Writing the Wilderness

The meetup on October 6th 2018 will include a concert of readings on the theme of wilderness chosen from books recommended by members of the Bath Writers & Artists. Printed below are the extracts  sent in by VERONA BASS, AMA BOLTON, MARGARET HEATH, MICHAEL LOVEDAY, SUE SIMS, CONOR WHELAN  and SHIRLEY WRIGHT.

see below…..

caspar david friedrich

What is wilderness but the limit of each individual self? A painting by Caspar David Friedrich

suggested by Ama Bolton Passage to Juneau by Jonathan Raban (PIcador 1999) p46-7


This tame-seeming, food-rich sea was full of menace. Dreadful, capricious creatures were known to haunt its lower depths, and Indians were daily treated to manifestations of submarine power – a reminder that humans were, by comparison, foolish and puny.

The previous September I had been standing at the wheel when a killer-whale breached about seventy-five yards from the boat. The sea was smooth as a pool of molasses. Twists of smoke rose from its surface in the chilly early morning air. My propeller left a thick braid of wake that trailed from the stern for a quarter mile, where it faded into mist. I had just put two eggs on to boil downstairs when the whale rocketed out of the water on the port beam – ten tons of patterned black and white, its dimpled skin like heavyweight PVC – and crashed back, raising a shock-wave that rolled the boat half over.

The event had the sudden violence of a car-bomb going off in a quiet city street. It changed the world. Within moments there seemed to have been an abrupt ten-degree drop in temperature. The adrenaline of the explosion was fizzing in my nervous system: and when I tried to write, the ball-point slewed out of control on the slick surface of the page. Minutes later, when the water had glazed over the turmoil, the ensuing calm was strangely calmer, the windless quiet more intense, the air charged and sulphurous with the memory of the whale’s passage.


suggested by Margaret Heath  from
William Atkins. The Immeasurable World Journeys in Desert places

The first topographers of England, standing on the edge of some boggy place like Dartmoor, some place that had not been colonised or cultivated, wrote “desert’ or “desart” in their reports. From the Latin adjective desertus , past participle of deserere: to abandon.The chief characteristic of such places then was not an absence of water but of humankind. And they were not only unpeopled but in the original sense forsaken . Shakepeare’s “desert inaccessible” in As You Like It  is not arid, it is woodland, and when Noel Thomas Carrington in his poem “Dartmoor” calls the moor a “silent desert” he does not mean it metaphorically……….

Europeans had no real conception off the world’s dry deserts until they started going to them. Look at the paintings of St Anthony. It was not only that vegetation was a requisite compositional device in European landscape paintings. Even for the most visionary painter, one who had poured over Athanasius’ hagiography, the sheer sparsity of the Egyptian desert was as beyond imagining as the moon. Scarcely any of these paintings are without trees and many show the Abbot sitting in a landscape as lush as the Apennines in spring…….


suggested by Copnor Whelan from Nan Shepherd : The Living Mountain 

image 3


suggested by Shirley Wright  from Kathleen Jamie – Findings

1. (Arriving on Orkney) On the sea below the cliffs a lobster boat hung with pink buoys bounced through the water. The westerly wind brought squalls in like grey wings. Only a few fulmars were at home, and the puffins’ burrows were empty, waiting for spring. A pair of ravens, Odin’s birds, seemed to follow me along the clifftop, making comments to each other in their lovely intimate cronking. Underfoot were brown and brittle-dry sea pinks. I walked along the cliffs keeping a weather eye on the banks of cloud that filled the southern sky. Now and again a shaft of light broke through, illuminating the land below. Headlands jutted out into the sea, each following behind the last and tremendously high. In the distance I could just see the Old Man of Hoy standing proud. Then, farther, a few isolated mountains of the Scottish mainland appeared to float on a pool of citrine light. I like the sun’s particular gestures, and I like the signs of midwinter life: the wintering geese in the empty fields, a lone woman walking along a farm track in boots and coat, a scarf over her head.

2. (Jamie has been watching a pair of peregrine falcons and trying to learn more about them. Following a recommendation, she buys “The Peregrine” by J.A.Baker, 1967. His observations weave through her own.)

J.A.Baker says, if you can’t see the falcon, look up. Who was this man who could spend ten years following peregrines? What allowed him to crawl the fields and ditches all day, all winter, until he could tell just by a tension in the air that there was a peregrine in the sky? His book is full, tremulous, overwrought, hungry. He writes like a falcon must see, and so allows us to see too. Here is a paradox: a person who would annihilate himself and renounce his fellows, who would enter into the world of birds and woods and sky, but then in an act of consummate communication with his human kind, step back into language and write a book still spoken of forty year on. The thing about peregrines is their rarity. I’m sure mine are gone now, but for a while I enjoyed the pleasure of a warm secret: I could watch this uncommon, handsome bird from my window and know it was there. J.A Baker uses the word “flicker”. The peregrine flickers at the edge of one’s senses, at the edge of the sky, at the edge of existence itself.

3. (Exploring the Hebridean island of Ceann Iar with companions, Tim Dee and Martin Leitner) In the five or six days we spent together, I grew to appreciate the company of people who listen to the world. They don’t feel the need to talk all the while. Once, Martin grabbed me midstep, because what had seemed mere pebbles had snapped into focus as three olive-green eggs cupped in eiderdown. More than once we crunched on rabbit bones among the grasses. There was a lamb, very new, with its stomach opened by buzzards. What do we imagine, those of us who don’t live here? That these Hebridean islands are uninhabited? A stone caught my eye and I bent to pick it up. It was a perfect sphere of white quartz that fitted the palm of my hand. “Orb” was the word that came to mind. And in the moment it had taken me to admire it and slip it into my bag, all the seals had slithered from their rocks into the water. Two-dozen heads, two-dozen pairs of eyes were looking at me, the human figure on the wide shore. Then, on a whim, they dived, leaving only splashes, as though a handful of pebbles had been thrown into a pond.

4. (Jamie climbs into the high hills to see the remains of old sheilings and sheiling grounds, the high summer pastures where animals were driven to graze on fresh grass for the few weeks of summer. The words refer both to the grounds and to the shelters people built for themselves during this period of transhumance.)

Cup-marks, they might be called, and I made sketches, musing about the Neolithic hand which had carved them in the stones thousands of years ago. Then I climbed on up to the sheilings, hefted into place by hand and now all fallen down and thick with lichen. I leaned back into the sunny corner of one crumbled building and, wondering when anyone had last eaten a meal in this little shelter, took out my sandwiches and flask.It seemed in one day that I’d found the marks of the opening and the closing of a way of life lived directly on the land – four or five thousand years of human subsistance now a few marks on a piece of paper. Sometimes you hear this place descibed as natural or wildwilderness even. But it seems an affront to those many generations who took their living off the land and who left such subtle marks behind. And anyway, what is natural? We’re having to replant forests that we cleared. There’s talk of reintroducing natural predators, like the wolf. I walked back down that graceful glen with its mossy ruins shrinking back into the earth, its sense of serene abandonment.


suggested by Michael Loveday Nature Cure : Richard Mabey

In the evenings I browsed in books on the American wilderness, and on the curious and ambivalent role it plays in the national culture. It is both a symbol of a free-born nation, something to be treasured, and a challenge to the frontier spirit to ‘reclaim’. It is loved, lusted after and agonised about. To those of us from Britain, who have very few places left that could even remotely qualify as wilderness, it is the quibbling about definition that is most perplexing .What does wilderness mean? A place unchanged by humans, or unvisited by them? Or just something more subtly undetermined by us? In the purest terms, of course, there is now nowhere on the planet entirely unaffected by human activity: global warming and the ubiquitous spread of toxic chemicals in the seas and atmosphere have seen to that.

There are those, too, who resist the concept [of wilderness] for political and cultural reasons. It is seen as socially exclusive, a new form of colonialism. It appropriates for the distant rich the living and working territories of marginalised peoples. It is a discriminatory category, demoting the value of more sullied places. Even the very word is regarded, in some deep ecological circles, as self-contradictory. The moment a wild place is recognised, named, mapped, it is, in that very act, domesticated. In his study Wilderness and the American Mind, Roderick Nash argued that ‘wilderness was a state of mind – a perceived rather than an actual condition of the environment’. One child he spoke to saw wilderness as ‘the dark space under my bed’. For Wordsworth it was a condition of the spirit as much as the land. His much-quoted phrase ‘a wilderness is rich with liberty’ occurs in a poem about the release of two goldfish into the liberating wastes of a Lake District pond. 

For Thoreau, too, wilderness was a nebulous idea, rather than an actual tract of land…In his journals, and in Walden especially, ‘the wilderness’ is either just the general wild country round about (especially the Massachusetts swamps), or… a place to dream about, not ‘be’. He thought that ‘village life would stagnate’ if it did not have occasional access to the ‘tonic’ of ordinary wild places nearby; and that it was essential – but enough – just to know the existence of the inaccessible, ‘the unexplorable… the unsurveyed and unfathomed’.

I realised that what touched me most was not wilderness as a special, defined place, but the quality of wildness, Dylan Thomas’s ‘force that through the green fuse drives the flower’, the untidy, energising edge of all living systems. True wildernesses must be defended at all costs, for the sake of their rightful inhabitants. But I felt that I could settle, like Thoreau and Colette, for just knowing they were there, and leave the real experience to my imagination. Our biggest challenge as a species is to work out a common area with nature, a hinterland where we can accept each other’s company, and live out a relationship somewhere between the ten-day wilderness experience and the short stroll along a fenced trail.”  (Richard Mabey, Nature Cure, Vintage, 2005, pp.210-213)*


suggested by Verona Bass from A Book of Silence : Sarah Maitland

Nestled under the mountains…nothing human above it, and below, the land drops away to a bay with steep sides….I had a strong sense of containment inside despite the wilderness outside. Outside, even in the evening light the colours were extraordinary. …the mountains above me were grey; they were like teeth – craggy, broken, fierce…In the fitful sunshine driving across, I had thought the colour was sun-on-dead-grass; now I learned it was the grass itself, and dead was not a good word for it. The wind moved fast across it, flapping it like flags. When it reached darker clumps of heather or bog myrtle the rhythm of the movement changed. I kept thinking I’d seen ‘something’, something alive, moving like an animal running for cover – but no, it was just the wind somehow haunting and energising.                         

I snuggled into the private silence of the house and walked out to see the fitful sun on the grass and the sea, to watch the sharp mountain peaks punctuated by cloud, and to let the wind blow through me. To settle into the silence and somehow to lower my own expectations – … become more attuned to the silence. Unlike sound, which crashes against your ears, silence is subtle. The more and the longer you are silent, the more you hear the tiny noises within the silence, so that silence is always slipping away like a timid wild animal. You have to be very still and lure it.

I had chosen this silence and prepared myself for it; I wanted to do it. Moreover, I enjoyed it. Silence can be terrible and even lethal, most usually when it is enforced or imposed. You have to move quietly and attentively, always to be ready to respond to what presents itself to you. You have to wait. Ths sense of waiting in silence became even more marked when I advanced to sitting in a hide or under a drystone wall and paying attention to nothing in the hope that it would at any moment become a bird, become something.

suggested by Verona Bass from The Places in Between: Rory Stewart

Just at sunset, having seen no human since the corpse, we reached some large terraces of snow, so flat that I realised they were a chain of frozen lakes. The waterfall had frozen into bloated stalactites, streaked with intense copper oxide green and turquoise blue and sulphur yellow, and creamy with snow where they struck the water. The low sun sank into the straight cleft of the cliff behind me. The coloured alchemy of the ice drained into the twilight.….I didn’t turn towards the village, but instead pressed on towards a wall, which divided the upper lake from the lower. Having wanted to stop three hours earlier, I now wanted to continue beyond the lake and keep walking across the plain. I thought of the stars over the fresh snow and the size of the plain and the peace of it.  I was entranced by my forward movement. I did not want to stop. But Babur just lay down in the snow.

The next morning I walked over the surface of the ice and stood in the very centre of the lake, looking back at the mosque that was carved into the a sheer cliff wall the colour of elm wood. A smooth layer of powder snow covered the three terraces of the lakes, broken only by a single set of footprints and a single set of paw prints. Babur and I climbed up the facing cliff onto the snow plateau. After a few minutes, it seemed that I had never been so alone or anywhere so silent. The only sounds were the creak of my staff and my steps.….The snow was light and ruffled under my boot and when I looked back there was a slender feather flaring out from each heel mark. As we continued, the winged footprints and the oblong grooves of the staff changed shape, freezing and melting in the sun.

I stopped, sat down, got up, walked ten more minutes and then because I felt exhausted, sat down again, half buried in deep powder. My feet were wet, my hands were cold and the wind moved in a fine white mist over the surface of the snow. I lifted my sunglasses, and the sudden light consumed all the features of the place: shrinking, contorting, corroding, and dissolving.  There was  no winged footprint or horizon in the even glare of the snow. I could not remember why I was walking. I was sick, my muscles were stiff. The snow formed a bright clean cushion, perfectly shaped to fit my back. Lying back I felt warm and at ease. I closed my eyes and smiled.   It occurred to me that no one could criticize me for staying here. I half opened my eyes again. The sun seemed particularly brilliant, the unbroken powder stretched without end.  It was a very private place here, buried in the snow with only my head in the sun. I would not be disturbed for days….             

suggested by Verona Bass from The Old Ways : Robert Macfarlane

The shock of the Great War provoked intense British interest in the old ways. Some of the returning soldiers, wounded in body and mind, retreated to the English countryside, hoping that by recovering a sense of belonging rooted in nature and place they might dignify their damaged lives (the wish that it might all have been worth something.)  Henry Williamson was one such casualty. Invalided home from France with gas injuries, he went to ground in rural Devon, where he paced out the paths of Dartmoor and tracked what he called its ‘wildings’. Out of these years he wrested his masterpiece Tarka the Otter (1927) – every word of which was, as he put it, ‘chipped from the breastbone.  

Images arise, gleaned from the miles on foot. White stones, white horses, flying islands, glowing eyes, mirages, drowned lands, dreams of flying, reversals and doublings, rights of way and rites of way, falcons and maps: the images move as brass splinters in an orrrery, orbiting and converging in an unlikely encounter. There is a flickering to order; gathered details are sealed by the stamp of the anterior. The land itself, filled with letters, words, texts, songs, signs and stories….

I imagine the Earth seen from an altitude so impossibly great that retrospect is possible as well as prospect, and that the prints of millennia of human walking are visible, the shimmering foil of our species.

Thomas is often described as a poet of place, but the volatility of place fascinated  him more than its reliability. He was compelled by the present-tenseness of nature – the chink of a blackbird in a hedge, the cool of starlight, the feel of a feather’s vanes between the fingers – but he was also alert to landscape’s instabilities, to the unbidden adhesions of memory that can bind one place to another, to the insubstantial silver mists of association through which we move and within which we see, and to the sudden slides and tricks that the mind can perform upon us even when we think we are at our truest in the world. Place, in Thomas, frequently operates as the sum total of the locations that have been left behind or have yet to be reached.

The best-known connection between footfall, knowledge and memory is the Australian version of the Songlines. According to this cosmogony, the world was created in an epoch known as the Dreamtime, when the Ancestors emerged to find the earth a flat, black, featureless terrain. They began to walk out across this non-place, and as they walked they broke through the crust of the earth and released the seeping life beneath it, so that the landscape sprang into being with each pace. As Bruce Chatwin explained …….’each totemic ancestor, while travelling through the country was thought to have scattered a trail of words and musical notes along the line of his footprints’. Depending on where they fell, these footnotes became linked with  particular features of the landscape. Thus the world was covered by ‘Dreaming-tracks’ that ‘lay over the land as ”ways” of communication’, each track having its corresponding Song.’ The Australian continent, as Chatwin put it, could therefore be visualized as a ‘spaghetti of Iliads and Odysseys, writhing this way and that, each ”episode” was readable in terms of geology’. To sing out, was – and still is…. therefore, to find one’s way, and storytelling was indivisible from wayfaring.

For two centuries, Chanctonbury was the best landmark of the South Downs….in 1987 The Great Storm blew in and wrecked Chanctonbury. It is now missing most of its main trees, and its interior has reverted to a sprouty scrub of ash and bramble. 

Nevertheless, up there that evening still felt surprisingly remote.  …..I rolled out my sleeping mat between two of the remaining beech trees just as dark fell……I lay down to sleep, placed an ear to the turf and imagined the depths of history the soil held – Neolithic, Iron Age, Bronze Age, Roman, Augustan, down through all of which the roots of the beech quested….and then sank into a senseless sleep.

suggested by Verona Bass from Landmarksby Robert Macfarlane
taking my cue from Sue Sims’ suggestion of Waterlog by Roger Deakin :

Roger influenced my behaviour…..I ceased to see open water as something chiefly to be driven around, flown over or stopped at the brink of. It became, rather, a realm to be entered and explored. Britain seemed newly permeable and excitingly deepened: every loch or lough or llyn a bathing pool, each river a journey, each tide a free ride. Swimming came to involve, not chlorine, turnstiles and verrucas, but passing through great geological portals (Durdle Door in Dorset), floating over drowned towns (Dunwich) or spelunking into sea caves that drilled way back into sea cliffs…

The path led into a tiny valley, its side-slopes shiing with clitter and slip, that narrowed into the hillside. And the valley ended in a black hole, four feet high and two across.  It was the mouth of a tunnel.Two great guard stones flanked it, and a thick-trunked holly grew across it, as if to bar the way…..From the lintel of the mouth ran a ragged fringe of water.

I felt an eerie tinge of recognition.

‘Have you been in? I asked.

‘Only to the entrance, never further.’

We reached the guard stones. I turned sideways and squeezed past the holly and under the fringe of water that ran icy down my neck. I shivered, but not only from the cold.

Everywhere were books, many of them glossaries, thesauruses and dictionaries, The wind flung rain against the windows with a fat clatter. I scribbled down etymologies, titles, words.’There’s a word that I’m fascinated by at the moment’, Richard said. ‘Hummadruz. It’s a noise in the air that you can’t identify, or a sound in the landscape whose source is unlocatable’.

The tunnel led deeper into the hill. After a minute or two its route kinked to the right, and the acoustics altered.The  further in we got, the less water came through the roof of the tunnel until it slowed to a trickle, then drops … …suddenly out of the darkness I could see that the tunnel roof had collapsed. Slabs and hunks of tuff crammed the passage. There was no way through. So we sat on the rubble of the ruckle, lifted our feet from the blades and the water, and waited there silently, listening, far into the hill.

….’Can you hear that?’ I asked. Richard could; a sound that was not water, a high murmur or note, whose source we could not identify – an undersong, a hummadruz.

We stayed for perhaps five minutes at the collapse and then returned as we had come, emerging at last between the guard stones and into the owl-light, the still-heavy rain, and a white mist that was thick enough to stop sight at a few yards. Sounds came from the mist: a raven croak, the hiss of raindrops striking heather stalks, the rush and trickle of stream over gravel.We left the quarry and walked back down the path which had become a rill, a strife, a strint, and a thousand other magic words for water.

suggested by  Sue Sims  Roger Deakin: Wildwood, Walnut Tree Farm and Water-log

Why do I sleep outdoors? Because of the sound of the random dripping of rain off the maples or ash trees over the roof of the railway wagon, or the hopping of a bird on the wet felt on the roof, or the percussion of a twig against the steel stove-chimney. Out there, I hear the yawn of the wind in the trees along Cowpasture Lane. I feel in touch with the elements in a way I never do indoors. / Sleeping one time in Burgate Wood on the moated island of the old hall, I put my cheek against the loam and the cool ground ivy. When I closed my eyes I saw the iceberg depths of the wood’s root-world. Walking there, picking my way through the trees, I had thought of it as perpendicular until I lay down and entered the ground-world. This is the part of a wood that only reveals itself occasionally after a big storm, when the trees have keeled over and the roots are thrown suddenly upright, clutching earth and stones. How deep do roots go?

suggested by  Ama Bolton Farley Mowat :Never Cry Wolf
suggested by Linda Saunders John Lewis-Stempel: The Running Hare
from Shirley Wright Rachel Carson: Silent Spring
suggested by Conor Whelan Nan Shepard : The Living Mountain

and from the indefatigable Verona Bass!
Simon Armitage Walking Home ; Travels with a Troubadour on the Pennine Way
[Faber and Faber 2012]
Annie Dillard: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek [Jonathan Cape 1975] ( Picador Pan Books Ltd. 1976)
Teaching a Stone to Talk same as above?
The Writer’s Life [Harper Perennial 1989 ]
Robyn Davidson Tracks ( account of trekking across central deserts of Australia with camels ) [Penguin?]
Tim Dee The Running Sky, A Birdwatching Life.[Jonathan Cape]
Robert AJ de Hart Beyond the Forest Garden [1996 Gaia Books Ltd]
Hannah Kent Burial Rites [set in Northern Iceland 1829] Picador 2014
Barbara Kingsolver Flight Behaviour
A Prodigal Summer [Harper Collins, USA] [ Britain Faber and Faber 2000]
Robert Macfarlane The Old Ways; A Journey on Foot [Hamish Hamilton 2012]
Landmarks 2015 also Penguin, Random House , UK.
(about the power of language to shape our sense of place)
The Wild Places (2007 author’s journey to explore and document the remaining wilderness of the British Isles. ) [Penguin]
Sarah Maitland: A Book of Silence, A journey in search of the pleasures and powers of silence.
[Granta Books 2008]
Rory Stewart The Places in Between [ a walk across Afghanistan ; Picador 2004]
Tim Winton Land’s Edge ; A Coastal Memoir (Australian) Picador