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19 March 2015updated 05 Oct 2023 8:54am

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.

By Philip Hoare

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.

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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

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