Name it or lose it, says British landscape writer Macfarlane

Travellers wash their horses in the River Eden at Appleby in Westmorland, Britain, in this June 4, 2015 file photo. REUTERS/Phil Noble/Files
Travellers wash their horses in the River Eden at Appleby in Westmorland, Britain, in this June 4, 2015 file photo.

Reuters/Phil Noble/Files


It’s a shard, a smeuse, a smout, and for some creatures it’s a perfect place to squiggle.

Each of the nouns means, more or less, a gap in a hedge in various dialects of English, while to squiggle is to wriggle through a hedge in the county of Essex, northeast of London.

Prize-winning British landscape writer and Cambridge University academic Robert Macfarlane has collected hundreds of such terms from Britain and Ireland in his book “Landmarks” and, he says, we lose them at our peril.

“Whenever you name a landscape, it can be a controversial as well as an intimate act,” he told Reuters in an interview at the Hay Festival.

In “Landmarks”, his fifth book, he says there is an urgent need for a “Counter-Desecration Phrasebook” to counter the cost-benefit framework that is often used to talk about nature.

He recounts how in 2004 an engineering company proposed building 234 wind turbines on the island of Lewis off Scotland’s west coast.

Supporters of the scheme described the site as an empty, dead wilderness. So opponents assembled a “Peat Glossary” of terms describing the landscape and the living things and activities it supports. The wind farm scheme was rejected.

The nine glossaries in “Landmarks”, include names for upland, flatland, coastal and wooded landscapes and even the “bastard countryside” on the edge of cities.

Since the book was published earlier this year, Macfarlane has gathered hundreds more terms from walkers and workers and some will form a new glossary in the paperback.

“Much to my surprise, it has been and become a political book. I now see that it’s a celebration and defense of landscape and its language,” he said.

The book is also a tribute to some of the writers who have influenced Macfarlane, including Scots-born John Muir who is viewed as the father of the U.S. national parks.

“He understood very early on that literature was a powerful mind-changing force but it needed to manifest in policy and legislation as well,” he said.

Not that Macfarlane, who teaches English literature at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and whose previous books have led readers over mountains, snowfields and ancient paths accessible only at low tide, proposes the countryside be immune from the modern world.

Fields near his home on the edge of Cambridge are about to be developed for housing but he has not opposed the plans.

“We have to grow but nature needs to be remembered … So how we can build nature into our future cities seems to me one of the most important development questions we face in this country,” he said.

(Editing by Michael Roddy and Robin Pomeroy)

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