The Practice of the Wild


I’ve been a long time fan of the writing of Gary Snyder (do a search of this blog if you don’t believe me) so I was predisposed to enjoy his series of essays on our encounters with the ‘wild’, The Practice of the Wild, which I just finished. And I did!

It’s a book where I had to keep the 2B pencil close at hand and it touched on some of the ideas and concepts close to my heart: pathways and walking, forests, how we know place and the world. It had been on my Amazon wishlist* for a couple of years so I was delighted to find it under the Christmas tree this year (thanks Harriet)

Some passages from the text I liked are:

Walking is the exact balance of spirit and humility (19)

Practically speaking, a life that is vowed to simplicity, appropriate boldness, good humour, gratitude, unstinting work and play, and lots of walking brings us close to the actually existing world and its wholeness (25)

The whole earth is a great tablet holding the multiple overlaid new and ancient traces of the swirl of forces (29)

A text is information stored through time. The stratigraphy of rocks, layers of pollen in a swam, the outward expanding circles in the trunk of a tree, can be seen as texts. The calligraphy of rivers winding back and forth over the land leaving layer upon layer of previous river-beds is text. (71)

The best purpose of such studies and hikes is to be able to come back to the lowlands and see all the land about us, agricultural, suburban, urban as part of the same territory – never totally ruined, never completely unnatural. It can be restored, and humans can live in considerable numbers on much of it. (101)

I think many of us would consider it quite marvellous if we could set out on foot again, with a little inn or a clean camp available every ten or so miles and no threat from traffic, to travel across a large landscape – all of China, all of Europe. That’s the way to see the world: in our own bodies. (106)

Repetition and ritual and their good results may come in many forms. Changing the filter, wiping noses, going to meetings, picking up around the house, washing dishes, checking the dipstick – don’t let yourself think these are distracting you from your more serious pursuits. Such a round of chores in not a set of difficulties we hope to escape from so that we may do our “practice” which will put us on a “path” – it is our path. (164)

*BTW: I don’t endorse buying from Amazon over your own local independent bookshop. In fact, I’ve only bought 3 things from Amazon ever, two of which never arrived! I just like the wishlist idea.

My Books of the Year 2008

homeFICTION: Home by Marilynne Robinson

I didn’t read a lot of fiction this year and I didn’t come to my favourite until late in the year, and not with high expectations either for that matter. And that’s despite the fact that Marilynne Robinson’s book Housekeeping won my book of the year prize twenty years ago, in 1988, and it’s a book I’ve never stopped liking. That book won prizes galore, became a good film and Robinson didn’t write another book for twenty-four years. That was Gilead, which won the Pulitzer Prize. Robinson is not prolific, but it’s a track record any writer would relish.

Now comes Home, a beautiful, slow, sad meditation on three people in a house; all disappointed, all finding themselves together at home, the interdependence of family, the return of the prodigal son, the possibilities. It’s beautifully written, poignant and moving and in the end it became one of those rare books I couldn’t put down, but didn’t want to finish. It’s set in the town of Gilead but you don’t need to have read that book to enjoy this. Robinson is hard to define; for a long time I thought she was Canadian for some reason, the non-urbane voice maybe or those isolated landscapes. But she’s from Iowa, and if she reminds me of anyone it’s maybe William Maxwell, whose book So Long, See you Tomorrow, also elegantly told and also set in small town America was another book of the year for me a long time ago. The Times called Robinson ‘the world’s best writer of prose’ and she’s certainly up there, along with some other North American women like Alice Munro. Not a lot happens, be warned, and I got plenty of flak for my choice of John Banville’s The Sea in 2006 as my fiction favourite, for that very reason. Before journeying home, you might want to read the Guardian review, which tells more about it than I want to here.

NON-FICTION: The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane

dI read mostly non-fiction again this year and it was a hard call to come up with one book above all the others. In the end, the combination of the search for the wild in the local, the emphasis on walking in the landscape, and the writing itself drew me to Macfarlane as the choice. The Wild Places is an exploration of the wild, but not the wild as found in the jungles of Africa or the heights of mountains (Macfarlane wrote a wonderful earlier book called Mountains of the Mind, which traces the changing image of mountains in western culture, from things to be feared, to things of beauty and the sublime) but wild in English terms. Are there still places in England where a person can feel isolated and alone in the landscape or can be in a place that seems to have resisted thousands of years of the close proximity of humans? Macfarlane’s books consists of a series of meditative journeys into English place, beginning with a park in his home town and leading into reflections of what wilderness really means. It’s a book that owes a lot, and talks a lot about the late Roger Deakin, whose book Wildwood I love last year. And, in a Guardian review Andrew Motion says this book calls to mind the walking meditations of Sebald. Sebald is a big favourite of mine. These things connect up. Reading one leads to another and another.

In the realm of non-fiction I also liked Tom Griffiths’ Forests of Ash, his history of the ash ranges of south-eastern Australia, Peter Ackroyd’s ‘biography’ of the Thames, Thames, Sacred River, Jean-Jacques Rosseau’s classic Reveries of the Solitary Walker, which I read for the first time this year as much influenced by the title as anything else, and Rebecca Solnit’s, Wanderlust: A History of Walking, which begins a little alarmingly like a PHD thesis on walking but relaxes and detours into a wonderful section on the history of walking ‘in nature’, featuring Wordsworth, Coleridge et .al.

Not everything was about walking around in nature though. Graham Robb’s short history of France from the revolution to the World War I, The Discovery of France, reviewed here in the NY Times argues that France is not a united culture but “a vast encyclopedia of micro-civilizations, each with its own long history, intricate belief systems and singular customs”. The fact that Robb cycled across much of the landscape of France researching this book didn’t hurt its appeal for me either. And on that cycling connection I read Tim Krabbe’s classic cycling book The Rider, a n account of a one day race from the rider’s perspective, and loved it.

POETRY: Navigation by Judy Johnson

I didn’t love this book at first, and there are still sections that don’t work for me, but in the end the bits that did won me over. I reviewed this book for Famous Reporter magazine, and perhaps the act of reviewing does serve to concentrate the mind more, to make you really think about what it is that the writer is trying to achieve here, and how well is it going. I also enjoyed Diane Fahey’s book The Mystery of Rosa Morland. Finally, In the week I was putting this list together came the sad news that Australian poet Dorothy Porter had died, much too young. She was a powerful influence on many young Australian poets and had a lot more still to offer. We should all go back to her work and look at it again.

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This post can also be found on my poetry website; along with all the previous winners of my book of the year. Click on the link to READING

Landscapes in the Wild Places

One of the best things about having some time off work is the time to read, and write, more. One book that’s been beside my bed waiting for that time is Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places. I enjoyed his earlier work, Mountains of the Mind, which traces the change in western notions of mountains from horrible, literally ‘awesome’ places to be shunned to places of beauty and the sublime, so I was looking forward to this and putting it off until I had real time.

This book is a little artificial in construct it seems to me; see if ‘wild places’ can still be found in Britain, and immerse yourself in them, but it’s no less enjoyable for that. It pays homage to Roger Deakin’s work Waterlog and indeed Deakin and Macfarlane were friends, but it also harkens back through the natural history lexicon: Thoreau, Edward Thomas, Constable, Saint-Exupery and others.
The structure is simple but effective; snippets of reflection on key landscape types: island, valley, moor, forest, river-mouth, summit, ridge, storm-beach etc. interspersed with detailed accounts of short visits to one of those places, making the connections.  It’s hopelessly romantic of course, but gorgeously appealing as well, with Macfarlane’s adventures hiking in the moors, or swimming in remote lochs as evocative as you’d expect.
A reflection that connected with me, reading this book in the unvarying warmth of far north Queensland, was the idea that certain landscapes harbour thoughts or impulses somehow, that somehow, perhaps through ancient archetypes or ancestral memory, particular landscapes connect emotionally with us.  When talking about valleys Macfarlane writes, ‘Of the many types of valley, by far the most potent is the sanctuary: that is, the sunken space guarded on all four sides by high ground or water. Sanctuaries possess the allure of lost worlds or secret gardens. They provoke in the traveller who enters them – cresting a ridge at a pass, finding the ground drop away beneath your feet – the excitements of the forbidden and the enclosed.’ (47)  I’ve had that same feeling, coming into some of the river valleys of the north-east in Victoria, along the Ovens River, for example.
Macfarlane later writes: ‘… I had also learned from each place, had been brought to think by each in unexpected accents and shapes. Connections and patterns were emerging too, supplied by the land itself. It was starting to seem that certain landscapes might hold certain thoughts, as they held certain stones or plants.’ (115). It’s an interesting idea to me, that landscape might not only reflect but help form some kinds of consciousness. I like the way Peter Ackroyd put a similar thought in his book on the Thames: ‘There is no reason to doubt that human consciousness is changed by the experience of living above clay, rather than chalk’. Or beside warm tropical seas rather than a cold river.
Thanks again to blog reader John, who originally told me about this book.