Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Book Notes: Uncommon Ground, A word-lover's guide to the British landscape by Dominic Tyler

This book is an absolute delight. Quirky, unusual and written with a wry, witty ease of touch, the text is accompanied by lovely photos. The contents of the book are unusual. Great Britain is divided up into eight sections, from "The Highlands", to "The Fenlands", not along political, but along geomorphological ones. Each chapter, dedicated to one of these landscapes, begins with a short essay about Tyler's trip to the area. Anecdotes, memories and sharp observations are all assembled into these utterly charming introductions. The main focus of these chapters however are words; words that people have devised to capture, describe and relay to others. an aspect of the landscape, its effect on them - or indeed their effect on it.

Each special landscape word which Tyler identifies, is given a lovely photo, a grid reference, and a page of explanation. These notes delve into history, geography, cartography, and linguistics and humour; and are uniformly informative and sometimes quite funny too. Tyler writes with an almost palpable love for landscapes, whether they are rugged highland Strasrugi, clinging to a wild Corrie on some remote Stob; or a Sunpol, Daddock or Pistyl by a low-lying Copse. (For definitions and explanations you should buy the book!)

Some words such as MeanderBealach or Tor, I already knew from hillwalking days, others such as Dumbledore, I only knew as words; and had no idea of their origins. Other words I found for the first time, but felt as if I should have known. Moonglade is the shiny trail of light reflected from the water beneath a bright moon; Epilimnion is the warm layer of water at the surface of a loch;  Holloway is a sunken lane, which only subsequently gave its name to a road, a prison and countless families. Tombolo is an island connected to the shore at low tide; clear, hard ice covering rocks has a name too: Verglas.

Tyler's little etymologies are fascinating in what they reveal about man's interaction with the natural world too. The Holloway, begins as footpath erosion, to which a stream may add erosive power, which gains water-seeking vegetation on it's banks. It is the result of land-and-man in dynamic interaction, which humans then name, and which in turn became a human sur-name. This act of naming things is important. Tyler recounts his time in the low-lying wetlands of East Anglia amongst the Crikes, Carr's and Loblolly's, and encourages us to think of such places as Stagnal, not stagnant. Here he met a naturalist called Mark Cocker who told him that, "Names are the absolute fundament of relationship because if you don't have a name for something you can' build on that relationship". (p211). Fascinating then, that in the biblical creation story (which Tyler doesn't actually mention until his comparison of the Inuit words for snow with the English words for Mud on p222); the first humans are pictured as being commissioned with the task of 'naming' the creatures, in other words not just performing elementary classification; but beginning meaningful interaction with the natural world.

I love words, and I love the varieties of the British landscape. From cycling across the chalky downlands of the south, to striding over the ridges of the Highlands in later years; I have sought whenever possible to immerse myself in these landscapes. I have also found that the many days I have spent alone in the outdoors have yielded many more vivid memories of it, as my senses are sharper and less distracted than when in company. Don't misunderstand me, some of the best days I have had in the hills have been with others, just that these are not the times when I have felt the landscape as intently as I have when confronting it alone. I love words too, and seem to spend inordinate amounts of time consuming those of others, and producing my own. Dominic Tyler's book about landscape and words, was almost guaranteed to resonate with me.

I once tried to coin a new word to describe a certain mountain experience, (not that anyone noticed). I didn't really mind, but I found it helpful to put a word to a certain feeling, and try to use this to relay that to others. Tyler's book does this again, and again, not by inventing new words, but unearthing, and explaining the richness of words that sometimes have lain unused in quiet backwaters of the country for too long. The natural world really is a wonderful thing to behold, to study, to photograph and to classify in order to discuss. Tyler doesn't really ever get to discussing why this is the case; for him it is simply assumed to be important. For me, it is a spiritual experience, but perhaps not in the contemporary definition of that phrase. Such terminology usually suggests some pantheistic, or Gaia-ish connection to either the sum or the parts of the created realm. But that's not what I mean. Rather, my sense is that this great painting, speaks of a great artist; who has assembled us before His canvas and asked us to define, describe, appreciate, photograph and enjoy His work, as a clue in the search for Him. The heavens indeed declare the Glory of God! I remember once the celebrity atheist Ricky Gervais talking about the awe one senses before the natural realm, and said he defied any believer to sense any more awe than he did as an atheist. The trouble is that Christians never make that claim. I have climbed mountains with believers, sceptics, agnostics, atheists and the disinterested; and we all have stood in awe of the great landscapes of Scotland. We have all reached for words and cameras to capture the moment and the emotion, the time and the place. No, the Christian claim is not that they experience greater awe in these moments; rather it is that the Christian explanation for the awe we all  experience is more credible; that a mountain is not merely a meaningless pile of molecules, but is actually a work of art. Likewise, the desire to photograph, classify and relay this to others - as Tyler does so wonderfully in this book -suggests that we too are not merely molecules; but have some deep connection to the original artist; and that this book delights because it resonates so profoundly with the imago dei.

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