OSS Book Review

Described as joyous meditation on words, Landmarks has been shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize 2015 and the Wainwright Prize 2016. Anna Morell provides her thoughts on the latest title from Robert MacFarlane.

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Anna’s Review – A Scrabble Bag of Origins

A deeply thoughtful narrative on land, water, nature, wild, rewilding and enchantment, Robert MacFarlane’s latest book, Landmarks, is interspersed with glossaries of several pages, each divided into categories of land types, weather, water, and the places so often between.

These are extraordinary. A Scrabble bag of origins – here, Shetlandic, there, Kentish. The vast majority from the wilder West, and counties which border coast. Shipping Forecast incantations that demand to be tried on the tongue. Visceral words. Onomatopoeiac words. Who hasn’t found themselves hovvery or kivvery after a winter’s swim – physically stuttering with the shivers?

For us as wild swimmers, much of this book bears strong testament to not Land, but Watermarks – the sea and riverscapes that form our land, and for us, form the point from which we see all that is solid, and all which hangs, lightly or heavily, to cloak our bobbing heads, in air.

Words on Water

Glossaries I, III and IV are the words on water. The first glossary, on flowing water, moves through rifes and sikes (streams) through rafty (damply cold) rokes (eventide fog). The third, on moving water, glides across abers (river mouths), through akers (turbulent currents), currels (streams) and kelds (deep, smooth areas of river); then into pools, ponds and lakes (liddens, mardles, plashes and pulks) through rains and storms (brenners, briskeno, dags, dibbles, dringey and williwaws – all rains – a full drenching of wonderful rains) then along riverbeds and banks (aas, sosses and waths), into springs and wells before diving headfirst into swimming and splashing words. These are ours: bumbel, dook, glumadh, skite, squashle. And more. Water’s surface. Wetlands. Glossary IV covers Coastlands.

Find Influence with MacFarlane

But the bulk of this book is not glossary, but thought. A quiet call to reconsideration. A firm rail against the commoditisation of land and a for a new appreciation of what is within it and often unseen. MacFarlane quotes the American geographer Yi Fu Tuan: ‘it is precisely what is invisible in the land that makes what is merely empty space to one person, a place to another.’

As MacFarlane says: ‘Open water offers a glass into which one peered to see local miracle and revelation.” As wild swimmers, we see place, revelation and wonder. We sea. We see. And nobody saw better than MacFarlane’s close friend, Roger Deakin, author of the seminal wild swimming book, Waterlog. A whole chapter is devoted to Deakin. His friendship, his love of words, his actual words and his influence on wild swimming – a word which, MacFarlane stresses through a quote from the OED, is of itself water – an ‘inflowing… said of the action of water… the notion of being influenced by another person… is aquatic in its connotations’.

This too, is an influential book.

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