Mountain Meadow opens out in a long arc. It’s a warm day after these weeks of single digits, and the snow is soft underfoot, like wet sand on the tideline. When the wind drops I let my coat fall open. Last season’s growth is still golden on the hill, asters and milkweed and bluestem grass.
In Galloway, in Southwestern Scotland, people have a word for it — fub means the long dried grasses in an old meadow. I found it in Robert MacFarlane’s Landmarks. He has collected words like this for years, he says. He looks for words that hold a detailed sense of the land, on a simle principle — to care about something, we have to see it. If we don’t know it’s there, we won’t know when it’s gone.
I’m thinking about that as I walk the path along the edge of the trees. Words like this can show me what I haven’t seen. They can find the signs of time, weathering, birds and animals. They can describe subtle movements of air and water and light. They can trace the shapes of the earth as gently as a hand on skin. A caochan in gaelic is a slender stream so covered in growth that it’s hidden.
And they can define the ways we interact with a place. They can tune our senses — he has another word for the sounds that long grasses make in the wind. What if we could take that farther and name all kinds of sounds … the shift of dry, stiff grasses in winter, and the spring of new stems when they begin to turn green again, and the stir of a dense shoulder-high meadow in high summer. Marsh grass humming with insects.
If we learned to see and hear, how much more could we feel?
In Exmoor, ammil means “the icy casings of leaves and grasses and blades and springs” … glowing in sunlight. Macfarlane finds the word in Henry Williamson’s Tarka the Otter. We’re about to get a day or two of sleet and freezing rain and snow, and when the sun comes out again, I’ll remember that.