- Angus Muir
Robert Macfarlane was born in Oxford in 1976 and is a travel writer, nature writer and critic.
He studied at Pembroke College, Cambridge and at Magdalen College, Oxford, and is currently a Fellow in English at Emmanuel College, Cambridge.
He is the author of two well-known books about landscape and nature: Mountains of the Mind (2003), which examines the development of our attitudes to mountains and how they fire our imaginations; and The Wild Places (2007), which explores the remaining wild places of Britain and Ireland, and our continuing need for 'wildness'. Both books have won multiple awards including the 2003 Guardian First Book Award, a 2004 Somerset Maugham Award and the 2004 Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award (Mountains of the Mind); and the 2007 Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature, and the 2008 Scottish Arts Council Non-Fiction Book of the Year Award(The Wild Places). He is generally grouped with a number of recent British authors who have provoked a new critical and popular interest in writing about landscape and nature.
His most recent book, Landmarks (2015) is 'a field guide to the literature of nature', collecting a glossary of terms used in different British dialects to describe terrain.
Robert Macfarlane also writes travel essays, as well as articles on literature and the environment for publications including Granta, Harper's, The Guardian and The Times Literary Supplement.
Although he is a Cambridge professor by trade, and a figurehead for modern, public-facing academia, Robert Macfarlane is best known for his forays outdoors. His string of best-selling and prize-winning books over the past fifteen years, beginning with 2003’s Mountains of the Mind, have cemented his reputation as a leading voice in the field of contemporary nature writing. Whilst this work is steeped in Macfarlane’s academic interests in post-pastoral landscapes and the literary traditions which precede him, it is experientially grounded in the ‘wild’ places, locales beyond the interiors of the library or the lecture-hall. He writes, in the note to the appropriately titled The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot (2012), that it is a book which ‘could not have been written standing still’, a project where ‘thinking’ was ‘only possible […] on foot’. This is reflected in the organisation of the books themselves, where chapters are arranged according to different types of land (moors, capes, ridges), matter (chalk, silt and limestone) and topography (tracks, paths, waters running north and south.)
This structuring principle speaks to a metaphorical conceit common to nature and travel writing, one in which a text seeks to approximate for its readers the peripatetic experience that it narrates, in so far as both reading and walking involve forms of navigation. This notion of text-as-journey also refers back to another key premise of the genre, the foundational link between writing and walking, and in this sense Macfarlane’s eschewal of ‘standing still’ echoes Nietzsche’s call in The Gay Science (1882) to avoid only having ideas ‘among books’ or ‘when stimulated by books’, for it ‘is our habit to think outdoors – walking, leaping, climbing […] preferably on lonely mountains or near the sea.’ Macfarlane’s writing is animated by this spirit of movement and exploration, but it is also this strain that has been vulnerable to criticism. Making a muse of the natural can lead to solipsism, centring the journey of the solitary traveller, who roams landscapes whilst inhabiting the hackneyed and privileged vantage of the ‘Lone Enraptured Male’, a critical gag first coined by Kathleen Jamie (‘A Lone Enraptured Male’, London Review of Books, 6 March 2008).
This over-familiar figure is associated with the romance of isolation, like the phenomenon Frédéric Gros describes in his Philosophy of Walking as a liberation from ‘the very idea of identity, the temptation to be someone’, which is ‘all very well for smart parties where everyone is telling their story’ but a ‘stupid and burdensome fiction’ in the face of nature’s simplicity. But is this naturalist absorption, positioned as an alternative to ‘smart parties’, not merely another form of urbanity, in pastoral disguise? Mark Cocker cites mountaineer Jim Perrin’s argument that the ‘new nature writing is quintessentially an urban literature with a primarily metropolitan audience’, one in which ‘engagement with nature is an act of remembrance rather than a daily, lived experience’ (‘Death of the Naturalist’, New Statesman, 17 June 2015). Although this debate in the field persists, one in which Macfarlane may seem something of an easy target, with his sense of a ‘wild place’ as a way ‘to step outside human history’ (The Wild Places), his work is committed to more than such criticisms allow for. Macfarlane’s writing is absorbed in history, revealing how our notions of the ‘natural’ or the ‘wild’ are the products of historical and linguistic constructions. The natural world is not an a priori category which languages or texts merely narrate; they also constitute it, making the contours of our surrounding environment legible. Such an admission is a first step in moving beyond anthropocentric thinking, where the privileging of the human robs the natural of its agency, an attitude that Macfarlane’s work is invested in challenging.
Part of this task is thus also a matter of restoring or reviving things that have been lost. In his 2015 book Landmarks, Macfarlane wields language as a mode of re-engaging with the physical landscape, delving into long-lost vernacular ways of describing the world around us which range from the poetic – in Northamptonshire dialect ‘to thaw’ is to ungive – to the whimsical, like aquabob, a Kent word for ‘icicle’. This project of linguistic restoration is brought to vivid life in The Lost Words, Macfarlane’s 2017 collaboration with artist Jackie Morris. This illustrated compendium seeks to revive the ‘natural’ gaps in children’s increasingly technology vocabularies, focussing on words that have recently been removed from the Oxford Junior English Dictionary, and whole crowdfunding campaigns have been dedicated to sourcing copies of the book for primary schools across the country. Macfarlane’s search for the lost is not only lexical, too, but literary, and he is largely responsible for stoking renewed interest in twentieth-century nature writers like Nan Shepherd and J.A. Baker. Shepherd’s The Living Mountain (1977) and Baker’s The Peregrine (1967) were long recognised as masterpieces by those in the know, but failed to reach a large reading public. They have recently been reprinted with introductions or after-words by Macfarlane.
Macfarlane’s work walks resolutely in the footsteps of such forebears, and this speaks to a larger principle of collaboration with kindred spirits. In recent years he has collaborated on projects with artists, filmmakers and musicians including Johnny Flynn and Stanley Donwood and Jennifer Peedom, with whom he wrote the script for the 2017 documentary film Mountain, which was narrated by actor Willem Dafoe and screened internationally. But collaborations seeking to better represent the natural world must not stop at the artistic level. In his response to Mark Cocker in the New Statesman (‘Why we need nature writing’, 2 September 2015), Macfarlane writes about the ways his work has brought him into contact with ‘serious conservationists – the people at the delivery end of saving the planet’, and co-operation of this kind between artists and activists ‘is crucial’ in effecting change. Macfarlane’s writing gets to the heart of profound questions about literature’s efficacy, about the way that art can inform and galvanise our relationship with the physical world. His books have been lauded for their lyrical prose style and appeal to a wide readership, but they are not presented as the final word on their subjects. As a central figure in contemporary writing about nature, Macfarlane knows better than anyone that writing and reading are half the battle; that the written word must be nothing less than a call to arms.
Jack Parlett, 2018