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The naming of the shrew: language, landscape and the new nature writing

Nature writers are seeking to restore a rich, neglected vocabulary– but words can tame as well as illuminate the land.

Wistman’s Wood, Devon, from “Uncommon Ground”. Photo: Dominick Tyler

A couple of weeks ago Mark Cocker, whose works such as Crow Country (2007) could be seen as the founding texts of “new nature writing” (although I have yet to find anyone who likes the term, apart from publishers), took me and a friend out on to the fringes of the Norfolk Broads, on the outskirts of Norwich. The light was falling as we stood on a raised path above the floodplain, caught between water, land and sky. Above us, in a row of poplars, quivering in the bare branches like black leaves, were thousands of corvids: rooks and jackdaws, readying themselves for their evening roost. They had flown here from all over the county, and beyond, Cocker told us; perhaps some from as far away as western Europe. In the distance, a sugar-beet factory spewed its smoke on the horizon.

As the sky grew dark, the birds rose in discrete groups into the air, calling to fellow birds as if for reassurance. Gradually, the eddying, swooping number gained mass until it darkened the very sky. Then, at some appointed moment, the trigger for which remains unclear, the spiralling cloud coalesced and drew into itself, and flew over our heads. Against the grey, the birds seemed like a dark heaven.

In an instant, they were far in the distance over a remote wood; 40,000 of them, according to Cocker. Just as abruptly, the clatter of wings and caws was absorbed into the trees. The wood was an ancient site, Cocker said, a “ghost rookery”, marker of a landscape reaching back for corvid generations. What these birds were, and where they were, was expressed by their abiding presence. They did not need us to be there to be them. They did not need our names. As the American naturalist Aldo Leopold wrote, birds animate a landscape. They are implicitly part of it.

What really touches us as human beings? As we separate ourselves from ourselves, we seek a new association in nature and the land. Most of us live in suburbia, a nowhere place, and so we send surrogate explorers – writers, artists, film-makers – to seek a reconnection that might never have been there in the first place. Essential to this imagining is the naming of things, to categorise that experience – vicarious as it often may be – to file and catalogue it, to make it secure in our memories, to hold it to ourselves, to encompass its essential otherness. For all that, our instinct to comprehend is also a transcendental act. Nothing I could say about that corvid roost, experienced on a winter twilight, could actually re-create it. But words can help put us in a similar place.

In his new book, Landmarks, Robert Macfarlane seeks to name the unnameable. It is in part an idiosyncratic glossary of ancient or newly invented words. The Devonian word stugged, for instance, meaning “of a person or animal: enmired in a bog”; or the Galloway verb blatter: “to rain heavily, noisily; also to beat, thrash”; or the lovely wayzgoose, the Cornish scarecrow. Arcane they may be, but some of these words are extremely useful, such as the terse, grunt-like èit, which saves the Gaelic-speakers of the Isle of Lewis the bother of describing the “practice of placing quartz stones in moorland streams so that they would sparkle in moonlight and thereby attract salmon to them in the late summer and autumn”.

As if to answer the accusation that these archaic terms are mere tombstones in a lexicographical cemetery, Macfarlane, our explorer, sets out for meetings with like-minded people – living and dead – from whom this vocabulary might be learned. People such as J A Baker, a librarian-naturalist about whom Macfarlane has written before, and into whose archives at Cambridge (where Macfarlane is a fellow at Emmanuel College) he delves deeply. Baker, afflicted with ankylosing spondylitis, a severe form of arthritis, resorted to beautiful new ways of describing the birds of the Essex marshes that had become his refuge: “The peregrine lives in a pouring-away world of no attachment, a world of wakes and tilting, of sinking planes and water . . . He finds his way across the land by a succession of remembered symmetries.”

Macfarlane describes how Baker subjected the proofs of his book The Peregrine (1967) to mathematical analysis, meticulously enumerating the verbs, adjectives, metaphors and similes on each page, as if to quantify his art. Bowed down by illness, he sought solace in nature, only to find it impossible to disassociate himself from a collective human shame. In one shocking passage quoted by Macfarlane, Baker finds a heron dying in an icy field, its wings frozen to the ground. As the bird flaps pathetically, he despatches it, seeing “the agonised sunlight of its eyes slowly heal with cloud”. “No pain, no death, is more terrible to a wild creature than its fear of man,” Baker concludes. “We are the killers. We stink of death. We carry it with us. It sticks to us like frost. We cannot tear it away.”

Paradise lost: Eva Braun exercising at Konigsee lake in Bavaria, near Hitler’s vacation residence, 1942. Photo: Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images

Macfarlane’s own peregrinations also call on the services of another intriguing figure: Richard Jefferies, the Victorian visionary who, in his book After London (1885), imagined a post-apocalyptic southern England as if the Industrial Revolution had never happened. (Macfarlane correctly sets this book alongside Ruskin’s omen-filled lectures on “The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century”, delivered the previous year, 1884.) It is Jefferies’s ghost that accompanies Macfarlane into what the latter calls “bastard countryside”: the land at the edge of the city, “the end of the murmur of things divine”, as Victor Hugo wrote, “the beginning of the noise of humankind”.

Particularly evocative are Macfarlane’s sketches of women writers, such as the poet and novelist Nan Shepherd, whose book The Living Mountain, written in the 1940s, was not published until 1977. He follows her to the Cairngorms, which she explored all her life; she rejected the masculine notion of summits to be conquered in preference for her desire to enter into the mountain. Around the same time, Jacquetta Hawkes was writing A Land (1951), which Macfarlane hymns as part neo-Romantic fantasy, part Mass Observation study, part psychogeographic exercise before its time.

Indeed, Macfarlane does sterling work in addressing a gender imbalance in this genre (where Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk comes as a breath of fresh, if grief-inflected, air). At a recent event convened by New Networks for Nature, an excellent voluntary organisation that seeks to bridge science, art and conservation, one guest raised the perceived lack of diversity among naturalists and nature writers. The point came like a shudder in an audience that was mostly white and middle-class. (Similarly, I wonder what place in this narrative might be claimed by queer nature – Derek Jarman’s journals Modern Nature come to mind – given the notion that some people hold that sexual otherness is essentially “unnatural”.)

Macfarlane’s list is swollen by the purely literary, too, such as Gerard Manley Hopkins’s neologisms – “hoarhusk: debris left by the frost-weathering of stones and boulders”; or “leafmeal: trees’ ‘cast self’, disintegrating as fallen leaves”. Less convincing are more modern creations such as Roger Deakin’s endolphins, “swimmers’ slang for the natural opiates (‘endorphins’) released by the body on contact with cold water”. Deakin’s Waterlog (1999) is a seminal text for the new naturalists; Macfarlane is not only his literary executor but his literary heir, too. Yet Waterlog’s popularisation of “wild swimming” is symptomatic of the way a trend can commodify. In what way is “wild swimming” different from “swimming”? Amusingly, in his own book, Macfarlane loses his temper when, as he emerges dripping from a chilly loch, a driver pulls up and says, “You’ve been swimming, haven’t you?” It turns out that she has been listening to a tape of Waterlog in her car. (As a year-round swimmer in the sea, I empathise with his frustration. One quickly runs out of new ways to answer the question, “Is it cold?” – although recently on a freezing morning a passer-by accosted me with the rather more inventive, “Haven’t you got a fridge at home?”)

Published at the same time as Landmarks is Dominick Tyler’s Uncommon Ground. The book’s title echoes the name of Deakin’s arts and environmental charity, Common Ground. Tyler also worked as the photographer on Kate Rew’s book Wild Swim (2008); the beautiful images in Uncommon Ground reflect his wry, informed and amusing text. In the entry for “epilimnion”, a semi-submerged hand in clear lakeland water evokes his textural definition: the layer of warm water over cold, causing, for the author as for others, that instinctive shudder as one’s lower limbs detect the difference. Tyler confesses a secret fear we all share: that in a deep, dark body of water, he often feels like “tearing back to shore, pursued by all [my] irrational fears”.

Tyler’s definitions spin off into nice associations. Photographing a pregnant-looking bump growing through the bark of a birch – technically a spheroblast, more commonly known as a burr – sends him off on a reverie, from burr walnut fascias in luxury car interiors to the smell of sweet tobacco and driving gloves. He prefers the “fusty taint” of “burr” to “spheroblast”, which “sounds like the special attack of a character in a Japanese computer game”.

Given where we stand today, in the age of the anthropocene, contemporary nature writing cannot help but exist on a precipice. Invariably, it speaks to a wish for better days. A recent letter to the Guardian claimed that the genre owes its popularity to the economic crash of 2008 (although there are books by Cocker, Macfarlane, Richard Mabey and Tim Dee that pre-date this). Perhaps it is true that when “times are tough” we seek reassurance, looking for horizons beyond the blue screens on to which our waking gaze is locked.

Yet there is a troubling aspect to this utopian impulse. You see it in the extirpation of “non-native species” (what William Morris called “vile weeds”) and in the longing for the purity of the past. In an odd aside in H Is for Hawk, Macdonald writes of chalk landscapes and the way they have been interpreted in “English nature-culture”. Riffing on her sub-narrative, based on T H White’s The Goshawk (written in 1936, published in 1951), she identifies a reactionary aspect of national as well as natural history at work.

That the chalk-cult rested on a presumption of organic connections to a landscape, a sense of belonging sanctified through an appeal to your own imagined lineage. . . . I realised these myths hurt. That they work to wipe away other cultures, other histories, other ways of loving, working and being in a landscape. How they tiptoe towards darkness.

While writing this article, I visited the excellent Towner gallery in Eastbourne, which is showing the work of the Tel Aviv-born contemporary artist Ori Gersht. In Evaders, a series of photographic landscapes and film inspired by the attempted flight over the Pyrenees of the German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin in 1940 (he committed suicide rather than be repatriated), Gersht “quotes” from the Romantic landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich, in which the human presence is placed in a relationship of reverie, but also dominion.

In Gersht’s work, the sublime forests and mountains take on the new weight of other precipices and woods freighted with the past and the present. It was telling that in the adjoining Eric Ravilious Room, a permanent display of the Sussex artist’s work shows his idyllic images of the chalk landscapes of the South Downs – also visible through Towner’s windows, whale-backed and ribbed like corduroy. Ravilious’s, too, was a utopian vision, but also tainted by the events of the 20th century.

Words can control, as well as illuminate the land. On a January trip to Berlin, after a visit to the Alte Nationalgalerie’s gloomy room devoted to Friedrich, and desperate to swim, I took the S-Bahn to Wannsee, where I pushed out into the clear, cold lake from the muddy shore. Behind me was the foreboding shape of the villa where the Final Solution was devised. That knowledge somehow invested the water and the otherwise idyllic view with an unspeakable terror. Yet the ducks swam by innocently and the sun shone overhead. As sublime as a landscape may be, it is irrevocably tainted by the terms we have dictated. John Clare, protesting the enclosures that took the land away from its people in the early 19th century, compared the appropriations with those of the tyrant Bonaparte and a seemingly vengeful new age that “hung the moles for traitors”.

We don’t stand alone on the mountain or the shore. Back in England, out on that Norfolk fen in the failing light of a February evening, Mark Cocker had to correct himself when, looking up at the waves of corvids careering over our heads, he called them “my birds”. Like Macfarlane and Tyler, he knows better than most the dangers of possessiveness and insularity, and all that they bring in their wake.

Robert Macfarlane’s “Landmarks” is published by Hamish Hamilton (£20). He will appear at the Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on 18 April

Dominick Tyler’s “Uncommon Ground” is published by Guardian Faber (£16.99)

Philip Hoare’s essay on swimming for BBC Radio 3 is available on iPlayer Radio

Philip Hoare’s books include Wilde’s Last Stand, England’s Lost Eden, and Spike IslandLeviathan or, The Whale won the Samuel Johnson Prize for 2009, and The Sea Inside was published in 2013. He is professor of creative writing at the University of Southampton, and co-curator of the Moby-Dick Big Read. His website is www.philiphoare.co.uk, and he is on Twitter @philipwhale.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, British politics is broken

ED THOMPSON / LUZ / EYEVINE
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"We’ve got things in common": why one of the EDL's original members quit

An early supporter of the group, painter-decorator Darren Carroll has had death threats since he left. But why did he change his mind about the English Defence League?

Darren Carroll is a slight man with bright blue eyes and an urgent need for redemption. A painter-decorator in his fifties, he has lived in Luton his whole life. He was one of the original members of the English Defence League (EDL), the far-right street movement founded by Carroll’s nephew Tommy Robinson.

Recently, things haven’t been easy. Four months before our meeting at a café near Luton Airport Parkway Station, Carroll had a minor stroke that affected his speech and vision. It was the delayed fallout from an attack in a pub across the road, his local. A stranger, who seemed to know a lot about him, started a conversation. “He showed me his arm. It was tattooed. There was a little bit of white skin left on the whole sleeve,” says Carroll. “He said, ‘Look at that.’ I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘White is right.’ I said, ‘Nah, mate, I know exactly where you’re coming from. There’s nothing wrong with being white but there’s nothing right with it.’”

The man pretended to leave the pub, then walked back in and hit Carroll hard on the back of the head with his forearm. Afterwards, Carroll suffered persistent headaches. It caused a blood clot that set off the stroke. When we met, he had mostly recovered but was still unable to work.

It was not the first attack. Carroll has also had his front door kicked in. He and his children have received death threats. “This is since speaking up,” he says. “Not leaving – that’s different.”

Carroll looks uncomfortable when we discuss the early days of the EDL. “It was an organic thing,” he says. “Lots of people were involved at the very beginning for different reasons. Personally, I was not happy with the way the town was being run on a political level. Looking back, I was disenfranchised from mainstream politics.”

Luton has the dubious distinction of being a centre of both far-right and Islamist extremism. The EDL began here in 2009, in response to a demonstration organised by Anjem Choudary’s now banned extremist group al-Muhajiroun, which in turn was a reaction against an army regiment marching in Luton.

A counterprotest led to arrests and the EDL was born, with sometimes violent neo-fascist street protests spreading across the country. Robinson insisted from the outset that the EDL was not racist, but only “against the rise of radical Islam”. Carroll says it was local difficulties, rather than national issues such as immigration, that unsettled and motivated him – and he didn’t articulate the core problem as racism against white people, not even to himself. The EDL has never had a formal membership, but the think tank Demos estimated that there were between 25,000 and 35,000 active members in 2011, a loose coalition of football hooligans and far-right activists. Today, the numbers are much reduced.

Carroll’s family was closely involved and it was a while before he realised that the EDL was an extremist, racist group. He describes being at a demo in Birmingham soon after the first protest. “I looked at the other lads there and I didn’t like them. They didn’t smell right for me, as far as integrity goes. I thought, ‘I don’t want this.’” Carroll’s parents are Irish and he considers himself the child of immigrants.

It took several months for him to extricate himself from the group and stop attending demonstrations. “It’s a relationship breaker, so you’ve got to accept that things are broken for ever.” On building sites, he was known as the EDL guy. Work dried up.

Amid attempts to coerce him back into the movement, and concerned about damaging his family relationships, Carroll stayed silent for another year and a half, only starting to speak up a few years after he left the EDL. This triggered a new wave of threats. He reeled off a list of incidents: slashed tyres, smashed windows. “Last week, I got one on Facebook [saying] that I’m a ginger Muslim and I’m gonna get shot. That was someone I know privately, which I don’t take as a threat. Their particular problem seems to be that I’m on record saying I’d have a cup of tea in a mosque and sit down and talk to people.”

Carroll did so after seeing a Facebook post by a local activist, Dawood Masood. Masood had shared a video of an imam in Leicester speaking about terrorist violence, with a message saying that any EDL members were welcome to get in touch. Carroll met him and others from the Muslim community and they discussed ways to make Luton better. He told them that he wasn’t interested in religion, but invited them to what he considers his church: Luton Town FC.

“I had the idea it’s about setting precedents, because you never know who or what that affects,” he says. “I just thought, if I’m seen going to the football with them, it’s going to break a big piece of ice.”

As the EDL evolved largely from a football subculture, this was a bold step. They went to the match. “He’s Luton born and bred and he certainly don’t need his hand held. But I made him as comfortable as possible. Luton scored and he’s jumping up and down, loving it. At that point, I thought: ‘This is really Luton harmony. He’s cheering for the same thing and I’m cheering for the same thing. We’re both happy together at this moment in time. We’ve got things in common.’”

They have been to many matches since, Masood bringing his kids, Carroll his grandkids. Carroll has had a few threatening calls but remains undeterred. “The working-class Muslim lads are working-class Muslim lads. They’ve got all the same problems and social issues as us white, working-class people. It’s not just me or us. It’s everyone.” 

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage