Tag Archives: landscape

“The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot” and “Underland: A Deep Time Journey” by Robert MacFarlane

The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot (Landscapes)
Underland: A Deep Time Journey

These books came to my attention when I read Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain (see review dated March 25, 2021). 

The Old Ways is about walking, and about paths. MacFarlane sees walking as a relationship. You walk the path, and THE PATH WALKS YOU! You make the path deeper, clearer. In turn, the path stimulates your imagination, teaches you, connects you to landscape and history. The locations described in this book are in England, Scotland and “abroad”. My personal walks (especially during Covid) seem so very tame compared to those described by MacFarlane! My part of South Jersey is rectilinearly grided with roads laid down when farms were sold. See my poem “Pandemic Winter” (February 7, 2021). Why do I walk on roads, rather than paths? Ownership is one reason. Additionally, there are ticks, chiggers and mosquitoes. 

My rambles are more interesting on my bike. There are winding roads (not all paved), and more features to look at. Crop fields, tree farms, a corn maze, houses from modest to MacMansion, people and their pets. And birds!

Underland is similar, but about geographic features under the earth. It’s organized into three parts, titled Seeing (Britain), Hiding (Europe) and Haunting (The North). 

This book needs a trigger warning. “Don’t read if you suffer from claustrophobia.” Regrettably, I’m in that category, having unexpectedly freaked out during a medical procedure. I stopped reading “Underland” in the second Chapter, upset by a detailed description of the death of Neil Moss in 1958. Exploring Peak Cavern (Derbyshire) with friends, Moss stumbled and became wedged in a narrow passage. Every available type of rescue expertise was deployed, but he died. His father decided against efforts to recover his body, because of risk. It remains, entombed. I DON’T NEED THIS IN MY HEAD. A glance at other chapters of “Underland” convinced me to set the book aside. Too much confined space.

MacFarlane wrote other books and I look forward to sampling them. He’s a thoughtful writer. I’m curious about The Gifts of Reading and The Lost Spells. 

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“The Shepard’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape” by James Rebanks

This autobiographical book is magical! Rebanks was born into a sheep farming family in England’s Lake District. Farmers and their livestock (mostly sheep) are tied to their land by intense historical and cultural bonds. The sheep are raised on land too steep and rough for other agriculture (and possibly for other human use). Most of the sheep fend for themselves several months of the year, taking advantage of summer pastures held as “common” land, now generally owned by the British National Trust. Sheep are raised for meat, though much of their economics is determined by their breeding value. I was surprised to learn that wool no longer has much market value. The sheep must be shorn for their own health, but sometimes the wool is discarded, not being worth transport to market. I wonder if wool may regain its value in the future.

Rebanks builds his narrative around the seasons. Winter in the Lake District sounds brutal. It would be hard even if one wasn’t keeping livestock out of doors.

The Shepard’s Life was not written as a critique of the English educational system, but it can and should be read as such. Local teachers, no doubt with good intentions, told farm kids they should “think big”, consider careers off the farm and out in the “wider” world. The cumulative impact of these statements was to devalue the lives and business enterprises of the farm families.

Of his school’s headmistress, he says “The idea that we, our fathers, and mothers might be proud, hardworking, and intelligent people doing something worthwhile or even admirable was beyond her”.

Children became alienated from school by the time they reached their early teens, and they “acted out” with rudeness and delinquency. Rebanks stopped attending school before the age of 16. He was completely determined to follow in the footsteps of his beloved grandfather, who taught him “sheparding”, a way of life on the land handed down through generations and generations of farmers.

Rebanks’ father was “semiliterate” and scornful of education, but his mother wanted him to finish school. She valued reading. Once out of school, Rebanks became an avid reader. Eventually he attended night classes to prepare for university. His interview with Oxford included a heated argument with a tutor. Most of the time that he was enrolled, he returned home regularly to work on the farm.

Sheep farming in the Lake District provides only a subsistence income. Like many farmers, Rebanks has worked at other jobs in order to keep farming. He serves as a consultant to UNESCO on ecotourism. He jumped into the social media scene with a Twitter account in 2012. It was a surprise runaway hit, leading to an article in The Atlantic magazine and then to the book. Does this mean I should join Twitter?? (No… too little time!)

The lifestyle occupied by the Lake District sheep farmers occupies an interesting “niche”. It’s not “indigenous”, like that of the Inuit and other far northern people. It’s a little less secluded than the Amish. It carries all kinds of cultural implications, but doesn’t involve bilingualism.

In using a freely available biological resource, there is some resemblance between Rebanks’ sheparding and the cattle raising described in Bryce Andrews Badluck Way. (See my blog entry dated April 17, 2014.) But the cattle ranching in the American West lacked any cultural context. It was a desperate attempt to wring a profit from a dry, harsh landscape. No wonder Andrews only worked on the ranch for a single year. Nonetheless, each of these farmers has a complex relationship to a landscape and its ecosystems. I would love to hear a conversation between the two of them!

Read this book, brush up on William Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter, and if you get to England, put the Lake District onto your itinerary.

“Living at the End of Time” by John Hanson Mitchell

This memoir was published in 1990, a generation ago. Much of its appeal (for me) comes from the geographic setting – in Massachusetts, near the Boston beltway (aka Route 495). In this improbable spot, in the wake of a divorce, Mitchell built a rustic cabin on the land where his family and former wife lived.This book is an account of his first year in his relatively primitive, small (10’ by 16’) shack, which was located only half an hour from Walden Pond, where Henry David Thoreau undertook to “live simply” in 1845.

Mitchell loves the natural world and studied Thoreau extensively, although (see blog post on Walden Warming, by Richard Primack dated June 23, 2014) he may not have realized how excellent a naturalist Thoreau was. (By now, he has probably met Primack and caught up with anything he missed. Massachusetts is fortunate in the quality of its writers.)

At the start of his sojourn, Mitchell also decided to spend time with journals he inherited from family members, most notably his father’s account of several years spent in Japan.

All this adds up to an unfocused but charming set of reflections. Mitchell’s rural retreat suffers impingement by the new headquarters of Digital, Inc. Land is developed, but he is still surrounded by an amazing amount of undisturbed nature. He also “senses” the impact of earlier occupants on the land.

Checking the usual sources, I learned that Mitchell has written extensively and also served the cause of conservation as an employee of Massachusetts Audubon. I look forward to sampling his other books, essays and blog posts.

The appreciation of nature which is not remote and exotic has more recently been carried forward by Lynanda Haupt in Crow Planet: Finding Our Place in the Zoopolis, a more urban offering which I wrote about on June 7, 2013. My next trip to Massachusetts will be enhanced by my exposure to John Hansen Mitchell’s Living at the End of Time.