Landmarks: a review

Christopher Tilley, Department of Anthropology, University College London (


Robert Macfarlane Landmarks (2015) London: Hamish Hamilton, 387pp. £20.00 rrp

This is the fifth book by Macfarlane about British landscapes. The ‘landmarks’ of the title are not what one might expect: they are words. The book is about the power of words in place making. This reminds us that landscapes may be material topographic realities but they are simultaneously constituted in the mind. Traditionally, in academic debates, landscapes have been regarded as either reductively shaping the manner in which people think or blank slates on which people inscribe the way in which they think in more or less any way they like. In this respect their material topographies become mere backdrops to an understanding of the manner in which they are understood. Landscapes become stage scenery to the untrammelled workings of the human mind. One might expect Macfarlane’s emphasis on the power of words in shaping our understanding of landscapes as fitting securely into the relativist camp: what is there, physically experienced through the body, has little influence on the kinds of words we use to talk to one another about the landscape. However the message of this book is rather different. The words through which we think through landscapes are themselves grounded in the visceral sensory experience of those landscapes. To understand a landscape, and to understand why and how the words used to describe it come into being, we need to experience those landscapes ourselves and also try and understand how others imaginatively perceive them.

This is why Macfarlane travels and visits places. It is not enough to imagine the places being described, and the words used to describe them by others, by sitting in his office. In this manner his own experiences are brought to life, quite literally, and come to life through his poetic prose. In this sense they are of and in the world. In this book Macfarlane takes us through the peat bogs of the Isle of Lewis, to the Scottish Cairngorms and Aberdeenshire beyond, through woods and water in Suffolk, into Essex to experience its coast and skies, up into the Cumbrian fells, and across the ‘edgelands’ or ‘the bastard’ countryside surrounding cities. His journeys are in part personal, but are primarily grounded in his researches relating to the intimate personal accounts and understandings of others of these landscapes: Shepherd’s descriptions of the Cairngorms, Deakin’s of wood and water and their meanings, J.A. Baker’s interactions with the Peregrine falcons he observed in Essex over a ten year period, Finlay MacLeod’s observations of the peatlands of Lewis. Macfarlane’s accounts thus combine topographies, biographies, his and others’ poetics in an understanding of place and landscape. The discussion also extends to a consideration of Yosemite national park through the eyes of the early environmental campaigner Muir who did so much to create the parks, the Arctic through the work of Lopez and finally Jacquetta Hawkes’ post World War II ‘dream tour’ through the temporality of the English landscape seen through a personal geological and archaeological lens.

The first two chapters set out the main polemical thrust of the subsequent discussions. These are about the power of language to define the manner in which we think about place and language. The way we describe place matters and has profound effects on our consciousness. Such language, at its best, is both exact and exacting. It takes us beyond our own limited horizons and allows us to see the world in a different manner. Such language, at its best, has the ‘quivering intensity of an arrow thudding into a tree’ (p. 2). The book contains nine loosely organized glossaries following the individual chapters, of words from different languages and dialects for landscape and the natural world and weather covering e.g. pastureland, watery ground, moving water, the sea, waves and tides, caves, rocks, burial sites, tracks and paths, hedges and boundaries, rocks and minerals, soil and earth. While emphasizing the power of words to evoke ‘nature’ Macfarlane’s is an attempt to salvage these words and prevent them from being forgotten and falling into oblivion. He notes that in the new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary nature words such as acorn, heron, and willow have been dropped in favour of blog, voicemail, and chatroom. The latter are felt to be of more obvious relevance in the twenty-first century in which effectively the younger generation are estranged from a natural landscape deemed to be largely irrelevant to their daily lives. As such Macfarlane’s book is a lament for something that is being lost: a sense of wonder and appreciation of the landscape. The outdoor and the ‘natural’ are replaced by the indoor and the virtual. The result is sensory deprivation and an erosion of meaning that is ultimately a loss for everyone. As a result of this the poetic origins of the words that have been used to describe the natural world become lost to us and they become increasingly irrelevant. Macfarlane wants to both counter this tendency and reinvigorate the words that have been used to describe landscapes, words borne out of the experiences of those intimately connected to them: the words of poets, fishers, farmers, shepherds, labourers, dwellers, activists and campaigners.

Following Arthur Rackham (1986) Macfarlane (p. 9) notes our landscapes are being lost through the loss of beauty, the loss of freedom, the loss of nature and vegetation, and finally the loss of meaning. The loss of meaning is the most intangible of these but nonetheless has profound significance because it directly relates to that which is valued and loved as opposed to what is being neglected and desecrated. In losing our connections with the natural world, in our urbanized modernity, we are in tandem losing part of our language and part of our humanity. We can readily destroy the natural world because we are increasingly cut off from it. There is a lack of connection and a loss of meaning. As an alternative ‘the lexis of landscape’ invigorates precisely because what gives birth to it is synaesthetic sensory perception arising through experience in local contexts. This gives rise to a wealth of fractal languages describing coasts and trees, mountains and heathlands: ‘words are grained into our landscapes and landscapes are grained into our words’ (p.10). Through these words we gain and share visions of place with others. In Macfarlane’s terms we ‘landmark’ and are ‘landmarked’ in mutual relation.

Macfarlane’s message is deeply political. He espouses a green politics that has a reverence and respect for landscape and one that is broadly grounded in anthropological and phenomenological ways of thinking. He tells us that non-fiction could be as experimental in form and beautiful in its language as any novel (p. 210), a position with which I heartfelt concur. He underlines this in a discussion of the work of the environmental activist Lopez: ‘to exercise a care of attention towards a place-as towards a person- is to achieve a sympathetic intimacy with it’ (p.211). Through such poetic writing we can make a language of landscape part and parcel of a moral consciousness and hope to change the world and make it a better place to inhabit.

In Chapter 2 Macfarlane draws on Keith Basso’s (1996) work on Apache place names that quite literally describe the landscape. An Apache name for a place is often what we might call a sentence, or several of them e.g. ‘Whiteness Spreads Out Extending Down to Water’ (Basso 1996: 69). Macfarlane notes that Gaelic names are sometimes strikingly similar. Both precisely describe a place. This allows them to refer to events and histories of that place and give them moral and political authority. Thus ‘wisdom can sit in places’ because the language used is powerful aesthetically, musically, visually, orally. It is, in other words, charmed. This may be compared with the ‘blandscape’ terminology of English generic terms like hill, wood, river, marsh, and valley. Such language does not evoke or describe. It has lost its power to evoke anything, respectively, about the shapes of the hills, the vegetation of the woods, the flow and sound of the water, the characteristics of watery terrain, or the sinuous curves of the land. Once the landscape becomes a blandscape its meaning evaporates, it cannot be shared with others, nor can it be heard or seen.

This language has become standard parlance to describe the natural world, supposedly rigorous and objective. It is, of course, heavily instrumental in character: absolutely no emotion allowed here! Environmental politics increasingly reduce that world to an economic calculus of costs and benefits. We apparently need to measure value in order to ascribe it. But in this way we know the cost of everything and the value of nothing. Such a language is incapable of describing the falcon’s flight or tinkling gurgle of the flow of a beck. By contrast Macfarlane argues for emotion in our language of the natural world: to charm and be charmed, to a re-enchantment of this world and our own humanity in relation to it. This calls for poetic metaphor and a realisation that far from being an adornment of language metaphor is thought itself, a content that far exceeds the propositional (p. 33). Such a language of nature Macfarlane argues needs to be ‘tactful:’ ‘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’ (p. 35). He thus sets out his broadly phenomenological agenda and hints at the agency of landscape: it touches us and we are touched by it. We communicate this through metaphors that enchant and enrich our wonderment and in turn our appreciation and understanding of landscape. This language is not dead or fixed in the sense of simply trying to resurrect lost words or dialect terms in the present. Instead it can be regarded as an active force through which we perceive both the past and the present in the past. It has the power to evoke and create new sensibilities.

In much of the book Macfarlane’s writing is indeed ‘tactful’. In this way he is able to try and evoke the ‘flesh of the world’ to use Merleau-Ponty’s (1968) memorable metaphor. His writing in this book, and in his others often has an extraordinary lyric power. This is far too infrequent in the language habitually used in academic studies of landscape that frequently have a deadening effect. If everyone could write about landscape like Macfarlane the world would indeed be a better place and we would understand those landscapes and appreciate them far better.

Macfarlane’s primary relationship to landscape is a literary one. He teaches English at Cambridge but rather than spending his time on topics such as cryptic deconstructions of Hardy’s novels like Hillis Miller (1995) or a psychological analysis of Virginia Wolff, his field is primarily that of literary writing about the cultural environment, discussing authors such as Roger Deakin’s and his love of wild swimming and the textures of wood, or J.A. Baker’s study of the peregrine falcon, topics that are definitely not part of any established literary canon (Macfarlane 2003; 2008; 2012; Macfarlane, Donwood and Richards 2013). His work is thus both delightfully subversive and becomes far more socially and politically relevant. One might say that he deliberately goes against the grain of the literary academic establishment.

Macfarlane is not somebody who teaches landscape in the academic manner that geographers or archaeologists or anthropologists or sociologists do. His are not formal research- based studies of landscapes but literary encounters. The primary research that he does undertake is in relation to the lives and archives of other landscape writers with a literary bent. However his works can be argued to have considerable power and relevance in understanding the particular places and landscapes that he writes about than a host of ‘more measured’ academic studies. This is because of his evident passion and creativity in evoking and describing the ‘natural’ world: he teaches us how we might write and think more imaginatively. For him the ‘natural’ world includes and embraces what we might call ‘culture’ (farming and herding, peat cutting, hedgerows, prehistoric monuments, mines and quarries). It is the world out there materially existing beyond its representation in the pages of a book or in the form of a photograph. When Macfarlane writes about landscape people and their thoughts are always already there. The landscape is thus peopled and encultured and related to details of their personal biographies. Unfortunately the latter are, all too frequently, reduced to vignette’s of their lives.

The glossaries of words following the chapters, whose direct relationship to the preceding narrative is somewhat tangential, seem uncannily lifeless, emaciated and dead in comparison with Macfarlane’s own text. The words don’t evoke and enchant the imagination when they are presented as a list stripped of locality, context, and human associations, or one might say, ‘life’. So e.g. ‘stoach’: ‘to churn up, waterlogged land as cattle do in winter (Kent, Sussex)’ is instantly forgettable. It does seem like a dead word that evokes little today or ‘zam-zody’ meaning soft, damp, wet (Exmoor). Given that there are literally hundreds of thousands of words to describe landscapes the choices of which to include are arbitrary rather than systematic. There is no discussion anywhere in the book of the extensive historical literature on place names and their origins. Some terms included in the glossaries are geological or archaeological or ecological in origin e.g. ‘cromlech’, ‘dolmen’, ‘barrow’, ‘swallet’, ‘doline’, ‘alderecarr’, and ‘pannage’. They are familiar terms to specialists in those fields and even to most interested amateurs. Others included are still in more general use such as ‘spinney’, ‘beacon’ or ‘mackerel sky’ (the latter attributed to Exmoor) and not at all out of the ordinary. Some are poorly defined: ‘lynchet’ ‘slope or terrace along the face of a chalk down’. Actually ploughing causes lynchets and it is more normal to refer to them as field lynchets. ‘Grey wethers’ or ‘sarsens’ are said to occur on the surface of the chalk downs in Devon and Wiltshire (p. 283). There are no chalk downs in Devon.

The words that are included in the glossaries appear to be listed simply because are curious or unfamiliar to Macfarlane himself. So the glossaries come across as a somewhat unsystematic mish-mash of different kinds of words and orders of words. The glossaries sometimes arrest the reader because the words often do seem so unfamiliar and bizarre. But I’d dispute whether their loss in our everyday language actually disempowers our ability to write evocatively about landscapes. Indeed, Macfarlane himself is able to write powerfully enough without using the vast majority of them. In effect the glossaries are lists that perhaps enable us to remember to forget. An alternative can be found in Tyler’s recent book Uncommon Ground (2015) in which the story of words such as ‘meol’ or ‘ait’ or ‘stagnal’ is told principally by pictures rather than definitions. The photographs are another way of telling and evoking landscapes of words that is both much more limited (Tyler has space for relatively few of them) but remains in many respects far more evocative and powerful than Macfarlane’s dry lists because they enable us to see what is there.

Macfarlane’s own descriptions of his personal encounters with landscape have an unfortunate tendency to degenerate at times into a form of narcissistic narrative in which we learn something about himself but very little about the landscape that he encounters. For example his description of a walk the Cairngorms, following in the literary footsteps of Nan Shepherd, (pp. 77-80) is about the ‘hammering of his heart’ when he sees a golden eagle, or looking down on the ‘flexing backs’ of geese from a high point, how he pitched his tent beside a stream, that he felt happy drinking real coffee in the morning etc., all wrapped up and described in a somewhat purple literary prose. Even his discussion of some of the people and their relationship with particular landscapes described in the book is, in part, about how he encounters them. Macfarlane has an all too easy tendency to conflate the personal with the powers of subjective participant observation described in a poetic style, and they are not the same thing. He is at his best when he encounters a landscape through the perceptions of others and subjectively evokes experiences of it while forgetting about himself. As such much of the chapter entitled “Hunting Life’ about the naturalist J.A. Baker’s obsessive interest in peregrine falcon in Essex and his style of trying to narrate his experiences to others is brilliant. He tells us that Baker gained his literary effect through a ‘combination of surplus (the proliferation of verb, adjective, metaphor and simile), deletion (the removal of articles, conjunctions, proper nouns) and compression (the decision to crush ten years of hawk -hunting down to a single symbolic ‘season’, its year unspecified)’ (p. 152). Baker is described as developing a hyperkinetic prose torquing adjectives into verbs: ‘the north wind brittled icily in the pleached lattice of the hedges’. Baker, Macfarlane tells us, uses no less 136 metaphors and 23 similes in the six-page introduction to his book, The Peregrine. This is a book about an obsession that obsesses Macfarlane himself subtly altering his own understanding of the coasts and skies in which Baker’s falcons still fly.

From my own perspective of someone who teaches the anthropology and archaeology of landscape, this book is both an exhilarating and an exasperating read. In many respects it is brilliant and ought to be read by anyone interested in place and landscape. It is poetically rich, makes powerful political points in an era of climate change and global destruction and encourages us to reconnect to place viscerally and emotionally, to find a new moral compass. Macfarlane offers up the spell of a committed sensuous engagement with the ‘natural’ world.

Despite Macfarlane asking us to engage as precisely and in as much exacting detail as possible to create an evocative language of landscape his own encounter with that material landscape both in this book, and his others, comes across as superficial. His personal research of the places he writes about is all too often reduced to the observations acquired in a fleeting personal encounter. As a consequence of this what he writes about, if not discussing the thoughts and observations of others, as often as not turns out, somewhat inevitably, to be about himself and a description of his own limited personal experiences. So the book at times unfortunately degenerates into a form of navel gazing, albeit of an interesting literary kind. This detracts attention from both its politics and its poetics.




Basso, K. (1996) ‘Wisdom sits in places’ in S. Feld and K. Basso (eds.) Senses of Place, Santa Fe, School of American Research Press

Hillis Miller, J. (1995) Topographies, Stanford: Stanford University Press

Macfarlane, R. (2003) Mountains of the Mind, London: Hamish Hamilton

Macfarlane, R. (2008) The Wild Places, London: Hamish Hamilton

Macfarlane, R. (2012) The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, London: Hamish Hamilton

Macfarlane, R., Diamond, S. and Richards, D, (2013) Holloway, London: Faber and Faber

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1968) The Visible and the Invisible, Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press

Rackham, O. (1986) The History of the Countryside, London:Dent

Tyler, D. (2015) Uncommon Ground: A Word-Lover’s Guide to the British Landscape, London: Faber and Faber


Download PDF

, ,

One Response to Landmarks: a review

  1. P.LAVIOLETTE May 9, 2015 at 11:43 pm #

    Layered and thorough review, thanks Chris. Part of the way you’ve described Macfarlane — as some nostalgic, romantic eco-poet — gave me the impression that he’d be some crusty, pipe smoking dinosaur in a tweed. So I was rather surprised to discover that, despite being quite Oxbridge (obviously not the surprising bit), he’s still far from being an ancient, old man of letters, not even in his 40s yet.

Powered by WordPress. Designed by Woo Themes

%d bloggers like this: