Sunday, 27 January 2008
Wilderness Literature Thoughts
Back in December a piece of mine about the wilderness writers who’ve inspired me called Visionaries of the Wild appeared in TGO magazine. I described seven writers in particular, six of them being ones to whom I return constantly and one a new writer who has impressed me. Of these seven, three are American (Henry David Thoreau, Aldo Leopold, Edward Abbey), two ex-pat Brits who moved to and wrote about the USA (John Muir from Scotland and Colin Fletcher from Wales), one Scottish (W.H.Murray) and one English (Robert Macfarlane). In the feature I said that I think Britain lacks a tradition of outdoor prose writing and that our outdoor writers tend to be either nature or adventure writers, few of whom present a vision of wildness. In the February issue of TGO Jim Perrin commented on this piece in his Contemplations column saying that he was “frequently brought up short by how overviews of what we generally term outdoor literature …. almost invariably ignore the riches of our own British version of that writing tradition and celebrate instead an American one”. Jim Perrin goes on to list British writers he thinks should be considered - George Borrow, Richard Jeffries, Edward Thomas, Seton Gordon, W.H. Murray, Robert Lloyd Praeger, Harry Griffin, Tom Weir, Bill Condry, Jim Crumley, Hamish Brown, Nan Shepherd and John Wyatt - and says “before we reach judgements on outdoor literature, we need to make sure we’re well-versed in all those writers and a whole host more”. Now I was not making judgements nor commenting on the whole range of outdoor literature but my views were based on having read all the writers Jim mentioned bar one (Jaeger, of whom I had never heard), plus many more (what about Gavin Maxwell, Showell Styles, John Hillaby?), and not finding them as inspiring on wilderness and landscape as the writers I mentioned (except for W.H.Murray, who I had included anyway). This is not to say that I don’t think these writers are good. Some are excellent. But none present a vision of wilderness and landscape in a big, over-arching sense in the way the writers that inspire me do. Most don’t even try to do this. Seton Gordon for example is a superb writer on Scottish nature, especially birds, and occasionally conjures up wonderful descriptions of Scottish wild land but there’s nothing in his works that I’ve read to compare with Muir or Abbey. Hamish Brown’s Hamish’s Mountain Walk is the best book about a long distance walk in Britain that I know but the author doesn’t have, or try to have, the expansive reach of Colin Fletcher in The Man Who Walked Through Time. Jim mentions the books that have an honoured place on his bookshelf – John Wyatt’s The Shining Levels, Thoreau’s Walden. Now Walden I have no quarrel with but much as I like The Shining Levels it’s not a book I return to often or would place on a level with the other Abbey or Fletcher or Muir (who Jim dislikes intensely).
At the end of his piece Jim touches on Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places, though he doesn’t mention it by name, saying that I praised it for its “comforting notion that we can always find wild places in the most surprising places”. Jim says he finds that argument a little complacent and asks if our children will be able to find such places given the pace of destruction of the wild going on. Here I think Jim has misunderstood what I and Robert Macfarlane are saying. The “comforting notion” is not about finding the wild in surprising places. It’s about the fact that the wild will return, that, to quote Macfarlane, “the ivy will snake back and unrig our flats and terraces”. The difference in views is a matter of scale. Jim is thinking on a short, human scale, the next year, decade, generation. Robert Macfarlane is thinking much longer, into the distant future, and in the knowledge that the damage we do now is only a tiny blip in the story of the planet. Not that that’s a reason for doing nothing, for accepting destruction. We live in Jim Perrin’s timescale. Protecting the wilds we have left is for our own sakes as well as our children’s. Jim finishes by saying that “the task of the outdoor writer isn’t just to celebrate wild land but to “protect it passionately, and make us aware of every threat”. I agree and that is something I have always tried to do since I began writing, perhaps not forcefully enough – but then it is all too easy to become preachy and off-putting, shouting loudly but not being heard. Of course writing in defence of wild land isn’t a new task for outdoor writers – it is a main thrust of the work of Aldo Leopold, Edward Abbey and, above all, John Muir, the most effective writer in defence of wild land ever.
The image shows my battered copy of Colin Fletcher’s The Man Who Walked Through Time. It has an honoured place on my book shelves.