Language and Landscape

by Kristen Holt-Browning

I try to hike at least a portion of the Pocket Road trail here in Beacon at least once a week. On my last couple of walks up the trail, I’ve been leaving my headphones and podcasts at home, and instead paying extra careful attention to the rapidly evolving foliage, and the swollen creek rushing down the mountain—because I’ve been reading Landmarks, by Robert Macfarlane.

Published a couple of years ago, Landmarks traces Macfarlane’s explorations of the relationship between land, language, and history across the British Isles. I’m reading it slowly, savoring all of the linguistic nuggets he unearths, and it’s on my mind during my hikes in my own familiar terrain.

I’m only a couple of chapters in, but Macfarlane has already introduced and discussed several fascinating examples of nature-influenced language. For example, in the historical northern Scots dialect, “blinter” refers to the dazzle of winter stars on a clear night. Imagine—someone, at some distant point in Scottish history, looked up at the stars night after winter night, and knew he (or she) needed a word to describe this seasonal, regular part of his (or her) landscape and life.

Macfarlane’s overall point, as he notes, is that “language deficit leads to attention deficit.” He couches this point primarily in our linguistic relationship to the natural world, which places him in a long line of British writers and poets (Wordsworth writing about the Lake District, for example).

Americans have their own history of locating themselves and their language in the land (Thoreau’s Walden comes to mind). Last fall, I read Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, before I visited Arches National Park in southern Utah, because Abbey worked in and around Arches and Moab as a park ranger in the late 1950s. Like Macfarlane, Abbey believes passionately that our relationship to the natural world is sacred, and in danger of being lost—and worth writing about and recording, because

“This is the most beautiful place on Earth. There are many such places. Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary.”

While Macfarlane locates people’s history in the geography of the British Isles, Abbey finds his own natural home in the desert:

“The desert says nothing. Completely passive, acted upon but never acting, the desert lies there like the bare skeleton of Being, spare, sparse, austere, utterly worthless, inviting not love but contemplation.”

I’ve never written directly or deeply about the landscape of the Hudson Valley—my own native, most-loved region. Macfarlane and Abbey make me wonder if it might be time to learn more about how people have traditionally spoken of and interacted with this land, and write about this sweet valley that has nourished three generations of my family. 

Time for me to hit the trail again, I think, and find some inspiration on the mountain.

Reading Like A Writer: The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer

By Kristen Holt Browning

My inaugural post for Get Lit Beacon is the first in a series I’m calling “Reading Like A Writer.” Each month, I’ll briefly discuss a book of fiction or poetry that I’ve just read—but rather than a traditional book review, I’ll share my thoughts on what I learned from this book as a writer myself.

So, on to Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion.

I admire Wolitzer for situating “women’s issues” as the central theme of a large, ambitious novel. Although, unlike Wolitzer, I write short works—stories, poems, essays—like her I’m primarily interested in writing stories about women. Even in a shorter work, I want the experiences of my female characters and subjects to be central, not secondary, and to resonate as big, essential narratives that speak to and reflect the world.

This novel covers feminism, ambition, idealism, money, sexuality, aging, death and grief, and generational divides. The story centers on Greer (a college freshman when we meet her, a celebrated 31-year-old author by the novel’s end). Wolitzer uses this focus character from which to dive deeply into the lives of Cory (Greer’s boyfriend, who suffers a massive tragedy that throws his life off its comfortable course), Zee (Greer’s best friend, who stumbles through jobs and a variety of activisms before she finds meaningful work), and Faith (a star of second-wave feminism who runs a foundation financed by a venture capitalist, and struggles to balance her activism with her funder’s bottom line).

As a writer, I’m impressed by Wolitzer’s ability to not only trace, but delve deeply into, the storylines of all of her characters, each of whom have full storylines of their own, beyond their relationships to the central character of Greer. Wolitzer clearly cares about all of her characters, and believes they each deserve a full story. And, she trusts herself to write a wide variety of characters: young and old, male and female, straight and queer.

We may write in different forms, but Meg Wolitzer provides an excellent roadmap for writing women’s stories as the complex, essential narratives they are.