Ash trees in Gloucestershire. Photo: Matt Cardy/Getty Images
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Finding a better word for “tree”: why naming the landscape could be the thing to save it

Photographer Dominick Tyler began the “The Landreader Project” to collect countryside vocabulary after finding his own impoverished. Could saving the Earth be a matter of language?

It is a grim day in January and we are walking towards Walthamstow Marshes on the outskirts of east London. Seagulls straggle the sky, grey against grey, like flakes of ash from a dwindling fire. With his hands in his pockets, the photographer Dominick Tyler is keeping warm in a hat and bright-green jacket, and telling me about his latest project.

While working on a commission about swimming in the wild, Tyler began to write notes on the landscape he was shooting. “I’m a country lad,” he thought, “this’ll be easy.” But he found he had no more than the “bare bones” required to write – a landscape vocabulary that was stunningly impoverished. Over time, Tyler began to flesh out his diction, collecting word after unfamiliar word as a child collects marbles, taking suggestions from the public and creating an online glossary known as “The Landreader Project”.

“But it’s cold and damp today,” I moan, “and this is London: flat, muted and bleak.”

“Try ‘stagnal,’” says Tyler. “Of or delighting in wet or marshy places.”

The mud next to our path, he suggests, is “stabble”, gloopy contours shaped by footprints. The gap formed behind the hedge to our right is a “twitchel”, “twitten” or a “ginnel”, depending on where you are in the UK.

“The plastic bag caught in a tree above our heads,” he says gleefully, “is a pair of ‘witch’s knickers’. Maybe she took off too quickly, maybe it was a low pass.” This expression made its first appearance in Ireland.

Margaret Atwood and Michael Morpurgo were among a group of writers who recently criticised Oxford University Press for dropping certain nature words from its Junior Dictionary. “Acorn” and “catkin” have been scrapped; “broadband” and “cut-and-paste” added.

Not knowing the names of things makes them easier to discard. If our politicians know only “rain”, “silt” and “dredging”, the complexity of the flooding in Britain will never be understood. If trees are only ever “trees”, and not “birch”, “ash” or “sycamore”, their quality and value diminish in our minds.

“It makes it easier to cut them down,” Tyler adds. “It’s easy to be dispassionate about someone until you know his name is Stephen and his mother is Gladys. It’s easy to feel disconnected from what you don’t have a language for.”

We head to a local café where we warm our fingers with tea served in porcelain mugs as toddlers shimmy around the table legs and parents slouch wearily at the side.

Isn’t this project about loss?

“Sometimes you can’t account for the senses you experience in terms of sight, smell or hearing a landscape,” Tyler says. “There will always be wordless experiences, thank goodness, but knowing these words allows us to tell a richer story. They connect us with the history of the words and the other people who know them.”

I head home, past a tree scrawled with lovers’ initials. The bark has grown around the cuts, curving to accommodate each letter. The words Tyler collects remain alive, too – shifting, changing – long after we have departed the landscape, like mushroom spores lying dormant in the soil. Some are scrawled in the notes of park rangers, fishermen and mountaineers. Others lie patiently in books, waiting to be dredged up and catalogued for the digital future.

It’s as if the landscape is dilating around me. “It is an entirely other feeling,” Tyler said earlier, his voice quickening with excitement. “Almost like a separate sensory input.” He’s right.

Uncommon Ground: a word-lover's guide to the British landscape by Dominick Tyler will be published in March by Guardian Faber

Lucy Purdy is a freelance writer from rural Shropshire, now living in north London. She writes on the environment, landscape and our connection with the natural world. Follow her on Twitter as @Loosepea

This article first appeared in the 06 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, An empire that speaks English

Photo: Nadav Kander
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Sarah Hall's dark short stories are fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment

The displacements in Madame Zero are literal, figurative and occasionally fantastical.

There’s no story called “Madame Zero” in Sarah Hall’s new collection: the title floats enigmatically above this dark and memorable set of stories. A passing mention of “Cotard. Capgras. Madame Zero” gives a clue, but the reader has to scurry for it.

In the 1920s a patient presented herself to the French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras with what the latter identified as an unusual form of the Cotard delusion, a mental illness characterised by a radical sense of disconnection from the self. Some Cotard sufferers think parts of their body have vanished; some think they’re dead and rotting. Capgras’s patient felt that she wasn’t there at all, and gave the name Madame Zero to the non-being who had replaced her.

With this, a lot becomes clear about Hall’s second collection of short fiction. So many of these stories are about characters who have vanished, become strange to themselves or stepped out of the centres of their own lives.

The displacements are literal, figurative and, occasionally, fantastical. In the opening story, “Mrs Fox”, for which Hall won the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2013, a woman who “dreams subterranean dreams, of forests, dark corridors and burrows, roots and earth” is out for a walk with her husband one morning when she transforms into a vixen. “She turns and smiles,” Hall writes, in language whose imagery edges close to horror. “Something is wrong with her face. The bones have been re-carved. Her lips are thin and the nose is a dark blade. Teeth small and yellow. The lashes of her hazel eyes have thickened…”

The story quietly updates David Garnett’s strange little novel Lady Into Fox from 1922, but its fascination with the wild – in humans, in nature, in the borders between the two – continues a theme that runs in Hall’s work from her debut novel Haweswater (2002) to her most recent, The Wolf Border (2015).

It finds an echo in “Evie”, the collection’s final piece, in which a married woman becomes wild in a different way, exhibiting cravings, confusion and promiscuity that first baffles then arouses her husband. Her radical changes, however (“She’d walked carelessly across the tripwires of their relationship, as though through a field of mines, as if immune”), turn out to have a dreadful neurological cause.

Other stories experiment with register, style and genre. Written in downbeat medicalese, “Case Study 2” takes the form of a psychiatrist’s report on a patient: a wild boy found on the moors who turns out to have been brought up by a secretive communal cult. As the therapist begins to “re-parent” her new charge, getting him to say “I” instead of “we” and teaching him about property and possessions, Hall drip-feeds hints about the community he has left, whose slogan “All of one mind and all free” soon acquires a threatening resonance.

The points in this story about connection and selfhood give it an aspect of fable, but at root it’s a weird tale; take away the leached and wistful tone and the doctorly equivocations and we might be in The Twilight Zone. Hall has written counterfactuals and science fiction before: her novel The Carhullan Army imagined life among a group of armed feminist rebels in dystopian Britain, while The Wolf Border, written before the referendum but set in a newly independent Scotland, looks more alternative-historical by the day. 

Similar impulses power several of the stories here. “Theatre 6” portrays a Britain living under “God’s Jurisdiction”, in which the Department for the Protection of Unborn Children insists all pregnancies be carried to term. Other imaginary societies are evoked in “Later, His Ghost”, a haunting piece of cli-fi about a Britain devastated by high winds (originally published in this magazine); and in “One in Four”, a four-page chiller set in the middle of a flu pandemic. Hall is no world-building nerd, however. Her focus is always on the strangely displaced characters (harried anaesthetist, obsessed survivor, suicidal biochemist) at the stories’ heart.

A microclimate of unease also hangs over the stories in which nothing weird is visibly going on. In “Luxury Hour”, a new mother returning from the lido meets the man with whom she once had a secret affair; going home, she imagines her child “lying motionless in the bath while the minder sat on a stool, wings unfurled, monstrous”. “Goodnight Nobody” evokes the crowded inner world of Jem, an Eighties child with a ThunderCats obsession (but her mum works in a mortuary, and the neighbour’s dog has just eaten a baby…). And “Wilderness”, my favourite from this collection, conjures stark prickling fear from its description of a woman with vertigo crossing a creaking viaduct in South Africa: “The viaduct was floating free, and sailing on the wind. It was moving into the valley, into the river’s mouth. It was going to hit the hillside, and heave and tip and buckle.”

These aren’t particularly comforting stories; they’re fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment, told by or featuring characters who are frequently incomprehensible to themselves. But their poise, power and assurance are very striking indeed. 

Madame Zero
Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 179pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder