Robert MacFarlane – “The Undiscovered Country of the Nearby”: Walking into Wandlebury

West Road Music Hall, Cambridge, October 18th, 2018.

photo by Louise Walker

“We can compare him a little to Sir David Attenborough,” says Ros Aveling, chair of Cambridge Past, Present & Future, introducing writer and academic Robert MacFarlane. “You can only be disappointed by what comes next,” he replies, going on to quote Dorothy Parker about meeting her heroes: ‘if you like duck paté, don’t meet the duck’. “I am your duck,” he declares, smiling.

Macfarlane shares with Attenborough a passion for nature, conservation and activism. Both men are natural communicators, evangelical about the benefits of enjoying the great outdoors. They are boyish in their enthusiasm, have a great sense of fun, and wear their formidable learning lightly.  Macfarlane peppers his talk with quotations from writers and artists, but he is never stuffy. He has a forensic intellect and his diction is fast and precise, but he remains down-to-earth, with a mischievous twinkle in his eye whenever he goes off on a tangent to discuss such subjects as people leaving their ‘doggy bags’ hanging from the branches of trees: “I heard them called ‘Farages’.”

As a patron and volunteer for CPPF, MacFarlane has been invited to talk about Wandlebury, the country park on the edge of Cambridge, near his home. He uses ‘Wandlebury’ as a metonym for the chalk upland landscape stretching from the Beechwoods to Gog Magog Down. It is a place that he has “slowly come to love,” somewhere that he has done a lot of thinking, philosophising and remembering – a place full of history and mystery.

Wandlebury is part of the “bastard countryside” that MacFarlane discusses in his book Landmarks (2015), the transit zone between city and country. To him, Wandlebury is “not quite pastoral or bucolic, not exactly picturesque or sublime”, but instead somewhere that takes time to learn to read. A lover of mountains, it took him 15 years to appreciate ‘the Cambridge Himalayas’, but now finds the Gog Magog Hills and environs “one of the most remarkable places that I know, a miracle of archeology, history and nature.”

‘Place is always moving, like a sleeping cat,’ quotes MacFarlane from Japanese sound artist, Toshiya Tsunoda. He has come to watch the sleeping cat through repeated visits, closer attention and deeper knowledge. ‘Close looking’ informs both his writing and outlook. He admires the “lynx eyes” of Dorothy Wordsworth and cites three writers who have helped him ‘see’ Wandlebury: J. A. Baker (The Peregrine (1967); Nan Shepherd (The Living Mountain, 1977) and Roger Deakin (Waterlog, 1999; Wildwood, 2007).

Baker’s book is “a dazzling masterpiece” which struck literary Britain like a peregrine from out of the clear blue sky” when it was published in 1967. These falcons have come into the city from Cherry Hinton chalk pits. He shows us a photo of a peregrine next to two eggs that he took through a high window at the University Library.

MacFarlane nudges his own English students towards the wildlife that few are aware exists on their own doorstep. Trips to Wandlebury leave them de-stressed and “buzzing.” It is a great place for children, he says. Many teachers say that it is their favourite school trip, one in which they watch a resistance to nature crumble. He shows us a photo of a scowling boy “with the attitude of a 15 year old”  – his five year old son – and tells us he “ran into the woods, got lost, thought a wolf was coming and had a panic attack.”

photo by Louise Walker

Children are voyagers, says MacFarlane – they are excited by the fact that “these paths have been walked by the legs of Roman legionaries,” and they are “making poems of our places all the time.” The artwork on the cover of The Gifts of Reading (2016) is inspired by the beech tree avenue at Wandlebury which leads to the Roman Road. All proceeds from this book were donated to the Migrant Offshore Aid Station. Among the many charities he supports, Macfarlane is patron of Gateway to Nature, a Lottery-funded mental-health initiative designed to improve access to nature for vulnerable groups and individuals.

Looking to the future, with Cambridge booming, “we need to foresee and anticipate the city’s growth … we need to think of Wandlebury, not as an island, but as a connective place.” MacFarlane would like to see a footpath between the Beechwoods and the Roman Road. More generally, “exciting things can happen if the right people seize the initiative. Green places bring us recovery and sanity.” He concludes with a quotation from American writer Wallace Stegner:

“Such places offer a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures. A part of the geography of hope.” (Wilderness Letter, 1962).

photo by Louise Walker

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