ON A HUMID June evening some weeks before the solstice, I embarked upon my journey. I’d packed carefully, making sure that my pen had plenty of ink and that my wine glass was full. Climbing gingerly into bed so as not to disturb my feline travelling companions, I made a nest out of sweet-smelling pillows and draped a light blanket over my chill-prone feet. Through the open window I detected siren wails, the tapocketa of idling taxis, and the susurration of sedans whizzing past on the busy thoroughfare. Children squealed, seagulls fought loudly over an abandoned pizza, and the beep-beep-beep of the traffic light crossing sounded at irregular intervals. I breathed deeply, inhaling the marine tang of Edinburgh just before it rains, picked up the first book, and plunged in.
Three books later, I find the repetitive tropes and cadences of the nature writer have adhered to me like sticky-back lichen. The fine art of nature writing is nothing new, nor is the notion of going for a walk to clear your head. Writers often speak of the terror inspired by a blank white page, and its paralytic effect on the ability to compose. But send the writer – or any artist – out and about, and they’re bound to come back refreshed and full of things to write about. There is a meditative quality to the act of putting one foot in front of the other. With the body otherwise occupied, the mind slips the tether of the everyday. It is almost impossible to worry about the mortgage when out yomping, more difficult still if following a path over rough, potentially dangerous terrain.
Whether or not one wishes to play fly on the wall to this experience is another thing entirely. Would total immersion in the great outdoors (by proxy) give this city mouse a hankering for wide open spaces and sleeping under the stars? If you’ve heard about Bjork’s new venture, Biophilia, you’ll know that the phrase was coined by Edward O Wilson to explain that humans are hard-wired to associate with other forms of life. This idea that we have no choice in the matter was echoed by self-styled ‘Earth scholar’ Thomas Berry, when he wrote: ‘The natural world demands a response that rises from the wild unconscious depths of the human soul.’
In each of the three books under review there is also a sense of pilgrimage and homage. These writers laced up their boots deliberately to walk in the footsteps of earlier authors – or family members – who’d either inhabited and been shaped by wild spaces, or who had sent their characters there. When inspiration came from an oral legend or a conversation, the importance of narrative, of teasing story out of the landscape, remained paramount. I read Linda Cracknell’s Doubling Back, Mike Cawthorne’s Wild Voices: Journeys Through Time in the Scottish Highlands, and Patrick Baker’s The Cairngorms: A Secret History. They’d read works by Thomas Hardy, Norman MacCaig, Alasdair Maclean, Syd Scroggie, and Jessie Kesson, among others.
All three writers argue that moving through the landscape is a means of attaching yourself to a story in order to understand it. For Cracknell, as well, it’s a way to tell another person’s story through her body. She is attuned to the idea that paths represent ancient connections between places – and between people – and finds the experience of following them emotionally grounding: ‘In the act of doubling back I discover what remains or is new and listen for memories, some of which have become buried. I also explore how the act of walking and the landscape we move through can shape who we are and how we understand the world.’ If these are big philosophical demands to make of nature, then it’s more than up to the task. There are a million stories in the Naked City, but the great outdoors is no slacker.
So the job of the nature writer is to capture the moment and deliver it back to those of us stuck at home – every rock and stream and every epiphany. And oh my goodness is there an accumulation of detail in each of these books. How do they do it? Walking is tricky enough, and even harder if you’re portaging a canoe or scrambling over a slick sheet of ice. It’s clearly impossible to take notes at every step and unlikely that they’re speaking incessantly into recording devices. Have they simply got prodigious memories? If you wonder why I ask, why I’m so wonder-struck, read these examples. Each is a snapshot of one moment among a multitude, and all illustrate the photographic quality of this writing:
From Wild Voices: ‘We were forced to pick our way rather, as the ground underfoot was all tussocky grass growing in odd clumps. . . . The closer rising moors where the bedrock came through had hollows and gullies, some snow-filled. Beyond these the hills showed more rock and were darker in tone, and clouds blocked out or rode just below the summits or crowns.’
From The Cairngorms: ‘As I rounded the river-bend I entered a small wooded canyon, deeply shaded in a soft green light. It was a landscape of completely unexpected proportions, feeling much deeper than it was wide and flanked on either side by sheer slopes of rock and scree-fall. Moss grew everywhere, carpeting the ground and furring tree trunks in a velvety pelt. Through the forest canopy I was able to see the upper rim of the canyon, a jagged outline of sawtooth crags and teetering boulders.’
From Doubling Back: ‘Farmland and its neat definitions gave way to the whip and wind-gutter of moor-grass as we climbed onto Wideopen Hill, our halfway point, our highest point. Deeper into the Cheviots, sunlight glanced into misted valleys, kissing them luminous green. . . . A dry stone dyke wormed, as integral as a spinal cord to each roll and curl of Crookenshaws Hill.’
To my ear they all, in varying degrees, run the danger of romantic overload that’s emphasised by a distinct shortage of humour. Rhythmically, it’s a case of: ‘I looked at X; I thought about Y.’ Everywhere it’s dark, secret clefts and quaking grassland and mist-covered plateaux. Luckily, in every instance this is balanced by enthusiastic curiosity and genuine excitement about uncovering the secret narratives that one can only discover by venturing forth.
There’s a self help book entitled Wherever You Go There You Are, which aptly describes the sense of self-discovery so important to these writers. Cracknell writes: ‘…setting out on a journey, leaving home, also gives me a sense of ‘coming home’. The dropping away of anxiety and everyday concerns results in a feeling of just being ‘me’.’ For Baker, the appeal lies in ‘…the need to escape, to reposition yourself somewhere wilder, more elemental than everyday life would permit.’ The power of place, he says, ‘[is] that it could simultaneously conceal and recast our stories. It gives us the chance. . . . to project an alternative narrative on our lives, to hide or re-imagine our sense of identity.’
Baker’s Cairngorms is the most straightforwardly informative of the trio, though also the driest and least literary. It’s crammed fuller than a stuffed backpack with facts, though what he lacks in poetry he makes up for with zeal, alerting us that no other area of Britain is so immensely high over such an immensely large area, that it contains five of the six highest peaks in Britain, and that there is always snow.
He also makes an interesting point about the region’s name. It was originally called Am Monadh Ruadh in Gaelic, meaning the red-mountain land, and referring to its granite. It is the name you give a place you’re looking at closely, intimately. The name given to a place you’re living in. But in English, Cairn Gorm means blue or green hill – their colour when seen from a distance. For Baker, this epitomises the demise of indigenous Gaelic culture and our departure from oral traditions.
Cracknell’s book is the most esoteric, and the riskiest. A sense of place has always informed her fiction. Her debut novel, Call of the Undertow, is the story of a cartographer living in a remote part of Scotland. (Ironically, the hand-sketched maps in Doubling Back are maddening.) Her ten journeys track authors’ routes, but they also retrace her own history and the story of her father, whom she barely knew because he died when she was still a baby. Cracknell has done this to anchor herself in the landscape and to remind herself how to live: ‘Perhaps reclaiming our own stories through a physical act can help ensure that life’s momentum doesn’t take us sleepwalking onwards, shedding memories carelessly along the way.’
Yet she is discreet to a frustrating degree. After an arduous 200 mile trek from Perthshire to Skye – which includes a visit to her former partner – she reflects that the process, ‘opened some burial chambers inside myself and the walk had given me time to dwell on their contents.’ Maybe so, but we don’t get many details. What is primarily described is the act of putting one foot in front of another, not the act of being Linda Cracknell.
Cawthorne occupies the middle ground. His facts are delivered more organically and less like a school lecture, while his flights of fancy never run away with the fairies. He admits the difficulty of transposing what you’re seeing onto the page. To a large extent he’s better at that task than at drawing conclusions. You’ll never set the heather alight by noticing: ‘Giving a physical feature a name confers on it some significance and value, acknowledging its role, however minor, in the unfurling of human history. . . . Sometimes we reduce a place, or one aspect or feature of it, by attaching a name.’
Still, it’s Cawthorne who makes the best summation of this impulse to explore. He understands man’s natural curiosity for seeing what’s around the next bend, even if that vision is only subtly different. Having convinced two friends to join him on an expedition, one asks where it is they’re going. Receiving no answer, he pushes, ‘A place in the middle of nowhere, perhaps?’
Cawthorne answers, ‘No, in the middle of here, the centre.’
At the heart of these writers’ work is the conviction that there’s something profound to glean from immersing yourself in wild surroundings. The trick is learning how to relax, and look, and feel small, losing yourself in something far, far bigger.
Can you really appreciate these books from the comfort of an armchair? I’m inclined to agree with Cawthorne when he says, ‘In order to understand a writer of the outdoors you need to get to the places they went, stalk their shadow and for a while follow their boot-steps. You must make some attempt to inhabit their world.’
Wild Voices: Journeys through time in the Scottish Highlands
Birlinn, £9.99, ISBN 9781780271927, 220PP
The Cairngorms A Secret History
Birlinn, £9.99, ISBN 9781780271880, 176PP
Freight Books, £14.99, ISBN 978190875547, 256PP