In the July 1, 2021 issue of the magazine, Robert Macfarlane reviews three new books on navigation, both human and animal. The piece expands into a meditation on the value of wayfinding, which Macfarlane describes as “an ethic,” rather than simply the ability to get from points A to B. Wayfinding requires “collaboration and cooperation between humans and their environments,” an active engagement with the landscape that we are on the path to losing with our overreliance on GPS.
Macfarlane’s prolific writing career could itself be described as a form of wayfinding. In addition to films, plays, children’s books, and song lyrics, he’s published award-winning nonfiction on the words for natural phenomena in the British Isles, on walking ancient routes, and, most recently, with Underland (2019), on underworlds and deep time. “I have taken the relationships of nature and culture, or what might be called ‘landscape and the human heart,’ to be my terrain as a writer,” he told me over e-mail this week, “and I don’t ever anticipate exhausting its complexities or reaching its perimeters as a subject.”
An experience in 1999, while leading a climbing expedition in the Tian Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan, helped set him on this topic. “I grew up in a climbing family,” he said, “and for a while in my late teens—gripped by summit-fever and the selfishness of youth—it made perfect sense to me that I’d probably die young and among peaks.” But in base camp on a glacier, he saw a memorial to climbers who had lost their lives.
It was a makeshift, scrappy thing with little rusting metal name-plates screwed into a boulder. Standing in front of it, aware of my own vulnerability in those indifferent peaks, I was suddenly struck by the absurdity and curiosity of the endeavor: Why had these people been ready—why was I ready?—to give their lives for a mountain that could not love them back? That moment of intense perplexity led me to write my first book, which sought to fathom the enigma of mountain-worship.
In his review, Macfarlane argues that the ability to tell stories about ourselves in landscapes is what makes us skilled navigators. “I’ve been fascinated for a while by this notion of storytelling as wayfinding,” he said. “The compact between narrative and walking is ancient—every path tells. One of the most wonderful etymologies I know is the route that runs back from our common verb ‘to learn.’ The path from there leads to the Old English ‘leornian,’ ‘to get knowledge, to be cultivated,’ and from there into the fricative thickets of Proto-Germanic, which holds ‘liznojan,’ a word with the base sense of ‘to follow or find a track.’ We know as we go.”
Macfarlane makes sure to practice wayfinding in more literal ways, as well, as a runner and mountain-walker. “I love using running or walking to explore a new environment or landscape, without necessarily the premeditation of a destination, and without outsourcing the nav to a satellite. I also remain committed to paper maps when in the mountains. I won’t use GPS except in an emergency, preferring to require the ongoing dialectic involved in reading a map against the terrain as one moves through it. Also, paper maps don’t run out of battery power when they get cold.”
He tries to push back against our estrangement from our surroundings in a variety of genres and mediums. He wrote a children’s book about twenty nature words—including “acorn” and “otter”—that had been removed from the Oxford Junior Dictionary, and a crowdfunded campaign saw the book donated to more than three quarters of primary schools in England, Scotland, and Wales.
During the UK’s pandemic lockdown, Macfarlane cowrote an album with the singer-songwriter and actor Johnny Flynn, Lost in the Cedar Wood. They collaborated on lyrics, sharing photos of notebook pages while in their respective homes, and Flynn would set them to music. “It felt like a wild wonder, to be able to feed words into the Johnny Flynn Song Machine and get a demo back a few days later!”
In addition to daily life in lockdown, the album is inspired by the Epic of Gilgamesh: “We wanted to write something both ancient and urgent,” said Macfarlane. “At the heart of Gilgamesh is the story of an unwise ruler, Gilgamesh himself, taking his axe to the Sacred Cedar Wood and felling these extraordinary trees. A few months after we began work on it, the Fairy Creek calamity started to unfold on Vancouver Island, with the premier of British Columbia, John Horgan, allowing the logging of the old-growth cedar forest there, including trees up to 2,000 years old.” Lines like “It was the first of the tellings/Of all of the fellings” (from the song “Tree Rings”), while unfortunately evergreen, took on a particular significance.
It seemed remiss not to ask a nature writer about climate change. I wondered if Macfarlane saw any possibility that drastic weather might bring about a reckoning with our interconnectedness with the natural world. He feared that our current liberal democratic institutions lack the power to preserve a livable planet.
But there are small triumphs. Protests against the Fairy Creek loggings have been “creative, courageous, collaborative, and partially effective.” A proponent of wild swimming in open water and a patron of the Outdoor Swimming Society, Macfarlane was concerned when King’s College in Cambridge (where he is a fellow at Emmanuel College) planned to ban access to a stretch of the River Cam near Grantchester that students and locals have swum in for centuries. “There was a peasants’ revolt! Town and gown came together in protest, and at the time of writing King’s have backed down and agreed to a review. If they don’t revoke all restrictions, I have one good friend who has declared their intent to protest-swim that stretch of the river, dressed more or less only in gold body-paint.”
And more music is on the horizon. “I loved working with Johnny so much,” he said, “and we’ve not stopped writing together. We’re finishing another song today, in fact. The next album is well under way.”