Robert Macfarlane (born 15 August 1976) is a British writer and Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. He is best known for his books on landscape, nature, people and language. He has also undertaken a number of musical and film projects. For example, with the director Jen Peedom, Macfarlane worked on the film Mountain, winning three Australian Academy Awards. He has also worked with film-maker Adam Scovell.
Macfarlane was born in Halam in Nottinghamshire and attended Nottingham High School. He was educated at Pembroke College, Cambridge, and Magdalen College, Oxford. He began a PhD at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, in 2000, and in 2001 was elected a Fellow of the College. In 2017 he received The EM Forster Award for Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He is married to China scholar Julia Lovell.
His books are a very good read, but the reason he is on the site is because he had a truly spooky experience in Chanctonbury Ring.
Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination 2003 - Macfarlane's first book, Mountains of the Mind, was published in 2003 and won the Guardian First Book Award, the Somerset Maugham Award, and the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award. It is an account of the development of Western attitudes to mountains. The book asks why people are drawn to mountains despite their obvious dangers.
The Wild Places 2007 - The Wild Places describes a series of journeys made in search of the wildness that remains in Britain and Ireland. The book won the Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature, the Scottish Arts Council Non-Fiction Book of the Year Award, and the Grand Prize at the Banff Mountain Festival. The Wild Places was adapted for television by the BBC as an episode of the BBC Two Natural World series broadcast in February 2010.
The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot 2012 - describes the years Macfarlane spent following "old ways" (pilgrimage paths, sea-roads, prehistoric trackways, ancient rights of way) in south-east England, north-west Scotland, Spain, Sichuan and Palestine. In the UK it was joint winner of the Dolman Prize for Travel Writing.
Landmarks 2015 - Landmarks is described on the cover as "a field guide to the literature of nature, and a vast glossary collecting thousands of the remarkable terms used in dozens of the languages and dialects of Britain and Ireland to describe and denote aspects of terrain, weather, and nature". The chapter of the book concerning Nan Shepherd and the Cairngorm mountains was adapted for television by BBC4 and BBC Scotland.
The Gifts of Reading - 2016. a short book about gifts, stories and the unexpected consequences of generosity; moneys raised were donated to MOAS, the Migrant Offshore Aid Station
The Lost Words – 2017. With the artist Jackie Morris, Macfarlane published The Lost Words: A Spell Book in October 2017. The book won Children's Book of the Year at the British Book Awards jointly with The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. The "lost" words of the book's title are twenty of the names for everyday nature—from "Acorn" through to "Wren" by way of "Bluebell", "Kingfisher", "Lark" and "Otter"—that were dropped from inclusion in the Oxford Junior Dictionary due to ‘under-use by children’.
Underland: A Deep Time Journey 2019. is a book about the ‘deep-time pasts’ and futures of the Earth, as revealed by ‘mythical underworlds and real subterranean journeys’. Underland was serialized on BBC Radio 4 as the Book of the Week.
Ness––a new book by MacFarlane and Stanley Donwood published 6th Nov 2019. A "ness" is a headland or "nose" of land (Old Icelandic "nes"). Britain's east coast is marked by strange, shifting spits of land; Dungeness, Foulness, and Orford Ness and the book explores these.
Macfarlane’s interest in ecology and the environment has been explored in his books, but also through essays, notably his Common Ground series which was published in The Guardian in 2005, and through the travel essays he has written for magazines, especially Granta and Archipelago.
Macfarlane is an avid supporter of environmental protection projects. In 2018, for example, he co-edited, with Chris Packham and Patrick Barkham, A People's Manifesto For Wildlife, arguing for urgent and large-scale change in Britain's relationship with nature. It is said that 10,000 people marched on Whitehall to deliver The Manifesto to DEFRA. He was involved with the Sheffield tree-protectors campaign, fighting the unnecessary felling of thousands of street trees in the city, a campaign that lasted years and which is still not entirely won.
The Sunday Times praises his books with glowing words, he makes videos promoting the countryside for children and the need for more children to be taken to the country, in order that their love of the countryside helps to save it.
He is a patron of the Outdoor Swimming Society, the Outlandia Project, ONCA (One Network for Conservation and the Arts), and Gateway To Nature, a Lottery-funded mental-health initiative designed to improve access to nature for vulnerable groups and individuals. He is a founding Trustee of the charity Action For Conservation, which works to inspire a lifelong engagement with conservation in 12–17 year olds, working especially with schools with high pupil premium levels.
Connection with ‘spirit’
Simply put Robert Macfarlane is not a spiritually minded man. He appreciates the spiritual writers and poets, incorporating their work in his. The title of his book on Mountains was inspired by Gerald Manley Hopkins, but its significance and symbolism was lost on him. There is no mention in his Old Ways of ley lines or sacred geographies, of the reason why, for example, someone might want to plant a tree ring on a hill or why roads were called hollow ways.
The symbols, the underlying spiritual connections and the sacredness of the geography he describes is simply unknown to him. The description is literal, physical, competent and largely intellectual. A whole dimension is missing from his descriptions – competent descriptions – travelogues well written, but there is actually nothing in the books to stir the heart, fill it with a deep love of the countryside and its animals.
His books and most of his projects appear to be aimed at intellectuals like himself. I could be criticised for being unkind to Robert. Why single him out for apparent criticism when his aims are worthy, and his efforts unmitigating and sincere? The number of projects he is involved is extraordinary.
But I am sure he is just as upset as everyone, that the more talks are given, the more protests are made, the more articles appear, the more videos are made, the more petitions delivered, the worse it gets.
At the end of the day the Amazon burns, children sit in classrooms all day and in front of iPads, and the UK’s wildlife disappears and its species diversity plummets. Nothing changes, no one stirs and it gets worse. And I think it is worthwhile analysing what is happening here, because the same is happening all over the place. Climate Reality are despairing that no one is taking any notice of them either and all the Sustainability researchers. And they don’t seem to understand why, which is interesting in itself.
Heart not head
In the first place not a single researcher is actually solving the root cause of the problems whose effects they are observing. They are all preaching, they are all agonising, but they have no real solutions because they have never worked their way back to find out why these things are happening, and this is true of so many things, one almost despairs. The climate change researchers have never fully investigated the cause of climate change – and no it isn’t CO2. The sustainability researchers have never fully investigated where these disappearing resources are going and coming from. Did you know for example, that your pension could be responsible for the fires in the Cerredo in Brazil? Did you know that many of the logs are being used for toilet paper in China?
And although it is good that Robert indicates that a child in the fresh air communing with nature is a happier healthier child more likely to preserve the environment, at the same time as he does his best to get children into the countryside, his colleagues are beavering away devising a standard educational curriculum that removes literature, removes sports, devises rote learning and passivity and removes all knowledge of the countryside. In the end if one wishes to tunnel back to find the causes of the ills these worthy people are bemoaning, then they only have to turn round and see it is their colleagues.
In the second place, the intellectual approach to anything never won any hearts.
George Orwell - From a review of Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf, New English Weekly (21 March 1940)
Nearly all western thought since the last war, certainly all "progressive" thought, has assumed tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security, and avoidance of pain. In such a view of life there is no room, for instance, for patriotism and the military virtues. The Socialist who finds his children playing with soldiers is usually upset, but he is never able to think of a substitute for the tin soldiers; tin pacifists somehow won’t do. Hitler, …… knew that human beings ….. want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty-parades. ……. All three of the great dictators have enhanced their power by imposing intolerable burdens on their peoples. Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a grudging way, have said to people "I offer you a good time," Hitler has said to them "I offer you struggle, danger and death," and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet.
In the third place – the approach - that of intellectual arguments and restrained discussion - is completely out of balance with the seriousness of the situation. On the whole the approach is one of preaching, and on the whole they preach to a set of converted people who are by now sick to death of being shouted at by intellectuals who in their emasculated state point the finger at others and say ‘do something’. They are immune to it. By frequent repetition and intellectual inertia, those who seek to change the situation merely harden an audience that might once have done something, into an audience that now honestly can’t be bothered.
In the fourth place, scientism and materialism have killed off the motivation for saving all that really matters. Robert provided this definition of a type of stone one can sometimes find in landscapes: "adder-stone" -- also hagstone, holy-stone, Hühnergott (chicken-stone; German); a stone, usually a flint, with a naturally occurring hole through it. Associated in folklore with warding off harm & seeing into the future/otherworld. He makes it sound so prosaic – ‘otherworld’. In fact these stones are symbols of the cosmic egg – with an unmoving mover at the centre that does indeed take you into heaven. Maybe the death of scientism and the return of what is holy instead of its dismissal might help us
“The truths of religion and its mystic drivers, are infinitely precious, not only because they are true, but also because they provide the moral impulse which alone can lead us away from the apocalyptic end towards which we seem to be heading, . . . . There is little hope for us if the hearts of men and women in all societies cannot be touched by a call to something greater than themselves……
Freedom will destroy itself if it is not exercised within some sort of moral framework, some body of shared beliefs, some spiritual heritage ..........”
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