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Robert MacFarlane
Hamish Hamilton, 2015
400 pp., 55.52

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Alan Jacobs

The Counter-Desecration Phrasebook

On Robert Macfarlane.

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Robert Macfarlane is most often called a "nature writer," and I suppose that description is not inaccurate, though it leaves a great deal to be desired. One might also call him an essayist, yet that would not indicate the persistency with which his writing engages the unmade world about us: its hills and valleys, its streams and fields, its flowers and birds, its immensely various kinds of rock. His first book is called Mountains of the Mind (2003), and that perhaps indicates something about his orientation: mountains not as they may be in themselves but as they appear to a receptive consciousness, within which their forms constantly shift and alter. "Endless forms most beautiful," as Charles Darwin wrote in a rather different context; this is perhaps Macfarlane's constant theme.

In Great Britain no contemporary chronicler of the natural world is more celebrated, and Macfarlane deserves that eminence. (It is recently acquired: he has effectively inherited the mantle of the great Roger Deakin, who died in 2006 at the sadly early age of 63; Macfarlane was, fittingly, named his literary executor.) He writes elegantly, though without calling attention to his own prose: his preference is to alert us to what he sees. Reading his account of a walk in the Cairngorms or a visit with friends in the Hebrides, I am reminded of Auden's great line about people practicing their vocation: "how beautiful it is, that eye-on-the-object look."

Another of Macfarlane's virtues is his generosity to those who have gone before him, writers who taught him how to see the world first, and write about it only afterward. One of his masters—one of the two great ones, I would say, along with Deakin—is Nan Shepherd (1893-1981), who spent much of her life wandering in and writing about the Scotland's Cairngorms. Macfarlane's grandparents lived near the Cairngorms, and he knew them from childhood; but in another sense he was innocent of them until he read Shepherd's The Living Mountain (written in the 1940s but not published until 1977): "So I knew the Cairngorms long before I knew The Living Mountain. I first read it in 2003, and was changed. I had thought I knew the Cairngorms well, but Shepherd showed me my complacency. Her writing taught me to see these familiar hills, rather than just to look at them." Shepherd taught him, and did so solely through the power of her language: words and images, structure and syntax.

It is language, McFarlane reminds us—as we are constantly reminded by the writers who attend to place—that builds the vital bridge between the mountains out there and the mountains of the mind. And this bridge is the subject of his new book, Landmarks: a bridge made of words that mark the land, that fix it in mind and memory. "We are and always have been name-callers, christeners. Words are grained into our landscapes, and landscapes grained into our words. 'Every language is an old-growth forest of the mind,' in Wade Davis's memorable phrase. We see in words: in webs of words, wefts of words, woods of words. The roots of individual words reach out and intermesh, their stems lean and criss-cross, and their outgrowths branch and clasp."

Near the outset of Landmarks, Macfarlane describes a controversy that emerged only at the beginning of 2015, though it centered on something that happened in 2007, when a new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary appeared:

A sharp-eyed reader noticed that there had been a culling of words concerning nature. Under pressure, Oxford University Press revealed a list of the entries it no longer felt to be relevant to a modern-day childhood. The deletions included acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture and willow. The words introduced to the new edition included attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player and voice-mail.

A representative of the press explained the ratonale for this decision: " 'When you look back at older versions of dictionaries, there were lots of examples of flowers for instance … that was because many children lived in semi-rural environments and saw the seasons. Nowadays, the environment has changed." A number of writers, including Macfarlane, protested this change, and one of them, the poet Andrew Motion, commented with some heat: "Their defence—that lots of children have no experience of the countryside—is ridiculous. Dictionaries exist to extend our knowledge, as much (or more) as they do to confirm what we already know or half-know."

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