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Last updated: May 26, 2012 12:12 am
The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature, by David George Haskell, Viking, RRP$25.95, 288 pages
Strands: A Year of Discoveries on the Beach, by Jean Sprackland, Jonathan Cape, RRP£16.99, 256 pages
The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, by Robert Macfarlane, Hamish Hamilton, RRP£20, 448 pages
The Green Road into the Trees, by Hugh Thomson, Preface, RRP£18.99, 320 pages
Sightlines, by Kathleen Jamie, Sort of Books, RRP£8.99, 208 pages
We don’t have a good name for it – “nature writing” is about the best one can come up with. But that label has an obvious flaw. Anyone who was around 50 years ago will recall that the terms of reference changed radically, almost overnight, in the 1960s. The word “nature” gave way in popular discourse to “environment” and “nature writing” mutated into varieties of “eco-criticism”.
The difference was conceptual. “Nature”, drawing on primeval myth and Romantic literature, had traditionally been conceived of as something superhuman and invincible. As Wordsworth grandly described it:
A motion and a spirit that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.
Humans were part of that everything. Our species was no more capable of “destroying” nature than jellyfish can reverse the course of the Gulf Stream.
“Environment”, by contrast, was not all-powerful. It was fragile; something that humans could all too easily destroy. A key element in the redefinition was Rachel Carson’s jeremiad Silent Spring (1962). If you followed Carson, there would be no more odes to skylarks, nightingales or cuckoos. Those wandering voices would be mute. Carson saw the future and it was a dodo speckled with DDT.
We remain in two minds. The Gaians, under their amiable patriarch James Lovelock, hold that however we abuse her, the Earth – as Ecclesiastes prophesies – will abide. We shall merely succeed in removing ourselves from its surface so it can fulfil its destiny without human disturbance of its complex equilibria. The catastrophists, a worrying number of scientists among them, foresee grimmer things.
Nature has always challenged writers to write their best. In this latest flurry of nature-loving books, belle-lettrism thrives. And, at moments, there is a quality that one can only call “spiritual”. One is uplifted. The mood, however, is generally elegiac. Enjoy it while it’s still there, these writers imply – with what Shakespeare calls a “falling tone”: a mixture of wonder and melancholy at what may, in a generation or two, be lost. And us with it, perhaps.
David George Haskell’s journal of a year in his native Tennessee woods opens, far away, with a description of “the mandala”. This is a poured-sand picture, with the sacred lotus at its centre, created by Tibetan monks, as a representation of the divinity in nature. Haskell, a professor of biology, also acknowledges being inspired by the 18th-century clergyman-naturalist Gilbert White. God, White instructed, inheres in the very smallest things.
Haskell’s small thing is a square metre of what would seem to the uninformed eye to be mere woodland dirt. Over the course of four passing seasons, he contemplates its “life” with the trained eye of a biologist and the eloquence of a published poet. “I believe that the forest’s ecological stories are all present in a mandala-sized area,” he says, invoking William Blake’s words: “To see a world in a grain of sand/ And a heaven in a wild flower.”
On April 14, as he pays his morning reverence to his earth-mandala, “a moth shuffles its tawny feet over my skin, tasting me with thousands of chemical detectors. Six tongues!” Most of us would aimlessly crush or brush away the bug. Haskell lets its proboscis root around for half an hour. What is it seeking? Salt.
In Strands, writer and poet Jean Sprackland also records a year (the same one, I fancy, 2010) in a very different place – a walkable stretch of beach, not far from the filth-spewing conurbations along the river Mersey in north-west England. She is, she says, “an ordinary walker”. But, one should add, no ordinary writer. It could be said of her, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau said of himself, “my mind only works with my legs”.
“Strand” is a word packed with meaning for Sprackland. Primarily it denotes the sandy strip between earth and water. Her local sand, she records, is so special they export it to Saudi Arabia. The word also evokes stranded things and whole objects reduced to “strands” – or mere strings and ribbons – of what they once were, before “sea change” takes them apart.
On the beach there is no property – flotsam belongs to everyone and no one. Sprackland riffs, quizzically, on an extraordinary orgy of plunder in January 2007 when a container vessel disgorged its cargo on to the beach at Branscombe in south-west England. There is a Cornish wrecker in all of us, she thinks. All it requires is a wreck to bring that primeval looter out.
Having walked her beach daily for 20 years, Sprackland must leave it now for London; a second marriage, apparently, is in prospect. In a valedictory epilogue she regards her salt-encrusted boots hanging uselessly on their metropolitan hook – she feels, there is no other word for it, “stranded”.
Sprackland has a wonderfully curious eye. She sees something rusted jutting up through the sand. An anchor? Nothing so romantic. A dumped van, covered and now rising up like a wisdom tooth slowly erupting through gum. The beach consumes and regurgitates. Some things, however, defeat even its powers of digestion. Among all the “stranded” things – the desiccating seaweed, dissolving jellyfish, carcases of old vessels come to grief on the treacherous sandbars, body parts (stockinged feet survive the sea well) – are shoals of plastic.
There is a gigantic Sargasso of the stuff, drifting around the Pacific – made famous recently by the flotilla of 28,000 yellow bathroom rubber ducks, whose odyssey has been chronicled, comically and ominously, by American oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer. Sprackland expatiates on the peculiar indestructibility of the plastic blister in which Prozac is packaged. The anti-depressive contents, recycled through human urine, are (strange but true) driving shrimp as madly self-destructive as the apocryphal lemming. What we hopefully call “waste disposal” is a misnomer. What goes around comes around. So the beach tells us.
There is an urgent message embodied in Strands. We are sentimentally misguided to focus all our environmental alarm on such photogenic mammals as snow tigers, pandas, polar bears and (most recently) koalas. The pollutant assault on seaweed and algae is what we should worry about. But somehow “save the bladderwort” does not have much headline ring to it.
Robert Macfarlane is another walker but of more heroic ambulations. “This book could not have been written by sitting still” he declares in his vigorous preface to The Old Ways (the reader shifts guiltily). The Macfarlane feet are from heel to toe, he informs us, “a measured space of 29.7cm or 11.7in. This is a unit of progress and it is also a unit of thought.” He concurs with Nietzsche (Macfarlane is a very bookish walker): “Only those thoughts which come from walking have any value” (cue more guilty shifting by the sedentary reader).
Humans, avers Macfarlane, “are animals and like all animals we leave tracks as we walk”. The tracks of humans are, unlike those of other animals, designated “paths”. Paths are images of community: “Consensual, because without common care and common practice they disappear.” Paths need walking. Communities need paths. He recalls that in 19th-century Suffolk: “Small sickles called ‘hooks’ were hung on stiles and posts at the start of certain well-used paths: those running between villages, for instance, or byways to parish churches. A walker would pick up a hook and use it to lop off tendrils or branches that were starting to impede passage. The hook would then be left at the other end of the path, for a walker coming in the other direction.”
Even in British city centres, roads overlay what were once paths. Sickles might be useful, one sometimes feels, negotiating the Hanger Lane gyratory system. But one can console oneself that such gridlock frustrations go back centuries to when it was, indeed, a lane. (America’s urban grids make me, and I suspect other visitors to the country, profoundly nervous, as if somehow caged.)
The first section of The Old Ways records a walk along the Icknield Way, the oldest of them all, running from Buckinghamshire to Norfolk. It was beaten by human foot long before London magnetically drew all roads to itself. It has the internal logic of a ley line, not a thoroughfare. Later sections of the book record sea, coast and island excursions in the Hebrides. Macfarlane relishes wild, as well as old, places. He writes about both beautifully.
Hugh Thomson’s The Green Road into the Trees records his hike along the same Icknield Way, all the way from Dorset in the south-west to Norfolk in the east. The path, for him, is replete with Arthurian legend. In which mere, precisely, was the sword Excalibur thrown back to the Lady of the Lake by the reluctant Bedivere? Thomson has a theory or two.
Who knows, he may unknowingly have met Macfarlane walking in the other direction, from his Cambridge home. It would have been an interesting encounter. The two walkers are, as their books make clear, temperamentally different. Whereas Macfarlane prefers, like Wordsworth, to wander “lonely as a cloud”, Thomson is constitutionally gregarious. He embarrasses his children by conversing, uninvited, with anyone he chances to meet. He loves the strangeness of strangers. He overnights with solstice communards in the neighbourhood of Stonehenge. He pals up with David, who retired from the police 10 years ago to found “the Great Bustard Group”. As David tells Thomson: “I remember thinking that all the interesting birds lived in places like Papua New Guinea. Then I saw male bustards doing their display and realised that wherever you go in the world, you won’t see a better sight.”
On the military firing ranges on Salisbury Plain, he makes passing conversation with a formidable lady wearing Dolce & Gabbana shades who lets him know she always walks when the red flags (and live rounds) are flying. It keeps the riff-raff away and “gets my endorphins going”, she tells him.
I love to read Macfarlane. I would love to walk with Thomson.
Poet and writer Kathleen Jamie is as her title, Sightlines, proclaims, more of a “sight-seer” than a walker. Her first chapter describes a visit to Greenland to wonder at the Northern Lights. On a plane trip, while other passengers are glued to their tiny screens watching Daniel Craig as 007, she gazes from the similarly small fuselage window at the moon, dancing against the motions of the aircraft. “I realise that sometimes I call the moon ‘it’, sometimes ‘she’ – both are apposite and this doesn’t matter, either,” she writes. Her eye is always wandering. She has an incurable fascination with Hebridean islands such as St Kilda or Rona where humans once lived and left their inscrutable, stony residues.
When her mother lies dying, a hospital doctor advises to let “nature take its course”. What does “nature”, in this awful context, mean? Not for Jamie the ritual ash-throwing or coffined interment. The bereaved daughter goes into the autopsy room and watches organs being sliced, diced, and anatomised like so much butcher’s offal. It shouldn’t shock, she concludes, “that we’re like animals”. But it does. Human nature is frightened of its own nature.
What conclusions does one draw from this fine quintet? One above all. We live in a world in which children are being programmatically denatured. Haskell ruefully notes: “When asked to identify 20 corporate logos and 20 common species from our region, my first-year students can consistently name most of the corporate symbols and almost none of the species. The same would be true for most people in our culture.”
What should be done? That long-dropped school subject, “Nature Studies”, should be reabsorbed into the educational core and taught as urgently as maths and English – more urgently, indeed. The alternative is a new generation for whom Old MacDonald’s Farm might as well be Mars and Wordsworth’s host of golden daffodils made of plastic. Most golden daffodils are nowadays, I suspect.
John Sutherland is author of ‘Lives of the Novelists’ (Profile). His favourite walks are in the San Gabriel Mountains, southern California
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