Oceans of the Mind: Gap Year Week 20

I first encountered Robert MacFarlane in the mountains. To be fair, I saw his The Old Ways first in a labyrinthine London bookstore, and began reading it outside a tiny Singapore salon. But words mean different things in different places and so my first real encounter with Robert MacFarlane was three years ago, perched on the porch of a small Italian inn miles from civilization, waiting for the sunset to edge the Dolomites into shadows.

We had begun our hike that day’s hike at a glorious alpine lake. It had been one of the most difficult days of walking I had ever endured: the slope to the pass felt interminable, my body weak and fragile, and the prospect of the days ahead a foreboding, achey prospect. MacFarlane didn’t, unfortunately, resuscitate my muscles into their sprightly youth of just four months ago, I swear. But he luxuriated in each step over his “Old Ways”, the process of it: his feet, “oddly dented in their soles, as if the terrain over which I had passed had imprinted its own profile into my foot”; the odd shift of perspective from distance to foreground; “the signal prickle of entering a wild space”. He examined the odd continuity of walking and writing, the “running stitch” of it.

I had determined over the course of the day to hate hiking forever more because of how pathetically I had yielded to the slope. But spending time with MacFarlane, I wanted to face the path with the full-bodied presence he brought to his writing. To inhabit each place instead of passing through it.

It had taken me a long time to start reading the book. The Old Ways had been sitting on my shelf for several months before I picked it up: the demands of school is as good an excuse as any, but really to start reading  felt like a such a weighty task, to embark on a “journey on foot” with no plot, as such, to carry it along. The same pattern has applied for his other books: in my diary, I write that I had begun Landmarks “for want of any other distraction”. This isn’t because his writing is difficult—it’s not—but rather because it deserves the kind of immersion that MacFarlane delves into his landscapes with. You don’t simply read: you relish. You bathe. You drench yourself in the language, scrub your mind fresh with it.

Every one of MacFarlane’s books feels a little fateful. His words come when I need them most. This is a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy, admittedly: I try to read his books in situ, when there are no other distractions, when it is merely me and the world. I spent time with Landmarks when on the Rakiura Track in New Zealand, enjoyed essays from The Wild Places when climbing Kilimanjaro. Still, every time I find some turn of phrase, a thought, a line, that arrows to the center of my thoughts with uncanny precision. Sometimes I wonder whether he’s been reading my journal, or writing it for me.

The other day, I opened The Wild Places on my Kindle to a random location and came upon his essay on night-walking. I was on the bus to go on a night walk on the Rail Corridor. The coincidence was fantastic, and I spent the dark hours after rolling around a line from that chapter: “the mackerel mottling of moonlit clouds”. The mack-er-ell mott-uh-ling. Like a mantra, or spell; the incongruity of the metaphor—the evocation of the sky as water, slipping away downstream, embodying the liminality of nighttime natural experiences, and the exuberant delight of the alliteration—conjured everything I loved about his writing. I felt grounded in my experiences that night: he had given me the words, the thoughts, to understand where and what I was.

MacFarlane has shaped my writing. He’s inspired me to search for unconventional metaphors; to work and explore to get the words to expand, rather than condense, an experience, and to take pleasure in those words and how they sound; to embrace my discomfort and my happiness both; to describe not just landscapes but what they evoke.

But most of all, reading MacFarlane has taught me humility. All of his books are deeply enmeshed in the writings of others: Edward Thomas, Nan Shepherd, Roger Deakin. None of the journeys or landscapes he recounts belong to him alone. It’s easy to feel like you are the only one there in the wild, especially in places so vast and intricate humanity is yielded to natural rhythms. But we are not pioneers: we follow in steps eked out before, trails both mental and mountainous. Awe and amazement and admiration are old emotions. As individualistic as experiencing nature can be, MacFarlane taught me that by doing so I join a tradition—a community—of those before me. There is nothing new but everything beautiful under the sun.

I went whale-watching a few weekends ago during my internship in Colombo with Oceanswell. I planned the trip down south largely on principle that to spend three weeks studying whales and not see a single one in person would be slightly sad. But as it approached, my excitement grew. It had been years since I’d encountered a cetacean—the last had been the thrill of a Gangetic river dolphin in Chambal River Sanctuary, a brief dark line breaking up that brilliant water, all too brief. I was spending hours poring over photographs of whales Oceanswell had spotted on research trips, categorizing their color patterns and dorsal shapes for the photo-identification data base according to strict guidelines. But beneath the science was the gorgeous contours of a diving whale’s back, the gleaming water-silvered skin, the elegant edges of the fluke. I had grown to love every ephemeral glance of a whale those photographs recorded. To see that in real life—confronted with that size and power—felt too huge for day-to-day existence to contain.

It was my first time travelling on my own this year, and I relished the solitude of it. I watched the sunset sitting on a rock, writing in my journal, watching the crabs take each new wave stoically. At dinner that day, eating pasta alone in a local restaurant, I opened Mountains of the Mind, the last book of MacFarlane’s that I hadn’t read.

The whale-watching trip was early the next morning. A tuk-tuk came to the guesthouse where I was staying and I crammed in with an English couple for the short ride to the office. From there we boarded the boat. By then the sun had risen and the sea was glorious as we pulled out of harbor. Small swells rocked us, rolling reminders of where we were. The area south of Sri Lanka is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, and for the first couple hours we saw more container ships than animals on the horizon. But finally a cry rang out and we all looked towards a small fishing boat several hundred meters away, and the dark back that had broke the surface next to it. As we approached, it surfaced again. We could see the indentation of her dorsal and the ridges on her back.

In the first chapters of Mountains of the Mind, MacFarlane discusses the concept of deep time—time stretching outside our bounds of comprehension thousands of millennia back, a yawning abyss of history strikingly compressed into a geode, or a wall, or a glacier.  I understood that in the whale: this, too, was deep time, this gigantism many eons in the making culminating now in this creature that so wholly dwarfs us. And deep time on a literal level, too: the landscapes this whale explores many hundreds of meters below the surface I will likely never know. But seeing it I encountered those worlds, however briefly; this air it expelled had travelled where I could not, this powerful tail propelled it along those benthic plains.

I started crying when the whale descended, leaving a smooth circular footprint behind where it dived. This was not a mountain, true, but it still felt oddly prescient to have been reading that book now. There was something, I felt, connecting the depths of oceans and heights of mountains, a shared fascination of size and mystery. MacFarlane had spent time with the fact that so often mountains “stall… powers of comparison”. They are indescribable, unspeakable—outside ourselves. There was something similar at work here, meeting these whales at sea level. As a blue whale dove near our boat, the massive plateau of its back receding slowly into ocean, I could understand nothing of it but awe.

After we left the whales behind, I spent the boat journey back talking with a woman from Dubai, a hiker and a diver. We discussed landscapes we’d found ourselves in and the irresistible draw to leave behind human structures. Inevitably, the conversation fell to books. “I found this book, Mountains of the Mind, in a hostel library in South America,” she said. “I’ve read it three times. Every time, I find something new.”

“What a coincidence!” I said, and took the book out my bag. Only, I realized, as I flipped through, showing her my favorite parts, talking about our favorite hikes, drawing out future plans—not quite a coincidence, just MacFarlane, and the lyrical, true magic of his words.

venture back:

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