When writing style mirrors its subject

A reading note on “Landmarks,” by Robert Macfarlane

Landmarks, amongst other things, is a book about writing well.

Words can be slippery and frustrating, but some writers are able to pin down mercurial ideas with “the quivering intensity of an arrow thudding into a tree.” (This is Macfarlane quoting birdwatcher J. A. Baker, who is one such writer with this gift.)

Macfarlane identifies landscape writers as being especially good at this, and he goes to understand how they do it. What he finds is that one of the characteristics common to this species of writing is that the writing is structured in a way that mirrors the subject itself. The writing seems to “enact the terrain it describes.”

Here is a tiny example: Macfarlane gently dissects essayist and poet Peter Davidson’s one-sentence description of a lake.

“A little stone jetty in still water: water like pewter, extraordinary water.”

The extreme stillness of the sentence is in part a function of its verblessness, but is due also to the reflection of water within itself (‘water: water’), an effect doubled again as the word pewter catches and supplely returns – with a ripple – the word water.

Macfarlane finds various way to gesture to this quality of landscape writing. He refers to a book’s “distinctive manners” and its “palette.” Its “tight web of qualities,” its “repertoire of mood,” its “cluster of tropes.”

Said another way, it appears that this species of writing excels when the writing style itself takes on the quality of its subject. When writing about water, the text itself becomes “water-y.”

For Roger [Deakin], water flowed fast and wildly through culture: it was protean, it was “slip-shape” – to borrow Alice Oswald’s portmanteau from her river poem, Dart – and so that was how he followed it, slipshod and shipshape at once, moving from a word here to an idea there, pursuing water’s influences, too fast for his notes or audience to keep up with, joining his archipelago of watery subjects by means of an invisible network of tunnels and drains.

(Macfarlane would also say that Deakin, author of Waterlog, “thought not just about water, he thought in water or with water”)

When writing about a predatory bird, the text takes on some of the quirks of its subject.

One of the many exhilarations of reading The Peregrine is that we acquire some version of the vision of a peregrine. We look upon the southern English landscape from above and perceive it as almost pure form: partridge coveys are “rings of small black stones” on the fields, an orchard shrinks “into dark twiggy lines and green strips”, the horizon is “stained with distant towns”, an estuary “lift[s] up its blue and silver mouth”. These are things imperceptible at ground level. We become the catascopos, the ‘looker-down’: a role usually reserved for gods, pilots and mountaineers. This falcon-sight, this catascopy, makes Essex – a county that never rises higher than 140 metres above sea level, a county that one sees often across, but rarely down onto – new again.

When writing about a vast landscape which offers little purchase to the eye, the writer must create a stylistic approach that invites the reader in.

When he began to write about the Arctic, Lopez was faced with the challenge of making language grip a landscape that is both huge and “monotonic”. How was he to depict a realm of immensities and repetitions: “unrelieved stretches of snow and ice” and “plains of open water”? How was he to bring this stark and enigmatic landscape within reach of words, without trivializing or compromising it? Northern regions possess surfaces – stone, light, snow, ice, bright air – to which words will not easily cleave.

What Lopez understood was that detail anchors perception in a context of vastness. It is perhaps the defining habit of his style to make sudden shifts between the panoramic and the specific. Again and again, he evokes the reach and clarity of an Arctic vista – and then zooms in on the ‘chitinous shell of an insect’ lodged in a tuffet of grass, a glinting tracery of ‘broken spider-webs’, or ‘the bones of a lemming’ whose form resembles that of the ‘strand of staghorn lichen next to them’. The effect for the reader of these abrupt perspectival jumps is exhilarating – as though Lopez has gripped you by the shoulder and pressed his binoculars to your eyes.

And so on.

Macfarlane shares that this technique is no mere accident. These writers invested frightening amounts of effort to invent lexicons for their subjects.

Their writing styles are as intentional as a surgeon’s gleaming scalpel. Especially when it feels effortless.

Waterlog also possesses this covertly connected quality, this slipshapeness. It feels spontaneous, written as if spoken – but as the dozens of closely annotated drafts of the book reveal, it was in fact densely contrived in its pattern-makings and metaphors.

J. A. Baker and his book The Peregrine offer an extreme example of the lengths that writers will go to ensure that their style amplifies the subject. Macfarlane travels to visit Baker’s archive in Essex, and is shocked by what he finds.

I had known before coming to the archive that Baker had rewritten the book five times after its first draft. But until I opened the red-jacketed proof copy of The Peregrine I had no idea of the unique method of analysis he had devised for his own prose. Almost every page of the proof was rife with annotations. Ticks indicated phrases with which Baker was especially pleased. Here and there he had re-lineated his prose as verse. He had subjected his sentences to prosodic analysis, with stress and accent marks hovering above each syllable, as if scanning poetic meter (echoes of Gerard Manley Hopkins).

On every page, he had also tallied and totalled the number of verbs, adjectives, metaphors and similes. Above each metaphor was a tiny inked ‘M’, above each simile an ‘S’, above each adjective an ‘A’ and above each verb a ‘V’. Written neatly in the bottom margin of each page was a running total for each category of word-type, and at the end of each chapter were final totals of usage. ‘Beginnings’, the first chapter of The Peregrine, though only six pages long, contained 136 metaphors and 23 similes, while the one-and-a-half-page entry for the month of March used 97 verbs and 56 adjectives.

There, laid bare, was the technical basis of Baker’s style: an extreme density of verbs, qualifiers and images, resulting in a book in which – as the writer and ornithologist Kenneth Allsop put it in a fine early review – ‘the pages dance with image after marvellous image, leaping forward direct to the retina from that marshland drama’. That quality of ‘leaping forward’ is distinctive of Baker’s writing: distinctive, too, of course, of what the world does when binoculars are raised to it.

I genuinely hadn’t realised how much labour goes into crafting this kind of literature. Before Landmarks, I assumed that the extent to which one “works” on writing is some combination of interrogating the accuracy of the subject, nip-tucking various aspects of grammer, and being sensitive to musicality.

Now, I have learned that there is a level of craft where a writer approaches the work almost like an ancient blacksmith. They invest first in making the tools - the anvil, the hammer, even a new kind of metal where necessary. It’s almost as if before they can speak, they must invent a new vocabulary for the subject they aim to discuss.

I hope to write a glossary of light one day, and this has given me much to think about. What does it mean to write in a style that is “light-minded”? What does a “light-y” lexis look like?

This is how Baker wrestles with writing about light.

Light fascinated [Baker], as he worked at how to represent its volatilities in language. He tried out phrase after phrase, remaining hostile to cliché: ‘clear varnish of yellow, fading sunlight’; ‘that quality of sunlight, which is like the dusty golden varnish on some old Rembrandt oil-painting’. Occasionally he relinquished simile in favour of common adjectives, uncommonly combined: ‘Wednesday April 23rd 1958. Light was tricky and strange.’