Writing the Wilderness

The meetup on October 6th 2018 included 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.

William Atkins : The Immeasurable World
Roger Deakin : Waterlog
Kathleen Jamie : Findings
Richard Mabey : Nature Cure
Robert Macfarlane : The Old Ways, Landmarks
Jonathan Raban : Passage to Juneau
Nan Shepherd : The Living Mountain
Rory Stewart : The Places in Between
Hugh Thomson : Nanda Devi ( is this the title of the book?) 


SHIRLEY WRIGHT : 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. 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 

MARGARET HEATH : 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 of 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, 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 Appennines in spring. William Atkins 


SHIRLEY WRIGHT : Even the very word ‘wilderness’ is regarded, in some deep ecological circles, as self-contradictory. The moment a wild place is recognised, named and mapped, it is domesticated. 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. Richard Mabey 

MARGARET  HEATH :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. Invalided home from France with gas injuries, Henry Williamson  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– every word of which was, as he put it, ‘chipped from the breastbone. Robert Macfarlane 

NIKKI KENNA: 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. Roger Deakin 

SHIRLEY WRIGHT: 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’. Thus the world was covered by ‘Dreaming-tracks’ that ‘lay over the land as ”ways” of communication’, each track having its corresponding Song.’ To sing out, was – and still is…. therefore, to find one’s way, and storytelling was indivisible from wayfaring. Robert Macfarlane

NIKKI KENNA: Now 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, floating over drowned towns or spelunking into sea caves that drilled way back into sea cliffs. Robert Macfarlane 

SHIRLEY WRIGHT : 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. Kathleen Jamie 


AMA BOLTON: 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, 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. Kathleen Jamie 

SUE SIMS: 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. Jonathan Raban 

CONOR WHELAN : Just at sunset, 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 the dog just lay down in the snow. Rory Stewart 


Chaqmaqtin photo by Matthieu Paley

SUE SIMS : 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. Rory Stewart 

AMA BOLTON: 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 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. Robert Macfarlane 

CONOR WHELAN : Each time I go to the mountain, the eye sees what it didn’t see before, or sees in a new way what it had already seen.  So the ear, the other senses. It is an experience that grows; undistinguished days add their part, and now and then, unpredictable, unforgettable, come the hours when the many details come for a moment into perfect focus, and one can read at last the word that has been from the beginning. They come to me most often walking out of outdoor sleep, gazing entranced at the running of water and listening to its song, and most of all after hours of steady walking, with the long rhythm of motion sustained until  motion is felt, not merely known by the brain, as the ‘still centre’ of being .  The body is not made negligible, but paramount. Flesh is not annihilated but fulfilled.  I have walked out of the body and into the mountain.  I am a manifestation of its total life, as is the star saxifrage, or the white-winged ptarmigan. Nan Shepherd 

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MARGARET HEATH : This piece came in too late for the concert of readings, but absolutely must be given its place in ‘Writing the Wilderness’.  It was written by Margaret’s nephew, Hugh Thomson about Nanda Devi.

If mountains were just lumps of rock there would be no point in climbing them, but they are the repository of dreams. Imagine one of the tallest mountains in the world. A high and beautiful valley curls round it like a moat, filled with the rarest of flowers and animals.  Now imagine that around this valley is a ring of Himalayan tooth-edged peaks, linked to each other by an impenetrable curtain wall of sheer cliffs, which form a protective guard for the mountain at their centre. Then circle this protective wall with another “moat” and another high wall of peaks, so there is both an inner and an outer keep like the fortifications of a medieval castle. Allow just one entrance to the valley sanctuary at the heart of this complex – a river gorge that drains the mountains’ glaciers and cuts throughout the inner and outer curtain walls in a chasm of such breathtaking steepness and ferocity that even the most hardened of travellers turns away in despair. In some ways it is easy to imagine such a place – because literature has already pictured it many times…..an earthly paradise. (My nephew got offered a rare chance to go)….Like all that is beautiful and forbidden it immediately tempted me. “Of course I’ll come” I said.