“The path trodden by wayfarers and pilgrims followed the railway and then turned into the fields. Here Lara stopped, closed her eyes and took a good breath of the air which carried all the smells of the huge countryside. It was dearer to her than her kin, better than a lover, wiser than a book. For a moment she rediscovered the meaning of her life. She was here on earth to make sense of its wild enchantment and to call each thing by its right name, or, if this were not within her power, then, out of love of life, to give birth to heirs who would do it in her place.”
The quote above, from Boris Pasternak’s 1957 novel Doctor Zhivago, was also used in the 2007 film Into the Wild: a biopic about the life and, ultimately, the death of the twenty-four year old Christopher McCandless. McCandless, for those who haven’t heard of him, walked out into the Alaskan wilderness in 1992 to live apart from the rest of civilisation. His body was discovered four months later, emaciated and huddled in a sleeping bag on an abandoned bus in the Denali National Park. To many, he is seen as a Romantic and a visionary. However, I’ve never been able to get past the nagging idea that McCandless was part of an almost hyper-masculine approach to Nature: an attitude that views the wild world as something to be conquered rather than understood. That judges Nature for its worth as a commodity, rather than for the value it has in its own right. Christopher McCandless walked out into the wilds without a compass, with almost no experience in living in harmony with the land, and with seemingly little respect for the power and the rhythms of the landscape that he was walking into.
No, there are doubtless many reasons why Christopher McCandless was worthy of admiration, but I cannot count his attitude towards the natural world among them.
The quote, however, has stayed with me and has only echoed louder and louder through the passing of this year: pulsing through the space between my thoughts like a mantra. The past few weeks have taught me that I am anything but alone in feeling this way. But, before I can talk about that, I need to tell you about a book…
I don’t know how this book ended up on the shelf in my bedroom when I was a young girl. The inscription just inside the front cover, “From Mick and Paula. Christmas 1972”, dates it from almost ten years before I was born, and doesn’t do anything to shed any light on the matter. It bears the names of my parents, but isn’t in what I recognise to be their handwriting. The hand looks far more like my paternal grandmother’s, but that doesn’t do much to explain how it ended up back in our house when I was a girl, or why the date on the inscription is the year before the publication date on the imprint. What I do know is that it has been with me more or less since I was able to read, and that it was both an enigma and a joy to me throughout my childhood.
It’s covers have always been tattered, faded, and printed with stalks of seeding summer grass and the big, bright heads of daisies that were probably once white, but have now faded to a gentle sepia. The spine, now peeling away from the binding, bears the words “Book of the British Countryside”. It was printed by the AA, probably in 1973, and as far as I can tell it has never been reprinted.
I grew up in the suburbs of a town on the commuter-belt between Brighton and London that was almost entirely devoid of any history of its own. What it did have, however, were green and open spaces. Looking back on it, so much of my childhood was spent out in the open: climbing trees, catching butterflies, digging through thick, musty compost in the allotments behind my parents’ house for the skull of a fox that was peeking its nose out of the rich, turned earth. We didn’t have a computer of any kind until I was around twelve, and I did not use the internet at all until I came to university at eighteen. So, when I was a child, this book became my roadmap to the entire world. I remember leafing carefully through the pages of drawn and printed birds and butterflies—sometimes trying to identify something I had seen or found, or else just looking for the sheer joy of it. I pressed dozens, if not hundreds of leaves and flowers between its hefty covers, the shadows of which still discolour the insides of the title page. Sometimes, I even read the words.
I’m not entirely certain what changed for me around the age of thirteen, when I stopped searching meticulously through the pages of this book or walking through the long grass in the fields near my house. Perhaps, in truth, it was a combination of things: the emotional and hormonal turmoil of puberty; my parents divorcing and my mother moving away; the slow arrival of electronics, computers, digital music. Although, I will admit that I have begun to consider whether the change in schools (and the way that I was taught science at that age) had anything to do with it. Before that point, much of my learning had been hands-on. I remember having school books filled with pressed and preserved flowers and leaves, sketches of butterflies and animals. After I started secondary school, the enduring memory that I have of my biology classes is of staring into text books, or being taught that anyone who disagreed with interfering with the genetic make-up of our food plants was ignorant, and needed to be looked down on.
I slowly moved away from the long afternoons that I spent scratching through the undergrowth with my nose pressed close down to the earth, or tearing through dirt tracks through the woodland on my bicycle with the wind blasting in my eyes; feeling just like I could fly. But those memories must still have nagged at me, somewhere in the wet dark of my mind, because when I left home to go to university, the Book of the British Countryside came with me. It sat, untouched, on shelves in student halls and in the damp, rented rooms or buildings that were little more than embodied fire hazards. It was shunted from place to place when I graduated, and came back to the south of England to try and make a go of having a ‘proper life’, and was packed up again a year later when we abandoned that idea and came back to Wales to live among the mountains, write stories, and struggle to pay the bills. In every move, a few more things were lost, mislaid, or given away. But this book came with me. It endured. Like that little whispered mantra at he back of my head, waiting for me to come back to it.
I cannot tell you what is different this year. Whether the change is within me, or without. What I do know is that this year, for the first time in half my lifetime, this book has come off the shelf, and my fingers have re-learned its pictures and its pages.
All year, the nagging urge has been germinating inside of me. To call each thing by its right name. It started with the birdsong. Another move a year and a half ago brought us down out of the mountains and into the Welsh foothills with their square fields, seeding grasses and syrup-coloured sunlight. Acting upon some instinct that I couldn’t name, as soon as it was warm enough this year I opened up the windows. They have been open ever since, and the first thing that I noticed was the great, sweet waves of birdsong that ebb and flow through dawn and dusk. It burst out of the trees and fields as soon as summer struggled out of its womb of late spring snow. I have never found sleep quickly, and through April and May this year I have lain for hours in the growing dark, and listened to the birds. After the first few weeks, I felt a yearning to know the names for all these voices that kept me company into the night—singing rich and deep into full dark. Blackbird. Robin. Tawny Owl. And other creatures, too. House cat. Hedgehog. Fox. I learned, and slowly got to know each of the night-dwellers and their voices.
Next, it was the clouds. I have walked out beneath the heavens early and often for years now, but this year is the first that I’ve found myself walking in the hills, driving into work, or staring out of my window, and wondering what words to use to name the shapes and colours of the sky. What atmospheric conditions cause clouds shaped like dapples over flanks of blue, or great, billowing towers of slate-grey. At some point in my wonderings, I took the Book of the British Countryside down off the shelf. I could have typed it into Google and been done with it, of course, but something in me yearned to have that musty, yellowing paper underneath my hands again.
Since then, it has been used to call moths, trees, butterflies and flowers each by their right name. When it hasn’t answered my questions, I have sought out other sources. I have entertained myself with its little anachronisms—with the way it talks about elm trees as though it expects me to have seen them.
Spending hours carefully plucking the weeds out from between the cabbages and onions I’m growing in my garden (because now I am no longer on a mountain, things can grow without being immediately shredded by the wind), I’ve felt the slow realisation that each of these little plants I am pinching out of the earth is different. That the things which we call weeds are phenomenally varied, industrious, and beautiful. Where I can, I have read their names, learned their uses and their properties. I have ordered myself a little book of herbalism that will sit beside the venerable old soul of the Book of the British Countryside on its shelf beside the window.
Slowly, surely, I have fallen into a fascinated orbiting of all things that live and grow. And, through accident or synchronisity, I have begun to seek out others who are doing the same: from Cryptoforestry’s attempts to document every flowering plant along their street to Rima Staines beautiful ‘Weed Wife’ painting and reflections on how loudly the plants are calling us back home to them.
Learning to call things by their right name has value far beyond the use of names to categorise, separate and dominate the world around us. These days, our lives are often muted to the wild, ferocious act of creation coming into being all around us. We numb ourselves to the visceral, uncomfortable and diverse beauty and brutality of nature with central heating and air conditioning. We scour away our natural ebbs and flows through day and night and light through dark with artificial light—forcing our bodies out of the gentle rhythm of sleeping, waking and then sleeping again in preference for one long block of eight hours where we twist and turn restlessly in the blinking electronic gloom. Our food is delivered onto supermarket shelves and then into our fridges and freezers as regularly and predictably as the roll of a production line, regardless of the weather, the seasons, or the things that grow best in our soil and our climate. We buy recipe books and ingredients from across the globe instead of using cooking to its original purpose: to make use of the things we have available, and to provide variety.
Learning the names for the birds, trees, weeds and cloud formations around us will not completely undo all of the damage that we have done to our souls in isolating ourselves from our landscape, but it is a start. It roots us in the here and now and provides us with a sense of place. It encourages us to pay attention to our surroundings and how they change throughout the year, and it gives us an appreciation for the place that we are standing in—so that we may fall into a rhythm with the patterns of its weather, and know the living and unliving things that share the space with us. For only then can we begin to know their value rather than their worth.
For those of us who give way to the natural, human urge to create, calling our landscape by its right names allows us to bring precision, detail, and an incredible, intricate sort of beauty to the things that we make and do: sweeping away anyone who shares in our act of creation, and placing their bare feet in the soil that has created (and continues to create) us.
More than that, this sort of curiosity encourages us to explore, to get our noses back into the rich loam of the soil and into the undergrowth. To find what else is out there, and be fully present in our lives, our bodies, and our world. Then, perhaps, we can walk out into the wilderness—safe in the knowledge that we know the earth beneath our feet and it will not lead us to our ruin. That the land, in turn, knows us.
This post was originally published on Allegra’s personal blog, over at Hawksmoor’s Bazaar