Years ago, an English teacher handed me a volume of poetry by Gerard Manley Hopkins and forever changed my relationship with words. “Vex’d elm-heads” and a “listing heart” and the moon “dwindled and thinned to the fringe | of a fingernail….” It was as if that long-ago voice was showing me how heart and place could meet within a twist of a word or a single rhythmic leap.
Thank you, Christina Harrington, for telling me about Landmarks by Robert MacFarlane, because here is a book that delves into the inseparable nature of place and language, despite out best efforts to tear them apart. MacFarlane’s introductory chapter discusses the culling of words related to nature from the Oxford Junior Dictionary:
Under pressure, Oxford University press revealed a list of the entries it no longer felt to be relevant to a modern-day childhood. The deletions included acorn, adder, ash, beach, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture and willow. The words introduced to the new edition included attachment, block graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chat room, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player and voice mail.
Landmarks pleads for a literacy of the land, evoking precision and poetry as well as the voices of a range of writers and artists–Nan Shepherd (whose extraordinary writing I discovered last year on a visit to the Cairngorms in Scotland) Roger Deakin, Richard Skelton. It’s a summons to us all to pay attention to the landscape, to remember its name. In that remembering, we recreate the thing itself, passing it on to another generation.
How much more human and humane it is to prize listing hearts and dandelions over committees and voice mail.