Walking into the wild once more
MOST OF us operate in a world of road maps. Big print, clear lines, motorways, junctions and tolls. Beneath this stylised network, however, lies another world altogether; a world of tracks and criss-crossings, blurry paths and half-remembered drove-roads, of walks in the forest and rambles in the hills.
At weekends and in our leisure time, this world is proving highly attractive to large numbers of us city-bound, shopped-out suburbanites – and there’s no better guide to its twists and turns than the landscape writer Robert Macfarlane. His latest book, The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, takes him out the door of his Cambridge home, along an ancient trail called the Icknield Way, on to the wild islands of north-west Scotland. It even, on one shimmeringly memorable occasion, takes him right out into the sea on an offshore track across the mud-flats of Wakering Stairs known as the Broomway.
Reports of Macfarlane walking on water would, frankly, come as no surprise to his legion of fans. He is already a phenomenon in the landscape writing business. His first book, Mountains of the Mind, netted him the Guardian first book award, the Somerset Maugham award and the Sunday Times young writer of the year award 2003. The follow-up volume, The Wild Places, won the Boardman-Trasker prize for mountain literature, a Scottish book of the year award and was a New York Times notable book of the year for 2008. It was also adapted into a film, The Wild Places of Essex, for the BBC’s Natural World documentary strand – which, naturally, won a Wild Screen award.
His three-book journey has taken Macfarlane from the vast, empty peaks of the Himalayas via the miniature jungle of a tiny gryke among the Burren’s limestone pavements to, um, the joys of a hedge in Essex. “Yeah, I’m losing altitude all the time,” he says. “It has gone from the mountain summit to . . . off the beaten track, really.”
How has his view of “wildness” changed over the past decade? “It has admitted the human,” he says. “That’s the great shift for me. It has gone from a desire to climb mountains and break fresh snow to the complicated – and simple – pleasures of following paths that have been beaten into the ground by un-numbered feet and unknowable people. It’s the idea that we not only shape our landscapes, but our landscapes shape us.”
There’s a romantic feel to this – and indeed Macfarlane fits quite happily into a tradition of the literary “sublime” which stretches from Wordsworth and Coleridge through Patrick Kavanagh to Richard Mabey, Iain Sinclair and Tim Robinson. One of the many joys of his books is that they’re full of other books, quoting his landscape predecessors in a way which makes the reader want to wander off along their intersecting paths.
The Old Ways contains an extended sequence on the life – and death, in the first World War – of the Welsh poet Edward Thomas. Mafarlane describes Thomas as a “guiding spirit”. He also highly recommends Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain and JA Baker’s The Peregrine. “They are classics of writing about place and about mind, really. How we see and think of place and are thought by it in turn.” The biggest influence in terms of Macfarlane’s own development as a writer, however, has been Barry Lopez’s 1986 book Arctic Dreams.
“I picked up a secondhand copy in Canada in the mid-1990s when I was climbing out there. It’s an absolute masterpiece. As a writer, it made visible to me that you could mix lyrical prose with anthropology, cultural history, geology, archaeology, travel writing and memoir – and all of it suffused with an idea of place. Suddenly, non-fiction came to seem as flexible and creative and filled with opportunities as any novel might be.
“There is also something about that very high, fine vision of his – not quite priestly, but almost – which made me begin to work on form and style and tone and rhythm. The rhythm of sentences, which Lopez does brilliantly.”
It’s fair to say that Macfarlane has got the hang of this rhythm in his own work. He can, as a New York Times reviewer pointed out, “unfurl a sentence with the breathless ease of a master angler”. If he had a less scrupulous publisher than Hamish Hamilton, The Old Ways might well come with a strip along the top which proclaims: “Better than Barry Lopez – or your money back”.
Poetic or not, Macfarlane’s wilderness is no place for wimps or wusses.
He strides happily out into gales and snow armed with no more than a bivouac bag and, if he’s really pushing the boat out, a hip flask. He overnights on storm-tossed cliffs – careful to choose a ledge that slopes inwards, of course, in case he rolls over in his sleep – and icy mountainsides. He climbs trees and picks up stones and swims at the drop of a hat.
This penchant he inherited from his father, who, Macfarlane relates in The Wild Places, used to jump out of the car on route to family holidays in Scotland and plunge into Loch Lomond – whatever the weather – before shaking himself off and calmly continuing with the journey.
As a child, presumably young Robert regarded such reckless bravery as par for the outdoor course? He laughs. “My father claims now that he didn’t do this,” he says. “Although he lives in the Lake District now and swims all year round in very cold water. But, yes – it did seem wholly normal, as a marking of the border crossing into a new kind of freedom and happiness. An act of joy.”
After the tiniest pause he adds, “I bought my first wetsuit last summer.” A mark of getting older, as he ruefully admits. “I’ve always been inclined to turn blue in cold water. But once I’d gone past duck-egg blue, I thought a wetsuit was probably wise.”
When Macfarlane writes about “sleeping” out of doors in some remote and picturesque place, does he actually sleep? “Well, I’m a long-term insomniac,” he says. “I sleep really badly indoors on comfortable duvets and pillows. So sleep isn’t something I do much of anyway.
“Oddly, I do tend to sleep better outside. Four or five hours is a good night anywhere for me. There’s a great deal to hear and see outside, as well – especially at this time of year. I mean, you only get four or five hours of dark anyway. The skylark alarm clock is going by four, and there’s no sleeping through that.”
Despite his almost visceral engagement with the natural world, Macfarlane is no eco-romantic. On a global scale, he says, the battle to preserve the planet’s wild places is already over.
“I lost my environmentalist feel when I spent a year in China and saw the world’s most populous country modernising itself very rapidly – and very understandably,” he says. “The force of that urge is irresistible, and requires resources on a scale that I don’t think the planet can supply.”
At a local level, however, there is still much to celebrate. “In Britain, at least, there is real cause for hope. Our rivers are cleaner and our forests are greater in extent – and in the protection that they enjoy – than in the 1970s. And there is a real need and urge to walk, swim, climb and ramble. I came across this statistic yesterday – that 16 per cent of Britons walk recreationally each week. It’s by far the nation’s most popular pastime. That’s a very powerful conservation force.”
Macfarlane, meanwhile, is developing into a force of nature in his own right. The Old Ways will be followed next month by Holloway, a book which he has written in collaboration with the artist Stanley Donwood; a live gig with jazz musicians at the former nuclear test site Orford Ness is also scheduled for July. He has, in short, followed a path which tends to elude even the most skilful landscape writer. He has crossed from the land of welly-wearers and walking-sticks into the kingdom of cool.
“To understand even a little about geology gives you special spectacles through which to see a landscape. They allow you to see back in time to worlds where rocks liquefy and seas petrify, where granite slops about like porridge, basalt bubbles like stew, and layers of limestone are folded as easily as blankets. Through the spectacles of geology, terra firma becomes terra mobilis, and we are forced to reconsider our beliefs of what is solid and what is not. . .”
From Mountains of the Mind
“I came to feel, during the days we spent there, that the significant form of the Burren was the circle. It was there in the ring forts, there in the mountains, with their stepped profiles. And there, too, in the closed chemical loop of stone and bone that made the Burren: the limestone of which it was composed being itself the consequence of the settling out of boned and unboned bodies; the richness of the limestone attracting humans to the landscape; and then the death and burial of those humans. Bone returning to stone.”
From The Wild Places
We stepped off the causeway. The water was warm on the skin, puddling to ankle depth. Underfoot I could feel the brain-like corrugations of the hard sand, so firmly packed that there was no give under the pressure of my step. Beyond us extended the sheer mirror-plane of the water, disrupted only here and there by shallow humps of sand and green slews of weed . . .
“I could hear the walker whistling to his dogs, now far away on the sea wall. Otherwise, there was nothing except bronze sand and mercury water, and so we continued walking through the lustrous air, out onto the sands and back into the Mesolithic.”
From The Old Ways
The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane is published by Hamish Hamilton