He chooses some of his favourite books of nature-writing.
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Macfarlane is a writer and Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. You have recommended five books for us about wild landscapes. What would you say are the characteristics of great landscape writing? Precision and particularity, combined with an appeal to the universal. The very best books are often those that look the most closely but think most broadly. Great landscape writing can blend the almost mythic and the astonishingly well observed. There are many versions of that question or preoccupation.
Some of the books I have chosen are about connection with nature, and some are about its terrifying disinterest. The wilderness can be a very welcoming and miraculous place, but it can also be fatal in its complete indifference to human presence. The wild — that extreme manifestation of nature — is both exhilarating and, sometimes, murderous. Yes it does. I have written three books which together form a loose trilogy about landscape and human thought. The first, Mountains of the Mind , was about why people might be willing to lose limbs or even life for their love of mountains — which are, after all, nothing but geological structures.
The second, The Wild Places , was about why we might powerfully need certain kinds of wild landscape — moors, valleys, peaks, islands, forests. The last and newest book is more about humanised places — for paths are made by walking.
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Some of the oldest paths in the British Isles are probably 5, years old and would have been among the earliest human landmarks. Oh yes, there are many sins that beset writing about nature.
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Much of the British landscape has been heavily written about, and that pre-used language shapes the way we think about it and look at it. Can you expand on that a little? Good landscape writing also takes time — it is chronic in method. Nan Shepherd spent many decades walking in and around the Cairngorms. I have spent a lot of time walking and sleeping out in the places that interest me.
Dawn, dusk and night tend to be periods when unexpected things occur and landscapes reveal themselves in surprising ways. Homo sapiens has shaped, influenced, polluted, and species-selected our planet. We are deep in the Anthropocene — the era of earth-history in which everything is shaped by human practice. Once you get away from the idea of the pristine or untouched wild, then all sorts of other things become interesting and available to you as expressions of nature and its intent, independence and vigour.
You start to look at how the natural and the human interact in fascinating ways — for example, peregrine falcons nesting in power stations and cathedrals. On Dartmoor, you have an incredible legacy of human marks and presence from the Neolithic period onwards. I find it vertiginously wonderful to peer over the edge of 5, years of life, out on that wild upland.
You have described Lopez as one of the most important writers about wilderness.
Please tell us about Arctic Dreams. This book changed my life and really made me become a writer, if any one book did. I remember finding a very battered secondhand copy of it in a bookshop in Vancouver while I was out climbing in the Rockies, in my early twenties. It was a bestseller in the s in America, and is still a legendary book for many people. It was part of a surge of extraordinary writing about landscape that occurred in America between the late s and early s. Lopez is as at ease in explaining the migration paths of narwhals or the spiritual history of early Celtic Christianity as he is with writing in the pristine moment.
I saw that non-fiction could be as creative and beautiful as any fiction. Lopez spent five years in the Canadian Arctic as a biologist.
How does he make a book about the tundra and miles of snow and ice engaging for the reader? Lopez keeps us reading largely through style. He changes focus a great deal. He moves around in time. Time will suddenly deepen — an arrowhead found on the tundra will lead him back into pre-history, and from pre-history we will race forwards to the instant of a caribou seen across open ground, or a whale surfacing, or a bird of prey stooping. I find that rapidity and variety of movement in time and across space exhilarating. He stands there for hours, while the tide comes in its full inch and then recedes.
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Only Lopez could make page-turning prose out of that incident. Are writers about the wild driven solely by their fascination with the natural world, or also by misanthropy? When Lopez is talking about narrow impetuosity of human schedules, he is talking about a hectic, Western, late-modern, capitalist time.
Unlike John Muir, one of the founding fathers of the American conservation movement, Lopez is alert to the people who have lived and continue to live in these landscapes. Your next choice is a novel set on the US-Mexico border in the midth century. Why have you taken us to the Wild West? For me, this is one of the three great novels of the last century, along with Lolita and Ulysses. I mean that both in the colloquial sense, that they behave ferally, but also that they are creatural, driven almost entirely by base instinct — avarice, lust, greed, revenge.
The reading experience is terrifying and astonishing.
The main action is the activities of a scalp hunting gang who are paid to kill Indians in the American south-west and in forays over the Mexican border. They are a truly unpleasant group of human beings. The plot of this book is both easy and hard to summarise.http://hu1.do.iwebcloud.co.uk/rules-of-attraction-get-the.php
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At its simplest, it is a story about a man who is a loner and becomes obsessed with the peregrines that migrate over and then temporarily stay in his coastal English landscape. They are hunters, and he hunts them in the sense that he follows them wherever they go. The book is the seasonal record of that hunt of hunters.
The narrator watches them, he follows them, and eventually he is accepted by one of the peregrines to the degree that he can approach it. In the climactic scene at the end of the book, the bird closes its eyes, even though it knows that Baker is there, watching it stopping watching him.
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More complicatedly, the book is the distillation of 10 years of field journals kept by the author between and as he followed the peregrines of Essex, the county in the east of England where Baker lived. It was during this period that the peregrines suffered a drastic fall in numbers because of the increasing use of pesticides and agrochemicals. It can be understood, therefore, as a kind of elegy to a disappearing landscape, the Essex countryside, and to a disappearing species, the peregrines.
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