Words as Cairns

The thing you soon discover, when you read The Old Ways, is that Robert Macfarlane uses words like cairns. Each word is carefully selected and carefully placed to entice and guide the reader to secret connecting paths, landscapes and memories.

If you’re not careful, it’s easy to breeze by a word without noticing its significance.

As an example, let me recount a path I encountered when I came upon the word “limpid.”


It seemed like a word I probably should know, from experience and context. I almost passed it by.

I Googled it anyway and was rewarded with a clearer, unclouded understanding of the word that means clear and uncloudy.

Definition being only part of the game, Google shows me a graph about the historical usage of the word.

“Limpid” is old timey word, but there was a slight uptick in the 2010s. I wonder why.

Ever curious and helpful, Google then offers a list of words that “people also searched for.”

Though I’m familiar with these words, I’m certain I’ve never used them in a written sentence. I consider adding them to my vocabulary, but the images assigned to the words bother me. They impart cultural and political values to the words that seems heavy and not useful. I decide to leave these words on the trail.

I turn around (scroll back up to the Google definition) to see if I missed anything, and I see that the muse wants to play some more:

Okay. I’ll play.

Limpet is a word that I first came across on page 147. It plays a key role in the chapter about Finlay MacLeod. Until I looked up the word “limpet,” MacFarlane’s anecdote made no sense whatsoever.

Upon reading the definition, I realize that MacFarlane has done a remarkable piece of writing.

Page 147-148: Remarkable writing.

I read the section several times over, slowly, like a naturalist, bent over to study the words, their intricate details and hidden connotations. I become absorbed in their tedious, sticky, homing ways. Astounded at the creator who could summon such an elegantly complex and alive scene from a scene of snails.

Finally, I make my way back to the original cairn, “limpid,” on page 200, deliciously spent from the detour, and ready to carry on.

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