I opened Landmarks and started to read my proof copy of Robert Macfarlane's latest book on January 8th 2015. I know because I actually made a note inside. The plan was to make an early start because at the beginning of March, March 6th to be exact, I would be meeting up with six of the Port Eliot dovegreyreader tent helpers for a long weekend in Norfolk, and talking about Landmarks was on our agenda. They all had proof copies too and we were all very enthusiastic about Team Landmarks, to say nothing of a girls weekend away and shared meals, beach walks and lots of laughter, all of which we had fondly been calling Seven Go Mad in Norfolk all winter.
The date of March 6th had been agreed last autumn, the big house was booked, the train tickets were booked, we had all started an enthused e mail conversation about Landmarks and the excitement was palpable...
And then, on January 12th the Tinker and I had the first of those hospital appointments and I knew in an instant that Norfolk, for me, would be cancelled. I kept up the pretence for a few more weeks knowing how upset my dad would be to think I was missing it, and Bookhound saying 'You absolutely MUST go...we'll be fine here...' but I soon realised that not only could I not be away from home, but I didn't actually want to be more than an inch away from home and family, and so I pulled out. I gave the Norfolk Crew very strict instructions that they were to carry on regardless and that I would be very disappointed if they didn't have a whale of a time.
Who could have predicted that the day I should have been departing on the train was the day we finally realised that the Tinker was going to be departing on his journey too, and this all by way of explaining that it has all unwittingly made Landmarks something of a landmark book. It became one of the few books that I found I could read, as well as escaping into some of the diversions that Robert Macfarlane suggested. And I was struck, as I read a book about words and about forgotten words, because there I was locating a disappearing professional vocabulary of my own from many years ago; illness, hospitals and nursing have a language of their own too.
In part Landmarks is a collection of the introductions that Robert Macfarlane has written for other books as well as new writing about the power of language and its ability to shape our sense of place...
'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 comprision of islands, rivers, strands, fells, lochs , cities, towns, corries, hedgerows, fields and edgelands uneasily known as the British Isles.'
And those word hoards, in the form of glossaries, permeate the book at regular intervals, what Robert Macfarlane calls a Terra Britannica, a gathering of terms, 'specialized ways of indicating aspects of place,' the words freighted not only with a disappearing history but also an urgency. How can arguments for the nurturing and protection of landscape be advanced without the vocabulary to describe it, and in my own small way it feels true...I can look at a landscape and be struck dumb, with no words to describe
I was immediately interested in those Devon words, especially the ammil, and sent the poor librarian delving into the Exeter stacks to find all the old dialect books which sadly, in the end, I didn't really have time to study in any detail but sufficient to discover that, by osmosis, a great deal of the Devon vernacular has slipped into our daily round without us realising.
'To exercise a care of attention towards a place - as towards a person - is to achieve a sympathetic intimacy with it...'
It's not hard to see why a line like that from Robert Macfarlane would send me scurrying for a copy of Arctic Dreams is it...
'His prose [Barry Lopez's] - priestly, intense, grace-noted - is driven by the belief that 'it is possible to live wisely on the land, and to love well,' and by a conviction that the real achievement of place-writing might be to help incorporate nature into the moral realm of human community.'
It's a lofty idea that might have fallen on stony ground with me at any another less tender time and in another place, but there was a state of grace to be found and I was right in the midst of it. Barry Lopez seemed to take up the baton in my reading...
'How do people imagine the landscapes they find themselves in? How does the land shape the imaginations of the people who dwell in it?...What will we do as the wisdom of the past bears down on our future...'
Landmarks set aside, my copy of Arctic Dreams, opened on February 13th and finished ten days later, is littered with underlinings and marginalia (another rule broken about not scribbling in books any more). On February 19th, as I was reading the chapter on Ice and Light, Niagara Falls froze in a sort of spectacular suspended animation... we were all mesmerised.
'There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions,' says Barry Lopez, 'You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of leaning into the light...'
Eventually back to Landmarks and Robert Macfarlane verbalising his way across the land adding the glossaries for Flatlands, Uplands, Waterlands, Coastlands, Underlands, Northlands, Edgelands, Earthlands and Woodlands and along the way citing other lives and work; A Land by Jacquetta Hawke, J.A.Baker's The Peregrine, (and the suggestion that Baker anticipates The Rings of Saturn by W.G.Sebald, another book off the shelf ) The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd and mention of The Pebbles on the Beach by Clarence Ellis.
Thank you to Fran who found me a copy of The Pebbles on the Beach in a second-hand shop and saved me having to cry over handing the library copy back, the book a treasure if only to have this quote in a book on my shelves...
'Pebble hunting is a pleasant and health-giving hobby ...and all but those who are nearing the last stage of decrepitude can enjoy it...'
More about that and my new Cabinet of Curiosities to come.
Meanwhile Linda W, one of the Happy Campers who did go mad in Norfolk, has had a genius idea for her proof copy of Landmarks which, lacking the chapter-heading woodcuts of the finished copy, does look a bit bare. Linda chose and stuck in a photograph for each of the glossaries and I am shamelessly going to copy that idea for what has now become my very special copy of the book.
And off to hear Robert Macfarlane talking to Horatio Clare at the Hay Festival very soon, to be followed by Helen Macdonald talking about H is for Hawk on the same day.
Life goes on and lovely things to look forward to.