Tag Archive: nature writing

Why Own A Wood?

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Hazel canopy filtering sunlight. Photo by Iain Robinson

We’ve owned our patch of woodland now for six months, so I thought it was time I wrote something about it. When we tell people that we’ve bought a wood their reactions generally fall into two camps. The first are those who ‘get it’. They are genuinely interested by the idea and ask lots of questions. They want to visit the wood.  They offer to help us with it. The second camp are bewildered by such a notion (one actually laughed in my face). What, they ask, would you want to do that for? This camp want to know if it can be built upon. We tell them, no. Some seem genuinely affronted by the idea, as if putting money into anything other than bricks and mortar, into extensions, new kitchens, patios and decking, were in some way radically subversive. Well, perhaps it is.

Our decision was not a financial one. It was not based on the likely increase in value. Yes, we hope to find ways of using woodland produce. In theory we needn’t ever buy firewood again. It is true that we have always liked to forage. We have already found numerous ways to cook nettles. In the autumn we will experience a chestnut and hazelnut bounty, and will hopefully find edible mushrooms. Sloe gin will be made in winter. In good weather we can camp in the wood, have a camp fire. These are some of the benefits of ownership. We are not naive enough though to think that this offers some odd, woodland root to self-sufficiency.

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Following the deer track to the field edge. Photo by Iain Robinson

Why then? Why own a wood? The first thing to say is that this wasn’t a rational decision. Falling in love is not a decision of mind over heart. You do not consider the financial benefits and likely net profit of being in love. We saw some woodland advertised. Went to have a look, and that was that. As we entered what was to become our wood for that first time we were struck by the way everything beyond the wood seemed to fall away. Seen for the outside, from the road for instance, woods are dark impenetrable places. They flash past our side windows. We do not stop to enter them. They do not seem to belong to the open organised world of humans but speak of something darker, an unexplored territory, a zone we don’t wish to enter. Once you cross the threshold into that zone the perspective alters. Movement changes. You are forced to move with the wood, treading its ground and negotiating its understory with care. Light filters in. You begin to see in the woodland light, from the woodland’s perspective. The outside world, also filters in, where field edge meets woodland, or when an aeroplane passes overhead, but suddenly the wood is not longer a dark territory but is the centre of itself, the outside world with its houses and cars and innumerable hectares of roads becomes peripheral, insubstantial even.

By entering the wood  we also began to question what we meant by a wild place. The wildness in most (if not all) English woodland is a tamed and managed one. Everywhere there are signs of centuries of this management; the old and overgrown coppice stools, the carefully maintained rides, the younger stands of trees in tidy rows. Shotgun shells littered the woodland floor, a sign that it had once been used for game keeping. And yet it is semi-natural, semi-wild, and on that first visit we noticed deer tracks and realised that the paths we followed belonged to badgers.

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The fairy tree. Photo by Iain Robinson

We had a picnic on the first visit, on the fallen trunk of a tree next to the field edge. Our young daughters found a very old oak which had previously been coppiced and then allowed to grow thick and gnarly. They built a fairy house in its hollows with flints, leaves, and twigs. They hugged the trunk of what I took to be an old beech. I was struck by how illiterate I was in the language of the wood. I struggled to name the trees and the other woodland plants. I had grown up in a village of hazel hedges and had spent much of my childhood playing in woods, and yet somehow that language of the natural world had been buried by three decades of study, work, and urban/suburban comfort.  I felt this dormant knowledge begin to stir. When we left the wood we thought an hour or so had passed, but a check of our watches showed us that three and a half hours had passed. Another thing to learn; we were, in the wood, on woodland time, as if the slow growth of the trees  had seeped into our senses and lodged there.

It’s easy to get caught up in the romance. There are, however, a great many doses of realism to contend with. The wood needs to be cared for, nurtured, and as brutal as it may seem, that involves cutting down trees. Thinning out the younger trees or introducing a coppice system will be important for ensuring the health and biodiversity of the wood. I have realised, with trepidation, that I will have to learn to use a chainsaw. A plan for the care of the wood needs to be made, and six months in we are only just getting a sense of what that might look like. The presence of deer means deer damage, and ticks! It has also taken six months to become aware of what is growing on our three and bit acre patch and of the diseases to watch for, and there are still vast gaps in our knowledge. Woodland ownership can be hard graft, but that is a pleasure in itself. A pleasure of coming to know a few acres on intimate terms, to observe that ground closely as it changes with the seasons. Through working in the wood you come to know it, become a part of it, and you quickly realise that despite the papers and transactions, a good small woodland owner must realise that at some level the wood really belongs to itself. To realise this is to realise the role of conservation. Perhaps there is something radically subversive in buying land not to build upon or for the sake of financial profit but in order to enjoy, nurture, improve and conserve what is already there, an idea that is antithetical to a society obsessed with the rise up the housing ladder and the growth and accumulation of capital assets.

On Richard Jefferies’ Wild Life In A Southern County (Little Toller)

Wansdyke by Nick (Flickr Creative Commons licence)

Wansdyke by Nick (Flickr Creative Commons licence)

For the past two weeks I’ve been reading, or rather struggling through, Richard Jefferies’ Wild Life in a Southern County. This classic of nature writing was something I had been looking forward to reading, not least because the place it describes is not dissimilar to the chalk uplands close to my own childhood home. So why am I struggling so much with this book? Is it a problem with the writing or with me as a reader? I’m still trying to figure this out. Jeffries’ writing style can be intense. It is a bit like constantly looking at the world through magnifying glasses and binoculars. Detail piles on detail, and it seems as if nothing escapes his exacting gaze. Wild Life in a Southern County begins in the chalk downs and then follows the course of a stream through field and hedgerow, into a village, past a farmhouse, to an orchard, water meadows and an ash copse. The world evoked is one Jefferies knew well, that of a rural farming life that had barely changed in its traditions for centuries, but that was, in the 1870s, beginning feel the effects of an economy transformed by industrialisation. Jeffries takes care, not only to describe nature, but also people and the communities, charting their habits and behaviours much as he would do those of a rook or a starling. In this regard this book also reads somewhat like an early work of ethnography, describing the role of the tinker, the cobbler, and the millwright in village life. All well and good, perhaps?

There is much that beguiles. The description of a hawk’s flight in the opening chapter ‘Downs’, ‘partly on one side, like a skater sliding on the outer edge’,  or that of the starlings’ evening mummerations —‘a black streak shoots upwards, spreads like smoke, parts in two, and wheels round back into the firs again.’ There is a precision here that stems from long acquaintance with this environment. If this book forwards any thesis, it is that the natural world does not act out of a mere infallible instinct, but that it is instead intelligent in its experiments. It is a theme Jefferies returns to on a number of occasions, describing the manner with which a line of ants, when encountering a barrier that disrupts their journey, will scout about until they find a way to bypass the obstacle, or the way sand martins pecked and dug at the mortar of an old wall, before abandoning the site. Of the latter Jefferies concludes  that ‘the incident was clearly an experiment, and when they found it unsuccessful they desisted’.

One of the recent criticisms cast at nature writing in the wake of the recent contemporary upsurge of the genre is that landscape resists and transcends language, so that nature writing is thus a somewhat anthropomorphising enterprise. I feel that this sort of criticism rather misses the point that Jefferies seems instinctively to understand, that man, and his language, are not alien to the landscape but are as much a part of nature as a blackbird and its song. ‘The song that the lark or finch must sing’ is for Jefferies an indication how ‘the sense of living —the consciousness of seeing and feeling— is manifestly intense in them all’ and so to for the shepherd lad playing ‘from his heart and to himself’ on his wooden whistle so that ‘his simple notes harmonise with the open plain, the looming hills, the ruddy sunset’. There is, of course, a romanticisation going on here, but one that favours man as part of, rather than opposed to, the natural world. Jefferies only seems to describe the natural world in relation to the working man, the labourer, and the fieldworker, whereas the gentleman farmers and rural elite are curiously absent from most of his observations. It would perhaps be unfair to accuse Jefferies of being the rural Mayhew, but there is a sense that the ‘backwoods of primitive England’ which he describes are an abstraction from the political reality of rural life during the long depression of the nineteenth century.

So why is it that I fail to fully engage with Jefferies? I think it is partly because Jefferies the individual rarely comes into focus in his writing. I found myself wanting to know a little more about his purpose, his background, some autobiographical revelations that would place his observations into a context. There is hardly anything of this, beyond occasional references to hunting the very animals he describes, which doesn’t exactly endear him to a twenty-first century reader. Perhaps we are now used to encountering books which seamlessly blur the generic boundaries of autobiography and nature writing in a manner that would have seemed alien to Jefferies. And so I find myself reluctantly admitting my own failure as a reader who has become spoiled by the gains made through literary experimentation.

Ways of Seeing: Some thoughts on Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks

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Photo by Jon Nelson, Flickr (creative commons licence)

 

Robert MacFarlane’s fifth book, Landmarks, is a celebration of language and landscape, and the various ways in which nature writers have responded to particular topographies and natural phenomena. For some time now I have become increasingly interested in ‘place’, both rural and urban, and how it relates to ‘memory’, and in how the words we use for different places might be considered cultural-linguistic memories. Macfarlane shares similar concerns, demonstrating how certain place words function as ‘topograms — tiny poems that conjure scenes’ (6) or how others ‘are eldritch, acknowledging a sense or our landscapes not as settled but as unsettling’ (7) and in his accounts of his travels he is alert to how place can evoke a sense of the uncanny, in ‘convergences that pressed at the limits of coincidence and tended to the eerie’ (13). The attuned linguistic responses to landscape of the various authors discussed by Macfarlane are grounded in, if not the uncanny, then in similarly difficult to account for experiences.

Macfarlane argues that the progress and acceleration of modernity has resulted in a word-loss every bit as dramatic as species loss. His view is that we are losing the language needed to articulate our relationship with nature, and that the various nouns that have gathered over the centuries in regional dialects, their roots often buried deep in precursor languages, to describe specific aspects of the landscape and our place within it, are being forgotten, collectively culled from our linguistic memory.

 

Language deficit leads to attention deficit. As we further deplete our ability to name, describe and figure particular aspects of our places, our competence for understanding and imagining possible relationships with non-human nature is correspondingly depleted. (p.24)

 

Macfarlane’s fairly bleak suggestion that rationalism has resulted in a disenchantment with landscape and the natural world, his claim that ‘in modernity, mastery usurps mystery’ (p.25), is counter-balanced by the hope he sees in language, which he argues ‘is fundamental to the possibility of re-wonderment’ (25), and in those who have toiled through literary endeavour to express their relationship with nature and landscape.

Macfarlane seems most interested in writers whose lives are non-conformist and whose works are generically transgressive, outsiders who push at the borders of linguistic and stylistic possibility in order to articulate a particular vision or relationship with a landscape. Each chapter focuses on a particular topography and on an author that has influenced Macfarlane’s understanding of that landscape. There is a concern here for the differing ways in which we perceive landscape, with vision in both a literal and metaphysical sense. It is a motif that turns up in Macfarlane’s account of the ‘accidental magic’ brought on by ‘mountain illusions’ (68), and that recurs in his description of J.A. Baker’s evocation of the perspective of a peregrine falcon, and once again in Macfarlane’s argument that the childish imagination perceives multiple landscapes, magical and metaphorical, contiguous with the rational adult world. In the beginning of his chapter, ‘Hunting Life’, Macfarlane gives a demonstration of how J.A. Baker developed his abstract, modernist prose style, by imitating it and then working backwards towards a more straightforward description of the images and events being depicted. By doing so, Macfarlane shows us how we can learn to see nature in new ways through contact with the unique visions that are bound up in such literature and language.

The chapters are interspersed with glossaries of lost or endangered landscape words, a word-hoard of the type discussed in his opening chapters. It was puzzling to know how to approach these word lists. I found myself skipping back and forth, looking first for words I recognised, and then for words which came from East Anglia, my home region, or the West Country, where I grew up. It reminded me, strangely, of a book I was obsessed with in my early teens by A.D. Mills called Dorset Place-Names. This gem of a book, which I picked up in the “local interest” section of a long lost independent bookseller on Shaftesbury High Street, listed alphabetically the names of every town, village, river, monument, and significant feature on the 1:50000 ordnance survey map of Dorset, along with their origins and meanings. Like this book, MacFarlane’s glossary reminds us that the place names around us are loaded with meanings we have forgotten, such as the word winterbourne, an ‘intermittent or ephemeral stream, dry in the summer and running in winter, usually found in chalk and limestone regions’ (123), which I recognised from a number of villages prefixed with the word in the chalk downs close to my childhood home. The glossaries remind us of the vast repository of language, a recorded memory of nouns, available to us to describe the precise phenomena of the natural world should we chose to re-engage with it.

Macfarlane’s call is for us to develop a more attentive relationship with the natural world, offering up the likes of Richard Jeffries’s meticulous observations of suburban nature and John Muir’s wild abandonment to the trees of the Sierra Nevada as inspirational examples of the sorts of the connections we can form with landscapes. As my reading of Landmarks progressed I found myself paying more attention to the birds visiting my suburban garden and to the wildflowers that have propagated in the gravel on my drive. The long neglected Observer Books of my childhood, relics of a time when children were expected to look outwards to the natural world, to be in rather than on the world, have been dusted off, along with my father’s lightweight field glasses. Macfarlane has written an oddly personal, affecting, transformative book, in sparkling and eloquent prose. This is literary criticism, nature writing, and memoir all rolled into one. It is both scholarly and conversational, and like the many books and individuals discussed in its chapters, it refuses to conform.