Calls of the wild
Many of our old wildernesses are dying - like the Arctic - but many, and different, others - on Live
Granta 102, edited by Jason Cowley, Granta Publications, 264pp, £10.99
Once upon a time, the wilderness was uncomplicated: dangerous, profuse and remote. In Lydia Peelle's story of a dying, diabetic taxidermist,
Jack's father used to tell him stories of the long hunters. They'd arrive with nothing but a gun and an axe, build a log cabin and stay for a year, eating deer meat and salting the skins, which they rolled up on a travois and brought home when they simply couldn't carry any more. Park-like forests, great open spaces under magnificently canopied trees. When the first of them came down from Kentucky, his father told him, they did not dismount, lest they be trampled, the woods were so crowded with game.
The other important quality of that wilderness is that it was long past. In the 20th century, savagery had been industrialised and the furthest place from civilisation - the most dangerous, raw and violent place - became the trenches of a modern battlefield where huge machineries contended to ensure that nothing could live.
So where is the wilderness today? That is the question the new issue of Granta, on "The New Nature Writing", sets out to answer. It is largely successful, and very thought-provoking. The most disconcerting answer, and one of the finest, comes from the poet Kathleen Jamie, in her account of visits to a pathology lab where she examines "the nature we would rather do without":
He began carving decisively through the whole colon. As each slice slumped from his blade he dragged it to a clear section of the board and began mashing the fatty surround with his fingertips. I watched as Frank worked, trying to resist any food similes but they would come. The pile of sliced colon mounting at the far edge of his board looked like chanterelle mushrooms, the fat squished under his fingers like cottage cheese. It might have been "nature" but there was nothing uplifting about it. Well, we are predators and omnivores, we are meat and made of food, and the colon is part of how our animal bodies deal with food.
Later she voyages through a microscope, across the middle of a liver, from health to cancer. The writing is sensual and disturbing at once, like the smell of meat from an autopsy: at the end she leaves the hospital, and "It felt surprisingly good to be part of that rough tribe of the mortal, and good to be well, able to stride outside again, back into the cool March breeze."
One of the purposes of Granta has to be to introduce you to writers whom you want to read more of, and, for me, Jamie was one of the two great discoveries of this magazine. The other was Lydia Peelle, whose short story I have already quoted. I rather winced at the thought of yet another Granta short story about American rural life, but this one is remarkably sly and sad and very well paced. The figure of a taxidermist in suburbia is about as far from nature, as traditionally conceived, as anyone could be. The puma that may be stalking the town is what nature is meant to be; but it may not exist at all, and its absence may reveal a nature much less easy to tame than the primal wilderness.
Jonathan Raban, ranging around the Snake and Columbia river valleys, finds that nature up there has hardly been tamed at all. One reason for this is that the city-dwellers want nature back in the safe and picturesque distance. They would rather have salmon and wolves than loggers and farmers - though Raban sees clearly enough that "salmon and wolves" can only be justified economically, which means that the areas affected turn from self-sufficiency to tourism. No wonder the locals loathe it. In this struggle between two conceptions of nature - and so two conceptions of humanity - he sees the secret of George W Bush's election in 2004: every city in the US with more than half a million inhabitants returned John Kerry; it was the people who live in "the environment" who returned Bush to power.
Among the multiplying ironies of his story is the way in which the land has been shaped as much as anything by legislation, which was meant to produce a class of sturdy independent farmers, upholding the virtues of America as de Tocqueville would have wished, and instead has produced huge irrigated businesses dependent on subsidy and worked by immigrants: whole towns in the arid inland areas of Washington State where everyone speaks Spanish. Yet when the subsidies run out, and the price of water and electricity rises again, the land may very well return to the animals who held it first, as a place without much romance.
Still, it will always have more romance than the outer fringes of Liverpool. The most original and striking piece in this anthology is about growing up in Netherley, a council estate on the edge of farmland. Paul Farley and Niall Griffiths, who both grew up there, though ten years apart in age, return and talk about their experiences. The shops are barred up or burned out. Farley remembers being passed a football in a school corridor: when he trapped the unfamiliar weight beneath his foot, he realised it was a severed pig's head.
It was a place of frequent cruelty to living animals: dogfighting was an attraction to compete with the destruction of freshly stolen cars; one boy made, used and carefully decorated a spear for hunting cats. This is human nature. But their memories are charged with something of the same exuberance that Kathleen Jamie felt, emerging from the autopsy room. It is good to be alive, and to be a child, even in a place like that. The current bears us all along, just as it will eventually strand each one of us.
In all this, what would most strike a visitor from a hundred years ago is the sense that the wilderness is everywhere returning even as we grow richer and more distant from it. Sometimes this is explicit: the story of a squat in the South Bronx, the kind of place where policemen go around in helicopters, is intimately connected with the decay of the city and the growth of wild gardens where there once stood buildings, burned down for the insurance. Eventually, the economic weather turns. The buildings are remodelled and the squatters driven out like pests; but the gardens, or some of them, remain to this day.
But there is also economy behind Robert Macfarlane's haunting story of the dying farmers of the Fens. The family farms are dying out there because the work is hard and grim and much more easily done by machines. No one need any longer put in the unremitting work of maintaining a farm against encroaching nature. This is exactly what would be seen as progress through most of European history, and yet now that we are its heirs we can see what was lost through misty autumnal regrets.
I was travelling in Swedish Lapland this summer, in a landscape almost entirely depopulated by the internal combustion engine. Along a river valley where 50 years ago a thousand people were employed in logging and floating the logs downriver, there now are no jobs. The timber is cut with chainsaws or gargantuan machines. It is driven away in lorries in a couple of days, instead of being herded through the rapids for two years. Everyone lives better, but almost everyone lives somewhere else, and wolves and bears are steadily returning to the forest. A lynx ran across the road in front of my car.
Nature is, above all things, protean. It is constantly defeated in open battle and constantly returns to remind us of our limits. The internal combustion engine has removed first wilderness, then people from the countryside. Every single landscape that this book describes has been shaped by oil and our use of fossil fuels and this, if it continues, could make almost the whole world uninhabitable by humans. In the end, what this collection shows from Kathleen Jamie to Lynda Peelle and all stops between, is that however nature changes, the intimate and alien thing that we can never tame is death.
Andrew Brown's most recent book is "Fishing in Utopia: Sweden and the Future that Disappeared" (Granta Books). His blog is at: http://www.thewormbook.com/elegans/hlog