In 'Ghostways,' A Trip To Two Well-Traveled Places Reminds Of Things That Are Lost
This year, we got nature-starved. Pandemic response guidelines tried to keep people close to home. Despite that (likely because of it), national parks reported booming attendance by those so desperate for the wilds they would risk a plague.
I've been reading as much nature writing as I can, but it's a hard year for it. Increasingly, human impact is destructive — to such a degree that nature might be unionizing; recently, orcas attacked fishing boats that threaten their calves and food sources. In a year of feeling especially helpless, nature seems both distant and more anxiously immediate than ever. llona Yazhbin Chavasse's translation of Yuri Rytkheu's novel When the Whales Leave is achingly lyrical, but there are days you can read "You are descended from the giants of
the sea, and every whale is your brother," and days you can't.
Now, into this shared anxious longing, comes Ghostways. The diptych (a collaboration by Robert Macfarlane, Dan Richards, and illustrator Stanley Donwood) concerns two places human impact was profound: Orford Ness, a spit off the coast of Suffolk used for military testing for nearly a century, and a hidden holloway — an old road, so well-traveled it's worn down halfway to a tunnel — in Dorset, England.
Though the pieces have been previously published in the UK, Ghostwaysis an almost-too-fitting natural history for this year. Each half folds back into the past, uneasy and mourning; time stretches and flattens, yearning for a place that for one reason or another doesn't exist any more. "Ness" is more theatrically styled, as archetypes like the Ornithologist and the Armourer meet in one of the spit's "green chapels" — labs, grown over — to discuss bomb tests and birds, while the age-old Drift closes in. (Donwood's illustrations, crosshatched like a century of scratching, are particularly suited to this half, with glimpses of suitably ominous nature and abandoned architecture.)
"Holloway" is in part a travelogue, in part a memoriam to Roger Deakin, with whom Macfarlane previously traveled this same sunken road; though the making of a holloway is long, the landscape cuts close to the heart. Macfarlane — like Robin Wall Kimmerer and Helen Macdonald, to whom I also returned this year — excels at landscapes of grief; nature can live with more ambivalence than we can. On a trip with two friends, thinking of a friend with whom he can never take this trip again, sitting in a tunnel of road formed by a thousand medieval pilgrims that rests undisturbed now only because nature closed a thorny canopy over it while everywhere around it the wild world shrinks to nothing, he makes a note: "the hedges here are stuffed with birds."
Unlike some of Macfarlane's other works (many of which deal with nature as a factor of both people and time), this is not a history; you might well be spurred to further research, but Ghostways is designed to evoke more than inform, and often echoes what you bring to it. This long-ago "Anglo-Saxon charter" that offers directions might, in other years, have pinged my variable sense of direction:
"From the ford along the herepath to Wulfric's corner; & from the corner along the fence to the unknown water-course, then to the bare stump; & from the bare stump along the fence to the great maple-tree, & then to the hedgerow apple-tree, & then to the herepath, & at last south to the holloway."
In the year of my four walls, it reads more like an incantation, as I long for places I've never seen, and hope they're still there when I can reach them again.
In "Holloway," Macfarlane considers a central theme of poet Edward Thomas – that "paths run through people as surely as they run through places." Ghostwaysis an examination of just that; grief as a landscape that moves on without us, and the fragility of the green world we're longing to go back to.
Genevieve Valentine's latest novel is Icon.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.