Robert MacFarlane’s “Landmarks” and the literature of nature

I should love Robert MacFarlane’s “Landmarks”, but it is proving strangely difficult to get through. Normally I reserve any kind of reviewing judgment on books until I have completely finished them; but in this case, it is proving something of a chapter by chapter slog. I enjoyed “Mountains of the Mind” and the other bits and pieces of MacFarlane I have read over the years (particularly this ) I also had found one of the other supposed classics of New Nature Writing, Helen McDonald’s H for Hawk, almost unreadable.

“Landmarks” isn’t unreadable, but strangely plodding. Chapters on nature writers – Nan Shepherd, Roger Deakin, J.A. Baker – alternate with a catalogue of terms for landscape from around Britain (broadly defined!) in English, Scots Gaelic, Irish and various dialects. I admire MacFarlane’s work in cataloguing these vanishing terms, and I for one do not need to be persuaded of their value. Of course, a catalogue is a catalogue, and these sections are admirable rather than engaging.

Macfarlane does tend towards a certain armchair psychologising of his literary subjects; we read that Baker’s physical infirmities drove him to identify with the soaring, blade-sharp elegance of the peregrine. This may be so, but serves to somewhat undermine Baker’s achievement.

I had read Dominic Green’s piece on the “New Nature Writing” which crystallised some of my thoughts on the genre, partly by distilling much in a handy package, and also acting as a foil to some of my more Romantic inclinations. Green finds much of the New Nature Writing is Writing About Writing:

 

Since my family shed their rags, I am now mostly white, very middle-class, and usually English enough, in a Jewish kind of way. Last summer, I stayed with friends in a decommissioned vicarage outside Oxford. At tea, we talked about Henry James against a timeless backdrop of sheep and rusting agricultural equipment. At home in my Hebraic urban fastness, I enjoy nothing more than a good book about books. But when it comes to the country, I am with Karl Marx. Urbanization liberated us from “the idiocy of rural life.”

 

There is an (inevitable?) elegaic aspect to the entire Nature Writing enterprise, as Green writes:

The only way to have rural life without the idiocy is to take your library with you, as Waugh did when he set up at Stinchcombe. This, metaphorically speaking, is what Robert Macfarlane has done—and what the New Nature cohort are doing. They are doing it as well as it can be done, under the circumstances. But there is no way back to the old ways, for good or bad. It is a hundred years since Yeats, having pared back his style after wintering with Pound in the Hundred-Acre Wood, wrote that “Old England is dying.” Today, Ashdown is a stop on the high-speed Channel Tunnel Rail Link. As the nature writers say, the English are up a creek without a paddle.

 

Green also has a put-down for one of Macfarlane’s more fanciful sorties:

 

“It is kind of Macfarlane to write that loanwords from “Chinese, Urdu, Korean, Portuguese, and Yiddish are right now being used to describe the landscapes of Britain and Ireland.” But I don’t believe him. I wonder whether he really believes it, either.”

Perhaps there is too much reverence in MacFarlane’s account of his great predecessors. Perhaps, too, the concern with Englishness and Britishness that pervades these works, the placing of nature writing within the various traditions that MacFarlane identifies, is somewhat alienating.
For something is missing from both Dominic Green’s picture and the New Nature Writing. As I previously wrote in a comment on the Dabbler blog:

While I enjoyed Green’s essay (and particularly his observations that so much of contemporary “nature writing” is actually writing about nature writing, I do find that there is something missing in this oft-held view that nature and wildness are things we only learnt to recognise, let alone appreciate in late modernity, and in Green (and others) relentless harping on the class and power elements of nature writing (I’m not denying that they are there) to the exclusion of something more mysterious, more elemental. There is so much said and written about “the Other”, when one of the greatest Others of human existence is the Other of the natural world, and particular the conciousness of the other living things around us. Finding this mysterious and worthy of exploration is not necessarily the same thing as blindly celebrating it in some human-hating way.

The context of this comment is Brit’s Dabbler diary in which he comments:

 

Everyone should have one saintly nemesis. Christopher Hitchens had Mother Theresa, I’ve got Sir David Attenborough. The Hunt (Sunday, 9pm BBC One): what a load of rubbish. One Star. Its a Time-Wasting Place etc.

Well of course the camerawork is amazing, yada yada yada. But I can’t get with Attenborough’s bassackwards, borderline evil view of existence. St David, remember, is patron of an organisation dedicated to reducing the numbers of humans on the planet and who has described our species as ‘a plague on earth’. Other historical figures have been criticised for that kind of attitude.

His documentaries are polite works of fiction, ascribing dubious anthropological virtues to nature (beauty, harmony, purity) while ignoring the obvious overriding one: meaningless cruelty. His editors tease us with several fruitless chases, and then when the arctic fox finally gets the bunny, we pull away from the beautiful, pure, harmonious shots of munched guts and get a bit of David apologetically explaining that the wee arctic fox cubs would otherwise starve in the long winter.

Beautiful? Harmonious? Circle of effing life? Doesn’t Attenborough even watch his own programmes? Nature, as I have argued before, is irredeemably horrible and man is the only creature worth a damn. Nature can go to… No, hang on, I’ve got it… of course!

Nature is Hell.

Brit is referring to Attenborough’s links to Population Matters as discussed in another Dabbler piece:

The ultimate failure of Malthus and Ehrlich is a lack of faith in humans. Of course we’re capable of horror but if you want to find kindness anywhere on the planet you’ll need to turn to your own species. And your natural wonders are all very well but don’t forget the Sistine Chapel, the works of Shakespeare and Beethoven, St Paul’s Cathedral (when you can get the anti-capitalists out of the way of it), rock ‘n’ roll and The Dabbler. And Frozen Planet, a fine piece of human romanticism. Glaciers do have great beauty, especially in artificial, computer-enhanced high definition, but only people can see it. Don’t wish us away too soon, David.

This essay by Mark Cocker in the New Statesman perhaps captures why I am resistant to both Macfarlane and Helen McDonald’s H for Hawk. There’s a tameness, a sense of not just nature writing but nature itself being a branch of literature.

On top of this, there is a thread of concern with Britishness and more specifically Englishness running through this literature. I am generally suspicious of attempts to overly identify Irish conditions as unique and separate from those elsewhere. Our media and cultural life tends to a certain literal insularity, which is understandable and I suppose literally trueI don’t believe in Irish exceptionalism, and clearly the nations on these islands have a deeply interweaved natural  as well as cultural and political history. Just as Ireland’s industrial heritage is oft-ignored for post colonial reasons (already the 1916 centenary seems to be taking an awful lot of the historical oxygen out of the room) , our natural history heritage is somewhat ignored in a wider cultural context. I posted here about Knockroe Passage Tomb which I am confident would be widely celebrated in the UK; here it is simply down a muddy lane, without benefit of signpost. I am not necessarily condemning this, and indeed there is something positive about how one often sees megaliths and towerhouses and other structures as part of working fields, or cheek by jowl with farm buildings, rather than being hived off as “heritage.”

.

One of the most formidable challenges to any writer (or any artist) is writing about nature in a way that balances the inevitable, inescapable human subjectivity of the experience with the raw, alien otherness of other species. I am impressed with the authors Macfarlane cites, especially Baker, and their keen, intense attempts to bridge this gap.

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4 thoughts on “Robert MacFarlane’s “Landmarks” and the literature of nature

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