Simon Prosser on reading Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks

Simon Prosser on reading Robert Macfarlane’s LandmarksPenguin publisher Simon Prosser on his experience reading Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane.

“When I finished reading the first draft of Robert Macfarlane’s new book on landscape and language, I found that my vocabulary had notably and delightfully expanded:

I now knew ‘rionnach maoim’ (a Hebridean Gaelic term for ‘the shadows cast by cumulus clouds on moorland on a sunny, windy day’); ‘smeuse’ (Sussex dialect for ‘the hole in the base of a hedgerow made by the repeated passage of a small animal’); ‘af’rug’ (a Shetland word for ‘the reflex of a wave after it has struck the shore’); and ‘wind-fucker’ (the perfect East Anglian dialect nickname for a kestrel), along with ‘blonking’ (snowing), ‘babbing’ (fishing for eels) and ‘jirglin’ (playing about with water).”

All of these words, and thousands more, collected over a decade by Rob from the Shetlands to Cornwall, from Pembrokeshire to Suffolk, and from old Norse to Romani, appear in Landmarks, in the nine glossaries which interleave the ten chapters of the book. (Landmarks also describes Rob’s  journeys into the mines of Cumbria, the moors of the Hebrides and the corries of the Cairngorms, as well as his meetings with glossarians, poets and word-collectors up and down the country.)

Landmarks is a book about the power of language – ‘strong style, single words’ in Rob’s phrase – to shape our sense of place. It is both a  field-guide to the literature he loves (Nan Shepherd, Barry Lopez and Roger Deakin and more) and also a ‘Word-Hoard’, to borrow the title of the opening chapter. Over the course of the book we can chart a kind of love-affair between writer and language. The authors Rob is most drawn to tend to write with an exact and committed intensity about their chosen landscapes, in styles strong enough to revise our imaginary relations with places. They aim, in the words from Emerson which Rob quotes in the book, to ‘pierce…rotten diction and fasten words to visible things’, They are celebrants of the specific – and so too is Rob. More here

Formby’s red squirrels

Formby squirrel
The star atraction of the National Trust Formby pinewoods are the easily spotted red squirrels,  the southernmost mainland population in Britain,  which have clung on here because grey squirrels can’t survive in pinewoods as they are unable to open pine cones.  Despite this, a 2007-08 outbreak of squirrel pox transmitted by greys wiped out some 80 percent of their numbers, leaving as few as 20 reds although the population has quickly bounced back ( 250 by 2014 – video) and the survivors appear to have developed some resistance to the deadly disease.

As of autumn 2015, the population has risen to 250 animals.

 

The home of Steve Dilworth

Robert Macfarlane described his visit to the home on the Isle of Lewis of landscape artist Steve Dilworth in ‘The Old Ways’.

“These are some of the materials he uses in his work: the skulls, beaks, bodies, eyes, skins and wings of herons, wrens, guillemots, gannets, woodcock, fulmars, swans, owls, sparrow-hawks, buzzards, black-backed gulls, hooded crows, puffin, sand-eels, john dories and dragonflies; tallow, lard, blubber, sperm; seawater collected during equinoctial gales, freshwater gathered from a deep well, still air gathered in a chapel, storm air gathered in the overhang of a boulder; the north wind, the south wind; the bone, baleen and teeth of minke and humpback whales; the vertebrae of porpoises and sheep; bronze, brass, silver, nickel, copper; dolerite, gneiss, granite, soapstone, alabaster; ten-thousand-year-old bog oak, walnut, mulberry, rosewood; the prow of a fishing boat; hawking lures; sea-beans, sand-dollars, sea-urchins; eggs, feathers and sand.

These are some of the things he has made: a lead casket, barred with whale-bone and bound with rope, containing a phial of storm-water; a foot-long mulberry chamber, the shape of a coffee bean, ribbed in steel, that contains the body of a blackbird; a hollow case made of a shell of lignum vitae and a shield of whalebone, containing loose dolphin teeth, the whole bound with fishing rope; a walnut sarcophagus, edged and locked with brass, containing a bird made of bog-oak, beaked and tailed with bronze; a hollow soapstone cone containing hundreds of dried fish eyes; a pair of herons, kills from a fish-farm, locked into an embrace, their wings hung with hundreds of fish-hooks, their legs bound with fine black cord (archaeopteryx-fetish; an avian BDSM dance).

It can be hard to know how to describe the work: totem objects, sarcophagi, talismans, effigies, rattles, rocking stones, throwing stones, kists, charms, fetishes, jujus. Dredgings from the common consciousness. Archetypes materialised. Hints of mountebank recipes, crocked cure-alls (hold this and it will heal you…) but also entreaties to faith. One piece, the body of a wren sealed in a dark-oak kist, with jointed bronze legs folding out from the underside, is designed to be ‘thrown into an inner landscape’.

It can be hard to know how to describe Dilworth: wizard, shaman, showman, mountebank, Jungian, joker, crypto-zoologist, votary of the deathly and the defiled. He is tall and warlock-ish in appearance. Those who know the work but not him imagine him to be severe, forbidding. In fact, he laughs and jokes almost unstoppably. This is a good thing. A shaman who took himself seriously would be insufferable. He does, though, take his work very seriously indeed.”

Steve Dilworth’s website

Robert Macfarlane’s favourite trail

Rhenigidale path

Robert Macfarlane describes his favourite trail in this article here. It goes from the the town of Tarbert to the village of Rhenigidale on the Isle of Harris.

Along the southeastern coast of the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides runs one of the most beautiful paths I know: an old green track, only six miles or so long, that joins the town of Tarbert to the village of Rhenigidale. Two summers ago I spent a week walking across Lewis and North Harris, camping in shielings and fishing in lochs as I went, finally reaching Rhenigidale, where I slept in the little white-walled youth hostel.

The next morning, I followed the green track west to Tarbert, contouring first above steep-sided sea coves and then dropping into a glen called Trollamaraig in which a dwarf forest of willow, aspen, honeysuckle and foxglove flourishes. Then it was up, steeply up, zigzagging the east face of a hill called the Scriob until the path eased and led me between two peaks — Trolamal and Beinn Tharsuinn. On that clear day the landscape to my west was wonderfully visible, laid out like 
a map: an intricate weave of moor, crag, scarp and shining lochans. A storm blew in and over, and I walked the final miles along shining tracks 
and under rainbows.

Photo “The Rhenigidale path looking back down the route of ascent.” © Copyright Jimmy Hill and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence. Geograph

The Fortingall yew

Fortingall_Yew

The Fortingall Yew is generally considered as the oldest tree in Britain. Like many yews, it stands in a churchyard. Yews were sacred for the Celts, and the Christian church often found it expedient to take over these existing sacred sites for churches. This oldest of yews is the village of Fortingall in Perthshire. Recent tests suggest the tree is some 2,000 years old, rather younger than the 5,000 years claimed by some, but still probably one of the oldest trees in Northern Europe. The yew was vandalised for tourist trinkets in the 19th century, and its once massive girths is now split into several trunks, giving the impression of several smaller trees.

Altnaharra

The village of Altnaharra’s northerly latitude and inland location mean that in winter it regularly features in the daily weather extremes for the United Kingdom. On 30 December 1995, the lowest temperature UK Weather Record was recorded there, at -27.2°C. This matched a similar recording at Braemar in the Grampians on 11 February 1895 and on 10 January 1982. On 20 March 2009, it was recorded as the warmest place in the UK, at 18.5°C, the station’s warmest recorded March temperature, and possibly the first time the station had recorded the warmest UK temperature. On the same day, it also recorded the second coldest overnight temperature in the UK, at -3°C. On 8 January 2010, the temperature dipped to -22.3°C, the coldest temperature recorded in the UK since 1995.

From Wikipedia

The Major Oak in Nottinghamshire

The Major Oak in Nottinghamshire

The Major Oak is a pedunculate oak (Quercus robur) found in Sherwood forest, Nottinghamshire. About 800 years old, according to folklore its hollow trunk was used as a hideout by Robin Hood and his merry men. The tree weighs 23 tonnes, its trunk circumference is 33 feet (10m) and its branches spread to over 92 feet (28m). Conservation measures have been carried out continually since 1908. Today, slender steel poles prop the sprawling limbs of this forest giant, which is visited annually by thousands of people. `[The Guardian]

In 2014, it was voted ‘England’s Tree of the Year’ in a public poll run by the Woodland Trust

In 2003, in Dorset a plantation was started of 260 saplings grown from acorns of the Major Oak. The purpose was to provide a focal point for an Internet-based study of the Major Oak, its history, photographic record, variation in size and leafing of the saplings, comparison of their DNA, and an eventual public amenity.

Photograph: Nottinghamshire County Council

Ancient footprints at Formby

The peat and clay beds at Formby have an interesting story. Coastal erosion in the form of storms regularly expose new layers revealing footprints of humans and animals including red deer, aurochs, wolves, oystercatchers and common cranes.

About 7500 years ago a series of sand bars or barrier islands developed along the coast off Formby Point, resulting in an intertidal lagoon between them and the shore.  For 3000 years, animals, birds and people left their tracks along the muddy shoreline. Some were baked hard by the sun, each tide covering them with a thin layer of sand and silt.  Then about 4500 years ago the shoreline moved westwards, sealing in everything. (dedicated website)

The prints are quickly worn away and so researchers, including my father as a volunteer, have to work fast to record them. The study has found that most prints were made by children with a smaller number of women and relatively few adult males. The adult males were often found in the same areas as red deer – presumably hunting them – while women and children may have been on the mudflats collecting shells or looking for nesting birds. See video 6,000 year old footprints in the sand.

Websites

Excellent selection of wildlife articles on the Sefton coast

Birkdale beach by Jean Sprackland

Strands – A Year of Discoveries on the Beach

The Birkdale coast was intimately portrayed in Jean Sprackland’s Strands – A Year of Discoveries on the Beach (2012) as the poet explores her local beach for a year before leaving for London, weaving a tale of shipwrecks, natterjack toads, neolithic footprints, jellyfish and strandline findings. This is a celebration of beachcombing which turns up everything from mermaid’s purses to buried cars.  She writes in the introduction to the book:

Of all the British coastline, this is hardly the prettiest or the most unspoilt: its sands are not the most golden, and there are no rockpools or hidden coves. Neither is it the most dramatic: no pounding surf, no rugged cliffs. Low tide can take the sea nearly two miles from shore. Stand on the beach at Ainsdale, on any reasonably bright day, and you can see the offshore wind farm in the Mersey estuary. Turn and face the other way, and there are the familiar Blackpool landmarks: the tower, the rollercoaster. But in really clear weather the bigger picture is visible: the southern fells, the Clwyddian hills, the pale but unmistakable shape of Snowdon. This is a place of big skies and lonely distances, a shifting palette of greys and blues; a wild, edge-of-the-world place.

For a general natural history and historical guide to the coast see Sands of Time Revisited (2009). Difficult to find outside Merseyside but highly recommended.