Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

15 March 2019

Malcolm Guite praises a nature writer who uses social media to get people out, not down

IT IS easy to denigrate social media; and, if we ever take a long view on it, we may conclude that they have done more harm than good. But there are still beautiful things to be found out there, and still people who make original and even counter-intuitive use of the web, posting tweets whose whole purpose is not to get you scrolling down, but strolling out instead.

One such is the nature writer Robert Macfarlane, whose book Landmarks has done so much to help us treasure, preserve, and use the distinctive vocabulary that belongs to each of our distinctive landscapes. Every day, he sends out a “Word of the Day”, with some note or illustration that helps to re-enchant both land and language, to turn you outdoors, or tempt you to take into your hands a real book and leaf through it.

Today, he wrote:

“Library”: a treasure-house of books, a sanctuary for study. “Library” comes from the Latin “liber” meaning both “book” & “bark”, from the early use of tree-bark as a writing material. As the word’s roots tell us, libraries are story-forests, wildwoods of words.
 

I love the idea of the library as a story-forest, but the linguistic link in liber between “book and bark” took root in me and branched out in all kinds of unexpected ways. I remembered the seat I had in the university library, looking across my desk through a wide window to the lovely branches of a horse-chestnut so close that I could imagine myself to be reading in a tree house.

Then I remembered the days when I did just that, climbing trees precariously with my copy of Treasure Island in one hand, till the platform on swaying branches where I read became the crow’s nest of the Hispaniola.

Macfarlane set me thinking, too, of how, in almost any book I open, idly turning the leaves, I find that I am on the topmost branch of some tree of learning, opening the latest finding of a discipline whose branches go back to the great trunk of all enquiry, and deep into the roots of human curiosity where every science and art has its origin.

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Or, if I am reading poetry, again I have the same sense:

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.
 

Larkin’s poignant poem “The Trees” unfolds from the upper branches of a long tradition of terse, elegiac, limpid verse, which he has fully absorbed and has at his command. The form and rhyme scheme of that quatrain are from Tennyson’s In Memoriam; their melancholy undertone is as much Hardy’s as it is Larkin’s, and now, as I read it, it is mine. Perhaps Larkin, as a librarian himself, could hardly help reading the leaves he encountered on his walks, and summoning them afresh, in the greenness of their grief, to relax and spread into the leaves of his poetry book.

But libraries and forests are both under threat, both marginalised in a world driven by the little silicon screens that Macfarlane subverts with his magical posts. I am writing this, as it happens, on World Book Day. Perhaps it should be World Bark Day, too, and librarians and naturalists alike could celebrate the twin roots of liber.

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