The Best Book in the World

The Word-Drunk, Foot-Sore, Tree-Hugging, Peak-Scaling Prose of the Inimitable Robert Macfarlane

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in Features • Illustrated by Eric Lauterbach

After I finished Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks, I couldn’t sleep. So I got up at 4:22 a.m., downloaded an image of its cover, uploaded the image to my Facebook page, and wrote, “This is the best book in the world.”

Macfarlane is a nature writer, travel writer, and literary critic who is in large part responsible for a renewed interest in writing about the outdoors, especially in his native England. Those interests come together in all of his books but notably in Landmarks. It’s a book “about the power of language,” he says in his first sentence, “to shape our sense of place.” Each chapter visits a different part of Britain and Ireland, and each is followed by a glossary of terms locals use to describe the world they live in, one Macfarlane (and we) can only visit.

It’s also a book about walking. Macfarlane is nothing if not boots on ground, following one path or another as he hoofs it from orchard to cottage to inn to pub, talking to the people who know the land best, the ones who live and work on it. Of course, he is not the first person to connect walking with writing. The first writers didn’t have any choice. Before cars and trains and airplanes, they could choose economy travel (by foot) or business class (via mule or horse); only the well-off could travel in first class (coach). Not that walking is a bad thing for a writer: “My wit will not budge if my legs are not moving,” writes Montaigne.

Keats often walked as many as 12 miles a day, even when his consumption was raging. Dickens trod the streets of London all night “to still my beating mind,” as he said. And before the Dante of The Divine Comedy legged it through the Inferno on his way to Purgatory and Paradise, the real-life Dante Alighieri wandered for years after his exile from Florence, crossing swamps where one might sicken and die in hours and following roads that gave way to paths dense with briars and thick with trees hiding thieves.

Macfarlane’s first book, 2003’s Mountains of the Mind, was met with an avalanche (pun intended) of praise. Shortlisted for the Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature and the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, it won the Guardian First Book Award, the Somerset Maugham Award, and the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award. Mountains of the Mind is devoted less to mountains per se than to our attitude toward them, to the how and why of our attraction to slopes and peaks that are beautiful, yes, but are just waiting to kill us.

It was followed four years later by The Wild Places, which won even more prizes, then The Old Ways: A Journey On Foot, then Landmarks. The prizes continued to pile up, as did the sales (Landmarks was a Sunday Times number one bestseller) and the accolades. When Landmarks appeared in the US in 2016, Tom Shippey wrote in The Wall Street Journal that it is a book that “teaches us to love our world, even the parts of it that we have neglected” and concluded that “Mr. Macfarlane is the great nature writer, and nature poet, of this generation.”

So I’m not the only one. “What a gift that British nature writer Robert Macfarlane has given us in his book Landmarks!” writes David Bollier. Like me, Bollier is hooked by Macfarlane’s deep drilling into the connection between language and nature, specifically how he culls thousands of words and phrases from the various languages and dialects of the British Isles that identify aspects of terrain or weather. There’s “skalva,” for example, a word used in the Shetlands for “clinging snow falling in large damp flakes.” In Dorset, an icicle is called a “clinkerbell.” In Yorkshire, a gaping fissure or abyss is called a “jaw-hole,” and hikers call a jumble of boulders requiring careful negotiation a “choke.” I told you the mountains are out to get us.

As Macfarlane makes his way through the UK and Ireland, one gets a sense of his humility before it all, especially when he doffs his cap to peers whose achievement he clearly regards as superior to his own. Just as he resurrects obscure language, he profiles little-known nature writer Nan Shepherd, for example, whose specialty was the Cairngorms mountain range in Scotland. Macfarlane points out that, unlike male mountaineers who boast about conquering summits, Shepherd hiked the mountains “as one visits a friend, with no intention but to be with him.”

The Cairngorms were “her inland-island, her personal parish, the area of territory that she loved, walked and studied over time,” says Macfarlane, “such that concentration within its perimeters led to knowledge cubed rather than knowledge curbed.” Her book The Living Mountain was written in the mid-1940s but only published (and to little notice) in 1977. Yet Macfarlane compares it to such classics of nature writing as Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia, John McPhee’s Coming into the Country, and Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard.

One gets the impression that Robert Macfarlane is a supremely nice guy, a sort of Bruce Springsteen of nature writing whom you’d like to date or at least be friends with. You’d want him by your side if you had to ford a “sike” (a small stream in Yorkshire) or a “wham” (a swamp in Cumbria), and you’d definitely want him with you as you approach a “didder” (the quivering of a bog in East Anglia as a walker approaches). It’s this “microscopic verbal detail,” as Boyd Tonkin says in The Independent, this “eye-opening” and “tongue-loosening” curating of words for “fog and hedge and cloud, of marsh and storm and stream” that shows how people who live in nature define and refine their world.

Consider your own experience. When you were around two, you knew what a “tree” was. Not long after, you found out there was something called an “oak tree” — even if you’d grown up in a desert, you saw pictures of one or watched a nature special on TV. If you lived in a greener area, by the time you were a teen or college student you might have been able to differentiate between a “white oak” and a “water oak” or “live oak.” As far as the average citizen goes, you’d be way ahead in terms of your knowledge of the natural world.

But did you know that a “dotard” was a “decaying oak”? You might have if you’d grown up in Northamptonshire. Such an oak might have become “foxed” if its center is red and indicates decay (same region), or it may have suffered a “scocker,” that is, a “rift in an oak tree caused by either lightning blast or the expansive freezing of water” (East Anglia). But don’t give up on that dotard just yet. Remember, Macfarlane’s interview subjects were practical people, for the most part. Thus a “whelm,” or “half a hollow tree placed with its hollow side downwards,” may form a small watercourse in the same East Anglia where that oak tree got scockered in the first place.

There’s just one problem when you’re trying to convince other people that the best book in the world is a book about nature. The problem is that a lot of people don’t like nature. Or it’s not that they dislike it. It’s that they don’t think about it any more than they think about stamp collecting or subatomic physics. No one will fly into a rage if you say you’re on the trail of the British Guiana 1-Cent Magenta or the Baden 9 Kreuzer Error Stamp, just as they’re not like to start throwing the furniture through a window if someone starts geeking out over the fact that beryllium emits electrically neutral radiation when bombarded with alpha particles. Scockers, whelms: it’s all East Anglian to them.

But if you’re indifferent to nature or just not really aware that it’s out there, don’t feel guilty. Others are taking up the slack. Besides, eco-apathy doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy nature writing for its own sake. After all, fine writing is fine writing regardless of the subject. In a recent Literary Hub article entitled “I Don’t Spend Much Time in Nature, But I Love Reading About It,” Bradley Babendir works his way through a couple of collections of essays on the natural world and concludes that, if nothing else, nature writing offers “a reprieve from the unending drive to refresh Twitter in search of the latest snippet of political news.”

Landmarks is nothing if not fine writing. That’s its secret and Robert Macfarlane’s superpower in all of his books. He’s a little like those moms who sneak zucchini into the lasagna so the kids will eat more vegetables. Yes, he reconnects us with the hillocks and the glens and the leas and the trees, but he does it by getting us drunk on language.

There is, of course, an entire (and, in light of recent developments in climate change, booming) academic area called ecocriticism, which, since the 1980s, has existed as a broad interdisciplinary approach to the ways in which literature treats nature. Typically a syllabus might begin with Shakespeare’s Tempest and come up through Wordsworth’s poems and the novels of Willa Cather and then look at the work of contemporaries like Wendell Berry.

There’s even a crime subgenre called outdoor noir. Go to the CrimeReads and check out James A. McLaughlin’s “9 Classic Thrillers That Tap into the Mysteries of the Natural World.” McLaughlin starts with James Dickey’s Deliverance and then makes his way through eight other horrifying and delightful page-turners by such novelists as Cormac McCarthy, Jim Harrison, and Tana French.

Which brings me to my other favorite Macfarlane book. I’ve already mentioned the way Everest and other storied peaks function as sexy but dangerous come-ons in Mountains of the Mind, how their glittering exteriors hide the treachery that lures and often dooms mortals as surely as Lana Turner entices John Garfield onto a fateful path in The Postman Only Rings Twice. If Landmarks draws us in with wordplay, Mountains of the Mind entices us with the conventions of noir novels and films.

Of course, he starts by putting us at ease. As he does in Landmarks, here Macfarlane puts us not merely at but into the scene. As he makes his way along Strath Nethey, a valley in Scotland that runs along the back of Nan Shepherd’s Cairngorms range, he says that

I scrambled up the eastern slope of the glen to the wrack-line. The heather was slippery with clumps of melting snow, and I often had to put a hand down into it to steady myself. As I neared the boulder I started a ptarmigan, and it flew kekking up into the white sky, where it became a silhouette.

The senses of touch, sight, and hearing are activated in a few words. The speaker has our confidence because he is both precise (“eastern slope”) and knowledgeable (he knows what a “wrack-line” is as well as a “ptarmigan”). Best of all, he is relatable, because he is unsure of feet, as we would be. His experience becomes our experience.

And then he rachets up the tension. It’s because Macfarlane is so good at embedding us in his narrative that his description of later and less benign episodes had me dropping Mountains of the Mind beside my chair and walking around the room to settle myself. On another mountain, he hears his climbing partner shout and then feels what he thinks first is “a heavy hand on my shoulder” that turns out to be a rock. Then there are more rocks, dozens of them, including one that passes between his legs, snatching at his clothing as it goes. By now he is shivering so hard that he is barely able to support his weight.

Look out, David — I mean, Robert! Here comes one straight toward you! “What about my fingers?” he thinks. “They’ll be crushed flat if it hits them.” The last, and biggest, of the boulders, comes directly toward him. It grows larger and darker and then strikes the rock face and shears off to the left.

Then and there, Macfarlane vows never to return to the mountains again. Fat chance. Within another 60 pages later, he is in the Alps, striding purposefully until he drops and jams at belly-level in the ice, the air punched from my lungs by the fall. My lower half had entered another element. It felt colder, much colder down there. My feet, heavy with boots and crampons, kicked in emptiness until I realized that this might dislodge me and I let them hang, toe-downwards, and spread my arms out across the snow, in the upper world. There was a sensation of unknowable depth beneath me and I was gripped by terrible vertigo.

A few minutes later, Macfarlane’s climbing partner hauls him out. Sleepless on a thin mattress in a hut that night, “my mind got to work on what had happened, luxuriating in the conditional tense.”

Fine for him, but what about me? You wouldn’t think you could get PTSD from a book, but I can be in the classroom or supermarket and hear a crunch and suddenly feel my feet dangling over the bottomless dark. There’s that tree-hugger hippie side to Macfarlane you see in a book like Landmarks, but there’s also a scary side that’s akin to something out of a classic horror movie like The Exorcist. Neither that movie nor Macfarlane’s book would be any good if they didn’t keep us up at night.

You can actually choose your nightmare when you look at his career as a whole: after indulging your acrophobia in Mountains of the Mind, you can give your claustrophobia free rein in Macfarlane’s latest, Underland, in which he slips below the earth’s surface to trap himself and you in everything from Bronze Age funeral chambers to a containment site where nuclear waste will be stored for the next 100,000 years to come.

Part of what makes Macfarlane so readable is that there’s a scholarly side to his writing so easy-going that you almost don’t notice it. So much journalism is of the me-in-the-moment type, but you always feel grounded in Macfarlane. He always lets you know that the thing that is happening now has happened before, which means it will happen again, which means that what he is describing is universal, eternal, and wired into the DNA of the human race and the natural world as well.

Not long after he describes his near-death at the hands of some treacherous ice, he reinforces your terror and his by quoting another erstwhile Alpinist, 18th-century playwright John Dennis, describing his own adventure:

We walk’d upon the very brink, in a literal sense, of Destruction; one Stumble, and both Life and Carcass had been at once destroy’d. The sense of all this produc’d different motions in me, viz., a delightful Horrour, a terrible Joy, and at the same time I was infinitely pleas’d, I trembled.

The greater the fear, the greater the pleasure of the one who makes it out alive.

It is perhaps for this reason that the version of Robert Macfarlane who self-presents as peaceful and nature-loving is also drawn to men at war. I don’t whether or not he has any tattoos, but if he does, I’m willing to wager that one of them is Churchill’s statement that “nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result,” often misquoted less accurately but more pungently as “shot at and missed.”

Were I to put together a Macfarlane reader (are you listening, W. W. Norton?), I’d definitely include the six pages in The Wild Places, his 2008 exploration of the last undomesticated landscapes in Britain and Ireland, in which he pays tribute to the Scottish nature writer W. H. Murray who was crossing Buachaille Etive Mor toward Glen Coe on September 3, 1939, when he stopped at an inn and learned that war had been declared.

Murray joined up and was posted to the Highland Light Infantry, which was sent to the Libyan desert to fight Erich Rommel’s Afrika Korps. Macfarlane follows Murray and his men as they follow a stupid order to advance on foot against Rommel’s tanks; at one point Murray turns to speak to another man and finds “only a pair of legs, trunkless and smoking.”

Murray survives the onslaught but is taken prisoner and sent to a camp in Italy, where he begins his book Mountaineering in Scotland, written on flimsy toilet paper he got from the other prisoners by bartering pages of a Shakespeare anthology his mother had sent him and whose firm pages were more suitable to the hygienic purpose for which the prisoners used them. Moved to another prison camp in Bohemia, Murray had his toilet-paper manuscript confiscated and destroyed by the Gestapo, who thought it a coded account of troop movements. Undeterred, he started on the manuscript again. The camp was liberated on May Day in 1945, and Murray returned to his beloved Scottish wilderness, as thin as a skeleton and barely able to walk but restored in spirit by the violets and greens and gold of the mountains and glens.

Like Murray and his other nature-writer heroes, Macfarlane is first and foremost a close observer. And he attributes an even tighter focus these days to his children: “becoming a father altered my focal length,” he recalls in Landmarks, because little people are unmoved by the grandeur and instead are “rapt by the miniature and the close at hand.” He might have mentioned how children love language and play with it unabashedly until they grow up and become serious. “Genius is no more than childhood recaptured at will,” said Baudelaire, and it is this quality that ties all of Macfarlane’s books together. Everything about his writing is kid-friendly, from the risk taking to the goofing around with language.

As for himself, Macfarlane said in an interview with Tobias Carroll that appeared in Men’s Journal that he has his own favorite terms from the more than 2,500 that he catalogs in Landmarks: there’s “rionnach maoim,” a Gaelic phrase from the Outer Hebrides meaning “the shadows cast by clouds on moorland on a sunny, windy day,” and “zawn,” a Cornish term for “a vertical wave-smashed chasm in a sea-cliff.”

I don’t know how he can choose. What about “pank,” which is what you do when you knock down apples from a tree in Herefordshire, and “spronky,” which is a Kentish word for a plant or tree with many roots?

As you read Landmarks, after a while you just want to savor the words for their own sakes, rolling them around on your tongue and not caring what they mean as they work like magic spells: “aquabob,” “daggler,” “ickle,” “tankle,” “shuckle,” “cancervell.” These and a couple of thousand more conjure up a world so close to ours that we can’t see it, and then we do. •

David Kirby's collection The House on Boulevard Street: New and Selected Poems was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2007. Kirby is the author of 34 books on various topics, including Little Richard: The Birth of Rock ‘n’, which the Times Literary Supplement of London called “a hymn of praise to the emancipatory power of nonsense” and was named one of Booklist’s Top 10 Black History Non-Fiction Books of 2010. He teaches at Florida State University, where he has won five university teaching awards and is the Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor of English. He is married to the poet and fiction writer Barbara Hamby, and his latest poetry collection is More Than This.

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