New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2016. 434 pages. $18.00.
It has been nearly 2,500 years since Plato pondered the origins of language in his Socratic dialogue Cratylus. Are words invented by humankind (thus having “conventional” beginnings), Socrates asks, or are they divinely inspired (“naturalist”)? Does any given form—the red-bellied woodpecker, for instance, or giant sequoia—carry an arbitrary designation, capriciously conferred by society? Or, instead, do the etymological origins of each name for every bird and tree come from some unexplainably intrinsic property—strings of sound pronounced from on high? As in many of his dialectics, Plato has the Great Bearded Gadfly seesaw before producing a most waffled judgment: language is mostly naturalist, though still a little conventional—words must come from some higher realm, but there is no word that perfectly embodies its very essence.
The British travel author Robert Macfarlane comes down firmly on one side of the debate over language and its origins: “Nature does not name itself,” he writes in Landmarks, his fifth and latest book on the wild and wonderful nature of nature. “Granite does not self-identify as igneous. Light has no grammar.” Yet, he continues, a fine line separates the OED from the great outdoors. “Words are grained into our landscapes, and landscapes grained into our words. . . . We see in words: in webs of words, wefts of words, woods of words.” It might even be said that we breath in, walk upon, and inhabit a world of words. Our environment and existence is, as in Proust’s work, “magnificently surcharged with names.”
Whether we live within a stone’s skip from Walden Pond or the Ganges River, there is a language we use to describe the natural world. It is a lexicon as limitless as there are grains of sand on the planet Earth: few would be content with describing the sky as simply, blandly blue. But, according to Macfarlane, as the world becomes increasingly urbanized, polluted, and monoglottal—that is, speaking a common tongue, be it English, Mandarin, or emoticons—we are “losing a literacy of the land.” Landmarks acts as a dictionary of sorts for a small slice of that vanishing linguistic world, a “lexis for landscape that exists in the . . . islands, rivers, strands, fells, lochs, cities, towns, carries, hedgerows, fields and edge lands uneasily known as Britain and Ireland.”
The inspiration for his compendium, according to Macfarlane, began in Lewis, a peat-plentiful isle in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, where, in 2004, local residents waged a successful fight against a proposed wind farm—designed to be the continent’s largest—by compiling the language of their soon-to-be-decimated terrain. “What is required,” one Lewisian recommended, “is a new nomenclature of landscape and how we relate to it, so that conservation becomes a natural form of human awareness. . . . What is needed is a Counter-Desecration Phrasebook.”
Macfarlane proposes a similar global phrasebook built on the lives and letters of writers who, like the intrepid Lewisians, have previously transcribed the languages of their landscapes. These individuals, earnestly profiled chapter by chapter, are Macfarlane’s “landmarks,” nature-minded obsessives like Nan Shepherd, whose one true love appears to have been the Cairngorm mountain range of northern Scotland. Her masterpiece, The Living Mountain (1977), is unsparingly sprinkled with Gaelic phrases and place-names: roarie-bummlers (“fast-moving storm clouds”) and Stac Iolaire (“the eagle’s crag”).
Those words and phrases turn up in the glossaries that follow each chapter. Organized under a topographical heading—Flatlands, Waterlands, Edgelands—each glossary is filled with alphabetized wordlists, further organized under subheadings, complete with definitions and provenance. The casual reader would do well not to skim these glossaries, which often take on their own poetic form and rhythm, like this excerpt from the list of “Ways of Walking” from the Underlands glossary:
- currick cairn of stones to guide travellers Cumbria, Durham, Northumberland
- dander to stroll leisurely Ireland
- dew-beater trail-blazer, pioneer East Anglia, Hampshire
- dobbles hard snow or mud collected under the heels of boots Suffolk
- doddle to walk slowly and pleasurably Northern Ireland
- fleggin, lampin walking with big steps Galloway
- flinks to ramble in a rompish manner, as a frolicsome girl might Shetland
But here it’s sketches of the landmarks that matter. After rereading their literary works, Macfarlane retraces the footsteps, hill-slope scrambles, and backstrokes of each. He explores a remote inlet in the wake of Roger Deakin, author of Waterlog (1999), an account of his swimmer’s trek through the lakes, lochs, loughs, and llyns that cover the breadth of Great Britain. And Macfarlane laments a vanishing countryside while following the path laid by Richard Jeffries, whose Nature Near London (1883) documented the changing environment on the fringes of a rapidly advancing city, where he found “bevies of chiffchaffs and willow wrens which came to the thickets in the furze, . . . every bush, every tree, almost every clod, for the larks were so many, seemed to have its songster.” There is even a brief American detour to accompany John Muir’s ghost on a trek through the Sierra Nevadas, where, a century ago, he convinced the first President Roosevelt to invest in the nation’s wilderness and wildlife. “Few are altogether deaf,” Muir wrote, “to the preaching of pine trees. Their sermons on the mountains go to our hearts.”
Throughout, Macfarlane beautifully balances deference to his heroes with his own voice, adding to the earthly chorus that has celebrated every spear of grass and grain of soil. His prose sings. And it is a privilege and pleasure to follow him anywhere, from libraries in search of archived papers to the Lairig Ghru, a Scottish mountain pass, where the “ptarmigans zithered and churred to one another, dotterels kewed, and water moved: chuckled, burred, slugged, shattered.”
Two and a half centuries post-Cratylus, we still do not understand the origins of language, as Tom Wolfe makes clear in his recent return to journalism The Kingdom of Speech. In 2014, eight leading Evolutionists, including Noam Chomsky, the leading linguist of all time, admitted in a coauthored paper that “the evolution of the faculty of language largely remains an enigma.”
Chomsky and his cohort would do well to read the penultimate chapter of Landmarks, in which Macfarlane tells the story of a primary school in the English town of Huntingdon that held Monday morning class in the surrounding woods, meadows, and marshlands. The four- and five-year-olds were encouraged to describe what they discovered. Newly fallen snow became not white, but multihued. They invented place names and words and stories to describe their new environs, which were compiled in a book published under the title Fantastical Guides for the Wildly Curious (2013). They listened to the landscape, created their own language, and wondered the world anew. We would benefit by following their lead.