New Scientist: Book Reviews

I wrote this review for the latest issue of New Scientist.

Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane, Hamish Hamilton, £20.00

The Fish Ladder by Katherine Norbury, Bloomsbury Circus, £16.99

VOCABULARY is an ever-changing terrain, reshaped by tongue and trends, just as the elements and town planners reconfigure the landscape of Britain. And the relationship between place and name, argues Robert Macfarlane, is deep-rooted and undervalued.

“Language is fossil poetry,” he writes, quoting 19th-century US essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Landmarks is a project Emerson would have recognised: a “word-hoard”. It attempts to preserve language and use it to pull us closer to our surroundings. This hoard is needed because specialised vocabularies are being burned off by apathy and urbanisation, says Macfarlane. In the mouths of the unimaginative, he reasons, generic language is shaping a “blandscape”.

Landmarks serves as a convivial field guide to the authors who have inspired Macfarlane’s magnificent writing: eco-philosophers such as John Muir, Roger Deakin and Nan Shepherd figure strongly. It has glossaries brimming with regional colloquialisms, from the poetically exact “ammil” – a term for the sparkle of morning sun through hoar frost – to the bawdy “wind-fucker”, a kestrel.

The tenth glossary is left playfully blank, hungrily awaiting future words, because Macfarlane is no doom-monger. Words, he says, “act as a compass to sing [the land] back into being”.

An ecologist, linguist and academic, Macfarlane is not above admitting his infatuation with Britain’s diverse landscape. “Nature does not name itself,” he writes. “Language is always late for its subject. Sometimes on top of a mountain I just say, ‘Wow’.”

In The Fish Ladder, her first book, Katharine Norbury cannot afford to be so ingenuous. How truthfully she writes will determine whether her series of river walks from sea to source will be seen as a sufficiently heroic quest.

Her project is driven by her miscarriage and subsequent depression, making this a book as much about grief and motherhood as about landscape.

There are moments of quiet drama, such as her waking on moorland to find a stag standing over her. Still, her journeys are not epic. She acknowledges the semi-industrial nature of her surroundings. Those fish ladders, for instance, are structures that allow fish to bypass dams, leaping barriers on the way to their spawning grounds. They allow salmon and hydroelectricity to co-exist.

Less happily, there is something touristic about her fleeting visits, and their meaning is occasionally overthought, as in “the fact we’d brought sandwiches seemed significant, somehow indicative of a need for self-sufficiency”. She is only ever passing through.

The Fish Ladder is a valuable addition to the contemporary nature-memoir canon – although Norbury’s life of second homes and Latin family mottoes highlights the irony that so few of today’s memoirs about the natural world are written by those who work such harsh, remote lands.

This article appeared in print under the headline “Tied to the land”

Benjamin Myers is the author of the novel Beastings

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