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.





Despair for the World and the Peace of Wild Things

Here is Marion Dane Bauer, quoting one of my very favorite Wendell Berry passages:

When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives might be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the…

via Despair for the World — Just Thinking

img_0972I love the fact that Berry deals in ambiguities. He makes me think. I am not always certain about the peace of wild things. It’s a more appealing concept than Nature, red in tooth and claw but some days it seems as improbable. But then I go out into the garden and see how the fenugreek seeds I scattered weeks ago have grown in the new rain. I hear the flickers in the forest and the pileated woodpeckers drilling holes with the efficiency of carpenters,  and at once, if only for a moment, I feel part of the beauty.

I’m just finishing revisions on a novel whose story plays out against the backdrop of World War II. Soon I’ll be trying to decide which new project to focus on, and conflict will be front and center because that is how story is. In between, I find that I am badly in need of the peace of wild things.