At the end of the year: six reasons for not reading Robert Macfarlane.

People keep suggesting I read Robert Macfarlane’s books – most recently his Landmarks – and I wish they wouldn’t. I’m aware that, on paper, we might appear to have interests in common but, beyond the topics of landscape and memory, we really don’t. Having tried to read Landmarks I have come to the view that I find Macfarlane’s books largely unreadable because:

1]. I have spent almost twenty years validating, through my own practice and in my own chosen places, Mike Pearson and Michael Shanks’ observation that:

“Reflecting eighteenth-century antiquarian approaches to place which included history, folklore, natural history and hearsay, the deep map attempts to record and represent the grain and patina of place through juxtapositions and interpenetrations of the historical and the contemporary, the political and the poetic, the factual and the fictional, the discursive and the sensual; the conflation of oral testimony, anthology, memoir, biography, natural history and everything you might ever want to say about a place”. (Theatre / Archaeology 2001, pp. 64-65).

2]. I took to heart the insights in James Hillman’s essay Peaks and Vales (1975) long before I read Macfarlane’s Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination (2002). Consequently, I’d already understood the need to ‘see through’ the Apollonian association of mountains with solitary ‘highs’, elevated states, and spiritual insights. I also saw that we needed to apply this ‘seeing through’ across the board, as a fundamental aspect of what Felix Guattari calls ‘ecosophy’. For this and other reasons I find Macfarlane’s overall viewpoint outdated and disturbingly reactionary in its underlying presuppositions. This may, of course, account for his popularity.

3]. I have read both Alan Garner’s essay Achilles in Altjira and a good deal of feminist writing. Both teach me to distrust a certain type of scholarship, one that Geraldine Finn, in her The Politics of Contingency. The Contingency of Politics. calls: “high altitude thinking, thinking forgetful of its contingent roots in particular persons, places, and times” (and so always involving, as Garner suggests, the paradoxes life inevitably throws up).

4]. I value everything that Barbara Hurd writes in Stirring the Mud: On Swamps, Bogs, and Human Imagination, a book I regard as the antithesis of Mountains of the Mind on several levels.

5]. If I want to sharpen my sense of natureculture, I submerge myself in a poem, whether by St.-John Perse, Robert Frost, Kathleen Jamie, Anthony Hecht, Naomi Shahab Nye, Don McKay, Hera Lindsay Bird, William Stafford, Martha Kapos, Kenneth Roxroth, Kathleen Raine, Basil Bunting, Anna Saunders, Charles Tomlinson, George Mackay Brown, Penelope Shuttle, Robert Bringhurst, Alyson Hallett, Walt Whitman or Charles Causley. (To name only a few). I can’t do that with Macfarlane’s books, there’s simply too much of his self-regarding sense of his own scholarship and insight in the way.

6]. Landmarks appears, at one level at least, to have been animated by a concern that children are becoming cut off from the natural world because they lack the vocabulary to name its elements. Hence the books numerous lists of regional terms for phenomena grouped according to types of landscape. (It is difficult to see what Macfarlane has in mind re. children here. Perhaps vocabulary lessons equivalent of those images of Victorian schools where every child draws the same leaf?) Surely it would be far better simply to encourage children to read and share appropriately imaginative stories; for example, Lucy Wood’s Weathering (2015) or Sylvia V. Linsteadt and Rima Staines’ Tatterdemalion (2017)? That way they might be allowed to develop their own vivid vocabulary and metaphors for their own experience of place.