Bestselling author Robert Macfarlane talks to us about reconnecting with wildlife, the woodwide web and why he no longer calls himself a ‘nature writer’.
The bestselling writer tells us about the ‘woodwide web’, wildlife campaigning and why we need nature writing more than ever
The dreaming spires of Cambridge are not an obvious place for a wildlife safari, but Robert Macfarlane soon unveils the unexpected natural riches of the city he has called his home for the past quarter century. On one particular spire perches some “living stonework” as Robert calls it: the hulking figure of a female peregrine. A feral pigeon clatters around a lower pillar, precariously close to becoming lunch.
“I sometimes walk along here and find a pair of pigeon legs on the pavement,” says Robert, who possesses the lean build of a climber and the soft voice of a deep thinker. We continue into the gardens of his college, Emmanuel, pausing by the carp pond, before stopping to talk beneath a majestic oriental plane tree – a sleek magpie bounces on its triffid-like limbs.
Robert is a Cambridge fellow and writer who has quietly become one of Britain’s leading public intellectuals and environmentalists. This boyish 42-year-old is a young father to British nature writing. He first spotted its resurgence in 2003, and his five bestselling books, including The Wild Places and The Old Ways, define the genre. But he’s also championed several other wild writers.
Spreading the word
As fears over the state of nature deepen, Robert is becoming more influential than ever. His ‘Words of the Day’ – an online project to rewild language and widen our ability to name landscapes, geological features, climates and species – has a third of a billion Twitter impressions. He helped edit and write Chris Packham’s People’s Manifesto for Wildlife in 2018 and some of its smartest 200 ideas – such as twinning every primary school with a farm – were his.
“It is a revelation that we walk on a woodwide web – a hidden world of astonishment.”
Nature books slake our thirst to reconnect with wildlife and the world bigger than ourselves.
Robert’s last book, The Lost Words, an illustrated book of ‘spells’ to revive an appreciation of everyday wildlife, from acorns to wrens (words controversially excised from a recent edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary) has become a cultural phenomenon. Crowd-funded campaigns by the book’s fans have seen copies bought for every Scottish state school, as well as every primary school in more than 25 English and Welsh counties, from Yorkshire to Cornwall. Jackie Morris’s artwork has been reproduced on the walls of children’s hospitals, care homes and end-of-life hospices. The book has spawned musical adaptations, plays, festivals and exhibitions, sold 180,000 copies and is now published in North America, Germany, the Netherlands, France and Sweden, with a Welsh translation coming.
Robert’s new book, Underland, is already attracting international acclaim. Ostensibly, there is not much wildlife in this six-year exploration of the ground beneath our feet. Robert goes caving in the Mendips, joins “urban explorers” in the Parisian catacombs, visits a salt mine in Yorkshire and a nuclear waste storage facility in Finland. But other species – from sea otters to snow buntings – are a constant presence during his exploration of deep places – and deep time.
An appreciation of the sunlit world is heightened after claustrophobic hours, or days, underground. Underland also reveals the speed and scale of climate change, issuing a powerful warning about the Anthropocene, the contemporary geological era defined by the dominance of the human race. In the future, Robert’s epic may well be judged a classic of these unsettling times.
Robert’s earliest childhood memory is finding a red deer antler in the Cairngorms. His love of mountains was inspired by holidays at his grandparents’ house in the Highlands. “Within my own writing life, I started on the tops of mountains with Mountains of the Mind and I’ve basically gone downhill ever since,” he laughs.
Nature writing, says Robert, is as old as Celtic Christian writing, but it is no coincidence that the genre’s recent boom has come at a time of increasing fears about climate change and species extinction. Such books “unmistakably” slake our thirst to reconnect with wildlife and the world bigger than ourselves, he thinks. Robert welcomes the diversification of the once extremely male genre, with publishers supporting numerous new female writers and, belatedly, those from ethnic minority backgrounds. But he now renounces the term nature writing. “It has gone through the cycle of success, branding, self-parody,” he laughs, “backlash, and ossification.”
The herbivorous world of nature writing was jolted in 2015 when the naturalist Mark Cocker wrote an essay criticising some writers’ failure to grapple with environmental crisis or, indeed, write knowledgeably about nature. Robert responded at the time by defending the breadth of nature writing, arguing it need not explicitly pronounce an ecological message to perform ecological work.
Robert has written about species loss, plastic waste and other environmental issues in earlier works. This exploration of the strata
beneath our feet was sparked after a slew of troubling underground international events in 2010, including the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, and the trapping of Chilean miners under the Atacama Desert. Further revelations have since confirmed the hitherto unexpected importance of this subterranean realm, not merely for the minerals we mine from it, but for life on Earth.
World of discovery
A study last year found that the Earth’s crust contains a rich ecosystem almost twice the size of the world’s oceans, containing up to 23 billion tonnes of micro-organisms, including organisms found in 121°C vents at the bottom of the sea. “It does feel like the Anthropocene is this time when the underworld is rising up faster and faster – the ‘crust biome’ as well as the methane and anthrax spores released by the melting ice,” says Robert. “There’s this sense of things being discovered.”
One of Robert’s adventures is into the “woodwide web” – the astonishing new relationships, which scientists are still piecing together, between trees whose roots are linked by mycorrhizal fungi in the soil. Robert first heard of this new discovery from his old friend Roger Deakin, who he considers to have kickstarted “new nature writing” in Britain with the publication of Waterlog 20 years ago.
Robert also cites the success of Richard Powers’ The Overstory and Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees for raising our understanding of trees. “It feels like we are turning to trees now with a more than usual imaginative need,” he says. “There’s a very good, recent essay by Daegan Miller, which just says we turn to trees when we are lost.”
As Robert explains, scientists have discovered how even different tree species communicate and exchange nutrients via the mycorrhizal fungi that weave into the tips of the plant roots. The fungi can siphon off carbon from the trees; in return the trees obtain phosphorous and nitrogen that only the fungi can acquire through the soil. “What looked like single trees are actually intercommunicating,” says Robert. “The move from individual to community is a very powerful single idea. It is a revelation that we are walking on a woodwide web – a hidden world of astonishment.”
Just beside us in Emmanuel gardens, Robert recently discovered bee orchids growing beneath a copper beach, the plants plugged into that miraculous fungal network. “I’m interested in how we, as human beings, are busy making sense of this much-more-than-human network.”
Robert’s portrayal of the speed and scale of the climatic warming in his writing is eerie and terrifying. He talks about one village where a glacier has retreated so rapidly that locals no longer hear the boom of it calving. Robert himself witnessed the collapse of another glacier’s face. “It seems that a white freight train is driving fast out of the calving face of the glacier, thundering laterally through space,” he writes, “and then the white train is suddenly somehow pulling white wagons behind it from within the glacier, like an impossible magician’s trick, and then the white wagons are followed by a cathedral – a blue cathedral of ice… and then a whole city of white and blue.” Ancient ice – strata not exposed for thousands of years – is suddenly brought before our eyes.
“We’re basically living through a horror show,” says Robert. But it was also utterly beautiful and compelling.” He has climbed into a moulin, a cave-like hole in a glacier
created by the downward flow of meltwater. When the meltwater reaches the rock below the ice, it can further hasten a glacier’s disappearance. “The frontline of climate change is the point where ice meets rock,” says Robert. “The belly of a glacier meets the skin of the earth in the Arctic and Antarctic, and that seems to be now being lubricated by meltwater, ducted down to the belly by the moulin, and accelerating the slide speed.”
Considering the scale of these planetary problems, and trying to find solutions risks “paralysis,” fears Robert. “There’s a line in The Overstory – arguments never changed a person’s mind, the only thing that can do that is a good story. Scientists now think really hard about how to tell the story of data in the largely futile hope that it will speak to individuals in power. Unfortunately, stories don’t on the whole speak to systems, and systems feel like the problem. Then you move away from that position of hopelessness and think, okay, what can be changed, large and small, how do we set about doing that?”
Robert is an increasingly influential campaigner. He’s been driven on, he says, since joining Twitter two years ago and seeing how quickly people can achieve change via campaigning on social networks. He admiringly cites Chris Packham for supporting or launching dozens of microcampaigns every week, one of the latest being to stop developers netting hedges to thwart nesting birds.
As well as helping write Packham’s manifesto, Robert has donated a poem, Heartwood, to campaigners saving street trees in Sheffield. The poem has gone around the world, been recorded by a choir and turned up in an Indian textbook. It’s a small but powerful example of how writers and artists’ cultural interventions can directly support environmental campaigns. “The gift gives on,” says Robert. “No one needs to get permission to reproduce Heartwood. There’s something about a gift culture that cuts against exactly what was being protested against in Sheffield.”
Robert is acutely aware of criticism of those who peddle hope. “I hear this despairing, disparaging rhetoric of ‘hopeheads’, ‘hopiates’ and ‘hopium’. They’ve got good lines, the anti-hopists,” he says. As he says, people take action when they have something to fear, and something to love. We need wonder; we need to plug ourselves into the natural world.
Recently, Robert attended an event at an end-of-life hospice where The Lost Words is being painted on the walls. A dying man told him: “I put my hands to touch the bark of birch trees and I feel the thrum of life move through them and into me,” Robert remembers. “This man just wants to touch the life of the world, and the trees are the conducting rods of that. The power of nature is still so valuable to people from a few years’ old to the end of their lives.”
FIND OUT MORE
Robert Macfarlane is discussing explorations of nature at Hay Festival on 26 May. Underworld (Hamish Hamilton, £20) is out now and is a Book of the Week on BBC Radio 4.
Robert Macfarlane has written about species loss and environmental issues. His latest book reveals the alarming speed and scale of climate change.
Clockwise from left: Robert’s love of the outdoors started at a young age; The Lost Words features Jackie Morris’s artwork; trees are better connected than you might think; Robert is a keen mountain walker.