Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Nature Writing: Robert Macfarlane

My recent reading of Robert Macfarlane's fascinating The Wild Places made me think a lot about the differences between (current) American and English "nature writing", and why I usually like the second better.

There are many reasons and not all are related. English nature and natural history writing, like the (I would argue related) genre travel writing, has a longer history. The English were thinking about their countryside while we were still subduing ours (though see Audubon's journals and writings, which might also be considered travel writing). The English had to travel outside of their country to see new perspectives, while we were wandering a continent (even recently-- think, as a recent writer has persuasively argued, of three definitive books published within a year of each other, all among the best books of the fifties: On the Road; Lolita; and Wild America.

One reason why a lot of contemporary American nature writing bores is the idea that we are something apart from nature. Bill McKibben's thesis in The End of Nature is that nothing exists we have not altered. But as Tom Palmer, author of Landscape with Reptile (about Boston's relict rattlesnakes, one of the best "post- modern" nature books existing) argued in an old Atlantic monthly essay that brought down the wrath of the public on his head, why is a Mozart symphony, a product of the human species, less natural than a spider's web or a bowerbird's bower? We are ALL products of the planet.

Those who live in societies where human impact is obvious may be more likely to see the forgotten beauty in landscapes that are less than pristine, be it through English nature writing or Japanese ink drawings or Chinese poetry. Nature without humans makes no art, though it may inspire it. They also acknowledge the shared history of human and nature. Too much third- rate nature writing fills the void of the wilderness with the "I" rather than the eye, the ear, the story-- what else is there to react? I am not saying one cannot have good nature writing about the wildest places-- just that it is still rare, while good writing from more settled surroundings can draw the mind to human- nature interactions and narratives: stories. Is it any wonder that so much good nature writing and art, even in the US, comes from those who live in relatively crowded environs-- Palmer, Anne Matthews, the paintings of Walton Ford? Even some writers about wilder scenes actually hale from locales like New England; in The Spell of the Tiger Sy Montgomery, who went as a traveler to the Sundarbans to experience a place where danger, something considered exotic at home, is an everyday part of life, gives us a line about big predators that exceeds many whole books on the subject: ".... you enter a world where the ground sucks you down whole, where the night swallows the stars, and where you know, for the first time, that your body is made of meat"-- !!

(And please, if you want to argue, don't quote Ed Abbey at me. At his best he is a fine writer-- but, as even he insisted, he is not a nature writer. Besides, he liked Hoboken too.)

Right now, I'd like to consider a writer who can wring perceptions as fine as that-- who can both move you and thrill you and make you contemplate long views-- in an old, human - bounded landscape; one who finds in England, to quote a writer he also looks at "a land to me as profuse and glowing as Africa."

In The Wild Places, Macfarlane circles Britain on an idiosyncratic itinerary (endpaper map with iconic objects by our Pluvialis), starting with places anyone might find wild, in the north, on islands and stony beaches, and eventually returning to the leafy beech woodlands of near- home where the wild is less visible or at least obvious. He talks with people who know these places, examines their literary history and connections (sometimes as far afield as the deserts of North Africa), and tries to know them on an intimate and sensuous level, going out in storm and good weather, hiking in the cold, sleeping on sand and rock, immersing himself in streams and bogs. He describes and brings back tokens:

"A little rhomboid stone, whose gray and white strata recalled the grain of the driftwood and the sand terrace. A hank of dried seaweed. A wing feather from a buzzard, tawny and cream, barred with five dark diagonals.When I teased two of its veins apart, they unzipped with a soft tearing noise. I arranged the objects into lines and patterns, changed their order."

"Lines and patterns" occur and recur:

"That night on the sea wall, I thought about migration: those strong seasonal compulsions that draw creatures between regions,from one hemisphere to another. More than two million migrating birds used the soft shores of Britain and Ireland as resting points each autumn and winter.... The migrating birds did not shun humans; they were happy to live around them. What they did access when choosing where to land, though, was wildness; how far the water and the land would allow them to follow their own instincts and fulfil their own needs. Where they could not do this, they did not land."

This is a vision we need-- the notion of "wild" as a possibility on a planet where (to be fair to McKibben) we have touched everything. Grazing has altered my remote hills, and there are no grizzlies there today; the remotest wild part of roadless Mongolia has borne the tread of humans and even Neanderthals. But all are worth, and need, celebration as well as, more than, lament. if we want to preserve what is good. We cannot just wall everything off and look at it from behind glass. Says Macfarlane: "My early version of a wild place as somewhere remote, historyless, unmarked, now seemed improperly partial....I had learned to see another kind of wildness, to which I had once been blind: the wildness of natural life, the sheer force of ongoing organic existence, vigorous and chaotic. This wilderness was not about asperity, but about luxuriance, vitality, fun."

Or, earlier, a simple statement: "The human and the wild cannot be partitioned".

I'll leave you with his ending thoughts, near home; I cannot do better:

"Wilderness was here, too, a short mile south of the town in which I lived. It was set about by roads and buildings, much of it was menaced, and some of it was dying. But at that moment it seemed to ring with a wild light."


Matt Mullenix said...

"This is a vision we need-- the notion of 'wild' as a possibility on a planet where (to be fair to McKibben) we have touched everything."

This recalls (for me, of course) a recurring Berry theme with same concept----the need to retain wilderness in even the most used of human landscapes, not as separate museum pieces but as working parts of the whole.

M.L. Miller said...

Sometimes reading about wilderness can lift my spirits. But, true, other times it leaves me cold.

Perhaps because I’m an unapologetic introvert, I am a wilderness advocate. The thought of a world without quiet and solitude is a horrifying thought. I don’t hate big cities, but after a few days I am ready to get the out of Dodge. Sure, cities are “natural,” but that doesn’t mean I want to live there.

As a kid growing up in Central Pennsylvania, it would be difficult to over-estimate the hold that faraway, wild places had on me. This was something born of books, and magazines, and perhaps Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, as my family’s traveling consisted of an annual trip to the Jersey Shore. For teachers and classmates in my depressed, working class community, my dreams were beyond strange. I wanted to go on safari, hunt elk in the Rockies, see jaguars and elephants and marine iguanas—all things I have now somehow managed to pull off.

That said, I also know that the local landscape, local critters and local hunting remain the foundation of my love of natural history and hunting. I love hiking into a big, wild area for elk. But even living in Boise, Idaho, I have to drive a couple of hours to do that. If I could only hunt when I had to drive that far, hunting would be reduced to a pastime.

I live in the state with some of the biggest remaining wilderness, and my favorite hunting spot is a stretch of river close to the city limits that is open to hunting, I think, on a technicality. It is tucked away and so in the morning light it seems far away from the city—but the highways are close. Sometimes I quit early because a fisherman or biker is in the area. But I can be there two minutes from my front door. I know it. Everything I see there is part of my home.

Wild? Always. I see bald eagles and otters and mule deer and mink and so much more. The duck hunting is not world class, but I can usually manage to get a couple of birds on a morning’s hunt. And some days: the mallards and teal are dropping from the sky. In January, I can count on fast shooting for goldeneyes, an under-rated game species in my opinion. My wife and a close friend both made their first hunting kills there. It’s home territory.

I think the error of wilderness writing is that it only about the “out there”, not so much about home ground. The same is true, often, even for good writing about hunting. When you get beyond the product marketing pieces and vanity big game books, a lot of writing about hunting is set in wilderness.

Some friends who share that view were shocked when I admitted that the only thing I miss about living in Pennsylvania, aside from family and Penn State football, is the deer hunting. I live in Big Game Central and I miss the deer hunting? Isn't hunting so much more pure in the wild open country?

Perhaps. But I still miss the fact that deer hunting in Pennsylvania was NOT a road trip. It was my grandpa's property. I like the closed-in space of the eastern woodlot. I love the sound of a deer moving through crinkly leaves. I can’t will myself to not love this. It may sound corny or like some Gene Hill knock-off, but those days on the deer stand, and squirrel hunting, and stalking the back lots with my BB gun, and running a trapline from my house, and fishing for bluegills, are why I am still hunting and still a conservationist. If you look at the trends, that is far from the norm for people my age.

If you’re really a hunter-naturalist, you at some level want to live your life that way. Without the grounding in your local nature, somehow the hunting trips and travels to faraway places lack a context. Flying overseas to hunt kudu seems somehow, to me, more trivial if you don’t hunt the local deer. Going to the Galapagos is only cocktail party fodder if you don’t know the local birds.

In David Petersen’s book “On the Wild Edge” he rants against the deer and Canada geese on golf courses as somehow lesser than the creatures he pursues in the wilderness. But those deer and geese are really the ones “on the wild edge.” I like walk that edge, too. It may be an imperfect edge, but it’s my own.

mdmnm said...

Even up in wilder country, you can generally see human impact. I like not seeing people, too, but in the southwest, at least, I can always see their sign if I look very hard, like the grazing you mention.

Personally, coming across a nearly rusted away sardine can under a rimrock, or, better yet, a corroded old '06 or 30-30 casing near a good "sitting rock" looking over a draw is always a nice little bit of nostalgia- some other hunter was doing this right here a while back. He even had some luck. This year, the sign was even older- a broken projectile point chipped out of some green and white stone.