I started by reading The Wild Places and was encouraged by some of the reviews at the start of the book:
“Bewitching . . . a formidable exploration by a naturalist who can unfurl a sentence – poetry, really – with the breathless ease of a master angler, a writer whose ideas and reach far transcend the physical region he explores.” (The New York Times)
“A marvellously evocative portrait of place.” (Sunday Telegraph)
The book is divided into chapters about various geographical features such as an Island, a Valley and a Ridge. I decided to start with a chapter interesting to me – the Moor. This passage is about Rannoch Moor in Scotland. I travel this road every time I journey to and from the Isle of Skye:
“Many know the Moor, then, but relatively few enter it, for it is vast and trackless and has a reputation for hostility at all times of year. Sea storms blow across it, funnelling down through Glen Coe. It is a high-level, hyena-coloured prairie – etched and roughened by glaciers, and still bearing the marks of those harrowings. Skeins of swans land on its two main lochs, intricate Loch Ba and antler-shaped Loch Laidon. On a clear night, from the top of one of the mountains that surround it, you can see its uncounted lochans, streams and rivers gleaming in the moonlight. It is only at such moments that you realise how much of the Moor is made of water.
Later that same warm autumn, I drove through the Moor at night. The crossing seemed to go on far longer than I had thought possible, mile after empty mile of it. It was as though I had driven into a pool of black and limitless space, and were passing through another, not altogether earthly, place. On the downslope of the Moor, I had to brake sharply and slow almost to a standstill, for deer were flowing across the road before me, making for their haunts in the Black Corries. In the brightness of the car’s headlights, I could see the deer crowded closely together as they crossed the road, each laying its nervous head against the back or flank of the one in front. In the cold air their breath clouded out from their nostrils, and the whites of their eyes caught and returned the car’s light, so that they glowed orbishly in the dark. As I drove down the waning slope of the Moor, towards the Bridge of Orchy, two or three more herds crossed the road before me, off to the corries of the Black Mount.” (Macfarlane 2007)
Reading this passage provided much for me to think about and emulate in my writing. However, I need to be brief in my words whilst also conveying the key points that give the images their story.
I find the detail of Macfarlane’s words captivating and interesting. He records much that we might notice, but would not think worthy of note, but his writing clearly shows it is. His descriptions of events he encounters, such as coming across the deer are exquisite. I love the reference to the breath of deer clouding out from their nostrils and the whites of their eyes glowing “orbishly in the dark.” I have certainly encountered deer on this stretch of road and recognise exactly the scene Macfarlane conveys in his prose.
Interestingly, Nan Shepherd’s book The Living Mountain (about the Cairngorm Mountains) is also divided into chapters about geographical features and I immediately focus on “Water” given the focus of my current images of Loch Cill Chriosd.
For me, Shepherd’s writing is more colloquial than Macfarlane and for that reason draws me in:
“So I am on the plateau again, having gone round it like a dog in circles to see if it is a good place. I think it is, and I am to stay up here for a while. I have left at dawn, and up here it is still morning. The midsummer sun has drawn up the moisture from the earth, so that for part of the way I walked in cloud, but now the last tendril has dissolved into the air and there is nothing in all the sky but light. I can see to the ends of the earth and far up into the sky.” (Shepherd 2011)
In a way I find Shepherd’s writing more accessible and honest. She uses fewer words to describe a scene. This resonates with me because I do not have many words to play with in conveying my feelings and emotions to what I see and the image I have taken. However, her words can be detailed too such as this passage about the snow melt:
“When the snows melt, when a cloud bursts, or rain teems out of the sky for days on end without intermission, then the burns come down in spate. The narrow channels cannot contain the water, which streams down the hillsides, tears deep grooves in the soil, rolls the boulders about, brawls, obliterates paths, floods burrows, swamps nests, uproots trees, and finally reaching the more level ground, becomes a moving sea.”
Her words almost appear to be spilling out in her enthusiasm to describe all aspects of the scene.
This exercise in reading these two books and analysing their style of writing has been helpful to me and has led me to think much more clearly about how I get my thoughts across to my audience. I find myself asking how many words can I afford myself with each image, should I use the first person in my writing, do I describe the scene in detail before revealing my feelings and emotions and how the image relates? I am also concerned as to how I will link my words to the images for submission of my portfolio given that the assignment brief explicitly restricts words to a caption or title? I will need to seek advice on this before I proceed too far along my path.
Macfarlane, R, (2007), The Wild Places, Granta Publications, London
Shepherd, N, (2011), The Living Mountain, Canongate Books, Edinburgh