I’ve read a couple of other of Rob Macfarlane’s books, and loved them – Underworld and The Old Ways – and picked this up thinking, from the title, it would be more of the same. Actually no. This is a book about landscape and language, and the ‘landmarks’ in question are seminal works of nature writing – landmarks in literature rather than the landscape, discussing the work of major nature writers of the last couple of centuries in the Western world, who specialised in various landscapes.
For Macfarlane, landscape and language are inextricable. A key message of the book is how can we understand or treasure what we don’t name? So the book is also about the naming of landscape-related features, whether climate, geology, water, soil, flora, or mood and sensory affordances. And he draws here on evocative folk-names, not clinical top-down taxonomies – the vernacular of farmers, shepherds, fishers and foresters to describe their specific working conditions and environments – the experience of light, sound, regional weather, types of woodland, or varieties of soil, in all their unique timeless specificity.
Macfarlane’s love of language equals his love of nature and landscape. A geologist initially, his habitual picking up and examining of interesting rocks on his travels is no different to his approach to old words. And he treats them as similar artefacts – ancient, buried, stratified, multi faceted, changing over era, to be quarried and broken apart, polished and repurposed. In fact there’s a hint of his approach to language in the title – multiple meanings and facets, a single word that that can have a variety of interpretations.
Landscape, nature and history are emotive, and he doesn’t shy away from that. But he is a scientist, and inhabits an academic world of inquiry into the environment, language and natural history. He weaves together analysis and emotion, science and lyricism with great grace. Above all he writes with such great love – of the natural world, of language, and of humanity. Which is why I love him.