Five Hundred Acre Wood via
The English were the first modern people to develop a city-dwelling majority: some time around 1850, the year when Dickens was writing Bleak House, Henry Mayhew was editing his explorations of London’s meaner streets, and American literature was still dwelling in the small-town world of The Scarlet Letter. More than a century had passed since the English had invented a modern urban art form: the novel. Admittedly, Cervantes and Rabelais had shown the way, by organizing its parent formats—the romance and the short story—around characters rather than situations, as Boccaccio and Chaucer had done. But stringing together short stories is not the same as the intense realism of Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding. We experience Moll Flanders and Robinson Crusoe as real people, because their experience is comprehensive. Defoe does not need to digress into daisy chains of anecdote tragical-historical-pastoral. Moll’s world is already full: she exists in the present intense.
Even novelists doubted whether the intensity of that present was a healthy experience. In the 1770s, when Boston contained 20,000 people, London was on the way to its first million. “London is literally new to me,” grumbles the misanthropic Matthew Bramble in Smollett’s Humphry Clinker (1771). “New in its streets, houses and even in its situation. . . . What I left open fields, producing hay and corn, I now find covered with streets, and squares, and palaces, and churches.” Bramble reaches for the now-familiar imagery of organic disorder. London is an “overgrown monster,” whose “dropsical head” sucks in people from the country. Bramble fears this unnatural imbalance will “leave the body and head without nourishment and support.” For the first time, the erasure of nature by brick and cobble seems possible. The artificial city lays a new foundation for society. In London’s parks, as Voltaire had noticed, the apprentice paraded with the aristocrat, an equal in leisure. “In short,” complains Mr. Bramble, “there is no distinction or subordination left. The different departments of life are jumbled together.”
Georgian London was the first English Sublime. Compare Burke’s definition of 1757 with the complaints of Smollett’s Mr. Bramble. Burke defines the sublime as “astonishment . . . with some degree of horror.” The mind is “so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on that object which employs it.” This overwhelming is the source of the sublime’s power: “far from being produced by them, it anticipates our reasonings, and hurries us on by an irresistible force.” And here comes Mr. Bramble, trying to cross the road in a city where “all is tumult and hurry.”
One would imagine they were impelled by some disorder of the brain, that will not suffer them to be at rest. The foot passengers run along as if they were pursued by bailiffs. The porters and chairmen trot with their burthens. People, who keep their own equipages, drive through the streets at full speed. Even citizens, physicians and apothecaries glide in their chariots like lightning. The hackney-coachmen make their horses smoke, and the pavement shakes under them; and I have actually seen a waggon pass through Piccadilly at the hand-gallop. In a word, the whole nation seems to be running out of their wits.
London made the Georgian novel by its power of attraction. It made Romantic verse by its power to repel. The crowding of the streets, the fouling of the air and water, the cost of living, and what Mr. Bramble called “the vile ferment of stupidity and corruption” all turned the sensitive stomach, and the sensitive eye, towards the country—or what remained of it. By the time Wordsworth and Coleridge went in search of crags and valleys, England had been turned into London’s back garden. The thinking, feeling Individual—capitalized as the antithesis to the vile, fermenting Mass—could only find Nature on the ragged fringe of Civilization, where the terrain was too rough to be monetized: the Lake District, rural Wales, the Hebrides.
“The use of travelling,” Dr. Johnson wrote to Hester Thrale from the Isle of Skye in 1773, “is to regulate imagination by reality and, instead of thinking how things may be, to see them as they are.” But the first wave of Georgian tourists carried the baggage of urban life, like weekenders who visit Whole Foods before heading upstate. A decade earlier, James Macpherson’s “discovery” of Ossian had turned the Hebrides into one of the shrines of a new European culture that prized the authentic, the rustic, and the remote. Gaelic became fashionable for the first time since the retreat of the Romans, and the “Homer of the Highlands” attained a cachet out of all proportion to his talent or authenticity. Goethe included excerpts in his Sorrows of Young Werther (1774). Herder reflected on their cultural implications in “Extract from a Correspondence about Ossian and the Songs of Ancient Peoples.”
Imagination regulated reality. Life imitating art: when Sir Joseph Banks discovered a resonant sea cave in the Hebrides in 1772, he did not publicize it under its local name of Uamh-Binn, “cave of melody.” He renamed it Fingal’s Cave, in honor of Macpherson’s fictional hero. Felix Mendelssohn came next, and then J. M. W. Turner in 1831. To him, the natural wonder shares its habitat with an unnatural wonder, a pleasure steamer. Black smoke smears the view. The experience of Nature in the wilderness is beginning to replicate the experience of Nature in the city. The viewer has to pretend not to see the boat, the smoke, or the tourists, just as Blake had used his “prophetic” eye to see the historic terrain of the city afresh. In Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion (1804), Blake rendered invisible the grid of new streets that had been laid over the “little meadows green” of his childhood. Then, having cleared the vista, he superimposed upon it another sophisticated construction, in which the vicinity of Regent’s Park becomes the Eden where the “Lamb of God” and “fair Jerusalem his Bride” had sported when the world was new.
Is it a Truth that the Learned have Explored? Was Britain the primitive Seat of the Patriarchal Religion? . . . All things Begin & End in Albion’s Ancient Druid Rocky Shore.
Poetry, Keith Douglas wrote, is what survives of the beloved. The English Romantics knew Nature when they saw it, because Nature was what remained after the great urbanization. The bigger the cities became, the deeper the longing, and the mistier the nostalgia. The result was the conquest of the country, and its conversion to utility as a reservoir for the Victorian and Edwardian imagination. The masterpieces of the nursery were written by the children of urban clerks, teachers, and lawyers: Mr. Pooter’s children. They knew the country from visits to rural relatives and day trips on the train, and their lost England is the scene of their lost childhoods. Kenneth Grahame lived by the Thames with his grandmother for a few years, then went to work in the Bank of England. Beatrix Potter was the daughter of a London lawyer who took his children on healthy holidays in the Lake District. A. A. Milne was the son of a London headmaster, and first found success writing plays and film scripts. A. E. Housman worked at the Patent Office before escaping to the ivory tower. Even Richard Jefferies, whose Wood Magic (1881) and Bevis (1882) inspired the fantasists of the nursery, was not a real countryman. The farm had only been in his family for two generations before his father sold up and moved to Bath as a domestic gardener, and, despite the impression given by Bevis, Jefferies spent much of his childhood in the London suburb of Sydenham.
The nursery library remains one of the high points of English literature. But, for all its rural locations, there is little Nature in it. There may be no more telling scene in this literature than the moment when the clubbable chaps of The Wind in the Willows (1908) have a vision of Pan in the Surrey hills. This is as true in spirit to the English countryside as it is false in fact. For, as Kipling described in Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906), Puck, not the Pan of the Romans, is the indigenous spirit; Kipling, of course, only came to the English countryside as an adult. The same overlaying of Classical schooling distorts the terrain of Housman’s A Shropshire Lad (1896). Tramping the tumescent uplands in “The Merry Guide,” he beholds a dewy “youth” who sports a “feathered cap on forehead,” and grasps “a golden rod.” No one had walked the hills of Shropshire in this get-up since the days of Robin Hood.
A generation raised on Potter’s Peter Rabbit, Grahame’s Toad, and Housman’s Shropshire Lad became the second great wave of Georgian tourists. Jefferies’s lines from The Amateur Poacher (1879) haunted the young Edward Thomas, a Londoner who had taken childhood holidays in Wales: “Let us get out of these indoor narrow modern days, whose twelve hours somehow have become shortened, into the sunlight and pure wind.” Retreating to the country, Thomas survived by hack reviewing, the kind of lifestyle that depended on regular mails and trains.
The Georgians took to the hills as Blériot took to the skies. The infernal combustion engine finished off the old British countryside: nowhere was now a day trip from somewhere. V. S. Pritchett, raised in the Suffolk market town of Ipswich and the less salubrious suburbs of south London, thought that the country was never the same after the old chalk roads were tarmacked. As Laurie Lee wrote of the illicit endogamists around Stroud, Gloucestershire, “Quiet incest flourished where the roads were bad.”
Exeunt, pursued by Daimler-Benz. The Georgians’ name betrays their destination: beating back into a past that Dr. Johnson would have recognized. In truth, the wild England of Langland’s Chiltern hills or Shakespeare’s Arden woods had almost disappeared by the time of Wordsworth and Coleridge. The rural ideal was not Eden, but Arcadia, with a centerpiece from the Odes of Horace: the country house, with its restrained Classical trim, its weathered stone, and its well-stocked library. The interwar Modernists shared in this dream and its anguished dissolution: Waugh, raised in suburban Golders Green, became the squire of Stinchcombe, standing athwart progress in his plus-fours. Pound and Yeats spent the last winter before the Great War near Ashdown in Kent, at Stone Cottage, on the other side of Five Hundred-Acre Wood from where A. A. Milne was to live.
A modest, elegaic tradition of nature writing survived, mostly memoirs of childhood in benighted but scenic locations, but, by the mid-nineteenth century, most English nature writers were travel writers, just as most visitors to the countryside were tourists, not pilgrims. And an English travel writer had to travel in order to write. Apart from the appalling weather, the British countryside was crowded, manicured, and over-written: all that remained to be said was Stella Gibbons’s brilliant parody of Victorian country fiction, Cold Comfort Farm (1932).
Literary traditions are often compared to rivers, but travel writing was formed in the image of modern transport: trains and boats and planes. Perhaps the English took so well to travel writing because, impelled to leave their wet island, they glided outwards on the cheap and reliable networks of imperial transport: port out, starboard home. The main line of English travel writing runs from the ornate Oriental terminus of Charles Kinglake’s Eothen (1844, the year of Turner’s Rain, Steam, and Speed) to the Southern Baroque station of Norman Douglas’s Old Calabria (1915), and thence to the modern crossroads, Robert Byron’s Road to Oxiana (1937), where the stationmaster is too suave for his own good. From here, those with time on their hands may wish to explore the sidings of Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene, or take a trip on the Aldous Huxley miniature railway, with its famous D. H. Lawrence tea room. After suspension of services due to work on the tracks between 1939 and 1945, the English line survived the postwar decades by running irregular services to favorite destinations (Patrick Leigh Fermor’s fondly remembered Greek excursions, and his much delayed trans-European express) and odd new markets beyond the reach of the package tourist (Wilfred Thesiger and Bruce Chatwin).
The native Naturists did not die out after 1945, but they too diversified. In Akenfield: A Portrait of an English Village (1969), Ronald Blythe, a Suffolk farmer’s son, became a Studs Terkel of the fields and compiled an artful social history. Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise to Candleford (1943) and Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie (1959) had a similar appeal: like the great house of Brideshead Revisited, Nature was the stage set on which the tragic denouement of the old ways played out, the old order extinguished. T. H. White’s The Goshawk (1951), his memoir of his struggle to train a predator, was unpublished for nearly twenty years; meanwhile White became better known as the author of Dark Ages fantasies. Gavin Maxwell, who, as The House of Elrig (1965) describes, had grown up in rural Scotland, wrote beautifully on the Hebrides and the Western Highlands. But Maxwell’s Scottish stories describe the invasions of modern life, and usually by Maxwell himself. In Harpoon at a Venture (1952), Maxwell the conservationist introduces industrial shark fishing to the Inner Hebrides. In Ring of Bright Water (1960), he violates further precepts by introducing an Iraqi otter into Scotland; the brutal outcome is only slightly more traumatic for the otter, bludgeoned to death with a hammer, than for the reader, battered with Maxwell’s bleak view of life.
Maxwell’s otter was a souvenir of his travels among the Marsh Arabs of southern Iraq with Wilfred Thesiger, a trip that generated travel books for both of them. The born nature writer was acquiring the traits and royalty statements of the travel writer. And the travel writer’s lucrative exile might have appealed for another reason. Postwar Britain looked outwards for its aesthetic cues, to Paris and New York, not upwards to the imperial officer class who had dominated both nature and travel writing, and who now, with the empire gone, seemed as superfluous as a wooden plow. These were the decades of James Lees-Milne’s diaries: death taxes on the great estates, demolitions and sell-offs to the National Trust, tea rooms in the old stables. Masterpieces of the rural childhood memoir, like Herbert Read’s The Innocent Eye (1940) and Alison Uttley’s The Country Child (1931), were forgotten. The Classical curriculum, which had dignified the landscape as well as falsified it, fell from grace in all but the private schools. Children were still permitted to read The Wind in the Willows, but the weasels had overrun Toad Hall.
The filming of Henry Williamson’s Tarka the Otter (1927) in 1979 seemed to mark the end of the road, or the muddy lane, for nature writing, even at its most anthropomorphic. Williamson’s Herder-style reflections on the relationship between kinship, language, and place had led him into fascism. Nature writing was by the posh and for the posh, a legacy of the old, ever-dying England.
How, then, are we now amid a comeback of nature writing in “vibrant” and “multicultural” Britain? There is no doubt that we are undergoing a revival. The bookshops of England are full of books about moors, marginal areas, and seasons spent on recondite rural pursuits. The leaders of the pack are Helen Macdonald, author of the memoir H is for Hawk (2014), and Robert Macfarlane. A Cambridge academic like A. E. Housman, Macfarlane has produced a trilogy of clever, illuminating, and artfully written books: The Wild Places (2007), The Old Ways (2012), and Landmarks (2015). Behind these two, a howling pack hunts down the foxy contracts, driven by the pink-coated agents and blooded editors.
The hills are alive with the sound of typing. Ever wanted to read the biography of a field? Try John Lewis-Stempel’s Meadowland: The Private Life of an English Field (2014). Perhaps you prefer something boggier? How about Stephen Moss’s Wild Hares and Hummingbirds (2012), a history of the “watery wonderland” around a village in the Somerset Levels. Wetter still? That’ll be Simon Cooper’s Life of a Chalkstream (2010). How about trees? Colin Elford’s A Year in the Woods (2011) is a scintillating diary of a year spent as a forest ranger. Or there’s The Green Road into the Trees (2013) by Hugh Thomson, who walked around England. Or perhaps you would like to know what life is like without an internet connection or a car in one of the wettest, most isolated, and economically palsied places in Britain? Deep Country: Five Years in the Welsh Hills (2012) by Neil Ansell.
There is, it turns out, gold in them there hills, as well as sheep. Not all of the New Naturists are opportunists. John Lewis-Stempel certainly walks the country talk. He has also written Foraging: The Essential Guide to Free Food, and The Wild Life (2012), a memoir of a year in which he ate only what he could forage, catch, or shoot; his competence in this lunatic venture is attested by the fact that his publicity photograph shows him still in possession of a full set of teeth. Some of the others, though, might be suspected of talking the walk. Hugh Thomson was an old-fashioned travel writer, seeking out the distant and dismal—rural Peru, the Himalayas—before he wrote about walking across England. But Helen Macdonald, though she might be accused of over-sharing, can hardly be accused of cynicism. H is for Hawk is a memoir of the grief that followed her father’s death, and her recovery by training a goshawk in the style of T. H. White. Life makes a prey of us, and her consuming sorrow has the unmistakable rawness of truth.
The rawness of Robert Macfarlane is all in the landscape; the sensibility is highly refined. If these qualities have to be polarized, this is the preferable split. Like Macdonald, and like Nick Hunt, author of the excellent travelogue Walking the Woods and the Water (2014), Macfarlane is reflexively literary. Earlier writers applied a well-read mind to the book of Nature. All three of these writers apply a well-read mind to the books of well-read but now deceased minds that once were open to Nature. Macdonald takes to her road of grief and gauntlets with T. H. White. Hunt, in the aftermath of 2008, retraces the steps of Leigh Fermor’s “Great Walk” across Europe. Macfarlane walks The Old Ways with Edward Thomas. While T. H. White managed to mask his homosexuality and sadomasochism, Macfarlane has been candid about his Victorian specialities. Apart from his nature trilogy, he has published Original Copy (2007), an academic study of “borrowing”—also known as “influence” if you like it, and “plagiarism” if you don’t—among Victorian writers. These nature books are also books about books.
Macfarlane swings between two registers, both of them alien, urban, and modern: the scientific vocabulary that has replaced the old names and local dialects, and the literary history that farmers tend not to be interested in. He extemporizes at great and frequently gripping length on the literary associations of every bog, dale, and hollow that he crosses. In The Old Ways, Macfarlane, walking in rural Sussex, shares a path with a man called Lewis, who has taken to the road after the death of his wife, and walked all over Europe.
Somewhere near Amberley a barn owl lifted from a stand of phragmites. We stopped to watch it hunt over the water margin, slowly moving north up the line of the river, pulling a skein of shrills from the warblers in the reeds. It was a daytime ghost, its wings beating with a huge soundlessness. “You go ahead,” said Lewis to me. “I’m in no hurry.”
As Lewis treks off, Macfarlane grabs the reader’s rainproofed sleeve. “There are two intertwined histories of modern wayfaring,” he announces. There is the history of the “wilful wanderer, the Borrovian or Whitmanesque walker, out for the romance of the way.” And there is the history of “the tramps, the hobos, the vagrants, the dispossessed, the fugitives, the harmed and the jobless.” From there, Macfarlane discusses vagrancy in late Victorian England, and then the “sad and brilliant” scene in Laurie Lee’s As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning (1969), where the young Lee, setting out in 1934, encounters a somnambulist army of unemployed men, “all trudging northwards in a sombre procession.” And then we proceed, off to a Bronze Age burial mound—it’s supposed to be haunted—by way of a sudden encounter with a badger with “quick green jewel-flash” eyes. A real badger, that is, not the one from The Wind in the Willows: the sort that Britain’s farmers gas or shoot whenever possible.
Macfarlane’s free associations with Lewis and the commonwealth of English letters are erudite, and he shuffles the images quickly. So quickly, in fact, that we might miss the schematic construction. To his credit, Macfarlane uses the academic’s trick of polarizing the analysis to productive as opposed to barren effect. He is a genuinely poetic writer, and a relentlessly interesting companion. But are there really only two histories of modern wayfaring? When tramps are “hobos,” vagrants “the dispossessed,” and criminals “fugitives,” we are in the land of economic romance, Sussex by way of Steinbeck. And can the skilled unemployed be compared to any of these, or the non-specifically “harmed”?
Many of Laurie Lee’s somnambulists carried “bags of tools, or shabby cardboard suitcases.” Others wore “the ghosts of city suits,” and stopped to polish their shoes with grass. They were, Lee said, “carpenters, clerks, engineers,” skilled workers who had been “walking up and down the country in a maze of jobless refusals, the treadmill of the mid-Thirties.” How, we might wonder, would a person who has left home in search of a living wage feel about being lumped in with the lumpenproles by some Cambridge academic who, he tells us, only stretches his legs on the weekend? Some of my forebears came to Britain as shabby skilled workers, and some of their children scraped through the Thirties in rags. I hope that, if Macfarlane were to travel back through time and share his analysis, they would escort him politely from their slum.
Then again, do the little people read? Tocqueville said that in America, moral questions become legal cases. In Britain, literary criticism becomes class war. A couple of splendidly bitter articles have attacked the “New Nature” genre. The best, and bitterest, was by Kathleen Jamie, in Granta:
Who’s that coming over the hill? A white, middle-class Englishman! A Lone, Enraptured Male! From Cambridge! Here to boldly go, “discovering,” then quelling our harsh and lovely and sometimes difficult land with his civilized lyrical words.
In Landmarks, Macfarlane describes the atrocity of the revised Oxford Junior Dictionary. The names of trees and animals are out, and hi-tech neologisms are in. Goodbye to “acorn,” “dandelion,” and “ivy”; hello to “blog,” “celebrity,” and “voice-mail.” The thankless task of explaining this cruel pruning of the tree of language fell to Vineeta Gupta, head of Oxford University Press’s children’s dictionaries. “Nowadays, the environment has changed,” she said. It certainly has, and not only because of the electronic deluge. Industrial agriculture has slaughtered the landscape and its animal inhabitants. According to Michael McCarthy’s The Moth Snowstorm (2015), the once-common British phenomenon described in his title, the spattering of a car’s windscreen at night until it was caked with dead bugs, is now a memory for those over fifty years of age.
Landmarks is a dictionary of dialect, of language embedded in its native terrain, of last words and last sightings of a landscape fast becoming incomprehensible.
blàr: very flat area of moor, often boggy (Gaelic)
boglach: general term for boggy area (Gaelic)
boglet: little bog (coined by R. D. Blackmore in Lorna Doone, 1869)
botach: reedy bog (Gaelic)
bottoms: marshy ground (Irish English)
breunloch: dangerous sinking bog that may be bright green and grassy (Gaelic)
brochan: miry, soft ground (literally, “porridge”; Gaelic)
carr: boggy or fenny copse (Northern English)
“For blackberry, read BlackBerry,” Macfarlane writes. “A basic literacy of landscape is falling away up and down the ages.” This is undeniably true. But what does it mean? “A common language—a language of the commons—is getting rarer. And what is lost along with this literacy is something precious: a kind of word magic, the power that certain terms possess to enchant our relations with nature and place.” Macfarlane is deep in Herder country, and I cannot follow his path. There is always a common language; in Britain these days, its tones are the downwardly aspirational urban notes of “Mockney” (mock-Cockney) and Jamaican patois. There are always lovers of “word magic.” The lovers’ susceptibility and fluency has little to do with color, religion, or sex, and everything to do with education and opportunity, including the opportunity to take cheap train journeys to the country. But the “language of the commons”—the Herder-style pun that derives modern political rights from ancient grazing rights—is and always was the property of country people, the old stock who made the old ways and named the old places. Not interlopers and academics like Housman and Macfarlane, or people like me, latecomers to Albion’s Ancient Druid Rocky Shore, the children and grandchildren of immigrants to the cities.
It is kind of Macfarlane to write that loanwords from “Chinese, Urdu, Korean, Portuguese, and Yiddish are right now being used to describe the landscapes of Britain and Ireland.” But I don’t believe him. I wonder whether he really believes it, either. There is a crisis of identity going on in Britain. The very word “Britain” is shedding its political meaning, and returning to a purely geographical one. The constituent nations are returning to their turfs, boggy or not, full of bitterness at the tyranny of London and the apparently endless inrush of immigrants. The English are leaving London: the great urbanization is, for them at least, over. The emigrants who return to the country talk of London as a foreign city: the body and the head are divorcing, the commons losing a common language. The English are becoming English again; the English are losing their sense of Englishness. Part of the beauty of Macfarlane’s writing lies not in the drama of “discovery,” but in a sense of reacquaintance, as if returning from a long journey.
Since my family shed their rags, I am now mostly white, very middle-class, and usually English enough, in a Jewish kind of way. Last summer, I stayed with friends in a decommissioned vicarage outside Oxford. At tea, we talked about Henry James against a timeless backdrop of sheep and rusting agricultural equipment. At home in my Hebraic urban fastness, I enjoy nothing more than a good book about books. But when it comes to the country, I am with Karl Marx. Urbanization liberated us from “the idiocy of rural life.”
The only way to have rural life without the idiocy is to take your library with you, as Waugh did when he set up at Stinchcombe. This, metaphorically speaking, is what Robert Macfarlane has done—and what the New Nature cohort are doing. They are doing it as well as it can be done, under the circumstances. But there is no way back to the old ways, for good or bad. It is a hundred years since Yeats, having pared back his style after wintering with Pound in the Hundred-Acre Wood, wrote that “Old England is dying.” Today, Ashdown is a stop on the high-speed Channel Tunnel Rail Link. As the nature writers say, the English are up a creek without a paddle.