Friday, July 25, 2008
THE WILD PLACES
The European Continent at night - And wild places hard to find!
As I mentioned in the previous post, I am enjoying a romp through British nature and travel writing. My current prose adventure is The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane, who was a friend of the late Roger Deakin.
This book is probably my favorite nature-travel book so far, even though I loved Roger’s Waterlog very, very much. And although Deakin started my journey, Macfarlane has taken me even farther afield. Macfarlane is also a master wordsmith, whose prose is eloquent and a real delight to read.
Unlike Roger, Robert does his journey by walking rather than swimming. Inspired by the incidental travel writing of the likes of Samuel Coleridge, the poetry of Sorley MacLean, and Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native, he travels through forest, moor, and mountaintop, spending at least a night in each place to immerse himself in it.
Macfarlane sprinkles historical natter throughout, which does not spoil—but rather adds to—the overall understanding of the places he visits. He tells of famines, expulsions of people from land due to greedy owners, and horrific storms.
Most interesting was a chapter discussed night walking. In the chapter “Ridge” he tells of the origin of the word ‘noctambulism’ (walking at night), and tells of Coleridge’s bouts of depression, which led to his taking to the outdoors and night walks. Franz Kafka, too, fell under the spell of walking at night, which made him feel “like a ghost among men—weightless, boneless, bodiless.” According to Macfarlane, at night “the sensorium is transformed…new orders of connection assert themselves: sonic, olfactory, tactile.”
Macfarlane’s own reason for walking at night was to find the “wildness which the dark confers on even a mundane landscape;” How the landscape is transformed under moonlight, how shadows form new topography, and the landforms become “presences: inferred, less substantial, more powerful.” In this chapter he also reflects on how humans have distanced themselves so totally form darkness that their methods with which they apply to do affect the natural world:
“The extent of artificial lighting in the modernized regions of the earth is now so great that it produces a super-flux of illumination easily visible from space. The light, inefficiently directed, escapes upwards before being scattered by small particles in the air—such as water droplets and dust—into a generalized photonic haze known as sky glow.
The stars cannot compete with this terrestrial glare, and are often invisible, even on cloudless nights. Cities exist in a permanent sodium twilight. Towns stain their skies orange. The release of light also disrupts the habits of nature. Migrating birds collide with illuminated buildings, thinking them to be daytime skies. The leaf-fall and flowering patterns of trees—reflexes controlled by perceptions of day length—are disrupted. Glow-worm numbers are declining because their pilot lights, the means by which they attract mates, are no longer bright enough to be visible at night.”
I urge everyone to read this book. It will make you feel differently about the world that surrounds you, and hopefully make you want to reconnect with it. As Macfarlane puts it:
“We experience, as no historical period has before, disembodiment and dematerialization. The most infinite connectivity of the technological world, for all the benefits that it has brought, has exacted a toll in the coin of contact. We have in many ways forgotten what the world feels like.”
[Composed while listening to Alan Parsons Project]