Words Are Eagles: Selected Writings on the Nature & Language of Place
by Gregory Day
Published July 2022
I can think of few books as aptly titled as Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks (2015). In the seven years since its publication, this paean to the language of landscape – to the euphony of regional lexicons that particularise ecosystems across the British Isles – has itself become a landmark in the field of nature writing. Possible reasons for its success: Macfarlane’s trove of vernacular terms for overlooked aspects of the natural world, and his readiness to feed a popular appetite for lyricism in prose depictions of non-human life. Surely, though, much of its ongoing influence is due to Macfarlane’s insistence on the ethics of his aesthetics, by which he invests the satisfactions of Landmarks with a discomfiting moral charge. His fear is that for too many endangered natural phenomena, ‘once they go unnamed they go to some degree unseen’, and what remains unseen cannot receive respect. As a result, he argues that ‘to use language well is to use it particularly: precision of utterance [is] both a form of lyricism and a species of attention.’ Landmarks thus comprises a dictionary of localised demotics whose dizzying specificity not only furnishes readers with new phenomena to attend to, but orients them towards those phenomena with a keenly felt duty of care. And so, in no shortage of books that have followed it, the language of landscape has been embraced as a central concern. To write about nature today is as much a literary as an environmental endeavour, with risks and responsibilities freighting every rhetorical flourish.
Meanwhile, in regional Victoria, the novelist Gregory Day has been plying his trade with no less concern for the language of landscape. With his 2005 début, The Patron Saint of Eels, Day opened a vein of magical realism in the novel of the Australian coast, then tapped it twice more, in 2007 and 2010, to complete a trilogy set in the seaside town of Mangowak. Warm-hearted, good-humoured, laconic, and low-stakes, the Mangowak novels were animated by a gentle charm, but thereafter, in Archipelago of Souls (2015) and A Sand Archive (2018), Day set off in a more contemplative, more aesthetically challenging direction. Landmarks appeared in the gap between those two books and recognisably influenced the latter. After Day reviewed Landmarks, twice – for this publication and for the Sydney Morning Herald – A Sand Archive channelled its spirit, depicting an engineer of the Great Ocean Road in his search for a lexicon adequate to ‘the ontology of the dunes’.
Now, in Words Are Eagles, Day has collected thirty-odd essays on language and landscape, most of them written concurrent with the ascendancy of Macfarlane. Only two brief book reviews and an afterword pre-date Landmarks, while all of Day’s substantial pieces were written between 2018 and 2021 and share Macfarlane’s affection for lexical lyricism. Given the contemplative concerns of Day’s recent novels, I can’t say it’s surprising that the essays in Words Are Eagles should be simpatico with Landmarks, nor that Day should present himself as someone who, like Macfarlane, holds his own work to ‘a scale of worth where precision of language is at one end and familiarity of language is at the other’. It’s not surprising, either, that he fronts up to the ethical demands of the Australian landscape, embarking on his linguistic excurses with an attentiveness to the violence of settler colonialism. What I do find surprising, though, and a little dismaying, is that for all its beauties and deeply-felt personal reflections, Words Are Eagles is finally reluctant to accord language itself a power that escapes the reach of those who have misused it.
Words Are Eagles opens with an example of Day at his very best. ‘The Watergaw’ poaches its title from the 1925 poem by the Scots makar Hugh MacDiarmid, and likewise depicts a father-son relationship inflected by an awareness of the elder’s impending death. The awareness, however, remains unspoken, glanced at sidelong through the image of the watergaw: the shimmering stump of a broken rainbow, a common autumn phenomenon in MacDiarmid’s Scottish Borders, glimpsed by Day while driving with his now-deceased father across the plains of Victoria. When I first encountered the essay last year in the Griffith Review, I found myself stirred by its quietude, its artful circumlocutions, the emotional voltage it releases only indirectly through an appreciation of MacDiarmid’s own evasions. But when I rediscovered it within Words Are Eagles, in pole position no less, I felt it also announcing what readers should expect to find in the subsequent essays: not only Day’s interest in natural phenomena and the human presence on the landscape, including that of his family, nor only his efforts to articulate a response to these interests when the right words aren’t ready-to-hand. This, too: a collagist’s approach to self-expression – inquisitive, tentative, rarely declarative, favouring an aggregation of fragments upon which one can meditate – and, importantly, an eye on the lookout for creative and spiritual forebears.
MacDiarmid is of course one of these. In 1923, after a decade of writing reportage and poetry in English, Christopher Grieve shucked off his birth name, pseudonymised himself, and began to create anew in both Scots and a self-devised English-Scots patois. English alone proved deficient for him, riddled with holes and lacking a lexicon commensurate to what he would have his words express. And while Macfarlane is perhaps more a peer to Day than a true forebear, his work serves much the same purpose here as does MacDiarmid’s poetry. Day, in essence, is a collector, both of words themselves and of writers who have modelled their use when faced with the failures of English. Since he most acutely feels these failures when he surveys the Australian environment, Words Are Eagles is at its most vibrant, because least stable, where Day embarks on descriptions of landscape.
The vibrancy throughout the collection leaves no doubt that Day’s interest in all things lexical is one born of love: for etymology, for hermeneutics, for the unexpected music of the vulgate. Page after page is strewn with findings set down reverentially, like so many precious jewels recovered from a shipwreck, put on display as prized objects akin to Macfarlane’s ‘word-hoard’ in Landmarks. One essay from 2019, ‘Summer on the Painkalac’, takes stock of ‘brookweed tendrils’, ‘glaucous goosefoot’, ‘summer-reddened glasswort’, and a ‘pomaderris hut’, all in a couple of paragraphs. Later essays itemise ‘gill, capulet and woodfrill’, a ‘sepulchre tree’, and ‘boobiallas’. And when the precision and prosody of these terms proves elusive in descriptions of other phenomena, the porousness of the available language allows foreign elements to trickle into the text. To describe the lower Murray River, where water overflows into lakes, Day turns to the French ‘embouchement’: the surgical opening up of a blood vessel. Elsewhere, in describing a subterranean stream, he finds it cascading in ‘swallets’, a mining term derived from the German ‘Schwalle’: torrents, floods. And then, when no one word in any known language will do, Day toys around with neologisms – ‘Moolacene’, ‘wreading’ – sometimes coined, sometimes borrowed.
Even in his prosodic revelry, though, Day remains a student of Macfarlane with sufficient self-reflection, in the midst of writing, to consider the ethics of his aesthetics. Thus, in ‘Moonah Mind’, originally published last year in Meanjin, Day uses the words ‘evince’ and ‘sinuosities’ in his opening lines before circling back on his own diction and asking himself: ‘Are these the right words … to include in the family of [my] concerns, or are they too hoity, too arch, like some exotic or even imperial thing, some colonising span, laid across the honest, the messy, the organic and eternal?’ In ‘evince’, he adds, one can hear the etymology – the Latin evincere – and one can sense in ‘the triumph of both its rise and then its falling cadence’ that its survival in English ‘has something to do with the Romans’. And again, in ‘The Ocean Last Night’, published in Meanjin in 2018, Day laments that so many of Australia’s natural phenomena should be shackled to foreign words with errant acoustics and suspect origins. He identifies several victims – ‘gannet, myrtle beech, crayfish, bullant, bluegum, wattlebird, sheoak, bandicoot, leucopogon’ – and, supposing that the things themselves are ‘suffering from our lexicon of borrowed names’, he despairs: ‘Pull these words out by their roots and see how little soil is clinging to them here.’
Where, then, is an Australian writer to find a language that fits the landscape with what Day calls ‘psychoacoustic accuracy’? In his telling, he has been in lifelong pursuit of this accuracy, which amounts to a commensurability between a sensory experience of landscape and the sonic qualities of the words it inspires: ‘the right sound or arrangement of sounds’, ‘the right word or combination of words’. Here, for Day, is the bind: ‘the impulse towards utterance often springs from the need to find expressions that correspond to the network of our senses’, yet English, as an ‘imported’ tongue, is a language forever ‘tending towards sonic and sociological accuracy but remaining eternally tangential’. He holds that ‘the specific qualities of a landform or the recurring motif of the weather will demand and generate an equally specific terminology’, but because English has been ‘superimposed’ on Australia, it simply cannot authentically answer the ‘impulse towards utterance’ that the environment stokes. Thus, not being a First Nations writer himself, Day tunes into the distorted resonance between his native language and his local landscape and discerns therein an absence: ‘the loss of language that has occurred here in Australia since 1788’. The psychoacoustic accuracy he craves was, he believes, the pre-eminent quality of languages now lost, so that he has felt a lifelong ‘yearning to connect with the hydrosonic, terraphonic language of the First Peoples of this land’. Living now on Wadawurrung country, in the area of Cape Otway, Day refers in several essays to his efforts to teach Wadawurrung terminology to the people of his community, with the permission of Wadawurrung Elders. For readers of Words Are Eagles, though, there is a withholding of all but a few basics (‘parrwang’: magpie; ‘go-im’: kangaroo) and instead a double abstraction of the Wadawurrung language: a probing at the post-settlement gaps in Wadawurrung as it exists today, and an attempted account of its semantics without recourse to its words.
This double abstraction emerges from a pair of tentpole essays, ‘The Colours of the Ground’ (2020) and ‘One True Note?’ (2019). At the heart of the first is the otherworldly, indeterminate colour of the ‘piles and heaps of earth’ that Day finds dug up along the Great Ocean Road: ‘bright orange, or blood-orange, or orange-red, or ochre-red, or rose-gold’. The term he finally settles on is ‘jarosite’, though this is another foreign import with origins in Andalucía, where it names both a sulphate mineral found in that region and the mineral’s colour. Yet ‘jarosite’, despite its specificity, notably lacks ‘psychoacoustic accuracy’ because it is ‘not a precise, let alone an autochthonous descriptor for the endemic brightness of our local ground here on the edge of the Eastern Otways in southern Australia’. And what would be an autochthonous descriptor? Day comes up empty-handed:
I’ve spoken to knowledgeable elders from the Wadawurrung, and I’ve also combed the tragically fragmented archives for the remnant language of the region in search of the original word, or words, for the pigment. … For the time being, however, and with much Wadawurrung language reconstruction continuing apace, we can’t be exactly sure what the right term is.
But against this urge to fix a unique name to a localised natural phenomenon, ‘One True Note?’ offers an appreciation of the Wadawurrung language precisely for its lack of fixity – at which point a cognitive dissonance begins to trouble Day’s joyous logophilia. Wadawurrung, he writes, is governed by a ‘fluid situation-dependent semantics’, so that ‘the sound or meaning of a word can change depending on time, place and other culturally significant factors or events’. And, indeed, he samples a sort of fluidity in the opening paragraphs by presenting ‘a list of variant spellings of the name of this country and its people’ from Ian D. Clark’s Aboriginal Languages and Clans (1990). ‘Watowrong, Wartorong, Wotowrong’, the list begins,‘Watourong, War-t-ong, Waddow-row’, and so on through 133 alternatives. But this ‘polyphony of misnomers’, as Day calls it, is the result of an imperative to fix in writing a language that was, pre-settlement, ‘exclusively oral’. This imperative is quintessentially an imperial one, driving the diligent record-keeping through which colonial administrators exercised power over appropriated territories and peoples. Still, without downplaying his distaste for the resultant misnomers, Day suggests that we might at least draw from them some instruction in ‘both the pitfalls and the possibilities of trying to interpret this place in the exogenous language of written English.’
It’s odd to me, though, that after pointing to Clark’s list of 133 words, Day should establish a dichotomy between the fluidity of Wadawurrung and the fixity of written English – and then find English wanting. What else is that list, if not precisely a demonstration of the fluidity, the mercurial possibilities, of what written English can accommodate? And what lies beneath Day’s suggestion that there exists, in the abstract, an ideal word that written English has failed to grasp – ‘the’ (singular, definite) ‘name of this country and its people’ – if not a supposition, perhaps subconscious, that Wadawurrung should find a fixed form in writing? If Wadawurrung is to be valued for the way a single word can change its sound, why not also value the ability of English to register acoustic variations in speech by way of changes in spelling? Where Day hears in Clark’s list ‘a polyphony of misnomers’, I see written English demonstrating its capacity for polynominalism. One need only open a few editions of Shakespeare to find variant spellings that have enlivened English for centuries; or else look to Shakespeare himself – Shakspere, Shackspeare, Shakspeyr, Shaxberd – to see how the spellings of names can vary, too, though each variant points to a singular referent.
What’s apparent here, if unspoken, is that Day wants to do the work of decolonisation. He imagines that upon the arrival of European settlers, written English would have struck the Wadawurrung people as ‘a new and superficial way of transmitting culture’ which produced, in the variant spellings collected by Clark, ‘a lexicon of glitches that desynchronise[d] human culture with place’. To flag up the errors of what has been written is, perhaps, to resist the colonial mindset that legitimated the writing. But this critique strikes me as a continuation of that mindset by other means. The idea that written English should want to settle on one true spelling – that it wants to prize singularity over alterities, that variants are basically frivolous or superfluous – smacks of the colonial injunction to maximise the utility of all things at the expense of inefficiencies: oddity, multiplicity, unaccountable pleasure. With this idea, Day’s otherwise expanding lexicon finds its breadth curtailed by a narrowing sense of what is permissible or possible for language to do.
Day doesn’t go so far as to recommend a rationalisation of erroneous records, however; he is content to regard the historical archive as a thing both ‘tragic and musical’, ‘farcical’ and ‘tragicomical’. That said, he does call for a more cautious approach to written English in Australia today. Eventually, in ‘One True Note?’, he considers that ‘[a]nother way of looking at [Clark’s] list is as a great ironic sounding-out of the difficulties of writing from, and about, a particular place within “anglo-Indigenous country”. As I do.’ And he notes explicitly what these difficulties entail: in ‘writing about this place in a language forcibly imposed upon it’, one risks indulging ‘the “ruthless complacency” that is at the heart of the European colonial project in Australia’. By ‘ruthless complacency’, he means something like the reflexive use of received speech – the default to a language bequeathed, without any reflection on its original purposes as a colonial import. On this point, he doesn’t mince words: the struggle against this complacency, he says, ‘is still the first aesthetic challenge for the contemporary writer trying to be faithful, or to correspond to the complex language-creature, or topos, he or she is born into’. To begin by evading this struggle, without a careful re- or pre-consideration of language, is therefore tantamount to a form of colonial arrogance.
Day has the authority to say something like this: witness his own use of ‘evince’, above, the way he qualifies it and sloughs off its unwanted connotations. Importantly, then, avoiding complacency doesn’t mean abjuring written English, but deploying it only after identifying the invisibilia contained in one’s choice of words. And yet, Day’s own choice of examples of ‘ruthless complacency’ in ‘Otway Taenarum’ (2019) reveals his preferred approach to the matter. ‘While it is perhaps perfectly understandable that a European settler society should initially hearken back to its source culture’, he says, the first settlers around Cape Otway borrowed names from ‘pre-existing British places or people’ to familiarise their sites of settlement ‘in the manner of colonial selfies’, including such ill-fitting names as ‘Anglesea, Torquay and Lorne’. But I can’t quite understand why Day would cede so much authority over these words to the very people whose authority he wants to contest. It’s all well and good to bemoan these names as the relics of complacent colonialists, which they are, and to decry the way they disfigure the ethos of the places they denote. There’s complacency on Day’s part, too, though, in treating them as if their origins are the sum of what they represent, as if they signify nothing more subtle than the very complacency they come from.
Yes, it’s true, language can be wielded by one people against another as an instrument of power: we know this too well. But language is also a power unto itself, one that often supervenes the power of those who presume to wield it. Our words contain more than we are customarily aware of: stowaway meanings, clandestine histories, smuggled connotations. And if language remains a social construct, to some extent within our control, it is in this respect not unlike a virus we host without necessarily shaping it: transmitted through our interactions, mutating with each generation, containing within itself the junk DNA of earlier iterations, the vestigial traces of events that thwart the scope of our cultural memory and yet remain encoded – dormant – in phonemes, morphemes, prefixes and suffixes, from which we can revision the past if we have eyes to see. For example: there is no place in Britain called Anglesea. The nearest cognate is Anglesey, an island off northwest Wales. But the first peoples of Anglesey knew their land as Ynys Môn: the island of upland moors. Along its coast the Brittonic Druids rallied the local Celts, the Ordovices, against the maritime forces of Rome in 48 BC. Today, however, Anglesey is named for two subsequent colonial peoples who post-date the Roman invaders by centuries: the Angles, of course, and the Vikings, whose Old Norse ‘ey’ designates an island. Torquay, meanwhile, appends the Brittonic ‘tor’ – a hilltop cluster of rocks – to the French ‘quai’, a Norman export to Britain that was later anglicised. Lorne has a more obscure etymology: the Scottish town of the same name honours one Loarn mac Eirc, the fifth-century king of Dál Riata, who supposedly led the Irish Gaels in conquest against the Highland Picts.
I can’t imagine that the British settlers of Cape Otway intended to people their beaches with the ghosts of Celts and Angles, or Vikings and Normans, or long-forgotten Gaels. I imagine they were indeed as complacent as Day supposes, and weren’t aware of the hidden histories they dredged up with the familiar names they affixed to unfamiliar places. But surely then, in his opposition to complacency in the face of received language, Day himself assumes a responsibility to not take such language at face value – to discern what else those place names possessed beyond the knowing of those who chose them. The irony is that he does meet this responsibility in ‘The Colours of the Ground’ when he speculates on an East Asian etymology for ‘jarosite’. Why not give the same treatment to the language most familiar to him? It mightn’t make imported place names any more appropriate to Australia, but it’s one way of avoiding complacency for oneself. And if one would rebuke others who treat words as simply readymade, one can’t justifiably accede to the most superficial of those words’ possible meanings. It is one thing to acknowledge that, in a country like Australia, certain uses of language have served and thus been conditioned by violence. It’s another thing, however, to see the language itself as determined and delimited by that violence. To do so is to yield the contest over signification and import, to shrink beneath the presumed authority of those for whom words are merely blunt instruments. With this yielding, this shrinking, Day leaves English in thrall to those whose use of it is essentially unwitting. Even as he calls for a more expansive lexicon, he allows its reach to be circumscribed by the lowered horizons of others.
Given all this, you might think that Day’s search for forebears warrants some circumspection. Inexplicably, though, the forebear most cherished in Words Are Eagles – the one from whom the book derives its title – is impossible to square with anything Day says about English and Wadawurrung. This is the English novelist Alan Garner, whose Strandloper (1996) offers a loose retelling of the life of the Cheshire convict William Buckley. The real-life Buckley escaped captivity on Port Philip Bay in 1803 and found refuge in the wilderness of the Bellarine Peninsula, in the company of the Wadawurrung, among whom he lived for decades. In Strandloper, a key scene depicts Buckley writing in the sand when he is met by Nullamboin, ‘[a] Wadawurrung elder entirely of Garner’s imagining’, who is horrified by the idea of writing as a means of transmitting knowledge. Knowledge transmitted other than orally is, for Nullamboin, a threat to the order of both his society and the cosmos: ‘Weak men will sing! Boys will have eagles! All shall be mad!’ Day clearly has great affection for Strandloper, particularly this scene, discussing it twice, in two different essays, with a touching sincerity. Unfortunately, there’s no denying the awkward result. Outside of Nullamboin’s dialogue and explanations of Buckley’s cultural transgressions, there’s a paucity of Wadawurrung voices in Words Are Eagles: just two lines of poetry and a paraphrased anecdote about eels, both attributed to Uncle David Tournier. The only Elder to speak on behalf of the Wadawurrung people, culture, and language – to emerge as an advocate with the gift of direct speech – is the invention not only of a writer of English, but of a writer from England who published Strandloper a decade after his first visit to Australia.
Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that literature can indeed be held to ‘a scale of worth where precision of language is at one end and familiarity of language is at the other’. And let’s follow Day in taking ‘precision’ to connote Indigenous languages while ‘familiarity’ connotes colonial complacency. Accordingly, the prominence Day gives Strandloper arguably tilts Words Are Eagles away from what he himself values. In light of all else he says about language, landscape, and the limitations of English, I can’t help but find myself baffled by his amplification of this particular novel. Possibly he is reluctant to speak on behalf of the Wadawurrung people of his community, or to quote publicly the Elders he knows. Fair enough, though the lack of an in-text explanation creates a vacuum for suppositions to fill. Perhaps, then, Garner’s novel presented itself as a conduit through which Day could humanise the Wadawurrung people without straining any flesh-and-blood relationships. All right. But what this means in practice, in the course of Words Are Eagles, is that even as other First Peoples are given a voice – David Unaipon speaks as a custodian of Ngarrindjeri culture – the Wadawurrung are either abstracted into their language and Elders or else spoken for by Nullamboin. Given the significance of these people to Day’s view of the interactions between language and landscape – given that their words are the bearers of the much-sought-after ‘psychoacoustic accuracy’ – the respect accorded to Nullamboin feels to me like an ethical failing as much as an aesthetic one.
In retrospect, finally, I’m left to turn over three lingering questions. First of all: is all this, this strange undercutting of itself, ultimately only an unwelcome side-effect of the form of Words Are Eagles? Take any one instance of Day’s work, any single essay, and for the sake of comparison you’d struggle to find a writer as impassioned by words, by diction and syntax, and as agog with wonder at natural phenomena at every scale beyond the human. You’d have trouble finding anyone with a curiosity as questing as Day’s, too, or a set of reference points as broad – from Cézanne to McGahern, from W.E.H. Stanner to Wallace Stevens – and yet, for all these seeming assurances of his intellectual credibility, few other writers could match him for reserve and humility, for a willingness to simply dwell in the space of unknowing without pretending to have a hot take on everything. But when the essays sit between two covers – absent a wanton, Whitmanesque commitment to self-contradiction – Words Are Eagles tumbles. As new ideas are raised from one essay to the next, it’s hard to shake the feeling that most just weren’t intended to be sustained beyond the one airing. Since it’s of the nature of an essay collection to have them collide and commingle, the book as a whole acquires a life more multivalent, and therefore unruly, than the matter from which it is made, not always to the advantage of the component parts.
Second question, then: does this mean that Day, in following Robert Macfarlane, has somehow been misled? Macfarlane’s calculations are simple: variegated things collected together – words, ideas, stories, whatever – can only ever add up to more, never obscuring or diminishing one another. My suspicion is that when it comes to forebears, Day might’ve spent a little longer in the company of Hugh MacDiarmid, for whom the very act of combining elements entailed their reconfiguration. The tell is in what Day takes as given. MacDiarmid himself defined a watergaw as ‘a broken shaft of a rainbow that you can see sometimes between clouds’ – and Day quotes him without digging deeper. But the etymology is revealing. The Scots ‘gaw’ denotes a wound, a gash, and, metaphorically, a longstanding grievance. The Scots for ‘water’, however, is ‘wattir’, meaning that MacDiarmid’s ‘watergaw’ is a delicate reconciliation of divergent dialects – and, crucially, one that incorporates into itself the wound, the grievance, to which the reconciliation is a response. After MacDiarmid appeared in the opening pages of Words Are Eagles, I read into the book with a hope that Day would derive something creative from the makar’s methods, something synthetic in the full sense of that word. Alas for languages cleaved apart where cultures might converge. By and by, as Day went on to discuss his local patch of Australia, a question took flight within me: how do you even begin to say a word like ‘watergaw’ in Wadawurrung? That’s the third one to linger without an answer. But I didn’t need it to be answered, I realise now: only to be sincerely pursued as a spurn to quiet defeat.
Ian D. Clark, Aboriginal Languages and Clans. Monash University Press: 1990.
Gregory Day, Archipelago of Souls. Pan Macmillan: 2015.
Gregory Day, The Grand Hotel. Random House: 2010.
Gregory Day, The Patron Saint of Eels. Pan Macmillan: 2005.
Gregory Day, Ron McCoy’s Sea of Diamonds. Pan Macmillan: 2007.
Gregory Day, A Sand Archive. Pan Macmillan: 2018.
Gregory Day, Words Are Eagles. Upswell: 2022.
Alan Garner, Strandloper. Harvill Secker: 1996.
Hugh MacDiarmid, ‘The Watergaw’, Complete Poems. Carcanet: 1993.
Robert Macfarlane, Landmarks. Penguin: 2015.