In the first of a series of articles about writers and landscapes, Robert Macfarlane argues that we must pay more careful attention to nature
Saturday March 26, 2005
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005
While he was writing Tarka the Otter, Henry Williamson went feral. Daily, for months, he walked out alone into the great wedge of moor that is held between the rivers Taw and Torridge, where they tumble, divergent, off the north-west slope of Dartmoor.
During those seasons of river haunting, Williamson lived through the moor's different weathers. Big scapular-shaped rain clouds, light trimming the wet rocks, coffee-coloured spate-water. At other times, sunlight, softness, wild swans beating through blue sky. Sometimes he slept out overnight, in the lee of a bank or in a stand of trees. He would wake starred with frost, or hung with dew.
In the course of that strange and restless time, Williamson became, by his own reckoning, an otter-man. He rarely saw other people. Those he did, he sought to avoid. His affinity was with the moor's creatures, and with its earth and water.
His ferality was, in part, an escape: the first world war had left Williamson deeply damaged, and the moor offered space and solace. But he was also in pursuit of a literary ideal. Williamson wanted to write about the Devon landscape he had come to love; to press the wildness of the river and the moor into words. And for that, the long months of fieldwork were necessary.
Williamson's research was obsessive-compulsive - writing as method acting. He returned repeatedly to the scenes of Tarka's story as it developed. He crawled on hands and knees, squinting out sightlines, peering at close-up textures, working out what an otter's-eye view of Weest Gully or Dark Hams Wood or Horsey Marsh would be. So it is that the landscape in Tarka is always seen from a few inches' height: water bubbles "as large as apples", the spines of "blackened thistles", reeds in ice like wire in clear flex. The prose of the book has little interest in panoramas - in the sweeps and long horizons which are given to eyes carried at five feet.
Tarka is a short book which took a long time to write. Williamson revised the 11th chapter, set in the remote moorland fen of Cranmere, more than 30 times - going back to the fen between each version - before he was satisfied. The book as a whole was rewritten 17 times. "Each word", he said afterwards, "was chipped from the breastbone".
The best writing about landscapes - deserts, skies, forests, mountains, tundra, glaciers, prairies, forests, moors - has come from an intensity of commitment similar to Williamson's. JA Baker's The Peregrine is the result of 10 years spent in the winter woods and fields of Essex. Barry Lopez's Arctic Dreams, of five years' travel in polar Canada and Alaska. Antoine Saint-Exupéry's Wind, Sand and Stars, of a career spent flying over desert and sea. Willa Cather's O Pioneers!, of a childhood in Nebraska.
Landscape cannot, on the whole, be mocked up; cannot be dreamed into descriptive being. Light, water, angles, textures of air, water and stone, the curves and straights of horizon and slope: these are the basic components of natural places, and they combine in ways too subtle and particular to be invented.
This - the dedication it demands - is one of the difficulties of writing about natural places. Another, contrasting difficulty is that landscapes have had too much written about them in the past. For centuries, they have provoked in their viewers an urge to communicate their magnificence. The result is that landscapes have become coated with thick layers of dead language. Wreck-divers use the word "crud", a dialect form of "curd", to describe the submarine minerals which clot around any long-sunken metal object, and which have to be laboriously chipped and leached away before that object can be exposed to sight again. It is - as Williamson knew - effortful work to get back through the verbal crud: to divulge a landscape to what he once called "authentic sunlight".
Increasingly, in the face of these difficulties, British writers have abandoned the effort altogether. Rose Tremain reported recently that she had taken to setting her novels either abroad, or in the past, because there was "no immediate landscape left with which to engage" in contemporary Britain. Martin Amis, who has always paraded his status as connoisseur of urban deprivation - novelist as underbelly-dancer - elegantly rephrased the same sentiment in a 2003 interview. "Our countryside is just bollocks. A friend of mine wrote a poem called 'Bollockshire' about the English countryside. It's all so cute and fake. We have no wilds left."
Landscape writing has come to seem the demesne of male naturalists, getting over-excited about lichen types, hollows, hedges and tors. Oscar Wilde's 1889 sneer about landscape appreciation has become standard issue. "Nobody of any real culture ever talks nowadays about the beauty of sunset. Sunsets are quite old fashioned. To admire them is a distinct sign of provincialism of temperament."
At the broadest level, the decline of landscape writing must be connected to modernity. So much of 20th-century literature has been taken up with annotating those peculiarly modern sentiments of alienation and its subcategories: estrangement, fragmentation, disconnection and dislocation. It is un- surprising that writing which pays close and respectful attention to place should have come to appear pensionable.
Then there are the three persistent enemies of good writing about landscape. The first of these is cliché. Landscape writing can sometimes seem like the canning factory of style, out of which the same phrases are endlessly issued: the "crashing" waterfall, the "mist-wreathed" forest, the mountains showing "like whale-backs" in the clouds. Try it yourself. Try to describe the last sunset you saw, or the last storm. Clichés - "vivid", "fierce", "lurid", "rich", "wild" - rise eagerly and unbidden to the lips. You quickly end up sounding like Mrs Arundel from Wilde's The Decay of Lying, who insists on "going to the window, and looking at the glorious sky, as she called it."
The second enemy is over-writing. Landscape encourages the pleonastic heresy that more words will always be better than fewer. Too often, writers fall into a Fauntleroyish effusion: the wine-taster's excessively adjectival loquacity.
The third and most serious enemy is a political one. An infatuation with landscape has, at times, come at the cost of a proper sense of human community, or a misprision of human worth. Pantheism shades, repellently, into territorialism. John Muir hymned the connectedness of all things, but disregarded the long Native American association with his adored Yosemite. Williamson's nature-love of the 1910s and 20s later became corrupted into fascism, eugenics, and a worship of Hitler as the "light-bringing phoenix". There are other examples. Such crimes must not be overlooked. But they do not discredit all writing inspired by place.
The finest writing about landscape is almost always modest, exact and attentive. It is precise without ever being curt. It understands that lyricism is a function of detail, and not of abstraction. And it is ethically alert. One thinks of Emily Dickinson's miniaturist genius, and the deceptively small poems she wrote about sunrises, flies, flowers, and light falling through space. Dickinson's tiny poems have vast interiors. Reading a poem by her is like ducking into a bungalow, to find oneself within a cathedral.
Or one turns to Barry Lopez, a writer seriously underknown in this country. Lopez writes about the Canadian Arctic: about snowfields which stretch levelly for thousands of miles, and about tundra which has been flattened by the to and fro of ice-masses, and planed by fierce winds. Yet, even in these most lateral of terrains, Lopez consistently plumbs a meaning and a human interest. His prose resembles the film of mercury on the back of a mirror, which allows a flat thing to contain ever-receding depth.
Why should the ability to write well about landscape matter? Surely, it might be objected, there are more interesting and important things to be written about? Or, with the world proceeding so adamantly towards a final wrecking of the environment, discriminating between types of land- scape writing might seem like choosing between deckchair patterns on the Titanic.
Iris Murdoch, unexpectedly, can be of help here. Murdoch's ethical vision was based upon a concept which she, after Simone Weil, called "attention". "Attention", Murdoch proposed, is an especially vigilant kind of "looking". When we exercise a care of attention towards a person, we note their gestures, their tones of voice, their facial expressions, their turns of phrase and thought. In this way, by interpreting these signs, we proceed an important distance towards understanding the hopes, wishes and needs of that person.
This "attention", Murdoch noted, is the most basic and indispensable form of moral work. It is "effortful", but its rewards are immense. For this attention, she memorably wrote, "teaches us how real things can be looked at and loved without being seized and used, without being appropriated into the greedy organism of the self".
Murdoch's ideal of "attention", of a compelling particularity of vision, obtains to landscapes as well as to people. It is harder to dispose of anything, or to act selfishly towards it, once one has paid attention to its details. This is an environmentalist's truth, as well as a humanist's.
The best landscape writers have been attentive, in the sense that Murdoch and Weil meant that word, to the terrains through which they have moved. Their imaginations have responded with gripping exactitude to certain forms of matter (ice, rock, light, sand, moorland, water, air), and to certain arrangements of space (altitude, edges, valleys, ridges, plains, horizons, slopes). Comically, earnestly, lyrically, ecstatically, anecdotally, beautifully, these writers have approached their chosen landscapes with an eye to their uniqueness. In so doing, they have primed a space within which those landscapes can be respected - can come to seem less seizable and usable by the greedy human self.
In a crucial sense, therefore, the real subject of landscape writing is not landscape, but a restructuring of the human attitude towards nature - and there can be few subjects more urgent or necessary of our attention than this. The most important landscape writing poses profound questions about the durability and significance of human schemes. It offers, in Lopez's fine phrase, a cause for "incorporating nature into the meaning of human community, in that moral realm".