visited Davidson and Deakin (who died a few years ago) in their homes, in Aberdeenshire and Suffolk respectively, and he describes how these men have inhabited their worlds – collecting things, constructing their homes and gardens. Macfarlane himself is an inveterate collector, picking up stones as he walks, holding them for miles. He admires the Wunderkammer Davidson has made to house his collection of curios – a slice of Bristol granite, a Claude glass (black mirror). Both men are dilettanti, connoisseurs of choice experiences. In this Davidson was nourished by his parents, whose home was full of ‘shells, pebbles, twists of driftwood from river and sea’. ‘Everyone I knew,’ Macfarlane writes, ‘seemed to gather pebbles.’ I suppose it depends who you know. It’s certainly a habit of mine. My study bristles with fragments from here and there: a piece of microgranite from Ailsa Craig with grooved curves from the making of the island’s export, curling stones; a rim of red sandstone from the Dumfriesshire quarry where Andy Goldsworthy got the stone for his Arch project; two muscular and horny stumps of yew from a limestone crag a mile from where I live; shingle from the beach on South Uist below the ruined home of the island’s finest poet, Catherine Macaulay, who was cleared along with her people to make room for a sheep farm.

Macfarlane’s book is different from the work of such writers as Jim Crumley, Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey. Where they stay with a region or a species for long enough to sink into it and pass, as nearly as can be, inside it, he veers from one writer or locale to another. He does not concentrate on a country animal or bird, as Cocker has done with crows or Baker with peregrines, or on a place, like Crumley with the Cairngorms. He isn’t committed to a country activity, like shepherding a flock, as John Muir was when he helped to move sheep to the headwaters of the Tuolumne Valley. The necessity for Macfarlane is finding words to express the experience of nature. This is valid and it can be fascinating, but it seems not to give rise to stories that remain in the mind and influence how we see the world. One of Macfarlane’s chosen writers, J.A. Baker, lurks in the hedgerows of Essex tracking a falcon, exchanging human ways for the bird’s flightpaths. Crumley loses himself so absorbedly in the flight of a golden eagle across the Lairig Ghru that we feel giddy ourselves in the rush of air and the drop below.

It depends how deep you want to go. There is a moment in The Wild Places where we do want more depth. He’s traversing the Cuillin Ridge on Skye and reaches the Inaccessible Pinnacle, which he and his friend plan to climb with ropes:

But here, suddenly, there seemed neither point nor possibility to such an act. It would be dangerous, and impertinent.

So we retreated; back up the dragon-skin of the basalt … I sat quietly, trying to work out what had just happened. Where had that sudden fear come from? It had been more than a feeling of physical vulnerability, more than a vertiginous rush – though that had been part of it. A kind of wildness, for sure, but a fierce, chaotic, chastening kind.

As I read on, I kept expecting more – a reversion, perhaps, to this momentous experience, a likening of it to other moments in Macfarlane’s frequenting of summits. It never comes. There follow some quite ordinary musings on the difference between timekeeping by your wristwatch and geological time. The chapter ends there, and Macfarlane presses on to Rannoch Moor and some pages about yet another wilderness writer, W.H. Murray. Macfarlane calls for, quoting Nabokov, a ‘sinking into the history of the object’ and becoming ‘not of the now’. His commitment to this is undeniable but my feeling is that he has not yet managed to express it fully on the page.