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

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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism