Near my home in Ireland, where I have been staying for several months now, there are many beautiful walks through the woods and across fields. During these difficult times, walking has been a release for me and nature has been such a comfort: to see spring blooming all around brings hope and a promise of rejuvenation.
Of course, as a writer I am fascinated by words. I have written here before of my love for dictionaries, for etymology (the study of the origin of words and their changing meanings). Recently, I read the most wonderful book that spoke to both my love of words and my love of nature: Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane. Here is the synopsis:
Landmarks is Robert Macfarlane’s joyous meditation on words, landscape and the relationship between the two. Words are grained into our landscapes, and landscapes are grained into our words.
Landmarks is about the power of language to shape our sense of place. It is a field guide to the literature of nature, and a glossary containing thousands of remarkable words used in England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales to describe land, nature and weather.
Travelling from Cumbria to the Cairngorms, and exploring the landscapes of Roger Deakin, J. A. Baker, Nan Shepherd and others, Robert Macfarlane shows that language, well used, is a keen way of knowing landscape, and a vital means of coming to love it.
I can’t tell you how thrilling it has been to learn so many new words to describe all manner of aspects and phenomena in nature, from a light rain (smigin) to the breaking of waves on a rocky shore (bretsh).
Here are just a few of my favourites from the book:
Billow – snowdrift (East Anglia)
Bleeterie – showery (Scots)
Brabble – ruffle on the sea’s surface (East Anglia)
Crundle – thicket in a hollow through which a stream passes (Hampshire, Sussex)
Dimity – twilight (Devon)
Foylings – deer tracks through a thicket (Northamptonshire)
Haze-fire – luminous morning mist through which the dawn sun is shining (poetic)
Hwamp – hollow in the ground (Shetland)
Spronky – of a plant or tree: having many roots (Kent)
Squiggle – to wriggle through a hedge (Essex)
Twitchel – narrow path between hedges (Midlands)
Whiffle – of a wind: to come in unpredictable gusts (Kent)
This collection of ‘place-words’ is so beautiful; it has really inspired me to think more about what I am seeing on my walks. The dappled sunlight filtering through tree branches – is there a word for that? The seeds of a dandelion drifting on the breeze – do we have a word for that? Should we?
There’s a sense of history here: that we must use these words that have been devised to describe the landscape, these clever and poetic words; we must keep them alive. But there is also an empowerment to create our own words (which writers, especially, love to do; see my article on Authorisms). In the Guardian, Robert Macfarlane writes:
As I travelled I met new terms as well as salvaging old ones: a painter in the Western Isles who used landskein to refer to the braid of blue horizon lines on a hazy day; a five-year-old girl who concocted honeyfur to describe the soft seeds of grasses pinched between fingertips. We have forgotten 10,000 words for our landscapes, but we will make 10,000 more, given time and inclination.
Today as I walk I will not only drink in the sights and the scents, I will try to put words to all I am seeing and experiencing. Then, when I return home, I will note down these words, in my own ‘place-word’ glossary. Some of these words may make their way into a novel; plenty won’t – but either way, I am happy, because I feel so connected to the landscape that is not merely outside my home, but is my home. As Lord Byron wrote:
There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore