OVER the last few years we have seen a profusion of what could be termed rural writing, harking back to a supposed golden age between the wars. 
Robert MacFarlane is, if not the doyen, then at least the poster boy for this movement, and his new book, Landmarks, has been eagerly awaited. Whereas, in The Old Ways, he explored paths and byways on a kind of personal odyssey, he has created here a celebration of those writers whose descriptions of the natural world have most inspired him. He has also managed to compile a “glossary of enchantment,” a collection of dialect terms and poetic words which describe with precision various aspects of nature.
Much has already been made of his introduction, which lists the countryside terms omitted from the latest Oxford Junior Dictionary and their technological replacements, suggesting that today’s children are being deprived of natural knowledge not merely by circumstance but also by what reference material is made available to them. This leads later in the book to the question of the limits of play, the lack of outdoor aptitude resulting from the obsession with technology, but the generally nostalgic tone of the book is not a sign of backward thinking; rather than merely lamenting what is past, MacFarlane is appealing for us to save what we have.
The writers he reveres include Nan Shepherd, a remarkable woman who spent much of her life traversing the Cairngorms, living in the same house for eighty years and producing her masterpiece, The Living Mountain. In celebrating this achievement MacFarlane laments the souring of the term parochial; rather than denoting insularity he suggests that to know a tiny space completely is a valuable thing, quoting the poet Patrick Kavanagh, “Parochialism is universal; it deals with the fundamentals.” J.A. Baker, author of The Peregrine, is also praised for his 1930s classic, which will appeal to anyone struck by Helen MacDonald’s prizewinning H is for Hawk, and the remarkable A Land by Jacquetta Hawkes receives a glowing recommendation, but perhaps the author most admired by MacFarlane is Roger Deakin, not just a friend but also a hero to him. Deakin’s books, Wildwood, Notes from Walnut Tree Farm and Waterlog, have been bestsellers ever since they were published and this incredible man, who died in 2006, seems to embody the whole “back to nature” ideal. He indulged in wild swimming, restored an ancient farmhouse and believed passionately in recycling and the avoidance of waste. All in all, he figures as the real star of this book.
There is, however, a secondary aspect which appeals; Macfarlane’s carefully compiled “Post-Desecration Handbook,” a set of word-lists taken from all over the British Isles which brings to life the relationship between Britons and their landscape. Yorkshire words such as blatter for “puddle” or ing for wet meadow rub shoulders with Gaelic, Welsh (the word ffridd, meaning “mountain pasture”, has echoes of the rabbit god Frith from Watership Down) and even Manx (aghlish for the curve of a river translates literally as “armpit”). Words coined by poets also appear here, in particular from Gerard Manley Hopkins and Philip Sidney, but my particular favourite is the North Yorkshire term “summer geese”, which refers to steam rising from moorland when sunshine follows rain.
This is a book to savour, for in addition to cementing MacFarlane’s reputation as a natural writer par excellence it brings to a wider audience the work of many writers whose love of nature and skill with words deserves our attention.
Landmarks is published in hardback by Hamish Hamilton at £20 and most of the books featured in it are in print too.