Eleanor Morse, Spalding MFA Faculty, Fiction
How often do you pause in the middle of writing a sentence, in search of a word or phrase that describes exactly what you mean? You might keep going, leave a blank space in the text, and trust that what you need will pop out when you least expect it. Or you might sit and stare and wait for it. Or you might hunt it down relentlessly until you find it. However you seek it, there’s a moment when that word or phrase drops into place, and you know it’s right.
Nowhere is the joy of the exact word more evident than in the evocation of the natural world. And nowhere is this better demonstrated than in Robert Macfarlane’s extraordinary book, Landmarks (2015). This book fell into my lap a few days ago. It is an astonishing feat of scholarship and love—a kind of hymn to the exactitude of place. Macfarlane is a superb writer whose three best-known books—Mountains of the Mind, The Wild Places, and The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot—have to do with landscape and the human heart. Landmarks is, in his own words, “a book about the power of language—strong style, single words—to shape our sense of place.”
Over many years, Macfarlane collected words from Old English, Anglo-Romani, Cornish, Welsh, Irish, Gaelic, dialects of Scots and numerous regional versions of English. He says,
Many of these terms have mingled oddness and familiarity in the manner that Freud calls uncanny: peculiar in their particularity, but recognizable in that they name something conceivable, if not instantly locatable. Ammil is a Devon term for the fine film of silver ice that coats leaves, twigs and grass when freeze follows thaw…pirr, meaning ‘a light breath of wind, such as will make a cat’s paw on the water’; and another, klett, for a ‘low-lying earth-fast rock on the seashore’.
Other wonderful examples:
bull-pated: a tuft of grass driven by the wind into a quiff, i.e. standing up like the tuft on a bull’s forehead (Northamptonshire)
zwer: whizzing noise made by a covey of partridges as they break suddenly from cover (Exmoor)
fub: long withered grass on old pastures or meadows (Galloway)
stugged: of a person or an animal: enmired in a bog (Devon)
weepy: a land rife with springs (Exmoor)
warp: mixture of fine sand and mud left on meadowland after the receding of floods (Northamptonshire)
The exact naming of something means a concentrated attention. We are richer for the language itself but also for the life that’s lived in and around the word. Life creates the word, and the word creates life. Words sit in us like heaps of shell middens. We can choose those overused words that sit on the surface, or we can pay attention, dig into the heap and be enriched for what we find.
Keith Basso, who wrote Wisdom Sits in Places (1996) studied language and landscape among the Apache peoples of Western Arizona. Place names among the Apache, he said, are valued for their ability to create the human relation to place and also to hold “ear and eye jointly enthralled”.
Many of my favorite writers enthrall with a similar kind of exactness. Here is Alice Munro with her fierce, unrelenting eye for human particularity: “My mother and her cousins…wore corsets that did up the side with dozens of hooks and eyes, stockings that hissed and rasped when they crossed their legs…” (Chaddeleys and Flemings)
Or Grace Paley in A Conversation with My Father: “I am right next to the pickle barrel. My pinky is making tiny whirlpools in the brine.” Or her Aunt Rose in Goodbye and Good Luck: “I wasn’t no thinner then, only more stationary in the flesh.”
Or these lines from Philip Levine’s poem, “Holding On”:
Two oxen browse
yoked together in the green clearing
below. Their bells cough. When
the darkness and the wet roll in
at dusk they gather
their great slow bodies toward
In 1985, Italo Calvino, an Italian journalist and fiction writer, prepared five Charles Eliot Norton lectures which he was about to deliver at the time of his death. The lectures have been collected into a wonderful, short volume called Six Memos for the Next Millennium. The third one of these lectures is called “Exactitude,” and it begins like this:
For the ancient Egyptians, exactitude was symbolized by a feather that served as a weight on scales used for the weighing of souls. This light feather was called Maat, goddess of the scales.
For Calvino, ‘exactitude’ meant “a language as precise as possible both in choice of words and in expression of the subtleties of thought and imagination.”
It sometimes seems to me, [he said], that a pestilence has struck the human race… It is a plague afflicting language, revealing itself as a loss of cognition and immediacy, an automatism that tends to level out all expression into the most generic, anonymous, and abstract formulas, to dilute meanings, to blunt the edge of expressiveness, extinguishing the spark that shoots out from the collision of words and new circumstances.
If you have a hankering to do your part in resisting this pestilence, to wake yourself up and to remind yourself of the richness of language—of all human languages—open the pages of Macfarlane’s Landscape and be amazed and stunned, and fall in love with the earth and the sea and the sky all over again, and with the people who named what they saw.
Eleanor Morse, a graduate of Swarthmore College, spent a number of years living in Botswana in the 1970s. She earned an M.F.A. in creative writing from Vermont College. Her novel An Unexpected Forest, published by Down East Books, won the Independent Publisher’s Gold Medalist Award for Best Regional Fiction in the Northeast U.S. and was also selected as the Winner of Best Published Fiction by the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance at the 2008 Maine Literary Awards. Eleanor Morse has taught in adult education programs, in prisons, and in university systems, both in Maine and in southern Africa. She currently works as an adjunct faculty member with Spalding University’s MFA Writing program in Louisville, Kentucky. She lives on Peaks Island, Maine.