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.

Friday 25 January 2008

Wild Camping Petition

Camping in wild country, amongst mountains, woods and moors, is one of the great experiences of outdoor life, an experience that brings you closer to nature, closer to the earth. I’ve camped wild on many thousands of nights in many countries, in all seasons and in all types of weather. Without those camps, even the stormy ones, the uncomfortable ones, the insect plagued ones, I would have missed much and my life would be the poorer. When I began camping wild as a teenager I didn’t give much thought to whether it was legal or not. I was aware that camping in a farmer’s crops might not be popular but I didn’t want to camp in places like that anyway. As I grew older I became aware that wild camping wasn’t a right but was accepted in some, mostly upland, areas but not in many others. I ignored the statements in outdoor books saying you must ask permission before camping as this clearly wasn’t practical and clearly wasn’t what the authors actually did. I learnt to be discreet and the advantages of early starts, late pitches and a green tent. By doing so I managed to avoid any trouble with landowners, even when I walked from Land’s End to John O’Groats and often camped in rather too developed lowland areas. Many others do the same. This isn’t an ideal situation though and hardly encourages people to try wild camping so I was very pleased when the Scottish parliament included a legal right to wild camping in the 2003 Land Reform Act. It hasn’t changed my wild camping habits in the slightest but it may well encourage others and it does mean that if anyone did object I now have the law on my side. In England and Wales wild camping still isn’t legal however, though there are areas like the high fells of the Lake District where it’s accepted.

Now wild camper Darren Christie, who blogs as whitespider1066, has started a petition to the UK government to legalise wild camping in England and Wales, for which he is to be congratulated. You can sign the petition here. How effective such petitions are I have no idea but I would think that the more people who sign the more likely a petition is to be noticed.

The picture shows legal wild camping in the Moidart hills in Scotland. Photo info: Canon EOS 300D, Tamron 11-18mm lens at 18mm, f5.6@1/100, ISO 400, raw file converted to JPEG in DxO Optics Pro.

Wednesday 16 January 2008

Beowulf, Dragons & the Wilderness

Last month I went to see Beowulf, a rather odd film with slightly cartoonish modified characters that seemed facially wooden compared with straight acting but also with some dramatic special effects and a wonderful dragon. The film is based on the Anglo-Saxon poem of the same name that dates from sometime in the last centuries of the first millennium. The poem is set in Sweden and Denmark in the sixth century and tells the story of the hero Beowulf and his battles with the monster Grendel and his mother (described in the poem as a “swamp-thing from hell” but played in the movie by Angeline Jolie as a seductress”) and finally the “old harrower of the dark”, the dragon. The poem is a powerful tale of heroic warriors and evil monsters, the original of all “sword and sorcery” stories. Beowulf wasn’t taken seriously as a literary poem until 1936 when J.R.R.Tolkien, then a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University, wrote an important academic work called Beowulf: The Monster and the Critics. The influence of the poem can be clearly seen in Tolkien’s own stories. In The Hobbit, as in Beowulf, a dragon is roused to violence when an intruder steals a gold-plated cup from its horde of treasure. In The Lord of the Rings there are even direct quotes from Beowulf in the descriptions of the land of Rohan and its people. The Golden Hall of the King of Rohan, Meduseld, sounds like the hall of Hrothgar in Beowulf, described as "radiant with gold". Meduseld is convincingly portrayed in Peter Jackson's film of The Lord of the Rings. Indeed, I think that Jackson's Rohan is more like the world of Beowulf than that portrayed in the Beowulf film.

Although Anglo-Saxon or Old English gave rise to modern English Beowulf can only be read in the original with difficulty. However there are several translations into modern English. Of the few I’ve read I like Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf, which is powerful and compelling. All the quotations in this blog come from this version.

Much of Beowulf takes place in the outdoors, in wild country that is threatening and strange with “dismal woods” and “windswept crags and treacherous keshes, where cold streams pour down the mountain and disappear under mist and moorland”. The poem contains one of the first known uses of the word “wildeor” which means “wild animal or deer” and from which the word “wilderness” derives. Beowulf itself probably means “bee wolf”, that is a creature that eats honey, a bear. In my book Crossing Arizona I link Beowulf to Winnie-the-Pooh (who lives in a wilderness – a wood on a hill) and Beowulf’s quests to long distance walking. For those who love the literature of wilderness as well as the wild itself Beowulf is the place to start.

The photo shows a carved dragon in Weem Woods in the Tay Valley in the Scottish Highlands. Photo info: Canon EOS 300D, Canon 18-55mm lens at 18mm, f3.5@1/60, ISO 200, flash, raw file converted to JPEG in Capture One Pro.

Thursday 10 January 2008

Yellowstone in TGO

The February issue of TGO magazine, out now, has a feature on my Yellowstone ski tour with Igloo Ed last winter – see blog posts for February and March 15 2007 – on which I lived in igloos built with the IceBox tool. This winter I am undertaking another ski tour in Yellowstone, again with Igloo Ed along with some others. I’ll report on how it went in a couple of months.

The photo shows Ed outside the igloo in Little Firehole Meadows during an evening snowstorm. Photo info: Ricoh GR-D, f2.4@1/30, flash on, ISO 400, raw file converted to JPEG and processed in DxO Optics Pro.

Tuesday 8 January 2008

Strathspey in the Snow: Welcome to the New Year

Yesterday I ventured out into the local fields and woods for the first walk of the year, a week later than normal due to a nasty cold or virus ailment that has been slow to shift. A fresh overnight snowfall covered the ground, shimmering in the low sun. To the south the Cairngorms rose, white and distant above a monochrome landscape of dark woods and pale fields. There was no wind and little sound, just the steady crunch of snow under my boots and the occasional crack of ice as I stood on a hidden frozen puddle. Tracks showed that wildlife had been active, seeking essential food in this cold hostile world. From an overgrown spruce and larch plantation straight lines of rabbit prints led through holes in the fence to scatter at low banks and clumps of rushes where the snow was thin and could be scraped away. Fox tracks worked a way through the maze of rabbit prints. I followed the fox for a while but could see no sign it had caught anything. Pheasant tracks wandered randomly around. These pen bred birds are not fully wild. How many will manage to survive the cold? By the edge of a birch wood roe deer prints dotted the ground, never coming far from the security of the trees. Little moved as I passed by, just the occasional pheasant scurrying along a fence line in search of an opening, a coal tit foraging in pine foliage, the dipping flight of a silhouetted wagtail and once a raven, its harsh call causing me to look up, flying south straight at the mountains. On the very tip of a tall, thin, ancient larch a buzzard perched, catching the rays of the sun, its upright shape looking like an extension of the tree. Out to the west a thick bank of cloud surged against the hills. The air was sharp with frost and pale with weak cloud-filtered sunlight. As the greyness of dusk slowly replaced the faint pink of the sunset I tramped back across the fields, thinking of the warmth of the fire and a hot drink. I had only wandered a few miles on this quiet, gentle walk but I felt I had made a first contact with nature for 2008 and it was enough.

The photo shows Strathspey at dusk on January 7. Photo info: Canon EOS 350D, Canon 18-55mm IS lens at 53 mm, f5.6@1/80, ISO 200, raw file converted to JPEG in Capture One Pro.