In wild places, I find it easier to breathe. For some people the warmth of city concrete, sustained by the energy of a thousand footfalls, feeds their needs but for me it is wild places. I can write in wild places. It gives me the space to hear my thoughts without competition from life. I think this is why I am so attracted to literature where landscape is brought alive and allowed to sing.
Two of my favourite books are ones where landscape plays a strong role in defining the atmosphere of the story. A River Runs Through It and Other Stories (reviewed here) is Norman Maclean’s retelling of the events of the summer of 1937, the last summer his family spends together intact before a tragic event that forever marks them. I grew up in rural England, among boys who fished so I have an affinity for those who treat it like a religion, although all I remember of it was the odd dingy afternoon alongside an English canal, spent with little enthusiasm for the task at hand. I can imagine, though, how different it would be in the wilds of Montana in a bygone age. This is eased by Maclean’s beautiful prose. Whilst the story is very much centred on the family themselves, the landscape they live in is inseparable and this is conveyed so well.
The second novel, A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash (reviewed here) is a contemporary novel but one that has an equally well-envisaged landscape – this time small community life in the mountains of North Carolina. Cash, much like Maclean, manages to effortlessly recreate the landscape of his home region and in it, finds a home for the cast of characters who seem to have lived there for generations although we only enter their world for a short time. The similarities to Maclean’s work are not obvious but they are there nonetheless. Both these novels deal with issues of religion but in completely different ways. As an agnostic scientist who borders on atheist but for the fact that I apply scientific method and norms even to my non-belief, I wonder why so often religion in literature pairs so well with landscape. Certainly, it is tempting to marry internal and external landscapes in a novel and wild places have a grandeur that lends itself to religious comparison. The wild can bring a sense of peace. I don’t link this with religious serenity but I can understand that others may and this could explain the subconscious linkage that occurs so often in writing.
Finding a really well-written landscape in a novel is a rarity. Finding a novelist whose connection with a place is so strong that it enables them to bring it to life without artifice in a text is like discovering diamonds in a kimberlite deposit; a first novel like A Land More Kind Than Home has marked Wiley Cash as a rich vein of language that I want to mine deeper. For Maclean, unfortunately, the stock of writing is finite – he died in 1990 leaving very little more than the pieces in A River Runs Through It and Other Stories. I think to truly write a landscape, to paint with your pen that which others craft with oils and brushes on canvas, an author has to love the landscape unconditionally. Much like a parent and child, a strong connection with the land can be an unconditional bond that nourishes and supports you. Those that understand that have the ability to see beyond the conventional wisdoms of society, freeing them to use language inventively to express this to readers. Often there is a musicality about the language of landscape – a balance and sense of rightness that defies criticism. These authors frequently translate this ability to vivid descriptions of the internal landscape of their characters, bringing them alive with great skill.
Finding wild places isn’t always easy. They disappear between the demands of a working life and it is all too easy to forget to take the time to rediscover them – hidden, sometimes, in the overgrown corner of a village garden or flying with a pair of kites over an exposed ridge on a crisp autumn morning with a frost on the air. I will always be grateful to the Landscape of Literature for reminding me they are there.