The Last Wilderness

Nature writing is such an intriguing genre. It’s so quiet and unassuming in its PR that you might not expect it to have such an honorable and long-standing history (Thoreau, Peter Matthiesson, Nan Shephard, Barry Lopez, J. A. Baker) or the capacity to produce extraordinary narratives like Pilgrim at Tinkers Creek by Annie Dillard and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. To this day, it’s a powerful form of storytelling still, with contemporary superstars like Robert Macfarlane and Roger Deakin. And yet unlike just about every other storytelling medium – film, television, news media and books – it eschews sensationalism and melodrama. Given that our environment is in the midst of one of the toughest of wars with mankind ever, it could be forgiven for ramping up the drama content, but no, the books I read continue to speak in the most serene of voices. Perhaps that’s precisely the charm.

Neil Ansell is the author who got me into nature writing, and so a new book of his is always an event. I know absolutely nothing about nature. I can identify a horse chestnut tree, a willow, a silver birch and probably an oak. I can point out a blackbird and a robin and a pigeon. I have a back garden with some plants in it. That’s it for me. So I never thought I would fall head over heels for the nature genre; but then I read Neil Ansell’s account of living alone in the Welsh countryside for five years, Deep Country, and was bowled over. This is what reading is all about: the invitation into an unknown world made real and vivid and inhabitable by the skill of the writing. When his second book came out, Deer Island, I made sure to secure a review copy and absorbed it in the same kind of trance as before. And now with his third, The Last Wilderness, I tried to hold back a little and understand what it is about his writing that is unique to him, and why I find it so affecting. It’s really hard to put my finger on, but over the course of this review, I’ll try.

The Last Wilderness concerns five visits taken over the course of a single year to the Rough Bounds in the Northwest Highlands of Scotland, one of the few places in the British Isles to contain truly ancient wild land, almost untouched by human society.  Ansell travelled there first as a young man, just embarking on many years of rootless wandering, and he decided to revisit it now that those years may be coming to an end due to failing health. With each trip he explores a different part of the region, endures the changing seasons, battles his own body and allows the present moment to trigger a rich web of memories drawn from other travels in other times and places. What matters to him throughout his wanderings is the quality of experience.

I can see an animal in a zoo, up close and personal, and yet it feels as if it barely even counts, I can watch a television documentary, and gain an intimate insight into the private life of an animal, and yet it is no substitute for the real thing. Nothing can compare to the joy inspired by even a brief encounter with a scarce and beautiful wild animal in its natural element. It is not about what I have seen, it is about forging a momentary connection with the wild and finding a place in the world for my own wild heart.’

And forging a connection is something he continually does, often with unexpected results:

As I walked the path one scorching hot day, the air flexing in the rising heat, I saw a crow walking the path ahead of me. I kept expecting it to flush as I approached, but it never did; instead it hopped up and perched on top of my head. I felt strangely proud as I continued my way towards the harbour with my animated headdress. And then it drove its beak into the very top of my skull as if it was trying to crack a nut.’

There’s an exquisite attentiveness throughout the narrative , not just to animals but to landscape too:

An individual wood can have some intangible quality that makes it stand apart from all the other woods. This one somehow felt different from the other birch woods I had travelled through. The birch is part of a natural succession. It is quick to take hold, and it will usually be the first tree to grow on neglected land, before finally giving way to oak or whatever other tree forms the climax vegetation of the locality. Here, it was a permanent fixture. Nothing else would ever take its place; it was as though it had finally been able to step out of the shadows, out of its role as supporting act, and fulfil its true potential.’

And I also appreciated the attentiveness Ansell pays to his own authentic nature as it is shaped by his environment; the nomadic times in which ‘the shock of the new gives me an intensity of experience, a sudden depth of focus that will perhaps never be replicated’, and the settled times in which extended periods in one place allow him to ‘become gradually aware of how things are more subtle and complex than they first appeared, of how malleable and mutable is the world’. And as a person who can be entirely self-sufficient, there’s an insightful meditation on what it is to be solitary: ‘Empathy is not a zero sum game; caring about nature does not mean you care less about other people.’ The benefits of solitude are to be found in a kind of emptying out of the social ego, leading to a heightened state of sensory arousal, in which the relationship to the external world can strengthen and deepen.

If I quote extensively here, it’s because the voice feels so unusual to me in a clamouring, chattering world of rapid and mostly superficial thought. The Last Wilderness charts all manner of loss – loss of the virgin earth, untrodden and unspoiled by mankind, loss of so many species of animals, loss of Ansell’s hearing and loss of his confidence in his personal strength as he begins to suffer from an undiagnosed heart condition. But to my mind, the loss that is most striking, but which is noticeable in this book precisely because it contains so much of it, is loss of a certain state of mind. Ansell is an unusual man. He is solitary and contemplative, accepting and philosophical, non-competitive and non-materialistic, keen on simplicity but not on what is simplistic, and deeply respectful of the land and all it contains. He conjures up so much time in this book, slows down the reader’s mind, and shows us what can be accomplished with a mind that is wide open to everything in the vicinity. That state of mind is as much an endangered species as the mountain gorilla and the Siberian Tiger. Perhaps that’s why inhabiting it in a book feels very precious.

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Recovery

A week on from our various disasters and Mr Litlove is pretty much healed. Now the only actions that bother his shoulder occur in front of the computer, when too much mouse-work can make his arm sore. It was a revelation, watching his recovery process, however. He simply stopped, until the aches and pains from his trapped nerve had gone away, and then he gradually started moving again, easy household tasks to begin with – January’s been a washout work-wise but we’ve done a lot of de-cluttering – and then starting to exercise and return to his workshop. I am forced to realise I have never been that patient and accepting of my lot in my life. As for me, the optician was delighted with how much my eye had improved, and I don’t need to go back unless it flares up again. But ever since, I’ve had gritty, uncomfortable eyes, made worse by reading and looking at the computer screen. I’m typing quite fast here, hoping I can get through a post before the discomfort kicks in. I should be more like Mr Litlove, I suppose, content to stop until the problem has gone away, but I am not like him, alas.

the outrunBut the topic of recovery has been in my mind since reading Amy Liptrot’s memoir of alcohol addiction and tentative recovery, The Outrun. This is an exquisitely written first book that marries degradation and disgrace in London with a growing love of nature and its healing powers in Orkney. Liptrot comes from Orkney originally, where her mismatched parents went in search of a good life. Her father is a manic-depressive, her mother, since their divorce, a born-again Christian. Liptrot wanted nothing more than to escape the islands when she grew up, and moved south to London to pursue a university degree and a career in journalism. But the demon drink got a hold of her too. A self-confessed sensation-seeker, she fell so easily into the ready excesses of life in an isolating city, and her unflinching memoir gives a clear account of the humiliations consequent to too much booze. She loses the man she loves – which gives her even more reason to drink – gets chucked out of many a house share, is nearly raped by a stranger one drunken night, can’t hold down a job. London can do that to you, I think; the combination of opportunity and loneliness is a difficult one to negotiate.

If London can be a place of downfall, then the obvious thing to do is find a place of healing. After a course in rehab, Amy heads home, not for any better reason that she has nothing much else to do, and staying sober is hard, treacherous work. The cravings of the alcoholic never really go away, no matter how much damage is done to the self, and so the fight for sobriety is one that has to be fought daily. But the Orkney islands turn out to offer more solace than she at first imagines. She finds a job with the RSPB tracking the remaining corncrakes on Orkney – a tiny brown bird with a distinctive call that has almost become extinct due to modern farming practices. And this proves such an improving thing to do that she takes on a tiny cottage in the small island of Papa Westray for the winter. One thing about the Orkney islands: they are very windy. On one of her walks, Amy describes how: ‘I ascend the hill in a crouched position, probably watched by amused islanders in the houses below.  I lie forward into the wind, like a mattress of air: it takes my breath and exhausts me –  a full-body experience. It’s loud enough to hide in.’ She describes another windy day – one noted in Orkney history no less, when ‘tethered cows had been flying in the air like kites.’ It seems clear that this sort of wildness is congruent with Liptrot’s inner wildness, one that could not be appeased by alcohol, although it looked like it would suit the task, but can be calmed in a weather system that’s powerfully bigger than she is.

I wonder how often it is that we do not want what we think we want. I wonder how often we live in circumstances that do us damage in the long-run because we can’t think beyond our immediate solutions, and lack the courage or the motivation to try something else. I remember reading somewhere that humans tend to shy away from change because it’s so hard to do, and unless we’re really up against it, we’ll bumble on as we are.

The book has two rhythms. The first half is a rapid, forceful descent into the darkness of alcoholism, and it’s immensely gripping. The second part is a much more languid and dilatory affair, with chapters exploring different aspects of life on Orkney and Amy’s slow rehabilitation. It makes for a slightly uneven book, but I actually appreciated the honesty of this. Recovery does not happen in linear fashion. It goes back and forth, picks up new hitches and secondary issues, returns us time and again to things we thought we were done with. ‘I still have nervousness around other people,’ Liptrot writes. ‘When you’ve spent so long messing up, covering up and apologising, it’s hard to shake the feeling that you’ve done something wrong and default to the secretive and even sneaky behaviour that addiction involves. I often have a flickering sense that I must have said or done something terribly misjudged.’ Although Amy Liptrot is, in theory, not my kind of person at all – an extrovert, a sensation-seeker, a louder-than-life person, I found myself relating effortlessly to her situation, her determination to recover and her courageous honesty. Only the truth will save us, they say, and that’s about right. This is a very truthful book, searingly so, and all the better for it. I wanted to tell her at the end: stay sober, Amy, so you can keep writing.

And in the hope of furthering my own recovery, I’ve signed up for an online course with the Optimum Health Clinic, the specialist chronic fatigue centre. ‘Conscious Transformation’ it’s called, and is about finding the right mindset to get through the illness and out the other side. I know what a long, slow process recovery can be, and I do hope that this will make a difference. It starts in February and I don’t doubt I’ll tell you about it as I go through the tasks.

 

A P.S. – I love your comments and appreciate them so much, but staying away from computer screens has put me behind in replying. I will catch up as soon as possible.

It’s A Jungle Out There

orchardthiefEvery so often a non-fiction book becomes surprisingly popular, as I understand The Orchid Thief did after the release of Adaptation, the Charlie Kaufman film that was very loosely based upon it. I haven’t seen the film (tell me: should I?) but I did recently read the book. It wasn’t quite what I expected, but it was extremely intriguing in all sorts of unexpected ways.

Basically, Susan Orlean, a regular contributor to The New Yorker, read a small article in a paper about an eccentric named John Laroche who was on trial for having attempted to steal a large quantity of ghost orchids from the Fakahatchee Strand in Florida. Curious about his motivations, Orlean went to Florida to follow the trial and to learn more about both Laroche and the world of orchid thieves and collectors (can be tricky to distinguish the two). Initially, this became a New Yorker article, and then Orleans turned it into a book, which is maybe why the story of Laroche bookends a mass of digressive but often engaging information about the history of orchid collecting, the character of the plant men that she meets in Florida, life on an Indian reservation and the nature, in all its meanings, of the state of Florida.

But first, Laroche, whom she describes as ‘a tall guy, skinny as a stick, pale-eyed, slouch-shouldered, and sharply handsome, in spite of the fact that he is missing all his front teeth. He has the posture of al dente spaghetti and the nervous intensity of someone who plays a lot of video games.’ Laroche has a history of manic obsession, beginning as a child with turtles, and moving on to Ice Age fossils, lapidary, old mirrors, tropical fish and then, finally, orchids. Each passion was intense, short-lived, and fiercely compartmentalised. After he had given away the 60 fish tanks he collected, for example, he did not go near the Atlantic, despite living so close to it, for the next 17 years. Or so he says – Orleans reports him faithfully I don’t doubt, but you do begin to wonder quite how much confabulation occurs in every one of Laroche’s stories. Still, he does appear to be one of those people to whom extreme things happen. In the run-up to stealing the orchids, he went through a particularly taxing few years. He spilled toxic pesticide on a cut and suffered irreversible heart and liver damage from it. He was in a dreadful car crash that cost him his front teeth, put his wife in a coma and killed his mother and uncle. Then he separated from his wife. Then the plant nursery he owned was decimated by severe frosts, contaminated fungicide and Hurricane Andrew. In need of work, he came to work on the Seminole reservation, starting up a nursery for them.

Obsessed by orchids, and aware of how much money could be made from a ready source of hard-to-find ghost orchids, he believed he could get around the laws that preserve endangered species. The Fakahatchee strand is Seminole land, and land belonging to Indians is supposed to be free from the usual laws in the U.S. Laroche took two Indians with him into the swamp and made them do the collecting, but as they emerged with four cotton pillowcases full of two hundred species of orchid and bromeliad they were, as the phrase goes, ‘apprehended’ and charged with theft.

Just when you think that Laroche is a unique oddity, Orleans launches into the history of orchid collecting, in which a large number of rich and greedy and obsessed patrons sent plant hunters off to the wild and dangerous parts of the globe with unreasonable demands. The plant hunters, themselves obsessed, reckless, greedy and, in the way they depleted large areas of indigenous plants, thoughtless, were happy to do their bidding. Somehow the world survived and plants trotted the globe, mostly dying en route until someone figured out the bell jar. Orchids more than any other plant seem to inspire a certain frantic passion and because they are, on the whole, a lot tougher than they look, have produced thousands of different species to keep collectors on their toes. Laroche had his own methods of maintaining a clear conscience, while going about the business of stealing plants:

he would poach only a limited number at a time and he would never strip every one off a single tree and, most important, he would be poaching so that he could help the species in the long run by propagating it in his lab and making the orchids cheap and available. He trusted himself alone to balance out pros and cons, to disregard rules and use real judgement instead. He thought that no one else in the world could see things his way because other people had attitudes that were as narrow as ribbon and they had no common sense at all. For a single-minded lunatic like John Laroche, this seemed like a very bold position to take.’

This is a book packed full of eccentrics, madmen (very few lady collectors) and con artists. And when you reach Florida, the state of outsize everything, you seem to be in a landscape that inspires crazy schemes on a huge scale. I enjoyed reading about the Florida land scam that began somewhere around 1824 with a number of wide boys selling plots of Florida that they didn’t own, and which multiplied and grew until 1975 when the main company involved was $350 million in debt.

The subsequent bankruptcy took thirteen years to settle and is considered the biggest and most complex reorganization in Florida’s corporate history, involving more than nine thousand creditors, twenty-seven thousand lot owners and five hundred thousand acres of land.’

It’s almost as if Florida invites this sort of trouble, Orleans explains. The land is permanently changing as more coastal areas are reclaimed, and what’s there is so vast and wild and uncontrollable. Nature always wins in the end, but the urge to battle her is irresistible. ‘The flat plainness of Florida doesn’t impose itself on you, so you can impose upon it your own kind of dream,’ Orleans writes. And this is the core of the book, not so much articulated as voyaged around repeatedly. Man vs. nature results in all kinds of unhealthy obsessions, all of them doomed, but all hypnotic nevertheless.

There is a lot going on in this book, huge amounts of data on offer, outlandish characters, hair-raising exploits, lots of chances to shake your head in sighing pity for the silly things people do on tenuous justification. Orleans has a repetitive style that can grate at times, but then she said a lot of things I marked up as interesting, too. An enjoyable and worthwhile read, just don’t expect as much about John Laroche as the blurb implies.

Best Books of 2013

This may not have been a fabulous year for me personally, but it was a great reading year. I had very few reading slumps and enjoyed a bumper number of good books. Above all it was the year for non-fiction, so much so that I’ve had to introduce a range of categories to cover all the books I feel obliged to mention. Let us look back fondly.

Best Literary Fiction

Louise Erdrich – The Round House

Siri Hustvedt – The Sorrows of an American

 

Best Innovative Fiction

J. R. Crook – Sleeping Patterns

 

Best Historical Fiction

Hilary Mantel – Wolf Hall

 

Best Debut Novel

Beatrice Hitchman – Petite Mort

 

Best Quirky Cute Novel You Can Read In An Afternoon

Alexis M. Smith – Glaciers

 

Best General Fiction

Maggie O’Farrell – Instructions for a Heatwave

Harriet Lane – Alys Always

Amanda Smyth – A Kind of Eden

 

Best Contemporary Crime

Stella Rimington – The Geneva Trap

T. V. LoCicero –Admission of Guilt

 

Best Golden Age Crime

Elizabeth Daly – Somewhere in the House

 

Best Crime That Managed To Be About More Than Crime

Attica Locke – The Cutting Season

 

Best Poetry Collection

Kaddy Benyon – Milk Fever

 

Best Creative Non-Fiction. Category: Nature

Kathleen Jamie – Findings

Neil Ansell – Deer Island

 

Best Creative Non-Fiction. Category: Memoir

Jennie Erdal – Ghosting

James Lasdun – Give Me Everything You Have; On Being Stalked

Kathryn Harrison – The Mother Knot

 

Best Creative Non-Fiction. Category: Completely Uncategorizable

Maggie Nelson – Bluets  (my favourite post of the year)

Stephen Grosz – The Examined Life

 

Best Non-Fiction That Brought Self-Illumination

Kathryn Schultz – Being Wrong

Susan Cain – Quiet

 

Special Award for Services to Existentialism

(I will never tire of watching that)