Robert Mac­far­lane

Best­selling au­thor Robert Mac­far­lane talks to us about re­con­nect­ing with wildlife, the wood­wide web and why he no longer calls him­self a ‘na­ture writer’.

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - Contents - By Patrick Barkham

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.

Start­ing young

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.”

In­flu­enc­ing oth­ers

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.”


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.

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