Remember that beautiful, plaintive old Carole King song, So Far Away? ‘You’re so far away/ Doesn’t anybody stay in one place any more …’ Seems like a theme song for the most recent crop of British ecoliterature. Two that stand out as examples are Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways and Merlin Coverley’s The Art of Wandering: the Writer as Walker, but there are more. Kathleen Jamie’s Sightlines. Books based on walking through places, visiting places briefly and then writing about them. Closer perhaps to travel literature than any other genre. What is striking is that relatively few books spring to mind when I think of modern works of ‘nature writing’ (from the UK; this is perhaps less true in the US tradition) that are based on deep, lived knowledge of a particular place – Neil Ansell’s excellent Deep Country perhaps being the most recent example I’ve read. (There are more older examples, but I’m focusing here on contemporary literature.)
This is a theme that is taken up by Wendell Berry, in his 2012 Jefferson Lecture, where to his insistence on the importance of place he adds that of community. Berry has written extensively on this theme; one of my favourite essays is from The Art of the Commonplace:
‘Until we understand what the land is, we are at odds with everything we touch. And to come to that understanding it is necessary, even now, to leave the regions of our conquest – the cleared fields, the towns and cities, the highways – and re-enter the woods. For only there can a man encounter the silence and the darkness of his own absence. Only in this silence and darkness can he recover the sense of the world’s longevity, of its ability to thrive without him, of his inferiority to it and his dependence on it. Perhaps then, having heard that silence and seen that darkness, he will grow humble before the place and begin to take it in – to learn from it what it is. As its sounds come into his hearing, and its lights and colors come into his vision, and its odors come into his nostrils, then he may come into its presence as he never has before, and he will arrive in his place and will want to remain. His life will grow out of the ground like the other lives of the place, and take its place among them. He will be with them – neither ignorant of them, nor indifferent to them, nor against them – and so at last he will grow to be native-born. That is, he must reenter the silence and the darkness, and be born again.’
Standing still has become unfashionable. And yet, having spent much of my own early adult life in the usual peripatetic modern fashion, tottering from place to place in search of that indefinable (unreachable) something that would make me stay, it became very clear to me several years ago that belonging isn’t about the place that’s outside of you, it’s about the place that’s inside of you. The ability to reenter the silence and the darkness, and be born again. The understanding that it’s necessary to grow out of the ground. And now, the deep, daily, working knowledge of a place and its landscape and weatherscape brings with it an infinitely richer ground of being. Patrick Kavanagh said it too: ‘To know fully even one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience. In the world of poetic experience it is depth that counts, not width.’
The economic and social reasons for our modern mobility fetish are well understood, but what is perhaps less well understood is that when we lose a sense of place and a sense of belonging, we lose a way of being in the world . And although the books I mentioned at the beginning of this post are nevertheless fine examples of writing in their own way, British ecoliterature, in particular, is all the poorer for that lack.