The Book That Changed My Life: Robert Macfarlane

The Book That Changed My Life: Robert Macfarlane
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Robert Macfarlane is not an ordinary travel writer. When he describes his surroundings, he speaks of the physical space, sure, but then he goes deeper. In books like The Old Ways and The Wild Places, he journeys across the globe and explores the cultural history of the places he visits. His new book Landmarks looks at the writers that have chronicled his destinations, including Barry Lopez’s writings on the Arctic, J.A. Baker’s immersion in the lives of predatory birds, and Roger Deakin’s exploration of waterways. Readers seeking evocative writing about the outdoors will find plenty to enjoy here.

In Landmarks, you say that Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams “changed the course of my life: it showed me how to write.” When did you first become aware of the influence that it had on you?

It struck me with the force of revelation the first time I read it, aged 21 and walking the West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island alone over several days. I read Lopez at dawn and dusk each day: the clarity of his vision as an image-maker, and his ethical integrity as a thinker about the relations of people and place (a commitment to justice in style and in politics), knocked me over. So too his lawlessness, in terms of genre: I suddenly realized that non-fiction could be as inventive and diverse as any novel, and I felt a sudden sense of freedom as a writer-to-be, newly permitted to mix travel writing and lyric image and memoir and cultural history and topography…. Later another mentor-figure, Roger Deakin — who died ten years ago this August — told me to ‘Give every chapter the form of a short story, and every book the power of a novel’. Between them, Roger and Barry have remained huge inspirations for me — and that’s still the case as I begin my seventh book, 20 years on from first reading Arctic Dreams.

Is it a book that you revisit with some regularity?

For sure. And this summer, in just a few weeks, I’m heading into the Arctic myself for the first time: on a mountaineering expedition to East Greenland; and then again in April to walk the length of the Lofoten Islands in Arctic Norway, to reach a sea-cave called Kollhellaren sited close to the original “maelstrom,” which lies just off the tip of the Lofoten Archipelago. After so many years seeing the Arctic through the prism of Lopez, I’ll see it for myself: but Arctic Dreams will still shape my thinking and vision up there — as it has done for so many readers over the decades.

Glossaries of words used to describe landscapes appear throughout Landmarks. Have you found that your own writing has changed as a result of compiling these?

Yes, the book contains more than 2500 words from more than 30 languages and dialects for precise aspects of place, landscape, weather, and nature, from the Orkneys to Cornish, from Old English to Romani. My favorites of these include rionnach maoim, a Gaelic phrase from the Outer Hebrides meaning “the shadows cast by clouds on moorland on a sunny, windy day,” and zawn, a Cornish term for “a vertical wave-smashed chasm in a sea-cliff.” I’ve always loved specialist languages, valuing them for their elegant exactitude of vision. 

Samuel Taylor Coleridge was once asked in the early 1800s why he liked attending the Royal Society Lectures on chemistry: “To increase my stock of metaphors” was his reply! Well, me too: I love talking with geologists, meteorologists, mycologists… but also with people who work and live in close relation with their landscapes (farmers, sailors, fishermen, islanders, foresters), and thereby quite naturally, and of necessity, have developed highly particular idioms of description and denotation. I’ve also long loved the poetry of Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and the prose of writers like Cormac McCarthy, for whom language has the heft of stone and the edge of metal and the brightness of light, and can be made to weigh, cut, and glitter.

Are there any places that you’d like to write about but haven’t necessarily found the right angle to approach?

I’ve spent the last three years working on Underland, a book about underworlds real and imagined. Suddenly finding my subjects to be darkness, cities, ghosts, the subconscious, mining, burial, the sentience of ice and granite, the agency of matter… well, this is drawing out whole new idioms of imagination and representation from me, that I have yet fully to comprehend or generate.