Nature writer extraordinaire Robert Macfarlane is at the forefront of a wave of climate-change literature that’s picking up speed as temperatures rise and the Anthropocene forces us to rethink our relationship with the natural world. Over the course of his nine critically acclaimed books, this Oxford-born author and Cambridge University Professor has scaled mountains, rediscovered ancient country lanes and abseiled into the depths of glaciers, winning numerous awards and restoring the lost lexicon of the wild in the process. At this year’s ILB, he’ll be presenting his latest novel Underland: A Deep Time Journey, which charts his descent beneath the earth’s surface, uncovering its past in an attempt to save its future. We caught up with him before the festival and probed him about Underland’s adventurous creative process, his fascination with the natural world, and glimmers of hope in the climate crisis.
You’ve been travelling through and writing about nature for almost 20 years now. What sparked such a personal connection with the natural world?
I came from a family of mountain climbers; my grandfather was a well-known mountaineer who was involved with planning the Everest expeditions of the mid-20th century. So I spent a lot of my childhood in and around the mountains of north-east Scotland and beyond, and I think that’s where this passion for landscape and the power it can hold over people’s hearts and minds was born. It was absolutely self-evident to me that it was sensible to climb mountains in howling winter blizzards and scorching summer sun! I’ve spent the rest of my life trying to puzzle out why we fall in love with landscape which doesn’t love us back.
At the ILB, you’ll be discussing your ground-breaking latest feat, Underland: A Deep Time Journey. What drew you and your writing beneath the surface of the earth?
The gradient of my work has always been tending downwards. I began on the mountains in 2003 with my first book Mountains of the Mind, before steadily moving downwards to The Wild Places (2007), which was about valleys and moors, and The Old Ways (2012), about paths pressed into the ground by feet. I also co-wrote a little book called Holloway (2014), which is about a very deep sunken path in Dorset. From this trajectory came Underland. But more factually, in 2010 four catastrophic events occurred: the Haitian earthquake, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the Icelandic volcanic eruption that grounded flights across Europe and the Atlantic, and then the 33 Chilean miners trapped in the San José copper-gold mine in the Atacama Desert. So that year it was very hard not to think about the underworld and particularly what happened when it surfaced. So that’s where the idea began and then it took me another two years to really turn to it, and then another six years to write it.
When describing ‘socialist’ and ‘free-market’ interpretations of the ‘wood wide web’ (the subterranean social network of trees) in Underland, you argue that we mistakenly try to smuggle our very human politics into more-than-human ecological systems in an attempt to understand them. In attempting to tackle the climate crisis, do we fall into the same trap? Are any of our existing political systems sufficient?
In a sense, anthropomorphism is an inescapable human means of understanding and exegesis. In terms of the climate crisis, it’s all politics really. One way to rename the era we’re living in is not ‘the Anthropocene’ but ‘the Capitalocene’, as it’s capitalism in its systemic, sustained form that has produced the climate crisis. And so, the question really is whether one longs for the utter overhaul of our systems of organisation – which certainly won’t come in time, if at all – or whether we seek something like a radical eco-socialist version of the Green New Deal and move towards de-carbonisation. We’d still use the markets and it’d remain a kind of extractive practice, but we’d extract the raw materials for renewables rather than fossil fuels. The perfect is the enemy of the good. In many scenarios, we don’t have time to see the perfect now, we just have to see the best good, the best way forwards. For me, that’s an Ocasio-Cortez model of the Green New Deal.
As the climate crisis worsens, is it fair to say that a new category of Anthropocene literature is emerging?
All literature is Anthropocene literature now, it’s just a question of how openly it acknowledges it. In particular, any writing about nature and place now has to exist in the shadow of crisis. Crisis isn’t a deferable future event; it’s here and it’s unfolding around the planet. The days of naïve innocence, of literature of only joy and wonder, are gone. But this recognition of the Anthropocene doesn’t mean a jettisoning of hope, beauty and wonder. Holding tight to and seeing those clearly alongside the chaos is part of what eco-feminist Donna Haraway calls “staying with the trouble”. For me, the best of this new literature – and I don’t mean my own – is clear-eyed, active and reactive; it’s thinking hard at levels of form as well as content about how it responds to this multiply scaled and hugely dispersed situation.
In Underland, you speak of moments when language fails to capture the landscape around you. What were the biggest linguistic challenges you faced and how did you overcome them?
The linguistic challenges really came in the northern third of the book. The first is ice. The time I spent in Arctic Norway and Arctic Greenland coincided with what was then the summer of greatest melt. It’s this double sense of ice as utterly powerful, volatile and profoundly more than human, an incomprehensible substance off which language slips without any friction at all; but also ice as this substance which is vulnerable to us because we have enveloped it within climate breakdown. There’s a real cognitive dissonance in seeing this beautiful ancient substance that is lively and has a memory, vanishing and shifting under circumstances beyond its control. That was profoundly difficult to write about. So, I ended up writing these quite stuttered crystalline chapters. And then when I went to what I thought would be the end of the world really – the nuclear waste storage facility in Finland, the only deep geological depository for high-level nuclear waste. The surprise there was what a hopeful place it was in the end. This was an example of us trying our best to “stay with the trouble” and to be good ancestors; to clear up a toxic mess that we’ve made in half a century and make it safe for humans and species that we will never know.
Especially in the ‘Red Dancers’ chapter, your prose is inflected with poetic language, rhyme and rhythm. There’s a real merging of fiction and non-fiction forms. Could you ever see yourself branching into fiction?
Thank you for hearing the rhyme and the rhythm; I’m pretty obsessive about those things and I believe that prose can be as patterned as poetry. I really strive to grain and groove the language in those ways. I will never write a novel because I find non-fiction to be at least as adventurous and innovative as any novel could be. I learnt early on that I always wanted to play with form and bring genres together even in the course of a page. To move and shift voice. Because landscape is made up of so many voices, human and more than human, and it seems to me that to write about its layers and its facets and its histories you have to speak in many voices. I’m always trying to make something new.
You’re passionate about uncovering forgotten language. Your children’s book The Lost Words, which you created with illustrator Jackie Morris in 2017, has recently been translated into German and published here. How did this project come about?
Jackie and I wrote it to put everyday nature back into the everyday speech and imaginations of children. We took twenty words which formed a crooked A to Z from ‘acorn’ to ‘wren’, by way of ‘bluebell’, ‘heron’ and ‘kingfisher’, which had been excluded from a well-known junior dictionary because the algorithms said they weren’t being used enough by children. We wanted to make a spell book to conjure them back. The Lost Words should be in almost 80% of primary schools across Britain by the end of this year, a copy donated by all these crowd funding campaigns and individuals. It’s sort of created a minor green revolution, particularly in primary schools but also in hospice care, among asylum seekers and in dementia work. All of these people have lost words in some way, whether it’s the country and language they’ve left behind or memories slipping away through dementia, or the children who, through no fault of their own, have never seen a willow tree. It’s a sort of hearts and minds attempt to bring us back to a recognition of common nature. It’s an attempt to reverse the usual flow of the idea of growing things; we think of ourselves as growing nature, but actually nature grows us.
How did nature grow you most profoundly over the course of your research?
I spent a lot of time literally with the dead in the Parisian catacombs or in Mesolithic burial sites. Being in the darkness so much, it reminded me that we’re often more tender to the dead than the living, whereas it’s the living that need our tenderness most. I was reminded of the astonishing power of love, of the hand extended in greeting and kindness, and that that is our best chance as a species right now. I also understood that deep time, geological time, unfolds away from us into the future as well as behind us into past. I’d always thought of deep time as that extraordinary sense of the earth’s ancientness. But the climate crisis and this question of good ancestry throws all that ahead of us and questions, as the book does, what we are leaving behind.
Plant scientist Merlin Sheldrake, one of the many experts you work with throughout the book, describes his plan to write the “dark twin” of each scientific paper; its “frothy” underside – “the drunken conversations and fuck-ups that bring science into being”. Any examples of frothy fuck-ups during the creative process of Underland?
There are about 100,000 words of them! I’ve always been a huge over writer, the first draft was nearly 200,000 words or more. And in a sense, that is the finished book’s “dark twin” because all of that was hidden and cut away. There is an unpublished 17-page extract about celebrating Ukrainian Independence Day on the remote east coast of Greenland with an inflatable catamaran manned by a Russian special forces agent and two Ukrainian nationalists. This was when the Russia-Ukraine conflict was in full swing. I think they probably became polar bear food because they had very bad camp hygiene; no tripwires, no weapons, and they laid out all the fish they caught. They might as well have put up a big polar bear drive-through MacDonald’s sign over their camp! That was profoundly surreal, they were the only other humans we saw in that time.
All of the various underworlds you explore seem to possess that surreal dimension.
Indeed, the underworld is where we put the things we care about and fear the most. It doesn’t obey the rules of the upper world. It is confined, dark, visionary and exclusionary. Very odd things, odd people and odd creatures, appear around it. I still don’t know quite what those white creatures were that were swimming in the Timavo River a thousand feet underground in northern Italy or who that figure was on the shore after I emerged from the sea cave in Norway or why I felt such a huge compulsion to swim into that flooded labyrinth beneath Budapest.
This is your first time at the ILB, what are you most excited about?
I’m really looking forward to crossing Europe by train to get there and I’m excited about having my work read aloud in German. My translators work really closely with sound and rhythm. And, of course, I want to talk to German audiences about their own unterland: the salt domes, the Barbarastollen archive, the Hambach Forest and its lignite mines – how the underworld and the Anthropocene plays out in the German cultural imagination. I can’t wait!
Robert Macfarlane | Sep 13, 19:30, James-Simon-Galerie