A resurgent wave of British nature writers owe as much to Land art and science fiction as traditional environmentalism
Early this summer, on a train journey along the south coast of England, while looking inland and up the line, I spotted three herons standing together in the middle of a field. This avian convention seemed distinctly unlikely: a trio of lean grey triangles, their attention tilted towards each other, surely paused like this for no more than the next fortuitous few seconds. At any moment they would unfold their vast wings and labour slowly up into the air in different directions. As the train got closer, however, and the birds remained unmoved, I realized my mistake: the field was a golf course, and the herons three large, wheeled golf bags, abandoned on the green. Somewhat more literally than usual, I had taken culture for nature: the classic rural pratfall of the urban innocent.
‘The hardest thing of all is to see what is really there’, wrote J. A. Baker in The Peregrine (1967), his strange feral-Modernist study of the falcons of Essex. The unsettling precision of Baker’s prose – ‘the heron blinds the white river cornea with the spear of his bill’ – is an abiding influence on the resurgent nature writing that has sought in recent years to describe the landscapes of the British Isles in something other than the sentimental terms employed by the conservative countryside lobby and mainstream environmentalists. Writers such as Richard Mabey in Nature Cure (2005), Tim Robinson in Connemara (2006) and Roger Deakin in Wildwood (2007) have been celebrated as sedulous archivists of vanishing wildness. What is not always clear, though, is whether the new nature writing is able or willing to admit how ambiguous its key terms have become.
Most recently, Robert Macfarlane has essayed a mode of exploration and description that tries – for all its traditional sense of wonder at the absconding wildernesses that still punctuate the wasteland of motorways and agribusiness – to acknowledge the palimpsestic nature of contemporary landscape. Macfarlane’s The Wild Places, published this September, is a kind of test case for the renovated genre: it risks undoing its own nature-loving premise in confusing encounters with territories that are half-natural, half-artificial.
Assured by friends and colleagues that Britain simply had no wilderness left, Macfarlane set about visiting those places he surmised might still come close. Etymologically, he notes, ‘wild’ means not chaotic or unruly but willed, in the sense of ‘self-willed’. Wildness is ‘an energy both exemplary and exquisite’. He finds it in the depths of England’s remaining forests; along ancient holloways, the overgrown, submerged tracks that ghost the motorway system; on the howling summit of a Scottish mountain; between the gleaming limestone pavements of the Burren. But he uncovers wildness too among the disused military installations at Orford Ness – a desolate shingle spit memorably trekked by W. G. Sebald in The Rings of Saturn (1995) – and close to home among the woods outside Cambridge. In place of strict distinctions between past and present, city and country – still extant in Baker, who wrote of the ‘grey and shrunken time of towns’ – Macfarlane sets a vision of Britain as a dialectical landscape, almost a massive earthwork or a forgotten artefact of Land art, caught between geology and sculpture, nature and artifice.
What sets The Wild Places apart from any perceived naivety about the authenticity of the English landscape is more precisely what it achieves at the level of style. Metaphor is the conventional means by which the nature writer conjures the space he or she compasses, but it works best when the comparison sends us somewhere else. In Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost (2005), the ‘blue of distance’ recalls Leonardo da Vinci, Hans Memling and Yves Klein. Macfarlane has a comparably vagrant way with a simile. Huddled against a storm, he ‘might have been hurtling through deep space’. The ocean wears a ‘meniscal frown’ at its curved horizon. Exploring a sea cave, he experiences ‘blue shock. The cold running into me like a dye.’ The effect of his metaphors is to sinter our discrete responses to inhuman nature: blank awe, sublimity, anthropomorphic fantasy and something almost akin to science fiction.
At its most risky and rigorous, the new nature writing acknowledges truths about landscape that have long seemed self-evident to certain artists. (Robinson, for example, was initially an artist and showed his Conceptual/Land art installations at the Lisson Gallery in the late 1960s before decamping to the west of Ireland to write Stones of Aran (1986).) Which is not to say that these writers’ prose lags behind the dialectics of landscape, entropy, memory and decay elaborated by artists as diverse as Robert Smithson, Richard Long, Tacita Dean and Roni Horn. Rather, they seem to have absorbed the lessons of Land art and landscape-oriented Conceptualists and to have allied it with a renewed faith in the personal essay as a potentially avant-garde literary form. Like Robinson and Baker, Macfarlane writes as though descriptive prose were a kind of Smithson-style non-site or Horn-esque museum: a displacement of air, rock and water rather than their intimate description. As though being subtly mistaken were the only way of seeing what is really there.
First published in Issue 109