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5 December 2018

Robert Macfarlane Q&A: “Amid political awfulness, this year brought hope in the dark“

The writer talks Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, insects, and contemplating life and death.

By New Statesman

Robert Macfarlane was born in Oxford in 1976. He is at the vanguard of the recent resurgence in nature writing, with works including “Landmarks” and “The Old Ways”.

What’s your earliest memory?

Walking in the Cairngorm foothills; finding a red-deer antler amid the heather-stalks, bleached white by sun and snow, intricate as coral; then a tumbled pebble of rose quartz on a stream bank. “Caminar es atesorar!” as a Spanish friend told me years later: “To walk is to gather treasure!”

Who are your heroes?

As a child, George Mallory, who died on Everest in 1924 during his third attempt on the summit. To my childhood mind, he was an astronaut, up there in the thin air with his oxygen jet-pack on. Now? Rebecca Solnit, for her fearlessness as a writer-fighter and the range of her work.

What book last changed your thinking?

Not a book, but work I’m doing with hospitals in Britain to bring nature into the lives of patients in their final days. Hearing from people who are dying about what nature means to them has changed the way I think about life and death. I still remember Dennis Potter, swigging morphine from a hip flask during his last interview with Melvyn Bragg in 1994, talking of perceiving a plum tree as never before: “I see it is the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that there ever could be, and I can see it… the nowness of everything is absolutely wondrous… The fact is, if you see the present tense, boy do you see it! And boy can you celebrate it!”

Which political figure do you look up to?

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

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Who would paint your portrait?

Arcimboldo – let him make me an unflattering compound face out of landscape-parts; a hornet for my nose, flint hag stones for my eyes, caterpillars for eyebrows, hawthorn scrub for hair, cabbages for ears and icebergs for teeth.

What’s your theme tune?

“Hard Road” by Johnny Flynn.

What’s the best advice you’ve received?

“The gift gives on,” from Lewis Hyde’s book The Gift. It has been my strong experience that what is given freely, in no expectation of recompense, is by its nature generative of generosity – not necessarily back in the direction of the original giver, but more often out and on, unexpectedly and powerfully, into the wider world.

What’s currently bugging you?

Bugs; lack thereof. The decline in insect population numbers worldwide – the invertebrate collapse is the ice cracking fast beneath us, but we hardly hear the noise.

What would make your life better?

Regardless of my previous answer, the immediate removal of midges and ticks – the blood-sucking bastards – from ecosystems worldwide. It would mean I could go to the Highlands in summer again.

When were you happiest?

The year just ending. Amid the political awfulness, I’ve met such astonishing people and communities, from Sheffield tree-protestors to grass-roots campaigners who have placed a copy of The Lost Words in every primary school, hospice, care home and hospital school in the UK. Hope in the dark, to borrow a phrase from Solnit.

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?

A lichenologist. Or perhaps a stratigrapher.

Are we all doomed?

We will leave a distinctive trace in the rock-record. 

Robert Macfarlane’s “The Lost Words” (with Jackie Morris) is published by Hamish Hamilton. His next book, “Underland”, will be published in May 2019

This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special