Posts Tagged ‘Robert Macfarlane’

Dream-permeable cartography

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Robert Macfarlane contrasts two types of map: that of the grid and that of the story.

A grid map places an abstract geometric meshwork upon a space, within which any item or individual can be co-ordinated. The invention of the grid map, which occurred more or less coevally with the rise of modern science in the sixteenth century, lent a new authority to cartography. The power of grid maps is that they make it possible for any individual or object to be located within an abstract totality of space. But their virtue is also their danger: that they reduce the world only to data, that they record space independent of being.

[…] The grid map has proved an exceptionally efficient method for converting place into resource, and for devising large-scale approaches to a landscape. It is a technique that has brought uncountable benefits and advances with it. But so authoritative is the grid method, so apparently irrefutable the knowledge that it dispenses about a place, that it has all but eliminated our sense of the worth of map-as-story: of cartography that is self-made, felt, sensuous. The grid’s rigorous geometry celebrates precision, and suppresses touch, feel and provisionality.

[…] As the American poet Robert Penn Warren beautifully observed, ‘our maps have grown less speculative, less interested in the elemental possibilities of the Earth’s skin, and that suggests that the Earth has lost it capacity to keep secrets. We tend to look at them for what we want to avoid, rather than what, in good fortune, we might discover. There is not much mystery in a landscape we cannot enter.’

In contrast, story maps

represent a place as it is perceived by an individual or by a culture moving through it. They are records of specific journeys, rather than describing a space within which innumerable journeys might take place. They are organised around the passage of the traveller, and the perimeters of the sight or experience of that traveller. Event and place are not fully distinguished, for they are often of the same substance.

[…] They are deep maps too, that register history, and that acknowledge the way memory and landscape layer and interleave. They are living conceptions, idiosyncratically created, proved upon the pulses of a place, born of experience and of attention.

[…] Maps such as these, held in the mind, are alert to a landscape’s volatility as well as fixtures. They tell of the inches and tints of things. They are born of a sophisticated literacy of place, rather than aspiring solely to the neutral organisation of data. We cannot navigate and place ourselves only with maps that make the landscape dream-proof, impervious to the imagination. Such maps – and the road-map is first among them – encourage the elimination of wonder from our relationship with the world. And once wonder has been chased from our thinking about the land, then we are lost.

- from Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places (pp. 141-145); he adds a few examples of those who specialise in map-as-story, such as eskimos. There is also the classic, Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines, that commemorates his experiences amongst Australian aborigines.

The Isles Project – what and why – the how’s another question

Saturday, September 29, 2007

I’ve always found the world of the rock-loving geologist difficult to relate to; I don’t know what it is about the discipline of geology that has made it so for me – may be something to do with so much jargon, terminology and a regular lack of poetics in their use of language – and I don’t necessarily mean grand gestures of dramatic metaphor, or the sublime visions of the Romantics.

To give an idea, I love this piece of writing – coming from Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places – about the British Isles, with its subdued, gentle overtones of genesis.

At the height of the last glacial period, the ice had been so dense and extensive that its weight depressed the land beneath it into the earth’s mantle. Think of that: it caused an entire country to sink down into the earth. Conversely, so it was that when the ice melted and its weight was lifted from the land, the bones of the earth rose – in some places by hundreds of feet. Geologists call this effect ‘isostatic rebound’. The rebound was most pronounced in the north of Britain, where the ice had been most massive; on the south coast, by way of counteraction, the coastline dipped.

As the ice melted, and the land tilted, the oceans grew. For glaciation had stored a significant proportion of the word’s water. The run-off from the melting ice across the northern hemisphere joined the oceans, raising sea-levels by nearly 400 feet in places, and transforming the map of the world. Among those transformations was the cutting, sluicing and filling of the channel between what is now England and what is now France. The ancient land-bridge of chalk, weald sands and clay was gouged over thousands of years by rivers. As the sea levels continued to rise, the water flooded up the river valleys, ate at the hills, and eventually overran the bridge entirely. Britain was islanded: the archipelago was made.

The ice retreated up through the land – lobes, fingers, sheets, reversing irregularly, northering. The land it left behind was at first entirely barren. Bare drifts of till, comminuted earth, a glittering domain of boulders, pebbles, sand and clay, rich in metals that had been filtered and sorted by the ice’s latticework. Pools of silver water gleaming in the hollows.

It was in those pools that the deepwood began to found itself. Sphagnum bogs thickened there, the bogs became stew-pots for floating mats of heath, and on those heaths grew dwarf forests of decidous trees: willows, briches and pine, relatively arctic trees, easily dispersed, finding shelter from the glacial winds in depressions and niches.

The wood deepened, keeping a steady distance from the ice: alders in thick stands along the river valleys, willow on the boggy ground, oak, lime, hazel, ash and hornbeam, and through it all a scrub, filling the aisles of the wood and thronging its borders.

In this way, there emerged a youthful, supple forest, new-born out of the glaciers. The blue ice gave to the green wood. Where the wood caught fire and burned, as it did at times, the energy of suns was returned to the air.

- from Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places (pp.93-4)

This is the kind of ‘more-than-human’ history I wrote about before at Sumptuous World – ‘New ways of doing history’ parts I & II. I love it because I believe those of us in the developed world need more than ever a sensibility of place such that we can more easily see and feel where we are, where we’ve come from, and what possibilities we have for what’s increasingly appearing to be a fairly rocky road ahead. It’s the orientation in this kind of writing that has led me to the idea for what I have called the Isles Project. isles-project-logo.jpg

It amazes me that, with all its history and influence, there is no generic, situated (in London?) introduction to the British Isles on the cultural landscape; the British Museum, after all, is in the main a reflection (an inspiring reflection? A celebration of empire?) of most other places but here and has little about Britain or the British.

It’s my contention that the time is ripe for a mark on the cultural landscape that does just this: tells the story of these lands, and the relations between people and the lands, from a weaving of human and more-than-human, and poetic, standpoints. I can think of few better ways to adjust the cultural landscape to the socio-economic and political priorities posed by the profound – and potentially deeply disorientating and upsetting – challenges of sustainability.

Robert Macfarlane, incidentally, was a friend of Roger Deakin (see previous here), is a Cambridge University fellow and an instigator of the conference on nature and literature and the eco-literature Archipelago publication.


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