Saturday, 24 June 2017

The Luxury of Language

View from (well, near) the corpse road at Mardale
I have a new addiction, one I recommend for any writer. It’s Robert Macfarlane’s Twitter feed.

You may not have heard of Robert Macfarlane, and I’m not quite sure how to describe him — and when you’ve finished this blog, you’ll understand how important choosing the right words is. Put most simply, he’s a writer and an academic whose subject is related to the landscape. (I’m sure there’s a word for that, and one far more specific than the obvious ‘geography’). I’m halfway through his book The Old Ways and am enjoying it, though i have to confess I’ve ground to a halt. There’s only so much word-richness a girl can digest at once.

On holiday in the Lakes recently, I popped into Wordsworth’s birthplace, where the National Trust had an excellent exhibition curated by Dr Macfarlane. It was on the theme of what he (I presume) calls ‘word-hoarding’ — gathering descriptive words for the landscape and for the weather and so on. Each word was accompanied by some sumptuous photos. It’s right up my street — words and the landscape, two things I love.

A 'moon road'
I’d have loved to have a book about the exhibition, but there wasn’t one, so I headed for Twitter. And here we go. Each day Dr Macfarlane posts a word or phrase and a picture to go with it. 

Some of the words I know and use — fluting, for example, or corpse road or Helm wind. Others I know but don’t use — the simmer dim (for the midsummer dusk/dawn in the Northern Isles) or siege for the place from which a heron launches itself on unsuspecting fish. Others are completely new to me — summer geese, which he describes as “steam that shimmers up from the land when hot sun follows brief rain”, or today’s offering, stubble-stag — a folk name for a hare.

Best of all, his many followers join in, with their own experiences, their local or remembered dialect words, their photographs. Long threads of word-magic spring onto my computer screen, punctuated by pictures of woods, or summer evenings, of silver lakes and cloud-shadowed mountains. 

Twitter can be a grim place, pitted with elephant traps for the unwary, but the daily threads I find here are as wholesome as home-made apple pie. Go and follow @RobGMacfarlane. I promise you won’t regret it. 

Jennifer Young


  1. I love his writing but I know what you mean - The Old Ways is like a fruit cake; you want to make it last. Off to Twitter!

    1. Yes - and I do love someone who understands the Earth. Robert Fortey is another one, though he's more a geologist.

  2. Had never heard of him but he is now added to my 'favourites' Twitter stream. Thanks Jennifer!

  3. I can guarantee that he'll be an oasis of calm in the midst of a Twitter storm...

  4. Great post Jennifer. His tweets are a lot more interesting and educational than most. :)

  5. he's such a fabulous writer but I hadn't known about his twitter words so off to sign up. thanks for the post

  6. Wow! What a post! I really enjoyed it .... something a bit different for us all to get our teeth around, as it were. We use a word here in Devon, dimpsey, which means dusk, that moment when it's not quite light and ye3t not dark either. I put it in a short story once and my editor said, 'Dimpsey? Eh?'. But she let it stand because it was obvious from the context what it means.

  7. Started following @RobGMacfarlane on Twitter, Jennifer - thanks. I love inspiring and creative Twitter feeds, and a tiny peek at Rob's tells me he is both. Thanks for the recommendation. : )