Speaking the Anthropocene: An Interview with Robert Macfarlane
The Author of Underland on the
Emergence Magazine Podcast
Emergence Magazine is a quarterly online publication exploring the threads connecting ecology, culture, and spirituality. As we experience the desecration of our lands and waters, the extinguishing of species, and a loss of sacred connection to the Earth, we look to emerging stories. Each issue explores a theme through innovative digital media, as well as the written and spoken word. The Emergence Magazine podcast features exclusive interviews, narrated essays, stories, and more.
In this episode of the podcast, writer Robert Macfarlane articulates the consequence, the responsibility, as well as the pleasure of naming the living world. Robert is the author of The Old Ways, The Wild Places, Mountains of the Mind, Landmarks, and Underland.
From the episode:
Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee: I get a sense you’ve spent a lot of time in the spaces you write about. Was this something you always had an affinity for—the natural environments of Great Britain—or is this something that was learned over time?
Robert Macfarlane: Well, I love listening to people. I love talking, as I know you do, but even more I love listening. It’s long been my habit to travel to landscapes that fascinate me and to talk to people who know them very well, profoundly well, whether that be through work, through science, through art, through poetry, or just through long, everyday acquaintance. And these subtleties of relation that emerge through chronic contact, through chronic relationships with places—cities as well as moorlands—they fascinate me. So, I’ve always asked questions of people who live in places.
But poetry has been a huge force and presence in my life. The three poets who I met earliest were the three H’s. They were Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, and Gerard Manley Hopkins; and in a way, for that troika of poets, words have a kind of palp and a heft that is as strong as a pebble or a gale. And I was fascinated by writers who fought and sought to give to their language aspects of matter, and who sought to give to matter aspects of language.
Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee: And was it being in these spaces that initially—because I know you have a background in mountaineering, and you spend a lot of time out there in the cold, in high altitude environments—was it being in these places, or the places that you journey to on your way to the peak, that prompted you to seek out these poets as a way of understanding what you were feeling?
Robert Macfarlane: That’s a fascinating question. In some ways, being in high mountains in a storm or at real altitude is an experience that sort of batters language into uselessness. In many ways, you fall back on practicalities, on tool use, on rope skills, on navigation, and language isn’t much use to you—it doesn’t get much grip up there in the high mountains. And I love that really. Quite often on the summit of a mountain I just say, “Wow.” It’s not a loquacious response to the view laid out before me. But mountains—they live in deep time. They occupy phases and scopes of place and time that make a mockery of language.
So, yes, in one sense, a long, long acquaintance with mountains as a walker, as a mountaineer, and as a reader made me aware of how useless language is in its relations with place. But it did also make me look for a language of purchase and attention. For example, Gaelic—Scottish-Gaelic as opposed to Irish-Gaelic, though the two are closely related—has this fabulously refined lexis for mountains. I mean, there are thirty to forty words for the top of a mountain alone, and each one slightly distinguishes between the kind of peak. A sgùrr is generally a sharp peak, and a stob also tends to be quite an abrupt peak. Other words discriminate between tops that have corries beneath them, or tops that are longer, have ridges running off them that might look like beinn cruach and have a long summit ridge. When one looks closely, one finds that there are languages of fine discrimination at work not only in our cities or our technologies—where, of course, such languages proliferate—but in our landscapes as well.