Landscape and Robert Macfarlane Friday March 15, 2013

I’m interested in the ways in which our minds, and our moods, and our imaginations, and our identities, are influenced by the textures, and the weathers, and the forms, and the slopes, and the curves and the creatures remembered and actual of the places we inhabit

Robert Macfarlane has carved out an important place in nature and landscape literature with his three books Mountains of the Mind, The Wild Places, and The Old Ways. The first book was an historic account of how our perception of mountains has changed, how climbing is both psychological and passionate, and how not long ago, Lake District hills were regarded with dread. The second book is a meditation on the nature of wildness and how we can find it in tame locations; small places of detail rather than alpine grandeur. The style and approach is similar to the work of his naturalist friend and mentor, Roger Deakin. The third book is an exploration of the history and imaginative power of the network of paths crossing Britain. He’s an English lecturer at Cambridge University and his understanding of literary narrative is apparent.

I’ve had a similar experience myself, as you find in his trilogy of writing. He used to be a mountain climber, risked his life, and lost climbing friends. I used to romp the mountains though as a walker not a climber. More recently – in the last year or two – I’ve begun to enjoy modest areas such as Chorlton Meadows, the nature reserve in Manchester, and consider how they are utterly different from the mountains but nonetheless have some similar features. You see birds, grasses, a river, trees, and few people but when you do they are friendly: we say hello, have brief conversation, which in one instance concerned what I was photographing. I’ve not yet gone the further stage of fascination with paths as such (The Old Ways) but I enjoy them as an expression of human presence and intent even when towns are nearby. I still love and walk the mountains whereas I think Macfarlane no longer climbs.

His books don’t quite satisfy in terms of walking and why I do it because they contain extended detail about name, place, history, inhabitant, flora, fauna, politics, and literature. It gets too far away from the simplicity of the walk and its sensory facts. Which is not to say he doesn’t describe how he feels as he walks, because he does, and in fine terms. In that respect I find his books some of the best, for nature writing and walking. It’s wonderfully refreshing to see writing of this quality and how it contrasts with the usual, basic, derring do stuff about challenge, struggle, and attaining hard won goals in terms of either height or distance. Peak bagging is rife in Britain, whether it’s Scottish Munros or Lake District Wainwrights. Not only rife but obsessive, different to why I walk and the quality of pleasure it has. I enjoy the athleticism of ascent and the hard work of the body and it doesn’t feel right, for example, taking a cable car up the Alps cutting out large parts of the elevation. That is however secondary – the point is the beauty of the mountains.

Writer Will Self refers to eiotechnical travel which means how the body is the measure of the world and how this capacity is largely absent in our lives. We drive, bus, fly, and cross apparent distances with the strange pseudo environment of the internet. He claims to have walked from his London home to New York because he walked at either end, and transatlantic flights are not actually registered by the body. I don’t think he represents landscape experience as such because he says it’s merely Romantic to enjoy mountains rather than cities: that it’s only an idea we are told they are more beautiful than streets. In this respect I find Macfarlane the more interesting thinker. Self does, however, describe an important part of mountain walking: we do it, self powered, with our bodies.

I think there’s a great deal to like in Macfarlane’s books but there’s also material which is rather boring, stringing out stories where you lose interest. His books are about story and the imagination and I enjoy this hour long lecture without reservation because it’s more direct, colourful, and summarised, getting to the essence of his work with the words:

I’m interested in the ways in which our minds, and our moods, and our imaginations, and our identities, are influenced by the textures, and the weathers, and the forms, and the slopes, and the curves and the creatures remembered and actual of the places we inhabit

Comment

  1. Marie Randaxhe · Mar 16, 12:00 PM · §

  2. James Lomax · Mar 16, 01:08 PM · §