An Interview with Robert Macfarlane

23 June 2018

I sit down cross-legged with Robert Macfarlane by the borders of Emmanuel’s Great Oriental Plane Tree. We’ve spent the past half-hour touring the gardens – at one point pausing to watch a woodpecker. All the while he talks with the same detached, almost meditative, calm as the voice that narrates his books; though I later discover his serene mood may not be entirely unrelated to the morning’s events. Just a few hours before we meet – after 6 years, 5 months and 14 days – he finally sent Underworld to the publishers, “a book about death, disposal, darkness, trauma, harm, killing, mass graves and nuclear waste,” which he says is probably the “strangest thing I’ve ever written or ever will write.”

But before talking more about his specific works, I want to know what tradition, if any, he sees himself as a part of, citing famous 20th century walkers like Leigh Fermor, Laurie Lee and Chatwin as potential examples. After a moment’s thought he tells me that he sees them all, himself included, as within the wider genre of “literature of the leg”, which “goes back arguably to the Epic of Gilgamesh, though it does have this very 19th and 20th century English flowering.” His relation to the late English walking-writers is not as simple as being their new standard bearer. Whilst having “fallen under the spell of these books”, he finds troubling aspects within the tradition too. “Leigh Fermor’s glorious, frilled, turbulent, baroque prose writes out some of the difficulties and problems with walking”, for example.

I press him on this issue of discrepancy and quote an excerpt from the Old Ways in which he talks about ‘the fatigue on the path that can annihilate all but the most basic brain functions’. Where, I ask him, does that leave the poetical descriptions of walking given by Laurie Lee? He laughs and says we shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss them, both accounts are, to an extent, true. There’s an inevitable distinction between the “field work” and the writing-up of the accounts later. “I’m very interested in the question. Some of the fragments which make it through into my book are flipped fresh from the moment into the notebook and from the notebook into the published book. But then there is this vast amount of, not after-work, but after-walk, which goes on. So yes, there is a dream of walking as a profoundly philosophical way of being, and I do believe that, I believe in knowing as you go, that knowledge is not arrived at as a distant destination but is motion sensitive, is sight specific, and I do believe those things, but they’re not invariably true, and there comes a point when the hip-click or the blister or the rucksack strap are all that you can think of.”

Emmanuel’s gardens are more than a series of homogenous quads, there’s distinction between the spaces: like a series of xenotopias – a term coined by Macfarlane to refer to those natural spaces whose borders can neither be mapped nor noticed until actually crossed. Are xenotopias threatened by the taming of wilderness and our carving up of the environment? “I’m interested in borders which are not geopolitically defined, borders that exist within landscapes, within ecologies, within land use below the national level. In part because the borders we have are in many ways made nonsense of by natural processes; by weather, by bird flight, by animal migration. But in other ways they interact with them in quite forceful ways. So I wanted to find a term which could…” he pauses for thought and then points to the Oriental Plane Tree, “we crossed a border there. As soon as we stepped into that tree we moved into another light, another space of light, of sound, of being in the broadest sense. We were within a creature, and its management of space, its texturing of space. We made a transition there. Although we never left this complex, social, mechanical world behind, we nevertheless entered a xenotopia of a kind. So the answer is yes, they are threatened, but they also exist in very surprising and scalable ways. And they’re very exciting to encounter. And they don’t necessarily require privilege to reach them, I think, or to enter them.” So they’ll hopefully continue to pop up of their own accord? “Yes I believe so.”

I finally ask about some of Macfarlane’s more recent projects. Adverts for the documentary Mountain could be seen across London last year. I’d had no idea, until recently, that the script was taken directly out of his first book, Mountains of the Mind, written when he was just 27. Did he feel that those behind the adaption did the book justice? “It was totally thrilling to work with them. So many of the projects I’m involved in now and have been for the last five or six or seven years have been collaborations, and I find it deeply exciting, partly because genuine collaboration is this kind of interplay that produces new work and new thought, and also because I just love working with people who are brilliant at what they do.” The team included Willem Dafoe as narrator, who it transpired was already a fan of Macfarlane’s books, Renan Ozturk “who is probably the greatest mountaineer-cinematographer working today”, Jennifer Peedom, whose last work was “a socialist piece of high-end documentary making about workers’ rights at altitude”, and lastly Richard Tongetti with the Australian Chamber Orchestra. “And so I don’t think it was a case of my words being done justice, that’s not how I imagined it at any point, it was a case of finding how they could fold into, work into, and exist within this quite crowded creative space. Because you have image and music and then silence as well.” In the end, around eleven-hundred of his words from the book were used, for a 74 minute film. “It felt a little bit like climbing a very exposed ridge, with huge drops on either side, so there would be a sentence, and then two minutes without any language, and also two minutes before it without any language, and so that leaves your words incredibly exposed. You have to choose them carefully. The film met with some very strong positive reactions, including fainting from vertigo, which I take to be a positive reaction, and nausea, which is also a very passionate response. But then there’s a small number of people who really don’t like it, and I think it’s because those people didn’t like the way the words sit, and that’s fine. It was always going to be a high-risk piece of film-making.”

That same year, Macfarlane released another collaboration, this time with the illustrator Jackie Morris: Lost Words – a very large and lavishly illustrated book of poems centred around single words that had fallen out of the Oxford Junior Dictionary due to lack of use. These included ‘otter’, ‘kingfisher’ and ‘acorn’, to name a few. What do we risk in, not just losing touch, but forgetting about nature? “We’re talking now in a context of planetary scale crisis. Where crisis is not something that is coming but which is here. We are in an end time, and in that Anthropocene context of mass extinction, of accumulation of waste and material problem – whether that be the nuclear waste which we continue to produce but have no storage plans for, or most fascinatingly and horrifically the plastic waste which is now accumulating – the question of everyday nature, of the living creatures with which we share our everyday world can seem irrelevant. But actually I think that it’s vital to see this more than human world as something that is not confined to distant geographies, as something that weaves with our world all the time, and that we are doing a very good job of eliminating from the weave. And so when I set out to work on the Lost Words and Landmarks, the book out of which the Lost Words grew, it was really with the simplest technologies in mind. The technology being that to name is to know a little, the good kinds of naming, our ways of leaning into the otherness and complexity of lifeways, particularly of the modern human world, and that to know and to name is also, to some degree, to care. So there is a possible pathway from naming through aesthetics into ethics and finally into politics. And that pathway has come true with the Lost Words in ways, over the last 9 months, that amaze me on a daily basis and that I will never experience ever again, and which have been extraordinary to be part of, and I now feel the book is just a small catalyser of something much much bigger that is happening or people want to have happen.” So learning to name is what potentially begins the process of reconnection? The first step in building some sort of a relationship? “I believe so, I mean, there are many kinds of naming. We know that naming can be a form of harm, of closure, of conquest, of ownership. I’m not interested in those kinds of naming. To name is to some degree to specify, and thereby to come to know, not necessarily individually, but more particularly. And so birds cease to be a single genre of airborne being, and become distinguished in the mind, and once they’re distinguished other forms of difference and particularity begin to declare themselves and out of that I think can grow intimacy and care. So that’s the possibility, and to see it actually happening in practice in thousands of schools with hundreds of thousands of children, nationally and internationally, is proof of concept.”

In the previous two days alone, Nottinghamshire, Hackney, Essex and Sussex all joined a nationwide grassroots movement, of now 25 counties and London boroughs, to put a copy of the Lost Words into every primary, secondary and special school. And earlier this year a crowdfund raised £25,000 to have a copy in every primary school in Scotland. This form of enthusiasm is, as far as I’m aware, unparalleled in literature. It’s clearly struck a nerve. “And I think nerve is a really good way of putting it, because it’s sore, there’s a kind of soreness with the realisation. You know, I’ve heard from teachers where not one child in a class of thirty knows what an acorn is, they don’t know what it is from a picture, from a name, they don’t know the relationship it bears to a tree, or to a forest, children who don’t know what kingfishers are, and none of them wrens, none of them.”

This forgetting is by no means confined to children, and it’s worrying to think that the Oxford Junior Dictionary might only be the tip of a larger and more insidious trend. But Macfarlane finds a source for optimism and inspiration in the spontaneous reaction by children to nature. “I’ve found that every single child, if given the opportunity to know, to name, to be outside, to move (and even just in the nearby urban nature, nothing grand) knows how and what to do. They’re just naturals.” An intrigue is less easily forgotten than a word, and because of that, hopefully, there’s an inquisitiveness for nature that will never be totally written out of childhood.