The footsteps that made the path

June 24th, 2014 | Posted in: Related works, Support

Since the BBC and the Guardian featured the Landreader, I’ve had hundreds of supportive messages and submissions of terms for the glossary from all over the UK and abroad. It has been incredibly encouraging to find so many people receptive to the ideas behind this project.

While all the attention is welcome, and gratifying, seeing the project described as “One man’s quest to save lost words…”  has made me slightly uncomfortable since the path that this project has taken has been shaped and directed by many other works.

Here are a few of them:

  1. Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape, edited by Barry Lopez.
    This is the book I found in 2007 when I first went looking for something to help me describe accurately and evocatively the experience of being in the landscape. It does that, and more, but not for the British landscape. My original idea was to transplant the format of this book to the UK, with entries written by a broad and eclectic selection of experts and enthusiasts, but this proved to be too high a mountain to climb at the time. Home Ground defines over 800 terms associated with the American landscape, including several that I am actively seeking to introduce, or re-introduce, to the UK (cowbelly is in the vanguard). A searchable, online version of the appeared fairly recently here.
  2. A Counter-Desecration Phrasebook, an essay by Robert Macfarlane in Towards Re-Enchantment: Place and It’s Meanings.
    In this essay, Macfarlane explores how precise, particular words for landscapes and landforms, whether poetic or scientific, become terms of endearment, and, conversely, how vague, general words become terms of alienation. The loss of precision, and of poetry, in our language for the natural world has left us with what Macfarlane calls a “blandscape”, whose features are grouped awkwardly together in categories too general to bear meaning. To counter this estrangement, Macfarlane calls not just for a revival of dwindling language, but for “a vast glossary of Enchantment that would comprehend the whole earth, that would allow nature to talk back to us and would help us to listen…That would keep up from slipping off into abstract space – and keep us from all that would follow such a slip.”
  3. Rathad an Isein – The Bird’s Road: A Lewis moorland glossar, compiled by Anne Campbell with Finlay Macleod, Donald Morrison and Catriona Campbell.
    A testament to the richness of the Hebridean landscape lexicon that recalls an intimacy built on centuries of knowing, working and navigating the land and the sea.
  4. A Land by Jaquetta Hawkes
    If this book were just a simple history of the British isles from creation to the present day it would be impressive enough. What makes A Land much more than a simple anything is the vast scope of Hawke’s imagination and her ability to narrate you through her thoughts and digressions like an expert and tireless sherpa leading even the poorest climber to heights they never thought attainable.
  5. Feral by George Monbiot.
    One of the most enjoyable jobs I’ve ever done was photographing George Monbiot fishing in Wales for a Guardian Weekend article. We paddled out into Cardigan Bay in search of mackerel, chased dolphins, then ate sashimi (the mackerel not the dolphin) with wild thyme on the beach and failed to catch sea-bass by moonlight. The joy of being out, looking for food, doing things that connect with the natural world directly, not as a recreation or an amenity but as a means of getting a meal, is partly what Feral is about. I think Monbiot is right that the countryside could do with a bit of re-wilding, he is also right that the species with the greatest need for a life more feral is us.
  6. The Hidden Landscape by Richard Fortey
    My grasp of geology wasn’t too great when I started this project but this book helped me, not only to understand the differences between igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic rocks but, more importantly, to see geology in it’s proper context. As Fortey writes in his preface “Lying beneath the thin skin of recorded history in our islands, geology has the same role in landscape as does the unconscious mind in psycology: ubiquitous but concealed.”
  7. Elmet; poems by Ted Hughes, photographs by Fay Godwin
    I love Godwin’s photography. I love that it’s complicated and sometimes off-kilter and never just beautiful, all qualities that I’d also associate with Ted Hughes’ poems. This combination of words an pictures, with neither one overbearing the other, is for me a kind of ideal.
  8. The Shell Country Alphabet by Geoffrey Grigson.
    Written with wit and authority, this book has turned up several good words and example locations. Grigson, like Pevsner and many previous gentleman gazetteers, takes a deep, educated interest in churches, megalithic structures, wells and burial sites, but he also has a keen eye for natural features. His writing is clear, concise and articulate, much better than it needs to be and funny, too. His entry for “Druidical Remains” begins bluntly “Do not exist” and then goes on to firmly but gently debunk the myths and explain their popularity: “Outlined on the backward horizon, lit both by their wisdom and their sacrificial flames, Druids conveniently filled a vacuum in the mind.”


There are others, many other that I could and should mention, Richard Mabey’s The Unofficial Countryside, John McPhee’s Annuls of the Former World, Patrick Keiller’s Robinson trilogy. Once you start to list your influences you realize just how indebted you are.