The vanishing words we need to save

The vanishing words we need to save
Women walk with their dogs on an autumnal morning through Delamere Fores in north west England.
PHOTO: AFP

Robert Macfarlane is a compiler of words: an explorer of hedgerows and roadsides, salt marshes and sea-caves. But he is also a magician, of sorts - one who weaves spells using lost phrases that recall a different connection with our landscape.

In his latest book Landmarks, the British naturalist calls for "a glossary of enchantment for the whole earth, which would allow nature to talk back and would help us to listen".

We speak on the phone the day before he is due to talk at the Hay Festival. I am sitting in my car at a rest stop next to the river Wye in Wales, opposite public toilets, trying to stay still to keep my mobile from cutting out.

Macfarlane is in the kitchen of his home in Cambridge, also clinging to a patch of reception. He laughs as I describe my location. This is a man who has found peregrine falcons at a power station and water voles at a municipal dump, claiming in his 2007 book The Wild Places that "the human and the wild cannot be partitioned".

Similarly, he doesn't believe that the words he has collected in Landmarks are just for shepherds or hill-walkers.

"I'm talking to you from my edge-of-the-suburb house in Cambridge - most people are in cities now," he says. "The book is about all of us finding ways to celebrate and enrich the language that we have for landscape and nature."

In Landmarks, Macfarlane pulls together nine glossaries of terms taken from 30 languages, dialects and sub-dialects around Britain and Ireland. They all describe aspects of weather, nature and terrain - and many of them are dying out, slipping out of conversation and off the tongues of those who once spoke them.

They have been lost. Macfarlane wants them to be found.

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