The joy of giving: Emmanuel College.
Generosity, like its close cousin appreciation, isn’t a quality that is usually taught in literary studies. You learn much of value there, from understanding the politics of the text to picking up issues for interpretation and analysis. But in all this, practices centred on kindness and giving hardly mature as significant concerns, let alone tools or methods. For generosity supposedly lacks the grit of critical acumen and the passion of political spirit needed to change the world.
Writer and critic Robert Macfarlane, however, made me realise that criticism, appreciation and munificence needn’t stand in opposition to each other, but can constitute the same continuum to bring transformation. Currently the finest figurehead of “nature writing” — a literary genre attuned to the dynamics of nature and landscape, often through spiritual, moral and ethical lenses — Macfarlane's latest work Underland: A Deep Time Journey, was released in 2019 to critical acclaim. It surveys the many worlds beneath the visible surface of human habitation (caves, catacombs, crypts and others) and simultaneously evolves as a complex commentary on the nature of time and its numerous crystallisations in human and non-human matter. But its deep spirit of friendship, humility, and collective, empathetic enquiry goes back to all of Macfarlane’s previous work, that includes bestsellers on topics as wide as the perceptual history of mountains, the lure of wild terrains and walking, the inherent links between language and landscape, and the special proclivity of childhood cultures towards the earth’s environment.
Having studied English at Cambridge and received a fellowship at the same institution at the age of 25, Macfarlane, now 43, is married to the China scholar Julia Lovell, and is a father of three children. A couple of years ago, when I was in the midst of writing a PhD on fantasy literature at Cambridge, I had the privilege to know him better. Within moments of my first meeting with him at the entrance of the beautiful four-centuries old Emmanuel College at Cambridge, I was taken for a tour of his beloved trees in the Fellows’ Garden, where the giant Oriental Plane clearly crested over as his favourite. His narration on the aesthetics of its surface, textures, light, height and sinuous spread broke the ice in an unusual manner. The meeting was my life’s first occasion of experiencing a friendship sprouting around a conscious regard for nature, an instance that also brought out the subtle truth of Hermann Hesse’s claim that “when we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy.” We bonded, then, with childlike happiness.
Macfarlane’s oeuvre teems with giving, the clearest example of which is his 2015 venture Landmarks, wherein he introduces thousands of nature and place-related words from different dialects of British English not usually encountered in dictionaries. He recognises their power to remember, vivify and protect the landscapes they describe, and argues that in their absence, landscapes will eventually become nature-shorn “blandscapes”. Reading those entries, I have often remembered the great Indian thinker GN Devy’s masterful survey of the country’s regional languages that echoes similar rationales.
Macfarlane’s penchant for constant giving has been reciprocated in equal measure by artistes of all hues. Among them, illustrator Jackie Morris stands tall for her superb collaboration on the children’s book The Lost Words: A Spell Book (2017). In this work, she and Macfarlane dazzle readers with acrostics and images of natural beings who were eliminated from an eminent junior dictionary some years ago, thereby re-conjuring them back to life. If culture destroys nature, then it can also come to its rescue, they demonstrate. The picture book has now been transformed into a set of lyrical musical compositions titled Spell Songs, a performance of which recently took place at London’s Royal Albert Hall, and was streamed live on radio across Britain.
US philosopher Jane Bennett has remarked that moments of enchantment “inspire deep attachment” and “nurture the spirit of generosity that must suffuse ethical codes.” Macfarlane’s prose powerfully embodies this thought as it traverses numerous terrains from all over the world. His prose, hinging on a robust precision of expression highlights the subject in a manner that forces you to pay attention. The ordinary yields the extraordinary, the real becomes the magical, and somewhere along the reading arc, the outdoor landscapes fuse with the landscapes of your psyche and body, transforming you into a different person at the end. His literary precision doesn’t cancel out the appeal of the mysterious or the mystical, for he knows that any knowledge of the natural world is bound to be marked by an unknowability, like that horizon far away in whose search you discover much, but which must, essentially, remain ungraspable.
Siddharth Pandey belongs to Shimla and was recently a visiting scholar at Yale University’s Centre for British Art