(introduction & part I)

The hardest thing of all to see is what is really there,’ wrote J. A. Baker in The Peregrine (1967)

I was shown a ‘Peat Glossary’: a list of the hundreds of Gaelic terms for the moorland that stretches over much of Lewis’s interior. The glossary had been compiled by Hebridean friends of mine through archival research and oral history. Some of the language it recorded was still spoken – but much had fallen into disuse.

Under pressure, Oxford University Press revealed a list of the entries it no longer felt to be relevant to a modern-day childhood. The deletions included acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture and willow. The words introduced to the new edition included attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player and voice-mail.

Many of these terms have mingled oddness and familiarity in the manner that Freud calls uncanny: peculiar in their particularity, but recognizable in that they name something conceivable, if not instantly locatable.

Ammil is a Devon term meaning ‘the sparkle of morning sunlight through hoar-frost’, a beautifully exact word for a fugitive phenomenon I have several times seen but never before been able to name. Shetlandic has a word, af’rug, for ‘the reflex of a wave after it has struck the shore’; another, pirr, meaning ‘a light breath of wind, such as will make a cat’s paw on the water’; and another, klett, for ‘a low-lying earth-fast rock on the seashore’. On Exmoor, zwer is the onomatopoeic term for the sound made by a covey of partridges taking flight. Smeuse is a Sussex dialect noun for ‘the gap in the base of a hedge made by the regular passage of a small animal’; now I know the word smeuse, I will notice these signs of creaturely movement more often.

those terms for which no counterpart of comparable concision exists in another language. Such scalpel-sharp words are untranslatable without remainder. The need for precise discrimination of this kind has occurred most often where landscape is the venue of work.

The Icelandic novelist Jón Kalman Stefánsson writes of fishermen speaking ‘coddish’ far out into the North Atlantic; the miners working the Great Northern Coalfield in England’s north-east developed a dialect known as ‘Pitmatical’ or ‘yakka’, so dense it proved incomprehensible to Victorian parliamentary commissioners seeking to improve conditions in the mines in the 1840s. The name ‘Pitmatical’ was originally chosen to echo ‘mathematical’, and thereby emphasize the craft and skilful precision of the colliers.

The poet Norman MacCaig commended the ‘seagull voice’ of his Aunt Julia, who lived her long life on the Isle of Harris, so embedded in her terrain that she came to think with and speak in its creatures and climate.

By no means are all place-words poetic or innocent. Take the familiar word forest, which can designate not a wooded region, but an area of land set aside for deer-hunting – as those who have walked through the treeless ‘forests’ of Fisherfield, Applecross and Corrour in the Highlands of Scotland will know. Forest – like numerous wood-words – is complicatedly tangled up in political histories of access and landownership.

Nature is not now, nor has ever been, a pure category. We inhabit a post-pastoral terrain, full of modification and compromise

Some of the words collected here are eldritch, acknowledging a sense of our landscapes not as settled but as unsettling – the terror in the terroir, the spectred isle.

Margaret Gelling, the great scholar of English place-names, notes that ‘the Anglo-Saxon peasant farmer’ had a vast range of words for ‘hill’ and ‘valley’, and that the Anglo-Saxons generally were ‘a people in possession of a vast and subtle topographical vocabulary’, with little tolerance for synonyms.

In The History of the Countryside (1986), the great botanist Oliver Rackham describes four ways in which ‘landscape is lost’: through the loss of beauty, the loss of freedom, the loss of wildlife and vegetation, and the loss of meaning.

It is my hope (but not my presumption) that the words grouped here might in small measure invigorate our contemporary language for landscape. I do not, of course, believe that these words will magically summon us into a pure realm of harmony and communion with nature. Rather that they might offer a vocabulary which is ‘convivial’ as the philosopher Ivan Illich intended the word – meaning enriching of life, stimulating to the imagination and ‘encouraging creative relations between people, and people and nature’. And, perhaps, that the vibrancy of perception evoked in these glossaries may irrigate the dry meta-languages of modern policy-making (the DEFRA glossary, for instance, which offers such tautological aridities as ‘Land use: the use to which a piece of land is put’).

For there is no single mountain language, but a range of mountain languages; no one coastal language, but a fractal of coastal languages; no lone tree language, but a forest of tree languages.

I am wary of the dangers of fetishizing dialect and archaism – all that mollocking and sukebinding Stella Gibbons spoofed so brilliantly in Cold Comfort Farm (1932).

I perceive no opposition between precision and mystery, or between naming and not-knowing.

There are experiences of landscape that will always resist articulation, and of which words offer only a remote echo – or to which silence is by far the best response. Nature does not name itself. Granite does not self-identify as igneous. Light has no grammar. Language is always late for its subject.

But we are and always have been name-callers, christeners. Words are grained into our landscapes, and landscapes grained into our words. ‘Every language is an old-growth forest of the mind,’ in Wade Davis’s memorable phrase. We see in words: in webs of words, wefts of words, woods of words. The roots of individual words reach out and intermesh, their stems lean and criss-cross, and their outgrowths branch and clasp.

In all of these incidents, life and language collapsed curiously into one another. I have tried to account for these collapses, but such events – like many of the subjects of this book – are often best represented not by proposition but by pattern, such that unexpected constellations of relation light up. Metamorphosis and shape-shifting, magnification, miniaturization, cabinets of curiosity, crystallization, hollows and dens, archives, wonder, views from above: these are among the images and tropes that recur.

bog, hag, crag, heather, loch and lochan

Like other extensive lateral landscapes – desert, ice cap, prairie, tundra – it confronts us with difficulties of purchase (how to anchor perception in a context of immensity) and evaluation (how to structure significance in a context of uniformity).

Groups of words carefully distinguish between comparable phenomena: lèig-chruthaich is ‘quivering bog with water trapped beneath it, and an intact surface’, whereas breunloch is ‘dangerous sinking bog that may be bright green and grassy’, and botann is ‘a hole in the moor, often wet, where an animal might get stuck’.

Other terms are distinctive for their poetry. Rionnach maoim, for instance, means ‘the shadows cast on the moorland by clouds moving across the sky on a bright and windy day’. Èit refers to ‘the practice of placing quartz stones in moorland streams so that they would sparkle in moonlight and thereby attract salmon to them in the late summer and autumn’.

See K. David Harrison, When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World’s Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 50, 125.

A slow capillary creep of knowledge has occurred on Lewis, up out of landscape’s details and into language’s. The result is a lexis so supplely suited to the place being described that it fits it like a skin. Precision and poetry co-exist: the denotative and the figurative are paired as accomplices rather than as antagonists.

Until well into the twentieth century, most inhabitants of the Western Isles did not use conventional paper maps, but relied instead on memory maps, learnt on the land and carried in the skull. These memory maps were facilitated by first-hand experience and were also – as Finlay put it – ‘lit by the mnemonics of words’. For their users, these place-names were necessary for getting from location to location, and for the purpose of guiding others to where they needed to go. It is for this reason that so many toponyms incorporate what is known in psychology and design as ‘affordance’ – the quality of an environment or object that allows an individual to perform an action on, to or with it

Angus MacMillan, a Lewisian, remembers being sent by his father seven miles across the Brindled Moor to fetch a missing sheep spotted by someone the night before: ‘Cùl Leac Ghlas ri taobh Sloc an Fhithich fos cionn Loch na Muilne’ – ‘just behind the Grey Ledge by the Raven’s Hollow above the Mill Loch’. ‘Think of it,’ writes MacMillan drily, ‘as an early form of GPS: the Gaelic Positioning System.’

One of the most influential ethnographic works concerning landscape and language is Keith Basso’s Wisdom Sits in Places (1996), an investigation into the extreme situatedness of thought in the Apache people of Western Arizona. Basso spent a decade living and working alongside the Apache inhabitants of a town called Cibecue. He became especially interested in the interconnections of story, place-name, historical sense and the ethical relationships of person to person and person to place.

The Apache understand how powerfully language constructs the human relation to place, and as such they possess, Basso writes, ‘a modest capacity for wonder and delight at the large tasks that small words can be made to perform’. In their imagination geography and history are consubstantial. Placeless events are inconceivable, in that everything that happens must happen somewhere.

language is used not only to navigate but also to charm the land. Words act as compass; place-speech serves literally to en-chant the land – to sing it back into being, and to sing one’s being back into it.

What is occurring in Gaelic is, broadly, occurring in English too – and in scores of other languages and dialects. The nuances observed by specialized vocabularies are evaporating from common usage, burnt off by capital, apathy and urbanization. The terrain beyond the city fringe has become progressively more understood in terms of large generic units (‘field’, ‘hill’, ‘valley’, ‘wood’). It has become a blandscape.

We are blasé about place, in the sense that Georg Simmel used that word in his 1903 essay ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’ – meaning indifferent to the distinction between things.

It is not, on the whole, that natural phenomena and entities themselves are disappearing; rather that there are fewer people able to name them, and that once they go unnamed they go to some degree unseen. Language deficit leads to attention deficit. As we further deplete our ability to name, describe and figure particular aspects of our places, our competence for understanding and imagining possible relationships with non-human nature is correspondingly depleted.

In 1917 the sociologist and philosopher Max Weber named ‘disenchantment’ (Entzauberung) as the distinctive injury of modernity. He defined disenchantment as ‘the knowledge or belief that … there are no mysterious incalculable forces that come into play, but rather that one can, in principle, master all things by calculation’. For Weber, disenchantment was a function of the rise of rationalism, which demanded the extirpation of dissenting knowledge-kinds in favour of a single master-principle. It found its expressions not just in human behaviour and policy – including the general impulse to control nature – but also in emotional response.

Our language for nature is now such that the things around us do not talk back to us in ways that they might. As we have enhanced our power to determine nature, so we have rendered it less able to converse with us. We find it hard to imagine nature outside a use-value framework. We have become experts in analysing what nature can do for us, but lack a language to evoke what it can do to us. The former is important; the latter is vital.

But allegory as a mode has settled inside us, and thrived: fungibility has replaced particularity.

As Barry Lopez urges: ‘One must wait for the moment when the thing – the hill, the tarn, the lunette, the kiss tank, the caliche flat, the bajada – ceases to be a thing and becomes something that knows we are there.’

Language is fundamental to the possibility of re-wonderment, for language does not just register experience, it produces it. The contours and colours of words are inseparable from the feelings we create in relation to situations, to others and to places. Language carries a formative as well as an informative impulse – the power known to theorists as ‘illocutionary’ or ‘illative’.

Between 2002 and 2006 a group of researchers compiled a place-dictionary called Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape. Their ambition was to retrieve, define and organize nearly 1,000 terms and words for specific aspects of US topography. Its ethical presumption was that having such a language to hand is vital for two reasons: because it allows us to speak clearly about such places, and because it encourages the kinds of allegiance and intimacy with one’s places that might also go by the name of love, and out of which might arise care and good sense.

(wilderness in the old American-Puritan sense of the word, then, or that implied by the desert ‘wilderness of Zin’ through which the Israelites wander in Exodus)

the engineering company AMEC, in conjunction with British Energy, filed an application to build a vast wind farm on the Brindled Moor. The proposed farm – which would have been Europe’s largest – consisted of 234 wind turbines

By AMEC’s own account in their initial application, ‘the effect on the landscape resource, character and perception [of Lewis would be] major and long-term’. AMEC’s application began a three-and-a-half-year battle over the nature and the future of the moor

The journalist Ian Jack, arguing in support of AMEC’s application in 2006, described it as ‘a vast, dead place: dark brown moors and black lochs under a grey sky, all swept by a chill wet wind’.

Daniel Defoe, for instance, who in 1725 rode over the ling moors above Chatsworth in Derbyshire, and found them ‘abominable’, ‘a waste and a howling wilderness’. It recalls the many nineteenth-century white settler accounts of the Australian desert interior as a ‘hideous blank’: ‘everywhere the same dreadful, dreary, dismal desert’, lamented the Argus newspaper of Melbourne in an 1858 editorial against the ‘interior’. And it anticipated James Carnegy-Arbuthnott, the estate owner in Angus who notoriously argued in 2013 that it is right that few people own most of the land in Scotland because ‘so much [of it] is unproductive wilderness’.

The American geographer Yi Fu Tuan proposes that ‘it is precisely what is invisible in the land that makes what is merely empty space to one person, a place to another’. The task that faced the Lewisians, when the conflict with AMEC began, was to find ways of expressing the moor’s ‘invisible’ content: the use-histories, imaginative shapes, natural forms and cultural visions it had inspired, and the ways it had been written into language and memory.

Beginning in early 2005, the islanders began to devise ways of making that case by re-enchanting the moor. They started both to salvage and to create accounts – narrative, lexical, poetic, painterly, photographic, historical, cartographical – which, taken in sum or interleaved, might restore both particularity and mystery to the moor, and thus counter the vision of it as a ‘vast, dead place’. Among the most memorable moor-works to emerge out of this period of resistance was one made by Anne Campbell and her collaborator, Jon MacLeod. It was a booklet entitled A-mach an Gleann, which translates as ‘A Known Wilderness’.

MacLeod, ‘Counter-Desecration Phrasebook’.

‘What is required,’ wrote Finlay in a public appeal to save the Brindled Moor, ‘is a new nomenclature of landscape and how we relate to it, so that conservation becomes a natural form of human awareness, and so that it ceases to be under-written and under-appreciated and thus readily vulnerable to desecration.’ ‘What is needed,’ he concluded superbly, ‘is a Counter-Desecration Phrasebook.’

After three and a half years the Scottish Executive ruled on AMEC’s proposal. Taking into consideration the protective designations that the moor possessed (including a UN Ramsar designation) and the protests against the development (including 10,924 letters of objection) it decided to reject the wind-farm application.

We need now, urgently, a Counter-Desecration Phrasebook that would comprehend the world – a glossary of enchantment for the whole earth, which would allow nature to talk back and would help us to listen. A work of words that would encourage responsible place-making, that would keep us from slipping off into abstract space, and keep us from all that would follow such a slip. […] this unwriteable phrasebook […] might offer a sight of the edge of the shadow of its impossible existence.

not as a competitor to scientific knowledge and ecological analysis, but as their supplement and ally.

I relish the etymology of our word thing – that sturdy term of designation, that robust everyday indicator of the empirical – whereby in Old English thynge does not only designate a material object, but can also denote ‘a narrative not fully known’, or indicate ‘the unknowability of larger chains of events’.

as the poet Marianne Moore put it in an exceptional essay of 1944 entitled ‘Feeling and Precision’, ‘galvanized against inertia’,

Charles Simic: ‘For knowledge, add; for wisdom, take away.’

John Llewellyn, The Middle Voice of Ecological Conscience (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1991).

In this respect it would inhabit what linguistics calls the ‘middle voice’: that grammatical diathesis which – by hovering between the active and the passive – can infuse inanimate objects with sentience and so evoke a sense of reciprocal perception between human and non-human

Tact as due attention, as tenderness of encounter, as rightful tactility. Tactful language, then, would be language which sings (is lyric), which touches (is born of contact with the lived and felt world), which touches us (affects) and which keeps time – recommending thereby an equality of measure and a keen faculty of perception.


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