Landmark, Seamark, or Soul’s Star?


Cairngorms National Park, Scotland 

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 DeakinRichard 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.





Landscapes of Language

I am a child of lost language. Well, it wasn’t the language that was lost–it carried on doing fine without me. I was the lost one.

It didn’t have to be that way but that’s how it turned out. Born into a Tamil-speaking family. Never studied the language. An itinerant family, we moved often. It wouldn’t have been practical. Spent some years distancing myself, as well, in an adolescent pursuit of cool. Now I can speak Tamil but I’m barely literate. So–no excuses. Just facts.


English gave me the ticket to where I am now, a writer of books for young readers, publishing in what is unquestionably the world’s bridge language. But then there is the literature of my ancestors, tangible in objects like this one but in many ways opaque to me.

For years I blamed myself. Spent some time pretending it didn’t matter. Spent some time being angry with the system that created the linguistically stranded, like me. And now  as I enter the 6th decade of my life, maybe I’m finally learning to come to terms with it.

So Iona Sharma’s article rang many bells for me. And it’s beautifully written. Here’s a snippet:

Gaelic will never have monolingual speakers again. My native language is gone forever. Relearning it is possible; decolonisation of the mind is possible. But I have been changed, first by the forgetting and the relearning. What is left is post-glacial, a landscape irrevocably altered.


I could tell myself that postglacial is still a landscape. And every landscape has its own beauty.

What’s Correct? Who’s Correct? Who Decides?

I’m just back from a trip to India, which is always a soul-stirring, mind boggling kind of experience. I always return filled with questions, and certain of only one thing–how very little I know about anything that really matters.

In the realm of raising questions that matter, consider this film by student filmmakers Ankita Bhatkhande, Dinesh Kumar Mahapatra, Eleanor Almeida, Jamminlian Vualnam, and Shuaib Shafi. Students, I’m proud to say, of my school friend from the last century, Anjali Monteiro and her partner K.P. Jayasankar. Antar Bhaasha means “inner language.”

The language in question is Marathi but the class and caste divides brought to light in this film exist in many Indian languages. Class and regional differences exist, as we all know, in North America as well. Ask any indigenous person whose parents or grandparents endured a boarding school education. Ask someone from Appalachia about the assumptions commonly made regarding that region’s version of standard American English.

The movie raises all kinds of questions about correctness and privilege. In the end, the children’s voices mash together in a poignant call. What do we do to young minds when we tell them that the language they use is not worth speaking?