The Labyrinth of Mr Price

The prospect of having a labyrinth in ones garden seems alluring, albeit, done properly, highly expensive. I have found an appropriately cheap and easy way of labyrinth building – using small €1.49 sections of fencing from Mr Price
These are flexible (ish), easy to insert into the soil, and allow for much experimentation. The results are not quite this from Castletownroche:

Or this from Glencomeragh

Or this from The Rock of Cashel

Well, actually, it looks a little better than the Rock of Cashel one.

It can’t hold a candle to the many many fine or fascinating or historic or mysterious or all of the above labyrinths easily found via a quick google, at sites such as Blog My Maze

But it is cheap, effective and mine.
All thanks to Mr Price.

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Adam deVille on the romanticisation of monasticism

Adam deVille on the romanticisation of monasticism

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From a lengthy review of Rod Dreher’s new book “The Benedict Option.” I used to occasionally read Dreher’s blog, and tried his “The Little Way of Ruthie Leming”, but drifted away for reasons I probably could not articulate nearly as well as deVille. In particular the sweeping, dogmatic, pseudo-eagles-eye-of-the-history-of-Christianity is offputting. I found “The Little Way” a strange book, a exercise in trying too hard at transcendence. More positive takes on “The Benedict Option” are out there. For me, it is one of those books that if I had world enough and time I would read but to be honest an awful lot of books (by Alasdair McIntyre, for one, and other authors Adam de Ville cites) stand ahead of it.

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Dreher is not content to stand still and see the salvation of God. His busybody guruism seeking to safeguard “orthodox Christianity” is, as MacIntyre suggested decades ago, a typical reaction of the leisure class that often has the greatest tendency to fixate (as Kate Daloz has recently shown in fascinating detail) on simplicity, intentional community, and various forms of voluntary self-denial–whether in monasteries or pseudo-monastic communities. It is the leisure class especially among converts to Orthodoxy (in what Amy Slagle has aptly called the The Eastern Church in the Spiritual Marketplace: American Conversions to Orthodox Christianity) who most often seem to fetishize monasteries, who have the time and money to obsess over “monasticism” and “tradition” in psychologically suspect ways, running after their “spiritual fathers” for permission to pee or clip their toenails on Fridays in Lent.

Dreher, of course, is not made of such stern fanaticism, and, curiously but revealingly, his gaze falls primarily upon Catholic and Protestant communities in preference to, e.g., Mt. Athos (which is to his credit given some of the hysterical nonsense that sometimes issues from the so-called holy mountain). Nevertheless, one must challenge this desire to play at being a monk or a quasi-monastic, and one must regard any and all calls for “new forms of community” with a great deal of skepticism until and unless they engage in–as MacIntyre says–“rethinking even further some well-established notions of freedom of expression and of toleration. But about how to do this constructively in defence of the rational politics of local community no one has yet known what to say. Nor do I.”

Absent such serious rational thought, and attendant safeguards, one can only be cautious and reluctant to pursue such a life, much as would-be monks rightly were before their tonsure. I am told by a liturgist of impeccable scholarship that some recensions of the Byzantine rite of monastic tonsure saw the hegumen or abbot toss the scissors away three times when presented with them by the would-be monk, who would then have to scramble across the floor to retrieve them repeatedly, each time being reminded of the seriousness of the state of life he was about to enter and the real risks he would run thereby.

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Because of those risks, it is imperative, then, that one must repeatedly and ruthlessly interrogate any romanticism about monastic or community life in any form, for they are fraught with conflicts and problems, not the least of which is a tendency toward escapism and subtle forms of self-promotion–and not-so-subtle forms of control and manipulation or outright sexual abuse. Returning once again to Dreher’s fellow Orthodox Alexander Schmemann (the relative neglect of serious engagement with Orthodox sources in this book must be read as a marketing strategy to appeal to the vastly more numerous Catholics and Protestants in this country), we see that Schmemann has already offered us severe warnings about these temptations in a bracing and acid passage from January 1981:

More and more often it seems to me that revising the monasticism that everybody so ecstatically talks about–or at least trying to revive it–can be done only by liquidating first of all the monastic institution itself, i.e. the whole vaudeville of klobuks, cowls, stylization, etc. If I were a staretz–an elder–I would tell a candidate for monasticism roughly the following:

–get a job, if possible the simplest one, without creativity (for example as a cashier in a bank);

–while working, pray and seek inner peace; do not get angry; do not think of yourself (rights, fairness, etc.). Accept everyone (coworkers, clients) as someone sent to you; pray for them;

–after paying for a modest apartment and groceries, give your money to the poor; to individuals rather than foundations;

–always go to the same church and there try to be a real helper, not by lecturing about spiritual life or icons, not by teaching but with a “dust rag” (cf. St Seraphim of Sarov)….

–do not thrust yourself and your service on anyone; do not be sad that your talents are not being used; be helpful; serve where needed and not where you think you are needed;

–read and learn as much as you can; do not read only monastic literature, but broadly…;

–be always simple, light, joyous. Do not teach. Avoid like the plague any “spiritual” conversations and any religious or churchly idle talk. 

wp-image-1166588415jpg.jpgReal monastics, whether Benedictine or otherwise, know that the course of wisdom is to be found not in talking “church talk” or promoting “options” but in listening and serving everyone without drawing attention to oneself. Real monastics who have done that include another of Dreher’s fellow Orthodox nowhere in evidence in his book: Mother Maria Skobtsova, who made wartime Paris her “monastery” without walls, serving the suffering she encountered there, including the Jews service to whom and protection of whom cost Maria her life in the gas chamber of Ravensbrück. She would later be canonized by the Orthodox church not just for this sacrifice of her life but also for her monastic service in and for the city of Paris–not atop some mountain somewhere or in an inaccessible cloister.
The description of Dreher’s approach reminds me of Aedh, the Culdee in “Sun Dancing: A Medieval Vision – Seven Centuries on Skellig Michael” by Geoffrey Moorhouse whose need to spiritually outdo the other monks (on what was already surely the most extreme monastic site going) led to a literal and metaphorical downfall.
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It is easy, too, to romanticise monasticism, and indeed I have posted fragments here that, in isolation, could be accused of such romanticisation. The risk of a form of spiritual pride and arrogance is apparent, and Adam deVille’s piece is a corrective to this risk.

 

“Whether our work leads to victory becomes irrelevant to us” Jeffrey Bilbro on the happy loser

I am not (yet) familiar with the work of Wendell Berry, though I think I am going to make it my business to be. Berry is the inspiration of this wonderful essay by Jeffery Bilbro . As Bilbro tweets:

This is one of those pieces that “read the whole thing” applies to, in spades. While Berry is obviously the inspiration for this piece, and quotes from him serve as the connective tissue of the argument, it is not really a piece “about” Berry:

Both sides claim that we cannot be happy or hopeful unless “we” are winning. And both sides tend to paint grim pictures of “American carnage” to show how much we are suffering and how badly we need to do something so that we can start winning.

But what if we turned our attention away from the latest indications of whether we’re winning or losing and instead focused on practicing good work where we are? It is in this vein that Wendell Berry speaks about the need to resist both optimism and pessimism. While these may seem like opposite postures, both stem from a fixation on metrics and quantities: I’m optimistic if I expect to win and pessimistic if I expect to lose. As Berry puts it, “Optimism and pessimism are based on the idea of how things are [going to] turn out.”

In one of those odd synchronous coincidences, I read Jean Giono’s “The Man Who Planted Trees” just last Friday, and here he pops up in this piece, in a quote from Berry.

Happiness is a great mental faculty. It happens. One of the best things I know about happiness is that some days I’m happy… I don’t have anything in particular to be happy about or happier than I was yesterday, but I’m happy. I read that the French novelist Jean Giono … said in 1954, 1954, “I’ve been happy for the last 30 or 40 years.” Well, you know what happened in the 30 or 40 years before 1954. I just love him for that… . That just turned me upside-down when I read that. Well, what a great thing that is. Suppose you’re supremely happy for just five minutes, that just destroys everybody who’s trying to sell you something to make you happy. How subversive. Let me tell you young people, it’s possible sometimes to go for a whole day and be happy and not buy a thing.

This article is not a call to quietist arms, so to speak:

Subversive happiness is not quietist or passive. Berry has himself participated in sit-ins and protests and has penned his share of manifestos, but he doesn’t rest his hopes on these tactics. Indeed, happiness provides a very different motivation for our work than does optimism or pessimism. Happiness leads us to do good work because it is good; because it brings joy; because it deserves our attention and energy.

Whether our work leads to victory becomes irrelevant to us.

This reminds me of the famous accounts of medieval craftsmen labouring over statuary which would stand hundreds of feet above them, and devoting as much attention to the backs of these statues as the faces. What Bilbro conveys to me – and which, I presume, is a main theme of Berry (though I better read him to be able to pontificate more!) is the sheer subversion – in the true, proper sense – of this stance on life. Reminds me too of a passage from “The Monks of Tibhirine: Faith, Love and Terror in Algeria”  by John W Kiser:

I also began to better understand why my exposure to the Trappist culture had a certain resonance for me. Simplicity is one reason. Doing less, not more, and doing those fewer things more intensely, are values in perpetual struggle in a world that is always offering more – more activities, more choices, more means of communication, things that distract and require decisions. Trappists have stripped their lives down to a simple triad of prayer, study and manual labour. They have made only one decision: to love and praise God in the  Trappist way

This monastic mission is a deeply subversive one. And it also reminded me of another recent read, Geoffrey Moorhouse’s , “Sun Dancing” about life on Skellig Michael, especially the story of the Culdee Aedh, whose extremism in the name of asceticism – which has disastrous results – is surely a manifestation of “winning” as a summum bonum  There are many many other examples – and perhaps this is an eternal human temptation rather than a specific feature of modernity – but it is one which the world of Likes and Retweets and Going Viral intensifies greatly.

More thoughts on forest bathing

I have posted before on “forest bathing”; the first post being perhaps a little over-critical of the potential for over-therapeutising what is essentially an attentive walk in the woods, the the second more celebratory.

Since then I have spent more time in the woods, both alone and with family. I suppose my initial resistance to the “forest bathing” concept was grounded in a fear that, as can often happen, an activity worthwhile for its own sake becomes taken over by purported health benefits.

Yet being aware of the concept of forest bathing – and the concomitant sense that This Is Good For You – hasn’t dimmed my enjoyment. Now I see forest bathing as less a “therapy” than a call to engagement in the world, and in the world of nature in particular. It is easy to be cynical about the whole concept of “nature” and “the natural” and every landscape in these islands (aside from some mountaintops and islands) has been profoundly, often decisively, shaped by humans. And yet, we tend to recognise “nature” easily. For me, increasingly nature is not the absence of human influence, but an arena whereby we are faced with the passage of the day, the seasons, the changing elements, without the filters and screenings of urbanity.

Photos from Lough Mohra Looped Walk route, Waterford

An eerie silence in the garden.

Early today I saw a rustle in the patch of grass in the middle of the garden, and a cat emerged, lethargically fleeing. Probably not coincidentally, there were far fewer birds in the garden today, at least at the times I was looking. I know there is always a lull in summer, but I had thought it was rather later (more “High Summer” which I think of as mid-July to mid-August, than midsummer, which I think of as now) but this seemed more than that. Presumably the increase in cover (by leaving areas strategically unmowed) as well as its various benefits, also provides more cover for my feline non-friends. And there is a strange air that Something Has Happened, that the birds are staying away… or perhaps it is the heavy weather. Or perhaps, some kind of projection?

There is is again, that fear of one’s own perceptions and intuitions when it comes to the natural world.

The Lonely Planet Guide to Experimental Travel. SAU Blog Sept 2005

I have always been irritated by the use of “tourist” and “touristy” as terms of abuse. Better the honest-to-goodness tourist than the self-righteous (and probably utterly deluded about “authenticity”) traveler, as I state below. Originally posted here, this is a book part of me was inclined to love and part of me was inclined to hate even before opening the cover. My inner curmudgeon and inner dreamer are perhaps never so clearly in conflict in anything else I have written.

 

My mixed feelings about surrealism (short version: a little goes a long way) are also evident. Overall, although the book itself is long gone from my personal library (loaned to someone and never sought back) I reckon that the prose style, from the excerpts I have preserved here, are what did it for me.

 

 

The Lonely Planet Guide to Experimental Travel
by Rachel Antony and Joel Henry
Pp 224. London: Lonely Planet, 2005
Paperback, £9.99

God bless the honest-to-goodness tourist! For there is something refreshing about simply going to Paris to see the Mona Lisa and the Eiffel Tower, or to New York to see the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State. There’s something repellent about the self-conscious “traveller”, boring one to death about their bus trip from Alice Springs, or even worse as a travelling companion – endlessly searching for an “authentic” place to eat, and rejecting all the perfectly attractive choices for failing to meet this criterion. Other people’s dreams, other people’s tales of intoxication and other people’s travel tales – the three greatest sources of boredom in the modern world.

Of course, there are genuine travellers who should not have their reputations besmirched by association with the poseurs and bores. There are travellers for whom respect for other cultures is not a mere cliché, and travel is not an ostentatious gesture of difference but a genuine imperative. Therefore I will refer to the “traveller” in inverted commas throughout, to distinguish this type from the worthier form of traveller. The “traveller” is the Pharisee of the modern religion of tourism.

Alex Garland’s The Beach became a staple part of the backpacking experience. A book that is essentially about the futility of the backpacking quest for the authentic, for the perfect escape – and what’s more, is about how this search destroys what it sets out to find – became part of the tool kit, so to speak. Backpacking has become a victim of its own success. The gap year in Australia has become such a cliché that I would recommend to young readers who wish to “find themselves” that they stay at home and go straight to college or work in the bank or something. Thailand, and gradually the rest of South East Asia, has become a standard summer holiday destination.

Like the artist or writer who prizes “originality” above all else, the “traveller” must work hard at avoiding the snare of tourism. Lonely Planet have become one of the more lasting (for The Beach‘s vogue seems to have gone) staples of the backpacker set. Indeed, someone I know pours scorn on the Lonely Planetification of the world, and in Australia it rapidly becomes irritating to see every gap year and year out person toting around the same fat Lonely Planetguide. Somewhat unfair to a perfectly adequate, although rather worthy, series of guidebooks.

Lonely Planet, cleverly enough, have co-opted one of the movements that inevitably have sprung up contrariwise to its Weltanschauung. In 1990, Joel Henry, who bears a certain resemblance to a milder looking version of his fellow countryman and veteran trasher of McDonaldses Jóse Bové, founded Latrouex (Laboratory of Experimental Travel) in Strasbourg. As Henry whimsically notes:

We happened to be on board a barge-cum-restaurant with the fateful name of the Why Not?, and were talking about the approaching summer holidays. We were joking about the role of the tourist we were soon going to have to adopt once again, willing victims of the tourism industry’s conveyor belt. Devotees of games that we were, we began to imagine amusing variations on the themes typically thrown up by tour operators. Somewhere between the fruit platter and the cheese, we began to sketch out what would become Latrouex’s founding experiment.Our initial experiment inverted the idea of the guided tour group by inviting whoever wished to come along on a visit to a foreign town, with the twist that each person would make their journey not as a group, but under their own steam. We chose Zurich, in Switzerland, a city that none of us had previously visited. As part of their mission, participants had to visit the city conscientiously, taking full advantage of whatever touristic, cultural and gastronomic treasures it had to offer..

Sounds exciting, non? However in case you’re thinking Latourex’s founding experiment sounds suspiciously like honest-to-goodness tourism:

They were also required to make a literary – or even artistic – contribution, consisting of a brief description of their travels written on the back of a postcard, bought from a souvenir stall.

Radical. Over time, the Latrourexians embarked on somewhat more interesting adventures – developing the various games featured inThe Lonely Planet Guide to Experimental Travel. They are perfectly aware that they are not really innovators – acknowledging their debt to the Surrealists, Situationists, Fluxus, and Oulipo, amongst other–ists and groups sounding like laxatives. The Oulipo author Harry Mathews, in his recent My Life in CIA, describes something very similar to the Latourex concept.

Now I’m usually a sucker for these kind of things. There’s something attractive about the Latourex concept, something of the Chesterton of The Club of Queer Trades and his other, sunny fictions touched more by buoyancy than nightmare. And who has not spent some time playing Exquisite Cadavers, the Surrealist game which involves writing a sentence or paragraph, folding the page to hide all but the final words, passing it to a companion who does the same and passing the paper on, thus ultimately creating a jolly little tale?

Surrealism is an oddly unproductive set of techniques. The initial rush of novelty and amusement at the odd combinations thrown up by Exquisite Cadavers fairly quickly gives way to boredom. The avant-garde, ironically, has barely changed throughout the last century. There is simultaneously something very dated and very timeless about experiments in automatic writing, group writing, and the rest. On the one hand, nothing is as dated as yesterday’s cutting-edge, as a quick look at any Sixties “experimental” movie will confirm.

On the other, surrealist techniques, based as they are on perpetual goading of convention, are extremely easy to apply in any subsequent era. Conceptual art has evolved very little from Marcel Duchamp’s urinal – a gesture that could be repeated today and seem just as “relevant”, “shocking” and, well, boring. Equally, poems using the “cut up technique” are as possible – and just as uninteresting – today.

This is all testament to the essential sterility of Surrealism in art and literature. The Lonely Planet Guide to Experimental Travel is testament to its strange ability to drain such a promisingly entertaining premise of any entertainment. The meat of the book consists of descriptions of forty “Experiments”. Each experiment is described on two pages, although most descriptions are really very brief and padded out with elaborate design. For instance:

BLIND MANS BLUFF TRAVELHYPOTHESIS: Explore and experience a new place without seeing it.

APPARATUS: A friend to guide you and a blindfolding mechanism of some kind.

METHOD: Spend 24 hours blindfolded in a new location.

The author’s describe this as “an extreme form of Experimental Travel and not recommended for amateurs”. Certainly not one for Baghdad, unless you want to save the hostage-takers a certain amount of bother. Another example:

BARMAN’S KNOCKHYPOTHESIS: Find the area’s best drinking spots (and drinks) by following the advice of a local expert.

APPARATUS: Dutch courage, a map and a friendly face may also be of use.

METHOD: Go to your favourite pub and order your favourite drink. Ask the barperson [sic] where their favourite pub is and what they drink there. Go there and order their recommended drink, and then repeat the exercise with whoever serves you, and so on.

Note: participants would be well advised not to attempt the experiment on an empty stomach, nor to repeat it ad nauseam.

We wouldn’t want things to get too experimental, would we? After the description of each experiment, there follows the more irritating segment, the “Laboratory Results”. The Lonely Planet empire managed to recruit various punters to play each game, and to contribute an essay on their result. Tom, who played Barman’s Knock in London, dolefully reported:

We were served by Jonny, possibly Spanish, who directed us (rather unimaginatively, we thought) to the Fine Line chain pub. In the Fine Line we dutifully ordered vodka and Red Bull, and tried to avoid watching the last-ever episode of Friends on the big screen.

Could any two sentences sum up the less attractive side of the “traveller, not tourist” mentality? Such are the risks of Experimental Tourism for a “traveller”; one might end up watching a popular sit-com in a popular chain pub! Greater love hath no man. Most of the “Laboratory Results” are in a similar vein, purring with self-satisfaction and managing to make the games sound less than thrilling.

So, how was it for me? The first one I tried was Literary Tourism:

Hypothesis: Travel around the world via a bookshelf.Apparatus: You will need a bookshelf containing books, plus a pen and paper to keep track of your journey.

Method: Choose a book from the bookshelf and commence reading. Continue reading until a foreign country is mentioned in the text. Then choose a second book that’s somehow related to the country and begin reading again. Repeat until you have either returned to your point of origin or have completed one circumnavigation of the globe.

I discovered that I own far too few books on China, in fact rather embarrassingly only Ian Buruma’s Bad Elements. Walking around Dublin lent itself to Alternating Travel:

HYPOTHESIS: Discover your own or a foreign town by following alternating travel directions.APPARATUS: The ability to tell your left from your right.

METHOD: Leave your home on foot. Take the first road on the right, then the next on the left, then the next on the right, then the next on the left, and so on. Carry on until something – a no-man’s land, a building or a stretch of water – blocks your path and you can go no further.

This did reveal a hidden Dublin – however it turned out to be the same dead-end of hidden Dublin each time. Exquisite Corpse Gadabout, the book’s travel version of Exquisite Cadavers, did throw up some interesting outings. In theory. Will my bunch of friends and I ever really go to the Dublin Port oil refinery for a picnic wearing evening dress and carrying umbrellas, or play Twister outside the American Embassy carrying flowers and wearing wellington boots?

There’s a money for old rope quality to this book. The “games” that are of any real interest can be summed up thus:

Lose yourself in a city – any city. Do something unexpected. Wander around randomly. Or use some kind of algorithm – like taking alternate left-right turns – to wander around.

Leave out the “Laboratory Results” and the whimsical design (reminiscent of McSweeney’s and The Baffler) and the most stimulating thing about the books – the games themselves – would take up a sub-2000 word feature in a newspaper.

Reading through a book which I bought impulsively, and with a certain amount of expectation (as I said, I’m a sucker for this kind of thing), was saddening. I began to realise what made this seem less like the glorious Chestertonian adventure and more like, well, the dogged approach of the “traveller”. A book which tells you how to have a glorious, whimsical adventure will fail by definition. If only Latourex had remained forever obscure, and resisted the temptation to expose itself in the Lonely Planet universe! Bound in hard covers with prim little essays by “Experimental Tourists” it seems a very pallid and pointless series of undertaking.

There is one game featured whose conception genuinely impressed me, and indeed made me wish that I had the most important prerequisite to take part.

ERO TOURISMHYPOTHESIS: Discover a city while looking for love.

APPARATUS: A partner (lover or friend) and a destination

METHOD: Arrange to take a holiday with your partner. Travel there separately by different means and don’t arrange a meeting time or place. Now look for each other.

Now isn’t that sweet. I guess you’d have to be pretty sure of your lover though…

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.”

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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.