Robert Macfarlane

Keep In Touch

We had been driving all day, heading nowhere more specific than north, when we pulled into the park. Lachy had called the Parks service, as directed on the website, to let them know we’d be camping there for the night. The woman on the phone hadn’t even heard of the place before. It is a small green rectangle at the northern edge of Victoria, set amongst arrow-straight roads and agricultural land. The campsite lay in the shadow of a single enormous boulder. We climbed it and stared out over the flat country extending to the hazy horizon. On the way down we stumbled on a wallaby grazing, and crouched down to watch it crunching unperturbed a few feet in front of us.

Darkness fell as we cooked a stew. By the time the meal was ready, our fire was the only light. Patrick decided to take a walk and was lost to the dark at once. It was only when it stopped that I realised my ears had been ringing from the constant noise of our everyday lives: voices, music, engines whirring, electronics buzzing. I became aware of the silence, and any creak or bird call that broke it. I realised how rarely I had heard true silence before, even in the relative quiet of the city at night. I lay on the grass in the darkness and felt the world beyond the city flooding all my senses.

The true silence of nature is something that those in the city don't often experience.  Image: Alex Mullarky

The true silence of nature is something that those in the city don't often experience. Image: Alex Mullarky

‘More and more of us live more and more separately from contact with nature,’ says Robert Macfarlane, in his introduction to Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain. ‘We have come increasingly to forget that our minds are shaped by the bodily experience of being in the world.’ In our day-to-day lives we can take the tram rather than feel the cold as we walk, or keep to an air-conditioned room on a sweltering afternoon. We have become so good at managing our own environments that we can sometimes forget that feeling the force of the seasons is part of the experience of being human.

Even amongst people who care deeply about the environment, it seems that Macfarlane’s observation is a true one. When we talk so frequently about "saving" and "preserving" the "unspoilt" and "untouched" landscapes, it can be easy to forget that we are ourselves an integral part of the natural world, and that our experience of it is vitally important. It is too easy to never stray from the footpath, to read a sign about the bark of a tree but not feel it for ourselves, as though nature were already a museum. We need protected areas, but we must never isolate ourselves entirely from the natural world. How can we truly care about something that we have nothing to do with?

Reading about a tree is not the same as feeling its bark with our own hands.  Image: Alex Mullarky

Reading about a tree is not the same as feeling its bark with our own hands. Image: Alex Mullarky

Nan Shepherd wrote The Living Mountain in 1945, though it wasn’t published until 1977. It is a short book, written in prose as striking and meandering as the valleys of the Cairngorm Plateau it describes in such intimate, personal detail. Macfarlane defines Shepherd’s attitude as ‘bodily thinking’: nature not as something to view, but as a whole-body experience. This is something that has clearly influenced Macfarlane’s own exploration and writing. Neither writer has much interest in climbing a mountain just to get to the top.

For both Shepherd and Macfarlane, ‘bodily thinking’ represents total immersion in their surroundings. Shepherd follows rivers to their sources, just because. In his 2007 book The Wild Places, Macfarlane camps on a frozen tarn, walks along the beach during a storm, climbs trees, sleeps in the hollow of a tree trunk. His great friend Roger Deakin wrote an account of wild swimming across the whole of the British Isles, entitled Waterlog. Their writing is informed by these encounters with nature, inspired by them, could not exist without them.

How often do you stop to gaze at the eastern grey kangaroos so characteristic of Victorian landscapes?  Image: Alex Mullarky

How often do you stop to gaze at the eastern grey kangaroos so characteristic of Victorian landscapes? Image: Alex Mullarky

We can all learn something from these adventurer-writers. To stray from the path; to feel soil beneath our bare feet; to drink the water, wade in the water, swim; to sleep under the open sky or in the shelter of trees; to seek out silence and darkness. If we cannot make time at this moment to extend our reach beyond the city, we can still immerse ourselves in the tendrils of wildness that snake even into metropolitan Melbourne. To let ourselves get soaked in the rain once in a while; to open the windows and listen to the birds calling while we work at our desks.

Macfarlane writes ‘We are literally losing touch, becoming disembodied, more than in any previous historical period.’ But unlike the difficult work of restoring damage to our ecosystems, this is a loss that each of us can remedy, quite simply, ourselves. Anyone has the power to keep in touch, in that physical sense, with nature. All we have to do is open our eyes, breathe deeply, and reach out our hands.


Alex Mullarky

Alex Mullarky is a writer and environmentalist from the UK who has called Melbourne home since 2014. She is a graduate of English Literature and is particularly interested in the connection between language and landscape.


You can find her on Twitter at @saesteorra


Banner image courtesy of Alex Mullarky.

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