Showing posts with label nature. Show all posts
Showing posts with label nature. Show all posts

Monday, 1 April 2013

Walking Home by Simon Armitage

This is Simon Armitage's account of his attempt to walk the Pennine Way, travelling against the wind and with the sun in his face from North to South, towards his home village of Marsden in Yorkshire.  Kindly strangers offer him a bed for the night, transport his luggage (a vast suitcase nicknamed the Tombstone) between stops, or simply walk with him along this most demanding of paths.  Every evening, he gives a poetry reading, in venues that range from pubs to village halls to people's sitting rooms, and the trip is funded by the donations people leave in a (clean) hiking sock.  Armitage has written and spoken a lot about walking, and recently was part of the Stanza Stones project, writing  poems to be carved into rocks in the hills between Marsden and Ilkley.

The links between writing and walking are well-explored, not least in Rebecca Solnit's marvellous Wanderlust, but this book adds a great deal more to our understanding of the connection between these two fundamental activities, and of the importance of walking to an individual writer.  It's also a compelling account of what it's like to walk a difficult, arbitrary long-distance path, of the fears and doubts that pull at the sense of achievement.  At the outset of his walk, Simon Armitage realises that he is "the weakest link" in the chain of strangers and friends who are making his walk happen: "Failure seems unavoidable, with humiliation and shame the inevitable consequence".  Lost in the mist on Cross Fell, "a truly terrible place" pitted with shafts from old iron workings, he experiences "the dismal misery of not knowing where I am, or perhaps losing any sense of who I am, as if the mist is bringing about an evaporation of identity, all the certainties of the self leaching away into the cloud".  Near the end, however, he contemplates the possibility of not finishing the Way, a deliberate act that transforms apparent failure into "the triumph of personal accomplishment over public affirmation".

A lot of books about long walks are not terribly well-written and can't avoid the obvious label of pedestrian.  This is not one of those books.  It is beautifully written with an attention to the details of the walks, the readings, the spare rooms of strangers, and especially to the textures of the places Simon goes.  Here is a typically precise and evocative description of walking through a forest:

Stumps of old trees are footstools upholstered in velvety green moss.  Pine resin is the first thing I've smelt for hours.  Except at the very top where their tips bend and flex like fishing rods in some mad struggle, the evergreens absorb the bruising gusts and deafening surges of wind, so there's nothing but static and stable air at ground level where I walk.  And somewhere above me, where their coats are thickest and fullest, the trees have absorbed all suggestion of rain, so down here it's dry and cushioned, every footfall received and relaunched by a thick mattress of spongy,brown needles.  A form of twilight gathers under the canopy, a cloistered stillness.

As well as being beautiful, it is also very funny, attentive to the bathetic moments that inevitably follow feelings of achievement; Armitage is comically self-deprecating about his performance at the readings, something he describes as "little more than a man in a creased shirt holding a book in his hand for three-quarters of an hour".  Every turning-out of the sock after the evening's reading is a source of humour.  I love walking, and have dabbled with shorter long-distance paths, but even if you never want to walk further than the corner shop, this is a really rewarding book, absorbing, funny and moving.

Simon Armitage is undertaking a similar walk on the South West Coast Path in August and September this year, so there will be another book to look forward to soon.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Findings by Kathleen Jamie

There has been a lot of press about Kathleen Jamie's new book Sightlines which inspired me to try her, but I thought I should start with this book first.  Findings is a book of essays, some recounting journeys, some considering the natural world, others the details of the world we have made for ourselves.  Jamie's message could be summarised, simply, as pay attention: pay thoughtful and critical attention to the things you encounter, reflect on them, consider their meaning.  Jamie doesn't articulate this as a set of shoulds and oughts; she simply recounts, in beautiful and resonant language, her own thoughts and reflections on the things she has seen.

Sometimes this is exuberant - such as in the last chapter when, on a whale-watching boat, Jamie, the passengers and crew are treated to an astonishing encounter with a huge school of dolphins - and sometimes it is sombre.  The separate essays twist around, not necessarily going in the direction you might expect. Her themes can be exotic or strange, such as the preserved anatomical specimens in the Surgeon's Hall in Edinburgh, and utterly familiar.  Here is a typically lovely paragraph that considers the cobweb:

"The cobwebs make me think of ears, or those satellite dishes attuned to every different nuance of the distant universe.  One cobweb after another - a whole quarter of cobwebs, like an Eastern bazaar with all the cobblers, all the spice-sellers, all the drapers together in their own alleys.  The biggest web measured about a hand-span and a half, a pianist's hand-span.  I wondered if all the spiders were related, a family group."

Jamie is very good at making the familiar strange so that we can see and consider it from a new perspective, so that we too can wonder about the meaning of the everyday.  She also describes the Scottish landscape in a way that makes it both tempting and accessible, articulating the lure of islands and mountains, relating them to daily life, and then shifting perspective again so they acquire a renewed remoteness. Having finished this book, I found I had so thoroughly absorbed the message of mindfulness, the need to pay proper attention, that I immediately read it again - and, unsurprisingly, it yielded up new meanings that I had missed the first time.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane

Robert Macfarlane evolved a mission: to escape, for brief periods, his decidedly unwild Cambridge home, and to explore the wild places of Britain and Ireland.  Initially he defines 'wild' as remote, unlit, and "where the evidence of human presence was minimal or absent".   The effect of his travels, however, will be a new conception of 'wild' and a new appreciation of the qualities of wild places.  In particular, he comes to see the "evidence of human presence" pretty much everywhere, and indeed this can be what makes some of the wilder places tolerable, even if the evidence is historical or archeological.  And he comes to recognise the overlooked wildness of unexpected places: "The weed thrusting through a crack in a pavement, the tree root impudently cracking a carapace of tarmac: these were wild signs, as much as the storm wave and the snowflake".  I'm always fascinated by the wildness in the edgelands, forgotten or abandoned places where nature's vigour is overtaking the signs of human endeavour, so Macfarlane's inner journey was designed to appeal.

Macfarlane is an incredibly energetic and enthusiastic companion, with a taste for sleeping out in a bivouac bag, swimming in cold water, and exploring some deeply inhospitable places.  I quite often read books like this with a mounting envy of the journeys made and the things seen, but I read this book feeling quite sure that I don't want to spend a night on Ben Hope, or attempt to scale the well-named Inaccessible Pinnacle, and Macfarlane's account of swimming up a sea cave made my skin crawl:

I swam to the biggest of the caves.  Holding on to an edge of rock, and letting the swell lift me gently up and down, I looked inside.  Though I could not see the back of the cave, it seemed to run thirty or forty feet into the cliffs [...] As I crossed the shadow cast by the cave's roof, the water grew cold.  There was a big hollow sucking and slapping sound.  I shouted, and heard my call come back at me from all sides [...] Further back into the cave, the light was diffused and the air appeared powdery.  The temperature had dropped, and I sensed the whole gathered coldness of the unsunned rock around and above me, pushing out into the air and water.  I glanced back over my shoulder.  The big semicircular mouth of the cave had by now shrunk to a cuticle of light.  I could only just see out to the horizon of the see, and I felt a sudden involuntary lurch of fear.

You and me both, Robert.  The powerful sense of claustrophobia this evokes is a good example of the way Macfarlane conveys a textured, detailed impression of the places he visits; sound, smell, temperature, surface and colour all combine in his writing to take the reader with him to the wild places.  His language is also fresh and attractive; I love that "unsunned" and the "cuticle of light".  He is also frank about his other lurches of fear; as it turns out, he doesn't want to climb the Inaccessible Pinnacle either.  Alongside his evocations of place are lots of detours into the history of the places he visits and of the people who frequented them.  Some of these are famous - Coleridge, Ivor Gurney - others much less so, like W.H. Murray who wrote about the Scottish mountains, on blank loo paper, while a prisoner of war during World War II.  His historical and biographical writing is detailed and confident, and balanced elegantly against his evocation of place.

A key figure in this book is Roger Deakin, author of Wildwood and Waterlog, and a cherished friend of Macfarlane's.  They travel together to explore the Burren in Ireland and the holloways of Dorset.  But the book pivots around Deakin's sudden illness and untimely death; he is in many ways the inspiration for Macfarlane's journeys, and the second half of the book is in some ways an account of recovering from this loss and a celebration of Deakin himself.  I particlarly enjoyed the passing reference to the three different varieties of moss Roger Deakin proudly points out, growing in the footwells of his ancient car.  Robert Macfarlane has a book just out called The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot which sounds very enticing and has just slipped onto my Amazon wish-list.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit

An expansive, exhilarating history of walking, Rebecca Solnit's book encompasses walking as transport, as pastime, as pilgrimage and as protest.  She moves between her own experience of walking, theories of the evolution of walking and philosophies of walking, stopping off to look at the key thinkers and writers who have shaped our understanding of this everyday activity.  Inevitably, a history of walking also becomes a history of the places we walk, and the people who did (and didn't) walk there.

The breadth and depth of her research is remarkable and she pays close, critical attention to the theories she reviews, drawing out some of the ironies of trying to think about walking as well as presenting her own theories of the symbolism of walking.  She describes artists who have used walking to form their works, as well as writers who have relied upon walking to drive their literary endeavours, with a whole chapter devoted to The Legs of William Wordsworth.  Walking in streets, parks, gardens and the wider countryside are all considered.  Walking can seem elemental and free, but has of course been as much constrained as any type of activity; Solnit tells the story of the struggle for access to the countryside and the struggle to preserve urban environments that can be walked.  She also links the act of walking very strongly to the notion of narrative, and to the narrative of human history in particular: "Part of what makes roads, trails and paths so unique as built structures is that they cannot be perceived as a whole all at once by a sedentary onlooker.  They unfold in time as one travels along them, just as a story does as one listens and reads, and a hairpin turn is like a plot twist [...] Roads are  a record of those who have gone before, and to follow them is to follow people who are no longer there."

This notion connects walking intimately to the idea of creativity, and the book reiterates its insistence on the psychological value of walking as a means of producing contentment, understanding, creative energy and new ideas.  "Musing" she writes, "takes place in a kind of meadowlands of the imagination, a part of the imagination that has not yet been ploughed, developed or put to any immediately practical use.  Environmentalists are always arguing that those butterflies, those grasslands, those watershed woodlands, have an utterly necessary function in the grand scheme of things, even if they don't produce a market crop.  The same is true of the meadowlands of the imagination; time spent there is not work time, yet without that time the mind becomes sterile, dull, domesticated.  The fight for free space - for wilderness and for public space - must be accompanied by a fight for free time to spend wandering in that space." Solnit does not over-stress her argument, but her passing references to unwalkable places - towns that have no pavements or no road crossings, or places that have lost their walkers and are perceived as dangerous as a result - show us the consequences of marginalising such a fundamental activity.

Solnit's prose is elegant and her arguments compelling.  I enjoyed this book hugely, and found I was quite envious of her for having written it, for being able to combine a pleasurable activity with a fascinating research process.  Any admirers of Roger Deakin or Robert MacFarlane's books on similar themes will get a lot out of this book.  Solnit has written several other books which I look forward to exploring.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

To The River by Olivia Laing

Olivia Laing's book is a love-letter to the river Ouse in Sussex, a poetic blend of travel narrative, history and memoir.  After a personal crisis, Olivia sets out to walk the Ouse from the source to the sea, her backpack stuffed with cheese and oatcakes, on a journey of healing and discovery.  Her narrative takes in the history of Sussex around the Ouse.  We meet the amateur geologist Gideon Mantell, a doctor in Lewes in the early nineteenth who discovered the iguanadon; Simon de Montfort at the Battle of Lewes; Richard Dawson who gave us the Piltdown Man hoax; and Leonard and Virginia Woolf.  Laing also ponders those who have loved rivers, and been endlessly drawn to them, like Kenneth Grahame, and the effect of rivers on the landscape, and of humankind on those rivers.

Laing's style is reflective, turning over for the reader her thoughts and wonderings about the landscape and the characters who populate it.  We are privy to her indecisions and confusions, which makes for an intimate, confiding text.  Her knowledge is demonstrated lightly and the stories and histories she relates make the narrative digressive and meandering, much like the Ouse itself.  I was faintly surprised by the depth of her botanical knowledge - she can spot a dozen species in a hedgerow - until I read on the back of the dustjacket that she used to be a medical herbalist.  She is also a fearless swimmer; I would not swim in the wide, grey, tidal Ouse at Southease, even without the awful example of Virginia Woolf before me.

Laing writes a lot about both Woolfs, looking particularly at the representation of water in Virginia Woolf's writings, and unpicking the notion that her suicide by drowning is foretold in her novels and diaries, extracting alternate readings of texts that have been read as sinister or portentous, like the diary account of Virginia wading into a flooded Ouse that covered the fields around Rodmell, unworried about getting wet because she was wearing Leonard's corduroy trousers.  But Woolf is an object lesson of the unpredictability of the river, which will take you, if you surrender yourself to it, but may not return you.

This book was particularly resonant for me because I've also walked the length of the Ouse, along the Sussex Ouse Valley Way which Olivia Laing also follows for the most part.  I can still see vividly the places she describes.  But the book has amplified  the memory of my walk by connecting it to history, geology and to Laing's own experience of the Ouse.  Above all, Laing's book celebrates the pleasures of walking alone in the landscape: "There wasn't a soul in sight, though I knew there were hordes of people beyond each ridge [...] I was nonetheless as purely happy as I've ever been right then, in that open passageway beneath the blue vault of the sky, walking the measure allotted me, with winter on each side [...] I felt untethered, almost weightless."  Like Waterlog, this book will make you want to stuff your swimsuit - and perhaps some cheese and oatcakes - into a backpack and set off into the fields towards the river.

Friday, 31 July 2009

Wildwood by Roger Deakin

Wildwood, a sort of sequel to Waterlog, is a similar combination of memoir, history, and travel writing that explores our relationship with trees and wood. Deakin separates the book into four sections. Roots considers the significance of wood in our daily lives, the experience of living with wooden furniture and in wooden structures, and Deakin’s joy in working with wood. Sapwood focuses on British woods and the way they are used and enjoyed by the people who live in and near them. Driftwood explores woods abroad, particularly in Australia, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Heartwood returns to Suffolk, to Deakin’s life with the trees and hedges around his home, the wood that built his house, became his furniture and provided scope for work and recreation.

Like Waterlog, this is full of fascinating information, of botany, folklore and social history, although I found it lacked the lyrical quality of the previous book. However, as Roger Deakin died very shortly after submitting the manuscript, it seems unfair to cavil at minor shortcomings, and my view may be due to a greater personal relationship with water than with wood. It’s a book with a vast breadth of knowledge often focused precisely on details, giving a sense of expansive wisdom and specific expertise, and opening up new worlds to the reader – who else has visited the walnut harvest in Kyrgyzstan, or written about it so enthrallingly? One of the episodes in the book concerns Deakin’s school trips to the New Forest with his biology teacher, during which they would map the animal and plant life of a small area; the scientific habit clearly stayed with him, as his affectionate scrutiny compasses not only the tree, but the insects, animals, plants, people and economies surrounding it and depending on it. To see all this is a rare talent in itself; to write well about it seems exceptional to me.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Waterlog by Roger Deakin

I have just finished the last pages of this book; the last twenty-four hours have been filled with annoying interruptions, when all I wanted was to read and savour the last few chapters in one sitting. This is an utterly marvellous book, a unique blend of memoir, travel writing, natural history, social history, written in an entrancing, poetic voice that transports the reader straight to the heart of Deakin's knowledge and experience. The book has a great deal to say about the social, physical and psychological importance of swimming, about our need for contact with the water, but is always good-humoured and never didactic; any polemic is gentle, but still has real impact. The stories and voices of the people Deakin meets on his journey, the swimmers, rowers and fishermen, ring out authentically and build a rounded portrait of the British relationship with water, and of the country itself. This book has made me want to do two things: read it again, and then go for a swim in an oxbow lake in the Windrush, as Deakins does and as I often did as a child. Brighton beach just isn't the same.