Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Grykes and clints

Moving from truly remote and relatively untouched corners of Scotland to the Burren in Ireland and on to the English countryside, Robert Macfarlane discovers and describes wild places in all their many manifestations –
Certainly, these islands possessed wild places on massive scales ... but my original idea that a wild place had to be somehow outside history, which had failed to fit the complicated pasts of the Scottish and Irish landscapes, seemed even more improper in an English context. English wildness existed in the main as Nash's 'unseen landscapes': it was there, if carefully looked for, in the bend of a stream valley, in the undercut of a riverbank, in copses and peat hags, hedgerows and quicksand pools. And it was there in the margins, interzones, and rough cusps of the country: quarry rim, derelict factory, and motorway verge.
The writing is poetic, lyrical, erudite and often all of these in a paragraph or less. The extract below, explaining how physics and climatic conditions combine to make the air in certain locations particularly clear, is a wonderful example:
On the north-western coasts of Britain and Ireland, the air has a remarkable transparency, for it is almost free of particulate matter. Little loose dust rises from the wet land, and the winds blow prevailingly off the sea. Through such air, photons can proceed without obstacle. The light moves, unscattered, and falls upon the forms and objects of those regions with candour.
Other passages that particularly touched me were his description of squirrels creating their own electric blankets using phone lines near his friend Roger Deakin's home (page 215); the explanation of how human eyes work at night (page 200) and his descriptions of sleeping outside in various locations. The latter bringing back memories of a soft, warm August night spent sleeping on a bed of heather in the middle of the Cairngorms and a snug but damp snow cave near the summit of Ben Lawers.

Constantly thought-provoking, near the end he touches upon the wild places which have been reclaimed by nature from man's clutches and presciently notes that:
Abandoned places such as these provide us not only with images of the past but also with visions of the future. As the climate warms, and as human populations begin to fall, increasing numbers of settlements will be abandoned. Inland drought and rising sea-levels on the coasts will force exoduses. And wildness will return to these forsaken places.
I always find it comforting to think that the Earth will easily outlast humanity and at some point in the future all traces of mankind will cease to exist. This remarkable diagram shows how long this process would actually take if all mankind disappeared tomorrow –

Apologies for the quality, but the original article [Times online] no longer has the diagram.

And, just in case you were wondering, a gryke is a vertical fissure in limestone pavement which has been worn out by water erosion and a clint is a glacially polished horizontal surface of limestone pavement.

No comments: