The Summer Grasses: Echoes of A Distant War

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The need for precise discrimination of this kind has occurred most often where landscape is the venue of work. Such super-specific argots are born of hard, long labour on land and at sea. The terms they contain allow us glimpses through other eyes, permit brief access to distant lifeworlds and habits of perception. I also relished synonyms — especially those that bring new energy to familiar entities. The variant English terms for icicle — aquabob Kent , clinkerbell and daggler Hampshire , cancervell Exmoor , ickle Yorkshire , tankle Durham and shuckle Cumbria — form a tinkling poem of their own.

The beauty of this variant surely has to do with the paradox of thaw figured as restraint or retention, and the wintry notion that cold, frost and snow might themselves be a form of gift — an addition to the landscape that will in time be subtracted by warmth.

The Summer Grasses: Echoes of A Distant War

Many of the glossary words are, like ungive , memorably vivid. They function as topograms — tiny landscape poems, folded up inside verbs and nouns. Hopkins, like Clare, sought to forge a language that could register the participatory dramas of our relations with nature and landscape. Not all place words are poetic or innocent, of course. Forest — like many wood-words — is complicatedly tangled up in political histories of access and landownership. Some of the words I collected are ripely rude.

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A dialect name for the kestrel — alongside such felicities as windhover and bell-hawk — is wind-fucker. Once learned, never forgotten; it is hard now not to see in the pose of the hovering kestrel a certain lustful quiver. When I mentioned to my young son that there was no word for the shining hump of water that rises above a submerged boulder in a stream, he suggested currentbum. Well, yes. I organised my growing word-hoard into nine glossaries, divided according to terrain-type: Flatlands, Uplands, Waterlands, Coastlands, Underlands, Northlands, Edgelands, Earthlands and Woodlands.

They contained only a debatable fraction of an impossible whole. There is no single mountain language, but a range of mountain languages; no one coastal language, but a fractal of coastal languages; no lone tree language, but a forest of tree languages.

So I decided to imagine them not as archives but as wunderkammers , celebrating the visions these words opened in the mind, and their tastes on the tongue. I am wary of the dangers of fetishising dialect and archaism — all that mollocking and sukebinding Stella Gibbons spoofed so brilliantly in Cold Comfort Farm Wary, too, of advocating a tyranny of the nominal — a taxonomic need to point and name, with the intent of citing and owning — when in fact I perceive no opposition between precision and mystery, or between naming and not knowing.

There are experiences of landscape that will always resist articulation, and of which words offer only a distant echo.

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Nature will not name itself. Light has no grammar. Language is always late for its subject. But we are and always have been name-callers, christeners. Words are grained into our landscapes, and landscapes grained into our words. Yet it is clear that we increasingly make do with an impoverished language for landscape.

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A place literacy is leaving us. A language in common, a language of the commons, is declining. Nuance is evaporating from everyday usage, burned off by capital and apathy. The substitutions made in the Oxford Junior Dictionary — the outdoor and the natural being displaced by the indoor and the virtual — are a small but significant symptom of the simulated screen life many of us live.

It has become a blandscape. This impoverishment has occurred even in languages that have historically paid close attention to place, such as Irish or Gaelic. Even the landscape lexis of the Outer Hebrides is currently being lost.

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Of those who do still speak Gaelic, many are understandably less interested in the intricacies of toponymy. Why should this loss matter? It matters because language deficit leads to attention deficit. As we deplete our ability to denote and figure particular aspects of our places, so our competence for understanding and imagining possible relationships with non-human nature is correspondingly depleted.

There is, suddenly, a surging sense of the importance of preserving and plenishing a diverse language for landscape. Landmarks , the book that has arisen from my own years of word work, is a celebration and defence of land language. Its fascination is with the mutual relations of place, word and spirit: how we landmark, and how we are landmarked in turn. Each of the nine glossaries is matched with a chapter exploring the work of those writers who have used words exactly and exactingly when describing specific places.


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The terrain about which Baker wrote with such committing force was the coastal Essex of saltings, spinneys, sea walls and mudflats. Compelled by the high gold horizons of this old countryside, even as it was undergoing the assault of big-field farming in the s and s, Baker developed a new style with which to evoke its odd magnificence. Baker is one such writer, Robinson another, Nan Shepherd a third.

Roger Deakin, while writing his modern classics Waterlog and Wildwood , gathered wood words and water words. John Muir relished the technical language of botany bract , bole , pistillate but also delighted in his own coinages. For all of these writers, to use language well is to use it particularly: precision of utterance as both a form of lyricism and a species of attention. Many of us only experience the seaside when we go on vacation, unless we are fortunate enough to live within a short distance of the coast.

When you look around carefully you will find a really interesting range of plants on the coast, some of which can be grown further inland in the average garden. Many of these are low maintenance plants that provide interest all the year around. We have sea buckthorn - Hippophae rhamnoides — a tough evergreen shrub that produces bright orange berries from October right through into the following March.

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This plant only grows in this part of the world because we have altered the soil structure by adding some river sand or grit. The plant will grow quiet happily as long as it is positioned in a free-draining and sunny site. Sea buckthorn also serves a very valuable role near the coast, where it is used as a specialist plant to prevent coastal erosion.

On a recent trip to Scarborough and Whitby I noticed that fuchsias were growing in great swathes along the coastal banks and gullies. Fuchsias are normally tender, being used extensively in our gardens as patio plants in pots and containers during the summer. However, there is a hardier species of fuchsia called fuchsia magellanica which can flower well into late November in a sheltered site. This plant originates in South America and the hardier form grows right down to the coastal tip of Argentina in the Tierra del Fuego province.

This part of the world is well known by both explorers and keen yachting folk. It does particularly well when grown against the wall of a house. We treat these hardy fuchsias the same way we would treat our very own roses and leave any hard pruning until the following March. Another important plant that does such a good job as a coastal defence plant is marram grass. This forms the first line of defence in what is known as the mobile to fixed sand dune system. The leaves are very tough and waxy and the root system penetrates deep into the sand, helping to bind moving sand and prevent erosion.

This plant is not the ideal grass to grow in the average garden, but there are many more you can plant to give you that feel of the coast. Grasses are such a sensory plant: they provide interest for most of the year, only being reduced in height during the spring or late autumn.


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  6. Stipa tenuissima and stipa gigantea can both be found growing well within the herbaceous borders. Stipa tenuissima only grows to a height of 40cm and does well at the front of the border. Unlike all the other grasses, it should never be cut back hard, just a light thinning and reduction is required. Festuca glauca is another alternative to stipa tenuissima, producing waxy glaucous blue leaves that look like they have been coated in the morning frost.

    The sea holly - eryngium maritima - is now a very rare native coastal plant in the UK and is afforded special protection and, like all wild plants, should not be collected. There are, however, many beautiful and colourful forms of garden cultivated eryngiums that will bring a taste of the seaside to the garden. Due to their ability to survive windy and dry sites, these plants make the perfect combination for gravel gardens that can double up as driveways.

    Many of our driveways are being concreted or tarmacked over, but by creating a gravel driveway to the front of the house, this enables excess water during heavy rain to be absorbed into the soil and not overload drains. These bolder planting schemes can be inter-planted with low growing herbs like thyme, rosemary and sage.



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