Robert Macfarlane's 2015 book, Landmarks, was the most important and most absorbing book I read in 2016. A writer, traveler, and hiker, Macfarlane was compelled to take up his pen for Landmarks by his perusal of the Oxford Junior Dictionary, in which "a sharp-eyed reader noticed that there had been a culling of words concerning nature."
"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, board band, bullet-point, celebrity, chartroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player, and voice-mail.
"When the head of children's dictionaries at OUP was asked why the decision had been taken to delete those 'nature words,' she explained that the dictionary needed to reflect the consensus experience of modern-day childhood. 'When you look back at older versions of dictionaries, there were lots of examples of flowers for instance,' she said. 'that was because many children lived in semi-rural environments and saw the seasons. Nowadays, the environment has changed.' There is a realism in her response--but also an alarming acceptance of the idea that children might no longer see the seasons, or that the rural environment might be so unproblematically disposable.
"The substitutions made in the dictionary--the outdoor and the natural being displaced by the indoor and the virtual--are a small but significant symptom of the simulated life we increasingly live."
The types of lands covered are: flatlands--the moors of the Isle of Lewis; uplands--the mountains of Cairngorm Mountains of northeast Scotland; the inland waterlands of England; the coastlands of England; the northlands of Canada; the edge lands--vacant fields along the edges of London and its suburbs; the earthlands of England where one finds pebbles; and the woodlands--the forest of sequoias of California.
The underlying thesis is that if we forget or bury the words that we have for the world around us--a religious person would say, "the world that God has given us"--then we will lose our relationship to that world. Macfarlane does not seek to explore the consequences of that loss of connection. His book rather invites us to reconnect.
The glossaries bring to the surface the far more intimate relationship that our forebears had with their natural surroundings. To give some examples: snaw grimet--color of the ground when lying snow is partly melted (Shetland); scailp--cleft or fissure; sheltering place beneath a rock (Irish); glumag--deep pool in a river (Gaelic); fub--long withered grass on old pastures or meadows (Galloway); and na luin--fast-moving heat-haze on the moor (Gaelic).
Aside from stories and writings of the landscape hero or heroine of each chapter, Macfarlane points us to other literature or discoveries about the landscape in question, so that the book acts as an annotated bibliography--signposts if we would like to take up the journey.
Nan Shepherd (1893-1981), a lecturer in English, writer, and constant hiker of the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland, which she wondrously describes in The Living Mountain.
Macfarlane's book not only opened up a new world of thinking about our relationship to God's universe. It also helped me to see--to more easily apprehend the beauty offered to us outside when we escape, however briefly for a walk, from our virtual man-made confines.