Monday, August 27, 2007

The Qualities of the Isles

A review of The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane

As Robert Macfarlane tells it, in 1977 a nineteen-year-old Glaswegian named Robert Brown was arrested for a murder he had not committed. Brown had a confession beaten out of him by the police and spent 25 years in prison before his conviction was overturned.
When he was released, one of the first things he did was to go to the shore of Loch Lomond and sit on a boulder on the loch’s southern shore in sunlight, to feel, as he put it, ‘the wind on my face, and to see the waves and the mountains’. Brown had been out on the loch shore the day before he was arrested. The recollection of the space, that place, which he had not seen for a quarter of a century, had nourished him during his imprisonment. He had kept a memory of it, he recalled, afterwards, ‘in a secret compartment’ in his head'.
The Wild Places is Macfarlane’s own story of discovery, liberation, loss and return. It recounts his travels around the British-Irish archipelago in search of places with the kind of qualities that made the shore of Lomond resonate for Brown. Macfarlane wants to know if ‘wildness’ still exists in this "tidy garden of a toy realm" (as the American writer William Least-Heat Moon described Britain).

In keeping with the pilgrimage tradition, The Wild Places is both an outer and an inner journey. The outer journey takes him to Ynys Enlli (Bardsey Island) off the coast of North Wales, the Coruisk basin on Skye, Rannoch Moor, Strathnaver broch, Cape Wrath and Ben Hope in the Scottish Highlands, The Burren in Galway, Red Pike in the Lake District, holloways in Dorset, Orford Ness in Suffolk, and the ‘Tor of the Snow Hares’ in the Peak District. The account is rendered in prose of precision and delight. So, at Strathnaver:
Down on the shore, I found the limb of pale dry driftwood, rubbed by the sea back to its grain lines. I saw tracks of an otter…pressed into the wet sand as cleanly as a pastry cut with a forwards fling of sand from the tip of each sharp toe-mark, showing that it had been moving at speed. I came across a set of animal bones, scattered in a rune I could not read. I picked up other things, carried them back to the broch, and laid them on its floor. A worn black stone, two inches long, shaped roughly like a seal; basalt, I guessed. A little rhomboid stone, whose grey and white strata recalled the grain of the driftwood and the sand terrace. A hank of dried seaweed. A wing feather from a buzzard, tawny and cream, barred with five dark diagonals. When I teased two vanes apart, they unzipped with a soft tearing noise. I arranged the objects into lines and patterns, changed their order.
Macfarlane believes that for the early medieval monks who left records of their time on Enlli and other islands "attention was a form of devotion and noticing continuous with worship. The art they left behind them is among the earliest testimony to a human love of the wild." And part of Macfarlane’s aspiration, perhaps, is to develop that tradition in this new millennium: wilderness writing as a form of prayer for the less deceived.

Macfarlane’s prose – like Macfarlane the man, who jumps unhesitatingly and repeatedly into freezing mountain streams and the cold seas around these rocky shores, and sleeps on icy mountaintops without a tent – burns with gentle joy and playfulness. Like W. H. Murray, one of the heroes in this book, Macfarlane has "shed any reticence about feeling for beauty". But a lack of reticence does not mean he is flailing around. The writing is deft and disciplined, like the strokes of a great water-colourist. The delight is child-like but not, in the derogatory sense of that term, childish.

The inner journey in The Wild Places is towards a more refined and subtle apprehension of what wildness means and does. And here Macfarlane draws on the work of dozens of writers, artists, naturalists, tinkerers and others who have so enriched the capacity to experience. As readers of his series of essays for The Guardian newspaper on the relationship between writers and the landscape will know, Macfarlane has read widely and deeply, and he has a great talent for communicating the essence of their work. This account includes familiar names (in Coleridge’s account, for example, wildness is "an energy which blows through one’s being, causing the self to shift into new patterns, opening up alternative perceptions of life"); but it also includes many who are less well known such as John Sell Cotman, Richard Jeffries, Stephen Graham, Ralph Bagnold and John Baker. The Wild Places would be worth reading for its bibliography alone.

Macfarlane is intensely literary. His day job, after all, is teaching English literature at Cambridge University. But his sensibility is more than ‘merely’ literary or artistic. He is at ease with science and understands the beauty in dispassionate description of physical, chemical and biological phenomena: the ‘poetry of reality’ (in Richard Dawkins's phrase) that can open new doors of perception. [I noticed very few errors: the correct term for glowing marine organisms is ‘bioluminescence’, a process in which light is generated by an enzyme-catalyzed chemiluminescent reaction; ‘phosphorescence’, by contrast, is a process in which energy absorbed by a substance is released relatively slowly in the form of light].

His scientific sensibility helps to make possible, among other things, a brilliant account of night walking (previously extracted in a 2005 edition of Granta), and insight into the extraordinary work of the Vaughan Cornish, who spent decades studying wave forms. Macfarlane takes greater pleasure dancing on the ledge of existence in sunlight partly because he meditates on the millions of miles of space each photon has crossed.

For all its wide reach, The Wild Places adheres to standard story-telling conventions. It has a beginning, middle and end: a dear friend is lost, but new hope is found, and a lesson is learnt. Searching for the essence of wilderness atop Ben Hope – "there could be, I thought, no other place in Britain and Ireland where you could better feel and sense of [what Wallace Stegner called] a 'bigness outside oneself' " – Macfarlane has a surprising and for him unpleasant revelation. "This place", he writes, "refused any imputation of meaning". Maybe it was just too darn cold. Guided by his friend Roger Deakin, MacFarlane finds a new deeper sense of wildness that takes account of the miniature as much as the huge, the present moment as much as deep time of fire and ice, and the process of life in a "constant and fecund present":
There [is] as much to be learned in an acre of woodland on a city’s fringe as on the shattered summit of Ben Hope: this was what Roger had taught me – and what my daughter did not yet need to be taught. It was something most people forgot as they grew into adults’.
Macfarlane’s conclusion, then, concerns taking heed and care of what is the nearest, in place and time, now and in England – or Scotland, Wales or Ireland, and extending access for all. It’s a conclusion that might please as unlike a sensibility as Bill Bryson in his role as president of the CPRE . For modern Britons, it would seem, as for the Koyukon of Northwest Alaska, "a person moving through nature, however wild, remote…is never truly alone" (in the words of the anthropologist Richard Nelson). The garden and the wilderness are one, and perhaps we can recover something of what was lost in the catastrophes such as the Highland Clearances:
Wood was central to [the] pre-Clearance culture [of the island of Raasay]. The surprisingly extensive forests of the island were worked by its inhabitants. Their boats were made of oak and pine, with oars and rudders of ash. Hawthorn and holly were used for hedging. Houses were made with beams of oak and that supports of hazel. Baskets were woven of willow, and bowls were turned out of elder, and then polished up until the hoped patterns of grain could be seen in the wood. Life demanded the indefinite flourishing of the trees, and so the woods were worked and sustained. But when the people were cleared, the grazing of the sheep that took their place repressed the woods and prevented their regeneration. The woods departed as the people had departed before them.
I think The Wild Places is a great achievement. I also think there are matters on the margins of its scope that require further consideration. As Macfarlane knows well and writes in the book, we live in the shadow of changes and threats, including but not limited to global warming which may destroy much, before his life ends, including the beloved local beech wood where he starts and ends this journey.

In broad terms one can hazard that, in the West at least, the idea of ‘wild’ and ‘wilderness’ as attractive, largely positive qualities developed from the eighteenth century onwards during an era of unprecedented urbanisation and industrialisation, and in reaction to those developments. It took in ‘The Sublime’, the Romantic poets, Sturm und Drang, Henry Thoreau, John Muir & co. But dark shadows never disappeared: throughout these years associations of ‘wildness’ and ‘wild’ jumped and switched from ‘joy’ and ‘life' to ‘darkness’ and ‘destruction’ and back again, almost as light and darkness shift on the bonnet of a car racing beneath trees in sunlight. The Erlkönig is never far away. Mistah Kurtz, he live.

Andrew Motion gently criticizes Macfarlane for not acknowledging W G Sebald, one of the darkest of recent literary pilgrims on these shores (who found some of the deepest resonances in another Browne). This is not quite fair. Sebald is included in the bibliography of The Wild Places. Comparing their extraordinary but very different accounts of Orford Ness, I am tempted to call Macfarlane Tigger to Sebald’s Eyore. This may get a quick laugh, but it’s not quite fair either. Though his tread may not go as far, darkness, and horror, float in the corners of Macfarlane’s vision too, down to bells for Remembrance Sunday heard from his 'tor of the snow hares'. Three quarters of a million young men in the Third Battle of Ypres. 90,000 bodies were lost in the mud alone. Try that for resonance.

Some conservationists say we have already experienced the End of the Wild, and we need to learn to live with the consequences. Whether this is a true statement or a useful one is open to question. And whatever the answer there may be even bigger and more ambiguous challenges ahead. Freeman Dyson, for example, says that after two to three billion years "the Darwinian interlude is over". If this is true, can 'wild' and 'nature' ever be meaningful categories again?

[We might also fruitfully turn our attention the deep future, as well as the deep past which Richard Feynman so presciently recommended to poets some decades ago. In The Life and Death of Planet Earth, Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee say the collapse of plant life on Earth is inevitable and will happen some hundreds of millions of years hence as atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations take an irreversible plunge. But all is not lost ... at least until the seas vaporise and the planet finally cooks! There is likely to be, say Ward and Brownlee, a period of a hundred million years or so with no plants, but with animals. It will be "a world astoundingly different from our own, a pace where fungi, algae and bacteria form the base of the food chain, and where animals have reorganized into trophic guilds and communities completely foreign to us. This is a world as yet never envisioned by any form of popular culture, and yet it will be reality on Earth for many millions of years". How's that for wild? I was not drinking when I wrote this.]

Kelvin Kelly, a noted writer on technology and the future, thinks the most difficult human assignment is to know what it is that we want: "the problem is that we don’t know who we are".

It’s a problem some ancient Greeks would recognise. Perhaps, armed with the wisdom and joy found in books such as The Wild Places, and with renewed energy to live or relive our own experiences in the ‘wild’ of these islands, a rock picked up on a beach may become a philospher's stone - something to cradle in the hand and then throw into the sea so that it skips across the waves before it sinks to the sea bed.

Disclosure: Caspar Henderson is acquainted with Robert Macfarlane, and is listed in the acknowledgements of The Wild Places.

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