Robert MacFarlane
Penguin UK, 2015
400 pp., $39.95

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Alan Jacobs

The Counter-Desecration Phrasebook

On Robert Macfarlane.

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One Lewisian, a man named Finlay MacLeod, said in the midst of the Brindled Moor controversy that "What is needed"—not so much to save the moor but to help people understand why it might be worthy of saving—"is a Counter-Desecration Phrasebook." The phrase strikes Macfarlane with great force, and much of Landmarks is an attempt to extend that insight to a much larger area than that of a single moor on a single island. "We need now, urgently, a Counter-Desecration Phrasebook that would comprehend the world—a glossary of enchantment for the whole earth, which would allow nature to talk back and would help us to listen." Given the essential parochialism of nature-language—"parochial" is a very positive word for Macfarlane—this may seem a quixotic if not self-contradictory quest. But really Macfarlane is simply offering a recommendation to all those who dwell, really and truly dwell, in any given parish of Creation to preserve, and if possible to extend, the language adequate to that place, that language that in turn preserves and extends meaning.

G. K. Chesterton once asked us to imagine "a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, 'I don't see the use of this; let us clear it away.' " But to this, "the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: 'If you don't see the use of it, I certainly won't let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.' " Robert Macfarlane's imagined Counter-Desecration Phrasebook is a verbal fence. It presses us to know a landscape before we think of abolishing it.

Alan Jacobs teaches in the Honors Program at Baylor University.

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