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Robert Macfarlane

(London Times)

IN 2007, Robert Macfarlane stumbled across a 'peat glossary', a gloriously long list of old Scottish Gaelic words describing the boggy moorland of Lewis. In the same year, he was told that the Oxford Junior Dictionary had culled a host of words supposedly no longer relevant to modern childhood. Bluebell, buttercup and catkin, among others, were replaced with block-graph, bullet point and chat room. 'For blackberry', Macfarlane sighs, 'read BlackBerry.'

The coincidence alarmed him. 'A basic literacy of landscape', he frets, 'is falling away.' In The Wild Places and The Old Ways, his explorations of Britain's wild terrain and ancient paths, Macfarlane entered and explored landscapes himself. This book reveals more of the Cambridge don. It is his defence of the appreciation of nature and the art of nature writing, of which he has become a sort of British high priest.

Actually, it is two half-books yoked together. One is a series of idiosyncratic essays on the nature writers he most admires. The other is a collection of rare words for different landscapes; themed glossaries follow every essay.

The words, certainly, are wonderful. Macfarlane himself is fond of ammil, a Devonian term for sunlight sparkling through hoarfrost; smeuse, Sussex dialect meaning a gap at the bottom created by small animals repeatedly passing through; and eit, a Gaelic reference to - wait for it - 'the practice of placing quartz stones in moorland streams so that they would sparkle in moonlight and thereby attract salmon to them in late summer and autumn'. Less poetically, he gives us 'Mamba country', or what the Welsh call Miles and Miles of Bugger All; and 'turdstool', a southwestern word for a particularly large cowpat.

All this is a delight, even if handing out lists of words is a peculiarly writerly solution to the problem of losing touch with the land. But then Macfarlane's books have always been about how nature is perceived and described as much as about nature itself. The meat of the book is the series of critical essays - paeans, really - in which he constructs a kind of nature-writing canon.

He prefers the more throbbing sort of nature writer. He praises Nan Shepherd for wielding 'precision as a form of lyricism' in The Living Mountain, her 1940s book on the Cairngorms. He singles out Richard Jefferies, Victorian flaneur of the urban fringe, for 'the present participles that gang and roister in his prose'. He claims a 'paternal-filial' relationship with Roger Deakin, the Suffolk ecologist, writer and godfather of the wild-swimming movement, who died in 2006, and who still inspires Macfarlane's more elaborate metaphors, as well as his thinking. He admires John Muir, who helped found America's national parks in the 1890s, for his rapturous full-body embraces of woodland, and the 'priestly, intense, grace-noted' American writer Barry Lopez for Arctic Dreams (1986), a book that 'gyres from the phenomenal to the philosophical'.

Macfarlane's own style, certainly, gets lusher and more self-conscious with each successive book. At one point, he describes the same incident of a peregrine hunting a wood pigeon three times in three successively less poetical and more prosaic paragraphs. Praising the spookier British landscape terms, he ad-libs about 'the terror in the terroir, the spectred isle' - word-play that might work in a lecture, with a grin, but there is more earnestness than smiling here.

The last glossary is left blank 'for the place-words that are still to be made', but, more often, there are just too many words. In an otherwise first-class essay on the peregrine-obsessive, JA Baker, which circles and swoops around ideas of perception, perspective and influence, Macfarlane tracks down the writer's scratched old binoculars. Raising them to his eyes, he discovers 'a peculiarly exclusive way of looking. It draws a circle around the focused-on object and shuts out the world's generous remainder. What binoculars grant you in focus and reach, they deny you in periphery. To view an object through them is to see it in crisp isolation, encircled by blackness - as though at the end of a tunnel. They permit a lucidity of view but enforce a denial of context.' The point resonates powerfully with the themes of the chapter, and of Baker's solitary, myopic life, but it did not need making five times over.

This is not vintage Macfarlane, then, but there are moments when you taste it, when the writing is full of clarity and internal reflections, and the chapters ripple over into each other like, well, a linked chain of mountain pools. He tells the quiveringly sad story of how, after Deakin's death, his apple seedlings grew kinks in their trunks as they sought out the sun behind a grown-over window. At dusk, in the Lakes, he walks into a quarry tunnel, the sound of the stones underfoot 'as high as coin on glass'; in the deeper darkness, he listens to the 'undersong' of the rock itself, while another kind of undersong runs through his head: the resonances with the Finnish folk story he has just read about a visit to the underworld.

But it is the glossaries that stand out, and by their very plainness they make the essay sections feel over-ornamented. The words stand so strongly on their own. 'Clogsum' is heavy, wet Suffolk land. 'Stenloppm' is the bruise that Shetland rock gives you when you jump on it badly. 'Diddering' is what an East Anglian bog does when you walk on it. The number of British words for ice and snow alone would put the Inuit to shame: 'aquabob' is a Kentish icicle; 'snow bones' are what they call the drifts that linger in the ruts and furrows of a Yorkshire field.

What is remarkable about these words is how precise they are, and how deeply local. They feel as if they somehow grew out of the land itself. This book too often feels the opposite; it feels somehow imposed and imposing, like a specimen tree in the wrong landscape. It is a faltering in form from a fine - sometimes too fine - writer.

Some of the more resonant words and phrases Macfarlane uncovers are 'to ungive', Northamptonshire dialect for 'to thaw'; 'zwer', an Exmoor name for a covey of partridges taking flight; and 'blinter', a northern Scots word meaning 'a cold dazzle', like 'ice-splinters catching low light'.

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