Reading a Robert MacFarlane book is like going on a long walk with an excessively talkative companion.
You knew what he was like, yet you invited him to accompany you and now the bugger won't shut up. And yet- he is so interesting...does it matter that the landscape becomes a backdrop to his thoughts? It was the landscape that started this, after all. When he notices things, he certainly has a lyrical way with him. That description of the Heron, for instance, was so right, definitely poetic.
And, yes, I have to admit, I have learnt much from him and discovered many new writers. I thought I was well-read, but the guy opened up some new areas of reading and study for me, books I would never have thought to look at.
So, the landscape...yes, he acknowledges it, but the land is really there to lay his thoughts over. He riffs on poems, people and stories, all loosely conflated into a written mixtape, titled "Silt" or "Chalk". He has clever friends who become woven in to the tape, brilliant specialists, fascinating drop-outs, artists and sailors, most of whom I am the richer for having been acquainted with, on paper at least.
People have criticised him for being too middle class, for being a Latte sipping dilletante, producing books for the chattering folk, who recount passages from his books at their tedious dinner parties. I hope they do. His "The Old Ways" was a runaway best seller, and I'll bet most were purchased by a certain demographic. So what? I'm not one of those, and the book was recommended to me by a friend, a stravaiging photographer who thought I might get something out of it. And I did.
Yes, he is a bit up himself, and his hero-worship of folk gets a bit tedious at times, but it didn't stop me from reading the book in a couple of nights and then going back and starting again. Then buying his" The Wild Places". Then I put his books down, because he had introduced me to so many authors and artists that I had a lot of reading to catch up on.
I should say that MacFarlane gave me some new insights on artists I already knew well, like Eric Ravilious or Samuel Palmer. I still can't quite understand why he thinks Edward Thomas is such a great poet, but that is probably symptomatic of my own failings. But I owe him a debt of thanks for introducing me to Ann Shepherd's writing and for broadening the sweep of my studies. I also enjoyed accompanying him on these travels, immensely. Just don't get hung up on wanting an itinerary or a list of places ticked off and tidily described, or you will be disappointed. Let him wander and tag along with an open mind. You will be pleasantly surprised by what you encounter.
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