How Language Shapes Our Landscape

Theodore Roosevelt first encountered the writings of John Muir in his book, The Mountains of California, published in 1894. In its pages, Muir painted the San Gabriel range north of Los Angeles so vividly that Roosevelt was moved to contact him. Over the course of a three-day camping trip, a Scottish-born vagabond and the President of the United States explored the Yosemite Valley together. On the final night, Muir convinced Roosevelt to list the valley under governmental protection as a national park. Roosevelt went on to create over 230 protected sites during the course of his presidency, ranging from national parks to bird sanctuaries and covering roughly 230 million acres.

The story of Muir’s impact on Roosevelt is one of many shared by Robert Macfarlane in his fifth book, Landmarks. It is a powerful example of the influence of language in changing the landscape, both literally and figuratively. From the first line it is clear that Macfarlane shares a similar intention: ‘This is a book about the power of language – strong style, single words – to shape our sense of place.’ Each chapter functions as a thoughtful essay on a writer whose works have shaped Macfarlane’s perception and articulation of the natural world.

More fascinating still, between these chapters is a series of glossaries grouped by theme: Flatlands, Wetlands, Northlands, Edgelands - every conceivable kind of ‘land’ in the British landscape. For years prior, Macfarlane had collected striking words for features of the environment as he encountered them. Gradually, it became a mission in itself: to seek out and curate place-terms ancient and modern, from every language that has been brought to Britain over centuries of ‘invasion, settlement and migration’. The glossaries are an exhibition of Britain’s linguistic evolution, ranging from archaic Old English terms like wæter-fæsten (place protected by water) to remnants of regional dialect like shuckle (icicle, Cumbria) and even mysteriously poignant coinages by children like honeyfurs (soft grass seed-heads).

Unique and alluring cover art accompanies Macfarlane's poetic prose. Photo: Alex Mullarky

Unique and alluring cover art accompanies Macfarlane's poetic prose. Photo: Alex Mullarky

Though Macfarlane is necessarily limited to a survey of the British Isles, the scope of his book extends much further. From the outset, he calls with urgency and sincerity for ‘a Counter-Desecration Phrasebook that would comprehend the world – a glossary of enchantment for the whole earth’. To his mind, this cataloguing of place-terms is not nostalgic, but urgently contemporary. Landmarks is a reaction to a changing literary landscape, in which dozens of words for nature were removed from the Oxford Junior Dictionary in favour of technological terms: acorn replaced by attachmentbluebell by broadband. As we lose our ability to articulate the landscape, so the landscape begins to lose its meaning.

The idea of a world-encompassing glossary of natural terms is ambitious, but the value in its attempt cannot be understated. In Australia, approximately 250 indigenous languages were spoken at the time of colonisation, including 40 in Victoria alone; across the country, this comprised 600 dialects. When the colonists arrived, the English language was not adequate to articulate the country, leading to frustration. A ‘hideous blank’, declared one white settler, chronicled by Macfarlane: ‘everywhere the same dreadful, dreary, dismal desert’.

Over the years, as the colonists began to find ways to express their awe of the ‘sunburnt country’, indigenous languages began to disappear. In less than two centuries, more than 150 languages were lost and today, all Australian indigenous languages are in a critical state. How many ancient, apposite terms to describe this unique country have already vanished in the scope of a much greater tragedy?

Australia must answer the call for a linguistic return to the wild. In 2007, the world’s urban population overtook the rural population for the first time in Earth’s history; three-quarters of Australians live in the country’s urban centres. If cat comes more readily to our tongues than quollmyna before galah, how long before we cease to consider these animals altogether? Without these words in our collective vocabulary, it is only a matter of time before they are lost from our collective consciousness.

Today, Victoria is a place of great linguistic diversity. The Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages promotes the revival and documentation of languages for the benefit of the Aboriginal community. Italian is the second most spoken language in Victoria after English, followed closely by Greek, Mandarin, and Vietnamese. Each distinct speaker of a language is finding new ways to express their country. As old place-terms are salvaged and rediscovered, so too can new words be collected and stored beside them.

"Glossary X": an opportunity for readers to add their own place-terms. Photo: Alex Mullarky

"Glossary X": an opportunity for readers to add their own place-terms. Photo: Alex Mullarky

The final chapter of Landmarks is ‘Glossary X’. These blank pages are left for the reader to fill with his or her own terms for the world around them. It is time to begin filling that blank space. Let Dorothea MacKellar’s ‘stark white ring-barked forest’, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu’s djilawurr, Banjo Patterson’s ‘wild-hop scrub’, Judith Wright’s ‘blue leaves’ and ‘paperbark swamps’ and Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s ‘dark lagoon’ populate its pages.

Landmarks is a life’s work, but it only begins to scratch the surface. It is an accomplished piece of nature writing and a fascinating examination of the place-terms of Britain, but its greatest value is in its role as a manifesto. Language is an instrument of our connection to the landscape: lose the language, and the connection will be broken.

Banner image courtesy of Emma Walsh