This Scepter'd Language

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It’s hard to know how to describe this book.

It has received heaps of praise, particularly in Great Britain, where it was first published and with which it concerns itself. That praise is well-deserved. McFarlane has written a paean to his homeland, with a focus on both “home” and “land,” and he has done so largely through the delightful use of the words of others.

That is, he employs the words that the people who inhabited very specific places over very long periods of time developed for themselves to describe their homelands. In these words the reader can hear, indeed feel in her soul, the great love and comprehension these forefathers had for their small patch of the British Isles. Reading this, you grasp that McFarlane has developed a unique and extraordinarily powerful literary device.

Once you understand the brilliance of what he has done, the book is quite simple—although it would take lifetimes to comprehend. To wit, McFarlane takes himself various places—an island heath, an ancient mine, swimming, in pursuit of raptors—and describes the experience. He may follow the footsteps of a naturalist or writer he admires, or be accompanied by one. He writes feelingly and movingly about the place, the history, the day. And then the reader turns upon the page and comes upon a glossary.

The glossaries are the book’s brilliant twist. They are interleaved among the chapters, and they are concerned with gathering all the relevant, generally archaic terms of a particular subject: Flatlands, Uplands, Waterlands, Coastlands, Underlands, Northlands, Edgelands, Earthlands, Woodlands. It is in these marvelous repositories that the rich, fecund nature of the English language and its profound connection to the English (and British) countryside becomes evident.

And so the reader experiences a unique rhythm through the pages of this book. First, perhaps a chapter unfolding the life of the extraordinary and unlikely peregrine aficionado J.A. Baker in the 1960s. Then, a Coastlands glossary. It is here that McFarlane has gathered his linguistic jewels. Each one I desire to cherish, remember, lodge in my over-full brain: hope, a small bay or haven (south-east England); oyce, a lagoon formed where a bar of shingle has been thrown across the head of a bay (Orkney, Shetland); tairbeart, the isthmus between two sea lochs (Gaelic); zawn, a vertical fissure or cave cut by wave action into a cliff (Cornwall).

This goes on for pages, so that the reader soon gives up trying to remember and simply allows the extraordinary parade of linked and linguistically informed but disparate images paint a landscape in the mind. Then, when it is all too much, comes another chapter, another glossary.

I read about this book before I read the book itself, and I was delighted to learn that upon its publication people from all over Great Britain began sending McFarlane gifts of words, words he had not collected, words they had known and used as children.

There is an act of preserving language that clearly informs the act of preserving place. If we do not know a place, we do not love it. We know places through their names—through how we describe them, which reflects how we know them. It is a circular and yet wholly comprehensible logic. McFarlane has created a unique and magical book that brings that logic powerfully home.