August 13, 2012
Robert Macfarlane’s self-imposed task sounded simple: “Would it be possible to make a series of journeys in search of some of the wild places that remained in Britain and Ireland?” The end result became The Wild Places (2007), an accounting of fifteen such journeys, several made with writer Roger Deakin, who died in 2006. But as the journeys unfold, so do the questions that Macfarlane comes to ask himself.
Like the best of those who choose to write largely about the natural world, Macfarlane expands the genre beyond pure science, embracing history, literature, the visual arts, philosophy. The Wild Places is a blend of personal quest, reportage from the front lines, and deep reflection on the elusive definition and meaning of “nature” and “wild.” For Macfarlane, there is no doubt that nature can provide many redemptive moments and unequaled insights to the receptive spirit. At the very least, he thinks, people routinely draw happiness from their daily encounters with landscape. At a much deeper level, Macfarlane suspects that we need nature to give us perspective, to remind us of our role – exceedingly minor and transitory – in the larger story of the universe.
We are, as a species, finding it increasingly hard to imagine that we are part of something which is larger than our own capacity. We have come to accept a heresy of aloofness, a humanist belief in human difference, and we suppress wherever possible the checks and balances on us – the reminders that the world is greater than us or that we are contained within it. On almost every front, we have begun a turning away from a felt relationship with the natural world.
Traveling through the Lake District, Macfarlane reads Coleridge, who, in 1802-3, escaped depression by walking there relentlessly, experiencing the wildness of that countryside. “Wildness, in Coleridge’s account, is an energy which blows through one’s being, causing the self to shift into new patterns, opening up alternative perceptions of life.”
But Macfarlane is under no illusion about the real nature of Nature. Most of the places to which he journeys present him with forbidding conditions and relentless danger and it doesn’t take much to realize that nature is utterly disinterested in human existence.
The sea, the stone, the night and the weather all pursued their processes and kept their habits, as they had done for millennia, and would do for millennia to follow. The fall of moonlight on to water, the lateral motion of blown snow through air, these were of the place’s making only. This was a terrain that had been thrown up by fire and survived ice. There was nothing, save the wall of rocks I had made and the summit cairn, to suggest history. Nothing human….
There could have been nowhere that conformed more purely to the vision of wildness with which I had begun my journeys. I had been drawn here by a spatial logic, a desire to reach this coincident point of high altitude and high latitude. But now I could not wait to leave it…
All travellers to wild places will have felt some version of this, a brief blazing perception of the world’s disinterest. In small measures it exhilarates. But in full form it annihilates.
The question that keeps popping up during Macfarlane’s short journeys is this: What do we mean by wild? Do we mean remote and unforgiving or can the wild exist near at hand?
Lying there on the drifted sand, under the white stars, I thought about how the vision of wildness with which I had begun my journeys – inhuman, northern, remote – was starting to crumble from contact with the ground itself. No such chaste land exists in Britain or Ireland….The human and the wild cannot be partitioned.
Visiting the Burren, a desolate, rocky place in the north of County Clare, Ireland, Macfarlane and Deakin spent a day walking slowly over the area’s limestone, where they discover a small gryke, a minute crack in the limestone. As they lay on their stomachs and peer into it, they spy hundreds of different types of plants opportunistically growing in the sheltered, well-watered spot. So, maybe wildness comes in miniature sizes as well as on a national park scale. But the Burren also has a long human history and Macfarlane realizes that “five millennia of human activity in the Burren also means that buried in it are 5,000 years’ worth of the dead.” As W.G. Sebald wrote, “And so they are ever returning to us, the dead,”
I had passed through lands that were saturated with invisible people, with lives lived and lost, deaths happy and unhappy, and the spectral business of these wild places had become less and less ignorable. My idea of wildness as something inhuman, outside history, had come to seem nonsensical, even irresponsible.
Eventually, he realizes that Roger Deakins had it right.
“There is wildness everywhere,” Roger had written once, “if we only stop in our tracks and look around us.” To him, the present-day and the close-at-hand were as astonishing as the long-gone and the far-afield. He was an explorer of the undiscovered country of the nearby.
…I had started to refocus. I was becoming increasingly interested in this understanding of wildness not as something which was hived off from human life, but which existed unexpectedly around and within it: in cities, backyards, roadsides, hedges, field boundaries or spinnies….And it was there in the margins, interzones and rough cusps of the country: quarry rim, derelict factory and motorway verge.
By the end of The Wild Places, I was not surprised at the equanimity with which Macfarlane anticipates the eventual end of the world as we know it, as he contemplates the way in which the natural world quickly reclaims the places we have built, spoiled and abandoned – including poisoned places like Chernobyl.
I had spoken once to a climate-change scientist about the subject of abandonment. The study of her science had changed her perception of time, she said, and of the relevance of human beings within history. Though we are now among the dominant species, she said, our age will pass and our material legacy – unthinkable though it is now to imagine it vanished – will be absorbed by the land, becoming all but imperceptible.
Although Macfarlane never mentions Sebald (except to note The Rings of Saturn in his reading list), The Wild Places occasionally crosses over into Sebald territory, both literally and philosophically. Macfarlane visits Orford Ness (which plays a role in The Rings of Saturn) at which point he muses on Sir Thomas Browne’s concept of the quincunx, a curious natural pattern that Sebald also discusses. But in the end, Macfarlane and Sebald go their separate ways. The final page of The Rings of Saturn is marked by death, mourning, and the onset of blackness, while Macfarlane ends his book by climbing up into a tree and surveying the landscape that surrounds him.
Wildness was here, too, a short mile south of the town in which I lived. It was set about by roads and buildings, much of its was menaced, and some of it was dying. But at that moment the land seemed to ring with a wild light.
October 28, 2007
The rich bounty of historical, literary, geographic, scientific, and other motifs and allusions in W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn makes it a particularly fecund source for artists. My copy of Waterlog – Journeys Around an Exhibition has just arrived from London. This is the monograph that has emerged out of Waterlog, the recent British exhibition inspired by The Rings of Saturn. In the Foreword, co-curator Steven Bode writes:
What the ‘Waterlog’ artists share with Sebald is a unifying sensibility: elegiac, enquiring; understated, almost hesitant, for all its seriousness of purpose.
Waterlog is a nicely produced stand-alone monograph that seamlessly blends works from the exhibition with newly commissioned writings. It also reprises Backwaters: Norfolk Fields (for W.G. Sebald), a lengthy poem by George Szirtes first published in 1999, and British artist Tacita Dean’s photo and text piece from 2003 simply called W.G. Sebald.
In addition to a Foreword and an Afterword by, respectively, Steven Bode and Jeremy Millar the co-curators, the volume contains two essays: Brian Dillon’s Airlocked and Robert Macfarlane’s Afterglow, or Sebald the Walker.
Dillon’s short but suggestive essay Airlocked reflects on air and atmosphere as literary and artistic metaphors in Sebald’s writings and as a key element in much of the art in the Waterlog exhibition, drawing on a wide range of other writers and artists from John Donne to Pierre Huyghe. Air, he suggests, “is a kind of allegorical adhesive for Sebald,” whose constant use of weather as an outward manifestation of the “downcast vision” of his narrators made him “the ultimate exponent of the pathetic fallacy.”
It is as if [Sebald's] books were rather weather systems than agglomerations of words, such is their reliance on meteorological imagery.
Robert Macfarlane’s essay offers a glimpse into his own ongoing project of walking in Sebald’s footsteps, somewhat in the spirit of biographer Richard Holmes, who turned biography into a literal pursuit of the past that included retracing the wanderings of his subjects, including, most famously, the poet Shelly.
I am turning Sebald’s own methods back onto him; walking where he walked, seeing what emerges, what ‘phantom traces’ or afterglow Sebald himself left.
Sebald may have been a “traverser of ground,” Macfarlane writes, but in his mind Sebald does not seem to fit any of the current taxonomy of walking. Macfarlane recalls an entry from Kafka’s diary that seems more appropriate:
Walked in the streets for two hours, weightless, boneless, bodiless.
Macfarlane sees Sebald operating as a kind of biographer, suggesting that he ‘walked his subjects back into life,” using walks to find traces of the past. Ultimately, Macfarlane settles on the word nachglanz to represent the haunting, ephemeral nature of the traces Sebald sought and exalted in, using the word – which means afterglow – to suggest “a vision of absence”. (Curiously, Macfarlane credits Sebald with coining the neologism nachglanz, which can’t be true; a simple Google search turns up usages well before Sebald had written a word.)
What has Macfarlane learned so far by mimicking selected walks from Sebald’s four main books? First: that Sebald’s prose works are not literal accounts of his walks; he distorted places, events, and time continually. This we knew, but it will surely help the record to know more about where and how Sebald toyed with facts. Second: that “following Sebald, strange things occur.” The examples Macfarlane offers of this phenomena simply suggested to me that any hyper-alert person pursuing Sebald’s trail would undoubtedly encounter strange – even Sebaldian – images and occurrences.
Both authors hopscotch through broad swaths of Sebald’s work and much more in the course of a handful of pages, making both essays seem tentative, unfinished. Macfarlane, to be fair, is working on a book about Sebald and this is little more than a sneak preview. Still, Dillon and Macfarlane arrive at similar conclusions, both suggesting that walking, for Sebald, was not an earthbound activity but one that led him – and his prose – to feel weightless and bodiless. Macfarlane cites a passage from Austerlitz in which Austerlitz encounters a barrage of moths attracted to a light and realizes that he cannot see the moths themselves, “only the light flares they incite.”Like many other readers, I, too, feel that Sebald the writer constantly disappears behind the endless flares he incites.
In future posts of Skimming Waterlog, I’ll talk about the artists and the poets included in the book.
August 28, 2007
Yesterday I wrote about a report that the next book by British author Robert Macfarlane (The Wild Places) might be about “retracing the walking tours of the late WG Sebald.” Today, The Scotsman posted an article by David Robinson which suggests this idea isn’t cast in concrete just yet. Robinson reports that Macfarlane
thinks that his next book, which started out as being about the German experimental non-fiction writer WG Sebald, “might soon mutate into looking at lost places, drowned places. I was thinking intently about this even before the Tewkesbury floods – about places that give us an inkling of our possible environmental future. With sea levels rising and rainfall increasing, we’re having to fall back from places or see them inundated.”
In looking around, I found a description of the fellowship Macfarlane is apparently working on through Emmanuel College, Cambridge:
Dr Robert Macfarlane is Fellow in English at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and University Lecturer in English Literatures Since 1945. His research interests include the relationships between landscape, ecology and literature; wildness; the novel; originality and plagiarism; and contemporary writing. His published books are Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination (2003), Original Copy (2007), and The Wild Places (forthcoming 2007). While an Early Career Fellow at CRASSH, Dr Robert Macfarlane will be working on After Sebald, a book on the life and work of the German writer W.G. Sebald, who died in 2001.
(CRASSH, even though it sounds suspiciously like a novel by J.G. Ballard, stands for Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities.) And, according to booktrust.org.uk, Macfarlane’s book is scheduled to be published by Hamish Hamilton on September 1, 2008.
In 2005, Macfarlane reviewed Sebald’s Campo Santo for the Times Online. Here is Macfarlane’s summary statement about Sebald’s writing:
Sebald’s great theme was mourning, his great mode melancholy and his great proposition was that the past of a culture can work on an individual in the same way as personal trauma. It is for this reason that, in his books, the dead have far greater presence and power than the living. His narrators move through the empty but past-haunted streets of familiar towns in Britain and Europe, following the traces of previous atrocities and sufferings. This may make his books sound oppressive. They are, but in a manner that is exceptionally moving and provoking. His writing has a turbulent power to disturb the sediments of thought and of history.
I guess we’ll just have to wait and see if Macfarlane is really going to follow Sebald’s footsteps or veer off somewhere else in his next book. In the meantime, maybe we should all get a copy of The Wild Places and read away.
August 27, 2007
Tim Adams, writing for the Guardian Unlimited, recently did a profile of Robert Macfarlane, whose new book, The Wild Places, is about to be released in England September 3 by Granta Books. The Wild Places sounds very much like a book in the vein of W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, and indeed, as Hill reports, Macfarlane’s next book will be about Sebald.
For his next book Macfarlane is retracing the walking tours of the late WG Sebald, the melancholic German genius, who washed up not far from here in East Anglia. He frets a little – an unusual anxiety for a writer – that he is not depressed enough to catch Sebald’s mood. ‘I’m too young and cheery, that’s the trouble,’ he says, laughing.
There is quite a bit of new nature writing in Great Britain that is somewhat akin to Sebald’s writing and which doesn’t get much play in the U.S. In addition to Macfarlane, other names that I run across with increasing frequency include: Roger Deakin (who died last year), Mark Crocker, and Richard Mabey, none of whom I have read yet. (I think Deakin’s book Waterlogged: A Swimmer’s Journey through Britain provided the title for the exhibition Waterlog, which I wrote about earlier.)
‘Something very interesting is happening in East Anglia at the moment,’ Macfarlane suggests. ‘This resurgence in nature writing seems to be centred here somehow. And this summer is the sort of mast year for it.’ Mabey, a friend, has suggested to him the reason for this. ‘East Anglia was the most devastated region by agribusiness and it follows that the reaction should begin here.’