Spring – in this part of the northern hemisphere, at least – has finally arrived, it seems, after a late and stormy start. The cherry blossom is out and the garden is full of randy sparrows – and I am reminded, as I am every year, of the power this change in the weather has to root us down into the earth, even when the earth in question is a concrete one – and surely this is where it all has to begin, the change we need: in an awareness of ourselves as a part of our environment, not just skating across the surface, but inextricably embedded in it. Few writers capture this feeling as perfectly as Nan Shepherd does in her book, The Living Mountain – a love letter to place and to being in place. Perhaps, one might think, it would be easy to love a place like the Cairngorms and, if only one had the luck to live in the mountains, to be better versions of ourselves, but it’s Shepherd’s great achievement that she doesn’t flatter the place she writes about, nor, particularly, herself. The landscape, as it emerges through her writing, appears capricious, difficult, unforgiving – occasionally extraordinary beautiful but always a thing to be wary of. The walking that she describes is not a part of any great project. It’s a repeated act of commitment, and a part of what it is to be her, and her writing is another part of that – a way of understanding it.
Roger Deakin’s Waterlog occupies a similar space for me. It describes a more purposeful project – his attempt to swim his way through the British Isles – but starts from his home in Suffolk, and the fact that he can’t see water without wanting to get into it, which is a feeling I recognise. It’s a lovely book, an oddity, heartfelt, and, although much imitated, still one of the very best examples of its kind.
I lived, for years, near Wanstead Flats, the tail end of London’s Epping Forest, and used to regularly walk through the crisp packets and the ancient oak trees, round the ponds, along paths used by Henry VIII’s huntsmen and an awful lot of mountain bikers. Will Ashon’s Strange Labyrinth is a book about this odd, hybrid place, at once urban and wild, magical and ordinary, and what this sort of space can mean for the very many people who live on its edges. I would love there to be more of this sort of book, and more written about nature in urban environments, because, For all that wilderness and its preservation has a vital part to play in the future, we also need to learn to see the value in the rest of the planet, even the parts which might seem catastrophically at odds with traditional ideas of the wild, and to learn, too, to see value in our experiences of environments which are not traditionally natural, but are still nature. For a reminder of why this is important, even in the darkest of times, I would read Derek Jarman’s Modern Nature, one of the best of all gardening books – a reminder that planting anything, however small, can be a comfort, but is also a howl, an act of fierce engagement with a world that can be so very unforgiving.
The unforgiving nature of the planet is at the centre of Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World, an account of his part in Scott’s Terra Nova expedition, and in particular the Winter Journey, during which he and two other men trekked across Ross Island in the Antarctic winter to collect an unhatched Emperor Penguin’s egg. They managed it – just – only to find, by the time they got home, the egg was no longer wanted. Shortly afterwards, Cherry-Garrard ended up in Flanders. It is a measure of how awful his experiences were that he declared Antarctica to have been worse.
To cycle back to hope, though: perhaps it is to be found in the way that, despite all we’ve done to it, nature can rebound or regrow – not the same as it was, perhaps, but differently fertile, finding its own ways to spread. Isabella Tree’s Wilding describes a project to rewild a farm in West Sussex, and offers a view of an alternative way of existing on a planet we have tended to dominate rather than trust. That, along with Cal Flyn’s extraordinary Island’s of Abandonment, feel like beacons at the moment. Flyn’s book describes in detail what happens to places that have been left behind by the people who inhabited them, often because they have become, for one reason or another, uninhabitable. I have found it extraordinarily hopeful, a salve – a hint of the ways in which the earth might still rebalance itself, if we ever learned to let it do so.