The Sloth-Bear

A natural history drawing of a Sloth Bear produced  by a local artist under the supervision of Francis Buchanan (later Buchanan-Hamilton, 1762-1829) while he was Superintendent of the Institution for Promoting the Natural History of India at Barrackpore


— Should this be true, that Beasts were Automata or Machines, they could have no Sense or Perception of Pleasure or Pain, and consequently no Cruelty could be exercis’d towards them; which is contrary to the doleful Significations they make when beaten or tormented,
and is contrary to the common Sense of Mankind, all Men naturally pitying them, as apprehending them to have such Sense and Feeling of Pain and Misery as themselves have . . .
Besides, having the same members and Organs of Sense as we have, it is very probable they have the same Sensations and Perceptions with us . . .
and at last seemingly contrary to the Scripture too: Proverbs 12:10 . . .  A good Man is merciful to his Beast; which is the true Exposition of it  . . . .

John Ray (1627 – 1705), who laid the foundations of botany and zoology in Britain


Study of Cacti

study of cacti
Robert Knaus (Austrian c. 1900)


Published in: on August 19, 2015 at 11:34 am  Leave a Comment  
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unknown 19th century parakeet pomegranate19th century, possibly French School


It rained last night. The pomegranates,
Red and orange-red,
Have all burst open into flower.

Not to be comforted,
I sit in this cool pavilion
Set in a lotus lake
And under its glass-bead curtains wait
For my closed heart to break.

Sin Hum (1566-1628)
Translated by Graeme Wilson

Published in: on August 11, 2015 at 8:12 pm  Comments (3)  
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erasmus delfinErasmus Quellinus the Younger (1607–1678)

The Delphines both rejoice in the echoing shores and dwell in the deep seas, and there is no sea without Delphines, for Poseidon loves them exceedingly . . .

(2nd century)

To Ungive

A Windy Day 1850 by David Cox 1783-1859A Windy Day
David Cox (1783 – 1859) 

Robert Macfarlane

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 a feadan 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 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.

It has become a habit, while travelling in Britain and Ireland, to note down place words as I encounter them: terms for particular aspects of terrain, elements, light and creaturely life, or resonant place names. I’ve scribbled these words in the backs of notebooks, or jotted them down on scraps of paper. Usually, I’ve gleaned them singly from conversations, maps or books. Now and then I’ve hit buried treasure in the form of vernacular word-lists or remarkable people – troves that have held gleaming handfuls of coinages, like the Lewisian “Peat Glossary”.

It seemed to me then that although we have fabulous compendia of flora, fauna and insects (Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannica and Mark Cocker’s Birds Britannica chief among them), we lack a Terra Britannica, as it were: a gathering of terms for the land and its weathers – terms used by crofters, fishermen, farmers, sailors, scientists, miners, climbers, soldiers, shepherds, poets, walkers and unrecorded others for whom particularised ways of describing place have been vital to everyday practice and perception. It seemed, too, that it might be worth assembling some of this terrifically fine-grained vocabulary – and releasing it back into imaginative circulation, as a way to rewild our language. I wanted to answer Norman MacCaig’s entreaty in his Luskentyre poem: “Scholars, I plead with you, / Where are your dictionaries of the wind … ?”

In the seven years after first reading the “Peat Glossary”, I sought out the users, keepers and makers of place words. In the Norfolk Fens I met Eric Wortley, a 98-year-old farmer who had worked his family farm throughout his long life, who had been twice to the East Anglian coast, once to Norwich and never to London, and whose speech was thick with Fenland dialect terms. I came to know the cartographer, artist and writer Tim Robinson, who has spent 40 years documenting the terrain of the west of Ireland: a region where, as he puts it, “the landscape … speaks Irish”. Robinson’s belief in the importance of “the language we breathe” as part of “our frontage onto the natural world” has been inspiring to me, as has his commitment to recording subtleties of usage and history in Irish place names, before they are lost forever: Scrios Buaile na bhFeadog, “the open tract of the pasture of the lapwings”; Eiscir, “a ridge of glacial deposits marking the course of a river that flowed under the ice of the last glaciation”.

Some of the terms I collected mingle oddness and familiarity in the manner that Freud calls uncanny: peculiar in their particularity, but recognisable in that they name something conceivable, if not instantly locatable. Ammil is a Devon term for the thin film of ice that lacquers all leaves, twigs and grass blades when a freeze follows a partial thaw, and that in sunlight can cause a whole landscape to glitter. It is thought to derive from the Old English ammel, meaning “enamel”, and is an exquisitely exact word for a fugitive phenomenon I have several times seen, but never before named. Shetlandic has a word, pirr, meaning “a light breath of wind, such as will make a cat’s paw on the water”. On Exmoor, zwer is the onomatopoeic term for “the sound made by a covey of partridges taking flight”. Smeuse is an English dialect noun for “the gap in the base of a hedge made by the regular passage of a small animal”; now I know the word smeuse, I notice these signs of creaturely commute more often.

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. In Northamptonshire and East Anglia “to thaw” is to ungive. 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.

Many of the glossary words are, like ungive, memorably vivid. They function as topograms – tiny landscape poems, folded up inside verbs and nouns. I think of the Northamptonshire dialect verb to crizzle, for instance, a verb for the freezing of water that evokes the sound of a natural activity too slow for human hearing to detect (“And the white frost ’gins crizzle pond and brook”, wrote John Clare in 1821). When Gerard Manley Hopkins didn’t have a word for a natural phenomenon, he would simply – wonderfully – make one up: shivelight, for “the lances of sunshine that pierce the canopy of a wood”, or goldfoil for a sky lit by lightning in “zigzag dints and creasings”. 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. Our familiar word forest designates not only a wooded region, but also an area of land set aside for hunting – as those who have walked through the treeless “forests” of Fisherfield and Corrour in Scotland will know. Forest – like many wood-words – is complicatedly tangled up in political histories of access and landownership. We inhabit a post-pastoral terrain, full of modification and compromise, and for this reason my glossaries began to fill up with “unnatural” language: terms from coastal sea defences (pillbox, bulwark, rock-armour), or soft estate, the Highways Agency term for those natural habitats that have developed along the verges of motorways and trunk roads.

I organised my growing word-hoard into nine glossaries, divided according to terrain-type: Flatlands, Uplands, Waterlands, Coastlands, Underlands, Northlands, Edgelands, Earthlands and Woodlands. The words came from dozens of languages, dialects, sub-dialects and specialist vocabularies: from Unst to the Lizard, from Pembrokeshire to Norfolk; from Norn and Old English, Anglo-Romani, Cornish, Welsh, Irish, Gaelic, Orcadian, Shetlandic and Doric, and numerous regional versions of English, through to Jérriais, the dialect of Norman still spoken on the island of Jersey.

It is clear that we increasingly make do with an impoverished language for landscape. 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. The terrain beyond the city fringe is chiefly understood in terms of large generic units (“field”, “hill”, “valley”, “wood”). It has become a blandscape. We are blasé, in the sense that Georg Simmel used that word in 1903, meaning “indifferent to the distinction between things”.

Study Of A Cucumber, With Its Leaves


Jacques le Moyne de Morgues (1533 – 1588)


The Word Calling Forth the World

giottoGiotto di Bondone (1266 – 1337)


Jubilate Agno, Fragment

For TEA is a blessed plant and of excellent virtue. God give the Physicians more skill and honesty!

For nutmeg is exceeding wholesome and cherishing, neither does it hurt the liver.

For The Lightning before death is God’s illumination in the spirit for preparation and for warning.

For Lavender Cotton is exceeding good for the teeth. God be gracious to Windsmore.

For the Fern is exceeding good and pleasant to rub the teeth.

For a strong preparation of Mandragora is good for the gout.

For the Bark was a communication from God and is sovereign.

For the method of curing an ague by terror is exaction.

For Exaction is the most accursed of all things, because it brought the Lord to the cross, his betrayers and murderers being such from their exaction.

For an Ague is the terror of the body, when the blessing of God is withheld for a season.

For benevolence is the best remedy in the first place and the bark in the second.

For, when the nation is at war, it is better to abstain from the punishment of criminals especially, every act of human vengeance being a check to the grace of God.

For the letter ל [Hebrew character lamed] which signifies GOD by himself is on the fibre of some leaf in every Tree.

For ל is the grain of the human heart and on the network of the skin.

For ל is in the veins of all stones both precious and common.

For ל is upon every hair both of man and beast.

For ל is in the grain of wood.

For ל is in the ore of all metals.

For ל is on the scales of all fish.

For ל is on the petals of all flowers.

For ל is upon on all shells.

For ל is in the constituent particles of air.

For ל is on the mite of the earth.

For ל is in the water yea in every drop.

For ל is in the incomprehensible ingredients of fire.

For ל is in the stars the sun and in the Moon.

For ל is upon the Sapphire Vault.

For the doubling of flowers is the improvement of the gardners talent.

For the flowers are great blessings.

For the Lord made a Nosegay in the meadow with his disciples and preached upon the lily.

For the angels of God took it out of his hand and carried it to the Height.

For a man cannot have publick spirit, who is void of private benevolence.

For there is no Height in which there are not flowers.

For flowers have great virtues for all the senses.

For the flower glorifies God and the root parries the adversary.

For the flowers have their angels even the words of God’s Creation.

For the warp and woof of flowers are worked by perpetual moving spirits.

For flowers are good both for the living and the dead.

For there is a language of flowers.

For there is a sound reasoning upon all flowers.

For elegant phrases are nothing but flowers.

For flowers are peculiarly the poetry of Christ.

For flowers are medicinal.

For flowers are musical in ocular harmony.

For the right names of flowers are yet in heaven. God make gard’ners better nomenclators.

For the Poorman’s nosegay is an introduction to a Prince.

Christopher Smart (1722 – 1771)

Bucks County Landscape

Wm Lathrop
William Langson Lathrop (1859–1938)


Father’s Day

I have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had no where else to go.  My own wisdom and that of all about me seemed insufficient for that day.

I laugh because I must not cry, that is all, that is all.

Abraham Lincoln

Published in: on June 21, 2015 at 8:34 pm  Comments (1)  

Silent Spring

SilentJan van Kessel (baptized 5 April 1626 – 17 April 1679)


Near a brook in south-east England, the bird-spotter JA Baker stumbled on a grim little scene in 1961. “A heron lay in frozen stubble. Its wings were stuck to the ground by frost. Its eyes were open and living, the rest of it was dead. As I approached, I could see its whole body craving into flight. But it could not fly. I gave it peace and saw the agonised sunlight of its eyes slowly heal with cloud.”

The bird’s plight was clearly unnatural. But its fate was not unique. That year, large numbers of dead birds were found strewn across the countryside. On the royal estate in Sandringham, for example, the toll included thrushes, skylarks, moorhens, goldfinches, sparrowhawks, chaffinches, hooded crows, partridges, pheasants, and wood pigeons. Nationally, more than 6,000 dead birds were reported to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, a massive leap on previous years. “We were inundated,” says the RSPB’s conservation director, Martin Harper.
The UK was not alone. For years, reports in the US indicated that numbers of birds, including America’s national bird, the bald eagle, were dropping alarmingly. Something was happening to the birds of the western world.

For most of 1961, Rachel Carson had locked herself in her cottage in Colesville, Maryland, to complete her book, Silent Spring. It would provide an unequivocal identification of the bird killers.
Powerful synthetic insecticides such as DDT were poisoning food chains, from insects upwards.
“Sprays, dusts and aerosols are now applied almost universally to farms, gardens, forests and homes – non-selective chemicals that have the power to kill every insect, the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’, to still the song of the birds and the leaping of fish in the streams, to coat the leaves with a deadly film and to linger on in the soil – all this though the intended target may be only a few weeds or insects,” she wrote.

Rachel Louise Carson was born on May 27, 1907. She studied at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory and later Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore. She was a brilliant marine biologist and a superb writer whose prose was exquisite in its precision and lyricism. She began writing for the Baltimore Sun and in 1936 was made editor-in-chief for publications for the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Silent Spring was a brave effort. Even legitimate criticism of government policy was a risky act in the US then. “Science and technology and those who worked in these fields were revered as the saviours of the free world and the trustees of prosperity,” says another biographer, Linda Lear. “Rachel Carson exposes these experts to public scrutiny and makes it clear that at best they had not done their homework and at worst they had withheld the truth.”

DDT was banned not just because it was accumulating in the food chain but because mosquitoes were developing resistance to it, say science historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik M Conway.
Nevertheless, groups still blame Carson for the current blight of malaria.

She denounced the links that had been established between science and industry. “When a scientific organisation speaks,” she asked, “whose voice do we hear – that of science or of the sustaining industry?” The question remains as pertinent today as it did in 1962.

Martin Harper of the RSPB says, “It took 10 years to get DDT banned after its effects had been demonstrated. And similarly today, when warned about a chemical’s danger, governments wait until research results are unequivocal. Then they suggest industry takes voluntary action. Only when that fails does it issue a ban, years too late.”
As Carson wrote: “Chemical war is never won and all life is caught in its violent crossfire.”

“In the 60s, we were only just waking up to the power that we had to damage the natural world,” says Jonathon Porritt, a former director of Friends of the Earth. “Silent Spring outlined a clear and important message: that everything in nature is related to everything else.”


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