A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

A Felt Relationship With The Natural World

In this modern age, very little remains that is real. GASTON REBUFFAT

Talk of mysteries! - Think of our life in nature, - daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it, - rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! The solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? where are we? THOREAU

I've finally got round to reading Robert Macfarlane's The Wild Places and I'm entranced. I share so many of the same sentiments of this author that it's uncanny. I loved his first book, Mountains Of The Mind, and I can't think why I haven't read this, his second book, until now. Macfarlane is one of our finest writers on landscape. He blends the scientific, the poetic and the philosophical so beautifully, and his use of language is compelling and original.

That winter hour, though, up on the summit ridge with the stars falling plainly far above, it seemd to me that our estrangement from the dark was a great and serious loss. We are, as a species, finding it increasingly hard to imagine that we are part of something which is larger than our own capacity. We have come to accept a heresy of aloofness, a humanist belief in human difference, and we suppress wherever possible the checks and balances on us - the reminders that the world is greater than us or that we are contained within it. On almost every front, we have begun a turning away from a felt relationship with the natural world.

The blinding of the stars is only one aspect of this retreat from the real. In so many ways, there has been a prising away of life from place, an abstraction of experience into different kinds of touchlessness. We experience, as no historical period has done before, disembodiment and dematerialisation. The almost 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. And so new maladies of the soul have emerged, unhappinesses which are complicated products of the distance we have set between ourselves and the world. We have come increasingly to forget that our minds are shaped by the bodily experience of being in the world - it spaces, textures, sounds, smells and habits - as well as by genetic traits we inherit amd ideologies we absorb. A constant and formidably defining exchange occurs between the physical forms of the world around us, and the cast of our inner world of imagination. The feel of a hot dry wind on the face, the smell of distant rain carried as a scent stream in the air, the touch of a bird's sharp foot on one's outstretched palm: such encounters shape our beings and our imaginations in ways which are beyond analysis, but also beyond doubt. There is something uncomplicatedly true in the sensation of laying hands upon sun-warmed rock, or watching a dense mutating flock of birds, or seeing snow fall irrefutably upon one's upturned palm.

(Read my other posts on Robert Macfarlane by clicking on 'Robert Macfarlane' under the LABELS widget on the right hand side of my blog.)


Dominic Rivron said...

"We are, as a species, finding it increasingly hard to imagine that we are part of something which is larger than our own capacity."

If I understand him right, I'm not sure we're going in the direction he outlines.

Isn't it the case that until recent times, Western humans have taken it for granted that the world existed for their benefit and that only recently have we begun to deal with the uncomfortable reality that in fact, it isn't?

I'd have said the opposite: instead of finding it increasingly hard, I think we're only just beginning to imagine. I would agree with him, though, when he says we're finding it hard.

An interesting post about a writer I don't know (but I'm reminded I have got a copy of Gaston Rebuffat's On Snow and Rock sat here).

Also, I think although technology can come between us and the world, it can also (sometimes, paradoxically, at the same time) bring us closer:


The Solitary Walker said...

That Rebuffat book is terrific, Dominic. And as for the Macfarlane - try borrowing a copy from Weaver of Grass (I seem to remember she got a copy for Christmas?)

Bonnie said...

I will definitely seek out Macfarlane's books - loving the example you share here of his philosophy and writing. Could not agree more with his words: "And so new maladies of the soul have emerged, unhappinesses which are complicated products of the distance we have set between ourselves and the world."

E.M. Forster said "Only connect", and I think too many of us forget to maintain their connection with the planet and all that it offers.

fireweed meadow said...

I'd never heard of this author but this is clearly another must read. I just had to read as far as "the blinding of the stars" and I was writing the title down on my ever growing to-read list.

I did read Desert Solitaire last month . . . found it refreshing in its passion and total lack of politeness. His vision for what National Parks should be seemed just right, too bad things have continued to progress in the opposite direction. It was hysterically funny at times . . . his anecdote about RV-bound campers comparing electric toothbrushes, for example.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Robert. I find Macfarlane stimulating, beautiful and often maddening.

You've reminded me to post a midsummer cushion, including these essays by Macfarlane:



Rachel Fox said...

Yes, I'd never heard of him before the TV programme on Essex (on a while back). It was very good TV lovely mix of nature and poetry.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks everyone for their valuable comments.

Fireweed - I love 'Desert Solitaire' - you may have already read my posts on it.

Andy - yes, he can be maddening sometimes. I feel I have to read him slowly - I'm forced to, I have no choice, as the sentences are so carefully wrought, and arrestingly poetic and condensed. It isn't as obvious in the piece I quoted above, but when Macfarlane describes some walk or nature scene, he fires off dozens of tropes and metaphors, unusual words, words which have original uses and meanings in their partciular context, surprising juxtapositions, in a 'heightened' style - which is nevertheless very compact. You have to read him slowly as you would poetry, I find. This has great rewards - you look at things afresh - but he is so maddenly brilliant at this that you sometimes just despair at writing even a tenth as well yourself! To be sure his style would not suit everyone - some may even consider it a little pretentious and too self-conscious - but I like it a lot, indebted as it is to writers like JA Baker, Barry Lopez etc.

Grace said...

This reminds me of the book I just started reading, "The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life" by Thomas Moore. I'll have to look for this book, too.

The Solitary Walker said...

Grace - another book, I think, for my list... Thanks for bringing it to my attention :)