interview by XERXES COOK
portrait by BELLA HOWARD
Robert Macfarlane is the 38-year-old author of The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, The Wild Places, and Mountains of the Mind, a loose trilogy of books about landscape and the human heart. They are books that were “walked into being” in a pact between writing and walking that is almost as old as literature itself — “as a walk is only a step away from a story, and every path tells,” as he puts it in The Old Ways. Here, Purple Travel meets the British writer under the shade of a sprawling Oriental plane tree in Cambridge.
XERXES COOK — In The Old Ways, you wrote that there are two things to ask of a landscape: “What do I know in this place that I know nowhere else?” and “What does this place know of me that I cannot know myself?”
ROBERT MACFARLANE — Ha! Well, those two sentences incited more comment than any others in the book. I’ve long been interested in this idea of how thought is, you might say, site-specific and motion-sensitive. By which I mean that we are different creatures depending on where we are: we know as we go. “Landscape” is still often understood as a noun connoting fixity, scenery, an immobile painterly decorum. I prefer to think of the word as a noun containing a hidden verb: landscape scapes us; it is dynamic and commotion-causing; it sculpts and shapes us not only over the courses of our lives but also instant by instant, incident by incident. I would prefer to take “landscape” as a collective term for the temperature and pressure of the air; the fall of light and its rebounds; the textures and surfaces of rock, soil, and building; the sounds, the scents, and the uncountable other transitory phenomena and atmospheres that together comprise the bristling presence of a particular place at a particular moment, all of which affect how we think at that moment. All of my books — whether about mountains, wild places, paths and tracks — have carried out some version of an enquiry into how thoughts, feelings, and sensations might be said to grow in certain places as plants do or to be found in certain places as minerals are.
XERXES COOK — Can certain landscapes inspire specific thoughts?
ROBERT MACFARLANE — We all have certain places we return to that become invested with memory for us and that become reliable triggers of certain kinds of feelings — that’s why we go back to them (if the feelings are nice). Other places surprise us with their unfamiliarity, and the affronts they cause can shock us and bring us to new sensations and responses, which would have been unavailable elsewhere. The books I have written all offer proof of that basic thesis. The Old Ways, certainly, could not have been written by sitting still — it was walked into thought, as it were, over the course of five years and thousands of miles on foot. As such it represents a record of the thoughts that the places through which I walked brought to me, made audible, and wove together.
XERXES COOK — The chapters of The Old Ways take their titles — Granite, Flint, Silt — from kinds of earth or rock you were walking on while writing, and many of the book’s sentences seem to follow a pace set by your footsteps. Can landscapes inspire their own unique rhythms?
ROBERT MACFARLANE — I spent a year graining rhythm in my prose, as I believe there’s no reason prose shouldn’t be approached with as careful an ear to its rhythms as a poet would approach his or her poetry. Rhythm has a capacity to work upon the reader subtly, almost covertly, in ways that are separable from the propositional content of the language. Vladimir Nabokov said, “The true reader reads with his spine before he reads with his mind. He waits for the telltale shiver to run down his backbone.” Rhythm is a way to create that shiver. So I endlessly read out loud, and then re-pattern and re-rhythm the prose. This seemed more than usually appropriate given the book’s subject, walking, which is a deeply rhythmic activity. I guess there are three ur-rhythms to human life: the heartbeat, the breath, and the footfall. The last of those rhythms changes depending on the surface we’re walking on, whether we’re walking uphill or on rocky ground — and so I began to think that each surface over which I move might give me a different rhythm, and in turn I might try to inscribe that rhythm into my prose about that landscape. So, for instance, I wanted to try to work in a dactylic rhythm to the South Downs of England, which are chalk hills that have formed into long high plateaux, with short, sharp scarps; and I wanted a much more stressy rhythm when writing about steep mountainous country.
XERXES COOK — Is there an anthroposophic element of going out into nature? Do landscapes heal?
ROBERT MACFARLANE — I remember someone describing walking to me as “cheap psychotherapy,” which seemed to me at the time both reductive and true. Walking can heal, though, and there are some unforgettable examples of this, including Werner Herzog’s famous march, made in the winter of 1974, after he heard that his friend, the film critic Lotte Eisner, had suffered a stroke and was dying in Paris. He set off from Munich on foot. “I walked against her death,” he wrote, “knowing that if I walked she would be alive when I got there.” And so she was.
XERXES COOK — Has the work of Land artists such as Richard Long and Hamish Fulton influenced the way you think about travel?
ROBERT MACFARLANE — Long and Fulton both fascinate me in their exploration of walking as a ritual act, close to pilgrimage, and that has certainly echoed and influenced my own practice. Fulton and I share a passion for the Cairngorm Mountains of northeast Scotland, where he has carried out a series of remarkable walks over the course of several decades. And Long is, as well as a revolutionary sculptor who made terrain his medium, an extraordinary athlete — once walking 33 miles a day for 33 days; elsewhere walking 82 miles in 24 hours. Staggering stuff. I once managed 37 miles in 13 hours across the entire Cairngorm Massif from south to north: the soles of my feet more or less fell off afterward in protest. Never again.
XERXES COOK — With the majority of the world’s population now living in cities, why is it important for us to recognize the wilderness?
ROBERT MACFARLANE — What we do not know, we do not love, and what we do not love, we will not save. Henry David Thoreau remarked famously in the mid-19th century that “we need wildness” for two reasons: because “we need to witness our own limits transgressed” and because we need to leave “some life pasturing freely where we never wander.” These are two separate thoughts: the latter is that even as we overrun the planet as a species, we need to hand some of it entirely back to nature and allow wildness to reassert itself, and not to expect anything back from nature in terms of either spiritual outcome or ecosystem service. The former thought is that nature causes us to witness our own limits transgressed; it reminds us that we’re never going to devise our way out of all problems, that we are a limited, albeit hyper-developed tool-using animal, contained within nature rather than containing it. The memory of that humility, which can be issued by the power and vastness of certain extraordinary places and natural forces, seems to me valuable to us right now.
XERXES COOK — How can we become more attuned to our surroundings?
ROBERT MACFARLANE — Two verbs: walk and sit. Walk first, walk slowly and look, and think of landscape not as backdrop but as something all around you that is made of sound and smell, temperature and echo, rhyme and memory — all of the extraordinarily complex layers that comprise any second and minute of an experience. Walking is about encounter. Paths are places where we meet other people and creatures. They’re also places where we meet new sights, visions, possibilities. So walking also means being open to encounter and to happenstance. There’s a nice Spanish phrase: Caminar es atesorar! — “To walk is to gather treasure!” And then to sit, pause, rest, reflect, to be conscious of the world beyond and around you, not only the visible world but also the audible, tactile, sensible world.
XERXES COOK — Jean Baudrillard once wrote, “Travel was once a means of being elsewhere, or of being nowhere. Today it is the only way we have of feeling that we are somewhere. At home, surrounded by information, by screens, I am no longer anywhere, but rather everywhere in the world at once, in the midst of a universal banality.”
ROBERT MACFARLANE — These days it’s very hard to feel located because we are consistently dislocating ourselves; that’s true of the mind as well as what technology has made possible. We’re always remembering or forecasting, thinking ahead, and places will remind us of other places — so there’s no other kind of pure being in place, but equally, there’s no paying attention to the moment if you’re answering emails as you walk. That’s one reason I love visiting the tree to which I’ve recently introduced you [a vast Oriental plane tree on the grounds of Emmanuel College]. The tree is its own realm, where you don’t do much else once you step into it other than be within it. There you have green thoughts in a green shade, as Andrew Marvell puts it.
XERXES COOK — When it comes to how we experience nature and landscapes, you could argue that sight is the most dominant of our senses. How do you go about translating such intensely visual experiences into words on the page?
ROBERT MACFARLANE — I can’t paint, I can’t draw, and I can’t film. So, in a way, I have a very un-visual graphic imagination, but an obsessively visual verbal imagination. I see in forms and details that I could never represent pictorially — but I do have language, and language seems to me an astonishingly rich and versatile resource for representing space and vision. I guess I strive for a precision of language use, in which the precision itself might convert into a form of lyricism. I love trying to write about light, for example, because although I know I’ll never catch its declensions and textures exactly, there are ways of refreshing the language of light, and breaking the clichés of light. There’s this word divers have, “crud,” which is a dialect term meaning the minerals and submarine matter that come to encrust long-sunken objects. I often think that landscape gathers its own linguistic crud in the form of clichés or catch-words like “sublime,” “magnificent,” “beautiful,” “wonderful”— all this visual crud that layers onto a place so thickly we can hardly see it. The work of the writer is to chip away at some of that crud.
XERXES COOK — Showing how a scene can be sublime rather than just telling the reader that it is?
ROBERT MACFARLANE — I guess so. Color is really interesting in this regard. I love using color words. Bruce Chatwin, the travel writer and golden boy of the 1980s, was obsessed with blues, and I think I’m quite a cyanophile as well, though I’m also fascinated with the fine gradations of browns, duns, and grays that mountains and moors display.
XERXES COOK — You also employ the language of people and industries that no longer exist in Britain and beyond to describe the paths they created that you walked in The Old Ways.
ROBERT MACFARLANE — Yes, the richness of place language in these islands is extraordinary, running back to Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon, then all the way through to fresh-minted present-day coinages. My fascination with place-language began with something called The Peat Glossary, which I was given by a friend on the Outer Hebridean island of Lewis. It gathered together the Gaelic terms used by just three townships on the island to designate and describe aspects of the moorland of Lewis, and it ran to nearly 150 terms. There’s a word there, for instance, rionnach maoim, which means “the shadows cast by cumulus clouds on moorland on a sunny windy day,” or teine biorach, which means “the flame that runs over the heather when it catches fire on a dry afternoon.” Such terms possess a compressed poetry, released by reading or using. Language will never be landscape, but when it’s used finely, it can fit it like a skin.
XERXES COOK — In Underland, the book you’re currently working on, why have you chosen to explore caves and what lies beneath?
ROBERT MACFARLANE — We can look up and see thousands of miles into the universe and millions of years back in time in terms of starlight, but if we look down we can see no further than our own feet. So the underworld, as it were, represents a vast and unknowable realm. I am slowly coming to understand that there’s this huge and mostly invisible realm of tunnels, routes, catacombs, caverns, mines, burial chambers, sunken rivers, infrastructure — a whole repertoire of lost and sometimes alarming spaces, right there under us and ripe for exploration. I also know that no other region has given us more metaphor; there is no major culture of which I know that does not have some kind of underworld written into its imagination. The underworld is from where we dredge our language and our beliefs, as well as where we put our dead, our memories, and our repressions. Freud and Jung both figured the unconscious as a kind of underland. So I know I’m entering a dark, but also astonishingly rich, realm.
XERXES COOK — Where has the book taken you so far?
ROBERT MACFARLANE — It’s taken me into the catacombs of Paris, where I spent three days without seeing sunlight. There are hundreds of miles of tunnels and rooms cut into the limestone on which the city is built, and occasionally you’ll pass under a manhole cover and look up 60 feet to see a glimmer of daylight. I was there in autumn, and I remember seeing a dried leaf coming twirling down one of those shafts as we passed under it. Where else? It’s taken me down into the limestone labyrinths of Derbyshire, and I’m off to Wales soon to visit a stalactite called The Courtesan. In autumn, I’m going to Trieste, Slovenia, and Prague to explore the incredible limestone arc that goes through central and southern Eastern Europe: the karst country. That’s just the beginning; it’s going to take years and years. One of the places I want to go is the Gouffre Berger in France, a very deep cave, which, in the 1950s, was thought to be the deepest in the world. Down there are extraordinary blue-water lagoons that you have to boat across and sumps that need diving. It’s extreme caving, but something about getting to that low, low point is very compelling. I once wrote a book about why people climb mountains; the mystery is surely even greater as to why people voluntarily go low.
XERXES COOK — Could it be considered an inward journey, both mentally and physically, and also back in time, in terms of how human consciousness evolved — as evidenced by the Neolithic cave paintings of Chauvet and the Kalahari, and the visions of the Prophet Muhammad and Saint John?
ROBERT MACFARLANE — Yes. Exactly. I guess this is the paradox at the heart of the book — that in darkness we might see more clearly. That paradox is borne out in so many expressions of culture, whether that be the shamanic cave art of Chauvet or, to give a scientific example, up at Bowlby Moor in Yorkshire. There, a mile down an old potash mine, a scientific laboratory has been established in order to carry out certain hyper-sensitive observations, as at that depth background radiation is largely shut out by the amount of earth between them and the surface. I love this idea that as you go deeper into the darkness, you see more, you know more. And the root of human is humus — to bury. What makes us human is that we come from the earth and we return to it. Again and again when you read the literature of under-earth exploration, it’s in some way about knowledge. I have no idea what I will know at the end of this book, other than that I will learn it from diving into the darkness. So we’re back, I guess, at the beginning of our discussion, with that idea that in certain places, you know certain things.
[Table of contents]
Two girls in Shikoku and the Seto Inland Sea _ Japan
by Erika Kurihara
Carsten Höller in Kinshasa _ Democratic Republic of the Congo
by Carsten Höller
Robert MacFarlane _ Walking and the Wilderness
by Xerxes Cook
A day in Beirut with Charbel Haber from Scrambled Eggs _ Lebanon
by Negar Azimi
Two-Way Mirror / Hedge Arabesque by Dan Graham _ Fondazione Zegna _ Trivero _ Italy
by Xerxes Cook
Eileen Gray’s e.1027 house, 1929 _ (before renovation) _ Roquebrune- Cap-Martin _ France
by Peter Lyle
Shiraz to Esfahan (and back again) _ Iran
by Xerxes Cook
Bordallo Pinheiro Garden _ Lisbon _ Portugal
by João Basto
Terry Richardson x Jack Pierson _ Ready-made poems _ United States
by Terry Richardson and Jack Pierson
Christmas in Patagonia _ Argentina
by Max Farago
Cameron Smith and Kat Hessen _ On the road again
by Cameron Smith
Just back from Havana by Gary Indiana _ Cuba
by Gary Indiana
Victoire de Castellane _ Seychelles 2003 and Île de Ré 2013
Victoire de Castellane