The Ramblin Man | by Robert Macfarlane

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In the July 1, 2021 issue of the magazine, Robert Macfarlane reviews three new books on navigation, both human and animal. The play develops into a meditation on the value of guidance, which Macfarlane describes as “an ethic,” rather than simply the ability to go from points A to B. Guidance requires “collaboration and cooperation between people. humans and their environments ”, an active engagement with the landscape that we are about to lose with our over-reliance on GPS.

Alex Turner

Macfarlane’s prolific writing career could itself be described as a form of guidance. In addition to films, plays, children’s books and song lyrics, he has published award-winning non-fiction works on words for natural phenomena in the British Isles, on ancient roads and, more recently , with Underground (2019), on hell and deep time. “I took the relationship between nature and culture, or what one might call ‘the landscape and the human heart’, to be my ground as a writer,” he told me by e- mail this week, “and I never anticipate exhausting its complexities or reaching its perimeters as a subject.

An experience in 1999, while leading a climbing expedition in the Tian Shan mountains in Kyrgyzstan, helped him orient himself on this subject. “I grew up in a climbing family,” he said, “and for a while in my late teens – gripped by high fever and youthful selfishness – he was perfectly fine. logical to me that I would probably die young and among the peaks. ”But at base camp on a glacier, he saw a memorial to the climbers who had lost their lives.

It was a makeshift thing, rambling with little rusty metal nameplates screwed into a rock. Standing in front of him, aware of my own vulnerability in these indifferent heights, I was suddenly struck by the absurdity and curiosity of the business: why had these people been ready – why was I ready? – to give their life for a mountain that could not love them in return? This moment of intense perplexity led me to write my first book, which sought to probe the enigma of the cult of the mountain.

In his review, Macfarlane argues that the ability to tell stories about ourselves in landscapes is what makes us skilled navigators. “I was fascinated for a while by this notion of storytelling as guidance,” he said. “The pact between storytelling and walking is old – every path tell. One of the most wonderful etymologies I know of is the route back to our common verb “to learn.” The path from there leads to Old English ‘leornian’, ‘to acquire knowledge, to cultivate’, and thence into the fricative thickets of Proto-Germanic, which contains’ liznojan ‘, a word with the basic meaning of’ to follow or find a lead. ‘ We know as we go.

Macfarlane also makes sure to practice orienteering in a more literal way, as a runner and mountain hiker. “I love running or walking to explore a new environment or a new landscape, without necessarily planning a destination, and without outsourcing the navigation to a satellite. I also stay attached to paper maps when I’m in the mountains. I will not use GPS except in an emergency, preferring to require the permanent dialectic involved in reading a map in relation to the terrain as one moves through it. In addition, paper charts do not run out when they cool.

He tries to push our estrangement from our surroundings in a variety of genres and mediums. He wrote a children’s book about twenty words from nature, including “acorn” and “otter”, which had been removed from the Oxford Junior Dictionary, and a crowdfunding campaign saw the book donated to more than three-quarters of primary schools in England, Scotland and Wales.

During pandemic lockdown in the UK, Macfarlane co-wrote an album with singer-songwriter and actor Johnny Flynn, Lost in the cedar wood. They collaborated on the lyrics, sharing photos of notebook pages in their respective homes, and Flynn set them to music. “It was like a wild wonder, to be able to insert words into the Johnny Flynn Song Machine and pick up a demo a few days later!”

In addition to the daily life in confinement, the album is inspired by the The epic of Gilgamesh: “We wanted to write something old and urgent at the same time,” Macfarlane said. “At the heart of Gilgamesh is the story of a reckless ruler, Gilgamesh himself, carrying his ax into the sacred cedar wood and chopping down these extraordinary trees. A few months after we started working on it, the Fairy Creek calamity started happening on Vancouver Island, with BC Premier John Horgan allowing the cedar forest to be exploited. ancient, including trees up to 2000 years old. . Lines like ‘This was the first of the stories / Of all the killings’ (from the song ‘Tree Rings’), while sadly lingering, took on special meaning.

He seemed remiss not to ask a nature writer about climate change. I wondered if Macfarlane saw a possibility that drastic weather conditions could cause our interconnection with the natural world to be taken into account. He feared that our current liberal democratic institutions would not have the power to preserve a livable planet.

But there are small triumphs. The protests against the Fairy Creek logging operations have been “creative, courageous, collaborative and partially effective.” A fan of wild open-water swimming and a patron of the Outdoor Swimming Society, Macfarlane was concerned when King’s College, Cambridge (where he is a fellow of Emmanuel College) planned to ban access to part of the River Cam near Grantchester that students and locals have swam for centuries. “There was a peasant revolt! City and Dress have come together in protest and at the time of writing, King’s has backed down and accepted a review. If they don’t revoke all the restrictions, I have a good friend who has declared his intention to protest: swim this stretch of the river, dressed more or less in gold body paint.

And more music is on the horizon. “I enjoyed working with Johnny so much,” he said, “and we haven’t stopped writing together. We’re finishing another song today, actually. The next album is on track.


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