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Nansen’s polar ‘fairy tale’

On this date in 1894, Fritdtjof Nansen, icebound on the Fram while trying to reach the North Pole, was congratulating himself on his good fortune…

Tuesday, November 13th. Thermometer -38° C. (-36.4° Fahr.). The ice is packing in several quarters during the day, and the roar is pretty loud, now that the ice has become colder. It can be heard from afar—a strange roar, which would sound uncanny to any one who did not know what it was.

A delightful snow-shoe run in the light of the full moon. Is life a vale of tears? Is it such a deplorable fate to dash off like the wind, with all the dogs skipping around one, over the boundless expanse of ice, through a night like this, in the fresh, crackling frost, while the snow-shoes glide over the smooth surface, so that you scarcely know you are touching the earth, and the stars hang high in the blue vault above? This is more, indeed, than one has any right to expect of life; it is a fairy tale from another world, from a life to come.

And then to return home to one’s cosy study-cabin, kindle the stove, light the lamp, fill a pipe, stretch one’s self on the sofa, and send dreams out into the world with the curling clouds of smoke—is that a dire infliction? Thus I catch myself sitting staring at the fire for hours together, dreaming myself away—a useful way of employing the time. But at least it makes it slip unnoticed by, until the dreams are swept away in an ice-blast of reality, and I sit here in the midst of desolation, and nervously set to work again.

From Farthest North by Fritdtjof Nansen

Off-road and off-grid with Kate Harris

Kate Harris, author of the award-winning Lands of Lost Borders, was among keynote speakers at a conference this week in Toronto on environmental science. In an interview beforehand, she talked about her Silk Road journey — “an exploration of how borders of all kinds shape and shatter our world” — and about going off-grid in a cabin where British Columbia meets Alaska and the Yukon, a way of life that will be the subject of her next book.

Poems for a planet in peril

In the Poetry Please slot on Radio 4 at the start of this month, the writer Owen Sheers shared a fine selection of poems that touch on humanity’s relationship with nature and which speak particularly powerfully to us at this moment, when we’re in the midst of an ecological crisis of our own making. One of his choices was So the Peloton Passed, by Simon Armitage, who on his appointment as Poet Laureate in May said it was “absolutely essential” that poetry respond to the issue of climate change.

  Sheers told his host, Roger McGough, that the climate crisis was something “all storytellers need to address, because on one level where we find ourselves is the result of a failure in narrative, in storytelling”.

  Novelists, though, have recently been responding to a planet in peril, as Robert Macfarlane pointed out in an essay last weekend for The Guardian on the rise of “the new animism”:

A turning back towards “nonhuman interlocutors” has also occurred in recent fiction where “land” is encountered as sensate, memorious and even intentful, rather than a static stage set for human actions. From Australia there is the towering body of work – both novels and essays – by the lands-rights activist and indigenous writer Alexis Wright, which explore “special acts” of rights-giving to nature in both modern law and “ancestral stories”. In Britain, I think of Daisy Johnson’s dazzling Fen and Everything Under, Max Porter’s Lanny, Fiona Mozley’s Elmet, Zoe Gilbert’s Folk, Richard Skelton’s Beyond the Fell Wall, and Laura Beatty’s quietly brilliant Pollard and Darkling, in which trees grow through human lives in shaping ways. 

  Macfarlane also cited the work of Amitav Ghosh, who has tackled environmental catastrophe in both non-fiction (The Great Derangement) and fiction (Gun Island), and Richard Powers’s The Overstory, which has haunted me since I read it back in June.

Missing the truth in Europe

In The Spectator, Sara Wheeler reviews Rory MacLean’s Pravda Ha Ha: True Travels to the End of Europe (Bloomsbury, £20). It’s being published in the run-up to the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall (November 9), and in it MacLean retraces, in reverse, a journey he made in 1989 from Berlin to Moscow. At that time, he points out, 11 countries worldwide had border walls or fences; now more than 70 have them. “This is a timely book,” Wheeler writes. “It addresses the challenges of a fractious and fractured Europe. The first word of the title means ‘truth’ in Russian, and the author’s point is that we have collectively lost sight of that essential commodity.”

Nature, muck and brass

My review of Edward Posnett’s Harvest (Bodley Head), a rich and absorbing study of natural wonders and how they’re brought to market, appeared in print in The Daily Telegraph on Saturday. You can read it here on Deskbound Traveller.

Herzog’s homage to Chatwin

If you haven’t already seen it, you still have a couple of days on BBC iPlayer to catch Nomad: In The Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin, a work about a singular writer made by a singular film-maker, Werner Herzog. 

  Chatwin, who died from Aids in 1989, and Herzog were kindred spirits, both given, as Herzog has it, to crafting “mythical tales into voyages of the mind”. Their paths first crossed in 1983 in Australia, where Herzog was preparing a feature film, When the Green Ants Dream, and Chatwin was researching his book The Songlines, about the country’s aboriginal people and their relationship with the landscape. In Nomad — which includes contributions from Chatwin’s widow, Elizabeth, and his biographer, Nicholas Shakespeare — Herzog follows in his friend’s footsteps to the Australian Outback, Patagonia and the Black Mountains in Wales, carrying the rucksack Chatwin left him in his will.

  On the website of Sideways Film, you can also email the company to request a password so you can view the film online.

Hessler and the art of non-fiction

Peter Hessler, who wrote for The New Yorker from Egypt, the subject of his latest book, is returning to China, where he taught English for two years from 1996, a stint recounted in his first book, River Town. In an interview with Frank Bures for the website Longreads, he talks about  his career and how John McPhee, the veteran New Yorker contributor, was a formative influence:

McPhee had a lot of technical lessons, but I think the most important thing was the deeper ways of thinking about writing. One of them, for me, was that you can do fascinating creative writing as a nonfiction writer. I had always been so focused on fiction that I was kind of turned off by the newspaper style of writing. My parents didn’t get The New Yorker, so I didn’t realize there were these other ways of writing nonfiction, and that it could be just as dynamic and fascinating as fiction, and just as artistic.

A history that roams with the whales

In The New York Review of Books, Sophie Pinkham reviews Bathsheba Demuth’s Floating Coast: 

Though Floating Coast is billed as an environmental history, it could also be described as a meditation on a biosphere. Demuth includes lavish descriptions of the landscape she has been admiring since she first visited as a teenager, but relatively little in the way of straightforward political or economic history. She is interested in animals—particularly whales—and Floating Coast is, to a great extent, history from the vantage point of the sea; political treaties and trade agreements, monarchs and presidents flash by on the periphery, as if seen from far away. Though centered on the Bering Strait, the book roams with the creatures whose history she documents, following whaling fleets as far as Japan and Hawaii.

  In Beringia, Pinkham writes,

Demuth has found an almost perfect case study through which to compare capitalist and Soviet approaches to the exploitation of natural resources. She finds that from the Arctic vantage point, the results were remarkably similar: ecological devastation and the immiseration of indigenous communities. Intent on maximizing “production,” neither system conceived of a moment at which economic growth was no longer possible or desirable. This left them equally ill equipped to situate human economies and societies within the limits of ecosystems that operate primarily on a cyclical rather than a linear model. The limits that Americans and Soviets discovered in Beringia—the slow reproductive cycles of whales and walruses, the delicate balance of wolves and caribou—are vivid examples of the natural boundaries that confine all human endeavors. The twentieth century imagined progress as liberation from material constraints, but to ignore these constraints is to court disaster. The harms caused by the heedless consumption of whales were a preview of the much larger dangers of the consumption of fossil fuels.

Wingless wanderers

I hate public speaking, even if the speaking is down a phone line from my house to a studio, so when I’m asked to talk about my work I usually say no, on the grounds that I have a face for radio and a voice for print. There are subjects, though, on which you can’t just file the article and then retreat to the study; subjects on which you must do the talking as well as the writing. Climate change is one of them. 

  That’s why, though I bottled out of one interview, I have agreed to four over the past fortnight, to talk about why I’ve stopped flying to work. (You can find the latest on the podcast of the Nine til Noon Show hosted by Greg Hughes on the Irish station Highland Radio: it was on Wednesday’s show, and our conversation begins at -0:40:32.)

  At the end of August I wrote a piece to try to get a few things clear in my own head: what did I think about climate change, about the contribution flying was making to it, and about the contribution I was making as a travel writer by encouraging other people to burn more oil at a time when we should all be burning less? Writing the piece was also a way of explaining to my wife why I had turned down a trip to New York on which (if we’d paid her air fare), she might have joined me. I decided, and my wife agreed, that I should stop doing jobs that entail flying. It’s easier for me to make that decision than it is for younger writers: I’m 61, I still need to pay bills, but I no longer have a mortgage and my children are grown-ups.

  At the start of September, I offered that piece to The Daily Telegraph, where, it turned out, the digital editor on the travel desk, Oliver Smith, had been asking himself the same questions. Olly has decided to limit himself to one return flight a year, and, in a forceful piece that went online on September 11, he explained why. That piece was initially behind a paywall, but it isn’t now, so please read it. 

  My own piece went online on October 3 on the Telegraph Travel site, and appeared in print a couple of days later. Among those who responded to it via Twitter was the writer Paul Miles, who said: “I stopped flying 10 yrs ago. Tricky as my niche was tropical islands. No longer. My early non-flying trips often involved ferry from UK to Scandinavia (Bergen, Esbjerg) but they’ve ceased now. It’s time to reinstate those crossings!” 

  This week, Gavin Haines, another travel writer (who, like me, used to be on the Telegraph staff and then went freelance, though he’s only 35), published a piece on the website of the campaign Flight Free UK, explaining why he had promised to avoid all flying in 2020. Please read that, and consider joining the campaign. I joined it myself yesterday, and my wife is going to sign up too. We have family commitments that will probably necessitate a return flight in 2021, but otherwise we’re aiming to be wingless wanderers.*

  At a meeting in London this week, members of the Association of Independent Tour Operators briefed journalists on what’s new in their programmes for the coming year. Later, before presentations of awards for travel writing, the association’s chairman, Derek Moore, addressed the gathering. He said his members needed to encourage their customers to fly less and stay longer, and should be looking forward to a boom in rail travel.

  Is the travel trade waking up? I hope so. Not before time. But then I’ve been shamefully dozy myself. Besides the articles mentioned above, I’d urge you to read one by Nicholas Crane, geographer, television presenter and a past president of the Royal Geographical Society. He decided as long ago as the mid-1990s, having studied the science, that he should do everything he could to avoid using aircraft. In a piece in 2006, 13 years ago, he was arguing: “There isn’t any option but to give up all non-essential flying.” I would have read that piece closely; I must have done: I was an editor on the desk that published it. Now, I’m finally heeding it.

*Update I see from a piece in The Guardian today (October 19) by Andy Pietrasik, the travel editor, that the writer Dixe Wills is another non-flyer. Pietrasik says that his team recognises “the need to help tackle the climate emergency by reducing the number of flights we all take”.

Where myth and magic endure

When the anthropologists arrive, so the saying goes, the gods depart. Science, in explaining myths, strips away magic. There are places, though, with more resistance than others, places where the magic can still be felt. Among them are the west coasts of Ireland and Scotland, which Philip Marsden explores from the sea in his marvellous new book, The Summer Isles (Granta). I’ve reviewed it for The Daily Telegraph, but the review has yet to appear. Here’s the author, in a lovely film made by Colin Midson, explaining what the book’s about…