I’ve been on a reading adventure of late: books that take as their subject British landscape and its lore and vocabulary, a trail that led to the idea for this week’s posts.
It all began with The Plot: A Biography of an English Acre by Madeleine Bunting. The book is an attempt at a biography of the author’s father, a very difficult man, through a biography of The Plot, his sacred acre of land. A sculptor, devout Catholic, and Arts and Crafts adherent, John Bunting built a chapel by himself and by hand on a remote acre of land in Yorkshire. He decorated it with religious sculpture and devoted it to fallen soldiers, but he excluded his wife and children from his obsession. Madeleine Bunting is full of ambivalence as the biographer of this acre of land, and she approaches The Plot sideways to try to fathom what it was that so absorbed her father. She comes up with so much more rich detail about this acre of land than he would have known, and it feels often as though she may have done so to subvert his own interests. It was a fascinating read for its tension between biography (by proxy) and local knowledge. The sheep that graze on the Yorkshire moors, for example, symbols of England’s pastoral identity, are more expensive to keep than the wool they produce. It’s illegal to burn or bury wool, though, so there’s a massive glut of wool. The sheep’s grazing is what is necessary to keep the moors looking like moors, though; otherwise, there’d be shrubs and trees instead of heather, and heather attracts tourists, so sheep are actually more valuable in a tourist economy than an agricultural economy.
In one of this year’s surprise hits, A Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape, James Rebanks makes the same observation. Rebanks, a shepherd in the Lake District, has, of all things, a hugely popular Twitter following (@herdyshepherd1), and on the strength of that success, he wrote this book about his work on the land. He also remarks on the unprofitable cost of shearing a sheep, and he is eloquent on the value of the enormous work that goes into the care of the herd. He is wonderfully acerbic about the disconnect between Romantic literary notions of land and landscape and his own experience of it. As a teen not quite old enough to leave school to work on his family farm, Rebanks recalls chafing under the requirement of school, but deciding to tune in one day when he realizes that a guest speaker at their school assembly had begun to talk about the Lake District, where his family had farmed for generations. The subtext of her talk is that to want to leave school in order to farm was to be more or less an idiot:
The idea that we, our fathers and mothers, might be proud, hard-working and intelligent people doing something worthwhile, or even admirable, seemed to be beyond her. … I listened, getting more and more aggravated, as I realized that curiously she knew, and claimed to love, our land. But she talked about it, and thought of it, in terms that were completely alien to my family and me. She loved a “wild” landscape, full of mountains, lakes, leisure and adventure, lightly peopled with folk I had never met. The Lake District in her monologue was the playground for an itinerant band of climbers, poets, walkers and daydreamers … people whom, unlike our parents, or us, had “really done something.” … I realized then, with some shock, that the landscape I loved, we loved, where we had belonged for centuries, the place known as “the Lake District,” had a claim to ownership submitted by other people, based on principles I barely understood.
In large part, his book is a corrective to this teacher’s brand of condescension, and it positively glows with the author’s pride in his work and heritage. It is uneven–some parts are beautifully crafted, and others needed more polishing–but a very enjoyable read.
Meadowland: The Private Life of an English Field is a similarly structured book. Limited, as is Bunting’s book, by a tiny parcel of land, John Lewis-Stempel writes a season-by-season diary of his meadow. He also takes issue with the Romantic notion of wilderness, but is happy to quote Wordsworth for his epigraph, in which, he says, the poet gets it right:
Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things
We murder to dissect.
To rationalize the natural world, he says, is pointless, so he offers a detailed and charmingly disjointed journal of his observations of the flora and fauna on Lower Meadow. One wonderfully self-deprecating observation that he makes is that while the English have a rich and varied lexicon for place names and features of the landscape, their imagination runs dry when it comes to naming the parts of individual farms. Every farm in England, he says, has a Lower Meadow or a North Field: “hardly ever do they lift themselves above the ultra-prosaic. … People needed to know field names, which were their places of work. Children and wives needed to know where to take men their ‘elevenses’ and ‘fourses,’ their cider or tea, their bread and cheese.”
Another surprise hit from the past year is Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk. The book is a curious mix of a grief memoir, a hawking history and handbook, and a biography of T.H. White, and these disparate themes are expertly woven together by an author who is in total command of her material. Winner of many prizes, including the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction and the Costa Book Award, H is for Hawk is one of those rare reads that does all of its work well. When the author is blindsided by a crippling grief for her father, she begins to dream of hawks. As a child she had been an avid student of falconry, and in the midst of her grief she revives that passion and sets out to acquire and train a goshawk that she names Mabel. It is an admittedly silly and old-fashioned name that comes from the Latin amabilis, meaning loveable or dear. In hawking circles, the sweeter the name of the hawk, the more fierce it is likely to become; nominative language here works in opposition to its goal. The name is not meant to signify.
Names do signify in Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks, however. This is also something of a genre-bender. Part essay and part dictionary, the book is a celebration of land and language. “This is a book about the power of language,” he writes on page one. “It is a field guide to literature I love, and it is a word hoard of the astonishing lexis for landscape that exists in the comparison of islands, rivers, strands, fells, lochs, cities, towns, corries, hedgerows, fields and edgelands uneasily known as the British Isles.” A book driven in large part by a desire to defy the inevitable death of language when urbanization makes redundant the rich variety of words for natural things, this book is also a call to get back into the natural world and experience first hand the places and phenomenon now made rare by modern life. This book does not murder to dissect, but it does attempt to give verbal shape to the beauteous forms of things. It’s a book to dip in and out of, to use as a resource and as a missal for those devoted to the natural world.
And, finally, Landmarks brought me to Uncommon Ground by Dominick Tyler. Tyler’s book is also a dictionary of words that describe places, but his is illustrated with breath-takingly beautiful photographs that illustrate the words he defines.
This is clitter or clatter depending on whether you are in Devon (clitter) or Cornwall (clatter). It is a word to describe the piles of granite boulders that litter and clutter the hillsides. I feel so incredibly tender about that perfectly apt word. How many people actually use it today? Well, if we don’t use it, at least we make a few more who know what it means and can conjure this image to define it.
It was the tender desire to protect and the contagious zeal to revel in language that gave me the idea for this week’s posts. In keeping with photography month, we thought we’d take the opportunity to share with you some words and their definitions that are entirely idiosyncratic to our families. This week you will see illustrated definitions of words unique to us. Unless, perhaps, they aren’t! Will you see any words you use? See any that you will adopt? Play along this week and share words unique to your families.
We are thrilled to welcome, once again, Kristina Cerise, who’s own mothering dictionary is a delight and an inspiration. Defining Motherhood is one of those blogs that makes you grateful for this world wide web of goodness.