Words, Landscapes, And Pondering Ethiopia

The most illuminating 75 minutes with earbuds on, in a long time or possibly ever (since my history with earbuds is only a few years old), by far, were spent listening to this. If you are a combined “words person” and “nature person”–how else would you have found your way to this blog?–then you will understand.

Ethiopia, from the perspective of our recent expedition which I have barely begun to process with words, was illuminated for me just a bit hearing this man talk about how we describe places and the impact that ecosystems have on us. Ecosystems serve as metaphors, he says. And that prepositions matter a great deal to how we communicate the impact ecoystems have on us, literally and metaphorically.

Ethiopia was an enriching experience, in these senses.  I will write separately on that illumination. For now, a bit more from Robert Macfarlane, the illuminator on nature, through words. After listening to the podcast of his lecture, I had to know who this was, and it brought me here:

Làirig – ‘a pass in the mountains’ (Gaelic). Photograph: Rosamund Macfarlane

Làirig – ‘a pass in the mountains’ (Gaelic). Photograph: Rosamund Macfarlane

Eight years ago, in the coastal township of Shawbost on the Outer Hebridean island of Lewis, I was given an extraordinary document. It was entitled “Some Lewis Moorland Terms: A Peat Glossary”, and it listed Gaelic words and phrases for aspects of the tawny moorland that fills Lewis’s interior. Reading the glossary, I was amazed by the compressive elegance of its lexis, and its capacity for fine discrimination: a caochan, for instance, is “a slender moor-stream obscured by vegetation such that it is virtually hidden from sight”, while afeadan is “a small stream running from a moorland loch”, and a fèith is “a fine vein-like watercourse running through peat, often dry in the summer”. Other terms were striking for their visual poetry: rionnach maoim means “the shadows cast on the moorland by clouds moving across the sky on a bright and windy day”; èit refers to “the practice of placing quartz stones in streams so that they sparkle in moonlight and thereby attract salmon to them in the late summer and autumn”, and teine biorach is “the flame or will-o’-the-wisp that runs on top of heather when the moor burns during the summer”.

The “Peat Glossary” set my head a-whirr with wonder-words. It ran to several pages and more than 120 terms – and as that modest “Some” in its title acknowledged, it was incomplete. “There’s so much language to be added to it,” one of its compilers, Anne Campbell, told me. “It represents only three villages’ worth of words. I have a friend from South Uist who said her grandmother would add dozens to it. Every village in the upper islands would have its different phrases to contribute.” I thought of Norman MacCaig’s great Hebridean poem “By the Graveyard, Luskentyre”, where he imagines creating a dictionary out of the language of Donnie, a lobster fisherman from the Isle of Harris. It would be an impossible book, MacCaig concluded:

A volume thick as the height of the Clisham,

A volume big as the whole of Harris,

A volume beyond the wit of scholars.

The same summer I was on Lewis, a new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary was published. 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 taking their places in the new edition included attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity,chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player and voice-mail. As I had been entranced by the language preserved in the prose‑poem of the “Peat Glossary”, so I was dismayed by the language that had fallen (been pushed) from the dictionary. For blackberry, read Blackberry

Read the whole editorial here.  Really, go for it. The photo that follows the ellipsis is alone worth the click.

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