#211. BETWEEN EVERY TWO PINES. Robert Macfarlane, in his passionate and revelatory book Landmarks (Penguin, 2016) quotes John Muir: “Between every two pines is a door leading to a new life.” He goes on to write: “To young children, of course, nature is full of doors—is nothing but doors, really—and they swing open at every step. A hollow in a tree is a gateway to a castle. An ant hole in dry soil leads to the other side of the world. A stick-den is a palace. A puddle is the portal to an undersea realm. To a three- or four-year-old, ‘landscape’ is not backdrop or wallpaper, it is a medium, teeming with opportunity and volatile in its textures… What we bloodlessly call ‘place’ is to young children a wild compound of dream, spell and substance: place is somewhere they are always in, never on.”
Macfarlane’s book, which bears the same relation to the usual run of nature writing that a great aria does to elevator music, took form when he discovered that the newest edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary had eliminated any number of words relating to the natural world—bluebell, catkin, mistletoe, newt—and replaced them with such words as blog, bullet-point, chatroom, and voice-mail. In a later chapter, as anguishing as the earlier chapters are delightful and exciting, he quotes a report to the effect that “between 1970 and 2010, the area in which British children were permitted to play unsupervised shrank by 90 per cent.” His reaction to this was to write a dozen or so essays on books and writers that had sharpened and delineated his own reactions to being “in, never on” the landscape, and to augment each essay with a nearly-magical glossary of words drawn from all over the U.K. of the old words used, with an astonishing mixture of poetry and precision, to describe the natural world. These glossaries are pure logophilic hallelujah: words rescued from the fire of time, knowledge-gnomes we’d never seen or forgotten, visionary showings of the landscapes in front of us whose details, as individual as those of a beloved face, we’d been too distracted to notice. In Norfolk a newt is a pollywiggle; putherry, in Staffordshire, is the stillness before a thunderstorm; print-moonlight is moonlight bright enough to read by, credited to Sussex but an immediate imaginative passport for me to an evening’s reading by a long sunfall, years ago in Galway; these, by the way, just from two-pages (370-371) of an appendix of words sent to Macfarlane by readers after the book’s first publication (and the reason you want to order the paperback reprint, not the original). Perhaps my favorite of all: eit, the “practice of placing quartz stones in moorland streams so that they would sparkle in moonlight and thereby attract salmon to them in the late summer or autumn (Gaelic, Isle of Lewis.)” If you know of a poet who has crammed as much meaning into three letters, I want to know their name.
Landmarks, in effect, acts as a double-hinged door: it leads us into Macfarlane’s library, ranging from Jacquetta Hawkes and John Alec Baker to Richard Jefferies and Rebecca Solnit, each treated with love and exactitude; and outdoors, with sharpened eyes and heightened senses. A passage from Solnit leads to a thoughtful reverie on the bristlecone pine, “the oldest living specimens of which are nearly 5,000 years old—having begun their growth when the Pyramids were under construction. The seeds of the bristlecone lie dormant until their germination is triggered, usually by the blazing passage of wildfire, which also clears the terrain of competitors.” Before Macfarlane, I’d never looked into the perfectly visible etymology of the word dilapidated, which I’d associated with old houses, to notice that, geologically, it means “falling of stones or masses of rock from mountains or cliffs by natural agency”—like the collapse of the stone fence at the end of our driveway, pulled down by earthruck, or the saddening collapse of the Old Man of the Mountains, the natural formation that had been the image of New Hampshire throughout my childhood. Macfarlane leans north from Cambridgeshire into the upper regions of the U.K. for many of his words, but those glossaries put the world before us in ways that are local and immediate. He writes of one schoolboy, going onto unknown terrain: “Filip ‘lay down on the soft spongy ground’ wrote Deb of this day, ‘meet(ing) the new place like he met the land in the snow—with his whole body.’” The Buddha was sitting on the ground, beneath the Bo-tree, when he awoke. Terrains; transcend. We are in the Anthropocene: “the earth-epoch in which human activity has become the dominant shaping force and the climate such that it will leave a long-term signature in the strata record.” Against the glossary he fears may need writing—terms for those things we will have lost—he has posed this work of memory, what he calls “a Counter-Desecration Phrasebook.” The dominant mood of Landmarks is that of fascination, attention, joy. It is, in the old term, a word-hoard, but Macfarlane is anything but a hoarder: he scatters these words like seeds.
In tandem with Landmarks, I was moved to reread Arthur Ransome; not one of the Lake District books but The Big Six, set vividly and specifically on the Norfolk Broads. It’s a detective story for and about children: Tom, a doctor’s son; two bookish visitors, Dick and Dorothea; and three local boatbuilders’ sons, Bill, Joe and Pete, known as the Death and Glory boys for their rigged-up old ship’s boat; their characters are as simple as their monosyllable names. The story is quite as sturdily plotted-out as any adult detective story of the time (1940), but what keeps it alive is just that sentient quality that Macfarlane is talking about: Ransome knows the river-tides, he knows the rhythms of Norfolk speech, and the books have boat-plans and how-they-did-it drawings, all in service to the most practical and detail-oriented young reader the stories could have. The children are outdoors as naturally as the birds and creatures of the river: these are school-holiday stories, and Ransome would no more trap his readers indoors than he would his characters. The Big Six is a mid-series story of the Swallows and Amazons books, with the tide of the story running as smoothly as that of the Broads themselves; you couldn’t ask for better.