Robert MacFarlane is a fantastic writer whose subject matter – the natural world – he treats with lyrical brilliance. His latest book, Landmarks, was written as an antidote to the disappearing language of the countryside.
It is a point that has been made a number of times, but these days ‘blackberry’, ‘apple’ and other common words have very different meanings to a few years ago, no longer are they predominantly fruit, but more likely to be something you remain glued to for hours at a time. Meanwhile, other words, such as thicket, brambling or meadowlark are just names on houses and bear no relation to their true origin. We are, says MacFarlane, losing touch with nature and our landscape is becoming a blandscape. Where once, we would recognise and name types of flora and fauna, now they are just plants and animals; corries, spurs and lea are just hills or fields. We are gradually losing the intricate language of the natural world.
In an effort to resurrect parts of the language of the countryside, MacFarlane offers a glossary at the end of each chapter of Landmarks, which reminds us of some of the words that have slipped from everyday use. He also gives the regional origins of the words and Norfolk, perhaps unsurprisingly given the richness of our old local dialect, features heavily.
Here are some examples:
Roke – a fog that rises in the evenings off marshes and water meadows.
Breck – a breach, blemish or failing; thus Brecklands, the name given to the sandy heathlands of south Norfolk
Ling – a sandy heathland
Smeeth – a level space
Hover – a floating island or bed of reeds
Drindle – a small trickle of water
Mardle – a small pond convenient for livestock; also to gossip
While much of MacFarlane’s book concentrates upon the countryside, he also talks about the power of nature to survive in any environment and in particular in what he terms, “the bastard countryside” or the “drosscape”. This is the area of land that signifies the end of the urban area and the start of the countryside. Here nature exists in scrubby wastelands, old factory sites, industrial-edged river banks, roundabouts and verges.
We only have to see the teeming amount of rabbits that have made their home on the Hardwick Roundabout or spot the bluebells, snowdrops and yellow marsh marigolds that push up along the sides of the Gaywood River as it runs through the centre of town to see how true it is. An abandoned factory, house or garden will soon be reclaimed by nature; it would be a wonderful thing if we could reclaim some of our language too.