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The naming of the shrew: language, landscape and the new nature writing

Nature writers are seeking to restore a rich, neglected vocabulary– but words can tame as well as illuminate the land.

Wistman’s Wood, Devon, from “Uncommon Ground”. Photo: Dominick Tyler

A couple of weeks ago Mark Cocker, whose works such as Crow Country (2007) could be seen as the founding texts of “new nature writing” (although I have yet to find anyone who likes the term, apart from publishers), took me and a friend out on to the fringes of the Norfolk Broads, on the outskirts of Norwich. The light was falling as we stood on a raised path above the floodplain, caught between water, land and sky. Above us, in a row of poplars, quivering in the bare branches like black leaves, were thousands of corvids: rooks and jackdaws, readying themselves for their evening roost. They had flown here from all over the county, and beyond, Cocker told us; perhaps some from as far away as western Europe. In the distance, a sugar-beet factory spewed its smoke on the horizon.

As the sky grew dark, the birds rose in discrete groups into the air, calling to fellow birds as if for reassurance. Gradually, the eddying, swooping number gained mass until it darkened the very sky. Then, at some appointed moment, the trigger for which remains unclear, the spiralling cloud coalesced and drew into itself, and flew over our heads. Against the grey, the birds seemed like a dark heaven.

In an instant, they were far in the distance over a remote wood; 40,000 of them, according to Cocker. Just as abruptly, the clatter of wings and caws was absorbed into the trees. The wood was an ancient site, Cocker said, a “ghost rookery”, marker of a landscape reaching back for corvid generations. What these birds were, and where they were, was expressed by their abiding presence. They did not need us to be there to be them. They did not need our names. As the American naturalist Aldo Leopold wrote, birds animate a landscape. They are implicitly part of it.

What really touches us as human beings? As we separate ourselves from ourselves, we seek a new association in nature and the land. Most of us live in suburbia, a nowhere place, and so we send surrogate explorers – writers, artists, film-makers – to seek a reconnection that might never have been there in the first place. Essential to this imagining is the naming of things, to categorise that experience – vicarious as it often may be – to file and catalogue it, to make it secure in our memories, to hold it to ourselves, to encompass its essential otherness. For all that, our instinct to comprehend is also a transcendental act. Nothing I could say about that corvid roost, experienced on a winter twilight, could actually re-create it. But words can help put us in a similar place.

In his new book, Landmarks, Robert Macfarlane seeks to name the unnameable. It is in part an idiosyncratic glossary of ancient or newly invented words. The Devonian word stugged, for instance, meaning “of a person or animal: enmired in a bog”; or the Galloway verb blatter: “to rain heavily, noisily; also to beat, thrash”; or the lovely wayzgoose, the Cornish scarecrow. Arcane they may be, but some of these words are extremely useful, such as the terse, grunt-like èit, which saves the Gaelic-speakers of the Isle of Lewis the bother of describing the “practice of placing quartz stones in moorland streams so that they would sparkle in moonlight and thereby attract salmon to them in the late summer and autumn”.

As if to answer the accusation that these archaic terms are mere tombstones in a lexicographical cemetery, Macfarlane, our explorer, sets out for meetings with like-minded people – living and dead – from whom this vocabulary might be learned. People such as J A Baker, a librarian-naturalist about whom Macfarlane has written before, and into whose archives at Cambridge (where Macfarlane is a fellow at Emmanuel College) he delves deeply. Baker, afflicted with ankylosing spondylitis, a severe form of arthritis, resorted to beautiful new ways of describing the birds of the Essex marshes that had become his refuge: “The peregrine lives in a pouring-away world of no attachment, a world of wakes and tilting, of sinking planes and water . . . He finds his way across the land by a succession of remembered symmetries.”

Macfarlane describes how Baker subjected the proofs of his book The Peregrine (1967) to mathematical analysis, meticulously enumerating the verbs, adjectives, metaphors and similes on each page, as if to quantify his art. Bowed down by illness, he sought solace in nature, only to find it impossible to disassociate himself from a collective human shame. In one shocking passage quoted by Macfarlane, Baker finds a heron dying in an icy field, its wings frozen to the ground. As the bird flaps pathetically, he despatches it, seeing “the agonised sunlight of its eyes slowly heal with cloud”. “No pain, no death, is more terrible to a wild creature than its fear of man,” Baker concludes. “We are the killers. We stink of death. We carry it with us. It sticks to us like frost. We cannot tear it away.”

Paradise lost: Eva Braun exercising at Konigsee lake in Bavaria, near Hitler’s vacation residence, 1942. Photo: Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images

Macfarlane’s own peregrinations also call on the services of another intriguing figure: Richard Jefferies, the Victorian visionary who, in his book After London (1885), imagined a post-apocalyptic southern England as if the Industrial Revolution had never happened. (Macfarlane correctly sets this book alongside Ruskin’s omen-filled lectures on “The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century”, delivered the previous year, 1884.) It is Jefferies’s ghost that accompanies Macfarlane into what the latter calls “bastard countryside”: the land at the edge of the city, “the end of the murmur of things divine”, as Victor Hugo wrote, “the beginning of the noise of humankind”.

Particularly evocative are Macfarlane’s sketches of women writers, such as the poet and novelist Nan Shepherd, whose book The Living Mountain, written in the 1940s, was not published until 1977. He follows her to the Cairngorms, which she explored all her life; she rejected the masculine notion of summits to be conquered in preference for her desire to enter into the mountain. Around the same time, Jacquetta Hawkes was writing A Land (1951), which Macfarlane hymns as part neo-Romantic fantasy, part Mass Observation study, part psychogeographic exercise before its time.

Indeed, Macfarlane does sterling work in addressing a gender imbalance in this genre (where Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk comes as a breath of fresh, if grief-inflected, air). At a recent event convened by New Networks for Nature, an excellent voluntary organisation that seeks to bridge science, art and conservation, one guest raised the perceived lack of diversity among naturalists and nature writers. The point came like a shudder in an audience that was mostly white and middle-class. (Similarly, I wonder what place in this narrative might be claimed by queer nature – Derek Jarman’s journals Modern Nature come to mind – given the notion that some people hold that sexual otherness is essentially “unnatural”.)

Macfarlane’s list is swollen by the purely literary, too, such as Gerard Manley Hopkins’s neologisms – “hoarhusk: debris left by the frost-weathering of stones and boulders”; or “leafmeal: trees’ ‘cast self’, disintegrating as fallen leaves”. Less convincing are more modern creations such as Roger Deakin’s endolphins, “swimmers’ slang for the natural opiates (‘endorphins’) released by the body on contact with cold water”. Deakin’s Waterlog (1999) is a seminal text for the new naturalists; Macfarlane is not only his literary executor but his literary heir, too. Yet Waterlog’s popularisation of “wild swimming” is symptomatic of the way a trend can commodify. In what way is “wild swimming” different from “swimming”? Amusingly, in his own book, Macfarlane loses his temper when, as he emerges dripping from a chilly loch, a driver pulls up and says, “You’ve been swimming, haven’t you?” It turns out that she has been listening to a tape of Waterlog in her car. (As a year-round swimmer in the sea, I empathise with his frustration. One quickly runs out of new ways to answer the question, “Is it cold?” – although recently on a freezing morning a passer-by accosted me with the rather more inventive, “Haven’t you got a fridge at home?”)

Published at the same time as Landmarks is Dominick Tyler’s Uncommon Ground. The book’s title echoes the name of Deakin’s arts and environmental charity, Common Ground. Tyler also worked as the photographer on Kate Rew’s book Wild Swim (2008); the beautiful images in Uncommon Ground reflect his wry, informed and amusing text. In the entry for “epilimnion”, a semi-submerged hand in clear lakeland water evokes his textural definition: the layer of warm water over cold, causing, for the author as for others, that instinctive shudder as one’s lower limbs detect the difference. Tyler confesses a secret fear we all share: that in a deep, dark body of water, he often feels like “tearing back to shore, pursued by all [my] irrational fears”.

Tyler’s definitions spin off into nice associations. Photographing a pregnant-looking bump growing through the bark of a birch – technically a spheroblast, more commonly known as a burr – sends him off on a reverie, from burr walnut fascias in luxury car interiors to the smell of sweet tobacco and driving gloves. He prefers the “fusty taint” of “burr” to “spheroblast”, which “sounds like the special attack of a character in a Japanese computer game”.

Given where we stand today, in the age of the anthropocene, contemporary nature writing cannot help but exist on a precipice. Invariably, it speaks to a wish for better days. A recent letter to the Guardian claimed that the genre owes its popularity to the economic crash of 2008 (although there are books by Cocker, Macfarlane, Richard Mabey and Tim Dee that pre-date this). Perhaps it is true that when “times are tough” we seek reassurance, looking for horizons beyond the blue screens on to which our waking gaze is locked.

Yet there is a troubling aspect to this utopian impulse. You see it in the extirpation of “non-native species” (what William Morris called “vile weeds”) and in the longing for the purity of the past. In an odd aside in H Is for Hawk, Macdonald writes of chalk landscapes and the way they have been interpreted in “English nature-culture”. Riffing on her sub-narrative, based on T H White’s The Goshawk (written in 1936, published in 1951), she identifies a reactionary aspect of national as well as natural history at work.

That the chalk-cult rested on a presumption of organic connections to a landscape, a sense of belonging sanctified through an appeal to your own imagined lineage. . . . I realised these myths hurt. That they work to wipe away other cultures, other histories, other ways of loving, working and being in a landscape. How they tiptoe towards darkness.

While writing this article, I visited the excellent Towner gallery in Eastbourne, which is showing the work of the Tel Aviv-born contemporary artist Ori Gersht. In Evaders, a series of photographic landscapes and film inspired by the attempted flight over the Pyrenees of the German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin in 1940 (he committed suicide rather than be repatriated), Gersht “quotes” from the Romantic landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich, in which the human presence is placed in a relationship of reverie, but also dominion.

In Gersht’s work, the sublime forests and mountains take on the new weight of other precipices and woods freighted with the past and the present. It was telling that in the adjoining Eric Ravilious Room, a permanent display of the Sussex artist’s work shows his idyllic images of the chalk landscapes of the South Downs – also visible through Towner’s windows, whale-backed and ribbed like corduroy. Ravilious’s, too, was a utopian vision, but also tainted by the events of the 20th century.

Words can control, as well as illuminate the land. On a January trip to Berlin, after a visit to the Alte Nationalgalerie’s gloomy room devoted to Friedrich, and desperate to swim, I took the S-Bahn to Wannsee, where I pushed out into the clear, cold lake from the muddy shore. Behind me was the foreboding shape of the villa where the Final Solution was devised. That knowledge somehow invested the water and the otherwise idyllic view with an unspeakable terror. Yet the ducks swam by innocently and the sun shone overhead. As sublime as a landscape may be, it is irrevocably tainted by the terms we have dictated. John Clare, protesting the enclosures that took the land away from its people in the early 19th century, compared the appropriations with those of the tyrant Bonaparte and a seemingly vengeful new age that “hung the moles for traitors”.

We don’t stand alone on the mountain or the shore. Back in England, out on that Norfolk fen in the failing light of a February evening, Mark Cocker had to correct himself when, looking up at the waves of corvids careering over our heads, he called them “my birds”. Like Macfarlane and Tyler, he knows better than most the dangers of possessiveness and insularity, and all that they bring in their wake.

Robert Macfarlane’s “Landmarks” is published by Hamish Hamilton (£20). He will appear at the Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on 18 April

Dominick Tyler’s “Uncommon Ground” is published by Guardian Faber (£16.99)

Philip Hoare’s essay on swimming for BBC Radio 3 is available on iPlayer Radio

Philip Hoare’s books include Wilde’s Last Stand, England’s Lost Eden, and Spike IslandLeviathan or, The Whale won the Samuel Johnson Prize for 2009, and The Sea Inside was published in 2013. He is professor of creative writing at the University of Southampton, and co-curator of the Moby-Dick Big Read. His website is www.philiphoare.co.uk, and he is on Twitter @philipwhale.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, British politics is broken

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The Last Wolf: Robert Winder's book examines the elusive concept of Englishness

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could this mean there is no such thing any more?

Is there anything more tiresome than debating the essence of “Englishness” – or any other national identity, come to that? Millions of words must have been spilt on this fruitless quest over the past century, generating gigatonnes of wind that could have been usefully harvested for energy. Each time, no “essence” is to be found, and everyone goes back to the beginning and starts again.

That’s how it used to be, anyway. More recently, in the wake of the Brexit vote and the divisions it has laid bare, the debate about who “we” are has become fraught and urgent. England, and Britain more widely, is hardly alone in its soul-searching. Arguments about belonging, culture, nationhood and identity are flooding across the Western world – and beyond – because people are increasingly unsure about who or where they are. The sweeping changes unleashed by hypercapitalism, technological change and unprecedented levels of migration are making rootlessness the norm, and the more people feel rootless the more they want to know where they belong and where they come from.

British politicians often respond to this by attempting to formulate some notion of our collective “values”. Here’s who we are, all 65 million of us, they say, and then proceed to read out a list of uniquely “British” things that only “British” people do, like valuing democracy, being tolerant with each other and standing in queues politely. These attempts at top-down unity are always failures, largely because, with the possible exception of the queuing, all the “values” asserted are pretty much universal. There’s nothing uniquely “British” about valuing the rule of law or freedom of speech (regularly clamping down on freedom of speech is a more reliably British virtue, if history is anything to go by). The failure of anyone to produce a list of “values” that are uniquely British – or English, or Welsh, or Scottish – suggests that they don’t exist. The island is just too teeming, diverse and disconnected now for much to be held in common at all.

So what, if anything, might define that elusive “Englishness”, the subject of Robert Winder’s new book? Cultural quirks, perhaps? I can confidently assert that the English know how to make a good cup of strong tea better than anyone else on earth (with the possible exception of the Irish), and we’re also world champions at dog shows, proper beer and indie guitar bands. But I’m not sure that these are things I would encourage my children to die patriotically in a trench for.

Winder offers a better answer, and it’s one that anyone brave or suicidal enough to pitch in to the contemporary European identity debate should consider. It offers a path through the horrible, thorny maze of arguments about race, ethnicity, migration and the like, towards something that, potentially, could unite people rather than divide them. What makes and forms a “people”, says Winder, in England as elsewhere, is the one thing they all share: the place itself. If there is an “Englishness” it is formed from the nature, literally, of England:

If we really wanted to search for the national identity, I thought, the real place to look was in the natural heritage of hills, valleys, rivers, stones and mists – the raw materials that had, over time, moulded the way we were. Landscape and history – the past and the elemental backdrop – were the only things we could truly claim as our own. Just as some plants thrive in sand and others in clay, so a national character is fed by nutrients it cannot alter.

Early on in the book, Winder quotes the novelist Lawrence Durrell, who makes the same case more provocatively:

I believe you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the land with Tartars, and within two generations discover… that the national characteristics were back at norm – the relentless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and passionate individualism.

Durrell goes on to suggest that “a Cypriot who settled in London would in time become English, simply because human customs owe just as much to the local environment as to trees and flowers”. I’m in a position to test this hypothesis, because my grandmother was a Cypriot who settled in London. Did she become English? Well, she wore English clothes, lived in a bungalow, cooked roast dinners, won endless rosettes in endless dog shows and had her English friends call her Doris, because they had trouble pronouncing Demetra. On the other hand, she never lost her accent, her language or her connections to her homeland, and until the end of her life she made a mean baklava. I don’t know what any of that means, other than that labels can get confusing pretty quickly.

And that is Winder’s point: forget the labels, look at the land below your feet. That’s where your “identity” comes from. Take the last wolf in England, which gives the book its title. Allegedly killed in the 1290s by a Shropshire knight named Peter Corbet (the king had tasked this “mighty hunter” and other nobles with ridding the land of predators), the wolf’s end freed up the English to transform their landscape – in a way not available to many other European countries, whose wolf populations were too large and interlinked to kill off – into “the biggest sheep farm in the world”. This turned England, in the Middle Ages, into a wealthy wool economy. It was an agricultural revolution, shaping everything from land ownership to diet to class structures to the architecture of the Cotswolds, and it happened not just because the landscape was now wolfless, but because “the country was made for grass”.

The same soil and climate that made growing grass so easy did the same for wheat – which, mainly in the form of bread, has been the staple of the English diet from the rise of agriculture to the present day, when we eat more wheat than ever. Add in the later discovery of coal, which was found in rich seams across the country, and which gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire, and Winder suggests, only slightly playfully, that the English national character can be summed up by way of an algebraic equation: e = cw4: “Englishness equals coal x wool, wheat and wet weather.”

The book’s central case – that “natural history might be a branch of political science” – is a necessary corrective to a public debate in which we are increasingly instructed to believe that virtually every aspect of our character is a “social construct”. Winder wants us to understand that much of it is actually a natural construct, which means in turn that our development is not entirely under our control. It’s not a message that many people want to hear in an age of selfies and consumer choice: “Just as each vineyard (or terroir) produces its own unique wine, so human beings are conditioned by their local landscape. We move around more now, so the lines are blurred, but the underlying skeleton of English culture – the bare bones of the national psyche – may have changed less than we think.”

I couldn’t help, as I read, wanting more detail on this “underlying skeleton”. Where are the folk songs, the rhymes and ballads? Where is the mythology? Where are the grainy details of the lives of the people who, throughout English history, were probably shaped by the landscape most of all, and who shaped it in turn – the peasantry? There are glimpses of all this, but there is also too much school-textbooky history of inventors and their inventions, of revolutions and wars. A book like this ought to start at the bottom – in the mud, in the mulch on the forest floor. I wanted an earthier, messier story.

Despite this, there is plenty to chew on here. The question that remained when it was over though, for this reviewer at least, was: is any of it true any more? It may once have been the case that human customs were formed by places, but is it now?

When people in England, or anywhere in the modern world, have more connection, via their handheld screens, with the mill race of global consumer “culture” than they do with the landscape around them, and when only a handful of us work on or really know that landscape, what chance does it have of forming the basis of our cultural life?

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could the reason simply be that there is no such thing any more; that the English, like other denizens of techno-post-modernity, are shaped not by their natural environment, but by the artificial one that is rising to enclose them like a silicon cocoon? When the heavy metals in your smartphone are mined in Indonesia, not Cornwall, what equation defines you – and do you even care? 

Paul Kingsnorth’s books include “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist ” (Faber & Faber)

The Last Wolf: the Hidden Springs of Englishness
Robert Winder
Little, Brown, 480pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon